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Grasshopper Jungle VS 100 Sideways Miles, a Comparison of Equals? Or, What Happens When You Read Two Very Different Books By the Same Author in Close Succession

The Basics

Title: Grasshopper Jungle

Complete time start to finish: 8 weeks

Where I got my copy: Public library

Why it drew my interest: Initially, I was intrigued by Karen’s extremely visceral reaction to the book (read more here.) Then, I started to hear the buzz – and see the stars. Although it’s clearly not a middle school title, I was intrigued.

Book/Author it most reminded me of: Going Bovine by Libba Bray


Title: 100 Sideways Miles

Complete time start to finish: Less than 48 hours

Where I got my copy: E-ARC from Edelweiss

Why it drew my interest: I had literally just finished Grasshopper Jungle the previous week. And I had heard ZERO about this one.

Book/Author it most reminded me of: I’m still pondering it, but my initial response is A.S. King.

The Commonalities

In both books, the featured relationship is between the narrator/protagonist and his best male friend. In fact, these fully realized friendships are probably my favorite part of these books.

Each protagonist has a less than fully realized relationship with his girlfriend, although that may be intentional on the part of the author. I’m not an expert in teenage relationships, but it is completely conceivable that an average teenage boy might not be equipped to form and highly developed and complex romantic relationship. In both cases, however, the female love interest characters are less developed as individuals as well, especially for characters that play such integral roles in the story. Julia, from 100 Sideways Miles is a more complex character, but neither are detailed.

Family is important to both protagonists, and yet absent for a large portion of the book. There is the requisite amount of lack of understanding/respect for authority while having a surprising depth of character detail for many in those positions. Smith is able to communicate the complexities of adulthood as seen through the highly observant eyes of his protagonists.

The Differences
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!

While both books deal with the everyday life of an average teen – Grasshopper Jungle quickly veers into the realm of science fiction. The back story of a town built by an insane genius who was bent on creating the perfect, unstoppable soldier and instead ended up creating man-sized praying mantises who eventually take over the world is both fascinating and deeply disturbing. As told by Austin Szerba, a boy whose life goal is to extensively journal every event of any significance, we see how his family history is intricately entwined with the coming apocalypse. Despite all of this plot, the book is more about Austin’s confusion over and exploration of his own sexuality than anything else.

100 Sideways Miles‘ connection to science fiction, however, stays firmly grounded in reality. Finn Easton has epilepsy, a direct result of a bizarre accident involving a dead horse falling off a bridge, which resulted in the death of his mother. Nursed back to health by the woman who would become his step mother, Finn’s experience is chronicalled in one of his father’s science fiction novels in a somewhat twisted manner. This novel, for better or worse, is extremely popular. Finn must deal with the fallout fro it on a regular basis. Although Finn is not writer, his description of his seizures is almost lyrical in quality. He also displays his own quirk by his insistence on measuring time passed in increments of ‘sideways miles’ relative to how far the planet has traveled in space during that time. His major struggle is breaking free from the overprotective love of his family. Which he does in rather spectacular fashion in a scene that had my heart racing.

What I came away with
I loved both books, even though they are very different. I think I struggled along so slowly with Grasshopper Jungle both because it is so extremely involved and because it is, essentially, not my kind of book. I do love multifaceted, intricate detail that slowly weaves together into an amazing tapestry of story, though. In the end, I can see why it was so highly praised by critics and readers.

On the other hand, 100 Sideways Miles is exactly my kind of story – with a protagonist to whom I can strongly relate. I doubt it will get the kind of critical acclaim enjoyed by Grasshopper Jungle because it is not nearly as flashy, explosive, or controversial in nature. In the end, however, it is my favorite of the two.

Take 5: My Favorite Friendships

I’m often struck by how beautifully written friendships are in YA. In fact, they are often much more important and detailed than any other personal relationships – dating or family. I suppose it makes sense, since the teen years are a time when we practice separating from our family and are only just learning how to date, that our friendships wold take on primary importance.

Far and away my favorite YA friendship is the one between (capital letters) Will Grayson and Tiny Cooper in John Green and David Levithan’s co-authored Will Grayson, Will Grayson. It is beautiful and sincere and touching as well as hilarious and full of mischief. Will and Tiny are in high school but have been best friends since elementary. It’s hard to explain what is so magical about this relationship. I can only sum it up by saying “Everyone should have a friend like Tiny Cooper.” It’s funny to me that this relationship is almost exclusively portrayed in the John Green written parts of the novel, since I think of David Levithan as being the master of the teenage friendship. Not that John Green is a slacker. Anyway, read it, will you please? Then come back and tell me your favorite part.

Speaking of David Levithan, I can’t leave out his amazing Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares. Dash, while described by everyone in the book who meets him as being ‘snarly,’ has a good number of close friends whose fondness for him bely his outward appearance. My favorite of his friendships is with his long-term friend Boomer. Yes, that’s a nickname, but it’s also a description of his personality. Boomer is described as being like a somewhat exciteable retriever. Always bouncing all over the place, and not quite the sharpest knife in the drawer. I love how, even though their paths have diverged widely since they became friends (to call Dash an intellectual would be putting it mildly) Dash regards his friend with the utmost warmth and respect. And you can tell that Boomer feels this deeply, though he only plays a minor role in the novel.

Hidden within the comedic genius of Sarah Rees Brennan’s trope-twisting gothic mystery, Unspoken, is one of the most beautiful, loving girl friendships I’ve ever read. Kami and Angela are almost polar opposites, drawn together by their outsider status, but kept together by their solid love and affection (and their willingness to not just put up with, but embrace, each others idiosyncrasies.) Even though it’s Jared with whom Kami has had a psychic bond since infancy, it’s Angela I can’t imagine her without. I’d expect nothing less from Brennan, however, who is a world-class champion of girl friendships.

Someone Like You may very well have been the first YA novel I read after my move from the elementary library to middle school. I know it was definitely one of the first, and it is the only one I remember from my first whirlwind year learning to cope with the broad span of readers in middle school. My students were somewhat more life savvy than I had been at that age, and were very ready for books involving teenage pregnancy. This is one of the best out there, even after all this time I look to it to appeal to some of my most dedicated non-readers, looking for a story that seems real to them. My favorite thing about it is that it is told through the lens of the friendship between pregnant Scarlett and her BFF Haley, who stands by her side throughout the most difficult experience of either of their young lives.

I hesitate a little to claim that the relationship between narrator Austin Szerba and his best friend Robby Brees is a simple friendship. If you’ve read the book, in Austin’s own words, “You know what I mean.” But, fundamentally, beneath everything else, there is the solid love and affection of friendship that Austin and Robby have for each other. Whether they are suffering the abuse of the brainless jocks who beat them up in the alley they refer to as Grasshopper Jungle, sharing smokes while they contemplate the disastrous lives of the adults they know, or defending the world from an invasion of six foot tall praying mantises, Robby and Austin depend on one another in a beautiful and compelling way.

I highly recommend each of these books for their individual merit, although I think probably only Dash & Lily is what I would refer to as an ‘almost everybody’ book. Each, however, is a beautiful example of the strong emphasis YA places on friendship.

I Have Never Been So Conflicted About a Book Ever (aka a book review of Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith)

Austin is a historian.  That is what he does, he writes the truth.  All of it.  The glorious, messy – and in Austin’s case, incredibly horny – truth of life in Ealing, Iowa.  And the end of the world.  Because that is what happens.  Six foot preying mantis like bugs – Unstoppable Soldiers – come and start devouring the planet.  It is like a gloriously absurd episode of one of those Elvira movies I used to watch as a kid.  Don’t pretend you didn’t watch them too.  In fact, I can picture the Mystery Science Theater voice over of this movie happening in my head.  To say that it is gloriously absurd really only captures the tip of the ice berg.

“I did not know what to do. Everything was a mess. I was in love with my two best friends, and I was making them both miserable at the same time. And there were big horny bugs up above us that were eating the whole planet.” – from The Grasshopper Jungle, which basically sums it up amazingly well

To say that Austin is a horny teenager is also an understatement.  This is a little bit about how Austin operates: The phone rang.  It made me horny.  Look there’s my girlfriend Shann and my best friend Robby dancing.  It made me horny.  Look there is a giant bug eating the homeless man on the pubic lice couch.  It made me horny.  Austin is seriously horny.  I think if you averaged it all out he must mention his balls, his penis, masturbating, being horny, or having sex at least once on every page.  I didn’t actually do the math, so don’t quote me on this.  Suffice it to say, the dude takes horny teenage boy to new levels.  It is both seriously uncomfortable to read sometimes, and yet it is also sometimes grotesquely accurate.  Here’s the thing, Austin is equally repelling and compelling.  And he hands down has a consistent and authentically developed voice. 

Hence the conflicted part.  I can tell you right now a long list of teenagers I have worked with in my years as a librarian who would love this book.  I can also tell you that parents everywhere will be having heart attacks about this book.  I don’t know that I would feel comfortable taking this book and handing it to a teenager and saying, “you should read this book.”  It’s a combination of cowardice and self-preservation.  I wouldn’t ban it, because I don’t do that, but I also wouldn’t be chucking it out like candy in the Christmas day parade for all to read.  It definitely has a specific audience – and a very mature one.

In the end, I don’t actually know if I loved the book or seriously loathed it.  I think Smith accomplished what he set out to do in spades and for the right audience, it will be the best thing since sliced bread.  Others will scratch their head and go, “What the hell was that.”  Or, to quote an often used phrase in the book, “Holy Shit.” 

So here’s what totally worked . . .

Throughout the book, Austin tells you little bits and pieces of history.  In the end, the pieces all are woven together in a way that demonstrate how it all was leading up to this cataclysmic event.  At first it seems distracting, but then it all comes together.  It’s kind of genius.

Austin’s voice.  Austin is a very conflicted teen.  He doesn’t know how he feels about himself sexually.  In fact, he finds himself both attracted to his girl friend and his best friend, who is gay, and he doesn’t know what to think of all this.  To say that he is confused is an understatement.  Austin was a comeplling character, as is his sexual confusion, and I found him to be the reason I kept reading.  He kind of goes into a different voice when he was recording the history parts which works for the history, but his voice is very snarky and teenage boy.

Yes the plot is absurd, completely and unabashedly.  But it is also absurdly fun, especially if you happen to like a comedic look at a confused, horny teenager who suddenly finds himself trying to fight off giant preying mantis bugs that our devouring the human race.  I happen to like that sort of thing so it worked for me.

Here’s what I had some issues with . . .

I think it is going to be marketed as YA, but I almost feel like it is an adult book (especially in content) that takes a farcical look at the teenage years.  More Kurt Vonnegut and Catcher in the Rye than say Robert Cormier (who, by the way, actually appears a lot in this book in an interesting way).

Words I would use to describe this book: vulgar, absurd, grotesque, at times genius, repulsive, bawdy, completely over the top.  But oddly enough, I mean those all in complementary ways.  Again, if your goal is to write the most over the top look at a horny teenage boy on the verge of both the apocalypse and climax, this is your model.

Quotability rating: 3 out of 5.  I highlighted several quotes that spoke to me in some way.

“All good book are about everything. Abbreviated.” – Grasshopper Jungle

So, I both loved and loathed this book (at times the sex talk was way over the top and just too much for me, but it was, in fact, part of Austin’s voice and it wouldn’t have worked as well without it).  It is glorious in executing this story.  Or, as they say throughout the book, “Holy Shit.”  It is a 4 to 5 star book, for the right audience (and me).  I can not emphasize enough for those that are concerned about these things and need to know: If it was a movie, it would be rated R for the language and sex.

This review refers to an electronic ARC I downloaded off of Edelweiss.  Here is Publisher’s Weekly review.