Monday, November 23, 2015

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling

Why doesn't this series get more press?  It's a wonderful readalike for A Series of Unfortunate Events, but in some ways, it's even better for kids.  ASOUE had a lot of wink-wink-nudge-nudge references that only adults would get, like the whole Beatrice and Dante thing.  I don't know of any eight-year-old that's read The Divine Comedy, although I'm not saying no child has.  The latter books in the series got very dark, and depressed me, although as an adult with depression I am ... easily depressed.


But this review is not about that series, at least nominally!  If I can get around to it, I will be talking about Maryrose Wood's delightful first entry in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series: The Mysterious Howling.  It has a narrator who occasionally turns to the reader and has a bit of a chat, which is something I always enjoy.  We also have Explanations of Words and Other Socially Acceptable Phrases, which, in the print version, I would like to think have Important Capitalization.

However, this was the first audiobook I listened to all the way through, and it was marvelous.  I encourage you to get this on audiobook if you possibly can, because the narration is top-notch and only adds to the comedy and wit of the book itself (but more on that later).

Miss Penelope Lumley is a recent graduate of the Swanbourne Academy for Poor Bright Females.  Left at the school at the age of four, she was raised to be a Swanbourne Girl: bright, plucky, resourceful, and curious.  Having no relations to care for her after graduation, Penelope gratefully accepts the advice of her beloved headmistress and applies for a position as governess at Ashton Place.

Going to any job interview is nerve-wracking, and Penelope's experience is no different.  She quizzes herself on the capitals of mid-sized European countries (Helsinki!) and worries about an attack by bandits on the train.  Strangely, her interview isn't really an interview at all.  Lady Constance Ashton, recently married to the Lord of the Manor, has her promise to stay on no matter what, and then offers an extremely generous salary.  Lady Constance is also as petulant and beautiful as one would expect a doll-eyed, golden ringletted, upper-upper-class woman to be, but more on that later.

Penelope accepts the offer, never mind the odd manner in which it was presented.  For she is a poor, bright female, with missing parents to boot.  At fifteen, she's not old enough to marry, and besides, I don't think a Swanbourne Girl would marry for money anyway.  They're much too self-sufficient for that.  But even as she signs her contract, she hears some rather pitiful arooooooooing.

Here it should also be noted that Penelope is a great animal lover, and her favorite book series features Edith Anne and her pony, Rainbow.  They have lots of adventure, including saving an ill-tempered neighbor pony, Silky, from (horrors!) the knacker.

And so, when Penelope ventures out to the barn and finds, not hounds, but three very dirty children wrapped in blankets and howling, barking, and woofing like any little pack of pups, she immediately demands that they be brought into the house and treated as children, not as animals.

Enter Lord Frederick, lord of Ashton Place and nearsighted fop.  Nearly every one of his utterances ends with a "What!" and he adores hunting.  Just step into his parlor.  It's baseboard to ceiling with taxidermy, weaponry, and portraits of his ancestors, all of whom died gruesome deaths.  Lord Ashton tells her to wait until the next day to begin her position as governess in earnest, and so, with much reluctance, for Swanbourne Girls have high moral standards and know how to get things done, Penelope waits.

There are three children: two boys and a young girl.  After having found them while out hunting with Old Timothy the Coachman, Lord Frederick declared "Finders keepers!" and plunked the children in the barn.  He also chose names for them: Alexander, the eldest; Beowulf, the younger boy; and Cassiopeia, the wee girl.  The names have ominous origins, as do many other things at Ashton Place, but the children accept their new monikers with aplomb, although their canine speech habits creep into their new language: English. Cassiopeia is "Cassowoof" and the children call Miss Lumley "Lammeroo," which is particularly adorable. Despite having been literally raised by wolves, the siblings--surnamed the Incorrigibles after frustrating the ever-so-delicate Lady Constance--adore their new governess and try to please her.

Penelope soon has the children learning English (although often with a suffix of "arf" or "awoo"), mathematics, botany (particularly the study of ferns, of which Penelope is particularly fond), and other edifying topics.  She even begins a Squirrel Desensitization Project, hoping to cure the children of their obsession with the small, dim-witted rodents.

And just as things are seemingly going well, Lady Constance drops a bomb: she will be hosting a Very Fancy Christmas Ball and the children are expected to attend and know the schottische.

Horrified, confused, and wondering what the Dickens a schottische is anyway, Penelope retreats to the nursery to begin drilling the Incorrigibles.  They learn Socially Useful Phrases, how to bow and curtsy, and how to make small talk.  She also finds out from the ever-frantic housekeeper that the schottische is a fancy way to say "Scottish folk dance," which two servants happily demonstrate for her and the children.

But not all is happy and merry and bright at Ashton Place.  Penelope simply cannot shake the feeling that someone means the children ill.  Lady Constance threatens to send them to an orphanage if they don't behave themselves at the ball, and Lord Frederick's study, chockful 'o taxidermy, underscores his enthusiasm for killing innocent creatures.  In fact, he almost shot the children when they were discovered in the woods, stopped in the nick of time by Old Timothy.

The Christmas Ball itself is a brilliant conclusion to the book, filled with as much mayhem as you would have expected, and not a little comedy.  We meet some very interesting friends of Lord Frederick's from his club, but the man himself is curiously absent from his wife's hospitality debut.  And you simply have to meet Nutsawoo at the end of the book.

Not only is the writing snappy and fun, but the narration by Katherine Kellgren is utterly brilliant.  The voices and accents she produces for each character are unique and often spot-on hilarious.  It is also exceedingly funny to hear a very proper British narrator slide into frantic howling and then right back into the story again.

I'd pick up the book to see Klassen's illustrations, but I really must insist that you listen to this on audio.  I've done book two, The Hidden Gallery, as well, and it's even more mysterious and more wild than the first one!

You need these in your lifeawoo.  Arooooooo!




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