I almost didn't read this book. Something about the blurb put me off, 'So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at Dover customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the passenger seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he's fairly sure he's done the right thing . . .' It sounded a bit too clever for it own good, a novel that would be all style with little substance. When it was selected for as a Waterstones 11 title, I put prejudice aside. My assumptions could not have been more wrong. This book has so much substance, it had me sobbing my heart out.
I should have known it was coming; the clue is in the urn of ashes, but the tone for the opening half of the novel is light and playful. Alex Woods is a social misfit, a slightly geeky modern teenager. After he is knocked unconscious by a meteorite he finds himself a minor celebrity. Worse his head injury causes him to suffer from epilepsy. Many things conspire against him to make him the school pariah.
Bullying inevitably ensues. After fleeing his persecutors Alex finds himself in the back garden of the daunting Mr Peterson. Despite an initial mistrust, Alex and Peterson, strike up an unlikely friendship, brought together by a love of Kurt Vonnegut.
Alex is an astute and entertaining chronicler, though much of the humour lies in the things he misunderstands. He is very much a modern Adrian Mole.The book is laugh out loud funny in places, and Alex a wholly likeable character, especially for those of a geeky disposition. Though mostly very different, this book has a number of similarities with Jo Walton's terrific coming of age novel, Among Others. Both contain eloquent and intelligent social misfits, both pay great tribute to the power of libraries and both narrators owe much to the central philosophies of seminal works of science fiction. (Though it should be stressed neither book requires a love of Sci Fi to be enjoyed).
We know from the outset that Isaac Peterson is going to die. Alex's account of his friends decline, is naive, compassionate and oddly life-affirming. Through his conversations with Isaac and exploring the works of Vonnegut, Alex builds his own moral code. Isaac becomes a father figure (Alex's own father has been forever absent) which makes what comes next all the more devastating. By making Alex such a logical and methodical thinker, Gavin Extence makes the difficult and potentially unpalatable direction his novel takes, seem not only inevitable, but also wholly acceptable to any right thinking person.
Without spoiling things it's hard to say just how good Alex Woods Vs the Universe is. It's quirky and amusing. It's a humanist meditation on the fragility of existence. It stresses the importance of thinking about our actions and not going with the flow. It will make you want to read Vonnegut, even if you didn't quite get it the first time. Above all it's a novel about love and the strength it gives you to make difficult decisions. This novel has had a profound affect on me and I can't recommend it enough.
I must say that debut books that I have taken a chance with on Vine have usually turned out to be duds. This one is a real exception and could easily be a star of 2013. Not easy to talk about it though without giving away too much of the story and as a reader you would definitely be best served by not knowing in advance what direction this tale is taking.
Alex Woods goes from age 12 to age 17 during the course of this story. He's a geeky sort of lad to whom extraordinary things happen right from the outset but because this is written in the first person it is Alex's voice that remains remarkable throughout the entire 346 pages. He speaks and thinks in a deadpan style which is humorous, partly because at his age he is learning everything for the first time and he explains it to us in elaborate way that is very amusing, but also because Alex is such a serious minded and moral sort of chap that he seems at odds with everyone else. Even his own mother describes him as a "puritan" !
Alex is one of life's outsiders for reasons I won't reveal but his quiet determination to do what he feels is right in every situation and hang the consequences is both touching and thought provoking. I found it hard to imagine how the author could create a story so unusual and yet at the same time manage to keep it pitch perfect right to the end. Its a brilliant achievement and what happens to Alex, or more to the point what Alex causes to happen, will I'm sure be viewed by readers in many different ways.
In the gentlest of ways this novel asks us to consider several aspects of the lives we lead and how we deal with death but, for me, it was mainly about what we can achieve if we live our lives in a manner that remains true to our moral values. This makes the book sound preachy but it is never that.
I think Gavin Extence may have a real hit on his hands here and I would certainly encourage any reader to spend some time inside the world of Alex Wood. Oh, and get ready to dust off your old Kurt Vonnegut paperbacks. Highly recommended.
What I most like about this book is the unpredicability of it all. At the start you are not even sure what sort of book it is going to be - a mystery? a comedy? To be honest I don't think it would easily fit into any pigeonhole easily, though maybe the comparisons to Mark Haddon give the best indication of the feel of it.
One of the appealing aspects of the book, which reminded me a little bit of James Finney Boylan's The Planets, is that extraordinary things happen to the main character but he takes them in his stride. All together I found this to be a charming book which is very hard to put aside.
As a book based on strange twists and events it is hard to say too much without spoiling the surprises, but it really is a book worth reading if you like books that are just a bit askew.
This is such a touching, captivating story with a wonderful narrative voice in Alex. What a marvellous debut novel - it's funny, brave, sad and original. Gavin Extence doesn't shy away from handling sensitive, difficult subjects and he does it thoughtfully, with honesty and humour.
The opening is set up to make us wonder at what has gone before, because we meet seventeen-year-old Alex on his way back into the UK, being stopped at Dover by a customs officer who finds some interesting items in Alex's car, namely 113 grams of marijuana and the ashes of his closest friend, Mr Peterson. Alex then takes us back, recounting the significant and often highly unusual events of his life to date, ultimately looping nicely back at the end of the novel to how he came to be in his present unusual situation. This structure, the bookending of the novel with the present day, and the past sandwiched inbetween, makes the read into a pleasing whole.
Alex has never known his father, and his mother has a somewhat unorthodox career as a clairvoyant, running a shop selling all manner of fortune telling type goods and offering her fortune telling services there. As Alex relates his past, we discover that he suffered an injury in a bizarre accident - struck on the head by a meteorite after it hit his home several years earlier. He has to learn to live with the medical after-effects of this, suffering seizures, and the occurrence also prompts an interest in neurology.
We learn of the cruelty of school bullies singling out Alex for all his differences, and we witness the unlikely yet firm friendship that is formed between Alex and lonely, widowed Vietnam veteran Isaac Peterson, leading to them sharing their love of books; reading has helped Alex in the past, he tells us that when he was physically restricted he could at least allow his brain to explore; there are several literary references such as to Catch 22, but once he meets Mr Peterson, it is primarily Kurt Vonnegut's novels that are discussed (I haven't read them, and it didn't affect my enjoyment, but if you are acquainted with them and/or like them, it will probably increase yours). Their companionship is at the core of the novel, and the bond that grows between them is charming and through it Alex learns that `what you think you know about a person is only a fraction of the story.' They were both lonely in their own ways before they got to know one another, and they each bring a great deal of enjoyment into the life of the other. The journey the two of them embark on is very brave and moving, but you must discover the details of this yourself by reading the book.
Alex has a keen grasp of scientific matters and is very intelligent and really thinks things through, making informed decisions, however sometimes he seems naïve and inexperienced too, and then we remember that he is a teenaged boy, and that despite his maturity and the wisdom he shows, he is still learning about the world and about people. I liked the friendship between Alex and Ellie, and some of the dialogue is really witty and pitch perfect for the characters involved. Another use of language I loved was the description of the `death rattles' of the school bus; `it would wheeze and shudder like a giant asthmatic cyborg.'
This is such an involving, enjoyable tale, with a likeable, distinctive young man as the hero. Once I was drawn into the story, I was reluctant to stop reading until I had heard Alex's entire tale. It's one of those engaging books that you don't want to end, and where the narrator is utterly convincing; rather than feeling as though I was reading the author's words through Alex, I felt I was reading Alex's story - as a character he became very real. This book will have you thinking about life and death, about luck and fate, and it reminded me of the enjoyment of reading.
I'll leave the last word to Alex; `I think that telling a story is a way of trying to make life's complexity more comprehensible. It's a way of trying to separate order from chaos, patterns from pandemonium.'
The book begins with seventeen year old Alex's arrest at Dover for bringing cannabis, albeit a small amount, into the country. Whilst in detention Alex relates his story, which is unusual to say the least.
Alex is an intelligent, articulate, geeky boy, living alone with is mother. Among his interests are astronomy, Kurt Vonnegut and the Deeper Meaning of Life.....the usual boy things, right? Well no, not really for a boy of his tender years. As a young child Alex is struck on the head by a meteorite which crashes through the roof of his house. Now how many people can say that has happened to them? Falling out of a tree and breaking an arm or leg, maybe, but being struck by a meteorite? Certainly unusual.
Told from Alex's point of view in a matter of fact, deadpan way, his story manages to be profound, sad and occasionally quite funny. At times the humour didn't work for me, but on the whole this is an interesting and unusual read. I'm honestly not sure if I actually enjoyed the book....it was certainly different, but somehow I couldn't help thinking about other books which strike me as similar.....Mark Haddon's "Curious Incident......." being one. I don't want to be unfair about this book as I read it in a bit of a rush, but I'll probably go back to this in a year or so and read it more slowly in the hope I get more out of it.
on 21 February 2013
From the opening pages you cannot help liking Alex. He is innocent & naive, but wise & perceptive at the same time.The author generates humour from a sad & emotional storyline. A thoroughly enjoyable & thought provoking read. Loved it.
I thought this was a terrific book. It is funny, thoughtful, touching and profound in its way, and I found it utterly engrossing as a story. It is hard to give any account of the plot without giving away more that I would have liked to know before I started, but it is narrated by Alex, a serious, studious seventeen-year-old. He forms an unlikely friendship which leads him in a very unexpected and challenging direction - which sounds thoroughly corny, sentimental and cliché-ed, and isn't any of those things. It is an engaging, funny and touching story with some important things to say.
Alex has a fantastically well-realised narrative voice, with very penetrating observations to make about lots of things, all of which are deadpan and as a result are often funny as well as being very shrewd. For example, of his mother, a clairvoyant, he says: "...my mother revealed that she'd foreseen the entire catastrophe. Of course, she didn't realise that she'd foreseen the entire catastrophe until after it had happened." There are many examples of this sort of thing, and I loved it. I found echoes of Mark Haddon's The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime in Alex's voice, which is high praise indeed. Other characters are very believable and beautifully portrayed, and all have their own very distinctive and recognisable traits and voices. The story is excellently structured and paced, and I found myself utterly bound up in this book and it eventually hijacked my day because I couldn't bear not to finish it.
This is one of the best and most memorable books I have read for some time - very warmly recommended indeed.
on 18 December 2016
"I'm saying that death is the easiest thing in the world. It's the dying that's terrible." Alex Woods mouths these words about three-quarters into the novel, and they just about sum up most of the novel. I say most, because strangely enough, what takes centrestage for the first part of the novel is the fact that Alex Woods is a very special boy, who survives a direct meteorite hit (no kidding) with a brain injury that somehow stokes his interest in neurology and astrophysics.
With such a literally out-of-this-world setup for his main character, Extence turns next to the figure of American ex-Nam veteran living in Alex's little English village in Somerset, Mr Peterson, who forms an unexpected relationship with Alex, the latter something of an outcast and bully victim in school, his tabloid-star status notwithstanding. The novel then takes a deliberate and unexpected turn, and leads Alex to spout the above-mentioned lines. But it turns out that the second part of the novel is where the real story is, and on reflection, his meteor-boy episode seems like an unnecessary sensationalist sideshow. Given Extence's sure-handed mastery of weighty issues concerning the dignity of life and death, which is impressive for a young debut novelist, I felt there was no real need for the attempted wow-factor.
Nonetheless, what ensues is a touching yet funny account of Alex's and Mr Peterson's close friendship, in which Kurt Vonnegut plays a significant part - you just have to read the novel to find out how. The comedy sometimes stumbles but the story succeeds, largely in part because it is told through Alex's perspective, and Extence conveys Alex's earnest desire to do what is right in his attempt to explain away his fear by appealing to science and logic, masking his bewilderment and uncertainty.
Alex Woods is a minor celebrity after being hit on the head by a meteorite which crashed through his bathroom. Since then he's suffered from epilepsy and is bullied at school until one day when, being chased by the bullies, he jumps through a hedge and finds himself in the garden of Mr Peterson. After the bullies throw stones and break Mr Peterson's greenhouse Alex offers to help him repair the damage as punishment, and an unlikely friendship begins, especially as the two find they share a love of Kurt Vonnegut.
This is an enjoyable book but I found it extremely predictable - as soon as the opening chapter ended I could see exactly where the plot was going, and correctly guessed the back-story to the whole tale - and the same thing happened throughout the book (for example Alex is bullied but you just know he'll do or say something and the bullying will end; Alex is allowed to borrow an item of great sentimental value and you know it will get lost or damaged.) I found the character of Alex very hard to like, and the same was true of Mr Peterson - in fact the only character I really liked was Ellie, the goth who befriends Alex - and I found the section about Kurt Vonnegut incredibly tedious. However, about two thirds of the way through the book things change, the story turns its (predictable) corner, and for me things picked up a little until the somewhat abrupt ending which felt like a few pages were missing.
All in all it is a bit of a Marmite book - I can see why lots of people love it, but for me it was all too predictable and I didn't find it engaging (and I'm baffled by the blurb saying it is hilarious - nothing in the book even raised a smile for me.) Regarding the comparisons to "The Curious Incident..." - a book I loved - I think the only real similarity is that they both feature a lead character who has emotional issues. This book is okay, but in my opinion the praise being lavished upon it is a little unwarranted. Enjoyable, but far from a classic.
on 10 January 2016
The universe versus Alex Woods is story narrated by its socially awkward teenage protagonist (the words Asperger's syndrome is never used but he is definately somewhere on the spectrum) who is unfortunate enough to have an over-protective, eccentric mother and no other friends and family who then a quarter of the way through the book goes on to develop a mutually beneficial and unlikely father and son relationship with a stranger.
The 'Universe versus Alex Woods' owes a huge debt to Nick Hornby's 'About a boy.' We even have an older teenage girl character who is feisty, argumentative but ultimately lovable! Ellie McCrae anyone?.
Despite being highly derivative 'The Universe versus Alex Woods' is, in some respects, a well-written coming of age story. The author covers a host of serious issues - bullying, loneliness, suicide, illness etc - as seen through the eyes of a young boy extremely well.
My main problem with the book was simply that because the characterisations were so hackneyed - 'Aspy' narrator, grumpy older guy who secretly has a heart of gold, emo/goth teenage female friend who also secretly has a heart of gold, eccentric over-protective single mother - it took away from their believability and undermined the believability of the whole plot.