Life is good for Alexandra Morningside – she loves living with her uncle in the flat above his doorknob shop, and she loves her sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Underwood, a stickler for grammar and an expert on fencing. But Mr. Underwood is the descendent of one of history’s most feared pirates and the inheritor of the Wigpowder treasure, and the dreaded pirate Captain Steele will stop at nothing to claim the treasure before Mr. Underwood can. It’s up to Alex to rescue her kidnapped teacher and find the treasure – if she can survive the increasingly more bizarre hurdles along the way.
In my last review, I indulged myself with a little rant about whimsy, wherein I stated that an author had to decide before writing a book whether or not the book was going to contain said whimsy, and if so, in what quantity. Adrienne Kress clearly asked herself those questions, and her answers were just as clearly “indubitably” and “out the wazoo.” And, delightfully, it works! Alex has a lot of the flavor of Louis Sachar’s wonderful Wayside School books, sprinkled with a fair bit of Dahl and Snicket, all of which are very whimsical ingredients indeed. However, Alex manages to retain enough originality in its narrative voice to keep it firmly in the “inspired by” category rather than the “shamelessly derivative of.”
It does, however, take some getting used to. The plot structure in particular is a bit confusing: Alex meanders through several set pieces, most of which contribute in only the most minor of ways to her ultimate goal, and are not clear allegories, which might offer another explanation for their presence. For example, one of the first things Alex does is board a train to Port Cullis (oh yes, there are puns in this book), but the train turns out to be the setting for an endless succession of madcap dinner parties that serve as an elaborate front for a minor villain’s plot to suck out people’s souls. Alex manages to shut down the operation and escape, but aside from her gaining a new companion – a delightfully prickly cat named Giggles – nothing is really added to the plot. There are several adventures like this, each almost entirely superfluous, yet after a couple of them I settled into the rhythm of the book. I can’t decide if Kress had a few random ideas (a soul-sucking villain at a dinner party on a train, a giant octopus resentful of his replacement in films by CGI monsters, a hotel manager demanding that his employees take “mental dictation”) that couldn’t be wrangled into full books on their own, so she crammed them into Alex’s story as best she could, or if she’s brilliantly flouting the idea of a streamlined plot structure for her own reasons. Either way, the various set pieces are quite enjoyable, so I’m not complaining.
Like Rebecca with the Gregor books, I’m a little at a loss to talk about this one aside from just saying “And also, this was awesome!” The various wacky characters were all really fun, and the book is full of the kind of passages you want to read aloud to everyone around you, much to their annoyance, like this one from the introduction to one of the minor villains:
Now you shouldn’t feel sorry for him because he had never had eyes and had been born that way. And if you have never had something you can’t really miss it. Once upon a time, he had had his nose, however, and he missed that terribly. Even more than he missed his ears, and definitely more than he missed his hands. Again, though, you shouldn’t feel bad for him because though this all sounds unpleasant, and it really is, he could still hear things through the holes in the sides of his head, and he could still grab things with the elegant wooden hands designed to replace the originals.
Now if you had seen this man in this way, you might have fainted from fright. And you may wonder exactly how he would go about in the daytime with everyone fainting around him. “How,” for example, “would he be able to buy a hot chocolate?” you may ask. Well, he had solved this problem by wrapping a long, black silk cloth around his head just above his mouth (which was entirely intact, by the way) and tying it neatly at the back of his head. The silk meant he could still hear through the material, and it also felt very nice against the skin. He wore a matching black silk shirt tied with strings at the front and soft, dark-red leather trousers with black boots. And when he walked down the street, instead of everyone fainting, they would whisper, “What a dashing young man that dashing young man is. I wonder why he wears a scarf around his face?”
It’s certainly a prose style you have to get used to. I have a pretty high tolerance for whimsy, and even I raised an eyebrow at all the Significant Capitals sprinkled throughout the book. There’s also a fairly high death count for a kids’ book, and I’m not sure all of those deaths are given quite the attention they deserve for the effect I think they’d have on a ten-and-a-half-year-old girl’s psyche. And it sort of defies categorization, as you can see by the tags, although that’s more of a problem for me than most reviewers. All in all, though, these are relatively minor quibbles.
Alex and the Ironic Gentleman gets the rare-but-oh-so-coveted five cupcakes. I’m still not quite sure whether it’s brilliant or simply so fun I can’t tell the difference, but either way it works. More, please!