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Book Review: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Grasshopper JungleTitle: Grasshopper Jungle

Author: Andrew Smith

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Publication Date: February 11 2014
Hardcover: 388 Pages

Sixteen-year-old Austin Szerba interweaves the story of his Polish legacy with the storyof how he and his best friend , Robby, brought about the end of humanity and the rise of an army of unstoppable, six-foot tall praying mantises in small-town Iowa.

To make matters worse, Austin’s hormones are totally oblivious; they don’t care that the world is in utter chaos: Austin is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, but remains confused about his sexual orientation. He’s stewing in a self-professed constant state of maximum horniness, directed at both Robby and Shann. Ultimately, it’s up to Austin to save the world and propagate the species in this sci-fright journey of survival, sex, and the complex realities of the human condition.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel

How did I get this book: Review copy via Netgalley

Format (e- or p-): eARC

Why did I read this book: I’ve been hearing good things about the author from a myriad of YA sources for a while. This book started to get rave and starred reviews all over the place and it just sounded so quirky, I had to read it.

Review:

I am sorry but this is a difficult review to write and it’s probably going to show in the way that my thoughts will be all over the place. I’ve been going round and round inside my head looking for a way to put everything into words that would/could reveal all the awesome aspects of the novel in a way that actually makes sense but it’s hard to write about a novel that is so different and contains so much without letting something slide.

You know what I mean.

If I had to choose one word to define Grasshopper Jungle it would be: voracity. It is a word that suits its characters, its monsters, its ambitions really well. Because there is so much happening here: Grasshopper Jungle is at once a book about a questioning young boy, who is exploring and confused about his sexual orientation; it is a book about history, picking up threads that expand from the personal to the global, past and present and future; it is a book about giant praying mantis and the end of the world.

Actually, let me go back a bit: Grasshopper Jungle is Austin Szerba’s chronicle about the end of the world, which also happens to be his history. Austin is a boy obsessed: with thinking about history, with discovering his family’s story and their roots in Poland, and also, with sex. He is a teenager who is constantly, perpetually horny and who is constantly, perpetually thinking about sex with his girlfriend Shann but also with his gay best friend Robby. Sometimes with both of them at the same time. He is in love with both of them. Growing up in a small town and being Lutheran (after his Polish father converted from Catholicism) and attending a religious school that curtails and polices all and any possible deviation from what constitutes their ideal of “normal” and what it means to be a “man” doesn’t make it any easy either.

And so, Austin is very confused. That confusion is only extrapolated by his sense of isolation (who can he possibly talk to?), by the conflicting messages he receives from the world and by the very fact that he is so freaking young and so very selfish. Consequently, his confusion hurts not only the people he loves but also himself. He is called out for that selfishness by Robby and Shann but knowing doesn’t make it any less confusing or easy. Grasshopper Jungle as such, is an excellent book about adolescence, about questioning one’s sexuality, about not wanting to be defined and pegged down (even when definitions do exist for those who want and need them), about what constitutes the “norm” and how the “norm” is limiting and harmful.

But Grasshopper Jungle is also a book about monsters. It’s a post-apocalyptic story about the end of the world brought upon by voracious giant praying mantis who only think about eating and fucking but which is effectively caused by the human monsters who created them in the first place.

So even though the book handles so well elements commonly addressed by Contemporary YA, Grasshopper Jungle is really a Science Fiction book, which brilliantly pays homage to B-movies in the best possible way. From Unstoppable Soldiers and questionable scientific methods, from insects that kill everybody in their sights to tawdry lines and tacky “solutions”, this book is a treasure trove for fans of cheesy SciFi. Also: Lost. Because Shann, Austin and Robby find a secret silo that reminds so much of the Dharma Initiative hatches complete with Dharma Initiative–like Orientation Movies that made me drool all over this book like you wouldn’t believe.

You know what I mean.

And like I said, Grasshopper Jungle is Austin’s history with h. It’s a chronicle, a writing down the facts of the end of the world. It is a book that is very self-aware. Austin knows what he is doing, understands the limitations of being a historian and the conflict between writing about everything when that is an impossibility in itself. It is also very self-aware in the way that it acknowledges bias: Austin is writing the history of the end of the world but he is writing it from his perspective and his interests which are inevitable limited by who he is. I love this passage:

“Everyone on every road that crossed beneath the point of my pen was always going to do the same things over and over and over.

I was confused.

How could I be in love with a girl ‘and’ a boy, at the same time?

I was trapped forever.

You know what I mean.”

His historical narrative attempts to be clinical, reducing all events to their lowest common denominator. One sex scene is for example “a penis entering a vagina”. But the fact remain that a historian is a person, and Austin’s true feelings seep through regardless, with astute observations. It is really well done and thought-provoking. I especially liked to see how the narrative also has a repetitive tone, a cyclical construction that spirals back and forth.

A case could even be made about Grasshopper Jungle being a religious satire: a boy admits he has feelings for his best friend who happens to be another boy and the world literally ends. But it is not their first kiss that makes it so: everything is connected in a myriad of random acts and it’s in fact, the bunch of stupid bullies who attack those two friends that starts it all off once they spill the friends’ blood.

And hey, the young gay guy is now a God. How about them apples?

In many ways, Grasshopper Jungle is very close to being a perfect read. Which is why what I am going to say next truly pains me: I wish the female characters had been better served, had been more sympathetically portrayed as the male characters were. Women often “pout”, women “wait”, women are “receptacles” – this is true when Austin is talking about them in the past, the present and the future. Shann is much less of a sympathetic character than Robby is and yet they are in the exactly same situation in relation to the main character.

In fairness, this could be explained by the fact that Austin is not a perfect person, he is an unreliable narrator even when he attempts a clarity he does not have. He doesn’t really know what “boys” are or do, even though he makes statements that are very gender restrictive and show certainty:

“There is something inside all boys that drives us to go away again and again and again.”

This is even in many ways, the point of the book. But those are not exactly challenged by the portrayal of the female characters and I still wish they had been afforded more agency and independence from his point of view.

Still, even with the aforementioned criticism, Grasshopper Jungle is a truly fantastic book, well worth reading and to be voraciously savoured.

You know what I mean.

Notable Quotes/Parts:

I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.

We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future. But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.

This is my history.

There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.

Just like it’s always been.

Rating: 8 – Excellent and a Notable Read of 2014

Reading Next: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

Buy the Book:

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Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, nook, kobo & iBooks

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5 Comments

  • Literary Lottie
    February 18, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    Oh, I’m SO glad this book got a good review here. I’d been looking forward to its release for months – but then a friend who received an ARC really didn’t care for it, and that made me very nervous (she also had great reservations about the way the female characters were portrayed). But with the Smugglers’ seal of approval I feel confident about picking up a copy on my next sojourn to the local bookstore.

  • Kathlyn
    February 18, 2014 at 8:38 pm

    It’s always a shame when an otherwise excellent book fails to do justice to its female characters, especially when the author gets everything else right. That said, I’ve come to love this site for its fantastic reviews-the Smugglers’ love for books really shines through.

  • Emily H.
    March 7, 2014 at 10:25 am

    I haven’t finished the book yet, and I have to say that I really love its gonzo out-there-ness, but I’m really bothered by the ableism in the caricatures of the Xanax-dependent moms.

  • Ana
    March 7, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    Emily H: I had not considered this – you make a good point.

  • Cynthia (Jellyfish Reads)
    April 2, 2014 at 3:57 am

    I love this review! I finished reading the book this morning and I agree with everything you’ve said. I particularly like your comment on how this is a religious satire because a boy admits to having feelings for his best friend and they kiss and the world literally ends. That’s a very insightful comment and I think it’s so true! It makes the book even more interesting for me. But yeah, I was so frustrated by the way female characters were treated in this book. Austin loves Shann as much as he loves Robby! Why is Shann’s characterisation so much less powerful than Robby’s? ):

    Here’s my review.

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