Midnight Sun & Twilight

img_7155Book: Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer; Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Date Read: December 10 to 16, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars; 3 (of 5) stars

Like most everyone else who read these, I found Twilight in the middle of the hype in 2008. The series was complete, and the movie would be coming out soon. My sister, who was not a big reader, was interested in the series, and we decided to split the cost of the boxed set of books. I loved the idea of encouraging her to read, and figured that I would get around to them eventually; but when her and my mom both finished it and started to get excited for the movie release, I caved so that I could join them.

I think it goes without saying that I do not consider Twilight, or any of the remaining books, as high quality literature. I take them at face value and consider them for what they are: quick entertainment romance novels aimed at a younger demographic. As that, they succeed spectacularly. (I suppose I should note that, at the time, I was probably just on the cusp of this ideal demographic, having graduated high school a couple years before the first book was released.) Along with that, I have to give Stephenie Meyer credit with perfect timing in the release of Midnight Sun, coming long enough after the initial series that those who read the first can look back with enough nostalgia to not cringe too much.

Knowing that Midnight Sun was coming soon, and with my new habit of rereading via audio book, I decided to revisit Twilight over the summer. I like to be prepared when reading something from a series. It was definitely an interesting look back. While the story was much as I remembered, the writing was a bit worse than my memory. Bella is more irritating of a character than I recalled—although this may be somewhat biased from reading the other books. I do remember liking her more in the later books of series, so perhaps taking that development backward clouded my view. I will say, however, that the narrator for the audio book was matched well, and I do like listening to audio books written in first person.

All things considered, I think this was a better story from Edward’s perspective. Perhaps some of this is improvement in writing over time, but I also think that part of that relates to the difference in the voice of who is telling the story. Sure, Edward comes across pretty arrogant much of the time, but he is also more reflective, and, well, does not talk like a teenage girl. Being familiar with the story from Bella’s view, and the more neutral view from the movie, it was interesting to see things from the other side. There is certainly more brought in regarding the other members of the Cullen family, which makes for a richer story with a bit more depth. I particularly liked filling in the pieces toward the end of the story, when Bella is in the hospital.

The switched viewpoint also allows for more insight into the actions of Edward and several other characters, given the “talent” of mind reading that Meyer has endowed him. It was good to piece together the motivations of him and others, which also shed some new light on some of the events from the original book. Edward’s view of himself was also different that I was expecting—although he often has a superior attitude, he very truly believes himself to be something terrible and unworthy of good things. His reminders to Bella that he is “not good for her” are much deeper than the obvious consideration for her safety. Turns out, Edward’s head is a pretty dark place to be, but of course, why didn’t I see that coming?

Minka’s Thoughts: “This book is so big. Almost me-sized. Do you think it wants to play?”

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

img_6189Book: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Date Read: September 10 to 29, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Why did I decide to revisit The Hunger Games recently? Because I needed to prepare myself for the prequel that came out this year, of course.

Although the book is technically a prequel, I think it may be more aptly described as a sort of character study. This is not a story to try to redeem President Snow (of course not, how can you be redeemed by something that happened before the acts you need to be redeemed from?). However, there is definitely some interesting insight into his motives during the primary trilogy, as it seems that Katniss Everdeen has been tailor made to push every single one of his buttons.

We meet Coriolanus Snow as an ambitious, but desperate, teenager. Despite coming from a prominent family, the war was difficult for them and they are still trying to recover 10 years later. He is in his final year of what seems to be the equivalent of high school, with hopes of a scholarship to the university. Of course, his methods of seeking that scholarship are different than normal circumstances: he is part of a new program where Capitol children will be mentoring the tributes from the Districts. The Hunger Games are entering their tenth year, and are not the popular spectacle that readers know from Katniss’s story. They are a grim affair, with limited interest in the Capitol and nearly none in the districts after the day of the reaping.

As this new version of the Hunger Games comes underway, Coriolanus finds himself not only as a mentor of a tribute, but also as the reluctant mentee of Dr. Gaul, who seems to take a special interest in him. Although he sees much of her behavior as twisted or sadistic, he also seems to have an understanding of her motives that begins to frighten him. He finds himself playing a larger role in the reimagining of the games than he had anticipated, and has occasion to believe that he has gotten himself in too deeply.

As for his assigned tribute, there are a few immediate things that call Katniss to mind: primarily, that he is assigned the female tribute from District 12. His tribute, Lucy Gray Baird, creates a bit of a spectacle at the reaping with a snake and a song, setting the stage for her peculiar entrance into his life. Lucy Gray is a performer, but also a survivor. Over the course of their mentorship, a bond forms between the two, leading Coriolanus to take some exceptional risks to help her; and landing him some time spent in District 12 after the conclusion of the games. He struggles throughout the events, with an ever looming question: was he taking risks for the sake of Lucy Gray, or out of desperation for his own personal circumstances and gain? At the same time, I am not quite sure which of those he considered to be the “right answer.”

It was interesting to see some history of things that featured in the trilogy, and to see them in a different light. Some of these were overt, like the Hob, the meadow in District 12, and the lake that Katniss liked to visit: all places that Coriolanus got a glimpse of in his youth. There were a few more subtle items that may or may not have a connection: is the penthouse apartment with a rooftop garden where Coriolanus grew up, the same penthouse apartment and rooftop garden where the District 12 tributes are housed in the Capitol?

There are also a few other ties to the future Hunger Games trilogy, starting with some Capitol names that carry over between the books, although generally not the same characters: Heavensbee, Crane, and Flickerman, to name a few. Another obvious connection is in the music: Lucy Gray sings some of the same songs that appear in Katniss’s repertoire, including having composed the song about the Hanging Tree. And of course, the title creatures cannot be forgotten: songbirds and snakes. We see the first evidence of the mockingjay birds, for which Coriolanus finds he has a particular disdain. Although snakes do not have as direct of a link to the original books, I thought it was interesting that Katniss viewed President Snow as snake-like. More important, however, is part of what the snakes represent: poison.

In the third book of the trilogy, Finnick Odair calls out Snow based on the rumor that poison played an important role in his rise to power. While there is little evidence for a clear accusation, there are certainly some peculiar circumstances that make this a viable conclusion. Here we see the beginnings of that: influenced and inspired by Lucy Gray and her affinity for snakes.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Is this a book of things I can chase? Those birds outside have been looking awfully suspicious lately.”

The Hunger Games

img_6217Book: The Hunger Games (Trilogy) by Suzanne Collins

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I recently revisited The Hunger Games, after having read the trilogy quite a few years back—about a year after the final book was published. I remember enjoying the series quite a bit, but many of the details of why have become rather fuzzy over the years. I remember the general plot of each book, many of the major events, and feeling invested in Katniss and her revolution. Beyond that, many of the particularities of the series have faded into a broader feeling of “I am glad I read that, and I would read it again.”

Well, as I said in my last post, I have always been a re-reader. While I do not re-read as often as I would like, there are a handful of books that I have read at least a dozen times. Reading the next new thing on the shelf is certainly exciting, but there is a thrill that comes with re-reading a good book that cannot be replicated. The story, vaguely familiar, comes into sharper focus. Details that seemed insignificant the first time through suddenly jump out with meaning. It is been quite some time since I have done any re-reading, and I am so happy that I chose to start here.

This series were the first books that I chose to re-read via audio book. The format is well suited for the first person narrator, and it was really interesting to actually hear the story in Katniss’s voice. It kind of felt like something somewhere between a book and a movie—there is a liveliness added to the story when hearing a character relay their first hand experience, but we are still able to hear the thoughts and emotions that can get lost in a movie adaptation.

The first thing that stuck out to me this time around was the wealth of rich details in the text. Katniss has a unique set of survival mechanisms that lead her to be very in tune with her surroundings, especially in the forest. This makes the details in her descriptions fit with her as a character, adding a nice balance to the scene setting. For me, the scene setting often feels forced with the first person narrative. Everyone notices their surroundings, but it’s not a typical line of thought to describe them in great detail. This all helps to make her story feel grounded in reality, despite the extreme differences in her world.

While I say extreme differences, I suppose I should also comment that there were a few moments that felt a little too real to me. I could not help but twinge a little as some of the characters were voicing their concerns about their government—on both sides. At the same time, I think this could be a fair introduction to some of the realities of politics and war, especially since this is aimed toward young adults. While the first book seems to pretty clearly align the sides of Districts versus Capitol as Good versus Bad, this becomes increasingly blurred coming into the end of the series. Life is complicated, just as their war is complicated. There are good and bad people on both sides; no system or side in disagreement is perfect.

Lastly, I noticed much more depth in the character of Katniss than in my initial read. She is a more powerful, yet damaged character than I remember. One thing that really impressed—and frustrated—me about her portrayal is how very clear it was that she was experiencing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course, this makes perfect sense: she had a history of trauma even before being thrown into the Hunger Games, and then a series of continuing traumatic experiences after. I felt that Collins did an excellent job of depicting this, both in Katniss’s behavior and her thoughts at trying to cover for herself. The frustrating aspect for me was how every single other character seemed completely unaware of the extent of her struggles, perhaps with the exception of Peeta. Even those who appeared to understand that she was not well also seemed to brush off the severity, or act as if circumstances make it unimportant. I suppose, while frustrating, this may be an accurate representation of what many experience when dealing with similar mental health issues. While certainly not the main focus of the book, I think this aspect of the story provides a good glimpse at the thought processes behind such an illness. Perhaps there is room for some to find some understanding of others.

Boris’s Thoughts: “If you listened to these books instead of reading them, how did I still end up in a pile of them?”

The Da Vinci Code

img_4905Book: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Date Read: June 9 to 30, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

I admit that I am a little behind with this one. I was intrigued by the controversy when the movie came out, but that was when I was in college and not quite ready to commit to do a ton of extra reading for pleasure. So I saw the movie, and mentally shelved the book as to read. Fast forward a few years, I’m browsing deals on kindle books, and there it is: this book that I have been intending to read. Serendipity! I added it to my kindle shelf and continued to browse. That was almost 10 years ago now, and I am just now getting around to it, thanks to the June prompt from the Unread Shelf Project which told me to pick a book from a series.

Now here’s the thing: I do not own a ton of series books, and most of the ones I do own, I have already read. Despite my very lengthy to read list, I only had a couple to choose from; and I argued with myself about which of them should actually “count.” Does it still count as reading a book in a series if you have no intention of reading any of the other books in the series? Well… ultimately, with the coaxing of a friend, I decided yes. She insisted that the book was worth it, and that it worked as a standalone if I chose not to continue with the other books… and that I did not have to read the book that actually comes before it. Then she offered to lend me the rest of the series if needed. So here I am.

After all that went in to the decision to read this one, I am coming in right at the last moment to finish this within the month of June. I really feel there is no good excuse for that, since although this book is a bit lengthy, it is a relatively quick and easy read. While I will say that overall I enjoyed this read, I do find myself a bit conflicted. It’s obvious that this is written for mass appeal, and meant to be a fast paced page-turner. There are some aspects of this that feel meticulously researched; at the same time, I feel like we are getting a very surface level understanding of something that is part truth and part conspiracy theory. I enjoyed the idea of a scavenger hunt for the Holy Grail, and the concept behind the grail being Mary Magdalene. The ideas are definitely interesting, and some pieces potentially plausible, but the idea of taking this as fact is a bit far fetched.

There was one major issue here for me though: for being a novel purported to be about the sacred feminine, it is pretty anti-feminist. I imagine that much of this relates to the fact that it is a book in a series with a male protagonist, who needs to come through as the “star” of the show. At the same time, I felt myself quite frustrated with the treatment of Sophie’s character. Most obviously, Sophie is professional code breaker, and yet she needs the help of Langdon to figure out the most basic of codes left for her by her grandfather? Seems a little ridiculous. Throughout the novel, she’s primarily used as a plot device to allow for lengthy historical explanations. She could have been so much more.

As for the remainder of the series, I think I’m going to pass. I am not crazy about the trope of the brilliant leading man who continuously finds himself involved in conundrums where he is required to solve mysteries with a new beautiful woman who is obviously attracted to him. Does that seem oddly specific? Perhaps. I have no doubt that the remaining books in the series are entertaining—but I think that I will find my reading time used better elsewhere.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Are you sure this is a book? It doesn’t look like a book. It doesn’t taste like a book. Do I give paws if it’s not a book?”

Unread Shelf Progress for June

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 9 books, 1 found not previously counted
  • Total Unread Books: 262 books

Dead is the New Black

img_4346Book: Dead is the New Black by Marlene Perez

Date Read: December 9 to 17, 2019

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

I read this back in December, as part of a mad rush to finish as many books as possible by the end of the year. This was a book that I had gotten as a daily deal on Kindle quite some time ago, and it was the perfect fit for a reading spree: short and something that does not require a ton of mental energy.

This supernatural detective novel is written as if it were realistic fiction. There is no real world building here—this book takes place in a normal town in California, just with the understanding that fictional creatures like werewolves and vampires are real. Our protagonist, Daisy Giordano, is the daughter of a psychic who is known to assist the local police. Her sisters have similar abilities, but Daisy reports herself to be a “normal.” Daisy is determined to help her mother solve a case that she is stuck on: all while navigating life as a high school student. There is high school romance, girl drama, cheerleaders, and every other young adult cliché you can think of.

Despite the clichés, I thought this was well done for what it is. The story was interesting, the writing reasonable. There were a few predictable developments, but also some surprises along the way. I discovered while reading that this is the first book in a series, and while I did enjoy this first book, it is not something that I feel I need to run out and read the rest. That said, I am happy to report that this was serviceable as a standalone novel. I can definitely see where there is room left open for further development with the characters, but the main plot of the story is wrapped up well.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Cheerleaders and girl drama? Can’t you make the new cat read these ones from now on? 1 paw.”

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Part 3

Book: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Date Read: December 12, 2019 to February 5, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

img_3185The Slippery Slope

While not the first time the orphans are separated from one another, this is the first time our story begins that way. At the end of The Carnivorous Carnival, Olaf sent Violet and Klaus tumbling down a mountain inside the freak caravan, while he made off with Sunny. Violet and Klaus are forced to use their skills to save themselves, and then begin to track down their sister. While the two meet up with an unexpected accomplice and make progress toward solving the mystery of V.F.D., Sunny is left to her own wits in dealing with the group of villains. This is our first real opportunity to see some real development in Sunny’s character, as up until this point she has been very much treated as a baby. However, she is starting to talk more in actual words, and is smart enough to take advantage of the fact that the villains do not realize she is starting to grow up. The older Baudelaires visit the line between nobility and villainy again, when they develop a plan to kidnap Esme Squalor in order to trade her back for Sunny, but find they feel guilty about considering the plan and cannot follow through. Although I would not quite call their results a “win,” the children are able to be reunited and headed off on their next adventure, away from Olaf.

I feel like the main focus of this book was on piecing together more of the puzzle to V.F.D. While there are some important events here, it is much lighter in plot than some of the previous books, with more focus on gathering information. We get a bit more on the Quagmires—discovering that Quigley, the remaining triplet, survived the fire and has been on a quest to find his siblings. He seems to have been a step behind the Baudelaires in their travels, and they are able to combine their knowledge to make some more sense of the schism and how it relates to Count Olaf’s schemes. We also get to meet two new villains, who are apparently so awful that even Count Olaf fears them and will not say their names: the man with a beard but no hair, and the woman with hair but no beard. There is also the reintroduction of a character that I, personally, could have done without any more of: Carmelita Spats. She presents as her spoiled and rotten self, of course endearing herself to Esme and Count Olaf.

img_3189

The Grim Grotto

Although I suppose it could be argued that this entire series is fairly dark, it takes an even darker turn in The Grim Grotto. The whole of the book seems to hold a bit more air of danger. While the orphans have certainly been threatened before, everything here seems more precarious, as they join the crew of the submarine Queequeg. The submarine is run by Captain Widdershins, along with his step-daughter Fiona, who becomes a suggested love interest for Klaus. In a search for the mysterious sugar bowl, they search a remote underwater grotto where they suspect the currents lead and encounter the Medusoid Mycelium, a deadly mushroom that nearly overtakes Sunny.

There is also much more exploration here on the dark nature of life, and the confusion they have struggling with in the battle of good versus evil. For the first time since their parents’ deaths, Baudelaires are forced to call upon some not-s0-pleasant memories, remembering that although they loved their parents dearly, nobody is completely good all of the time. They are faced with this again after returning to the submarine to find Captain Widdershins has disappeared and encountering Count Olaf—where they discover that Fiona’s long lost brother has been a part of the Count Olaf’s troupe. Although the Baudelaires try to convince her to stay with them, Fiona’s loyalty lies with her family; which means joining with Count Olaf and her brother to search for her missing stepfather.

In this book is also the Baudelaire’s first encounter with The Great Unknown—a literal unknown entity that appears as a question mark like shape on the submarine’s radar. They first see it on the radar when attempting to hide from Count Olaf, realizing that he flees the area when it seems to begin following him. The orphans have a brush encounter near the end of the book, and it is mentioned again in the remaining books in the series.

img_3193The Penultimate Peril

The penultimate book in the series finds the Baudelaires taking a more active role in the action of V.F.D. While there are still many mysteries surrounding the organization, they consider themselves volunteers fighting on the side of nobility. They meet up with Kit Snicket, who does fill in some of the missing information for them before leaving them with a mission: to disguise themselves as concierges in order to spy on the guests at the Hotel Denouement. The hotel is the “last safe place” where there is to be a gathering of V.F.D. in a few days—assuming that the orphans can verify that the hotel still remains a safe location. This book includes the return of many from throughout the series, who all come as guests to the hotel. Some of these appear to have been invited by V.F.D., and others seem to be there at the invitation of Esme Squalor.

While most of the book feels like the orphans are making some progress toward a happy ending, overall this is more of a continued blurring of the lines between good and evil. We reenter the realm of ambiguity and uncertainty in actions, as the children perform their duties as concierges to assist both guests and the managers—identical twin brothers, one a volunteer and the other a villain. In order to maintain their cover, the children feel like they must follow the orders given to them, although they are unsure if these are in service of V.F.D. or to assist the villains. Like many of the other books, we end with a fire: this one larger than any previously, and with unknown consequences as the children try to warn others as they make their escape.

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The End

The End finds the Baudelaire orphans in a much different place than usual. After escaping from the Hotel Denouement on a boat with Count Olaf, they are caught in a storm and become stranded on an island surrounded by a large coastal shelf. The water is normally too shallow around the island for boats to sail, and it is only possible to leave the island once every year. The island is inhabited by many people who also became stranded there, many with names related to famous castaways. It is mentioned several times, that this is the place where everything ends up eventually. The island has some strange customs and routines, all of which are presented as being quite lax, but are held to extremely strictly. The leader of the island, Ishmel, prefaces all directives with the words “I won’t force you,” and the islanders comply. Although there is an undercurrent of rebellion, most are generally complacent. They have arrived in a place where they can no longer be troubled by the outside world.

The islanders find Count Olaf disagreeable, and so do not invite him to join their village. The Baudelaires are skeptical of the islanders’ way of life, suspecting that there is more going on than meets the eye. After another islander suggests that they explore another area of the island, the orphans discover that Ishmel has been keeping many secrets from the other islanders; he is living a life of luxury hoarding many items they have collected all to himself. They also make the surprising discovery that they are not the first Baudelaires to visit the island: their parents were the previous island leaders, having lived there for several years before the children were born. The find a large hand written book of records that tells the story of the island and the lives of those who have spent time there: A Series of Unfortunate Events.

When another storm brings an injured Kit Snicket to the shores of the island, the orphans attempt to help her and Count Olaf attempts to disguise himself as her to gain favor with the islanders. For the first time, his disguise does not work, and the islanders put him into a large cage on the coastal shelf. As the coastal shelf begins to flood, the orphans release Olaf from his cage, as they do not want to be the ones who leave him there to drown. This sets off a short series of events where Olaf threatens the island with the Medusoid Mycelium, leading the islanders to abandon their village with Olaf, Kit, and the Baudelaires left behind. The Baudelaires are able to find a way to dilute the poison, but Kit is unable due to her pregnancy. Kit gives birth to her daughter, dying shortly after. Olaf also succumbs to the deadly mushroom’s poison. This leaves the Baudelaires to live as their parents once had on the island: a simple life away from the dangers of the world. They spend time perusing their parents’ logs in the record book, and creating logs of their own. Eventually, they begin to wonder about what has happened to the world outside their small island, and so prepare to leave as the waters on the coastal shelf rise.

————-

Overall, I enjoyed the series quite a bit. Each book added new layers to the story, with the characters and plots becoming increasing complex and intricate throughout. There was great humor mixed in along the way, with narrative asides and cultural references. The double story with the narrator sharing some of his own history and involvement in events that lead to the story was interesting.

I have to say though, that I was not completely satisfied with the ending. At the same time, I cannot say that I am completely dissatisfied either. The conclusion, or perhaps lack of conclusion, is very fitting and appropriate for the series as a whole. There is much discussion through the final book about the beginning and end of stories, and the suggestion that there is no true beginning or end to anything in life. I suppose this is left to the reader to interpret. Despite this being a fitting end to the story as told here, I felt that there were too many mysteries left unsolved. Many characters were left to face the Great Unknown, and the fate of many characters is left unstated after the fire in the twelfth book. Most of the mysteries surrounding V.F.D remain a mystery, and we never really find out why the narrator, Lemony Snicket, is so committed to telling this story. I feel like the same type of ending could have been achieved with just a bit more closure for the readers—after dedicating the time to read 13 books in the series, I feel like we are owed just a little more.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Part 2

Book: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Date Read: December 12, 2019 to February 5, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

img_3027The Austere Academy

It is in the fifth book of this series where there is a variation from the pattern of previous books. The Austere Academy finds the Baudelaire orphans heading off to boarding school rather than to a new guardian. The apparently prestigious school is run by an unpleasant Vice Principal and with an enormous set of ridiculous rules. The two older Baudelaires are assigned to classes, but Sunny being too young is to become a secretary. This book really is mostly a collection of oddities: teachers that do not make sense, poor violin playing, and an orphan shack infested with crabs. Olaf arrives, of course, but even his plot to capture the orphans is a bit nonsensical: requiring them to run all night long in hopes of making them too tired to pass their courses.

Among the oddities, we are introduced to a handful of new characters that will continue into future books. The obnoxious Carmelita Spats, a bully who becomes the messenger of Count Olaf, has a small role here, but reoccurs in later books. On a more pleasant note, we finally have a bit of positivity for the orphans in the form of friends: two of the Quagmire triplets. The Baudelaires and the Quagmires find that they have quite a bit in common, both coming from rich families and having been orphaned after their parents were killed in a fire. The children work together to begin solving the mystery around “V.F.D.” – a recurring acronym that they believe to be linked to the mystery of their parents’ deaths. In the end, the children escape Count Olaf again, but the Quagmires are not so lucky. Although not quite a cliffhanger, the book ends with the Quagmires kidnapped by Olaf, kicking off a new plot line, as the Baudelaires deal with their miseries while simultaneously searching for their friends and seeking clues to the mystery of V.F.D.

img_3154The Ersatz Elevator

After the drama at the boarding school, the orphans move on their way to a new pair of guardians: Jerome and Esme Squalor. Esme is the sixth most important financial advisor in the city, and is overly concerned with what is “in” – which becomes a theme for the book. Luckily for the Baudelaire’s, orphans are in. While Jerome takes an interest in the children, Esme is much more concerned with her own affairs. There is a ton going on in this book: another Count Olaf plot, an effort to rescue the Quagmires, and more clues related to V.F.D. There is also a first here for the series, when the children tell an adult about Count Olaf’s disguise and plot, and are believed. Unfortunately, this is because they reveal their discoveries to Esme Squalor, who has secretly been working with Count Olaf all along. In the end, Esme leaves to join Count Olaf who is still at large with the captive Quagmires, and the orphans are left with another flawed guardian: Jerome Squalor, who despite good intentions feels that the orphans need to forget about the idea of rescuing their friends.

The characters and events in this book also give us a bit more insight into the narrator. Throughout the series we get glimpses of the life of the narrator, which become increasingly overt. Here, we see some additional connections with names and characters, allowing the reader to piece together the mystery of V.F.D. with information unknown to the children.

A final note on this book is that I finished part of this in a new format for me: an audiobook. I decided to try out the audio after I realized that I was behind in the series, and that I was going to be spending a large amount of time driving over the next few days. What a treat this turned out to be! The official audiobook is narrated by Tim Curry, who does a fabulous job at bringing the story to life. His voice is a perfect fit for the style of the story, and he is appropriately creative in giving voice to the dialogue of each character.

img_3106The Vile Village

In book seven, we get another slight variation on the guardian plot. Rather than being turned over to a single guardian, the orphans are taken in by an entire village. After all, it does take a village to raise a child, right? The children choose from a list of villages that are willing to take them, in hopes that the village V.F.D. relates to the mystery they have been trying to solve. Unfortunately for the children, the Village of Fowl Devotees is not only the incorrect V.F.D., it is a run by a council who is overly devoted to nonsensical rules and believes that the prime method of raising children is to make them complete chores. The children find themselves in the care of Hector, the town handyman, who turns out to be an amiable companion. He does not prescribe to the village’s rules, but is also afraid to stand up to anyone on the council. It appears briefly that the children may have found a way to escape their unpleasant lives: Hector is working on a self-sustaining hot air mobile home, and the children have found clues that allude to the Quagmires being hidden nearby.

The children hope to rescue the Quagmires and then escape with Hector in his mobile home. An unexpected twist occurs when the children hear that Count Olaf has been captured in the village, and will be imprisoned. In a reversal on the usual events, the children inform the village that the person they have captured is not Count Olaf, but are not believed. In an increasingly complicated turn of events, the captured person, Jaques Snicket, is killed, and the children are falsely accused of his murder. The story wraps up with quite a slew of exciting happenings, that set the stage for the remainder of the series: Count Olaf as a fake detective, a prison break, the daring rescue of the Quagmires, and additional mishaps that cause the Baudelaires to be separated from their friends again, leaving the village running for their lives as fugitives.

img_3130The Hostile Hospital

The second half of the series finds the Baudelaires venturing out on their own; after a series of misunderstandings has them fleeing as accused murderers. They attempt to contact Mr. Poe for help, but cannot reach him. The orphans stumble upon another incorrect V.F.D.—the Volunteers Fighting Disease—which leads them to Heimlich Hospital and its Library of Records. The orphans use their opportunity of volunteering that the hospital to search for clues about the correct V.F.D., leading them to engage in some of their own sneaky behaviors. While the orphans are wondering about the consequences of treacherous behaviors with good intentions, Count Olaf launches the next step in his scheme, which leads him to the same Library of Records in search of the “Snicket File.”

The orphans find themselves trapped in the Library of Records with Esme Squalor as she searches for the file, destroying much of the library and capturing Violet in the process. Klaus and Sunny find themselves needing to form a plan of their own to save their sister from Count Olaf, using some clever research along with some disguises and tricks they have picked up from Olaf himself. While the orphans are able to escape, they find themselves with an increasing list of false accusations reported in the newspaper and nowhere to go. The see Count Olaf about to leave the scene of the now burning hospital, and decide their best option is to stowaway in his car: at least this way they will be able to keep track of what he is up to.

img_3144The Carnivorous Carnival

While I was personally less excited about this particular addition to the series than others, it does provide an ideal setting for a major turning point in the series. The Baudelaires follow Count Olaf to the Caligari Carnival, where he is meeting up with the fortuneteller Madame Lulu. The orphans disguise themselves as freaks in order to join the carnival freak show and find out more about what is going on. Through their investigation, the children discover that Madame Lulu is a fake—she has a mechanical device to produce thunder and lightning when she is asked a question, using this as a distraction to reference her research and provide answers. She has a strict policy of giving everyone what they want, which causes her to dwell in morally ambiguous territory. She is able to give the children some true information about the V.F.D. they have been looking for, telling them of a schism that has caused the organization to fragment into two factions: volunteers and villains. She agrees to help the orphans, but this agreement puts her at odds with her policy of giving everyone what they want: she will have to deny Count Olaf the information he wants.

There are a few interesting themes floating around in this one, the first being the presence of the freaks. To be honest, they are not very “freakish” at all: a hunchback, a contortionist, and a man who is ambidextrous. However, they are all so focused on their slight differences that they become magnified and are treated poorly because of it. This book also places stronger emphasis on some themes from earlier books: are villainous actions justified when you have noble intentions? Up to this point, the orphans have been portrayed villainously in the newspaper based on misunderstandings and accidents. Here, they begin to intentionally engage in some questionable behaviors. After a close call with a pit of lions, the orphans and other freaks agree to join up with Count Olaf’s troupe. They help him set the fire to burn the carnival to the ground, and then leave with the freak caravan tied to the back of Olaf’s car. It is here, with Violet and Klaus in the freak caravan, and Sunny in the car with Olaf and the other henchman, we make the discovery that leads to the series’ first cliffhanger: Madame Lulu was unable to keep her promise to the Baudelaires. She revealed their true identities to Olaf, who now has Sunny in his clutches, and cuts loose the freak caravan to send the others tumbling down the side of a mountain.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Part 1

Book: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Date Read: December 12, 2019 to February 5, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

I realized toward the end of November that I was not quite on track to meet my total book goal by the end of the year. As I often do at that time of year, I looked through my shelves for the shortest books on my to read list, hoping to give myself a little boost to end of the year and start 2020 on a positive note. I ended up settling on a book series that was on my mental to read list, if not my actual shelves: A Series of Unfortunate Events. It had been recommended to me several years ago, and I knew it was available for free from my school’s online library.

This series is aimed at late elementary or middle grade children, but has elements of wit and humor that would be more appreciated by adults. There were several moments that caused me to smirk, but would likely be skimmed over by younger readers. This includes references in characters and actions to other works, as well as some humor in interpretations of vocabulary. For the majority of the series, the youngest Baudelaire, Sunny, talks in baby talk which is interpreted by her siblings. While most of these are straightforward nonsense words, there are a few that include real words or other references that were clearly targeted for adult readers. These are worked in to the style of the story naturally, which perfectly expands the potential for enjoyment across age groups.

Each book works as a stand-alone story, although the later books in the series are more clearly linked together. Any references to events in previous books are given proper explanation at the time, which is nice for continuity. I liked that the stories became increasingly complex throughout the series, but still kept to a consistent style. Although I did enjoy reading these, I have to say that the series is aptly named: all of these books are quite unfortunate. Each one starts with a warning to the reader about the wretched lives of the Baudelaire orphans, suggesting that perhaps it may be a good idea to find something a bit less depressing to read. Although the story lines are brought to a conclusion with each book, and in many ways things work out in favor of the orphans, each “happy ending” is not quite happy.

img_3034The Bad Beginning

Where else to start, but with the bad beginning? This book sets up the misery in the lives of the Baudelaires, beginning with the death of their parents in a fire. We get an introduction to each of the main players here: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, with their inventions, books, and teeth to add to their resourcefulness. And then of course our villain, Count Olaf. As their first guardian after the loss of their parents, Olaf makes it clear early on that he is more interested in the children’s inheritance than the children, and hatches his first scheme to get his hands on their fortune by forcing Violet into a marriage. Of course, the children are too clever to let him get away with it. We are just in sight of a happy ending when we get another twist, and Mr. Poe, the banker in charge of their parents’ will, sends them on to their next guardian.

This book sets the stage for the remainder of the series, as well as establishing some stylistic elements that carry throughout. The narrator tells a parallel story, focusing on the Baudelaires, but giving occasionally hints as to his own misery and questionable situation. The book uses some vocabulary that would be somewhat advanced for the target audience of these books, but does a nice job of explaining terms with a bit of humor. These start quite reasonably, but become a bit more grandiose and absurd as the series progresses. I felt this was a solid start for the series, as it left me wanting to know what happens next, but satisfied with the conclusion.

img_3142The Reptile Room

After their experience with their first guardian, the Baudelaires are understandably reluctant to meet their next guardian: their Uncle Monty, a herpetologist whom they have never met. Things go well for a while, with the children’s talents put to good use with Uncle Monty’s collection of pythons, vipers, and other reptiles. For the first time since the death of their parents, they find some happiness in their new home and are excited to accompany Monty on an expedition to search for new reptile species. That is, until Uncle Monty’s new assistant arrives—whom the children immediately recognize as Count Olaf in disguise. Despite their efforts to warn Uncle Monty, Olaf always seems a step ahead in threatening them to keep quiet. He launches another scheme to get their fortune, beginning with murdering Uncle Monty, making the death appear accidental.

This kicks off a theme that remains through most of the series: adults being oblivious to the treachery that is obvious to the Baudelaires. I think this is a theme that resonates with younger readers: adults seem unaware of what it is like to be children, and because the Baudelaire orphans are children, much of what they say is dismissed. This is especially prevalent with Mr. Poe, who begins to use the excuse that the Baudelaires “see Olaf everywhere” after their first traumatic experience, despite the fact each time they claim to see Olaf, they turn out to be correct.

img_3146The Wide Window

The third book in the series follows the same pattern as the previous, beginning with the Baudelaires on their way to meet a new guardian, Aunt Josephine. This guardian turns out to be another kind, but imperfect, guardian: since the death of her husband, she has become fearful of nearly everything. She is fanatical about grammar, but excited about little else. The children fall into a routine until, as expected, Count Olaf shows up in disguise as a Captain Sham. As usual, their guardian does not initially believe the children, although she does eventually realize Olaf’s plot. The problem, of course, is that she is too afraid to do anything about it.

In this book, we get a clearer glimpse into Klaus’s particular talents: reading and research. When Aunt Josephine discovers Olaf’s plot and flees, she leaves a coded message in the form of a purported suicide note. Klaus recognizes the code from the many grammatical errors included, and uses this information to find where she has hidden herself. As with previous books, we come to our not quite happy ending: Olaf’s plot is foiled, but with the loss of Aunt Josephine and the children are sent on their way to another guardian.

img_3022The Miserable Mill

With the miserable mill, there is a slight break from the typical guardian routine. The Baudelaires are sent to a new guardian, who is the owner of the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill. Rather than take an interest in the children, their guardian, Sir, puts them to work at the mill and has them living in the quarters with the other employees. Even without the issues of child labor here, the mill is run in a fashion of borderline slave labor, with the employees paid in coupons rather than money and provided with only one meal per day. As always, Olaf is lurking just around the corner, but this particular plot is a bit more convoluted and relies on several of Olaf’s henchman. The guardian Sir is much more concerned about the smooth operation of his mill than anything else, and with the help of a hypnotist, Olaf attempts to monopolize on their guardian’s ambivalence to the orphans.

One theme that had been introduced in the previous book is continued here: the presence of helpful adults who fall short of expectations. Aunt Josephine had been concerned for the children, but too fearful to act. In The Miserable Mill, the children meet Charles, their guardian’s business partner, who is kind and seems to want the best for them. He offers help when able, and quietly advocates for the children, but is too afraid to speak up too adamantly in their defense. As usual, the children are able to defeat Olaf in his plot with little help from the adults around them, ending the book with the need for a new guardian.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

img_0803The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

July’s prompt for The Unread Shelf Project was a book from a series on your shelf. I did not have a ton of options for this one, as I usually read series books all together and tend not to buy a ton of them– it’s hard to get your “to read” list down if you add whole series at a time. However, I happened to be gifted this one awhile back from a book swap, and never quite got around to it. So to stick to my usual reading patterns, I opted to take on the whole series (with a little boost by starting the first book at the end of June).

This was a solid start to a series that I did mostly enjoy. The first book gives a nice introduction to the group: four friends who have been together for their whole lives, preparing to spend their first summer apart. It sets up an interesting structure that continues throughout the series, with four mostly separate narratives that overlap, intertwine, and eventually come together in the end. The “magic” element of the pants seems a little gimmicky, but using pants as the collective reminder of friendship works in a way that other items would not. Since it is something that they wear, it is something they each take with them as they experience life, not something that they simply look to as a token.

I found it noteworthy that in a book dedicated to friendship, the title object it centers on is not wholly positive—the first experience each of the girls has with the pants is negative, but they are also later able to draw strength from the reminder of their friendships to help them get through the tough parts of their summer lives. Although not a completely happy ending, there are positive turns for each character at the end of the book: Carmen has begun to make amends with her father, Lena finally connects with Kostos, Tibby begins to accept the loss of Bailey, and although Bridget is feeling of lost, she has found some solace in her return to her friends.

img_0817

The Second Summer of the Sisterhood

Book two picks up at the beginning of the following summer, with minimal reference to the time between. As before, the girls are preparing for a summer spent at least partially apart, and lay out their plans for the pants. Each of them has another storyline with some room for and elements of growth, although I saw some drastic differences in the quality of each characters narrative.

Bridget is still struggling, but seems to be at least a bit more self-aware. She is spending the summer with her grandmother in an effort to learn more about her mother, albeit under an assumed name and deceptive guise. I liked the duality of her re-finding herself here between glimpses of her family and a reconnection to the sport that she loves. I was a little irritated by the unreality of extent of her lie to her grandmother, but thought this was tempered by the admission in the end that her grandmother was suspicious and playing along. I liked Tibby’s journey of discovering and aligning her priorities through the development of her documentary.

Honestly, I found Lena’s story a bit lackluster. I can see the appeal in her story of teenage romance, but just could not get excited for her. Carmen’s difficulty with her mother beginning to date seems like an understandable issue for a teenage daughter, but her story comes off as annoying and melodramatic. In the first book, Carmen seemed justifiably angry with her father and his failure to tell her about his life until she was shoved into the middle of it. This anger with her mother feels different, and petty. I had a hard time sympathizing with her, which took away from the book as a whole.