Saturday, March 30, 2013

6 Heart Review: The Elephant of Surprise by Brent Hartinger

The Elephant of Surprise (Russel Middlebrook #4)
Brent Hartinger

Page Count: 219

Release Date: 30 March 2013
Publisher: Buddha Kitty Books (self-published)
Source: Complimentary ARC provided by author in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you!)
Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

People aren't always what they seem to be. Sometimes we even surprise ourselves.

So discovers seventeen-year-old Russel Middlebrook in The Elephant of Surprise, a stand-alone sequel to Brent Hartinger's landmark 2003 gay young adult novel Geography Club.

In this latest book, Russel and his friends Min and Gunnar are laughing about something they call the Elephant of Surprise—the tendency for life to never turn out as expected. Sure enough, Russel soon happens upon a hot but mysterious homeless activist named Wade, even as he's drawn back to an old flame named Kevin. Meanwhile, Min is learning surprising things about her girlfriend Leah, and Gunnar just wants to be left alone to pursue his latest technology obsession.

But the elephant is definitely on the move in all three of their lives. Just who is Wade and what are he and his friends planning? What is Leah hiding? And why is Gunnar taking naked pictures of Kevin in the shower?

The Elephant of Surprise includes Hartinger's trademark combination of humor and romance, angst and optimism. Before the story is over, Russel and his friends will learn that the Elephant of Surprise really does appear when you least expect him—and that when he stomps on you, it really, really hurts.
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The Elephant of Surprise picks up about a year after where Geography Club left off, this time, introducing Russel and his crew to a strange, intriguing cult of freegans, who are principled selectivists who ONLY use what they need in life—or in other words, the unhygienic variation of vegans. 

I do have to say I was a bit disappointed by this sequel, probably because of how much I loved the first book in the series. The Elephant of Surprise is fine as a stand-alone novel—I didn't have to read books #2 and #3 to comprehend it—but I think a bit of Russel's original voice and humor was lost somewhere in between those books and those several years. He's definitely no longer as naïve; if Geography Club was a coming-of-age story, consider The Elephant of Surprise an after-age novel. It was great to see how he's doing after having discovered himself, and to visit the more mature, more grown-up version of the same character I adored in the first book. He's a little less silly and a little less foolish, which I didn't like... I miss silly, cute Russel. His jokes often aren't as funny in this one, as if he's trying to hard to make them. However, there was still enough sass coming from him to keep the narrative fresh. I'm glad Hartinger didn't completely do away with that aspect.

While I don't think the characters, as in Russel and his friends, were as developed in this installment of the Russel Middlebrook series, I do appreciate how well Russel's conflicting feelings are conveyed—they're probably the most realistic, most tender part of this novel. He's supposed to be wiser, and yet there's this undertone of dramatic irony because he still lets his romantic hopes affect his head and his heart. The familiarity of a lingering first love and, in contrast, the scintillation surrounding a new, mysterious older guy bring life to this story.

The romance depicted isn't particularly sexual or exciting, but it is, at its core, heartwarming and nerve-wracking in the way young love tends to be. Geography Club is heavy on issues regarding identity and teenage sexuality, but this one is pretty skimpy on the issues of gay adolescence. The topic on comes up with Russel's continued and newfound love interests, but it isn't as redolent or as powerful as I expected it to be. Hartinger's voice is sharp and clear, but again, it falls flat in comparison to that in Geography Club.

The tension in this book is thick and the plot exciting, but it gets boring at times. I appreciate Russel's self-discovery in this book, though: how he never really knows when the Elephant of Surprise may show up, nor of the great impacts it'll make for better, or for worse. Sometimes, it isn't even the Elephant of Surprise... sometimes, it's just the Elephant of Fuck With Your Mind; join Russel in his mishaps and misadventures as he figures this out.


A new story, rather than a continuation off of Geography Club // Same delightful characters // Easily readable and comprehendible style // It's great to return to the same cast from the series // Shows the importance of having and considering all perspectives before forming judgment


Not as good as the first book // Voice is a bit stiff // Frequent unsuccessful attempts at humor // Focuses too much on freeganism, rather than the new connections that bloom from it // Drags out in some places


"Russel," [Min] said to me, "you have nothing to be embarrassed about. Well, except maybe those pants.


Brent Hartinger's newest addition to the Russel Middlebrook series sadly doesn't live up to its poignant, entertaining originator. True to its title, there are many unexpected twists and turns in The Elephant of Surprise that'll leave readers reeling and even a little unnerved, although I did feel it drags on at times. For the most part, it's too detailed on freeganism and the worldly outlooks Russel encounters from it, rather than looking at the whole picture. The story flows well and if you fell in love with the characters in Geography Club, you'll have fun revisiting them here, but if you're new to the series, I'd rather you just read the first book. Overall, I enjoyed this one, but wasn't that engaged Americanflag

6 hearts: Satisfying for a first read, but I'm not going back (x)