22nd June 2001 at 01:00
A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. Book the First: the bad beginning. Book the Second: the reptile room. By Lemony Snicket. Egmont pound;5.99 each

Series fiction does not usually get dressed up in hard covers. But here, the soft, casual look would have been unbecoming. These are classy, pocket-sized, jacketless hardbacks that capture the sombrely surreal mood of the writing, and cost little more than a paperback.

Lemony Snicket is the nom de plume of Daniel Handler, who writes novels for adults. In the United States, where the series has a devoted audience with its unique blend of playfulness and double-take, Handler appears at book events pretending to represent the absent Snicket.

His books recount the woebegone experiences of the three Baudelaire children, orphaned in Dahl-like fashion in the opening chapter of Book the First, which oes on to describe their miserable sojourn with an evil guardian, Count Olaf.

A knowing reverse psychology is at play in the author's exhortations to avoid further unpleasantness. "There is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy," says a letter to the reader on the back cover. The story in these two instalments is sufficiently compelling to sustain such clever trickery.

Once hooked, children will enjoy the running joke. Although the books are aimed at nine to 12-year-olds, adults will appreciate their mordant humour. A Series of Unfortunate Events stands a good chance of becoming the next big crossover success, a phrase which here means a children's book that adults can be seen reading.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex.

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