ORDER OF THE POISON OAK (Russel MiddleBrook 2)- by Brent Hartinger

Blurb: Summer camp is different from high school. Something about spending the night. Things happen.

Geography Club’s Russel Middlebrook is back, and he and his friends are off to work as counselors at a summer camp. Brent Hartinger’s third novel is the story of Indian legends, skinny-dipping in moonlit coves, and passionate summer romance. It’s also the story of Russel’s latest club, The Order of the Poison Oak, a secret society dedicated to helping its members see life’s hidden beauty, and accept its sometimes painful sting.

Review: Order of The Poison Oak is the second book in the Russ Middlebrook series, following The Geography Club,  and takes our three best friends, Russel, Min and Gunnar, out of High School and into a Summer Camp for children who are burn survivors. After the complete dramatic car crash that was Russel’s coming out, he understandably wants a break from being The Gay Kid and a chance to be himself. But of course, dealing with a set of gobby tweens proves to be a handful, and he soon finds himself in a competition with Min over the affections of the sexy camp leader Web.

The characters: As usual, the characters are great. Thanks to the Ever Complicating power of bisexuality and its superpower to create love dodecahedrons, Min and Russel are now romantic rivals competing for the same guy. They compete, but their friendship is as deep and enjoyable to read as ever.and it develops still, remaining one of my favorite aspects of the series.

Gunnar is more tolerable this time, being as his actions are less terrible (I still haven’t forgiven him for what he did in Geography Club), and his story is of a guy who (almost certainly) has aspergers syndrome dealing with his awkwardness around girls. His said love interest, Em, is great, with a dry sense of humour and a Cool Nerd Girl personality that makes her a great addition to the book and, like with Brenda from the previous book, I wish she’d become a permanent cast member. But while she’s in this book, she’s great fun.

Our other stand out is Otto, a burn survivor who is volunteering at the camp who is fun and likeable, and only gets better in later books. I also like the sexy Web (what an appropriate name), the object of desire and a complete tease. He is the spear counterpart to the femme fatale, and although being a YA novel, there’s not a lot of sex but Casanova once said that the sexiest part of any encounter is the walk to bedroom, and the sexual tension that rises whenever he’s around is palpable.

The Plot: While the previous book followed a tried and tested High School popularity/ Mean Girls sort of plot, the plot for this one was iffier. It worked, and it served to allow the characters  a chance to develop and interact (and chase the sexy, sexy guy), it did at times feel like it was here to teach us a Very Special Lesson about looks not being everything, but the strong characterisation saved it from falling too deeply into that trap.

One good thing was Russel assuming because he’s gay that he’s automatically on a higher plane of tolerance and is ready to be oh so kind to the poor little burns kids, but they turn out to be nightmares at first. Russel learns that just because he’s gay doesn’t make him immune from having a white savior complex, which was a nice twist and this character flaw made Russel  more appealing.

The kids had character, and I liked that Russel genuinely struggled to not obsess over theirs (and Otto’s) scars and to be modern accepting, but falls short. The only problem is that we did get a cringe worthy road to understanding with a face palm inducing scene describing Otto’s inner beauty when Otto began to play the guitar which felt cheesey and like I was being taught a lesson about looks by a primary school teacher.I love this series, it’s one I’ve read multiple times but it does have an exasperating lack of subtlety.Luckily, Otto’s a strong and appealing character so as painful as that scene was, it didn’t transform him from a character into a lesson.

Verdict: The plot is a lot shakier than the last, but the characters are just as loveable as usual and I enjoyed Min and Russel’s friendship deepening and seeing how the chaos caused by our sexy love interest would play out. If you read the first, I’d definitely give this a shot.

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