Monday, July 21, 2008

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Austere Academy

The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket is book five in A Series of Unfortunate Events. I started it yesterday... and I finished it in less than two hours. (But perhaps I shouldn't crow too loudly since, after all, it is a children's book and thus shouldn't take an adult very long to read.)

A while back when these books were still being published (there are 13 of them) I thought about reading them, however I was turned off by the fact that the first book starts off telling you that if you like happy endings (which I do)... the series is NOT for you and you'd better put the book down. It was only after a friend and fellow book-lover mentioned how funny the series was that I decided to pick the first book up again and give it a try.

The first book starts of with the tale of the three Baudelaire orphans (Violet, Klaus & Sunny) who have just learned that their parents were killed when their house burned to the ground. Their parents entire fortune has been left to the children when they come of age and in the meantime they are to be sent to live with a guardian... who turns out to be the villainous Count Olaf, who's only goal is to get rid of the children and steal their inheritance. Each book after the first follows the orphans as they move from one guardian to the next one home to another, including the most recent -- a preparatory boarding school with the motto "Memento mori" -- Latin for "Remember you will die".

In The Austere Academy the children make friends with two-thirds members of a triplet, a brother and sister Duncan and Isadore Quagmire who are likewise orphans and in their own way come to the rescue of Violet, Klaus and Sunny. It seems at this point in the story that things, in spite of how bleak the school experience is, might be looking up for the Baudelaires... until Count Olaf shows up, attempts to gain control of the orphans and in the end causes problems for the triplets too before escaping.

I don't think it would be a spoiler for me to say that in each book of the first five books the Baudelaire's adventures, or rather misadventures, include trying to foil Count Olaf's evil plans and happily in each book they have, but on the other hand, unhappily also in each book Count Olaf escapes, always just in the nick of time.

Overall, I've enjoyed the books. The stories are very simple and thus make for a very quick read. I find that I can blow through the 200 pages in less than two hours. The happenings in each story are both funny and completely ridiculous and often impossible. Because of this a reader will either like or hate the story -- it just depends on how the reader chooses to accept what they are reading. I have chosen not to take it seriously and thus have found myself amused. One other issue that some might have with the books is the authors habit of interrupting the story to define words, especially words that generally for any avid reader do not require definition. However, I've found that it somehow fits along with the quirky story and perhaps since the stories were originally intended for children it is a useful quirk. So once again -- a reader can either ignore it or hate it, I chose to ignore it and accept it as part of the quirkiness of the book.

The one aspect of the book that I am uncertain about is the repetitive plot. As I mentioned above, in each of the first five books the Baudelaires arrive at a new home and face a new set of ridiculous circumstances, including evading Count Olaf. Each book (so far) ends with them narrowly escaping his clutches as he narrowly escapes capture. I still have eight more books in the series. I'm starting to wonder should I stick it out... or should I just skip to book 13? I may give them one more book to see how the author shakes things up because there were definitely some differences between books 1-4 and book 5.

My recommendation? A Series of Unfortunate Events is a series of books designed to mimic the Victorian era "Penny dreadfuls" -- a nickname for a variety of publications, generally in serial form, that were considered cheap sensational fiction. As such, don't take them seriously. If you are curious to read this series, borrow, don't buy (almost every library has the complete set). Read if you enjoy a quick and quirky read or if you have a spare hour or two and no other urgent books waiting your attention.

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