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*The Bad Beginning: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 1* by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Brett Helquist - tweens/young readers book review

Also by Lemony Snicket:

The Penultimate Peril (Book 12)

The Vile Village (Book 7)

The Ersatz Elevator (Book 6)

The Austere Academy (Book 5)

The Miserable Mill (Book 4)

The Wide Window (Book 3)

The Reptile Room (Book 2)

Also by illustrated by Brett Helquist:

The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic

The Bad Beginning: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 1
by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Brett Helquist
Ages 9-12 162 pages HarperCollins September 1999 Hardcover    

The Lemony Snicket phenomenon that spawned a dark family film starring Jim Carrey starts here with, naturally, a bad beginning. It should come as no surprise, at least to reasonably well-read adults, that three children with the surname Baudelaire should encounter flowers of evil in one form or another. For that matter, narrator Lemony Snicket warns as much on the back cover: "Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe...One might say they are magnets for misfortune."

When a fire ravages their home and ends their parents' lives, the Baudelaire orphans - inventive Violet, studious Klaus, and toothy baby Sunny - find themselves unceremoniously ensconced in the creepy, dilapidated home of their nearest geographical relative, Count Olaf.

Olaf is as unwelcoming as the house, giving them a small room with a single bed to share and ordering them to sundry difficult chores - repainting the porch, fixing the windows, and preparing a dinner party for his motley theater troupe. At least their new next-door neighbor, a high court judge named Justice Strauss, provides a modicum of relief with her warm personality, beautiful garden and impressive library.

Count Olaf poses an increasing menace to the children's well-being. There is not the slightest pretense of interest in them for anything other than the inheritance that will become theirs when 14-year-old Violet comes of age. He hatches a monstrous scheme to trick Justice Strauss into performing a legally binding marriage between himself and Violet in the guise of a play and keeps baby Sunny imprisoned in a cage outside his tall tower window to ensure Klaus & Violet's compliance. There seems to be no way out of their unfortunate predicament.

Think of this as The Boxcar Children for cynics. Orphaned children fending for themselves in a hostile world has long been a children's literature staple. Daniel Handler's pseudonymous alter-ego Lemony Snicket relates the ongoing misfortunes of the Baudelaire siblings with a woeful zest masked by dry good manners that imbues the Series with a fatalistic glee. Readers can hardly wait to see what ghastly thing will befall these children next, yet cheer for them all the while.

A bonus for grown-up readers comes in the form of sly classic lit references. For instance, the executor of their parents' will, the pulmonarily-challenged Mr. Poe, has a somewhat disagreeable son named Edgar and lives in a house that smells of "some sort of ghastly flower." This series, no matter how unpleasant things get, is a sheer delight.

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