By Jeff Walsh
I have a friend and former teacher that I see whenever I go home to visit and, even without much warning, we'll end up sitting at a corner table at a casino bar, order some drinks, and settle in.
It's become pretty routine that we're going to catch up on things, have some deep conversation, and just enjoy each other's company for a few hours. And, no matter how long it's been since we last got together, the connections flood back and you realize the special bonds that people share.
When I got my review copy of Brent Hartinger's The Elephant of Surprise, I was a bit apprehensive. How long ago did I read the last book? How did it end? And, since this is the fourth book in the Geography Club series that began a decade ago, how did we get here?
I didn't need to worry. First of all, Hartinger does a quick summary at the beginning of the book. But as you start reading the names, and how the characters interact, it all starts coming back to you. Maybe not every plot point of all three books, but the bonds between the characters, the little quirky details, and the comfort of being on a journey with these friends again.
I think I've noted before that reviewing YA books is tricky, because they are more about the journey than the path. I could spoil the entire 230-page book with a longish sentence right now, but that isn't really the point. It's just nice to spend time with these people in this world, and Hartinger captured some magic to take us on this enjoyable read.
In quick summary, Russel is questioning his long distance relationship, especially once he meets a new boy who intrigues him. His straight friend Gunnar has taken to documenting every aspect of his life online. And their bisexual friend Min thinks her girlfriend is hiding something from her. The "elephant" of the title is an inside joke among the friends after one of them misheard the other at a trip to a zoo that opens the book, but it ends up being true, as surprising things happen to each character throughout the book.
The interesting part about The Elephant of Surprise is that the characters have no real struggle with their sexualities anymore (the thrust of the first book). They are confident in who they are, and have moved on to learning how to apply that in their relationships and daily lives.
Most of the fun of reading the book, though, is just in the conversations when the three main characters are together, teasing and supporting one another.
Hartinger has a gift for this format, which to me always seems like building a model ship inside of a bottle. It can be read in one sitting, but never feels rushed, and things are planted earlier in the book that blossom later, but it never feels like you're watching the Hallmark Channel and know everything that is going to happen in the first few pages. There is an authoritative confidence that he knows what he's doing here. This is his world.
As such, he does take liberties that caught me off-guard as a writer, but they seem to pan out. Russel, as the narrator, sometimes refers to the fact that he is telling a story. He even introduces himself, seemingly to the reader, directly.
Like, you know you're reading a book, and I know you're reading a book, so I'm Russel, I'm gay, I'm a high school junior, so let's get to the story. And somehow breaking the "fourth page" (is that a thing?) comes off as playful and fun, and not "Jeez, Hartinger's a bit lazy with the exposition..." I do fear that not every author could succeed with this gamble.
For fans of this series, you should also know that 2013 will see the first book in the series make its way to the silver screen. So, in some way, we'll be able to revisit these characters again sooner rather than later.
If you've read the previous books in this series, then I shouldn't need to sell you on reading this one. If you're new, you can either start at the beginning (probably your best bet) or jump into the latest and still have an enjoyable time.
Between taking naked pictures of people in showers, to the "freegan" lifestyle, there are a lot of interesting things packed in here.
But mostly there is the friendship, interesting capers, and some down-home literary comfort food.
Every so often, though, there is the captured moment of something like a first kiss, where details shimmer, time stops, reality is heightened, and there is that beauty of attraction and connection and the special moments that make life worth living.
You can read my 2007 interview with Brent.
You can visit his website.
You can like him on Facebook.
And, of course, you can buy the book. Honestly, $7.99 for a Kindle book is totally worth it.