Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sunday Sunshine: Stay Tuned! Edition

I read like a madwoman this week!  All the books I read were quick, fun reads, great for reluctant or struggling readers (I will never stop thinking like an English teacher) but good enough that all kinds of readers will enjoy them.

But this is also an exciting week because once you read my write-ups of the first three books in Brent Hartinger's Russel Middlebrook series, stay tuned for an interview with Brent later this week, plus my write-up of his latest book, The Elephant of Surprise, and a giveaway to celebrate its release!  This is my first-ever author interview, and I'm really excited that it's with Brent Hartinger!  Geography Club was part of an early wave of YA with gay main characters, and it's being turned into a movie as we speak.  I hope you'll all check out what I have to say about these books and stop by in a few days to see what Brent himself has to say!

What I Read This Week:

Geography Club (Russel Middlebrook, #1)Geography Club by Brent Hartinger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here's the thing with this book: I want to say it feels dated. A group of high school kids who fall all along the popularity spectrum form a secret club with the dullest possible name to hide the fact that it's secretly a support group for gay teens. Hiding the true nature of the club is a HUGE deal to them, and when the student body thinks one student, then another, might be gay, they immediately ostracize and avoid those students.

In my regular life, the one where I'm an adult living in New York State in 2013, with degrees in theater and theater ed, friends with mostly liberals, etc etc? It feels light years away. It even feels pretty far off from my own high school experience, because I spent all my time with the theater kids (and my school was big enough that intra-clique popularity mattered way more than inter-clique popularity.) But then I think about the school where I taught up until last year. We were in a Queens neighborhood that was very ethnically diverse, but many of the communities represented in our area were relatively conservative. There were many recent immigrants, some from countries where being gay is actually a crime. And there were definitely still vestiges of the working class macho Queens idea of masculinity that gave the whole place a vastly different feel from my home in Greenwich Village. Obviously, not EVERY recent immigrant or EVERY conservative or EVERY Queens dude thinks the same--I don't mean to imply that. But the fact remains that in my school, coming out was not a common occurrence, especially for guys. I don't think I had a single student who was out to everyone in his life; I barely had any who were out to anyone at all. So for those students? This book might still ring very true.

Enough has been said about this book--which is now held up as a recent classic of LGBT YA fiction--that I feel a little repetitive in explaining why it works. Russel, the narrator, is flawed and snarky and self-consciously jokey (like teenagers are). The book gets into other aspects of his life and his friends' lives--bullying, sports, dating--but it recognizes the way that being gay (or lesbian, or bisexual) colors all of those things. It's a lively story and a quick read--I wish I had read it when I was teaching back in Queens, because it would have been a really interesting novel to teach. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

The Order of the Poison Oak (Russel Middlebrook, #2)The Order of the Poison Oak by Brent Hartinger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I especially enjoyed this installment of the Russel Middlebrook series because it's set at a sleepaway camp, where Russel and his best friends are counselors. While the book correctly points out that sleepaway camp and day camp are vastly different, my experience as a day camp counselor and as a teacher made Russel's struggle to win the respect of his kids very familiar to me. I liked the new setting and characters, and there were a few very suspenseful moments! Russel continues to be a basically good guy who wishes he could be a better one--he knows the right thing to do in most cases, and he wants to do it, but he struggles with that at times and he gets it wrong some of the time. This is another quick read that might be a good choice for struggling or reluctant readers, but one that's enjoyable enough to recommend to anyone.

Double Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain ZombiesDouble Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies by Brent Hartinger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't want to ignore the first half of this book, which continues the story of Russel Middlebrook, but I was so excited when I got to the second half and discovered that it was narrated by Russel's friend Min. As scarce as YA fiction about gay teenagers is, YA fiction about queer girls and/or bisexual teenagers is even harder to find, so I loved seeing Min get her own story. It was also nice that we got to see a few different styles of parenting--in fact, I think a strength of this book is the way it portrays different people reacting to finding out that their children/friends/parishioners are gay.

I also loved that much of this book takes place on the set of a zombie movie in which Russel and his friends are playing teen zombies. It was a really fun setting that brought in some new characters and kept things moving.

I'm impressed with how different all three Russel Middlebrook books feel from each other, but still manage to continue Russel's story in satisfying ways. I'm really looking forward to the latest installment, The Elephant of Surprise.

The Runaway King (The Ascendance Trilogy, #2)The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's tricky to review a second-book-in-a-trilogy like this one. I will say that I think Jennifer Nielsen has deftly avoided the dreaded Second Book Syndrome--this book has its own story, its own objectives, and its own enemies to defeat. It actually would work pretty well as a standalone story, I think.

The big change from the first book of this series to the second is in tone, I think. In the first book, it was each boy for himself. In this book, suddenly there are all the Regents to consider, and other countries, and pirates--all of which raise the stakes and keep things interesting, but they also make things feel more serious. That said, the action is just as intense and the pace is just as exciting and suspenseful as the first book.

One of my favorite things about this book was the way in which the female characters continued to develop. I'm particularly interested in Amarinda, who is betrothed to the king (whoever that may be). Her quiet strength and pragmatism really grabs me, even though she doesn't spend much time on the page, and I'm looking forward to seeing what becomes of her.

I really enjoyed The Runaway King and I will be keeping an ear out for word of the final installment in this trilogy!

View all my reviews

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