I flew home from Seattle back in February with two new books from the Elliott Bay Book Company. The first–which shall not be named–was a collection of highly regarded short stories released by my favorite publisher, NYRB Classics. Although I enjoyed reading the book on the plane, the collection became dreadfully dull once I got home. I read about 20 pages over the next two weeks and eventually decided to set that book aside for awhile. I then picked up the other book from Elliott Bay, Flora & Ulysses.
Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures–Kate DiCamillo
Flora & Ulysses is a children’s book about a squirrel named Ulysses who develops super powers when he accidentally gets sucked into a vacuum cleaner. His super powers include the ability to fly, understand English, and communicate via typewriter. He also uses the typewriter to write poems. And Ulysses looks absolutely adorable in K. G. Campbell’s illustrations. I was sold.
Flora & Ulysses made for a welcome respite from the short stories I’d been struggling with, but I wouldn’t call it a good book by any stretch of the imagination. There was hardly any plot to speak of, and once you got past Ulysses and Flora (the girl who befriends the squirrel), the book was full of annoying characters. The worst offender was a neighbor boy named William Spiver. Not only did he go around faking blindness–an offense that I was rightfully punished for back in the first grade–but he spoke like a pompous professor. It wasn’t long before I wanted him to get hit on the head with a shovel and buried in the woods.
What’s all this about a shovel and burying somebody in the woods? Well, the book’s thin plot mostly revolves around whether Flora’s insane mother is going to bash Ulysses in the head and bury him in the woods. How is this appropriate for children? How is this appropriate for me? Unless I’ve got a Stephen King novel in my lap, I don’t want to read about shovel murders.
I might be willing to overlook the threat of human-on-squirrel violence in a children’s book, but the final straw for me was when the big climax featured one of the human characters beating another animal with a lamp. I consider it a disgrace that this garbage won the prestigious Newbery Medal.
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series–Maryrose Wood
Depressed from reading Flora & Ulysses, I decided to revisit my favorite children’s series of recent years, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. The books are about a young governess named Penelope Lumley who accepts a position caring for and educating three children found living in the woods on a huge English estate. The books also feature a wonderful little squirrel character named Nutsawoo…who is hardly ever threatened with violence.
I reread the first three books to familiarize myself with the backstory and then read the most recent installment, The Interrupted Tale, which came out last December. I’ve already written about the first three books, so I won’t go into much detail on those…just a couple sentences mostly cut and pasted from my original write-ups.
Book 1: The Mysterious Howling
Miss Lumley gets her first governess job and is surprised to find that her new charges were literally raised by wolves. Now it’s her job to break the Incorrigibles of their bad habits, teach them English, etiquette, and dancing…all in time for the Ashton’s big Christmas party. Uh oh, here comes Nutsawoo!
Book 2: The Hidden Gallery
Miss Lumley and the Incorrigibles take up residence in London. They explore the city, meet a spooky fortune teller, become friends with a playwright, break into the British Museum, and get chased by a parrot and a band of pirates. They also begin investigating their own mysterious backgrounds, as well as those of Lord Ashton and the enigmatic Judge Quinzy.
Book 3: The Unseen Guest
Lord Ashton’s mother shows up on the scene with a new suitor, a man named Admiral Faucet. When the Admiral’s racing ostrich is mysteriously released into the woods of Ashton Place, he forms a tracking party consisting of Miss Lumley and the Incorrigibles. Penelope makes a shocking discovery out in the forest, but that pales in comparison with what comes to light during the séance at the end of the book.
Book 4: The Interrupted Tale
Miss Lumley and the Incorrigibles head off to a reunion at Penelope’s alma mater, the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females. It’s here that some of the mysteries are finally solved. Lord Ashton has a frank discussion with Penelope about his monthly disappearances, the truth about Judge Quinzy is revealed, and family trees get all rearranged. This is a six book series, though, so there are still a lot of unanswered questions floating around.
I’m happy that Maryrose Wood finally got around to answering some of the questions that had been bugging me since the beginning of the series. I remember being frustrated when I originally read The Unseen Guest, as it felt like the she was just dragging it out and adding too many new layers to the already complex series. Sure, The Interrupted Tale ended with something of a cliff-hanger, but the author began solving some of her mysteries and it feels like things are now moving toward what I hope will be a stunning, satisfying conclusion. I look forward to Book 5!