Tuesday, 12 November 2013

All The Wrong Questions, 2: When Did You See Her Last? by Lemony Snicket Review (Daniel Handler, Seth)

The adventures of young Lemony Snicket continues in the second All the Wrong Questions book with When Did You See Her Last?, a mystery where a young girl called Cleo Knight appears to have disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Like the first book, Snicket remains in Stain’d-by-the-Sea, the landlocked former prosperous town whose fortune derived from seas of ink now dried up, with his master, S. Theodora Markson (the S. remains a secret). But the game is afoot and Snicket is on the trail! 

I’d never read a Lemony Snicket novel until the first All The Wrong Questions book and quite liked it’s barmy characters, eccentric narrator, and crackling wit – that the plot flew about like a Dr Seuss story and featured the amazing art of Seth was the icing on the cake (actually Seth’s art was the selling point). So it’s disappointing to say that the second book didn’t live up to my hopes of an equally entertaining read.

The story starts well as Snicket investigates Cleo’s disappearance, the oddball characters interact brilliantly, and the pacing is perfect - and then the book gets bogged down with a number of slow, uninteresting scenes, a lot of middle where middling things happen, and then we’re back to the plot where the mystery is revealed (and it’s not much of a reveal – we know the bad guy is Hangfire already, so guess who’s behind the kidnapping? Xactly).

Daniel Handler can write excellent dialogue - “Boredom is not black licorice, Snicket. There’s no reason to share it with me” (p.119) - but there are too many moments where it feels he’s just marking time, filling up space, or else just plain spinning his wheels. I realise this is a kids’ book so I won’t judge it so harshly though I felt even kids’ attention would be tried with this rather plodding book. 

So why am I reading a kids’ book? It’s not that I’m a Lemony Snicket fan but rather I am a HUGE fan of Seth’s art. If you’ve never heard of Seth aka Gregory Gallant, you need to read his stuff. Clyde Fans, Palookaville, Wimbledon Green, It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken - amazing comics all. Plus he did the art on Aimee Mann’s record Lost in Space, arguably her masterpiece, enhanced and matched by Seth’s retro art style. I honestly wouldn’t have bothered with this series if it weren’t for Seth. 

Daniel Handler can write really well but he writes such weirdly forgettable prose that disappears as soon as I read it. This isn’t just a reflection of his kids books, but I’ve also read one of his adult novels, Adverbs, and even as I was reading it I couldn’t have told you what it was about. 6 years later and the only thing that I recall about it is the title. 

The characters are by and large cartoonishly delightful - I love that in this book the kids behave like adults and vice versa - though besides some occasionally brilliant lines, they are generally static and therefore uninteresting in what is a plot-driven genre, besides which the plot is a very basic mystery, and there were too many scenes that had no relevance to the story and weren’t even entertaining. I love Seth’s art but I wish this book had had a tighter plot and stepped at a more brisk pace. 

(This is a minor point but for bibliophiles like me - not at all as perverted a label as it sounds! - it’s important: this book is much larger than the previous one. The first book had this pleasantly compact size and nice-feeling cover; this second is larger and has a generically smooth cover. It’s annoying because it looks a lot less appealing despite the wonderful design Seth’s given it, and feels overall a lot cheaper. Books are wonderful objects in themselves and in this day and age if a reader chooses a book over an e-book, it’s because we enjoy the tactile experience of a book - replace that with an inferior copy than the superior one previously experienced and it makes the experience that less enjoyable. Here’s hoping they stop messing about with cheap formats for the next one!)

When Did You See Her Last? (All The Wrong Questions)

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