I’m in the midst of a reading slump. It’s not surprising me or frustrating me much, though, because I know it’s related to having finished a year of non-stop reading, and I know it’s also related to what happens when I find myself wanting to blog and write a lot more. Sometimes, my energy can only go so far, and when I’ve put in hours of writing, reading isn’t always the most appealing to me after.
That said, I have gotten a few reads in recently, and I’ve been rearranging my to-read pile so I can get excited again when the time comes. Here’s a look at two books I read recently that didn’t wow me but I also didn’t dislike entirely, which I guess makes this post two “eh, they’re okay” reviews.
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith — available now
I didn’t love this book. In fact, I’m not sure I enjoyed the reading experience at all. But I kept reading it and finished it because it’s kind of like abstract art: you look at it to appreciate how it comes together but that doesn’t mean you have to appreciate it beyond the way it was constructed. There’s a story about bisexuality here, and it’s woven into a story about the end of the world, about world history, about local history, and about family history. There are also giant grasshoppers and there is non-stop talk from Austin about how horny he is and how everything turns him on.
Is it well-written? Yes. Is it weird and different? Yes.
The thing is, beyond the fact this story tackles so much — and it does tackle some hugely important issues — I didn’t necessarily think it was all that risky or interesting. Austin being a boy allowed him to do and say and act upon a lot of things that, were Austin a female character, would have never happened and would have been a lot more risky and interesting to me as a reader. That’s not to undermine the really powerful story of sexuality here. But I couldn’t help thinking about the fact no female character could have Austin’s story, either. A girl who would dare talk about her physical needs this much wouldn’t be embraced in the same way Austin is. Perhaps this was an unfair thought to keep having, but I also don’t think it’s a thought unmerited by the story itself. A lot of what Austin does and says and observes about the females in this book made me uncomfortable. They were true to his voice, but the fact there is not one girl in the story who isn’t either a middle age woman on drugs to make her happy OR an object of sexual fascination to him left me feeling a little cold and tired. Not to mention she had no agency herself. I know it’s Austin’s perspective and how skewed that is, but I really wanted more of Shann than I got.
There were also times when author voice insert became too obvious for me. Austin was smart and funny, but I had a hard time buying Austin would so remove himself from his situation to make observations that certain names were “very Iowa.” That was author humor over character humor and those moments pulled me out of the story a bit.
This review contains spoilers, and I know that reviewing this early out isn’t always the most helpful thing in the world. But again, reading slump, and I picked this one up because it was a shorter read. Feel free to skip this and come back since it’ll spoil much of the book.
This is a book about how Alice was branded a slut because a few nasty people in small town Healy, Texas decided to spread rumors to save themselves and their own reputation. It’s all done without giving Alice a voice, which is effective in being a he said-she said story. But it’s all telling with little showing. Yes, you see cruelty (like when Kelsie, Alice’s former best friend, chooses to sharpie the walls of a bathroom stall calling Alice a variety of names), but you are also told repeatedly things that would be better serviced by stronger writing, more development of characters, and deeper investment in the story in and of itself. Because in every chapter, rather than seeing how Healy was a small town, we were reminded that Healy was a small town. You could walk from x place to y place. Healy was a small town. This person knew this person. While fine and great, actually reading it on the page, with some detail, would have actually shown the reader this sufficiently enough not to need to be reminded. And I think part of the dependence upon that was because there wasn’t a whole lot of story here to be told.
Is this effective in showing how awful people are? Absolutely. It does to the reader pretty much what happened to Alice. She has no voice and no control, and we as readers see no voice and have no control over what happens.
But why do I CARE about Alice? I do because other people are awful and that’s it. Because Kurt, the nerdy boy who wants to get close to Alice because of a long-time crush, is the only okay character in the story. But because his interest in her is romantic, and unabashedly so, I’m still not keen on his motivations or his own character. In the end, when the revelation is that Alice kept seeing him for tutoring and forgave him for keeping a secret from her emerges, we’re supposed to buy that this is meant to be a new, fresh friendship for her. But I don’t buy it: Kurt was in it from the start because of romantic feelings. So as much as it looks like it’s FRIENDSHIP in the end, Alice’s lack of voice throughout and Kurt’s lack of voice following her one opportunity to talk, I still see it as a boy saving a girl in a way that’s cast as romantic. It’s a trope that appears again and again, and it’s not fresh here.
Also, the abortion storyline with Alice’s former best friend didn’t work for me. It actually painted Alice in a poor light, since she is the reason Kelsie tells us she decided to sleep with that boy one time and wound up pregnant in that one sexual encounter. But again — Alice’s lack of voice lets this happen. There was also a weird message there with the pregnancy/abortion storyline and how it butts up against Kelsie’s mother’s devotion to faith.
There are better bullying books. There are better books about girls shamed for their sexuality. There are better books about small towns and rumors. At times the writing feels a little too adult-trying-to-write-teens and at times when the writing is just…Kurt uses the phrase “rear end” to describe a part of Alice’s body which even for someone as nerdy and intelligent as he tells us he is, I have a hard time thinking a 16 or 17 year old boy with a raging crush on her would say.
Had Alice had a voice in this book, it would have been more compelling, with more depth, and probably could have gone from an okay read to a great one. But in many ways, as much as it’s often smart to have the reader’s experience mirror Alice’s, it also feels a little manipulative and co-opts her story here.
Review copies received from the publisher.