Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"Shouldn't You Be in School?" by Lemony Snicket

There are books that are easy to write about -- sometimes because they're so bad, or so bad in entertaining ways, that the bile just gushes forth. Sometimes a book is simple and obvious and useful, and so it's easy to just point to it and say "this is what it does." Sometimes a book is so wonderful that the gleeful burbling is uncontrollable.

But I find that books I mostly like, especially ones in series, are the most difficult to write about. Are they perfect? Well, no: no book ever is. But any flaws are minor and unimportant, so there's no point harping on them. And series books drag the weight of their past along with them, more and more every book -- just getting a review up to page one of the current book can be a chore, or feel like more work than it's worth.

So those books sit on my write-about-them pile, quietly mocking me with their good qualities and their complicated backstories, daring me to try to make sense of them. (Or just to wait long enough so I can honestly say -- as I have many times -- "I really liked this, but I read it long enough ago that I don't remember a lot of detail.")

This is one of those books, in spades: "Shouldn't You Be in School?" is the third book in a four-book series, which itself is a prequel to a previous thirteen-book series. All of those books, also, were written and published for "middle-grade" readers: that's the reading band below "young adult," which is not necessarily less intellectually complex but generally avoids love-plots, teen angst, and similar things. So I feel faintly weird focusing so much attention on a book meant for someone the age of my younger son.

Look: Lemony Snicket is a sneaky and careful writer, and his books all reward careful, thoughtful reading. (Even if you're in your forties, like me: age does not magically make books for younger people more transparent.) And this series has a neat metafictional twist: it's a flashback sequence of mystery stories about the young Snicket, as a young apprentice agent for a secret organization at the age of thirteen. (Snicket does not precisely exist: he's a pseudonym for Daniel Handler, who's written great books under his own name for both teens and adults.) I recommend all of the Snicket novels -- the long "Series of Unfortunate Events," and this not-yet-completed series, "All the Wrong Questions." But this isn't a great place to start, and talking about this particular book would quickly turn into inside baseball.

So go grab "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" (or see my review) for the beginning of this series. Or, if you're more ambitious, drop back to The Bad Beginning and read SoUE first -- you'll catch more of the references that way. That's my advice. And that's, I think, the most important thing I could say about this particular book, so I'll leave it at that.

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