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Alex and the Ironic Gentleman

Reviewed: April 15, 2009
By: Adrienne Kress
Publisher: Scholastic Books
391 pages, $8.99

Charles Dickens had a distinct authorial voice and did not hesitate to insert it into his novels and stories. That marvelous digression at the beginning of A Christmas Carol as to why doornails should be considered deader than other nails is a good example of the tone. This voice of the omniscient author was a fairly common thing up until just after the First World War, but has been out of fashion for decades.

While I can think of many exceptions to that statement, including writers as varied as Robertson Davies and Stephen King, it remains true that the intrusive authors voice was not generally thought to be a selling point for a story for most of the 20th century.

Then along came Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket, who published the 13 volume A Series of Unfortunate Events from 1999 to 2006. These books are full of the voice of Snicket commenting on figures of speech, underlining the foreshadowing, and generally talking directly to the reader about the events of the books, including issuing dire warnings about how sad the stories were and how the reader really ought not to read them.

It was a wildly successful strategy and was bound to have an influence on young adult books. Toronto based Adrienne Kress is the first author I’ve encountered to embrace this self-mocking style so enthusiastically.

Alex and the Ironic Gentleman is the first volume in a projected series starring young Alex Morningside, a plucky orphan (by chapter 11) who has a series of wildly improbable adventures and, unlike the Baudelaire children, succeeds in almost every venture she undertakes.

Still, the book has chapter titles like this: The Seventh Chapter - In which we learn the nature of coffee table books and return to the Steele Estate.

It also has opening paragraphs like this one:

“What is a bad sign? Perhaps one that has mud all over it, so you can’t read how far is the next rest stop. Or perhaps one that is so rebellious that no matter how many times you write ‘Danger: Falling Rocks Ahead’ it insists on saying ‘Do Come Over Here and Stand Under this Precariously Teetering Boulder.’”

There is a certain charm to this sort of thing, as if you and the author are enjoying a joke that the characters can’t quite get and, on the whole, that works in this book. It can also lead to a certain “cuteness” and cause a degree of bloating in the narrative. In this case, while I enjoyed Kress’s book, I’m quite comfortable in suggesting that it was probably anywhere from 60 to 80 pages longer than it needed to be.

The second book is already out in hardcover. Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate shifts the focus to young Timothy Freshwater but Alex and the Ironic Gentleman do turn up eventually.

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