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The Carnivorous Carnival

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2003-11-12

Cover from The Carnivorous Carnival

Madame Lulu from The Carnivorous Carnival

If you haven't yet initiated yourself with Lemony Snicket's Series Of Unfortunate Events books, then you've got a bit of catching up to do - as the ninth book in the series (out of a planned 13) has just been published in the UK.

However, those who have been avidly following the misfortunes of the Baudelaire orphans, attempting to prevent the villainous Count Olaf from stealing their inheritance, are in for a treat with The Carnivorous Carnival.

For Lemony's latest (actually the work of San Franciscan Jewish author Daniel Handler) is one of the darkest so far in the series, squeezing circus freaks, arson, kidnapping and the worrying spectre of key characters being eaten by lions into its 286 pages. Like the Harry Potter novels and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, it's one of those series written for children but also read enthusiastically by adults - and after a few pages, it's not hard to see why.

At the end of book eight, The Hostile Hospital, the threesome - consisting of Violet (the eldest, who happens to be a superb inventor), Klaus (the middle child, a voracious bookworm) and Sunny (the baby whose main talent is biting things with her extra-sharp teeth) - escape Olaf's clutches once again by hiding out in the boot of his car.

Eventually they find themselves at a shabby carnival run by the mysterious Madame Lulu and, while disguised as circus freaks in an effort to avoid their arch nemesis, make some startling discoveries about the fire that killed their parents. But it isn't too long before they find themselves in danger once more.

With book nine, the series is showing no signs of losing its appeal. The central story develops in leaps and bounds here and ends on the sort of cliffhanger that'll leave you almost desperate to read the tenth book, The Slippery Slope (out in the US but not yet available in the UK) straight away. Violet, Klaus and Sunny are resourceful and appealing characters, who are now so familiar to followers of the series that it's hard not to feel genuine concern and sympathy at their plight. And Olaf - who has succeeded in framing the trio for murder, on top of everything else - is as despicable as ever.

The beauty of the series, however, lies in Handler's refusal ever to patronise the young audience he is writing for, filling the book with sly pokes at other literary works (Shakespeare is described as "a writer thought by a great deal of people to be dead") and frankly surreal humour (his use of a ridiculous fairytale to illustrate a very small point in the action is just priceless). All this and a scene in which Klaus contemplates disguising himself as a rabbi to fool Olaf. Further proof, if it were needed, that often children's literature is far far better than many of the books aimed at grown-ups.

The Carnivorous Carnival is published by Egmont and is out now priced £6.99

Related links:

Interview with Daniel Handler