Wednesday, November 16, 2016

'A School for Unusual Girls' by Kathleen Baldwin


It’s 1814. Napoleon is exiled on Elba. Europe is in shambles. Britain is at war on four fronts. And Stranje House, a School for Unusual Girls, has become one of Regency England’s dark little secrets. The daughters of the beau monde who don’t fit high society’s constrictive mold are banished to Stranje House to be reformed into marriageable young ladies. Or so their parents think. In truth, Headmistress Emma Stranje, the original unusual girl, has plans for the young ladies—plans that entangle them in the dangerous world of spies, diplomacy, and war.

After accidentally setting her father’s stables on fire while performing a scientific experiment, Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam is sent to Stranje House. But Georgie has no intention of being turned into a simpering, pudding-headed, marriageable miss. She plans to escape as soon as possible—until she meets Lord Sebastian Wyatt. Thrust together in a desperate mission to invent a new invisible ink for the English war effort, Georgie and Sebastian must find a way to work together without losing their heads—or their hearts…

Genre: YA historical fiction, comedy, romance. 

This is a lighthearted YA novel set during the Napoleonic Wars. Georgiana Fitzwilliam is a source of shame to her parents because she persists in following her interest in chemistry and shuns the activities they believe young gentlewomen should pursue. So they drag her in disgrace to the school of Miss Emma Stranje, who promises families that she'll be able to make their headstrong, eccentric daughters unexceptional.

Georgie's parents approve of the solitary confinement chambers and torture devices they see, but little do they realise it's all a front. Miss Stranje's real intention is to nurture the brilliant girls under her care, and enlist their help in the war effort. While Georgie's parents are horrified that she almost burned down their barn, Miss Stranje knows that she was working on a recipe for invisible ink when it happened.

There are more books in the series being written with a focus on the other pupils, which I'd recommend depending on how much cheesy satire you feel you can take. This book has its fair share of slapstick moments, with larger than life characters. There's handsome Lord Sebastian Wyatt, the young rake who knows how to press Georgiana's buttons, and Lady Daneska, the cold-hearted, beautiful villain who actually used to be one of the girls. They're fun characters but not exactly new, multi-layered or unpredictable. Still, the book never pretends to be anything it's not. If after the first couple of chapters you wonder if the tone will change or get a bit more realistic, the answer is no, it doesn't really.

There are so many convenient nooks and crannies for people to eavesdrop in Stranje Academy, and there'll probably be even more in the sequels. I can't help wondering if this story might be the modern counterpart of the Gothic novels young girls used to love reading during the time period this was set. You might have heard that the best stories aim to hide the fact that they're stories and come across like reality. Well, this story seems to have the opposite aim; use every literary device or cliche, no matter how corny, to remind us that it's funny fiction.

There are a few poignant reflections from Georgie along the lines of following your own inner compass, even when it points straight to misunderstanding and rejection. They're not subtle, either. 'If only I could rip out my overactive curiosity and trade it in for an interest in embroidery, maybe then my mother's friends would smile at me. Maybe then my mother would love me.' Of course the implication is that this would be too a big a sacrifice for her to make. Later, she considers that the lure of 'what if?' when it comes to science experiments, carries a cost. 'No approving smiles, good girl pats on the head or nods of approval.' I think this theme, that what's in us shouldn't be suppressed, might be the best thing this book has going for it.

Overall, I think I'll pass on actively seeking the sequels, although if someone offered them to me, I might have to think. (The answer would probably still be no thanks.)

3 stars

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