Book Review: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

The Universe Versus Alex WoodsThe Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Release date: June 25th, 2013
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My rating: ★★★★☆

In case you didn’t know, in secondary school—especially in the early years of secondary school—diversity is not celebrated. In secondary school, being different is the worst crime you can commit. Actually, in secondary school, being different is pretty much the only crime you can commit.

At one point or another, most teenagers believe the universe is pitted against them. For Alex Woods, that seems to be the case—literally—as a chunk of meteorite crash-lands through the roof of his home and knocks him unconscious. Alex survives, but not without side-effects. In the aftermath, Alex gains the attention of media and develops an onset of epileptic seizures, but it is not just Alex’s fame, medical history, or the scar on his head that marks him an outcast. Wildly curious and interested in science coupled with social awkwardness makes him a target for school bullies. It is these bullies, however, who chase Alex right into Mr. Peterson’s yard. What starts as a rocky, uncertain relationship between the thirteen year old and Vietnam war veteran steadily turns into a life-altering friendship.

Now, at age seventeen, Alex once again finds himself at the center of media hype, but for different reasons entirely. His actions have set the country in uproar, and upon stopping at customs, he is found with 113 grams of marijuana and a full urn of ashes. Told from the viewpoint of the naïve yet exceptionally perceptive and smart Alex, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a clever coming-of-age story. It’s a novel that comes full-circle, beginning and returning to the specific event which opens the story. Similar to that of a memoir, the pages in between reveal Alex’s reflections—from the moment the universe collides into Alex’s life to his friendship with Mr. Peterson and beyond.

Alex presents an endearing naïvety by nature, yet this is one quality he continually grows from. An insightful and observant individual, Alex does not lack keen awareness, and when that clarity is ever clouded, he fights to understand. He is more than smart, looking at the world through an innocent’s eyes—a common feature among coming-of-age stories. Alex is intelligent, evolving in character, odd in terms of typical teenagers, and quite the saint. Above all of Alex’s qualities, however charming, it is his belief in doing “the right thing” that wins me over. No matter what consequences may result, fear does not seem to phase Alex. Instead, he readily accepts what he believes he must do and any punishment that comes with it. In this respect, he displays valor—a characteristic that not only earns my respect, but makes him a valuable person to know.

“Still, not all scars are bad, Alex. Some are worth hanging on to, if you know what I mean.”

I believe that Alex is the heart of this novel, as the story rests and depends on his musings. It’s centered on the events in his life during a certain span of years, or rather: The Universe Versus Alex Woods is Alex’s story thus far, and in part of this story lives Mr. Peterson. The friendship that grows between the two characters becomes a turning point, as both Alex and Mr. Peterson affect one another through irreversible change—and for the better. Some of the book’s most gripping scenes prosper from this unexpected but somehow ordinary relationship, and much of the growth this book experiences stems from these parts. It’s a poignant aspect: one teenage outcast and one reclusive war veteran who find each other, connecting through their obstacles, Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, and perhaps through loneliness.

In the long history of human affairs, common sense doesn’t have the greatest track record.

The story Gavin Extence has written is a blast of fresh air: compelling, profound for its thoughtfulness, and touching with a sweet twinge of humor. I find that the charm and uniqueness  Gavin has instilled into his novel is difficult for me to communicate. It’s simple: I fear that I will ruin the plot for anyone who has yet to read this story. I fear that by saying more, I will remove the story’s capability to affect prospective readers. I can only encourage others to pick this book up and discover Alex’s story for themselves.

At a surface glance, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is the coming-of-age tale about a peculiar boy growing up under even more peculiar circumstances. This story, however, runs deeper than that. It’s thought-provoking literature that displays the small wonders in this vast, complex universe. At the same time, it handles expansive issues centering on life, death, personal right and responsibility. What I appreciate about Gavin’s way of dealing with these facets to the story is this: they are what they are—nothing more and nothing less. Gavin’s aim is not to persuade the reader of anything, but to let the story unfold and allow the reader to get lost its wonder. For a debut, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is immensely likable and it’s one that I won’t soon forget, and I suspect that its appeal will withstand decades to come.

The longest-lived of these particles could exist for only a few hundred-millionths of a second before decaying; the shortest-lived were so unstable that their existences couldn’t even be ‘observed’ in a conventional sense. They popped into being and were gone in the same tiny fraction of an instant, so quickly that no instrument had yet been invented that was sensitive enough to register their presence, which could only be inferred post mortem. But the more I thought about this, and the more I thought about how old the universe was, and how old it would become before it suffered its final heat death—when all the stars had gone out and the black holes had evaporated and all the nucleons decayed, and nothing could exist but the elementary particles, drifting through the infinite darkness of space—the more I thought about these things, the more I realized that all matter was akin to those exotic particles. The size and scale of the universe made everything else unimaginably small and fleeting.

Thank you to NetGalley and Hachette Book Group/Redhook for providing a free copy of The Universe Versus Alex Woods in exchange for my honest review.

Book review: Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray

Ostrich BoysOstrich Boys by Keith Gray

My rating: ★★★

“Ross was hit by a car, knocked off his bike. At the funeral the vicar had called it an accident. But somehow the word wasn’t enough. It wasn’t big enough, powerful enough–didn’t mean enough. He hadn’t spilled a cup of tea, he hadn’t tripped over his own feet. He’d had his life smashed out of him. It felt like there should be a whole new word invented just to describe it.”

Upset over the loss of their best friend, Ross, and displeased by his funeral, Blake, Sim, and Kenny all agree: their dead mate deserves a proper ceremony. The funeral “felt like genuine betrayal,” says Blake, because Ross means more to them than hoaxed compassion expressed by people who didn’t care about him–not like Blake, Sim, or Kenny did, anyway. Ross was their friend and worthy of something authentic. Born out of grief, hurt, and eagerness to do one last thing for their friend, the boys plan to take Ross to Ross–Ross, Scotland, that is.

“It’s not really kidnapping, is it?” Kenny said. “He’d have to be alive, wouldn’t he? For it to be a proper kidnapping, I mean.”

What is supposed to be a two-day scheme stretches out to be a longer adventure as lost money, forgotten train tickets, and evading police jeopardize the mission. The biggest threat, however, lies with each other. Together, Ross, Kenny, and Sim all see themselves as the only three people who never wronged or abandoned Ross–not like his sister Caroline (who’d publicly embarrassed him), his ex-girlfriend Nina, the bully Sean Munro, or even Ross’ parents. They easily dismiss the idea that Ross intentionally biked into the oncoming vehicle, but their sureness and friendship are tested as they each question their loyalty. This trip will become a bookmarked chapter in their lives they can’t forget. Expected to fortify their friendship, their willingness (or lack thereof) to speak honestly–to listen and understand–quietly lingers in the background. Difficult to ignore yet subtle, it hovers between the text, and I could sense its claws intimidating to tear an already weakened bond.

Our friendship used to be a solid square, one of us to each other. Things were very different as a triangle.

Ross is what they all gravitated toward in the beginning, and it was Ross who bound the four of them together. Now that Ross is dead, the remaining three will either strengthen their connection or watch it unravel.

Coming-of-age stories, by their nature, are stories most people relate to. They often capture those moments when the simple ignorance of childhood or youthful innocence begins to fray. For me, personally, I enjoy the dynamics of male friendships much more than the bond girls share. Perhaps it’s because I find societal gender roles versus natural male and female relationships interesting, but boys often have a hinted intimacy sitting underneath all that masculinity. It’s an affection that is, naturally, very different from girls. Once these little moments in the story are pieced together and viewed as a whole, it can strike powerfully as touching and meaningful.

Oddly, however, I am apathetic toward Ostrich Boys. Some kind of emotion usually rouses the instant I finish reading a book’s last sentence. Whether I feel happy, disappointed, sad, bored, in love, or relieved, I at least feel something, but I am entirely void. This book is about three friends doing whatever they can to reach their destination–throw in a bungee jump, a few girls, a little bickering, and a car-chase… Well, I just summarized the book for you. Gray could not, no matter how badly I wished he could, hook me into Ostrich Boys. Once again, I’m somewhat to blame. When I read the summary I mentally went back to Stand By Me (the movie, of course, because I sadly haven’t read The Body) and Looking for Alaska. Both are great coming-of-age stories dealing with adventure, friendship, life, and death. Ostrich Boys, however, also deals with those issues, but they are dealt with lightly. I’ll explain:

What I felt Gray failed to add was the right amount emotion, which felt brushed over like a secondary element. The humor helps deliver a light-hearted, young atmosphere, but I missed the sincerity. Indeed, there are moments when one or all three of the boys are caught brooding; albeit, they are short-lived moments. But I mean: hey! Their best friend just died. I know it’s part of our cultural norm for boys to blanket their emotions, but these boys are friends. I didn’t expect the characters to mourn via a sob party, letting their emotions run loose like caged animals desperate to be let out. What I did expect was to witness the boys loosen the grip that’s strangling their feelings, thoughts, and in consequence: their friendship. With that, I thought they would thicken emotional ties that already have, in some way, connected them for life.

Maybe I am wrong, but I’d think Blake, Kenny, and Sim would feel their friendship’s foundation is strong enough to speak to each other. Why do they hesitate? It feels like they don’t completely trust each other enough to know the other two–or at least one of the two–has the third’s back. Just, Gray explores the friendship through Blake’s conversation with Kayleigh:

We phone each other every night, and send each other texts all the time too. It’s not only when we see each other. Boys don’t talk to each other about proper things. I know I can talk to my pals all the time anytime I want and tell them anything.”

I knew there were one or two things I would never dream of telling Kenny or Sim. But maybe I would have talked to Ross about them. . . . “You’re being a bit unfair, aren’t you?” I said. “Okay, maybe we don’t talk all the time, but maybe we don’t need to. I know Kenny and Sim would be there for me if I need them. In fact, just today with that bungee jump? The guy who ran it was a total arsehole, but Kenny and Sim were right by my side all the time.”

But will they always be there for Blake, and is Blake willing to always stand up for Kenny and Sim? There is an interesting moment where Blake comes clean and outs his betrayal to Ross. Sim’s reaction sets the final landing on where they all stand with one another, and that reaction intrigued me. What I would have given for Sim to open up to his friends about his home life, how he felt about Ross’ death, and what the trip meant to him. Regardless, Blake understands Sim better than I or even Kenny, explaining:

“I think Sim looked up to Ross more than any of us. And I bet if Sim could’ve swapped lives with someone, he would’ve jumped at the chance of being Ross for a while.”

Hindered by its own restricted emotional range, I feel disappointed over the book’s shallow exploration and inability to move me. But, in the end, would I recommend Ostrich Boys? I give a tentative “yes.”