Goodreads: The League of Beastly Dreadfuls
Series: The League of Beastly Dreadfuls #1
Anastasia McCrumpet is living an ordinary life until the day she receives the news that her parents have died in a freak vacuum cleaner accident. Spirited away by her newly-discovered great-aunts Prim and Prudence to their home, a Victorian insane asylum, and forced to eat Mystery Lumps and live in a dirty bedroom with a chamber pot, Anastasia believes things cannot get much worse. Then she discovers that her aunts collect the portraits of missing children. Can Anastasia escape the asylum or will she become another victim?
The League of Beastly Dreadfuls is an odd book, the kind that delights in its oddness and gleefully rubs its oddness in the faces of its readers. From the opening chapter, entitled “A Splendid Day for a Funeral,” readers know that shocking events are sure to follow. Like Lemony Snicket or Roald Dahl, however, Holly Grant may be an acquired taste. Some will delight in the dreadful and disturbing story about to unfold, while others may find themselves too nauseated to continue.
I enjoy quirky books, so I checked this one out of the library, hoping as I did so that the insane asylum setting would not prove too disturbing, seeing as the book is marketed as middle-grade. My reservations grew when I noticed a boy wearing a birdcage on the cover–would actual patients appear? how would the author handle the topic of mental illness? Sufferers of any illness do not deserve to be put on display like some sort of circus sideshow–I would not want to read a book where someone who has a mental illness is treated as a quaint oddity, for the atmosphere of the piece. Still, I decided at least to try the book–and I am still muddled as to how I feel about it.
The opening pages proved promising as the story introduced Anastasia McCrumpet as a completely ordinary girl who even has flatulence. Now, flatulence is not normally the type of thing I want to read about in a book–it usually means potty humor is involved. But, in this case, the insertion is refreshing. It sometimes seems odd that one can read a thousand pages about a character and never see him or her do something ordinary and human like brushing teeth or hair. But Anastasia does these things–she is human! And that means readers who feel themselves ordinary can star as the protagonists in their own stories.
Aside from Anastasia, however, the story really is disturbing. Leeches are involved. Kidnapping. Murder. Mouse droppings. I stomached most of these, but when Anastasia started eating moths, I thought I might be sick for the girl. The narrator tries to soften these shocking matters with humor or asides to the reader, but individuals will fidn these techniques have varying effectiveness. I was relieved, at least, to see that no actual inmates appeared in the asylum. Any oddities arise from the evil aunts.
Unfortunately, the ending of the book marred the story for me. [SPOILERS AHEAD] I mainly loved the book because Anastasia the ordinary uses her wits and her courage and her love of girl detective Francine Dewdrop to set herself free. But then we learn Anastasia is far from ordinary. And her mother, who was always mean and demanding, is not really her mother at all! Once again, a story insists that real blood relatives are always kind. Thus, of course, Prim and Prudence cannot be Anastasia’s real aunts. And, of course, Anastasia’s nasty mother must be her stepmother. The book tries so hard to be true to life, showing an awkward girl with normal school problems and embarrassing body issues, even talking about things like broken families. But it destroys its realism when it says that a victim can escape by finding her blood relations, that real relations are never unkind. [END SPOILERS]
The ending, combined with the disturbing elements of the tale, are enough to make me feel ambivalent about reading the sequel–even though I suspect that the next story may contain more common elements of fantasy adventure rather than any disgusting scenes involving leeches and whatnot. The League of Beastly Dreadfuls is, I suppose, just a little too dreadful for my taste.