The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

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The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Neither the well-chosen vocabulary nor the wonderfully dry sense of humour in Lemony Snicket's Bad Beginning can make up for its naked and mercenary ambition. If ever a book was written as a money-spinner, then this is it. The Bad Beginning is a dangerous step towards the franchising of the books your children read and Bookbag can't recommend that, or it. It's a nice idea, but the eye to the main chance spoils it.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 180 Date: May 2003
Publisher: Egmont Books Ltd
ISBN: 1405208678

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Violet, Klaus and their baby sister, Sunny Baudelaire are three very unlucky, very sad children. Their beloved parents have recently perished in a fire at their home. Not only have they lost their mother and father, but they have also lost all their possessions. The only things left to them are the clothes they stand up in. Mr Poe, the asthmatic, bronchial executor of their parents' will tracks down a relative with whom they must live. Count Olaf is not a nice man. Tall, thin, gaunt and distinctly suspicious, he does not treat the Baudelaire orphans well. They share a room with one bed, their clothes are dumped in a cardboard box and they must spend half the day doing chore after chore after chore. It is clear to the Baudelaires that Count Olaf has taken them in for only one reason: he hopes to get his hands on their fortune. With the aid of the kindly Justice Strauss, Violet the boffin with a talent for inventing gadgets and Klaus the clever bookworm must find and foil the Count's evil plan

Ack. I very much wanted to love The Bad Beginning, but I did not. It is the first in a series of gothic adventure books for children written by a shadowy figure known as Lemony Snicket. Lemony Snicket has spent years researching the fortunes of the Baudelaire children and it his "sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales". Lemony Snicket is the alter ego of Daniel Handler, San Francisco novelist and I gather that Handler cites people like Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey as influences. Frankly, I find that hubristic. Yes, there is Dahlesque dark humour in Handler's book, but this is mostly affectation. The Bad Beginning is deeply derivative but it is not derivative of either Dahl or Gorey. It reminds me far more of Blyton's Secret Seven and Famous Five, of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and of that horrid little dullard, Harry Potter. It is an adventure story come mystery in which children are pitted against an archenemy and - after drawing on hitherto undiscovered heroic characteristics - live to fight another day. The gothic, dark, scary, shivery bits are the book's window dressing, not its raison d'etre. As I finished reading The Bad Beginning, I felt overwhelmingly unsatisfied. I had expected much - critics I trust had enthused excitedly on the book's release - but I had received little. The Bad Beginning simply smacked to me of an attempt at creating The Next Big Thing, a money-spinner to rival Harry Potter. I had visions of marketing departments, of films, of toy figures, of branded everythings. After I read, the film-of-the-book, starring Jim Carrey, was announced. Prescient? Moi?

The Bad Beginning is supposed to be dark, scary and depressing. And indeed, Count Olaf is rather dreadful and so are his horrible partners in crime - the man with hooks for hands, the fat lady, the white-faced ladies. However, because these characters are such boringly - and very un-PC for those of you who care about that sort of thing, although I don't - unoriginal stereotypes they fail to build much tension. Moreover, the resolution is deeply unsatisfactory. It is not dark or depressing at all - there is a happy denouement followed by a "buy the next book please" bathetic set-up for the adventure to come. We might as well have watched an episode of Scooby Doo for all the surprises we got.

On a more positive note, I have some praise for The Bad Beginning. Handler writes beautifully and with a very precise use of language. There are authorial asides and in many of these he treats his young readers to an amusing definition of a word or a phrase and these demonstrate the wonderful possibilities of language in a very entertaining way. At one point, the evil Count Olaf feigns regret at the way he has treated the Baudelaires and describes his behaviour as standoffish. Here is what Handler has to say about that:

"The word 'standoffish' is a wonderful one, but it does not describe Count Olaf's behaviour toward the children. It means 'reluctant to associate with others' and it might describe somebody who, during a party, would stand in a corner and not talk to anyone. It would NOT describe somebody who provides one bed for three people to sleep in, forces them to do horrible chores, and strikes them across the face. There are many words for people like that, but 'standoffish' is not one of them."

I love that dryness! The book is full of similar and super asides. I like the way Handler uses vocabulary to challenge but also to amuse and educate. There is a good strain of dark, satirical humour and there are many "ooh" and "eek" moments. I cannot say that The Bad Beginning is not entertaining, for it is. I simply wish that its two and two did not make merely four, but five or six or seven. It is written well, but it is formulaic and really no more than the sum of its parts. A great book is always more than the sum of its parts. Still, I am in my praising paragraph, so I should add that The Bad Beginning is presented wonderfully in dinky, mini hardbacks with a very gothic, Victorian feel. Brett Helquist's illustrations are just perfect - small, crosshatched pencil sketches - very creepy and shivery.

Because of the dry style, the asides and the challenging but precise use of language, The Bad Beginning would be suitable for reading aloud - and best if you camp it up - and for a wide range of children to read alone. It would fit nicely into the 8-12 bracket, with some leeway either side, I would say. I have not read past this first in the Series of Unfortunate Events. I found it too glib, too superficial, too much with an eye to the main chance.

Ultimately, The Bad Beginning is an opportunity missed. It is soulless. And yes, I am aware that to call a gothic book soulless is an irony in itself. I like my books to speak with real heart - even a black heart - and The Bad Beginning seems to me to be more an exercise in glib vocabulary pyrotechnics than a real desire to tell a story. It is a shame, but this is a sadly hollow book. It is immensely readable, amusing, entertaining, but it is all so... mercenary. The Bad Beginning is - in a deliberate cliché - a disappointing triumph of style over substance. If you really want to buy in to the corporatisation of the books your children read, then address your browser to to find out more.

You will forgive me if I don't follow you.

We also have a review of The Bad Mood and the Stick by Lemony Snicket and Matthew Forsythe.

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soccerlova said:

its an awesome series

Alice Wickham said:

Absolutely, totally and utterly agree with this review, Lemony Snicket is an irritating phoney imho.