Book Review of File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8+

Some of you may not know this, but underneath all the fairytale infatuations and my ambitions of piracy, I’m a Voracious, Fervently Devoted admirer of Mr. Lemony Snicket’s life and work. (Actually, you all probably worked that one out for yourselves. I’ve been quite vocal about my enthusiasm for The Basic Eight and Why We Broke Up, penned by his “representative” Daniel Handler.) When I was slogging through the dreary days of middle-school, A Series Of Unfortunate Events instilled within me an appreciation for all sorts of gothic literature and a keen eye for mysterious circumstances. Those books were also largely responsible for my inherent distrust of adults. It’s the sort of series you can re-read time and time again; and I find that every time I return to it I recognize some wonderfully distressing references to literature and life which had flown right over my young head, despite the fact that I was tall and gangly for my age.

Nowadays I get to be that cryptic adult in the bookshop who recommends mysterious literary material to intrepid young browsers. How convenient for my secret plans that Lemony Snicket did not stop writing after his first series brought so many readers to the brink of despair. Who Could That Be At This Hour? and When Did You See Her Last? are high on my list of recommended reading. With those books on the shelf, I’m rarely at a loss for something thrilling and hilarious to sneak into the hands of a diminutive detective-to-be.

Snicket’s newer series, All The Wrong Questions, chronicles the earlier life of young Lemony: his baffling past as a volunteer in that secret society which loomed in the periphery of the Baudelaires’ lives. The books are written in a style inspired by noir detective fiction. Think hard-boiled private eyes on their own in a hostile world; enigmatic women and shady men in hats all triple-crossing our embittered hero as well as each other. There are cunning nods to the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett scattered everywhere, alongside a myriad of references to classic fiction and highly recommended kids’ books.

The series traces a big, complex mystery through a town called Stain’d-By-The-Sea, where commerce is rapidly dying and something nefarious lurks just out of sight by every corner, bakery, and rocking chair shop. Lemony Snicket and his chaperone – an amusingly inept adult member of the secret society – are meant to solve a mystery involving a stolen statue, a desperate young woman, an aging actress, and a coffee shop containing a player-piano rather than baristas. It’s hard to find answers, though, when everyone insists upon asking all the wrong questions. In the end, the children have to figure things out on their own while most adults waste time and, as usual, completely ignore common sense.

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is sort of a supplemental volume in the series. It takes place in Stain’d-By-The-Sea sometime during the course of Snicket’s investigations, but does not necessarily need to be read at one particular point in the series’ chronology. Rather than adding to the larger mystery, these thirteen suspicious incidents appear in a collection of reported cases and separate conclusions. Each short chapter stands on its own. Sub File One contains the thirteen mysteries themselves, relayed to us in Snicket’s distinctive voice. For those of us who loved the deadpan and ironic – though somewhat formulaic – humor in A Series Of Unfortunate Events, these new books are not a disappointment. (Aside from the obvious disappointments, like how justice and root beer floats aren’t served nearly as often as they should be.) Sub File B contains the conclusions. When you’re done reading the book, count the conclusions. There are more than thirteen. Suspicious indeed! Each self-contained whodunits is somewhere between five and twenty pages long; perfect for puzzling over a story or six before bed, or while waiting for one’s parent to finish swearing at the hardware store cashier.

Characters from All The Wrong Questions filter in and out of the short cases, because in a good noir piece the locals and strangers are just as responsible for a mysterious atmosphere as the shadowy setting itself. The frustrating Mitchum family fails to prevent crimes all over the place. Moxie puts her reporting skills to use and helps Snicket now and then. Dashiel Qwerty, the punk-rock librarian, seems to know just the right book for any occasion. Jake, at the diner, serves banana waffles right when they’re needed most. Even though Snicket’s character is just a kid when he narrates the book, his descriptions of people are as cynical and case-hardened as any full grown P.I. in a black and white feature.

“Think of something noble and true, like a librarian or a a good crisp apple or a sweater that doesn’t itch, and then think of the opposite, and that’s Stew Mitchum. He was a rat and a nuisance and many other troublesome words I knew, the sort of person who might dump a whole shaker on your head if you asked him to pass the salt.”

We also encounter a long list of new characters, as most mysteries require culprits; and victims; and red herrings; and wrong turns. I particularly liked Jackie, the young mechanic who is never referred to by a gendered pronoun (and – huzzah – this is not at all self-congratulatory), and two friends named Kevin and Florence who share pirate books and also possibly secrets. Some mysterious strangers remain mysterious. Some seemingly-benign individuals turn out to be quite sinister, and some suspicious figures are actually just trying to get on with their regular routine. I think Dashiel Qwerty articulates the general theme of the collection quite well in the very last mystery, entitled “Figure In Fog.”

” ‘Look at it this way, Snicket,’ Qwerty said as the fog kept rolling across the grass. ‘To a stranger in town, such as yourself, Stain’d-by-the-Sea is full of suspicious incidents. But to the people of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, you’re a suspicious incident yourself. You arrived out of the blue and live in a hotel suite with an adult who seems to be neither your parent nor your guardian. You ask a lot of questions about anything and everything, and anyone and everyone has questions about you. There are rumors you’re part of a secret organization. There are rumors you are in charge of an important investigation. But nobody really seems to have the foggiest notion what you’re up to.’ “

I think this is an interesting observation to apply to any mystery story, hard-boiled or otherwise. As usual, Lemony Snicket makes more astute observations while writing serialized children’s fiction than many writers for grown-ups do in their whole oeuvre. These solve-it-yourself stories are great fun and very accessible to young readers, of course. They remind me of the Meg Mackintosh mysteries I loved as a child, in which I would always try to figure out the solution before the big reveal. But though I’m no longer quite youthful enough to start an apprenticeship like Snicket’s, my age never once prevented me from appreciating every one of the Suspicious Incidents. The mysteries themselves might be fairly simplistic, but the sharp, dry humor in nearly each description and every line of dialogue has no age limit in its appeal.

I hope that Snicket’s fans of fewer years might follow this series by hunting down some noir detective fiction for themselves, with the assistance of their devoted local booksellers and vigilant librarians. As for myself, and any other nearly-adult readers returning to Mr. Snicket’s world with an air of nostalgia, there are plenty of subtle riddles and literary clues to mull over all morning as one’s oatmeal congeals and the newspaper goes unread. (Another reason to wish we were eating breakfast at Jake’s diner.)

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is a highly entertaining casebook, but it’s also a clever and worthwhile addition to the chronicles of Stain’d-by-the-Sea and the intricate world Lemony Snicket shares with us all. The plot might not be so detailed, and the ironic twists and turns might get repetitive after some time, but the formula works and the book concludes before it descends into a tiresome exercise. In a town where everyone has a trick up their sinister sleeves – where even sled races and pet lizards aren’t as wholesome as they might seem – we can trust young Lemony Snicket to doggedly pursue answers to whatever suspicious incidents waltz his way, even if those answers just unearth more questions and an awful lot of dry seaweed.

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Archived Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on February 12, 2012

Star Ratings
Characters: *** (3 Stars)
Character Development: ** (2 Stars)
Plot: *** (3 Stars)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: *** (3 Stars)

Age Range Recommendation: Young Adult

I have very mixed feelings about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The concept of the novel is pretty cool; Ransom Riggs collected an assortment of vintage photos – seemingly unrelated despite the theme of incredible creepiness which binds them together – and wrote a novel about their subjects and settings. This appealed to me particularly because I am one of those losers who buys photos of old fashioned strangers from antique stores and yard sales. It’s a Lemony Snicket-style hobby and, in a way, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children managed to take that fascination in its own unique direction. At no point did I feel like he was ripping off Snicket or any other story of the sort. However, the creepy photos and interesting concept could not entirely make up for the novel’s disappointing turn of plot about one third of the way through.

The first few chapters of the book were amazing. The photos were mysterious, Jacob’s grandfather was a compelling character, and I found myself entirely engaged in the plot which started to unfold. Creepy Floridian landscapes! Unexplained floating children! Stories of monsters told by an old man with an armory in his basement! The woes of unappealing employment for teenagers! It was a promising start. When Jacob traveled to a remote island in Wales in his attempt to find the mysterious house which contained secrets from his grandfather’s childhood, I was all prepared for one of the best ghost stories of all time. The setting was atmospheric and the Welsh idiosyncrasies were amusing and when our intrepid protagonist began exploring the ruined house on his own I was nearly hopping with suspense. The abandoned orphanage, jars of suspicious stuff in a basement, the hidden stash of increasingly creepy photos: it all pointed to a chilling romp with some dead kids.

Then, immediately after the book really started to impress me, everything started going downhill. Instead of ghosts, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has time travel. Time travel is cool, I suppose, and the Home itself was interesting, but after such a creepy start I didn’t want to read what was essentially, The X Men As Children During World War II. Not only was the introduction of “time loops” a little anti-climactic, it wasn’t explained in sufficient detail to be believable. Yes, I know, time travel isn’t exactly realism, but I mean that the sudden turn of events was jarring and did not mesh with the novel’s beginning. I enjoyed reading about the peculiar children themselves; their powers, their lives at the Home, and their guardian. But from that point on the plot grew more and more far fetched, introducing evil mutated “peculiars,” under-developed villains called “wights,” U-boats, and a new plot which grew too big to be contained in one book. In fairness, Riggs is working on a sequel right now so the story has some time to grow into itself. I still couldn’t shake my disappointment, though, as I read on towards the end wishing that the book had stayed its original course and gone for creepy rather than action packed.

So who should read this book? I would recommend it to people who like Young Adult fantasies and aren’t easily frightened, but who also don’t mind a far-fetched story. I would recommend it more heartily to those folks like me who love weird old photos and unexplained shadows, to vintage fanatics, and to fans of Lemony Snicket and John Green (Snicket for the atmosphere, Green for the protagonist and narrative style). I would not suggest picking up this book if you are easily frightened, because there are some chilling descriptions and one ridiculously scary photo of a Mall Santa staring at some children with dead, pupil-less eyes. I just wish that the book in its entirety had managed to be as haunting as some of its better images and ideas.

Archived Review: Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on July 4, 2011

Star Ratings
Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character Development: **** (4 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Writing: ***** (5 stars)
Overall: ****1/2 (4 ½ stars)
Age Range Recommendation: Ages 13 and up.

As the intrepid reader could probably figure out from the cover of this YA novel and its title, Bloody Jack has something to do with pirates.  Therefore, one can only deduce that I absolutely love it (and I do!).  However, Bloody Jack by L.A. Mayer does not follow the roving adventures of a pirate crew.  The main protagonists are, in fact, pirate-hunting members of the English Navy in the end of the 18th century.  More specifically, the main character and her comrades are lowly ships boys on the HMS Dolphin, and although I traditionally spurn the actions of pirate-hunters I do make an exception for this book because it is bloody amazing.

Bloody Jack begins in the rancid streets of London, where the narrator, Mary Faber, is a street urchin in a gang of beggar children.  Their main problems include hiding from a nasty fellow called Muck, who wants to sell their bodies to a doctor for dissection, and avoiding violent gangs made up of other urchins.  When Rooster Charlie – the leader of Mary’s gang – is found dead, she steals his clothes and disguises herself as a boy so that she can be left alone as she wanders London looking for a way towards a better life.  This better life is sought aboard the HMS Dolphin amongst some other rag-tag children as a ship’s boy, although there is a pressing problem of being discovered as a girl on the close quarters of a ship.  At this point, Mary changes her name to Jacky Faber and she and the other ship’s boys set sail for adventure.

The title of the book, “Bloody Jack,” comes from the nickname bestowed by the crew upon “Jacky” after she shoots a pirate in the chest during a raid.  As she insists so adamantly in her narration time and time again, Jacky is not actually brave at all.  She was just trying to save the boy for whom she harbored a very very very secret affection.  The adventures in this book are daring and impressive; there’s a good amount of violence and even more suspense.  However, my favorite parts of the story are Jacky’s adorable and funny descriptions of daily life aboard the HMS Dolphin.  She includes the science and complications of maneuvering a huge vessel, the cruelties inflicted upon ship’s boys by the bo’sun and midshipmen, and the horrors of trying to disguise one’s gender when puberty hits with full force.  Her narration is by turns funny, sweet, tragic, and biting; her description of the sound the bos’un’s whistle makes had me laughing like an idiot in Starbucks, only to have me trying to disguise my sorrow by pretending to choke on a donut soon after when she tells her mates not to to watch her if she is hanged because she doubts she’ll be very brave at the end.

I recommend Bloody Jack to anyone over 13 years of age for two specific reasons.

Reason Number One: I first read the book when I was twelve or so, and while I heartily enjoyed it some of the references to things like prostitution and other such wantonness went a little over my head.  A huge plot point involves Jacky going through puberty and not understanding what is happening to her, and this is much funnier once the reader does know what is going on.  In the second half of the story there is a bit of romance, and although I’m not going to give much of anything away, Jacky makes a few amusing statements which would be better understood by teenagers.  She is, at that point in the book, around the age of fifteen.

Reason Number Two: There are some seriously dark themes in this story.  At one point, Jacky stabs a member of the crew who tries to rape her, and this is why she’s terrified that she’ll be hanged.  There’s death a-plenty, even amongst the children, and the pirates they are hunting turn out to be incredibly cruel scoundrels.  Jacky describes in detail a time during her life in London when a teenage girl was hanged for criminal charges and wasn’t heavy enough to die immediately, and the portrayal of how the hangman breaks the girl’s neck is certainly not for the faint of heart.

Jacky’s voice is addictive and memorable, I found myself thinking in her style of speech for days after I finished the book, and L. A. Meyer writes so convincingly as a thirteen year old girl that it can be hard to remember that he’s a Navy veteran in his 60s.  The writing never ceases to be entertaining, even when the plot takes a turn for the far-fetched.  At one point Jacky finds herself flying over the ocean strapped to a kite, which I suppose could be technically possible but was certainly hard to picture.  However, these little deviations from the realm of realism never once impede the story’s progress.  The depictions of 18th century seafaring life are accurate without being pedantic; we learn about ships as Jacky does and she never fails to see the HMS Dolphin in a humorous light.  Unlike in Patrick O’Brian’s novels, which are also very good, the reader doesn’t need to keep a diagram of a ship handy (although there actually is one in the front of Bloody Jack.)  This being a book originally for children, things are presented clearly and amusingly, and it’s easy to feel as though the life of a ship’s boy is totally where it’s at.

There is a whole slew of Jacky Faber novels, the second of which is called The Curse Of The Blue Tattoo.  I shan’t mention the plot of the sequel as it contains massive spoilers for Bloody Jack, but it’s almost as good as the first book.  Although Bloody Jack comes from the point of view of a teenage girl, I would recommend the book to anyone who likes sea-faring adventures and anyone who likes coming-of-age stories which are both uproariously funny and deadly serious.

In a week your devoted Morgan shall be voyaging up to an island in Maine to stay in the town where Bloody Jack was written.  I go there every year and I’ve met Meyer’s wife a few times.  She works in the shop which sells his paintings, which are marvelous and very nautical.  I will think of you fondly during my adventures, dear readers, and I will wish very hard that my life were as awesome as that of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy on the HMS Dolphin.