Books & Literature

Book Review: HappyHead, by Josh Silver

YOUNG ADULT: The first in a thrilling, thought-provoking new series for fans of They Both Die at the End and Squid Game.

An LGBTQ+ teen thriller that is compelling despite some plot flaws.

Feature image: Oneworld

HappyHead, a teen LGBTQ+ thriller written by former West End and Broadway actor Josh Silver, is described on the cover as compelling and thrilling. It is both of those things, though not without some flaws.

The concept of HappyHead has been compared to The Hunger Games, but Squid Game would be a more accurate comparison. A selection of teens are sent to what is described as a mental health retreat, but it soon becomes clear that something much more sinister is going on. This is a compelling hook, and the prose is well-written, driving, and funny, but the author seems to struggle to rationalise the purpose of the camp, and we are left with too many unanswered questions by the end.

The book does some things really well. The first person narration in Seb’s voice sounds authentic and age-appropriate, and his often sarcastic tone is funny and relatable. Both the mental health and LGBTQ+ themes are treated with sensitivity. Josh Silver’s personal experience and qualification as a mental health nurse come through strongly in the way these themes are treated.

The romantic tension between Seb and Finn is nicely drawn with a good measure of teenage awkwardness, but it never falls into cliches or tropes. It’s beautiful to see a non-heterosexual love subplot written in a natural way, and it’s great to see more representation of this in a book aimed at an age group where many are in the midst of discovering their true sexuality for the first time.

The action is fast-paced, typical for a teen book, with not a dull moment to be had. The short punchy sentences, and tendency at times to have one sentence or even one word per line, had the combined effect of slowing down one particular thought pattern in places and dragging the reader forward into a fast-as-a-bullet pace of  jumbled teenage thoughts (but never so jumbled as to confuse the reader). Despite the book’s flaws, this book overall was a quick and highly compelling read.

The first half of the book has a great deal of promise as the sinister undertones of the HappyHead Project start to come through. Then it reaches the challenge where the teens are more or less pressed into strictly heterosexual couples. As seen through the lens of a gay main character, this is obviously written to be a very unpleasant experience for him while many of the other teens enjoy it. However, I found this to be a little too far-fetched at times, and it seemed not only like a weird concept but also unbelievable that all the adults running the camp would be okay with such an activity in the 21st century, particularly as HappyHead is not a religious cult.

Along similar lines to this, the leader’s motivation for the Squid Game style of challenges feels weak and lacking in enough explanation to make it plausible. However, this book also lacks a definitive ending, suggesting there is a sequel to come. I hold out hope that all will make sense in the second book.

Yes, this book has flaws, and it remains to be seen whether they will be worked out in a sequel. However, I found that I couldn’t put it down, and I really cared about the fate of Seb and Finn. That should speak for itself, and as long as readers are happy to stretch their suspension of disbelief in places and to put up with being left with more questions than answers, this will be a compelling and enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Kristin Stefanoff

The views expressed in this review belong to the author and not Glam Adelaide, its affiliates, or employees.

Distributed by: Oneworld
Released: February 2023
RRP: $17.99

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