Review: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman by Adrienne Kress

alex and the ironic gentleman adrienne kress Review: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman by Adrienne Kress

Blurb: A smart, funny mixture of fantasy and high adventure, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman tells the story of Alex Morningside, an inquisitive ten-and-a-half-year-old girl who lives with her uncle above a doorknob shop. A student at the prestigious Wigpowder-Steele Academy, Alex is often mistaken for a boy because of her bowl haircut, but thats okay she has an excellent sense of humor.

Alex hates Wigpowder-Steele because as much as she enjoys learning, she doesnt enjoy wearing a uniform with a skirt. She also doesnt enjoy her teachers, who are all very old and smell funny and dont seem to know about any of the developments that have happened in the world in the last thirty years. And she most definitely does not enjoy her peers, who are quite simply ridiculous. However, thats okay, too, because her peers dont enjoy her much either. 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 pirates of a ship called The Ironic Gentleman kidnap her beloved teacher, Alex sets off on a through-the-looking-glass journey to rescue him, along the way encountering a steady stream of hilarious and colorful characters, including one Captain Magnanimous, Coriander the Conjurer, and the Extremely Ginormous Octopus. Funny, charming, and ultimately tender, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman ends with a twist that readers will find as heartwarming as it is surprising.

It's rather difficult to bypass a book with such an enigmatic title as Canadian author Adrienne Kress's debut novel Alex and the Ironic Gentleman (I do like to think that selecting books based on their titles is at least a step or two above purchasing them purely because of an alluring cover). The back cover copy hints at all manner of silliness, from swashbuckling pirates and treasure chests to strange societies and gregariously named heroes to sternly enforced grammatical pedantry. And somehow, this relatively slim little volume succeeds in delivering all of this and rather a bit more.

Ten-and-a-half-year-old Alex is quite the spunky lass. She has a fondness for learning (cf education, which is not necessarily the same thing), an obsession with dental hygiene, and a haircut that marries androgyny and atrocity. Yet it's with utter indifference to the judgemental opinions of those around her that she merrily goes about doing her Own Thing and being her Own Person (such essential descriptive terms are frequently rendered in title case throughout the book, so do excuse my admittedly gauche efforts to get into character). Unfortunately, Alex's life has long been a sort of insipid sepia when compared with her veritably technicolour personality: her school days are long and dreary and not in the least bit challenging, while her evenings, spent with her doorknob-philic uncle, offer little in the way of dramatic respite.

But, as is frequently the case with rollicking adventure stories, all of this is about to change. In a wonderful twist of fate, Alex shows up to school to find that her stale and much-loathed classroom teacher has been swapped out for the charismatic Mr Underwood, whose enthusiasm for such things as Fencing! and Noun/Verb Agreement! and Pirate Treasure! knows no bounds.

Oh, you caught that bit about the pirate treasure, did you? Well, title case will do that. Mr Underwood admits, rather sotto voce, to being the heir of a rather impressively extensive inheritance known as the Wigpowder treasure, and is back in town to claim at last what is rightfully his. Unfortunately, there's the small matter of the notorious Pirate Steele, who sends in a fearsome trio of piratey scoundrels to put Mr Underwood to rather better use than educating the fine young minds of the country. (This rather better use entails sitting in the hold of the in-jokily named Ironic Gentleman, but I digress). Young Alex, suddenly without mentor, and even without uncle (her uncle is sadly promptly done away with during a burglary by the same motley trio, prompting questions of whether he might have been better off learning about door locks rather than doorknobs), decides she should probably save the day. And so she sets off in search of both the Wigpowder treasure and the MIA Mr Underwood.

Readers who are expecting a linear narrative should perhaps be forewarned. Alex and the Ironic Gentleman is an episodic book that takes all manner of liberties with narrative, so that a seemingly logical journey from A to B involves a detour via X, Y and Z (and in some cases, a few token letters from the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets). Poor Alex lurches through all manner of hilariously disparate situations that seem to appear out of nowhere and have little connection with each other. It's as if Kress has pieced together a story from the remnants of a cut-up poetry exercise by William S Burroughs. A cut-up exercise involving material drawn from the nuttiest apogees of the minds of Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl. It shouldn't work, really it shouldn't, but almost all of it does. Kress's writing is sort of like peanut butter and honey on toast: full of awkwardly sticky situations, but utterly wonderful. Her humour is unfettered and quite mad, and there's a stream-of-consciousness approach to this novel that gives it a breathless exuberance that compels the reader to keep turning the pages. Clever wordplay (such as the truth behind the book's title, which is a wonderful reveal that I'm a bit embarrassed to say surprised me, and which speaks quite a bit to the entrenched nature of gender norms in our culture) is used to develop all manner of absurdist situations, and Kress's theatre and film background is clearly in evidence with her utter disregard for the fourth wall. (But rest assured that there's nothing Brechtian here)

In truth, I have few gripes about this skittish and whimsical comedy, although readers who prefer a more traditionally plotted narrative might feel a touch of discomfort as Alex ricochets about from one situation to the next. It's true that the book might have benefited from a slightly more deft hand during the editing stages'the opening chapters in particular are somewhat slow and unpolished in comparison with the rest of the book'and one can't help feeling that certain scenes, such as the creepy perpetual train scene, are somewhat extraneous not only in terms of plot, but also in terms of tone. The inclusion of modern inventions such as laptops does seem a little jarringly anachronistic, too, as although the book is ostensibly set today, it very much has an old-world feel.

If my endorsement of the book isn't enough, I'll point to the fact that my boyfriend, whose reading material usually comprises software development manuals and the world news part of the newspaper, snatched Alex away from me (whilst I was trying to write this review, no less), and spent the night chortling his way through it.

Kress is a talented writer who is fabulously attuned to the middle years mind set, and I look forward to seeing what sort of zany waywardness her second novel brings to the literary table.

200px 4 stars.svg  Review: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman by Adrienne Kress

With thanks to Simple Schooling for the review copy.

Purchase Alex and the Ironic Gentleman

See our review of Timothy and the Dragons Gate

Other books by Adrienne Kress:

timothy and the dragons gate adrienne kress Review: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman by Adrienne Kress

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