Wednesday, 23 November 2011

'Distressingly familiar': an Australian review of "Popular"

Viewpoint, Australia's leading young adult literature magazine, includes a new review of Popular in the current edition (Vol. 19, no. 4). Printed out of the University of Melbourne (coat of arms; left), the magazine is dedicated to reviewing all major new novels for Australia's booksellers and teen readers. The review is by Katy Gerner, a writer and reviewer from Sydney, who didn't expect to like Popular based on its cover, but here's what she had to say.

Popular: Have you got what it takes? by Gareth Russell

When I first picked up Popular, I expected (a) it to be about a bunch of mean American girls and (b) that I wouldn't like it. (I went to a high school full of mean 'popular' girls and I don't like being reminded how nasty females can be to each other.) However, the girls and one boy were Irish, although pretty mean, and I did enjoy it. Russell stands back from his characters and describes them almost mockingly, and puts them in undignified situations for the reader's amusement. 

His plots did not go in the direction that I expected them to. I was expecting a 'Benedick' and 'Beatrice' denouement but it didn't happen. Sometimes, the main characters had moments of enlightenment about their behaviour which I thought would lead to a change of character, but no, they happily slipped back into their old ways. It also wasn't clear who were the true 'baddies' and who were the true 'victims'. This aspect of being unable to guess what the characters were going to do next or what was going to be done to them, made the story compelling.

The nastiness and self-destructive behaviour in Popular is believable, perhaps because Russell saw it when he was a teenager. The introduction says, 'nearly all the book is based upon events that have happened during his schooldays - the more ridiculous they seem, the greater the chance that they are close to real life.' I did wonder, as the characters worked so hard to avoid any school work, and their exam answers are distressingly familiar.

Popular is the first of a new series. I'm wondering how the characters will cope after their exams having deliberately sabotaging their schooling? Or what they are going do to their livers? Perhaps Russell is arranging an embarrassing ending for them, better even than the scene on page 105. One can hope so.

Katy Gerner is a Sydney writer an reviewer. She also survived her high school years, although she still has nightmares about them.

Copyright to Viewpoint magazine is owned by the University of Melbourne

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