The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

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The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A meteor, an English lad, a Vietnam veteran and a heart-warming journey that you'll not remember without a smile and a tear or two.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: January 2013
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 978-1444765885

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Richard and Judy Summer Reading List 2013

While re-entering the UK with some human ashes and a stash of marijuana, Alex Woods is stopped by customs and referred to the police. It all started 6 years before when, as an 11 year old living in England's West Country, his escape from bullies necessitates breaking into a shed; the shed of a man with a gun pointing at Alex. The man is American Vietnam veteran Isaac Peterson and, whatever his school teachers may say to the contrary, this is the moment when Alex's education really begins; this and the moment when he was hit on the head by a passing meteor of course.

I seem to be saying this a lot lately, but this is an extraordinary debut novel. For me Gavin Extence has produced in his narrator and hero Alex one of the most intriguing literary young people since Mark Haddon's Christopher. He's reminiscent of a better behaved Just William as an 11 year old, combining a hyper-intelligence with naiveté that's as quirky as his upbringing. (His mother, a lone parent who runs an occult shop, refuses to name Alex's father, only saying that the impregnation happened around the Glastonbury area.)

As Alex grows through the novel his maturity increases but this knowing/unknowing mixture produces some wonderful comedic moments. His discussion with Mr P about Homer's Odyssey for instance is a classic (no pun intended… perhaps) causing me to do the coffee down nose thing again. Indeed, the novel seems to change from an interesting tale to a full colour literary spectacle once child meets world-weary American. (Talking of colour, there is swearing – including 'f' and 'c' words and some adult themes; they're not excessive and are used in context but you might want to consider.)

Mr Peterson isn't Alex's only friend; his friendship is shared by the wonderfully grumpy teenager, Ellie, but the rapport and events that take place between Alex and Isaac demand centre stage. Yes, I'm being cryptic as it's one of those books where the impact is in the discovery. (I predicted one of the plot points about half way through, but that doesn't lessen the literary stomach punch when it happens.)

Peterson transmits his (and I suspect that of Gavin Extence's) love of philosopher Kurt Vonnegut to Alex resulting in deeper questions seeping through plot itself, creating real-life discussion in the 'Twitterverse' about it's serious side. (For along with the giggles there are full-on choking sobs.) It's easy to enjoy this novel as a one-level story and try to ignore the deeper themes, but, if you want to look beneath the surface, what is it? Is it an affirmation of life for atheists and humanists as someone has suggested? Possibly but, speaking as a Christian, I was able to love it while seeing and respecting the reasons behind the events. Is it another voice adding to a topical debate? Definitely, but that makes it sound so seriously political that it may put you off reading it which I wouldn't want to happen.

My suggestion is to ignore everyone else and see how it speaks to you. If you reach the end of Alex's story and are left with no more than an affinity with Mr Enderby, the bald Buddhist neurologist, the author's wonderful feel for language and the battle-scarred Peterson who introduces Alex to literature while the lad re-introduces him to the world, then you won't begrudge either the time it takes or the rich memories that remain.

If you’ve enjoyed this, then we recommend The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon.

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Buy The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence at


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