Horton Halfpott or The Fiendish Mystery of Smudgwick Manor or The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset, written and illustrated by Tom Angleberger, 206 pp, RL 3
Horton Halfpott is now in paperback!!!
I have to admit that when I saw Tom Angleberger's newest book, Horton Halfpott or The Fiendish Mystery of Smudgwick Manor or TheLooseing of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset, I was a bit skeptical. I loved Alngleberger's award winning book from last year, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and I was ready for some more of the same. But, no. Instead, we have, what one review calls a "positively gleeful historical mystery farce." And, while that description may be almost as big a mouthful as the very funny title, I am thrilled to tell you that it is spot on! I loved this book!
As I began to read, I wondered if kids would be slowed down by the language (M'Lady, a'tightening, 'tis, 'Struth, credenza, corset, monocle)? Would they truly appreciate the Dickensian names of the characters (Neversly, Loafburton, Howbag, Slughsalt, Wickleweaver)? Would they care about the disappearance of a Valuable Wig and a Lump? A few chapters into the story, I didn't care about any of this. I was totally engrossed in the story, chuckling to myself over the names (Bump, Blight and Blemish), the absurdities (Shipless Pirates!) the mystery and the plight of our poor, rule-abiding, overworked hero Horton Halfpott, frequent recipient of beatings with a wooden spoon by the merciless, utensil wielding cook Miss Neversly. If I was this wrapped up in the book, I knew kids would be too. Angleberger has completely knocked my socks off - again - and with something all together different from his last work! Halfway into the novel, I flipped to the back to read the acknowledgements and was especially pleased to see that, besides a nod to Charles Dickens, "who is funnier than you think" and the incredible Daniel Pinkwater, author of The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, "who is funnier than a pickle éclair," Angleberger hints that the names of other authors who inspired him are hidden in this book... Lady Aiken (one of my favorites, Joan Aiken)! Lord Alexander (Newbery winner, Lloyd Alexander)! Not only has Angleberger written a very entertaining book, it has been inspired by a prestigious line of authors who came before him.
Horton Halfpott or The Fiendish Mystery of Smudgwick Manor or The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset begins with one seemingly small decision that kicks off a raucous, sometimes rancid chain of events. Angleberger delights in sharing the smells of the time (Georgian? Regency?) with the reader. From the smelly stable boys to the who, as the great detective Portony St Pomfrey says smell of equus poopus to M'Lady's expensive French perfume, Eau d'Peccary to the old fish stink of the Land Pirates, this book is ripe with olfactory experiences. While the odors are odious, it is the characters in this book who are truly foul. The loosening of M'Lady corset inspires a truly abhorrent person to become slightly more so. However, worse than M'Lady is her son Luther. Since the day of his birth, M'Lady has "spoiled her son with excess, encouraged him when punishments was needed and, worst of all, taught him by example." What impresses me most about Angleberger's writing, and this is true of Origami Yoda as well, is the way that he sets the stage with interesting characters and then adds a deeper layer to them with a matter of words. Of a group of suitors hoping to win the hand of the very wealthy, young Miss Sylvan-Smythe ("the only true lady in this story") Angleberger writes, "Most wore this year's fashions but had not read last year's books." Of Luther's cousin, Montgomery, suitor to Miss Sylvan-Smith, he writes, "Reader, I must warn you. Montgomery is such a dull character that, if he did not play such an important part in the story, I would have left him out. His mother is dull, too. In fact, you're welcome to forget her. There are enough characters for you to remember as it is."
Horton Halfpott or The Fiendish Mystery of Smudgwick Manor or The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset. The narrator talks directly to the reader. Usually, in books like the Series of Unfortunate Events, I don't like this. However, I found that I didn't mind and even sometimes enjoyed the narrator in Adam Gidwitz's superb A Tale Dark and Grimm. With Horton Halfpott, I found that I actually appreciated the presence of the narrator who guides the story, points the reader in important directions and cuts corners when necessary, like a friendly tour guide foreign land which, for many young readers, this may well be.
Horton Halfpott and the action moves at a fast pace. After M'Lady and her corset, we meet the rest of the servants and Luggertuck family and house guests and learn about their odd habits. We learn how hard the servants work, how badly they are treated (they eat only the cheapest possible watery gruel very early in the morning and a crust of bread - singular - late at night) how cruelly they are punished for infractions, real or otherwise, and how they celebrate weekly when Neversly and Old Crotty go to town to buy provisions. All except Horton who follows the rules incessantly because the one penny he takes home to his family is all they have and his sick father is getting worse. Soon, valuables (an non-valuables) are going missing, a famous detective arrives in a "magnificent carriage," payment from a sultan he worked for who was too polite to tell him that the carriage was really the Royal Outhouse, and mayhem ensues. The snooping stable boys, one of whom may be an heir to the Luggertuck fortune but that is another story, the lovely, smart and brave Celia and the Shipless Pirates, as well as a brief appearance by the strange old man who lived in the left turret all come into play and a suspenseful, appropriately smelly, happy ending ensues.
One of my favorite narrator asides in Horton Halfpott is the humorous mention of other tales involving M'Lady Luggertuck that the reader might recall (as well as their unfortunate endings) as if she is the star of her own serialized story. "M'Lady Luggertuck and the Yule Log," "M'Lady Luggertuck and Hires a Tattooed Nanny" and "M'Lady Luggertuck and the Unfortunate Cobbler" are but a few. I could go on and on about this marvelous book, but you really should just buy it and read it. With all the silly names, funny words and kooky characters it is a brilliant read-out-loud for anyone with even the tiniest bit of theatricality in his or her bones. However, if your reader is able to go it alone, I think that sometimes what makes a great book like this is reading it on your own and sharing it with others. And, just in case you need anymore enticements to buy this book, the cover, with art by Gilbert Ford glows in the dark! All interior illustrations and map are from the hand of the author himself!