By Andrew Smith
Available now from Dutton Juvenile (Penguin Random House)
Rising star Andrew Smith did not rest on his laurels with GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE. This is one of the weirdest books I've had the pleasure to read. And no, I don't mean weird in a bad way. GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE is a uniquely pleasurable reading experience.
Austin lives in the dying town of Ealing, Iowa. He's very much in love with his girlfriend, Shann, to the point where he zones out thinking about her. He's also very much in love with his best friend, Robby, and not entirely sure where that leaves his sexuality. But Austin doesn't have long to just be in his normal state of confused horniness. That's because he and Robby just witnessed the end of the world, although they don't know it yet.
GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE is strongly driven by both the plot (unstoppable praying mantis people doing what praying mantises do) and the characters. You know Austin survived the apocalypse, since he's writing down what happened, but it's hard to figure out how he could make it and whether anyone will make it with him. (I know I was often worried when I thought a favorite character might not make it.) And Austin's voice is so well done. Smith has created a truly believable, foul-mouthed, and horny 15-year-old boy. Plus, Austin truly is driven by his love for Shann and Robby. He might be highly distractible and short sighted, but in the end, he's out to save lives.
I think that GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE will appeal to fans of contemporary fiction and speculative fiction. The relationships are pure contemporary and all the praying-mantis-apocalypse stuff is a little closer to blackly comedic magical realism than true science fiction. Smith's approach to the fantastical elements reminded me somewhat of A.S. King's style. GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE is a hard book to define, so perhaps it has the most appeal to readers who are tired of reading the same old, same old.
So this review isn't entirely positive, I will mention that I felt that the ending of GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE was somewhat rushed. I'd be hugely interested in reading another book or two fleshing out Austin's future. At the same time, I'm glad that GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE didn't wear out its welcome. After all, as interesting as the apocalypse is, it's really a catalyst for Austin's coming of age. And if he doesn't mature perfectly, who does?