(This review is also posted at the Book Nook Club, a group blog to which I contribute.)
(Disclosure: I did not receive anything for reviewing this book. I bought it, and the only discount I got was because I have a Barnes and Noble membership card. I do consider Tom Angleberger to be an online friend, and did receive an ARC from him for Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run a couple of years ago.)
On Friday, I found myself in the bookstore and spotted the display for Horton Halfpott, and cursed myself for forgetting that the release date had come for that. Naturally, I grabbed a copy.
The full title of the book is Horton Halfpott, or The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor, or The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset. The cover glows in the dark. This, by the way, is only the fun that you get to have before opening the book.
This story is a whole lot of fun. As the titles suggest, the story starts as M’Lady Luggertuck wears her corset a little less tight one day, setting off a strange feel in the air, which sets off all kinds of peculiar events. These culminate in the theft of the Luggertuck family treasure, and all manner of chaos and mayhem as the crime is investigated.
Make no mistake, this is definitely kidlit. It’s written at a great level for children. Were I to choose a primer for the later reading of Dickens, though, this would be it. If Charles Dickens himself wrote a piece of modern children’s literature, I think it might look a lot like Horton Halfpott. Being a huge Dickens fan, by the way, I do not say this casually.
Horton Halfpott himself could well be a Dickensian protagonist. He’s a hard-working, loyal-to-a-fault kitchen boy in Smugwick Manor who gets caught up in the mystery and a plot to kidnap the young lady Celia, a young lady from nearby with whom he falls in love. The boy is every bit as lovable as Oliver Twist, which is saying quite a lot.
The villains and various scoundrels around the story (the head of the kitchen, the Shipless Pirates, etc.) are a true joy to read. The story is a delight. Tom’s Acknowledgments credit Charles Dickens with inspiring the story, and it really shows. The sympathy for the poor and downtrodden, contempt for the rich and stuck-up, and celebration of the wealthy and compassionate are so very enjoyable.
The book doesn’t take itself too seriously, though. Whenever the story turns to romantic thoughts, the narrator assures us that he won’t dwell on such things too much. We are assured once that while Horton was dwelling, the narrator won’t do so.
When my wife and I are reading in the living room, we will frequently read a sentence or passage out loud because it’s so well-written, so expressive, or otherwise worth sharing. I must have read a quarter of the book to my wife, and I felt like I was being too selective. In a way, I think I should have just read the book out loud to her.
Having read all four of Tom Angleberger’s novels (two of which are written under the pseudonym Sam Riddleburger) — The Qwikpick Adventure Society by Sam Riddleburger, Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run by Sam R. and Michael Hemphill, and The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom A. — I feel like I need to comment on his writing style. In all cases, the narration is a lot of fun. But he has not used the same voice in any of them. The other three books have been in wonderful first-person narration, but by very different characters (Yoda having been by more than one character). Horton uses a wonderful third-person narration brilliantly executed in order to maintain the humor of the story.
Coming in at 206 pages and with plenty of Tom’s illustrations, it’s a pretty quick read, and well worth the time. This is a feel-good book that carries on the Dickensian spirit without the work of getting through Dickens’ language. Even so, Tom’s use of wordcraft is every bit as enjoyable.
A heartily-deserved five stars.
(Addendum: I have been told that sometimes I need to tone down my reviews to keep from seeming like I’m so excited to gush … I just can’t do it for this one. I really love this book.)