Thursday 21 June 2012

A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin–part 2 (pages 410-805)

Contains spoilers

Eddard Stark has been trying his hand at a bit of detective work. He suspects that his brother-in-law Jon Arryn was murdered by the evil Queen Cersei – but why. What dangerous knowledge did he discover? One might think that Ned might use a bit of caution when reveals that he too is in possession of the knowledge that got Arryn killed, but no. Honour is what Ned Stark lives by, and to keep the truth concealed would be dishonour. Of course, as soon as he threatens to tell the king his wife’s secret, the King is conveniently killed in a hunting accident. In discussion with sneaky Petyr “Littlefinger” on the subject of the next king, for the first time I sided with Littlefinger’s prudence against Ned’s honour. He lived by his honour, and when it leads to him being accused of treason, he dies by it. This did not surprise me, because, as I’d mentioned before, I’d seen a clip of this scene in a “Life and deaths of Sean Bean” montage on Youtube. The aftermath of Eddard’s execution was painful to read – first, the chapter back at Winterfell, where Bran Stark and his youngest brother Rickon are ignorant of their father’s fate but troubled by the same vivid dreams about him. Meanwhile, eleven-year-old Sansa Stark, who has been besotted with her fiance Prince – now King – Joffrey, has seen too late what he is really like, and now there is no escaping marriage to her father’s killer. And what's worse, she has to like it.

I wrote in my last post that A Game of Thrones was bringing out a rather vicious side to me, when I expressed a wish for Viserys “still not king” Targaryen to come to “an ignominious, snivelling end.” This came a lot sooner than I had expected, before he’d even crossed the seas to the Seven Kingdoms – a really horrible, shocking death. But it was very satisfying. At first we had seen Viserys through his sister’s eyes – a bullying brute with a terrible temper, who ruled her by fear. But Daenerys was a fourteen-year-old girl. When she is wedded to a chieftain of the Dothraki, a culture of horse-lord warriors, while they see Viserys as I did: a bratty, spoilt would-be king of a foreign land. Daenerys, on the other hand, just grows in authority to become a stern queen. A Game of Thrones is rife with sexism, especially in the Dothraki culture, but Daenerys won’t have any of it. I’m not talking about “sexism” as is often an accusation in fantasy: a mostly-male cast with women only as wives and maidens, or a conservative view that men should be men, women should be women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri ought to be small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. This book is full of out-and-out misogyny, women are treated as men’s property to do with what they will. There were several instances of me wanting to lob A Game of Thrones across the room, and I would have done if I owned the copy. So the fact that Dany says NO. This is Not Okay comes as a relief, and perhaps makes me like her more than someone else with similar levels of character development, due to my anger at what had come before.

One of the few things I thought I knew about this book before reading it was that “someone gives birth to dragons,” but I was sure I’d grabbed the wrong end of the stick there and embarrassed myself by announcing it. But I was much closer than I’d realised. It took me longer to really get attached to Daenerys’ story, because she was more or less unconnected with the other stories told in this volume, being the other side of the ocean. But the last couple of chapters were wonderful storytelling: twisty and devastating and brilliant. Martin broke the rules of storytelling by setting up a great prophecy about a future character – and then killing off the character at birth. So what was the point of that whole subplot? Why didn’t the crones predict that? I found that frustrating and amazing at the same time - I love stories that defy conventions of what may or may not happen. With Martin, it seems there is no may not. I was more impressed by the whole subplot about exchanging a death for a life, with its twists and betrayals, than the final image of Daenerys emerging from her husband’s funeral pyre carrying three baby dragons, as a red comet streaked across the sky. Which is a pretty impressive image.

Next up: A Clash of Kings. The Seven Kingdoms are certainly at war now, with about six contenders for the Iron Throne, some of whom are sympathetic, some decidedly not, and the one currently seated upon in it a nasty piece of work indeed. I expect this war will rage on throughout the entire series – the five books so far and however many are still inside George Martin’s head. Battle scenes don’t interest me much, and another six volumes (books 3 and 5 are split in two in their paperback format) of battle scenes fill me with trepidation – but I can tell that there is enough story to fill the pages alongside the “swording and politics.” I’ve reached the end of everything I’d been spoiled about, except for one phrase that makes no sense out of context anyway. I have absolutely no idea what to expect, except that it’s going to be awesome.

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Sunday 17 June 2012

A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin– part 1 (p.1-410)

contains spoilers
The story so far:

Several years ago, the old king was deposed by men of the houses of Lannister, Stark and Baratheon, to be replaced on the throne by Robert Baratheon. When Robert’s right-hand man dies, he offers the position of Hand to Eddard “Ned” Stark. Ned is an upright and honourable man, but such men are few, and treachery is rife. His sister-in-law, widow of the former Hand, suspects that her husband was murdered, and Ned’s son has suffered a terrible fall in suspicious circumstances. While all this tension is going on, Viserys Targaryen, descendent of the deposed king, is plotting to return from exile and take back the throne by force.

A Game of Thrones is a story that spans an entire continent and beyond, a great, sprawling saga. George R. R. Martin’s worldbuilding is impressive, often a little overwhelming with the sheer number of names one has to take in, but not as overwhelming as I’d feared. He plunges drops the reader straight into his world without interrupting the pace for exposition. We are told what we need to know when we need to know it, and Martin writes with respect for his readers’ intellect, trusting us to pick up on the important details. It is the small things, little customs and details that bring home to us that this is a foreign world with different ways. Martin casually writes of a nine-year summer – is this literal? Metaphorical? A bit of both, I suspect – this world turns differently, and there is snow even in summer. But winter is coming, we are reminded in the Stark’s family motto. The good times are coming to an end.

The jacket blurb writes of “characters so venomous they could eat the Borgias,” and I confess this put me off the series for a long time. I don’t like reading about unpleasant characters. But central to the story are the Stark family who are solid, dependable characters, generally good eggs with a strict code of honour. I was pleased to find that we see from the point of view of Ned’s children – Robb, Sansa, Arya and Bran, as well as his illegitimate son Jon Snow. (Snow being the designated surname for nameless children in Winterfell, another of those wonderful little details that bring this world to life.) I’m particularly fond of 9-year-old tomboy Arya, so young and yet so sparky. Yes, there are some highly unpleasant characters in Queen Cersei and Viserys “still not king” Targaryen, the latter of whom I had not spent two pages with before wishing him an ignominious, snivelling end. I challenged Mr Martin to “make me care” before setting out on this adventure; well, I suspect having such a strong and specific death wish for one of the characters counts as caring, does it not?

Aside from the Starks, I don’t trust anyone in this story. There is so much treachery underfoot that I am wary of everyone, old friends or acquaintances or newcomers who know too much. I’m not sure what to make of the King – except that I imagine him played by BRIAN BLESSED, this is fact for me! – he’s an old friend of Ned’s, but kinging (his verb) has changed him. “You knew the man,” Catelyn Stark tells her husband. “The king is a stranger to you.” Robert is equally wholehearted in his loves and his hates, bringing Ned to court as a valuable counsellor, but ultimately his pride won’t actually listen to Ned’s counsel. Robert has a better nature, of that I’m sure, but it is buried beneath his pride and desire for revenge.

At the point I’ve reached so far, Ned and Catelyn Stark are trying to find out the truth behind the suspicions about Jon Arryn’s death. They, and I, are pretty certain that the Lannister twins: Queen Cersei and Jaime, are responsible – but why? We also know that they tried to kill seven-year-old Bran once, but a second assassination attempt happened, and Catelyn has had their brother Tyrion arrested. Now, Tyrion has been a viewpoint character for several chapters, and I’ve grown to like him, despite, or more probably because of all his snark and surliness.* I don’t want him to be responsible – but he is a Lannister, and though he is the black sheep of the family, I’ve yet to see how deep Lannister loyalty goes in him. Meanwhile, the consequences of the Starks’ mistrust can only be disastrous – I’m not quite sure what’s kept the houses of Stark and Lannister from slaughtering each other yet, and am expecting war between the houses, and others, with every turn of the page.

I don’t trust anyone, least of all the author. I’ve been warned how tricksy and ruthless he is. Unfortunately, this warning has led me to have a bit of a game of “who’s going to die?” which could potentially spoil shocking moments later on. Again, I will see. + It won’t take long. Martin keeps me hanging on by wanting to know a bit more about the murder mystery, or the political situation, or most of all the characters. A Game of Thrones is another “one more chapter” book, especially because each chapter switches to another character or another setting and I go to close the book and then think, “ooh, I’ll just look to see what [Arya/Eddard/Tyrion/Jon, etc] has been up to.”

So far, there has not been so much swording or politics as I had expected, which was all I really knew about this book. It was a pleasant surprise to see the focus on the youngsters, especially Arya and Bran – and more so to find that some of the swording has been by Arya, if only in practice. I love that kid! Hoping to see a lot more of her.

But winter is coming.

*Though not a generally comic book, Martin has an eye for the ridiculous, and my favourite moment is when, as they enter a battle, various characters shout out their battle cries, Tyrion is tempted for a moment to join in with “Casterly Rock!”
+I know Sean Bean dies. Sean Bean is notorious for dying. And I reckon there’s only one character he could play. Bother.

Thursday 14 June 2012

In which I embark on a new adventure: A Game of Thrones

For the last year, since Sky Atlantic started showing HBO's adaptation of the epic fantasy series, I've been unable to escape reading and hearing about A Game of Thrones. A lot. All the time. From every direction. I've lost count of how many of my friends have told me I should read this series, or have been surprised that I haven't, or threatened to disown me and/or hit me over the head with the Dance With Dragons hardback if I didn't at least give the series a try. But I wasn't sure this was for me. I like my fantasy epics, although I've read less high fantasy in the last few years, but all I knew about A Song of Ice and Fire was that it was about fantasy world politics. And swording. Lots of swording. Lots of death.
But people are dropping references to this series everywhere, and I'm seeing people reading it on public transport, or people are buying it, and I'm starting to think this is a thing I want to be part of. I want to join  see it at work and can't help taking a peek - and read a page or two. This series is calling to me and now I am answering the call. My colleague Maria has lent me the first book, A Game of Thrones, which I will start reading and reviewing shortly. (As it's such a whopper of a book, I may review it a bit at a time, if I have enough to say about it. But not a chapter at a time as I gather there are many, many, short chapters, and that would just be silly.)

I still don't know a lot about this series, am not sure whether I will love it or not. I'm giving it a few days after Lord of the Rings because how can it compare? And I'm well aware that, apart from being epic fantasy doorstops, killing off Sean Bean in the adaptation and being written by slightly curmudgeonly old chaps with two Rs for middle names, these are completely different stories. It's like when people try to lump together Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, or Harry Potter and Twilight, or Twilight and The Hunger Games - all completely different genres within the wider genre of fantasy. Do not show your ignorance in such matters! Just don't do it. 

All I know, or think I know about A Game of Thrones is:

  • there are swording and politics
  • Pages and pages of family trees at the back of the books.
  • Sean Bean is in it, and therefore dies. (I think I know how he dies, because I may have seen a spoiler clip in one of those The Many Deaths of Sean Bean videos on Youtube, but I don't know who he plays.)
  • George R. R. Martin has no problem with killing off anyone - never mind if you think their survival is necessary for the story, or common decency, or because you like them. Don't trust him with anyone you like.
  • A few character names: Ned Stark, Daenerys, Jon Snow, Joffrey.
  • Everybody hates Joffrey.
  • Someone gives birth to dragons. Is this right? Is this literal or metaphorical, and does it make any more sense in context or have I got completely the wrong end of the stick? Please don't actually answer this. 
  • That is about it.
Right now I'm only committing to reading the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, because there are a lot of pages to get through, in one book alone, if I don't like it. Two of the books have been split in half for the paperback publication, presumably so that there is a hope of getting to the end of a volume without the book falling to bits. My challenge to George R. R. Martin is this: Make me care. 

Wednesday 13 June 2012

In which I reread Lord of the Rings and get far too emotionally involved. Again.

I recently rediscovered my wonderful Lord of the Rings soundtrack CDs... and when I heard that music, I couldn't do anything but watch the films again. Which, of course, got me longing to reread the book. (Which, in turn, made me want to see the films. Again.) I really like to savour Lord of the Rings. Back in the early 2000s, when the films were new, I would reread the books annually, but since then my to-read list has grown too long for this to be practical. Still, Lord of the Rings is one of my top three books of all time, and one that changed my life. I like to really savour that book, and I allowed myself to read just one chapter per night, before going to bed. (Sweet dreams!)

Around this time, I discovered, in which Mark Oshiro reads and reviews popular novels and series, one chapter at a time, completely unspoiled - and Lord of the Rings was one of these. His catchphrase is You are not prepared, and it's a joyful experience to read his thoughts on each chapter, predictions for the future, reactions to plot twists and character developments - reading along with him is like discovering the story for the first time, all over again.

Perhaps it was because I was reading Mark's LotR reviews after each chapter, but on this reading I really felt as though I were in the story with the hobbits. I'd feel Frodo's fear and heartbreak about leaving the Shire to go on this deadly mission. As the hobbits climbed up the stairs of Cirith Ungol, I kid you not, I felt horrible vertigo. It surprised me, again, just how much this book got under my skin. I'd read this book many times in the past eleven years, and yet, I thought, I'd never read it properly till now. (I'm sure I think that every time.) I spent my days wishing for the evening, so I could read the next chapter - though there was nothing stopping me reading on but myself. And when at last I reached the end, there was a terrible sad emptiness. I didn't want to leave Middle-Earth.

I am always surprised by how much this story drags me in. I think to myself, I love this story, but I've grown out of obsessing over it like I did when I was 17. No. No I haven't. Lord of the Rings consumes me like no other book I've ever read, or am ever likely to again. Because it's not just a fantasy about wizards and orcs and magical jewelery and quests. It's a story about ordinary people who become extraordinary, not due to wizardly powers or magic trinkets, but through their inner qualities: courage, friendship, love, and the determination to keep going when everything seems hopeless.

So I must say farewell to Middle-Earth, for a little while, but I shall return before the year is out, to read The Hobbit before the film adaptation hits cinemas, nine years (!) after Return of the King. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

The Scorpio Races, Maggie Stiefvater

Every year, the cappail uisce, wild water horses, come out of the sea onto the isle of Thisby. Captured and trained for the Scorpio Races, there is no real taming of these beasts, and to ride them is to take one’s life in one’s hands. Kate “Puck” Connolly, an orphan, is the first female volunteer for the Scorpio Races. Entering on her beloved mare Dove - a land horse - in an attempt to keep herself and brother from being evicted from their home, she meets with not a little opposition from traditionalists. But she has an unexpected ally in Sean Kendrick, four-time winner of the races. But Sean, too, risks everything in the race. Only one can win, while the other must lose all they care about.

She’s done it again! I adore Maggie Stiefvater’s evocative, sensual prose. With a few choice phrases, I could visualise the island of Thisby, all rugged and windswept. I could hear the crashing of the waves, the pounding of the horses’ hooves. Although Stiefvater keeps it ambiguous where and when this island is, I was reminded of my trip to Ireland a few years ago - there is a very Celtic feel to this place, a community steeped in tradition and changeless over the centuries. It’s a tiny community, old-fashioned and insular, with tourists flocking there at October and November to witness the races that are like none other. (I love Stiefvater’s story about all the cliffs she had to visit as research for this book.)

And the water horses! Years ago I fell in love with a trilogy called The Bitterbynde by Cecelia Dart-Thornton, which drew on so many forgotten myths and fairytales (one day I’ll dig out my old reviews of these books and post them here) but most memorable to me were the water horses - each uisge in that version. And in that version, the each uisge shape-shifted into handsome young men before sweeping their victims off to a watery grave. At first I was a little disappointed that this aspect of the myth didn’t feature in The Scorpio Races, but that would have been too much to fit into the novel. It worked perfectly well without what Stiefvater later described as “the creepy red-headed water boys with kelp in their hair.” In fact, it worked much more than “perfectly well.”
Slea Head, Co. Kerry

Both Puck and Sean are desperately trying to hold onto the things they love - in Puck’s case, the island and her home, in Sean’s case his cappal uisce, Corr. But times are changing, and it’s hard to carry on their way of life in a changing world. If Thisby isn’t exactly the island time forgot, time hasn’t been paying it an awful lot of attention. Jobs are scarce and the young people are gradually leaving the island for a more prosperous future on the mainland. (Boy, that strikes a chord with this island-based blogger!) 

Thisby and its residents get under your skin and into your blood. The Scorpio Races is a wild and exhilarating read - once the race had begun, I held my breath for a long time. How would this end? Could both the characters have a happy ever after? I felt guilty for backing either narrator, because victory for one must surely mean heartbreak for the other - and I wanted so desperately for them both to get their hearts’ desire.

The Scorpio Races is a definite “one more chapter” book - I’d intend to close the book, and the next thing I knew I’d got through another fifty or so pages. Highly recommended!

Sunday 10 June 2012

The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow, the sole inhabitant of Eel Marsh House [… ] It is not until he glimpses a wasted young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black - and her terrible purpose.  
 - from the cover blurb 

The Woman in Black is written as a classic gothic horror story. We first meet Arthur many years after the events at Eel Marsh House, but he is still haunted by all that occurred. The very fact that Susan Hill used this framing device, led me to feel anxious that maybe there would be unfinished business, that what happened might not be over at all, but that the past would intrude on the present.

Arthur Kipps is by now in middle age, with grown-up stepchildren who indulge themselves in some Christmas Eve ghost story-telling, but Arthur protests that living in a ghost story is very different from reading one. This story is different, is the message he - and Hill - send out. "Prove it," said I, because, after all, here I was reading this story to be entertained.

The Woman in Black is a very short novel, at just 160 pages, but it is also a rather slow read. Susan Hill excels in creating a spooky atmosphere, beginning in a London that I almost believed to be written by Charles Dickens, full of smog and fog and a sniffly solicitor’s clerk “with an air of suffering and melancholy that put them in mind of Last Wills and Testaments - whatever the business they had actually come to the lawyer about.” We then move to an unspecified, isolated part of the country. Eel Marsh House is, as you might expect, surrounded by marshland and smothering sea-mists - a lonely place, especially when you take into account that the causeway leading to the mainland is only traversable at certain times. Even when in the village, Arthur is isolated from the locals, who know far more about the old house than they are letting on. Arthur recognises all the signs of being in a gothic novel - yet somehow manages to miss the fact that he really is living in a gothic novel. Despite his best efforts, he is unprepared for what awaits him at Eel Marsh House.

The story is rather a slight one - Arthur Kipps sees a ghostly figure dressed in black, and weird, creepy and impossible things happen when he’s alone in the house. The book’s strength is in the eerie atmosphere, but although I could admire Hill’s writing from the point of view of one who has studied gothic literature, it was as an outsider. Kipps’ narration is dry and detached, the matter-of-fact relating of experiences that he’s trying not to even think about, and here I felt that the storytelling fell down. Despite his earlier insistence that this was not like reading a horror story - for me it was exactly like reading a horror story. I didn’t connect to what was going on, or feel any sense of real danger. So what if a formerly locked door was open or if a rocking chair was rocking by itself? Kipps might tell me that the Woman in Black had a hostile air about her, but I didn’t feel threatened. Only in the last few pages, when we discovered the Woman’s identity and story, did I get a vague sense that something terrible could happen, and when it did, it was all so abrupt that it felt like a tacked-on ending.

As well as the recent Hammer film starring Daniel Radcliffe, The Woman in Black has been adapted for the stage, and every account of this play is of a terrifying experience. I’m not good with scary films or plays, but I do like the occasional creepy book. I was disappointed that The Woman in Black was not that book. Probably this was a fault with the way I read it rather than with the writing: objectively I admired the prose, but it did not affect me at all. I would be curious to see if this story is more effective in the visual media - I felt more frightened just watching the film’s trailer.

Thursday 7 June 2012

TV: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1988)

They don't make kids' TV like they used to. Fact.

The Lion...
As a child, I watched very little television indeed, but perhaps that made the programmes and dramas I did watch all the more special. In particular, I have a soft spot for the old Sunday night dramas the BBC used to show in the run-up to Christmas: six-part adaptations of classic children's literature. The Phoenix and the Carpet was one, and The Borrowers ran to two series, which remained buried deep enough in my subconscious that on my first viewing of Lord of the Rings, many years later, I saw Ian Holm's Bilbo Baggins and my brain screamed "IT'S POD!" But no drama can live up to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I would have been just about three, and almost certainly this would have been my first encounter with the story, but I have no memories of seeing it for the first time. I've just always known that story.

In later years, we had a taped-off-the-TV video of an animated adaptation, which now I think is... not very good. Back then, I viewed it as fair, but not "the real thing." My grandmother was the custodian of the (mostly) live-action mini-series, and to watch this was a rare treat. As far as I was concerned, this was the book come to life off the page.

The music of the opening titles is the closest thing I've found in the real world to magic, and it brings tears to my eyes. It evokes the reality of magic, and the knowledge that if I went into my wardrobe, maybe I would find my way into Narnia. Or, alternatively, I could stick pictures to the back of the wardrobe, imagine myself there, and it would be just as real, just as good. There was none of the wistfulness of knowing that the real world just isn't as exciting as the world of the imagination, because as far as my younger self was concerned, they were the same thing.

...The Witch...
Of course, in 2005, Walt Disney Pictures brought out their Hollywood film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I have no complaint with their treatment of my beloved story. (The sequels left a fair bit to be desired, but I can count even teeny, minor criticisms of L, W & W on my thumbs.)

The BBC mini-series is very much a product of its time, with theatrical over-acting and a quaint combination of costumes and animation for special effects. We've got a dwarf with a broad Yorkshire accent, beavers who resemble lisping potatoes, and an Aslan who, if he opens his mouth wide enough, reveals a man inside a lion suit. And yet, all this fades away, leaving the storytelling to do the work. Watching it now, I was pleasantly surprised how well it stood the test of time in an age of 3D, CGI and Blu-ray, proving that above everything else, what is needed is a good story. The casting is wonderful - I love the hammy White Witch, plummy-voiced, blinky older brother Peter, the freckled and resentful Edmund, Susanish Susan and round, toothy Lucy.

...and the Wardrobe
The BBC also adapted three other Narnia books: Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which were put together as a six-parter, and The Silver Chair. I saw The Silver Chair, which features Doctor Who's Tom Baker as a marvellous Puddleglum, while still a child, and once again I found it was close to perfect, but I was older and more critical of the Prince Caspian/Dawn Treader adaptation - it was a bit rushed and I thought Caspian really ought not to have such childish curls - but even so, with its limited budget and dated special effects, I feel that it captured the essence of the original stories better than its more cinematic Hollywood remakes.

Sunday 3 June 2012

Some Girls Are, Courtney Summers

Regina Afton has worked hard to get to the top of the high school hierarchy. She's sacrificed a lot: her friends, her integrity, her conscience. When an incident at a party sparks off vicious and untrue rumours, she finds herself despised and alone, learning first-hand just what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the bullying she used to help deal out.

The mean-girl drama is nothing new in teen literature. I've reviewed similar books here at the blog: Speak, Before I Fall and Getting Revenge on Lauren Wood - and, of course, the name Regina not-so-subtly recalls Mean Girls. Some Girls Are was a pretty dark version of the story, unflinching in dealing with the inventive cruelty of teenage girls. In many such stories the victim wins out with their goodness, or rise above the pettiness of their peers by discovering their inner depths. But in this novel, the bad guys getting their just desserts would not be satisfying: after all, that is what this story's all about.

Regina's been a mean girl too long. She demonstrates feelings of regret and self-loathing for the popular girl she used to be, but she has faked so much in order to fit into the inner circle that she's lost touch with her inner goodness and decency. It's in there, but buried so deep that no one can see it any more. Regina is a complex narrator, and I wasn't quite sure how to view her. I wanted to sympathise with her, but she'd done some terrible things. Did she deserve all the abuse heaped upon her? "Nobody deserves that," said Michael, the closest thing Regina has to an ally all through her ordeal. We're not shown Regina's former cruelty first-hand, and though we see the results, she holds back from telling too much about what she'd done to make two thirds of her school actively hate her. I felt that Regina was an unreliable narrator, toning down the events of the past, censoring herself so as not to utterly alienate her audience. Something didn't quite ring true between how Regina presented herself on the page, and how her classmates saw her - 300 enemies are a lot. I also wanted to shake Regina at times for walking into the mean girls' traps, and giving them power over her.

Regina is not one to take bullying lying down, and it turns into an ugly war of revenge for revenge, spiraling out of control. For me, like for Regina, it was temporarily satisfying to see the bullies getting a taste of their own medicine, but that satisfaction is quickly replaced with unease and anxiety for what would happen next. I felt sure that the situation would escalate into disaster or tragedy, because I could not see either side backing down. Ultimately, I found the conclusion hugely anticlimactic and boggled at the author's decision to end the book the way that she did. Is that it? I wondered.

It's reading books like this that I feel grateful that I was never popular at school, with fewer expectations to live up to or compromises to make. Not that I was entirely guiltless in these matters, still moderating my Katie-ness (in fact in those days I was Kathy, not Katie, a more significant thing that you might think) in an attempt not to give people within and outside my "friendship" group reasons to pick on me. But the cost of fitting into a clique such as the Fearsome Fivesome is too high to ever be worthwhile.

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