We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both.
For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!
Book: “S.T.A.G.S.” by M.A. Bennett
Publishing Info: Penguin Teen, January 2018
Where Did We Get This Book: Kate received an ARC from NetGalley.
Genre Mash-Up: “Satire” and “School Story”
Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Greer, a scholarship girl at a prestigious private school, St Aidan the Great School (known as STAGS), soon realizes that the school is full of snobs and spoilt rich brats, many of whom come from aristocratic families who have attended the institute throughout the centuries. She’s immediately ignored by her classmates. All the teachers are referred to as Friars (even the female ones), but the real driving force behind the school is a group of prefects known as the Medievals, whose leader, Henry de Warlencourt, Greer finds both strangely intriguing as well as attractive. The Medievals are all good-looking, clever and everyone wants to be among their circle of friends. Greer is therefore surprised when she receives an invitation from Henry to spend a long weekend with him and his friends at his family house in the Lake District, especially when she learns that two other “outsiders” have also been invited: Shafeen and Chanel. As the weekend unfolds, Greer comes to the chilling realization that she and two other “losers” were invited only because they were chosen to become prey in a mad game of manhunt.
Yes, I did read and review this back at the beginning of the year. But when my genre mash-up came up in our Book Club drawing, I thought that perhaps “S.T.A.G.S.” should get a revisit through the lens of pure satire as opposed to teenage thriller. I thought that it was really just going to meet the requirements for our book club, but then something happened that brought it into a new focus: Brett Kavanaugh was nominated and confirmed for the Supreme Court, in spite of the fact that he was accused of attempted rape by a classmate from high school (not to mention a whole slew of other issues), with many people saying that his Yale credentials and good background meant that he couldn’t POSSIBLY be a sexual predator. All of a sudden, a book about privileged wealthy kids at a private school stepping on the less fortunate, all because they CAN, felt incredibly, incredibly relevant, and it caused my opinions of this book to evolve a bit.
So re-reading “S.T.A.G.S.” with these events in mind made it a sobering experience. This time, seeing Greer, Chanel, and Shafeen have to contend with the Medievals and their cat and mouse nonsense made me look a bit deeper into how this could be satirical as opposed to straight up survival YA popcorn. Seeing the action unfold again with a different lens made it a more chilling read, and my eyes were more eager to spot the little moments, be it when Greer is more willing to believe her rich, white counterparts over Shafeen in spite of damning evidence of wrongdoing, or presumptions that both Greer AND Nel have about Shafeen based on his heritage.
As satire I do think that it can be heavy handed at times, but over all I think that it works effectively. High school is always ripe for the picking when it comes to satirical possibilities, though it’s not as often you see it unfold in full on violence, though that’s probably more due to actual violence in schools being far too prevalent as opposed to creators not thinking about it. “S.T.A.G.S.” manages to tread a good line in making the points it wants to make, while still managing to mostly punch up. I enjoyed reading it again with these themes in mind.
I was excited to read this book when Kate said it would be our next bookclub pick. While not falling in my typical genre of reads, I had had it on my own personal reading list for a while. I like survival stories in general (though I’m often overtaken with judgement about plausibility and stupid choices, but that’s half the fun!) and I remember one of my favorite projects in highschool English had to do with re-creating scenes and a map (which I hand drew and was very proud of) for “The Most Dangerous Game.” So yes, in many ways this was right up my alley.
As Kate discussed, this also came at a pretty rough period in American politics so many of its themes struck a more somber note than they may have reading outside of the current environment. I liked a lot of the more up-front points being made about uber wealth and privilege as well as some of the more subtle comments that Kate alluded to. I would be curious to see how this story read in Great Britain which has a much longer history and different understanding of the type of class system on display here. American readers simply don’t have this type of background to layer onto our reading of this story and, even while I still was able to appreciate many of its larger point, I feel like some of these shades of criticism and even comprehension were lost on U.S. readers.
I very much liked our main character Greer. There were a few moments here and there where her plethora of cultural references could have been a bit much, but over all, I was so involved in the story and on-board with her character that I don’t think these distracted overly much. And there were a few key ones that really struck home with how a fan of media (movies, books, etc) would relate a new situation/scene to something they’ve read or seen in a film. And while there were definite moments where I wanted to shake her out of some of her more stupid decisions, overall she read as a very realistic protagonist. For the most part, she is clever and discerning, so her moments of weakness read as very believable. I mean, c’mon, it IS an unbelievable situation! Doubting their suspicions only makes sense.
My one criticism of the book had to do with the violence and introduction of the story. No, it wasn’t too much for a young adult novel. If anything, it felt too PG. I kept waiting for something truly terrible (in a life-ending way) to happen, but instead, all of the action and violence felt a bit toothless. In particular, there is one event that Greer references right in the beginning of the book, so the entire story is building towards it, supposedly. And then we get there and…it is not at all that thing. And even after the event, Greer insists on referring to it as her original concept, and I was just like “but…but…IT’S NOT THAT!” I don’t think this would have annoyed me so much if it hadn’t been for the fact that readers are teased about this event for the entire story. And then when this misdirection is combined with the relatively tame action of the story, it just felt like a bit of a let down.
But overall, I still very much enjoyed this book and it was a nice excuse to venture outside of my typical reading boundaries.
Kate’s Rating 8: “S.T.A.G.S.” held up pretty well the second time through, and reading it this time I was more in tune with the satirical elements about the haves subjugating the have nots, and how systems (as well as the compliance of other have nots) help them escape consequences.
Serena’s Rating 8: A stellar main character makes up for a few weaknesses as far as plotting and action.
Book Club Questions
- I picked “S.T.A.G.S.” for this book club choice because my theme was satire meets a school story. Do you think that the satire (of the wealthy privileged literally hunting the less fortunate) is effective?
- One of the biggest themes in this book is about privilege, and how those with it exploit and victimize those that don’t. How did Shafeen, Greer, and Nel’s interactions with the medievals and each other come off? So you think that these three had some privileges that others didn’t?
- What do you think Bennett was trying to say with Greer’s hesitance to believe that the Medievals were up to no good in spite of the evidence presented to her? Why do you think that she was more susceptible to believe the best of them as opposed to Nel and Shafeen (outside of her crush on Henry, that is)?
- Shafeen made up a story about feeding at a tiger’s tit to take the attention off of Nel, but tells Greer that he doesn’t live in a palace but is actually from a bustling city (though he does have royal roots). Why do you think he made up a story like that instead of telling a true story from his youth.
- What did you make of the Medievals rejection of technology and their categories of Medieval vs Savage? Do you think that Henry had a point about the ills of the internet?
- At the end it is revealed that even though Greer, Shafeen, and Nel have become the new prefects/medievals, the Abbot has been shielding and continuing the violence without their knowledge. What did you think of that revelation?
Find “S.T.A.G.S.” at your library using WorldCat!
Next Book Club Book: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”.