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Friday, February 21, 2014

Blog Tour: Grasshopper Jungle
by Andrew Smith

Release Date: Feb. 11, 2014
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Age Group: Young Adult
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Pages: 388
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
Description: Goodreads
Sixteen-year-old Austin Szerba interweaves the story of his Polish legacy with the story of how he and his best friend , Robby, brought about the end of humanity and the rise of an army of unstoppable, six-foot tall praying mantises in small-town Iowa. To make matters worse, Austin's hormones are totally oblivious; they don't care that the world is in utter chaos: Austin is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, but remains confused about his sexual orientation. He is stewing in a self-professed constant state of maximum horniness, directed at both Robby and Shann.

Ultimately, it is up to Austin to save the world and propagate the species in this sci-fright journey of survival, sex, and the complex realities of the human condition.

About the Author

Andrew Smith is the award-winning author of several Young Adult novels, including the critically acclaimed Winger (Starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Shelf Awareness—an Amazon “Best of the Year”) and The Marbury Lens (A YALSA BFYA, and Starred reviews and Best of the Year in both Publishers Weekly and Booklist).

He is a native-born Californian who spent most of his formative years traveling the world. His university studies focused on Political Science, Journalism, and Literature. He has published numerous short stories and articles. Grasshopper Jungle, coming February 11, 2014, is his seventh novel. He lives in Southern California.

Find him online...

Grasshopper Jungle reads like a text version of the television show 24 on steroids. For those who never watched the show, the picture would frequently split the screen into 2 - 4 panels and show different scenes concurrently. Grasshopper Jungle obtains the same effect by rattling off a series of one-to-two short sentence updates on what every character is doing as it tries to create a snapshot of the goings on in a small town in Iowa. The technique is often used to highlight the complete absurdity of the current situation, spouting series similar to, “Character A was buying cigarettes. Character 2 was trying to find a skateboard. Character 3 was being eaten by a giant grasshopper.” The trick would be cool enough if it stopped there, but narrator often includes reminders of past events in these snapshots, as if he’s trying to compress all of the important events in the novel into one paragraph.

The narrator constantly employs callbacks and epithets to help highlight the bizarre turns of events. For the majority of the novel, these repeated phrases serve as an entertaining way to defuse discussions on serious topics. To continue the television comparisons, the narration often felt like a book version of Arrested Development with its running gags and self-references. Some of the most effective references subvert others, such as, “I was horny and mathematically confused,” adding a twist to the narrator’s constant need to alter the reader to whether he is or is not horny. Eventually, the callbacks do start to wear thin, but not until the last 40-50 pages. Even then, many of the callbacks still work; it’s only the ones persist since the very first chapters that wear out their welcomes.

The novel throws a huge number of balls in the air and manages to juggle most of them extremely well. Off the top of my head, it tackles: premarital sex, absentee fathers, genetic modification, the war in Afghanistan, immigration, child neglect, and sexual confusion. It doesn’t stick the landing perfectly on all of the topics, but it’s still impressively dense thematically while also just telling a fun sci-fi yarn. The main conflict of the novel, giant bugs aside, is the main character’s sexual confusion, the resolution of which is particularly well handled.

It’s interesting to note that the main characters, by and large, have no interaction with the sci-fi plot. They are affected by it and learn of it, but aside from a couple of scenes, the two stories don’t intersect until the novel’s resolution. For most of the novel, the characters are wholly unaware of the exciting sci-fi action. No other sci-fi story comes to mind immediately in which the characters are almost entirely unaware and uninvolved, and it didn’t even realize it was the case until I sat down to write this review.

In closing, the best way I can think to describe Grasshopper Jungle is that it’s wholly original. It has a distinct voice and its attempts to super-compress the entirely of the novel into very few sentences is a really cool trick. I also appreciate how much it jams into fewer than 400 pages. Sometimes it feels like everything these days is the start of a new series and it’s refreshing to run across something that tells a single, self-contained story with more depth than most of those series have in their entire length. While not everything about Grasshopper Jungle works, it comes very close. Besides, it’s much more intriguing to read something unique that’s a bit rough around the edges than it is to read something entirely conventional done to perfection.

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Monday, February 10, 2014

The Glass Casket
by McCormick Templeman

Release Date: Feb. 11, 2014
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Age Group: Young Adult
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Pages: 352
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
Description: Goodreads
Death hasn't visited Rowan Rose since it took her mother when Rowan was only a little girl. But that changes one bleak morning, when five horses and their riders thunder into her village and through the forest, disappearing into the hills. Days later, the riders' bodies are found, and though no one can say for certain what happened in their final hours, their remains prove that whatever it was must have been brutal.

Rowan's village was once a tranquil place, but now things have changed. Something has followed the path those riders made and has come down from the hills, through the forest, and into the village. Beast or man, it has brought death to Rowan's door once again.

Only this time, its appetite is insatiable.

Incredibly rich and atmospheric, this blending of myth, folklore and suspense is the literary equivalent of a symphony. The writing, language and tone of The Glass Casket stand on their own, but the combination of elements is what really blew me away. What's even better is that it's impossible for me to label this novel with a genre or style because it weaves together components from across the fictional spectrum.

In a quiet village outside of time, people are dying and no one knows why. First, a group of soldiers are found dead on a remote mountain top. One man is mauled, but the others haven't a mark on them. It has to be an animal, but Tom can't force himself to believe that, even after seeing the bodies.

Rowan dreams of a life beyond Nag's End and the sometimes strange beliefs of the mountain people. However, new arrivals in town, a family secret, and changes in her lovestruck best friend Tom's behavior draw her into the search for whatever is behind the killings. As more people turn up dead, the possibility of monsters becomes frighteningly real.

I didn't know much about this novel when I first picked it up except that the cover and blurb promised something dark and potentially creepy. The Glass Casket sets up a little more like a dark fantasy than a true horror story at first, which gave me pause, but McCormick Templeman surprised me.

Templeman spins a tale of suspense, murder, and dark love in the vein of the great gothic tales, sensual and at times terrifying. The Glass Casket is not only a well-paced, solidly plotted novel, but a rare example of love disturbing in its ferocity, yet utterly undeniable.

The most simultaneously confounding and amazing thing about this novel is the undefined yet somehow crystal clear sense of place and time. There is a distinct village with consistent customs, yet no location. Similarly, it's apparent that this novel isn't set in our present, but pinning it to a specific period is nearly impossible.

Turns of phrase like Tom's mother referring to what other than an animal could have "laid those men so low" while discussing the first killing, and the constant donning of cloaks gives the impression of olden times. References to goddesses also evoke images of ancient pagan cultures. In contradiction, burying the dead in a "cimetiere" is referred to more than once as a practice of the ancients and no longer the way of Tom and Rowan's people. Templeman engaged me in the world, fascinating me with the differences from our own, without pulling me out of the story and making me feel like I needed to do research to understand.

All I can say is that if you're a fan of fairytales (particularly the dark originals), mythology, fantasy, mystery or suspense or any combination of those things, then you should be reading The Glass Casket right now.