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

REVIEW: BAREFOOT IN THE CITY OF BROKEN DREAMS(Russel Middlebrook: The Futon Years Book 2) – by Brent Hartinger

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AMAZON SYNOPSIS: “There was no way moving to Los Angeles was going to make me give up my soul. After all, I’d already seen all the movies about Hollywood. I knew how things worked.”

Twenty-four year-old Russel Middebrook and his boyfriend have moved to Los Angeles so Russel can try to make it as a screenwriter.

Almost right away, in a forgotten old house off of Sunset Boulevard, Russel meets Isaac Brander, a once-famous film producer who is convinced he can turn Russel’s screenplay into a movie.

Russel knows that success can’t possibly come this easy. After all, most of Russel’s Los Angeles friends are so desperate to make it that it’s downright scary. His ex-boyfriend, Otto, is trying everything to become an actor, and Daniel, the sexy neighbor, doesn’t even need a casting couch to get naked.

So what’s the catch with Mr. Brander? Could it be that movies about Hollywood don’t tell the whole truth? But what does that mean for Russel’s soul?

REVIEW: Honestly, my feelings towards the book are that this is an excellent story of a young man’s struggle to become a writer in Hollywood… which is totally undermined by its connection to the Russ Middlebrook series.

The plot: Everything about it was so well researched, and well paced. The mystery behind Brander , the charismatic former producer offering Russel a deal that’s too good to be true, was intriguing, and it constantly threw new hooks and twists at me at the exact right moment that kept me reading on, leading to an excellent payoff that was  utterly inevitable and utterly gutting… if i actually had any investment in Russel’s dream as a screenwriter. Unfortunately, this is my first big problem which was caused by its connection to the main series.

Russel spent three books not showing any interest in writing, and he spent the entire previous book not being interested in writing until the final chapter where gay-icon-fairy-godmother Vernie tells him maybe he should become a writer.Not because he’s talented, but he’s special. Now writing’s his LIFE LONG DREAM (of five minutes) that he’ll risk EVERYTHING for. Yeah, this wasn’t well set up and that really undermined the story. My internal questioning of Russel and his screen writing desire felt a lot like this:

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Brick’s love of lamp… still more built up than Russel’s screenwriting career.

The fact that i enjoyed it in spite of this gaping flaw says a lot about its quality, especially since this book contains so many things that I couldn’t care less about. I couldn’t care less about old school Hollywood or the inumerous references he throws in. If i ever became Queen of the world, I would ban writers writing about writing, because a) you’re a writer, you can literally be anything or anyone and create whole new worlds, yet you chose to write about yourself. That is beyond unimaginative b) it always ends up feeling self indulgent. Always.

The Cast: The series has always been a slice of life romance at its heart, which focused on love, friendship,acceptance and Russel’s human relationships.This sadly, is where this book truly deviates from the series. This book focuses purely on Russel’s ambition, and not on any of his human relationships.  The biggest clue that this was never truly meant to be part of the series is the loss of Min (whom I love) and Gunnar (whom I hate- but I’ve learned to tolerate), his two most important friendships. Still, the other characters that were there were good (well, except for Love Interest Kevin who I’ll get to later).

The Otto sideplot was one of its strongest, and its only real spiritual connection this book had to the main series. When I was first introduced to Otto in The Order Of The Poison Oak, I thought he was just going to be the token non-conventional attractive love interest, there to teach us a lesson about looks not being everything … before we go back to fantasizing about the good looking ripped, macho baseball stud.

Okay, Otto is completely the token not hot love interest (like hell was he ever going to be the series love interest over sexy Kevin), but he’s proven to be so much more. He’s funny, confident in who he is and more level headed than our melodramatic protagonist.

In all honestly, I wish we were reading about him. Unlike Russel, who is hot, has great friends, a ridiculously loyal and perfect boyfriend and was able to get a great place to live as soon as he left college and yet still moans about his non problems more than Louis from Interview With The Vampire, Otto has genuine problems. He has double minority status as a gay man and a disabled man, and his scar seriously affects his career choices and (it’s implied) his ability to date.

His struggle to become an actor in spite of the prejudice faced by someone who’s physically scarred was brilliant, heart wrenching (in spite of seeming kind of random) and extremely nuanced. It would have been so easy to paint the Hollywood casting agents who reject him as big , prejudiced monsters, but it didn’t; in one excellent speech, it showed us that even if the prejudice they were perpetuating was wrong, the dog eat dog nature of the Hollywood system meant that doing the right thing could lead to career suicide . The way that Otto dealt with the prejudice and came into his own was clever and realistic.

The story of his lesbian screenwriter and comedian neighbors was really well done, too. They provided a perfect foil to Kevin and Russel’s dilemna, and their resolve at the end was extremely realistic. Again- they were characters belonging to a standalone novel- cogs used to highlight the dangers of the Hollywood culture, not actual characters in their own right the same way Vernie or Min were, but that’s okay. They were still interesting and well utilized.

The weak link in subplots sadly, was the  Daniel side plot which is a shame because it had such a strong start. It spent so much time developing him and his sexy, fascinating (boner inducing) mind games, and I was hooked every scene and intrigued where this was going- but then the payoff was rushed. I would have loved to have seen this developed, as the sexually charged power play between him and the leads was fascinating and I’m not going lie, really, really hot. The sexy Latino is a bit of a dubious stereotype, but considering Hartingers record of writing strong POC (especially Min, whom I miss), I’m willing to give him a pass (this time) and say this was just… unfortunate.

The Protagonist: Now we get to the biggest problem with this book. Russel Middlebrook. I could forgive his random desire to become a screen writer if he was a somewhat likable character. But he’s not, he’s really not. He’s completely self absorbed and makes everything about him and treats his boyfriend like crap.

Kevin is reduced from fully realized character to passive supportive partner- the sweet partner who’s happy to smile at the sidelines, rearrange their whole life and sacrifice their dreams for their lover and require no sacrifices in return. He gives up everything for Russel, sacrificing his career for Russel, yet Russel shows a complete disinterest in any of Kevin’s struggles throughout the entire book. This is ironic, considering Russel wants to write a screenplay about the true nature of gay love, and yet he keeps on neglecting his actual gay love.

Okay, the book does acknowledge that Russel has been awful and has him apologize to Kevin for his appalling behavior at the end, but he still doesn’t really learn or change. And how much he doesn’t change is exemplified at the end, which is a minor spoiler, so if you want to go into this blind, skip to the next paragraph.

SPOILER The epitomy of how self involved Russel has become was the proposal. This should have been a moment about the two of them, how far they’ve come, and for the old Russ- the Russ of the Geography Club- it would have been. But it wasn’t. First, he proposed to Kevin on the Hollywood sign- something that’s his passion, not Kevin’s, as Kevin made clear he didn’t enjoy life in Hollywood. Regardless of whether he says ‘who cares?’ about what movie was shot there, which is supposed to show that he’s moved on from his obsessing about Hollywood over. Even if And his final reflection? After he proposed he wasn’t focusing on Kevin’s sacrifices, his future with Kevin, the life they could lead. It was all about Russel. Russel’s journey, Russel’s dream- Kevin barely even featured into it- he said a half hearted few lines of dialogue.  This is something I could tolerate in a standalone, if Kevin had just been a flat love interest from the start, but he wasn’t. He was a long established character. I honestly can’t think of any reason that Kevin is with Russel, except main character privilege.

I could tolerate this if he was developing into a less selfish person . Russel doesn’t learn! At the end of the last book, he made Gunnar’s emotional heart break about SPOILER his dad’s cancer diagnoses about himself and his issues finding himself. He hasn’t changed in this one, and i doubt if it will change in the final one. It’s also a problem, because Russel and Kevin are moving to a place of greater commitment and yet I don’t know why Kevin gives Russel the time of day.

This is a great shame, because of how likable Russel was in the original series. He actually took time to listen to other people’s issues and he could be blinded by his own self absorption, but he’d always learn and try and become more understanding. Now, he listens to other people- not because he wants to understand them, but because of what their problems can teach him about his (more privileged) life . He’s actually regressed as a character- he’s more selfish, more self absorbed, less empathetic; he actually has a few issues of internalized homophobia or effeminaphobia that weren’t present as a teenager… which doesn’t necessarily make a bad character. In fact, he is very human and he could have made an excellent character if either he really learned and developed, or we weren’t supposed to like him. Unfortunately, because we’re meant to route for him to achieve his ‘dream’ of becoming a screenwriter (ugh), his unlikability made it hard for me to route for him.

Verdict: As much as Russel and his tacked on dream frustrated me, this is still a very well written story about a struggling screenwriter, and as usual Hartinger creates excellent side characters. If you haven’t read any of the previous novels, I would definately pick this up because this is much more enjoyable as a stand alone than a Russ Middlebrook novel. If you’ve already read the series and you didn’t hate the new Russel in the previous books than still pick this up. Even if for no other reason than to say you’ve completed the series.