Months later (deep, regret-filled sigh) a post on one of my favorite new books.
“A marvelously funny mystery that feels refreshingly original while yet channeling the best of Dahl’s characters and Grimm in storytelling.”-my staff rec at work.
The League of Beastly Dreadfuls by Holly Grant
Random House, 2015.
Wondering what could possibly follow the genius who is Kazuo Ishiguro and his novel The Buried Giant, I was slumped into Picture Books and puppy-like Juvenile Fantasies. I was contemplating the cure-all (Calvino) when I shelved The League of Beastly Dreadfuls.
“Warning This book is chock-full of DREADFUL things (Calamity! Evil plans! Attack poodles!) and is NOT suitable for Nice Little Boys and Girls. Take my advice…practice your posture instead. –Miss Drusilla Jellymonk, Etiquette Expert.” –Back Copy
“Anastasia is a completely average almost-eleven-year-old. That is, UNTIL her parents die in a tragic vacuum-cleaner accident. UNTIL she’s rescued by two long-lost great-aunties. And UNTIL she’s taken to their delightful and, er, “authentic” Victorian home, St. Agony’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane.
But something strange is going on at the asylum. Anastasia soon begins to suspect that her aunties are not who they say they are. So when she meets Ollie and Quentin, two mysterious brothers, the three join together to plot their great escape!”–inside Jacket Copy.
Have you noticed how difficult it is for an author to pull off the Dahl-esque; especially American authors? Holly Grant is marvelously Dahl-esque in The League of Beastly Dreadfuls. But that isn’t the only reason to pick up your own copy. Grimm came to mind, for instance. But for all the fond reminiscence of favorite childhood storytellers, Grant demonstrates an originality all her own. That expansive imagination proves rather daring (e.g. the mice are genius, as is the tragic flatulence). The pacing both in action and humor is perfect, and the narrator not too clever for its own good. You must read this one aloud.
You know those scenes where the protagonist overhears the villain murmuring about their impending demise and they fail to confront said villain about it? There is a glorious moment (on page 67) where Anastasia asks an Auntie about a strong inference muttered under the breath. Anastasia is rightly terrified by this point–and so was I, thus my pleasant surprise when Anastasia quite forcefully inquires after just what did Prim mean. The author does not imperil her protagonist comfortably and the escape attempt will have all sorts of horrible inconveniences. “Saint Agony’s Asylum for the Deranged, Despotic, Demented, & Otherwise Undesirable (that is to say, criminally insane)” is not some quaint Victorian fixer-upper. And Anastasia is not in the least casual in her observation that “every day at St Agony’s Asylum was perfect funeral weather” (59). The contemplation of the photographs of past children was chilling. And despite those delicately sipped cups of tea, the ‘weirdly dentured’ old ladies are blood-thirsty.
I’m not sure which is more deliciously wrought, the adrenaline or the ridiculous humor; maybe it is the characters (who manage to generate both). The old ladies are entertaining, in their own horrid way. The Manly Baron aka Mouse Destroyer makes me sigh, and not because of his manly presence. It’s that he is silliness incarnate. I found him and that whole plot twist charming. And the boys, with their Ballad of the Lovelorn Beluga are amusing, to say nothing of awesomely gifted. But Anastasia is the star: clumsy and resourceful and capable of keeping her wits about her.
The League of Beastly Dreadfuls is easily one of my favorite books this year, and I’ve enjoyed some fabulous reads. I found myself laughing aloud and reading huge swathes of it to the daughter. I’m sure I read the “looney gardner” scene (in chapter 4) multiple times to multiple friends; and I may have referenced the line “Podiatrists are, in general, the most dashing of all doctors” (281) a time or three, even though too few have yet to read the novel. Friends were updated at regular intervals and subjected to the mysteries of the novel: plenty of which remain unsolved. Like who is Anastasia and why have her captors taken such a keen interest in her? It quickly becomes apparent that it isn’t just because Anastasia is orphaned by a tragic vacuum incident.
The lovely problem the reader will come to realize is that the author’s imagination could originate any sort of possibility for our increasingly mysterious Anastasia. The reader also comes to the conclusion that they won’t mind terribly much when the author artfully puts off a few questions there at the end. The reader is going to want to read book two (The Dastardly Deed).
The League of Beastly Dreadfuls is the kind of smart and entertaining everyone needs off the shelf and in their hands and reading to their favorite human (or mouse).
recommendations: if you love Grimm, Dahl, Ellen Potter’s Kneebone Boy, and/or Adrienne Kress’ Ironic Gentlemen. if you like peril, laughter, and clever narrators. To be read aloud to any and all grade-schoolers (whether they suffer from tragic flatulence or umbrating-related nudity*).
*yeah, you have to read the book.