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'The Universe versus Alex Woods' is a novel written by debuting author Gavin Extence. I first heard about the novel from my sister who told me about its premise. Being intrigued and seeing its many positive reviews on Amazon, I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and really liked the novel's style and opening chapter. Sometime later, I bought the whole eBook off the Waterstones website. Needless to say, 'The Universe versus Alex Woods' was finished in a day!
When 10-year old Alex Woods was struck by a meteorite, his life changed forever. As if having a psychic mother and living in a small village where everybody knows your name wasn't enough, Alex has to deal with epilepsy and bullying as he grows older. Luckily, by coincidence he meets Mr Peterson, an elderly, sullen American man who lives nearby, and the two of them form an unlikely friendship that results in an incredible journey for the both of them.
So 'The Universe versus Alex Woods' is a coming-of-age story that might appear to you as a bit outlandish. Yet the premise works brilliantly due to the author's style of writing. The book begins with the 17-year-old Woods being stopped at Dover in his car carrying a bag of drugs and an urn whilst being treated as a pariah by almost everybody else in the country. From there he narrates his story from the time of his incident so that you find out how he ended up in this position.
I really liked Alex as a narrator. He is witty, intelligent and a bit socially awkward, which comes across clearly in the prose. In some ways the writing style is similar to 'The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-time', which is another book I really enjoyed because it showed how different and charming the main character was from everybody else around him. The story is well-paced and I found it could be as funny as it was moving, especially later in the book when Alex has to make some difficult decisions.
Philosophy crops up quite a bit in the book, as Alex becomes a great fan of Kurt Vonnegut's work and so the concepts of life, death and morality form major themes in the novel. Thankfully, the way this is worked into the story is done in such a way that you don't feel like it bogs down the plot too much or forces their author's ideals down your throat- it is the character's interpretation of such issues after all.
The other characters I found to be unique and entertaining as well. Mr Peterson is grumpy and somewhat old-fashioned, yet I liked his frankness and honesty towards Alex. Even though he and Alex did not agree on everything, it was great seeing their relationship turn from a forced agreement (Alex destroys his greenhouse, and his mother makes him help Mr Peterson around his house as punishment) to a mutual friendship. He may not be completely likeable, but he does soften up towards the end of the book for spoiler-related reasons and you do really do sympathize him. Even more minor characters (such as Ellie, Alex's schoolmate who ends up working at his mother's shop and the doctors whom he meets after his incident) have enough depth given to them to seem realistic.
'The Universe versus Alex Woods' is a fantastic book. If you like stories that can be as thought-provoking as they are funny then definitely try this book out. Everything about this book seems to stand out from everything else I have read this year, and I certainly would love to re-read it again in the future!
At the time of writing, 'The Universe versus Alex Woods' is currently available in eBook format for as little as 99p (!) from various online retailers and in paperback format for £3.85 (on Amazon).
At the age of ten Alex Woods becomes the second human being in recorded history to survive being hit by a meteorite, furthermore he was hit by it on the head. He has scars, subsequent illnesses he won't ever fully recover from a bit of a B-list celebrity status as a result of this 'accident' (although his single clairvoyant mother would argue it was no accident, of course).
Alex is, as you may expect, a slightly strange lad. In some respects his intelligence and life experiences are of someone way beyond his years, in others he's a rather naive young boy. Naturally, the local bullies take a bit of dislike to him and it's because of this he makes an unlikely a friend. Mr Peterson, a fairly grumpy, widowed American man with serious war wounds. Neither Alex or Mr Peterson (Isaac to some) are aware just of the impact these two will have on one another over the years to come.
The story opens with a seventeen year old Alex being stopped at Dover customs. He has an urn full of ashes in the passenger seat of his car, a couple of hundred pounds/euros and 113 grams of marijuana stashed in the glove box and the entire British nation wanting him caught. Throughout the course of this story Alex takes us through his life from age ten up to seventeen leading up to explaining the events in the opening chapter. It certainly isn't the tale you'd expect.
As far as debut novels go, this one is the best I've read. Gavin Extence has certainly left me impatiently waiting for more his work. He gets the voice of Alex spot on in my opinion making him both believable and extremely likeable. As Alex gets older his voice and opinions change slightly, the original naïve, dead pan voice of a child slowly changes into a more mature, angst ridden, more knowledgeable teenage voice. As a reader you see Alex growing up without necessarily being told that he is doing so.
Extence also does a wonderful job at bring to life other characters throughout this book. The novel is written in first person I sometimes find it is difficult to like or know other characters when books are written in such a way although that definitely wasn't the case her. The other three major characters, Mr Peterson, Alex's Mother and Ellie (a gothic older teenager Alex's Mum employs in her tarot card type shop) all play quite vital roles in Alex's story and are all seemingly effortlessly made real through Alex's eyes.
The is a tale full of twists and turns, every time you think you've sussed out how one thing related back to the opening chapter Extense throws a spanner into the works and throws you completely off scent again. Trying to work out what is going to happen next is virtually impossible and I really enjoyed this about the book, it's hard to find something which isn't even slightly predictable these days but this book is certainly one of them.
I originally chose to read this book as it was pretty much the first thing I came across in the Amazon book store that wasn't either 'true stories' of abused children or porn in book form. It had a fair few glowing and mostly five or four star reviews and I expected it to be a bit of a light hearted fiction read. Whilst extremely enjoyable, light hearted it was not.
The book features a lot of philosophical themes and questions to which there are no real right or wrong answers to. Alex and Mr. Peterson do, however, have to find those answers. It's difficult to say too much without revealing the plot slightly (and I really do think you're best reading this without knowing what to expect) but the main theme seems to be where do you draw the line between the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do? One really interesting idea present was if there is no heaven and no hell and the only after-life is that once you die you're reborn the exact same person into the exact same life and every life event, big or small, every conversation, every relationship happens exactly as it did before, is this something you would look forward to or this something you'd dread?
Kurt Vonnegut features rather heavily throughout the story too bringing in more themes of life and death.
What I particularly loved about the style in which this was written is that, even though quite heavy subject matters are discussed, they're discussed mostly through the thoughts of a young man who's still growing up and is still learning about the world and the way the world sees things. Whilst emotions towards such things are present, after all Alex is a human being, his outlook is much more focused on facts and what is right. He looks at things in a rather simplistic and naive black-and-white way, the sort of things that the rest of us would probably find a headache inducing amount of 'grey areas' in. This way of portraying Alex's feelings towards the events happening in his life, I feel, really works. Again it makes his age much more believable, it makes him seem much more real and his character extremely likeable - I often found myself smiling at the page I was reading because Alex had made something most of us find so complicated into something painfully simple.
Most of all though this way of viewing the subjects in questions meant it was a much easier read than a lot of authors would have made this same story. It made what could quite easily become quite a tragic novel into something really quite uplifting and absolutely unforgettable.
I found the chapters of this story to be rather long however I don't feel this is the type of read you can easily drift in and out of during a spare five or ten minutes so this didn't really bother me. I was so engrossed in the Alex's life I certainly wanted to keep reading anyway. I didn't, however, find the book too long in any way, shape or form. Despite being written in an auto-biographical type way Extence was careful to only include relevant information. There was no wordy, unnecessary waffling in my opinion and, whilst it may not feel like it at the time, you soon realise that everything mentioned related back the beginning chapter and fully helps us understand what on earth is going on and why it happened.
The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a truly remarkable, uplifting story about society, our individual lives and how the two mixed together affects each and every one of us on a personal level. It's the type of story you find yourself getting so engrossed in you feel as though the characters are real people in your real life. The characters are so extremely realistic and likeable that I found myself genuinely missing hearing about them once I'd finished the book. This book certainly left a massive impression on me and I can't imagine myself forgetting about it at any point in my life. It's certainly the most enjoyable book I've read in a long time and I came away feel like I'd learned a lot, could understand and appreciate certain things more and I almost feel like a better person having reading it! I think I'd go as far to say that this book is perfect. I can't recommend it enough.
Published by Holder Paperbacks - May 2013
ISBN - 1444765892
Pages - 432
Price - £3.85 from Amazon (from £2.82 new and £2.40 used). Kindle Edition £3.49
Also available as a hardback for £9.59 and an audiobook for £9.74
Alex Woods is probably one of the most remarkably famous people in the world. That's because he's only the second person in recorded history (after Ann Hodges) who survived being hit by a meteorite. Alex was only 10 at the time, and his meteorite struck him in the head. That he lived was nothing short of a miracle. With this begins a chain-reaction that includes getting epilepsy and being bullied in school, leading Alex to Mr. Peterson - the American recluse and widower. The publishers of this novel call this "a celebration of improbable accidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that give life meaning." Well, I couldn't have summarized "The Universe versus Alex Woods" by Gavin Extence any better than that.
As the novel begins, Alex is 17 and being detained at the border in Dover after having driven from Zurich. After this confusing opening, Alex realizes that the only way people can get full picture - that is, not the story that the police or the media revealed in his case - is for him to start at the beginning. And this is how this coming-of-age story continues to full circle (and of course, just a little beyond).
My immediate reaction to this book was that Alex Woods is the 21st Century's Holden Caulfield. For those of us who were forced to read "Catcher in the Rye" in school (no matter if you loved or hated it), let me point out the major differences between Alex and Holden. Holden was a tragic hero because much of what he hated about society and the people around him was ironically the same things he refused to see in his own personality. Holden's rebellion and stubbornness bring upon his own misfortunes, and most of his self discovery has to do with his sexuality. His desire to be a "catcher in the rye" he sees as a way to save children from adulthood, as he himself wishes not to grow up, but can't avoid it. His poor academic achievements are in direct contrast to his intelligent narrative, but with a very naïve approach to life. Holden is abrasive and often crude, and despite his obvious love for certain people in his life, he does much to push them away and then is depressed by his loneliness.
Alex, on the other hand, begins with being a victim of circumstance that he was powerless to prevent. However, he never lets that spill into his personality. Although he doesn't always see how his own actions sometimes bring about the difficulties he faces, he also learns how to take control of his life and situation, and we appreciate how he tries to avoid certain confrontations. That his epilepsy keeps him back a year in school never once infers that he is any less intelligent than the level of the story he tells. Despite this, he appreciates the fact that there are those who might not understand everything he's talking about, and so offers explanations that are simplistic, and even somewhat child-like. These end up being very humorous passages, which endear him to the reader. And even as we watch him grow, he still has enough innocence about him to make us truly love him. Plus, while his situation distances him from being more socially adept with his peers (which he embraces), his connection with Mr. Peterson and the influence he has on Alex turns into a synergetic and very positive relationship.
With all this, one might think that these two characters are more different than alike. One point where the two converge is in the story telling itself. These are both fully subjective, first person accounts that (for the most part) are chronologically correct in how the events took place. In addition, both go through a certain maturing process while overcoming adversity and difficult situations (which is, of course, the definition of a 'coming of age' novel). But what really makes Alex Woods today's Holden Caulfield is that they each speak to their generation, and they do it beautifully and truthfully.
While this might sound like it has "young adult" written all over it, let's be honest: how many adults didn't read the Harry Potter books (even if they hated to admit it)? And those books weren't extremely well written (especially the last ones). Here, on the other hand, we have a masterfully crafted piece of literature that will appeal to both older and younger adults. Extence excels with his character development and his creativity in the plot show enormous talent. His language is both accessible and intelligent, with wit that is very reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's. It is no surprise that Extence includes references to Vonnegut's works in the story, with occasionally includes quotes from them and other well-known classic novels that slide in perfectly with the action.
With all this praise, I have to admit to one tiny point that seemed incongruous to me, but it is so insignificant that it isn't worth mentioning. With this debut novel, Gavin Extence has shown himself to be an author we should all be on the lookout for. So there is no doubt in my mind that "The Universe versus Alex Woods" is as close to genius as possible, and deserves a full five stars out of five.
"The Universe versus Alex Woods" by Gavin Extence will be released in hardcover and audio on June 25, 2013 and is already available on Kindle. Thank you to the publishers Redhook Books/Orbit of the Hachette Book Group for sending me an advanced reader copy via Netgalley.