Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Review: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
Format: Paperback
Published by Electric Monkey (Egmont Books) on 17th February 2014 (first published 11th February 2014)
Pages: 394
Genre: YA, Horror, Science Fiction
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In the small town of Ealing, Iowa, Austin and his best friend Robby have accidentally unleashed an unstoppable army. An army of horny, hungry, six-foot-tall praying mantises that only want to do two things.

This is the truth. This is history.
It's the end of the world.
And nobody knows anything about it.

Oh, this book is so weird and kind of a delight to read.

I really enjoyed reading it. It was gross and funny and sad and so, so weird. I wanted to give it four stars but ultimately I found that it let me down in some aspects so I took off half a star. But I really have to say that you should give this book a go if you like being surprised, because this book is a really nice surprise. It's unlike anything in the YA genre.

It's really frank and perhaps somewhat over-the-top when it comes to the mindset of a teenage boy, but the over-the-topness is probably what makes this book so fun. You're just unable the tear your eyes away from the page as the narrator, a sixteen-year-old teenage boy called Austin Szerba, talks over and over again about how horny he is. Everything makes him horny. He also thinks about balls a lot. His, and other people's. If you find yourself recoiling from that, this book probably isn't the book for you. "Horny" is a word that pops up probably on average at least once or twice per page.

Also if you're squeamish, this is probably not the book for you either. Giant praying mantises eat people, and sometimes each other. It's pretty horrifying.

But underneath it all this book is about how confusing it is to be a teenager. Austin tries to make sense of his world, the history of his life and the lives of those around him; he finds connections in everything. But he can't really make sense of how he has feelings for both his girlfriend and his male best friend at the same time, and that's what preoccupies his mind the most.

Honestly, a YA book where the male MC not only constantly fantasises about having a threesome with his girlfriend and his male best friend but also tells the reader again and again that he really does love both of them deeply was something I never thought could happen. It was a brilliantly complex portrayal of sexuality and romantic love. I'm glad we've got to the point where this is something that can happen in a YA book.

Where this book let me down was with Shann, Austin's girlfriend. He loves Shann very much, as he keeps telling us. He loves his best friend Robby too, and that shines through so much more clearly. You understand why Austin loves Robby. There are scenes between them that thrum with a kind of sad and confused longing; Robby is just beautiful seen through Austin's eyes. He's gay and a hero and he's so many other things at once. Shann, on the other hand, hardly does anything. In the beginning, her characterisation seemed promising; she featured quite prominently. But later on her role dwindles and I feel like I, as a reader, lost sense of who she was as an individual, and I was so frustrated by that. I wanted her to do more. I wanted her and Austin to talk about their relationship and how complicated everything had become, but that didn't really happen. In general I really felt the female characters were written with less care than the male characters were; I can't really find much positive to say about the book's portrayal of female characters, and that saddens me.

This book is amazing when it comes to Austin and Robby's friendship, though. It's amazing when it comes to portraying love that exists between two men; it doesn't ever flinch away from sentiment or sexuality. Some scenes almost moved me to tears.

But I really wanted more from this book. I wanted the female characters to have more agency. They feel silent and obscured in comparison to the male characters. I also feel like so much isn't resolved when it comes to the feelings of the characters and Austin still has way too much growing up to do. I don't know how much he's actually changed by the end.

Nevertheless this book was a really fun ride. It was honest and complex and weird and bold, and I cared about Austin and Robby deeply. I only wish the book had made me care about Shann more too. This seems like something important, in a book about a boy who is just as in love with his girlfriend as he is with his gay best friend.

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