One of my favourite things about having a Kindle is that, generally, the books are cheaper. This means every now and again I get to have a little shopping spree and buy a whole bunch of books, without bankrupting myself or worrying about carrying them all home afterwards. I’ve discovered some new favourites this way, like Into the Darkest Corner, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared.
A friend gave me an Amazon voucher for Christmas, so I decided to challenge myself to see how many books I could buy with it. And that’s how I discovered The Universe versus Alex Woods, by Gavin Extence. It’s the story of 17-year-old Alex, who gets stopped at Dover after getting off a ferry from France. Within minutes he’s had a seizure and been taken in for questioning by the police, but it soon becomes clear this is far from the most unusual thing that’s happened in Alex’s life.
The story, which begins when Alex is ten, turns out to be both very funny and incredibly sad. As a result of a ‘one in a trillion’ accident that made him famous (and epileptic), an eccentric mother and an unfortunate habit of saying the first thing that pops into his head when under stress, he becomes the target of school bullies. And this is how he meets Mr Peterson.
Now, Mr Peterson sounds like someone I would get on well with. He’s a grumpy old man who lives alone with his dog and his books, and spends most of his days writing letters on behalf of Amnesty International. Over time, he becomes a lot less grumpy, and he and Alex become friends. It’s as a result of this friendship that Alex finds himself being stopped at Dover a few years later – but I won’t say any more. Spoilers and all that.
So what did I love about this book? Well, everything, basically. The only bit I could have lived without was the science-y stuff (Alex, for reasons that become obvious, is very into science and dreams of being an astrophysicist) but I could understand why it was important, and it certainly didn’t ruin the story for me.
Mostly, Alex is brilliant. He’s honest, innocent and often ever so slightly baffled by the world around him. And he also believes in doing the right thing, even if it doesn’t seem like the right thing to other people. In Alex’s world, it’s fine to use a very bad word to describe a bullying classmate, because it’s true. (And in his defence, the classmate in question had just destroyed a valuable book by throwing it out the bus window. So I totally get it.) He doesn’t do anything without first thinking through all possible pros and cons, which as a fellow thinker is something I can relate to. And his unlikely friendship with Mr Peterson, who comes to fill the role of father figure whether he wants it or not, is both moving and hilarious.
Oh, and I now know a lot more about Kurt Vonnegut than I ever expected to.
It’s a very easy and quick book to read, because of the writing style, but that doesn’t mean it covers easy themes; far from it. Alex’s experiences are definitely not ordinary, and he has to grow up much faster than your average teenager. But the themes of friendship, loneliness and making the most of life while you still can are universal.
So, in conclusion, 99p well spent. Although I’ve just checked and it’s not 99p any more. But I’d consider it £3.66 well spent too 😉