With a tagline that reads, 'Have you got what it takes?', Gareth Russell's new novel focuses on Meredith Harper, a rich, manipulative, popular and unnaturally beautiful 16 year old who rules not only her school but Belfast's social scene with a designer clad fist. Her entourage is composed of best friend Imogen Dawson, a sex-bomb in the making; Kerry Davison, who has a passion for pink and a penchant for 'Fabulous Induced Breakdowns'; and Cameron Matthews, a six-foot tall, blue eyed hottie who is the most popular boy in school. Together they're unfathomably gorgeous and the envy of all their peers. However under the glamorous surface of parties and spa days is a wealth of comforting lies and convenient silences, bitching, break-ups and scandal.
As the first installment of a new series, Popular definitely packs a punch. What makes it such compulsive reading is without a doubt the creation of the fabulously fierce Meredith Harper. She is no way the heroine of the novel, instead she is pure villain. In much the same way Wicked tells the story of what it takes to make a witch wicked, Popular illustrates what it takes to make a 16 year old popular. As Meredith plays one friend against another, actively encourages immoral behaviour to suit her own needs, and openly insults anyone not in her clique, Russell creates a character you will simply love to hate. However I am ashamed to say, at points I was also in awe of her. The main reason for this is that Gareth Russell refused to make her a one dimensional, stereotypical character. Instead Meredith has many layers. As well as being beautiful and rich and manipulative, she is extremely clever and her barbed remarks are legendary. However Russell also allows the reader rare glimpses of Meredith at her most vulnerable and as a result he illustrates the humanity she desperately tries to hide.
Popular illustrates that the villain is often the most enthralling character. The novel has a moral compass in the form of Mark Kingston, a friend of Cameron's and the anthitheses of Meredith. However his life, which seems him hanging out with friends at the front of Belfast City Hall and having a marathon Lord of the Rings session, pales in comparison to the fascinating life Meredith leads attending the province's most fashionable events and appearing in social magazines, including yours truly, Ulster Tatler. In fact, even though Mark despises Meredith with a passion, even he can't help but be drawn to her.
Packed with wicked humour, glamorous characters and razor sharp dialogue, Popular is likely to draw comparisons to the US hit Gossip Girl. Russell's expertly crafted novel is a hilariously refreshing read which is ingenious, entertaining and like nothing you have ever seen from Northern Ireland before. (Read entire review.)