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The Universe Versus Alex Woods [Hardcover]

Gavin Extence
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

June 25 2013
A rare meteorite struck Alex Woods when he was ten years old, leaving scars and marking him for an extraordinary future. The son of a fortune teller, bookish, and an easy target for bullies, Alex hasn't had the easiest childhood.

But when he meets curmudgeonly widower Mr. Peterson, he finds an unlikely friend. Someone who teaches him that that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make it count.

So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the front seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he's fairly sure he's done the right thing ...

Introducing a bright young voice destined to charm the world, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that form our world.

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"The great joy of this quirky novel is Alex Woods, an English boy who's been hit by a meteorite. Alex recounts what follows with charm and wit, even when it includes seizures, bullying and the grave illness of his best friend, an old man. Pulsing with humor and insight, this book is a delight."—People Magazine

"[An] incredibly touching tale... [Extence] strikes a balance of describing tragic events with comedic style, wrapping his seriousness with subtle absurdity."— (Best Book of the Month, July 2103)

"Warm and funny and tragic and uplifting all in one. Extence should be on everyone's radar."—Jasper Fforde

"Perfectly crafted and beautifully written... The Universe Versus Alex Woods may be a debut novel but it is an outstanding novel by any standards. Unforgettable."—Red (UK)

"With wit and warmth, Gavin Extence shines a light on one of the darkest, most difficult subjects of our times."—Sunday Express

"Mark Haddon meets Kurt Vonnegut."—Observer (UK)

"A bittersweet, cross-audience charmer, this debut novel will appeal to guys, YA readers, and Vonnegut and coming-of-age fiction fans."—Library Journal

"Extence's engaging coming-of-age debut skillfully balances light and dark, laughter and tears."—Publisher's Weekly (Starred review)

"The Universe Versus Alex Woods will put you through the wringer. But oh, what a wringer!"—NPR Books -- Included on their "5 Great Summer Reads for Teens" List

"[The Universe Versus Alex Woods is] done in a dark, offbeat style that brings to mind the characters' hero, the literary giant Kurt Vonnegut"—New York Post

"Clever storytelling, winning characters and nuanced rhythm... Alex is a precocious, endearing, infuriating and unexpectedly brilliant teenager, and he and his indelible voice are incapable of sticking on the road most traveled. Lucky us: We get to go along for the (sometimes bumpy) ride."—Denver Post

"The Universe Versus Alex Woods is the story of how misfit Alex comes to befriend an elderly American curmudgeon, learns to cultivate marijuana and develops a deep appreciation for the work of Kurt Vonnegut. It's a wonderful coming-of-age story, delivered in an offhand casual style that belies the deeply moral concerns of the author."—Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

"Precocious and awkward, Alex Woods truly is a welcome addition to the literary world."—Charleston City Paper

"If you enjoy interesting and unique experiences, you will find this to be the must-read of the summer...[The Universe Versus Alex Woods] is a must-have for your library, and a treat for both the young, as well as the young at heart. There is some very deep subject matter discussed, yet the end result is extraordinary. Gavin Extence is an author to watch for."—Seattle Post-Intelligencer

About the Author

Gavin Extence was born in 1982 and grew up in the interestingly named village of Swineshead, England. From the ages of 5-11, he enjoyed a brief but illustrious career as a chess player, winning numerous national championships and travelling to Moscow and St Petersburg to pit his wits against the finest young minds in Russia. He won only one game.

Gavin now lives in Sheffield with his wife, baby daughter and cat. He is currently working on his second novel. When he is not writing, he enjoys cooking, amateur astronomy and going to Alton Towers.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Christa Seeley TOP 500 REVIEWER
You know when you watch an episode of The Simpsons and it starts out in one place and ends up in a completely different one? But you don’t even realize how far off course you went until it’s all over? That’s kind of what this book is like.

The Universe versus Alex Woods, is, unsurprisingly, about a young man named Alex Woods – a boy who was never meant to have a regular life. Hit on the head by a falling meterorite at ten years old he becomes a bit of an outcast at school and befriends Mr Peterson, a old American Vietnam war veteran in his neighbourhood. That alone would make an interesting novel in my opnion, but this book takes things a bit further when it introduces Kurt Vonnegut to the mix.

Unlike Mr Peterson, who loves Vonnegut’s work, I have never been a huge fan. I’ve read a few of his books and well I think they’re well written I didn’t see why people LOVED them. But during The Universe vs Alex Woods, we follow Alex’s discovery of the books and the book club he forms as a result and I found myself wanting to read all of Vonnegut’s books. Especially ones I hadn’t heard of before – like the Sirens of Titan and Timequake. Alex’s enthusiasm about these books and the conversations the book club have made me excited to give Vonnegut’s writing another shot. I love when a book gets me excited about reading even more.

And then if that wasn’t enough this book switches trajectory once again. I don’t want to reveal to much about what happens next but this book addresses a pretty important and serious political and social debate. It’s a fantastic look at humanity, dignity and a person’s right to agency over their own body. And though the book ended on a sad note, it was also – in my opinion – the appropriate one.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Touching story weighed down July 9 2013
Alex Woods was struck by a meteor when he was ten years old and survived, though he was left with a scar. He was already different from most of the kids in his school, having a love of reading, a mother who's a fortune teller, no father, but with the after effects of the meteor, he finds himself a favorite target of bullies. After one run-in with a group of bullies, Alex ends up meeting Isaac Peterson, a widower who was injured in Vietnam and they start an unlikely but touching friendship.

The book starts when Alex is seventeen and the opening chapter goes right for the attention-grabbing moment with Alex being caught at the border with 113 grams of marijuana. After that, he begins retelling his story and the events that led him to this point. He starts when he's ten and with the meteor and it goes from there.

I found myself really enjoying the characters in this book. Given his circumstances, Alex's reactions to the things that happen make sense and he tells a story the way a real person might, with some side-tracking and rambling. Isaac Peterson's growth from being alone to having a friendship with a kid who has no paternal figure is touching.

The basic plot of Alex dealing with his life after being hit by the meteor, his friendship with Mr Peterson and all the events that lead up to what happened in the first chapter was good and what kept me reading because I wanted to see how everything turned out. There was, though, a lot of addition of facts, trivia, and long explanations that gave the book a non-fiction feel at times and seemed unnecessary. The book's over 400 pages but probably could have been around 300 or a little more without all the added facts.

* I was provided an arc of this book by the publisher for an honest review
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4.0 out of 5 stars wonderful characters Aug. 25 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Although I'm not sure about my personal thoughts of assisted suicide, Gavin Extence has done a wonderful job of bringing these characters to life, and provoking further thought into the subject. I have often caught myself thinking about Mr. Peterson, and almost missing him myself. As for Alex, he's such a cool kid... Can't wait for Mr. Extence's next book!!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Pleasant Debut July 27 2013
Ever felt underestimated?

Alex Woods was hit by a meteorite -- scarred for life and prone to epilepsy attacks -- but his wit and outstanding intelligence remained unscathed. Try telling people that. Poor Alex had no friends until he met Mr. Peterson. The only man to glance at him without pity and treat him like an average teen. So how could Alex, at seventeen, be found with Mr. Peterson's car, a bag full of pot and an urn full of ashes. What exactly did Mr. Peterson teach him?

To refer to this book as Gavin Extence's debut novel feels preposterous. His writing is beyond amateur level which explains why he's been getting so much praise. Not only did he tackle bullying, mother/teen relationships, overcoming shyness around girls; he also discussed euthanasia and faith in the unknown. He did it without being preachy. He did it with class. Teaching us new words, and how to dissect Kurt Vonnegut's novels along the way.

Instead of giving us a perfect Alex Woods, Extence also allowed us to see his bad side. Teenagers don't always appreciate what their mothers do for them. A lot can be learned from adults at that age if we learn to communicate, and this book is a fair example.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  230 reviews
63 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A terrific book Feb. 3 2013
By Sid Nuncius - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
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 in England. 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: " 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.
40 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Extraordinary Book March 23 2013
By Brett H - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
This is a quite extraordinary book. I think it is fair to say that had I read a full synopsis of the content before I started reading I would probably not have bothered since it is certainly not the sort of book I would expect to enjoy. This would have been a big mistake and very much my loss as this is an unusual story which gets the attention at the outset and is a fascinating read throughout.

I will not go into much detail on the story as there is a danger here of spoiling it for future readers. However, the main plot is about an unlikely friendship between Alex Woods, who is at school, and an elderly American whom he meets, Mr Peterson. It covers a period of about five years from when Alex is 12 to aged 17. Alex is from an unusual background, having a witch for a mother and having also being in the unlikely position of having survived being hit by a meteorite. Mr Peterson is a dour, veteran of the Vietnam War. The relationship between them builds very gradually but is complex and very meaningful.

This is a tale which is quite poignant in parts, but with plenty of humor mixed in. The end manages to be both sad and uplifting which is quite a difficult feat for an author to accomplish. Certainly I felt at the end that I would have liked to be able to read more in the same vein, but this book is very much a one off so it is unlikely that there will be more. However, it is certainly a read which most will enjoy and certainly I found myself thinking about the issues raised once I had finished, which is always a sign of a story which has had quite an impact.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a good start, and I can't wait to see where he goes from here July 23 2013
By Walter in Austin - Published on
If Gavin Extence keeps writing and developing as a fiction author, I'm very excited to see where his imagination takes him (and us). This first book is a good start, but is most significant for me as a harbinger of things to come.

"The Universe Versus Alex Woods" is very episodic.....this happens, then that, then this, etc. For this style of book to be stellar, the magic in the style of writing itself has to carry things. Kurt Vonnegut (Extence's self-proclaimed hero) was a master of sparkling, wonderous writing. Even though Vonnegut's books had more wild flights of fancy than just a meteorite hitting someone (which is the one fanciful conceit of "...Woods"), I always felt like he could have written about almost anything and still had me enthralled, through the sheer wonder of his writing style. I have every reason to believe that Extence is going to reach that type of writing in his career, probably sooner rather than later, but he isn't there yet in this, his first novel.

The characters are potentially interesting, but not fully realized. Ripe plot developments are teed up, but never really pursued. Overall, the read is pleasant and I did enjoy the book. But I realized about a third of the way through that this is an author I'm likely to love in the future, but he hasn't put it all together yet. I sense there may be a much more interesting and idiosyncratic writer underneath this book, waiting to get out. I hope Extence lets him roam free and wild for the next one. I look forward to seeing where this talented and intelligent writer takes his craft.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great story with a realistic, compassionate protagonist June 23 2013
By Mel B. - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This story begins with an ending. You're not quite sure where the protagonist is coming from -- he's young and clearly in a lot of trouble with the police. I was worried that Alex -- called Lex by his mother, and not entirely coincidentally also bald -- would turn to an unsympathetic character. I hate those -- people who are horrible and make terrible decisions. But no, Alex, while making a series of decisions not everyone agrees with, is an entirely moral and compassionate young man.

He's notorious because as a young boy, he was hit by a meteor and recovered after a two week coma, but not without consequences. He gets severe epilepsy, enough that it keeps him out of school for a year. Then he goes to school where he's bullied because he's different; isn't that the way?

I like how Alex figures stuff out and often lists it -- such as ways he doesn't fit in or how his friend Mr. Peterson needs help making a critical decision.

What I appreciated is that our precocious protagonist is real. He makes mistakes that seem genuine -- you could easily have made them. He also in the process of learning about life and literature, about how to control his own unsound brain and how watching someone he loves die.

I love that a major thread of the book is Kurt Vonnegut, absurdity, and secular humanism. I totally want to join The Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut.

Alex learns from his friend, Mr. Peterson, an irascible war veteran who'd rather be left alone. Alex and Mr. Peterson rail against each other in a way that's hilarious -- Alex won't bring him certain kinds of music in the hospital, because he's not ready for it.

This book was a library ebook loan, and I loved it so much that I bought it. That's the highest praise, trust me.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting first novel Aug. 21 2013
By W.M.M. van der Salm-Pallada - Published on
Sometimes, you read a book and you want to love it; it's funny, clever, and geeky, it covers an interesting topics, it has cool characters, it truly should be a case of connect-the-dots to love and yet ... instead of love you get stuck in the friend zone--you like the book, you want to be its friend, but the spark to ignite more than friendship is just lacking. For me, The Universe Versus Alex Woods was such a book. This isn't to say that it a bad book or that I didn't enjoy it, it's just that it didn't have that spark for me. And that is mostly due to its protagonist and narrator Alex.

Be warned: there will be spoilers past this point, because there is no way to explain the above without touching upon things that are spoilers for the story's plot.

Alex is not your regular teenage boy. No, he's is one of the only people known to have survived a direct meteorite hit. As a consequence, he is epileptic, has a scar on the side of his head, which causes him to shave his head as not all of his hair grew back, and he's something of an odd duck as everyone knows he's the Boy Who Lived, or rather, the Boy Who Survived. All of which doesn't help him fit in with his school mates one jot. So far, so good, this shouldn't have been a problem at all, I like that trope; so what went wrong? Alex's voice is what went wrong. The person narrating the book is Alex at seventeen, but throughout the book he sounds far younger and, as a result, also rather precocious in a know-it-all way. If anything, he reminded me of Marcus from Nick Hornby's About a Boy, but more the film version than the book version, up to and including the weird, New Age hippy mum, the grouchy neighbour he befriends, and the gothy/emo love interest. But then with added epilepsy from brain damage caused by a meteorite. In all, not a point of view character I fell in love with. Still, by the end of the book, I came to appreciate him and I found his journey compelling, and I liked where he ended up by the last page of the book.

The character I found absolutely fascinating was Mr Peterson. A widowed Vietnam vet, who has retreated into his own cocoon and who doesn't really have any connections to life any more beyond his dog, he is your prototype tough guy with a heart of gold. I found his reluctant friendship with Alex quite touching; his unquestioning acceptance of Alex's quirky nature and his gradual bolstering of Alex's self-esteem were heart-warming. So when Mr Peterson is diagnosed with a progressive, terminal neural disease, it's devastating, both for Alex and the reader. What follows after is heart-breaking and uplifting at the same time. It's also what made the novel stand out for me and provoked quite some thought.

Because this is the point where The Universe Versus Alex Woods hits its stride and its main question: Who decides when it's time to leave this world. The novel discusses a person's right to die in a frank and unflinching manner. While I questioned Mr Peterson's decision to make Alex his main co-conspirator in his plan to die on his own terms and in his own time - who would put a seventeen-year-old in that position? - I never questioned that he decided to take that option. Perhaps, that's partly due to the fact that euthanasia is an accepted choice in my country; if a person is terminally ill or has a condition that is so debilitating that quality of life is so bad that it is more punishment than gift to be kept alive, they have the option of discontinuing treatment, or even actively ending their life, under very strict rules and the guidance of a doctor. This isn't to say that this is a common occurrence, far from it, but it's an accepted one. But Extence lays the groundwork for Mr Peterson's choice carefully and has Alex examine his choice from all angles before taking a stance. And following on from Alex's conclusions, it's hard to not see why they both think it is the right choice. Obviously, this will be a controversial stance for many people for many different reasons, but I found Extence treatment of this difficult, and quite often rather taboo topic, thoughtful and respectful and I commend him for the way he tackled it.

In the end, The Universe Versus Alex Woods was a bit of a mixed bag for me. If not for the incredibly powerful last part of the novel, it would have been a mediocre read for me, again not due to the author's writing skills or the story, but due to the disconnect I experienced between the character's voice and his actions. But the examination of the thorny issue of active euthanasia at a point of an illness' progression where even in the Netherlands it's doubtful that the doctors would agree to it, lifted the book to another level in my opinion. Far from perfect, The Universe Versus Alex Woods was an interesting first novel from Gavin Extence and is quite worth a read.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.
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