fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsGrasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith science fiction book reviewsGrasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Grasshopper Jungle is a weird book in many ways. Not only is it literally weird (it is a book about a giant 6-foot praying mantis invasion, genetically modified testicle-dissolving corn, a secret underground bunker for humanity to reproduce itself in and a dog that’s lost its bark), but it is also literaryily weird. That is, it’s hard to define. The marketing team must’ve realised that too, because it has been toted as appealing to fans of John Green, Stephen King and Michael Grant. It doesn’t really narrow down what readers ought to expect from the novel, but what transpired was one of the most moving, gross and groundbreaking books in YA today.

Austin, our protagonist, is as sexually confused as the novel is genre confused. He is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, and also his best friend, Robby Brees. He is also incredibly horny (his words, not mine) and much of the book centres around him coming to terms with his conflicting feelings. The story takes place in Ealing, Iowa, and opens with Austin and Robby getting beat up by local bullies for being gay (which, as Austin continually points out, he is not sure that he is). Austin and Robby’s shoes are thrown up onto the roof of the town antique store, so they break in later that night to go and retrieve them.

What they find is not antiques or shoes. There is a giant glowing orb of photo-luminescent mould which, after accidentally being unleashed on the very bullies that robbed the boys of their shoes, turns them into giant praying mantises. Austin soon realises that 6-foot giant praying mantises only want to do two things: reproduce and eat, and it is all he and his best friend Robby can do to try and save the world.

A 6-foot praying mantis invasion is not generally something that would attract me to a book, but Austin narrates his tale in such a poignant, darkly comic way that genre and content almost become irrelevant. Sci-fi and fantasy use the fantastical and the unreal to draw comparisons with our day-to-day lives, and Andrew Smith so perfectly captures the essence of human nature, its flaws and its complications, through the voice of a horny teenage boy trying to save the world from giant insects.

Some critics have kicked up a fuss at the sci-fi elements of the novel, labelling it ‘crack science’ and ‘totally stupid.’ Okay, so it’s probably not very likely that a scientist was able to create a species of unstoppable insect soldiers out of blood and corn and semen (that is, unfortunately, what it boils down to), but the nature of the genre itself asks people to suspend their disbelief, and the dubious science behind the concept doesn’t detract from the plot. Austin’s voice is so relatable and human that everything else falls by the wayside.

Grasshopper Jungle is so odd and gross and honest. It’s a surprising and refreshing read in a market so saturated by Dystopias and vampires and all the other mundane tropes that have been done to death. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Publication date: February 11, 2014. Michael L. Printz Honor Book. Winner of the 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction. 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. You know what I mean.Funny, intense, complex, and brave, Grasshopper Jungle brilliantly weaves together everything from testicle-dissolving genetically modified corn to the struggles of recession-era, small-town America in this groundbreaking coming-of-age stunner.


  • Ray McKenzie

    RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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