Saturday, 3 August 2013

Review: Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door by Ross Montgomery

Alex Jennings is a boy with a problem.

His mum's sent him away to boarding school because his father, the most famously failed explorer in the history of the Cusp, has escaped from hospital again, yelling 'squiggles'.

Make that two problems.

Now the evil Davidus Kyte and all his henchmen are after Alex, convinced he alone knows the meaning of the word 'squiggles'.

OK, make that three -

Alex Jennings is a boy with a lot of problems. But with the help of a talking dog and a girl with unfeasibly sharp teeth, he just might have what it takes to cross the Forbidden Lands, escape the evil Davidus Kyte, and find out what lies beyond the Cusp . . .


I'm trying my hardest to come up with some way of describing this story without giving away anything. It is so brilliantly bonkers that I think it is best read with little prior knowledge or preconceptions. However, to keep things simple, it is a story about a boy with a famous father (now literally barking mad) who has had to suffer the subsequent humiliations of a private boarding school. However, Alex's world is a little different from our own. Cloisters Boarding School for Boys is located in an area called The Outskirts. Adjacent to this is the heavily fortified and militarised Cusp, which itself surrounds The Forbidden Land.

This rather dramatically named area is one of great mystery as only one person has ever been able to enter it for any kind of lengthy exploration. That person just happens to be Alex's father, and his mental health has seemingly deteriorated ever since he returned. Everyone else who enters The Forbidden Land gets the immediate and totally uncontrollable urge to run home, no matter how far it is or what/who is in the way. This book tells the story of Alex's attempts to find his again-missing father, and ultimately discover the secret that lies at the centre of The Forbidden Land.


This is one of the most bonkers books that I have read in ages. It is perfect for kids who have grown up loving the sheer craziness of Andy Stanton's Mr Gum, but are now ready for something a little more challenging. It does not have the insane vocabulary of a Mr Gum book, but the story is definitely just as mad. As I was reading it and thinking about writing my review I was considering likening it to the unpredictability and madness of the comedy of Monty Python, and in particular their Holy Grail film. However, although I think that is still a fair comparison, I would suggest the comedy in Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door is not always quite as off-the-wall as that, and now I can't help but think that its surrealism, humour and feeling of 'I have no idea what on earth is going to happen next' remind me very much of one of my all time favourite films - O Lucky Man. I appreciate that this will mean little to any children reading this review, and probably a good number of adults too.

This is a truly fun adventure story, set in a crazy fictional world, with a subtle humour running throughout that will have readers giggling quietly, and with plenty of sudden laugh-out-laugh moments. Just like a Roald Dahl or David Walliams book it has the prerequisite pantomime-esque villain - greedy, egotistical, borderline insane - but due to the bonkers nature of his actions his parts in the story never feel clich├ęd. As with books by those aforementioned two authors, the adults in the story are pretty useless and it is the actions of Alex and his new friend Martha that are generally needed to save the day. And just like these other  authors, Ross Montgomery subtly weaves many other themes into his wacky tale, such as family, loss, bullying, friendship and loyalty.

I think kids of 8 or 9+ will love the crazy nature of this story. As well as being a funny and thoroughly enjoyable read, it will also feed the 'What if..?' nature of their imaginations that they use when they are doing their own writing: What if Alex's Headmaster was actually nice? What if that dog could talk? What if..... I'll leave it there as I don't want to reveal too much.

My thanks go to the kind people at Faber for sending me a copy of Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door to read (great title, by the way - it's almost as bonkers as the story itself).

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