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Booklist says this about this book: In this sequel to Geography Club (2003), 16-year-old Russel, now openly gay and tired of being the freak at school, tries to escape as a counselor in a rural summer camp with his two best friends. The camp kids are 10-year-old burn survivors, scarred and disfigured, and Russel identifies with them. They also have fun together, once he stops seeing them as "all nervous and noble." But Russel fights with his friends, especially after discovering that he and bisexual Min are attracted to the same gorgeous counselor guy. There's much metaphor and message, including the stories Russel tells the kids about raging fires, hidden beauty, and developing toughness. What readers will like best is the honest, tender, funny, first-person narrative that brings close what it's like to have a crush and hate a friend.

This and several other reviews felt the author's netaphors were too heavy-handed. I initially felt disappointed with this book, because its first chapter starts off very slowly, almost leading me to put it down. Thankfully, I stuck with it, and was pleasantly surprised to see that Poison Oak actually surpasses the author's first book, Geography Club (which itself is a terrific read).

One might think that the story of three teenage friends at a summer camp might not have a lot of dramatic potential... but think again. Sure, this story's got all the expected teenage angst, but add to that romance, betrayal, lust, friendship, and a wealth of other emotions -- quite a rollercoaster ride. Some unexpected twists and turns lead to several surprising dramatic climaxes, along with valuable lessons in life for both the reader and the characters.

Like the author's last novel, Poison Oak draws its characters vividly, and their many flaws make them both interesting and very real. Hartinger makes some good points, comparing children with scars on the outside to those with scars on the inside, and does it in a way that's never cloying or hokey. And the romantic yearning felt by the three central characters are universal; some might characterize the book as a being for "gay teens," but I think these emotions can be empathized by anyone with heart.

This being a YA novel, don't expect for the sex scenes to be explicit. I'd call this "PG-13" sex, leaving much to the imagination, but still with enough details to make the point. The emotional content is much more intense; there's several scenes that I suspect many readers will find very moving, and at least a couple that are almost heart-breaking. And this ain't no "after-school special"; the story and characters ring very true to me, without the "happily ever after" gloss of similar stories and TV shows.

Five-star reviews get handed out much too often, but I think Poison Oak clearly deserves that highest rating.

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