This Lemony Snicket phase started when his collaboration with illustrator Maira Kalman caught my eye: Why We Broke Up (not as Lemony Snicket but as Daniel Handler) and the picture book 13 Words. Then I remembered I also had a copy of the picture book, The Composer Is Dead, illustrated by one of my new favorites, Carson Ellis. And then I saw Lemony Snicket’s latest book at the bookstore and figured I might as well review these books all together, so I also got a copy of Who Could That Be At This Hour?
The novel features a textbook boy meets girl kind of tale, but Min’s voice perfectly captures the emotional roller coaster of young love: the excitement of the first date, the first kiss, and many other firsts; the fierce determination to make a budding relationship work despite the opposition of friends and family; the shell-shocked incredulity in finding out the hard, cold, truth; and the raw emotion of a broken heart upon reaching the inevitable end.
I do like a good contemporary young adult novel, and I must say this is among the best I’ve read. Daniel Handler’s writing pulses with all of Min’s emotions, immortalized in ephemera whimsically rendered in Maira Kalman’s illustrations, and the readers are kept guessing as to why Min and Ed’s relationship finally unravels. The universal phenomenon of heartbreak in “Why We Broke Up” is an experience most readers will be able to relate to, stirring their own memories of that boy (or girl!), and their own version of why we broke up.
Rating: 5/5 stars
13 Words is another collaboration with Maira Kalman, this time a picture book. I found this book at the National Book Store booth at the Manila International Book Fair, and decided to get it because I enjoyed Why We Broke Up so much. The story is based on 13 words: bird, despondent, cake, dog, busy, convertible, goat, hat, haberdashery, scarlet, baby, panache, and mezzo-soprano. Apparently, there are 13 words because the number is unlucky and the author lives for unfortunate events.
The story uses all thirteen words in its narration: A despondent bird tries to cheer herself up by eating cake with the dog. When it doesn’t work, the bird gets busy painting ladders and the dog goes out on his convertible, driven by his chauffeur the goat to find a way to cheer the bird up. The goat suggests getting her a hat from the haberdashery, and so on…
It’s a series of improbable events, depicted in Kalman’s equally surreal illustrations, which take on a floaty, dreamy quality in this book. Scale and perspective are distorted, too.
13 Words is not your usual picture book — if I were to describe it in one word, I’d say weird. But I like the creative concept, and the nice long words to wrap your tongue around, like despondent, panache and haberdashery (I love this word!)
So while this book is an acquired taste for me, I’ve found that it’s great for teaching young readers new words. I brought this to a lesson with my tutees, and they had a fun vocabulary lesson as they tried to guess what the unfamiliar words meant based on the context clues and the illustrations. I also got them to write their own story using a new list of words, and they very much enjoyed the exercise, so the book won me over eventually.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Then I brought The Composer is Dead to another lesson with my tutees, because I figured they would like it — E plays the piano while Y plays the violin. I had just skimmed through the book prior to the session and we ended up reading the book all together while playing the enclosed audiobook (handy!).
The book turned out to be wildly popular among all three of us! The story is a touch macabre but hilarious — a crime is afoot at the orchestra: the composer is dead! An inspector comes to investigate, and he makes his way through the orchestra in an attempt to flush out the guilty party through his interrogations.
Just as the inspector turns to convict the conductor, the entire orchestra pipes up:
“Not so fast!… The conductor didn’t work alone, all of us have butchered a composer at one time or another. But we also keep composers alive…. If you want to hear the work of the world’s greatest composers, you’re going to have to allow for a little murder here and there.”
It’s simple, yet smart, and I love the unique blend of music and mystery, not to mention a great way to learn about the various sections of the orchestra as the instruments reveal their distinct sounds and personalities.
And while the story in itself is awesome, I really love that it comes with the audiobook because it became an integral part of our reading experience. Set to music by Nathaniel Stookey performed by the San Francisco Symphony, the narration is done by Lemony Snicket himself, and all the elements are built up perfectly. The suspense is heightened, and as the inspector moves to each section of the orchestra, the reader gets to hear the actual instruments playing and you know exactly what it means when the cellos and bases say they provide the “one-two-three” in the waltz, or the flutes were “doing bird imitations.” E was so bowled over by the time we got to the part where the dead composers were being read out that he couldn’t stop laughing uproariously with each composer, and he insisted on playing that part over and over, I think he must have played it five times over the next hour!
And Carson Ellis: I simply adore her work. I discovered her on the cover of the The Mysterious Benedict Society and was really disappointed when they changed illustrators after the first book (the rest have been done by Diana Sudyka). Seeing whole pages of Carson Ellis’ work only confirms how much I love her style. Perfectly underscoring the macabre theme of the story, the book is illustrated mostly in black and blood red to reddish brown. There’s painstaking detail in this book (lots of crowds, clothes, notes, musical instruments — even composers!) and her work manages to be whimsical and almost wistful at the same time.
I love everything about this book — definitely in my top picks for 2012.
Rating: 5/5 stars
The last book in this roundup is Who Could That Be At This Hour?, the first book in Lemony Snicket’s new series, All the Wrong Questions. The book actually caught my eye because of its cover — drawn in vintage-y, classic comic style by cartoonist Seth. I love a good caper and the elements in the cover kept tugging at my curiosity: a lighthouse, a statue, ink bottles, a burglar, a speeding car, and a falling boy.
It’s a middle-reader novel that’s a fairly short read, featuring a young Lemony Snicket as the main character. Lemony Snicket has just joined the mysterious organization V.F.D. (crossing over from the ASOUE series) and apprenticed himself to S. Theodora Markson (don’t ask what the S. means) and the two take on their first case, a missing statue called “The Bombinating Beast” in the town “Stain’d-by-the-Sea”
Lemony and Theodora butt heads and employ different methods of solving the mystery, and Lemony picks up quite a few friends along the way: the town librarian Dashiell Qwerty, the young journalist Moxie Mallahan, the Bellerophon taxi boys Pip and Squeak, and the coffee-drinking Ellington Feint.
The main plot wraps up quite unexpectedly, but the Bombinating Beast isn’t the only mystery here — the story leaves us with even more questions. Lemony Snicket has quite a few secrets of his own, including a mysterious associate who is not revealed until the end of the book. There are three more books in the series, so no doubt a lot more will still happen.
I didn’t really care for the patronizing narration of A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I was encouraged to find a different voice and depth to this book — I think that shows the author’s growth as a writer.
It reminds me a little of The Mysterious Benedict Society, which I admit I’m partial to, because the plot is more exciting and the premise is easier to grasp. But this book does have interesting characters, literary easter eggs (e.g. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Danny the Champion of the World, Harriet the Spy and Wind in the Willows, if you can spot them), and the promise of more revelations in the next few books. While I wanted a more satisfactory ending and a tighter wrap-up of all the loose ends, it’s not a bad start for a series. I don’t think it’s fair to evaluate the series at this point, so I’ll have to hold my judgment until I read some more.
Rating: 3/5 stars (for now)