The Grim Grotto (A Series of Unfortunate Events #11) by Lemony Snicket (HarperCollins)
I suppose a little bit of background is necessary. Ages and ages ago, I picked up the first three of the A Series of Unfortunate Events books in a paperback set at a Scholastic book fair, and I think I got the fourth there in hardcover. I'd have to say this is a great way to jumpstart reading a series--I tend to get lost if I have to remember to go back for more unless it's really, really amazing. And if it's going to be amazing later, well, it's too late.
In 2004, I was up to number 11, though I was re-reading number four to my dad during car rides. Strangely enough, book four disappeared from my life, though a friend bought me a replacement copy (thanks, Amy!) despite her being forever annoyed at the legal misinformation in the first book.
What kept me coming back to these series: wordplay and allusion. There was always something to snicker at, some reference to look up. And, though strange to say, I found the very dangerousness of the books to be attractive; as a reader, I'm forced to overlay some hope.
I was surprised when I picked The Grim Grotto up and was a bit lost. I'd forgotten some of #10, and parts of #10 I sort of disliked, though I find the series fairly even on the whole. (It may just have been that I hate circuses.) I also read most of the series out of order. But at this point in the series, I was thinking about a couple of different themes.
First, the incompetence of adults. It's a fairy-tale construct, true, but there is no adult with true reason--even, at times, the villain, who cannot quite capture the children for good but threatens with real harm and, as far as we know, killed the kids' parents. This is coupled, however, with an uncommon problem for kids in wish fulfillment-y fairy tales: their movements are often limited in a very realistic way. As we start to realize that perhaps there is more going on in this story than we thought, that non-sequiturs from early on may be a bit of thread that's going to tie the whole thing up completely, the kids finally make a major pattern break at the end of this book and move themselves for a change. They're no longer helpless.
There's also a theme that's been running half hidden: grief and the stages of grief, though not in a way that makes a stomachache in your head or headache in your stomach or whatever kids tired of too many angsty YA novels are saying these days, and this book is all the better for it.
And the characters! I adore Sunny's mixed-up words. She's growing up so well, and Carmelita takes the cakesniffers in this one. Oh dear, does she. Tap-dancing fairy princess doctor ballerina or whatever. And one can't forget how the author beats upon all sort of historical and vocabulary things. I need a henchpersonal assistant.
But maybe I'm just amused that Sunny's Hobson's choice was bath or pink dress. That's my Hobson's choice a lot of the time too.