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Brett Helquist

Lemony Snicket

The Austere Academy
Harper Collins Children's Books, 208 pages

The latest tart tale from Lemony Snicket

Alan Rach
Calgary Herald

If you like children's stories that have happy endings, or anything happy at all in them, stay away from Lemony Snicket's books about the unlucky Baudelaire orphans. But if you enjoy mock-Gothic morality tales with dashes of dark humour and a keen sense of the absurd, then Snicket's the ticket for a fun ride.

The one constant in the lives of the three Baudelaire siblings is adversity, which here means a series of "unfortunate events." This happens to be the umbrella title for a series destined to hit unlucky number 13 when completed.

Devotees of the Baudelaire chronicles will recall the three youngsters -- 14-year-old Violet, her bookworm brother Klaus, 12, and baby Sunny, a zealous biter no bigger than a boot, became orphans in the first chapter of book one (The Bad Beginnings [sic]) when their wealthy and loving parents perished in a fire.

From there on, their lives have been filled with misery and gloom as they're forced to contend with miserable conditions and cruel and bumbling adults, including the dastardly Count Olaf, who turns up in each book (in various disguises) intent on stealing the Baudelaire fortune.

The Austere Academy is book No. 5 (or Book the Fifth, as Snicket prefers). We find the woeful orphans shipped off to Prufrock Preparatory School run by Vice Principal Nero, who subjects the students nightly to six-hour concerts of his atrocious violin playing. Failure to attend means no cutlery in the cafeteria or, worse, having to eat lunch with your hands tied behind your back.

Evil Count Olaf shows up and yes, once again, the resilient orphans must use all their resources to expose him and foil his latest plan to snatch them from the boarding school.

The precocious trio manages to get by on their wits and some specialized talents: Violet has a keen scientific mind and can be counted on to invent something in a crisis; the bookish Klaus can usually dig up some arcane fact to help their cause and baby Sunny (who speaks in nonsense syllables that only her siblings can translate) has four very sharp teeth that can be tools or weapons.

So, who is this Lemony Snicket whose tales are enchanting 10-year-olds and adults alike? His book jacket biography changes constantly: "Lemony Snicket was born before you were, and is likely to die before you as well" or he ". . . first received his education from public schools and private tutors, and then vice versa."

In fact, Lemony Snicket is the brainchild of Daniel Handler, a thirtyish author now living in New York, who coined the catchy moniker to protect his identity while researching radical right-wing groups for his first adult book, The Basic Eight.

Later, when Handler's editors asked him to try his hand at children's books, Lemony Snicket was officially born and the Baudelaire orphans became his antidote to all those saccharin children's stories he despised as a youngster.

While the orphans pose no immediate threat to that little wizard over at Hogwarts, young Harry might want to cast an occasional glance over his shoulder.

The sad saga of the Baudelaires is gaining a wide following in Canada in addition to the United States, with more than 400,000 copies now in print. All five Lemony Snicket books are in the top 25 of the New York Times' recently created children's best-seller list.

-- Oct. 14, 2000