Monday, 7 August 2017

S.T.A.G.S, M Bennett

It was a bit like that bit in Beauty and the Beast when the Beast dances with Belle. Except there was no Belle. And no music. And no candlelight. Just a beast.

It is the autumn term and Greer MacDonald is struggling to settle into the sixth form at the exclusive St. Aidan the Great boarding school, known to its privileged pupils as S.T.A.G.S. Just when she despairs of making friends Greer receives a mysterious invitation with three words embossed upon on it: huntin' shootin' fishin'. When Greer learns that the invitation is to spend the half term weekend at the country manor of Henry de Warlencourt, the most popular and wealthy boy at S.T.A.G.S., she is as surprised as she is flattered.

But when Greer joins the other chosen few at the ancient and sprawling Longcross Hall, she realises that Henry's parents are not at home; the only adults present are a cohort of eerily compliant servants. The students are at the mercy of their capricious host, and, over the next three days, as the three bloodsports - hunting, shooting and fishing - become increasingly dark and twisted, Greer comes to the horrifying realisation that those being hunted are not wild game, but the very misfits Henry has brought with him from school

* * *
3 / 5

I don't often read books of the thriller variety, but this one was a special treat for me, mostly because there wasn't that much actual thriller. It's got all the staples of a classic YA boarding school story: rich kids, fancy buildings, pretentious British house names, privilege, power,  and bullying, and adds a little hint of thriller. S.T.A.G.S was easy to read and had a couple of likeable, realistic main characters.

Maybe I accepted it because I was lonely. Or maybe, if I'm being honest, I accepted it because it came form the best-looking boy in the school

First, we have Greer. She's a bit of an archetype initially: poor girl who gets scholarship to one of the most prestigious schools in England, doesn't really fit in with all the rich kids and is excluded. Bennett gives Greer a splash of individual character by making her a complete film nut and she often describes scenes in terms of famous films, which is pretty cool and unique. Greer, social recluse (not by choice), is thrilled to receive an invitation to spend a holiday "huntin' shootin' fishin'" at the manor of Henry de Warlencourt alongside the rest of the Medievals, the elite group of six Sixth-form students. 

Joining Greer is Shafeen, tall, handsome and from Rajasthan in India, teased despite his moneyed background and branded with the moniker "Punjabi Playboy" despite being neither Punjabi nor a playboy. He's my favourite character of the book: kind, chivalrous without being sexist, rich whilst being aware of what is has done for his life, sensible and headstrong. The third individual to receive The Invitation is "Carphone Chanel", also new to STAGS, whose only mistake is to have the "wrong kind" of money, living the Gatsby lifestyle. 

It wasn't just the stockings that marked them out; it was a particular kind of confidence they had about them. They lolled about like expensive cats

When the three outcasts accept Henry's invitation to a weekend of blood sports, they aren't quite sure what they're getting in for. The first fifth of the book is set in the school, building up to the trip, and it's a solid start. Bennett definitely knows how to write; Greer's voice was very engaging and Bennett clearly did their research as regards hunting. Shafeen, Chanel, and Greer all accept The Invitation for different reasons but as the trip goes on and the stakes get higher, they begin to think that there is something very wrong about Longcross Estate. That perhaps this hunt is not quite what they thought. 

This book doesn't rate higher for me because of a couple of details. First of all, Greer spends a lot of time waxing lyrical about how beautiful Henry is, about how charming and delightful his lifestyle is. Now, I don't blame her for buying into the illusion, to be seduced by the allure of the rich, but I don't need to hear about how much she likes his face every three paragraphs. This normally happens when the action and suspense of the book lulls; there are parts that I thought could have been cut in order to preserve the quick pace and emotional engagement of the book, like Greer's chats with her maid or her traipsing round map rooms. There also needed to be more to differentiate the other five members of the Medievals: all I could recall about them was that the two guys drank too much and the three women were beautiful but intelligent. That's it. 

I might have been academically smart, but I was monumentally stupid not to realise sooner what was going on. It's not as if I wasn't warned.

I did think the suspense aspect of STAGS was done really well. Like I said, I'm not a massive thriller fan, but I thought this book hit the right note for me. There's that vague, ominous sense that something isn't quite right conveyed throughout the book, though you aren't quite sure what it is. What was quite surprising was the introduction of quite an important plot point at about 85% the way through the book; this aspect felt rushed and a bit predictable. It did result in quite an impactful ending, however.

Overall, I found S.T.A.G.S to be a quick, easy read that tries to instigate a bit of thought about class,  morality, wealth, and the role of technology in our lives, but is mostly just a fun thriller. 

My thanks to Netgalley, the publisher, and the author for an ARC of this book. 

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