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Lemony Snicket

The Ersatz Elevator
Zondervan Publishing House, 240 pages

Heavy-handed puns make for a truly unfortunate book

Elizabeth MacCallum
National Post

There is nothing quite so appealing as an irredeemably hateful villain. Perhaps this is part of the reason for the success of the fashionable Lemony Snicket books. Their villain, Count Olaf, is mean and sneaky, the sort of over-drawn bad guy who hates kids and loves money.

From what the publicity blurbs proclaim, anyone who doesn't like the Lemony Snicket stories -- in this case, Book the Sixth in A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Ersatz Elevator -- must be as vile and loathsome as the count himself.

Well, just call me Contessa Olaf.

Lemony Snicket, a.k.a. U.S. writer Daniel Handler, has created a very profitable series of gag books, as in har-dee-har-har, appealing to the anarchist in bright juvenile and young adult readers, but not much else. Snicket makes fun of adult pretension, erudition and obtuseness with the sure belief that there never can be too much repetition. Believe me, there can.

Brett Helquist's black and white illustrations often boast nicer subtleties and humour than the text.

The Baudelaire family children, a trio of orphans, are trying to escape the grasp of Count Olaf, with no protection at all from their hapless guardian Mr. Poe. He deposits them with Mr. and Mrs. Squalor in their 71-bedroom apartment. Plot and events are minimal because Daniel Handler expends so much effort on word play-- the Salmonella Cafe in the Fish District, for example, where everything has to do with fish, everything for three pages.

Explaining puns and reinterpreting what people say make up another major element, another unfortunate series of events, you might say. A mixed bag, for instance, could be a plastic bag stirred around in a bowl, Snicket writes before going on to explain the expression. That's well and good, but enough is enough.

More plot and more character development would bolster up the guffaws. I'm sure, just like Harry Potter, lots of kids do like Lemony Snicket and do read the books. So save your money. Borrow them from the library.

-- March 10, 2001