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.

BOOK REVIEW: THE GEOGRAPHY CLUB- BRENT HARTINGER

SUMMARY: Russel Middlebrook is convinced he’s the only gay kid at Goodkind High School. Then his online gay chat buddy turns out to be none other than Kevin, the popular but closeted star of the school’s baseball team. Soon Russel meets other gay students, too. There’s his best friend Min, who reveals that she is bisexual, and her soccer-playing girlfriend Terese. Then there’s Terese’s politically active friend, Ike. But how can kids this diverse get together without drawing attention to themselves?

“We just choose a club that’s so boring, that nobody in their right mind would ever in a million years join it. We could call it Geography Club!”

Brent Hartinger’s debut novel, what became first of a series about Russel Middlebrook, is a fast-paced, funny, and trenchant portrait of contemporary teenagers who may not learn any actual geography in their latest club, but who learn plenty about the treacherous social terrain of high school and the even more dangerous landscape of the human heart. This is Book 1 in the Russel Middlebrook Series.

THE PLOT: As far as the plot goes, this is your typical High School novel with an LGBT spin on it. We have the different clicks- the jocks, the girl jocks, the nerds, the lefty liberals, the outcasts- and all the drama that goes with this hierachy . We have the main character, our Fool, our Pilgrim, who travels to the lofty heights of popularity, and struggles to maintain his integrity in an environment where conformity is everything and bullying the weak is a sign of power.

It is everything you expect from a high school novel, but it works. It’s fast paced, flowing and every plot point is perfectly timed and  sincere. When Russel is under pressure, you feel that struggle, and you are routing for him every step of the way.

CHARACTERS: The thing that really makes this novel is the characters, and all of them are absolutely great.

Our main character is Russ Middlebrook, an adorkable gay nerd who’s dealing with being closeted in the homophobic American High School environment. Unlike a lot of teenage gay protagonists, he’s not self loathing or angsty (which would be understandable), but he’s pretty confident in who he is and just beginning to discover his sexual identity and explore his feelings for the first time, including milestones such as his first love and his first kiss.

He is optimistic, funny and tries to do the right thing but often falls short. He’s also prone to caving to peer pressure and getting swept away by his feelings, which is very realistic for someone his age and only serves to make him more relatable. I really enjoyed his narrative, which is light and humerous, although there was the odd occasion when he blatantly spelt out the obvious themes. I mean, sure teenagers are reading crap like House of Night and Twilight, but they also popularized The Hunger Games; they are able to understand what irony is without having forced Jesus references!

As for the rest of the cast, they are all winners. The book centers around the Geography Club- a group of friends who happen to be gay and who offer each other support and camaraderie . While LGBT relationships without fanfare are becoming more common in mainstream media, LGBT friendships are still uncommon so it was great to read about one. One of Hartinger’s biggest strengths as a writer is that he is very good at painting vivid characters very quickly, and in one well placed scene he can make his charaters feel more real than many other novelists do in an entire novel.Kimberley, for instance, is the gobby comic relief and all the scenes with her were really funny to read.

Special props have to go to our two main supporting characters: Min, Russel’s geeky best friend, and Kevin, the jock heart throb. Min is the ‘Lisa Simpson’ of this book, in that she is very smart, mature, left wing and has high moral standards to the point of being insufferable, and yet she is extremely likable. Her friendship with Russel is a definite high point and feels warm and genuine, without falling into the ‘gay guy and his gal pal’ trope.

Kevin is a compelling romantic lead, and even if ‘the hot jock is actually gay and falls in love with our every man gay protagonist’ is a cliche fantasy, this is done well. Their relationship is sweet and believable and every step and misstep feels natural.

The only weak point is Gunnar. Gunnar is Russel’s other best friend, he manipulates Russel into going on a double date with this girl, so that her best friend will go out with him. In order to do this, he essentially blackmails Russel into getting with a woman.

Look, I know that Gunnar is meant to have aspergers or something, but how he treats Russel is still reprehensible. He clearly has an idea that Russel is gay, but he tricks Russel into a situation where he would be forced to get intimate with a woman. This is really, really bad, and basically sexual coersion and is way too easily forgiven.

THE VERDICT: The Geography Club is a really enjoyable read and one I’ve read multiple times. Sure, sometimes it can beat you with its message over the head with all the subtlety and overkill of someone playing whack a mole with the hammer of Thor. But the writing his strong, the pacing is tight and it has a genuine heart and likable characters that will keep you engaged from start to finish.

RATING: 4 cool classmates you’ll stay friends with after graduation/ 5