Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling

Wood, Maryrose. 2010. The Mysterious Howling. New York: Harper Collins.

"All books are judged by their covers until they are read."
A most appropriate quote from Agatha Swanburne, founder of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, from which our protagonist, 15-year-old Penelope Lumley, has recently graduated.  An appropriate quote for it was the cover that initially drew me in to this story of Miss Lumley and the peculiar inhabitants of Ashton Place.

Although only fifteen, Miss Penelope Lumley is an extremely capable young lady, in the mold of Mary Poppins or any number of similar governesses that one might find in mid-nineteenth century England - firm, but not inflexible; kind but not sentimental.  Still, her rigorous training could hardly have been preparation for her new position at Ashton Place. Lord Ashton is a puzzling man with curious habits and a strange sense of humor, Lady Constance Ashton is a flighty, excitable woman, and the children (if one may call them children) are three siblings that have apparently been raised by wolves in the wild and forbidding Ashton Forest.  Of course, this does not pose a problem for the capable Miss Lumley; however, there are many unexplained mysteries afoot. Who wishes to sabotoge the children's transition into civilized society?  What secret is Mr. Ashton hiding?  What secrets lie hidden with Ashton Place? What became of the children's parents (and for that matter, of Miss Lumley's parents as well!)? 

Consistently written in a style that evokes the sensibilities of England in the 1850s, Wood's writing is amusing as well and contains frequent helpful "asides" from the narrator.
Now there is a scientific principle that states: Once a train has left the station and is going along at a good clip, it is often fiendishly difficult to slam on the brakes, even if you are clearly headed for trouble (the same holds true for horses that have already left their barns).  This principle is Newton's very first law of motion and was considered old news even in Miss Penelope Lumley's day.
   Penelope had taken physics at Swanburne and, thus, knew all about Newton's laws of motion. Still, she felt that a final, desperate, and heroic attempt to change the course of events that now led inexorably and disatrously to the children attending Lady Constance's party seemed called for, and so she gave it her all.
    "Lady Constance, your plans for a holiday ball sound delightful, and I am sure the children would hate to miss it," she began, "but coincidentally, I was intending to ask you if I may take them on a ski holiday in France until after the New Year..."
   To give you an idea how final, desperate, and heroic this suggestion was, it should be noted that Penelope had never skied in her life, nor had she ever been to France that she could recall, nor did she know precisely where one might ski in France.  However, she assumed that any country with so sterling a reputation must be equipped with mountains somewhere; the rest of the information she knew she could easily find in an encyclopedia.

It's difficult not to admire Miss Lumley; and her young wolfish charges, Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia, adore her. You will too.

Finally, a word on series, as this is the first book in the new series, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place:
I always approach a series with trepidation.  There are so many outcomes possible - will I gain years of enjoyment and then a melancholy wistfulness as the series draws to a close as in Harry Potter?  Will I invest time and enthusiasm only to be left waiting interminably, as in The Abarat? Will I be interested enough in the outcome but lack the ambition to keep up, as in The 39 Clues?  Will I read only one installment and feel satisfied that I have enough feeling and understanding for the series to promote it as in Baby Mouse?  The jury is still out on The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place.  The cover drew me in, but it is the confident Miss Penelope Lumley that may convince me to stay.

A reading guide is available from the publisher.

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