Saturday, 23 January 2010

Review: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman by Adrienne Kress

Often mistaken for a boy because of her haircut and name, Alex Morningside is an inquisitive girl of ten-and-a-half who attends the prestigious Wigpowder-Steele Academy. Unfortunately, though she loves to learn, Alex just can’t bring herself to enjoy her classes. Her teachers are all old and smelly and don’t seem to know about anything that has happened in the world the past thirty years, and her peers…well they are quite simply ridiculous.

Luckily for Alex, the new school year brings an exciting new teacher. Mr. Underwood makes lessons fun and teaches her how to fence. But Mr. Underwood has a mysterious family secret - the swashbuckling and buried treasure kind - and not everyone is glad he has come to Wigpowder-Steele. When the infamous pirates of a ship called the Ironic Gentleman kidnap Mr. Underwood, Alex sets off on a journey to rescue him, along the way encountering a cast of strange and magical characters, including the dashing and sometimes heroic Captain Magnanimous, Coriander the Conjurer, the Extremely Ginormous Octopus, and the wicked Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society.

Adrienne Kress has one of the most unique writing voices I have come across in years, but now I come to write about this book I am finding it very difficult to describe it in a way that will do it justice. It is a little bit Roald Dahl, a little bit Lewis Carroll and a little bit Lemony Snickett but by saying that I almost feel I'm not being fair to Ms Kress as her work is certainly not a copy of these authors' styles. In addition to being a writer, Ms Kress is an actress and also does some teaching of drama to 8-12 year olds, and I suspect this contact with children has had a great influence on said writing voice. Her writing shows that she knows how children think,how they speak and most of all, how surreal their ideas can sometimes be, for Alex and the Ironic Gentleman is incredibly surreal in places. This author certainly knows her audience and that is one of the reasons I am very comfortable in comparing her work with Roald Dahl.

This is a great book for children of age 8 and above, whether read by themselves or as a bedtime story read out loud by someone else (believe me... this book was made to be read aloud by a confident reader - I need to get my hands on a copy of the audio book!). It is chock-full of humour and adventure that should appeal to both boys and girls, and boys should not be put off by Alex being a female main character - girly, she is not! There are also some delightfully creepy villains along the way (the nasty old ladies of the  Daughters of the Founding Fathers' Preservation Society are truly priceless), and best of all, because of the way Ms Kress writes I found it very easy to picture these various characters in my head. Like I said, this book is pretty surreal, and Alex's adventures are far from ordinary (have you ever come across an Extremely Ginormous Octopus drowning his sorrows in a bar bemoaning the fact that film directors prefer using CGI?). Alex's tale also involves many other literary elements including light horror and fantasy, and I love the way Ms Kress has skilfully combined these elements together.

Ms Kress is from Canada, but spent three years of her life studying in England, and this is very apparent in her writing as there are elements from both sides of the Atlantic in her story. In fact, at times it is difficult to determine whether her tale is set in a fantasy place akin to Britain, or whether is it more like the USA/Canada. Similarly the placing of the time period is difficult. At the beginning you feel it is a fairly modern setting, but then something else happens and you change your mind and decide that it must be set in the past, but then all of a sudden there is mention of a laptop (owned by the chronicler of the pirates' adventures). This is not a case of poor writing or editing, it is just something else that adds to the delightful quirkiness of the story. 

And then we come to the plot. Please don't go expecting a linear plot whereby Alex sets out on a mission to rescue her teacher and by the end of the book is successful in that quest. This is more a series of mini-adventures, some of which distract the reader from the main plot completely, all rolled into one big story arc. It is here that the various secondary characters really play a huge part in making this such an enjoyable read, for instead of impatiently flicking through these scenes quickly in order to get back onto the primary plot, I instead found myself reveling in the sheer variety of the hilarious personalities of the multitude of lovingly created supporting characters that Alex meets along the way.

Alex and the Ironic Gentleman is published by Weinstein Books and is available to buy in the UK. It has been around for a couple of years and is a real gem of a book. If you have younger boys or girls it is well worth buying. Somehow I now need to get my hands on a copy of Timothy and the Dragon's Gate, Ms Kress' second book (in which, I gather, Alex and some of the other characters also make an appearance). 


  1. Hm, I've been thinking about reading this one. Thanks for the review! --Kate

  2. This book is enjoyable enough. However, the character is entirely a Mary Sue-type character (i.e. someone who is immediately good at everything and over-intelligent) who spends all her time bossing around adults and completely outperforming people who originally appear to be more capable. The action is also quite random; it is very Alice In Wonderland-esque, but without the hallucinogenic drugs. It is a good read, but I suggest only reading it once as rereading might make you start to hate Alex a little bit.