by Andrew Smith
First sentence: “I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.”
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Review copy highly recommended by our publisher rep.
Content: Weeelll….. sh*t is Austin’s favorite word, and all grasshoppers do is “f**k and eat”. Which gives you a pretty good idea of the language. And Austin and Robby smoke. There is some drinking and one very unsexy sex scene (and talk of masturbating and erections and sex). It’s in the teen section of the bookstore, but I know I’m going to find it difficult to find a parent willing to buy this one for their kid. (That’s not to say the kids won’t like it. They might.)
The short version, the one I’ve been pitching at work (after I realized it was more than “grasshoppers and sex” — though it is that), is that it’s what would happen if Holden Caulfield found himself in a Stephen King novel. Austin — he’s the 16-year-old, sex-obsessed boy whose head we’re living in — is confused and lonely (even though he has a best friend and a girlfriend) and angsty and more than a little self-absorbed, much like Holden. And yet, the setting is so utterly antithetical to our character: a strain of mutant bacteria gets out and starts changing people into six-foot-tall praying mantises whose sole purpose in life is to eat — everything, including each other — and procreate.
Who dreams up these sorts of things? (Well, Stephen King and Andrew Smith, obviously.)
At any rate, it’s nothing like what I expected. I think with all the advance buzz — not just from our rep, but also Publisher’s Weekly, and just the reviews on Goodreads — I expected something, well, amazing. And I got… well, a sex-obsessed, selfish, confused 16-year-old boy. I can deal with that, for the most part (I did make it through Winger after all), and I appreciated Smith for giving us a confused sex-obsessed boy; Austin’s not only confused about life, but also about his own sexuality: how can a person be in love with — and desire — both of his best friends at once?
But, reading through the Goodreads reviews, I stumbled upon one from Kellie at Stacked that made points that I think had been at the back of my mind while reading this book. Nominally, it boils down to this: a woman couldn’t have written a book like this about a girl talking so frankly about sex or her vagina and have it receive the same amount of buzz and acclaim that this one is getting. And secondly: Austin treats girls and women as objects.
The first point, I can see and understand and am a little bit miffed about. It really does go back to this “boy books” and “girl books” thing we (publishers/sellers/parents) have gotten into. We “need” this book because boys “need” this book (because they’re not reading anything else). But that least me to point number two, which is what was bothering me while I read the book. I had chalked it up to being inside a 16-year-old boy’s mind, which is not a comfortable place. But, looking back, it’s really because, to Austin, all women (well, perhaps all people) are a means to an end: sex. He says he “loves” his girlfriend, but honestly, he just wants to jump her. And this — at my very core — bothered me. (In fact, when Robby finally confronts Austin and tells him he’s selfish, I cheered. More of that, please.)
I was talking to a friend at work about this and she pointed out that maybe, just maybe, it was meant to be satirical or ironic. That perhaps we, as readers, were meant to see that Austin is a complete jerk, and find humor in that. Or at the very least, self-reflection. Perhaps. All I found was discomfort.
There were other things I was disappointed in: Austin’s circular telling of his own personal history, his constant repeating of people’s names (yes, I know Shann’s name is Shann Collins and her stepfather is Johnny McKeon, can you PLEASE stop already?), and just the general uneven pace of the narrative. That said, there were things to admire: actual sentences that made me laugh aloud. Or the fact that Austin’s (and Robby’s for that matter) sexuality was just a thing, and not an “issue”. Or six-foot-tall unstoppable praying mantises.
But I don’t think the positives outweigh the negatives on this one.