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
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.