Weekly Reads: Roundup #5 (A Great and Terrible Beauty, Bear, Dorothy Must Die)

Hello all, and welcome back to Weekly Reads! (Somewhat later this week because of Canadian Thanksgiving.) This week, I have a couple of young adult books for you and one bit of Canadian literature with a side of bestiality. No, really. (I won’t quote the graphic stuff, so we will remain PG.)

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

A Great and Terrible Beauty

Premise: Gemma’s mother dies under mysterious circumstances, sending her off to boarding school and into a tangled web of secrets and witchcraft. (It’s also the late 1800s and everything is terrible for girls and women.)

The Good: The focus on girls and women and using witchcraft as a way to find empowerment or an escape from an otherwise stifling life feels genuine and evocative, and the stumbling attempts of the girls to create rituals that do nothing initially make it altogether more exciting when something does happen.

The Bad: The pacing of this book was a hot mess. It moved kind of slowly and/or sporadically in the beginning, then ramped up to a quick pace that felt more satisfying but also dulled emotional resonance. It has difficulty building friendships between the four girls of the new “coven” realistically because it takes until fairly deep in the book for them to get together, and the book largely glosses over a lot of the time they spend together magically, so their bonds are more told than shown. The book also blows quickly through “pretending to do magic” to “DOING A LOT OF MAGIC OMG.” Its reveal used a very typical YA trope, so it wasn’t surprising and could have been grounded better in the narrative—again, mostly an issue of pacing in terms of how the hints played out.

Overall: This book had a lot of potential, but the pacing really, really detracted from it for me. I’m not sure if I’ll continue the series. 

Bear by Marian Engel

Bear

This is probably the least racy cover of Bear that exists.

Premise: An archivist is sent to evaluate a remote estate in Northern Ontario for valuable documents; she contemplates the meaning of her life and romances a bear.

The Good: The descriptions of Northern Ontario were very evocative. I could picture and feel the scenery very clearly as I read, and that would’ve easily felt dissonant to me if it had been “off” since I grew up in the area. (Not in such a remote part in the 80s, obviously, but I’ve visited and can imagine.) The use of her isolation to let the protagonist pare down her life into almost nothing and look for meaning in it (and the house, in parallel) worked for me, particularly because she, and the house, were so in order (an archivist, canonical English texts) and so in need of finding their passion and disorder (her love for nature/the bear; the scattered bear notes in the library). This would be a fun book to write papers about, I’m sure.

The Bad: I know that the sex with the bear is probably metaphorical, even though it’s described in more actual terms. The bear is a metaphor for the lover who would’ve otherwise inhabited this story and helped this woman “find herself”—sure. And at the time this came out, that was probably transgressive in very cool ways for feminists. In 2016, it’s kind of like, Okay, but does a woman need a lover figure to contemplate her life in the woods? Not so much. (Did Atwood rescue us from this conceit, or did it happen earlier?) So because I can’t just willfully shed my modern context (I know that some people consider this a weakness of mine, but sue me), graphic bear sex is still a pretty absurd interruption of my experience. The tonal change is just too jarring.

Overall: I liked aspects of this, but I mean, you can see the bear sex coming, and it takes over the whole experience of the book. I’m not mad that I read this, but I won’t read it again. It’s short, though, so recommended if you a) can shed your modern context, and b) enjoy CanLit’s thing about strangely graphic metaphor-bestiality. 

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Before I start in on this book, I have to talk about an ethical issue surrounding its publication—not in terms of its author, as with the Cassandra Cla(i)re situation we discussed recently, but in terms of how it got to print. Which is via James Frey, known best for having to apologize on Oprah for fabricating the events of A Million Little Pieces, which he released as non-fiction. He later began a book packaging endeavour called Full Fathom Five, which initially offered some truly nauseating contracts to writers and treated their initial hit-generator “Pittacus Lore” (of I Am Number Four fame) like so much gum on a shoe. For more on Frey and his iffy ethics, you can check out one of several boycott posts, which also links to a Goodreads list of FFF books should you choose to avoid them.

I have to admit, for all I tend to research a book before I purchase it (and I did purchase this), I didn’t find anything about Full Fathom Five before I went looking for other reviews of Dorothy Must Die. I’m not sure how I feel about having bought it—not so much in terms of supporting Danielle Paige (I’ll get to the actual book below), but because I think I’ve just supported Frey and some truly shitty hiring and writing practices. But how does it affect the material? Well, let’s get to that.

Dorothy Must Die

Premise: Another girl from Kansas gets whisked away to Oz, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be—actually, Dorothy is evil.

The Good: The premise seems corny, but it is, at first, at least a little fun. Oz dystopia is definitely a lot more entertaining than a lot of the 1984-esque standard young adult dystopias we’ve seen in recent books. (Although it does seem to maintain the same all-seeing overlords and self-policing as other such societies.) And the author does some amusing, imaginative things to add horror. The protagonist, Amy Gumm, is independent and tough yet in need of affection and easy to relate to—she’s nothing new, other than maybe how explicitly she deals with her mother’s addiction, but a good character to hang the book’s plot on. (And her hair is pink.) The potential love triangles we could get seem to be undermined by the end, thank everything.

The Bad: The book relies a lot on its referentiality to get readers emotionally invested in the characters, and that’s not necessarily going to fly with its audience, because, although the outline of the Oz story is more or less known, investment in this story (and knowledge of the old movie) probably reached peak a generation or two ago. The pacing is, again, a hot mess, but in more of a cyclical way. Events go from speeding forward at breakneck pace to screeching along like nails slowly dragged across a chalkboard. Also, the reveals at the climax/denouement of this book include something spoiled on the back (the way the trilogy sequence will work: with Amy destroying Dorothy’s companions in sequence) and something that has absolutely zero emotional weight or impact on the narrative-as-of-yet, so the buildup towards her confrontation + the mystery of the figure she met at the beginning both end up pretty pointless, unless maybe if you’ve already decided to read all three books.

Overall: There were moments of promise in this, but it did things like briefly introduce a seemingly-interesting character and then kill her for shock value/world establishment. Okay? I could read the next book, but I could also not, especially since YA trilogies tend to go downhill. 

I feel like this post illuminates why I’m not a huge fan of trying to rate things, since these are all two-and-a-half-star books by my account, but I don’t know if they’re all super comparable. Still, I hope it helps. Thanks for tuning in to Weekly Reads, and I’ll see you again on Monday!

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