We are all made of stars – The Universe Vs Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

alex woodsI almost didn’t read this book. Something about the blurb put me off, ‘So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at Dover customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the passenger seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he’s fairly sure he’s done the right thing . . .’  It sounded a bit too clever for it own good, a novel that would be all style with little substance.  When it was selected for as a Waterstones 11 title, I put prejudice aside. My assumptions could not have been more wrong. This book has so much substance, it had me sobbing my heart out.

I should have known it was coming; the clue is in the urn of ashes, but the tone for the opening half of the novel is light and playful. Alex Woods is a social misfit, a slightly geeky modern teenager. After he is knocked unconscious by a meteorite he finds himself a minor celebrity. Worse his head injury causes him to suffer from epilepsy. Many things conspire against him to make him the school pariah.

Bullying inevitably ensues. After fleeing his persecutors Alex finds himself in the back garden of the daunting Mr Peterson. Despite an initial mistrust, Alex and Peterson, strike up an unlikely friendship, brought together by a love of Kurt Vonnegut.

Alex is an astute and entertaining chronicler, though much of the humour lies in the things he misunderstands. He is very much a modern Adrian Mole.The book is laugh out loud funny in places, and Alex a wholly likeable character, especially for those of a geeky disposition.  Though mostly very different, this book has a number of similarities with Jo Walton’s terrific coming of age novel, Among Others.  Both contain eloquent and intelligent social misfits, both pay great tribute to the power of libraries and both narrators owe much to the central philosophies of seminal works of science fiction. (Though it should be stressed neither book requires a love of Sci Fi to be enjoyed).

We know from the outset that Isaac Peterson is going to die. Alex’s account of his friends decline, is naive, compassionate and oddly life-affirming. Through his conversations with Isaac and exploring the works of Vonnegut, Alex builds his own moral code. Isaac becomes a father figure (Alex’s own father has been forever absent) which makes what comes next all the more devastating.  By making Alex such a logical and methodical thinker, Gavin Extence makes the difficult and potentially unpalatable direction his novel takes, seem not only inevitable, but also wholly acceptable to any right thinking person.

Without spoiling things it’s hard to say just how good Alex Woods Vs the Universe is. It’s quirky and amusing. It’s a humanist meditation on the fragility of existence. It stresses the importance of thinking about our actions and not going with the flow. It will make you want to read Vonnegut, even if you didn’t quite get it the first time. Above all it’s a novel about love and the strength it gives you to make difficult decisions. This novel has had a profound affect on me and I can’t recommend it enough.

If you want to know a little bit more about why, read on.  But be warned-

Here be spoilers.

About ten years ago my Dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Since then I’ve watched him degenerate from a proud man, with the world at his feet, to a frozen twisted statue, locked in a chair desperate to be put out of his misery. Fortunately, these total locked moments are short-lived and irregular, but their frequency will only increase. Isaac Peterson is diagnosed with a similar degenerative illness.

At the beginning of February my Dad had a deep brain stimulation operation. The outcome of this is still uncertain, but it could turn the clock back five years.  It may be turned back, but it will continue to wind down. In five years time we could be back here again, wondering how to navigate the hideous future that lies ahead.  One thing is certain, Dad hopes to finish things himself.  He has already talked to me about ‘going to Switzerland’.

This is what Isaac does in the novel. The brilliance of it though, is that it’s not Isaac who asks Alex, but Alex who works out it is the logical thing to do, and offers to help Isaac escape his illness. The naivity to Alex’s logic makes his motives unimpeachable. It is impeccable. Whilst I know many people object on religious grounds, from a humanist perspective the right to chose your own death is presented as an inalienable human right. Extence’s arguments are utterly compelling.

I was never quite sure about how I felt about my Dad’s wish to choose the time to end his life, and there are still many grey areas, but this novel (combined with a number recent events) has convinced me that I should be there for Dad, should that be what he chooses. But it isn’t that simple.

Extence makes (what I assume is) a deliberate choice in his characters.  Isaac is alone in the world.  There is no wife to survive him, no children who might argue over whether it is the right thing to do.  This greatly simplifies the logic.  As does making Alex seventeen.  He has no dependants.

I must confess I haven’t looked into the law in any great depth, (though I accept things on one level, I am clearly in denial) but I believe the current situation is ambiguous.  As I understand it, if I had any involvement in assisting my Dad’s suicide at home or abroad, I could face criminal prosecution.  At the very least I would be subjected to months of investigation.  As a father myself, to three young boys, I simply cannot subject them to this upheaval, and as their primary carer, any time spent in prison would destroy our family. I simply cannot take the risk.

I know there are compelling reasons for not legalising assisted suicide, but most of them are rarely used  in debates I’ve heard. God, for me should not come into it. If he exists, he is compassionate and we do not know his plan. Gavin Extence’s book makes the inability in this country to choose a dignified end, seem inhumane.

The final chapters of this book are stupefyingly beautiful. Alex and Isaac’s trip to Switzerland is told in bold detail. The process is outlined, the safeguards explained, the conclusion sad, yet uplifting.  I don’t know what faces my family in the next few years but I do know that Gavin Extence’s wonderful novel has clarified how I feel about one of society’s final taboos.

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Stuck in the middle with ‘Fuse’ by Julianna Baggott

fuseIt’s often hard to review second books in a series. World building is normally done in book one and plot resolution is yet to come. With no beginning or end, we have only middle, so how to judge? ‘Fuse’ has this problem in abundance. It adds little to book one, remains readable throughout, but leaves the reader only with more questions.

That I feel so discomfited signals a degree of disappointment with the book. I really liked ‘Pure’. It is dark and dirty; a dystopian vision that works, that goes deeper than just another Hunger Games clone. ‘Fuse’ however ploughs the furrow left by Kantiss Everdeen. Pure explores some interesting areas, such as the role of technology in human advancement and the futility of hankering for a better time. The concept of being fused to your past was fascinating. Best of all ‘Pure’ wasn’t all about an oppressed group sticking it to their overlords. Which is exactly what ‘Fuse’ is.

The fragmented heroes in this book are trying to destroy the Dome and bring down its leader, Ellery Willux. The book starts slowly. The bleak existence of those outside the Dome makes for heavy reading, but things do eventually get going. The narrative becomes exciting and there are some great set pieces, but I felt the story became a string of events, with characters arbitrarily being pushed in one direction or another. It’s plot development as practised by the writers of Lost.

Too often characters would suddenly acquire significant pieces of information, important landmarks would not be guarded, characters who had been useless, suddenly acquired value. Worse still, Willux, the central villain becomes a caricature of himself. He’s like Mayor Prentice from Patrick Ness’s ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy, with much subtlety and guile removed.

Harsh words for a book that still has much going for it. I enjoyed reading many sections of ‘Fuse’ and it contains some beautiful characterisation. El Capitan and his conjoined brother form a heart wrenching symbiosis that elevates the book towards something special. There is also a gripping section inside the Dome itself, about which I can say little, other than it had me enthralled and frantically turning pages, desperate to find out what was going on.

So ‘Fuse’ is a mixed bag; a classic middle-book-of-trilogy holding action. Always readable, occasionally moving but often contrived, it fails to build on the unique qualities of its predecessor. The book does however end with enough intriguing cliffhangers to keep you hooked for volume three. Proceed with caution.

St Nicholas is Coming to Town – ‘Nicholas St North and the Battle of the Nightmare King’ by William Joyce and Laura Geringer

northI have a soft spot for folk-tale reimaginings. I love the idea of taking characters well-known from one story and placing them in new situations. Bill Willingham’s Fables and many of Allan Ahlberg’s fabulous children’s stories are great examples of this. So when I unexpectedly encountered the film trailer for ‘Rise of the Guardians’ my interest was piqued.

Several weeks later I found myself sitting between my boys watching the exploits of Jack Frost, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and of course St Nicholas – a splendid gun-toting Russian with ‘Naughty’ and ‘Nice’ tattooed across his knuckles. The movie, though not without its flaws, is great family entertainment, that sticks to the spirit of its central characters and has a menacing villain. I hope there is a sequel.

When I returned home and discovered the film was based on a series of novels, I became very excited (I don’t get out much these days). I assumed that they must be lost American classics; less famous equivalents of Frank L Baum’s ‘Oz’ books. Not so. This first book was first published in 2011, written by William Joyce a man with many film credits to his name (A Bug’s Life, Robots and Toy Story to name but three).

A quick search told me that there were four novels available, and they were all around £10; quite pricey for children’s books but they don’t have a UK publisher, and so are imports. Still, one review mentioned that the illustrations were gorgeous, so I thought I’d give the first one a punt. I wasn’t disappointed.

The strength of the books is in their appearance. Small hardbacks, with pleasing a slipcover, but better still are the black and white drawings inside the book. Book illustration of the highest order. In particular the dastardly Pitch Black and his shadowy Nightmares. They creep across then page with inky menace.

The story is written in a traditional folk story style, reminiscent of Joan Aiken, an author I love. If I had a criticism, it’s that the language might be a little advanced for the target age of the story. It is a great book to read aloud, but my seven year-old is very keen to read it himself, only to struggle with some of the more difficult vocabulary. Because the stories are true flights of fancy, some of the events are quite abstract and hard to put into context, which makes it difficult for him decode. Having said that, he is captivated by the book, and determined to read it for himself, which speaks volumes for the quality of the story and the attractiveness of its illustrations.

And there is much to captivate here. Wizards, sentient trees, magic sleighs, moonbeams, robots, spells and a hint of Santa. Mix this with some tenacious child heroes, a Yeti army, ghoulish nightmares and some entirely cool swords, and you have a humdinger of children’s story. It’s a little light in places but strong on magic, and as for how Santa became Santa, well that’s not quite addressed, leaving plenty of scope for more stories. Other books follow, introducing the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy and The Sandman. Books I shall be picking up soon.

Girl Interrupted – ‘Woman’s World’ by Graham Rawle

womanI first read ‘Woman’s World’ when it was published in paperback. After thoroughly enjoying Rawle’s excellent new novel, ‘The Card’, I decided it was time to for a reread; I even persuaded my Book group to join me. Rereading the book reinforced the feeling that whilst ‘The Card’ is a great novel, ‘Woman’s World’ is nothing less than a work of genius.

Five years in the making, ‘Woman’s World’ is constructed entirely from Women’s magazine’s dating from the 50s and 60s. This unusual medium gives Rawle’s text a richness that goes beyond mere narrative, character and plot. Additional texture is added through the phrases chosen and the way in which they have been pieced together.

The story is a subtle one, leant extra nuance through Rawle’s choice of media. The tale is told in the direct, easy to read style favoured by Women’s magazines. An entire novel written directly in this breezy style would be a very peculiar read, but in collage form it works very well. Rawle has subverted the original form of his words to create something new. As much as anything else this is a book about the use and versatility of language.

There is also a great physical element to the book. Use of different fonts, point size and even how words have been pasted together, give little hints or expansions of the wider story. Rawle has also clipped in pictures from the magazines, that give the words greater meaning. It was only after a second read and a lively book-group discussion, that the true depth of the book became apparent.

It’s difficult to talk too much about the plot of Woman’s World, it will spoil the novel’s central mystery. Whilst it is a markedly different book to The Card, the two novels carry some similarities. Most strikingly, at the heart of both are lives interrupted.

Woman’s World is in great danger of becoming a forgotten masterpiece, which is a great shame. Rawle’s treatment goes beyond that of a simple gimmick, to truly expanding the boundaries of literature as a form. A unique and very special novel.