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"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
They finally stopped me at Dover as I was trying to get back into the country. I was half expecting it, but it still came as kind of a shock when the barrier stayed down. It's funny how some things can be so mixed up like that. Having come this far, I'd started to think that I might make it the whole way home after all. It would have been nice to have been able to explain things to my mother. You know: before anyone else had to get involved.
It was 1 a.m., and it was raining. I'd rolled Mr Peterson's car up to the booth in the 'Nothing to Declare' lane, where a single customs officer was on duty. His weight rested on his elbows, his chin was cupped in his hands, and, but for this crude arrangement of scaffolding, his whole body looked ready to fall like a sack of potatoes to the floor. The graveyard shift – dreary dull from dusk till dawn – and for a few heartbeats it seemed that the customs officer lacked the willpower necessary to rotate his eyeballs and check my credentials. But then the moment collapsed. His gaze shifted; his eyes widened. He signalled for me to wait and spoke into his walkie-talkie, rapidly and with obvious agitation. That was the instant I knew for sure. I found out later that my picture had been circulated in every major port from Aberdeen to Plymouth. With that and the TV appeals, I never stood a chance.
What I remember next is kind of muddled and strange, but I'll try to describe it for you as best I can.
The side door of the booth was swinging open and at the same moment there washed over me the scent of a field full of lilacs. It came on just like that, from nowhere, and I knew straight away that I'd have to concentrate extra hard to stay in the present. In hindsight, an episode like this had been on the cards for a while. You have to bear in mind that I hadn't slept properly for several days, and Bad Sleeping Habits has always been one of my triggers. Stress is another.
I looked straight ahead and I focussed. I focussed on the windscreen wipers moving back and forth and tried to count my breaths, but by the time I'd got to five, it was pretty clear that this wasn't going to be enough. Everything was becoming slow and blurry. I had no choice but to turn the stereo up to maximum. Handel's Messiah flooded the car – the 'Hallelujah' chorus, loud enough to rattle the exhaust. I hadn't planned it or anything. I mean, if I'd had time to prepare for this, I'd have chosen something simpler and calmer and quieter: Chopin's nocturnes or one of Bach's cello suites, perhaps. But I'd been working my way through Mr Peterson's music collection since Zurich, and it just so happened that at that precise moment I was listening to that precise section of Handel's Messiah – like it was Fate's funny joke. Of course, this did me no favours later on: the customs officer gave a full report to the police in which he said that for a long time I'd resisted detention, that I'd just sat there 'staring into the night and listening to religious music at full volume, like he was the Angel of Death or something'. You've probably heard that quote already. It was in all the papers – they have a real boner for details like that. But you should understand that at the time I didn't have a choice. I could see the customs officer in my peripheral vision, hunchbacked at my window in his bright yellow jacket, but I forced myself to ignore him. He shone his torch in my eyes, and I ignored that too. I just kept staring straight ahead and focussing on the music. That was my anchor. The lilacs were still there, trying their best to distract me. The Alps were starting to intrude – jagged, frosted memories, as sharp as needles. I swaddled them in the music. I kept telling myself that there was nothing but the music. There was nothing but the strings and the drums and the trumpets, and all those countless voices singing out God's praises. I know in retrospect that I must have looked pretty suspicious, just sitting there like that with my eyes glazed and the music loud enough to wake the dead. It must have sounded like I had the entire London Symphony Orchestra performing on the back seat. But what could I do? When you get an aura that powerful, there's no chance of it passing of its own accord: to be honest with you, there were several moments when I was right on the precipice. I was just a hair's breadth from convulsions.
But after a while, the crisis abated. Something slipped back into gear. I was dimly aware that the torch beam had moved on. It was now frozen on the space two feet to my left, though I was too frazzled to figure out why at the time. It was only later that I remembered Mr Peterson was still in the passenger seat. I hadn't thought to move him.
The moments ticked on, and eventually the torchlight swung away. I managed to turn my head forty-five degrees and saw that the customs officer was again speaking into his walkie-talkie, palpably excited. Then he tapped the torch against the window and made an urgent downwards gesture. I don't remember pushing the button, but I do remember the rush of cold, damp air as the glass rolled down. The customs officer mouthed something, but I couldn't make it out. The next thing I knew, he'd reached through the open window and flipped off the ignition. The engine stopped, and a second later, the last hallelujah died on the night air. I could hear the hiss of drizzle on tarmac, fading in slowly, like reality resolving itself. The customs officer was speaking too, and waving his arms in all these weird, wobbly gestures, but my brain wasn't able to decode any of that yet. Right then, there was something else going on – a thought that was fumbling its way towards the light. It took me for ever to organize my ideas into words, but when I finally got there, this is what I said: 'Sir, I should tell you that I'm no longer in a fit state to drive. I'm afraid you'll have to find someone else to move the car for me.'
For some reason, that seemed to choke him. His face went through a whole series of strange contortions, and then for a very long time he just stood there with his mouth open. If it had been me standing there with my mouth open, it would have been considered pretty rude, but I don't think it's worth getting too uptight about things like that. So I just waited. I'd said what I needed to say, and it had taken considerable effort. I didn't mind being patient now.
When he'd cleared his airways, the customs officer told me that I had to get out of the car and come with him straight away. But the funny thing was, as soon as he said it, I realized that I wasn't quite ready to move yet. My hands were still locked white on the steering wheel, and they showed no signs of relinquishing their grip. I asked if I could possibly have a minute.
'Son,' the customs officer said, 'I need you to come now.'
I glanced across at Mr Peterson. Being called 'son' was not a good omen. I thought I was probably in a Whole Heap of Shit.
My hands unlocked.
I managed to get out of the car, reeled and then leaned up against the side for a few seconds. The customs officer tried to get me to move, but I told him that unless he wanted to carry me, he'd have to give me a moment to find my feet. The drizzle was prickling the exposed skin on my neck and face, and small tears of rain were beginning to bead on my clothing. I could feel all my sensations regrouping. I asked how long it had been raining. The customs officer looked at me but didn't reply. The look said that he wasn't interested in small talk.
A police car came and took me away to a room called Interview Room C in Dover Police Station, but first I had to wait in a small Portakabin back in the main part of the port. I had to wait for a long time. I saw a lot of different officers from the Port Authority, but no one really talked to me. They just kept giving me all these very simple two-word instructions, like 'wait here' and 'don't move', and telling me what was going to happen to me next, like they were the chorus in one of those Ancient Greek plays. And after every utterance, they'd immediately ask me if I understood, like I was some kind of imbecile or something. To be honest with you, I might have given them that impression. I don't know. I still hadn't recovered from my seizure. I was tired, my co- ordination was shot, and on the whole I felt pretty disconnected, like my head had been packed with cotton wool. I was thirsty too, but I didn't want to ask if there was a vending machine I might use in case they thought I was trying to be clever with them. As you probably know, when you're in trouble already, you can ask a simple, legitimate question like that and end up in even more trouble. I don't know why. It's like you cross this invisible line and suddenly people don't want to acknowledge that everyday things like vending machines or Diet Coke exist any more. I guess some situations are supposed to be so grave that people don't want to trivialize them with carbonated drinks.
Anyway, eventually a police car came and took me away to Interview Room C, where my situation was in no way improved. Interview Room C was not much larger than a cupboard and had been designed with minimum comfort in mind. The walls and floor were bare. There was a rectangular table with four plastic chairs, and a tiny window that didn't look like it opened, high up on the back wall. There was a smoke alarm and a CCTV camera in one corner, close to the ceiling. But that was it as far as furnishings were concerned. There wasn't even a clock.
I was seated and then left alone for what seemed like a very long time. I think maybe that was deliberate, to try to make me feel restless or uncomfortable, but really I've got no definite grounds for thinking that. It's just a hypothesis. Luckily, I'm very happy in my own company, and pretty adept at keeping my mind occupied. I have about a million different exercises to help me stay calm and focussed.
When you're tired but need to stay alert, you really need something a bit tricky to keep your mind ticking over. So I started to conjugate my irregular Spanish verbs, starting in the simple present and then gradually working my way through to the more complicated tenses. I didn't say them aloud, because of the CCTV camera, but I voiced them in my head, still taking care with the accent and stresses. I was on entiendas, the informal second-person present subjunctive of entender (to understand), when the door opened and two policemen walked in. One was the policeman who had driven me from the port, and he was carrying a clipboard with some papers attached to it. The other policeman I hadn't seen before. They both looked pissed off.
'Good morning, Alex,' said the police officer whom I didn't know. 'I'm Chief Inspector Hearse. You've already met Deputy Inspector Cunningham.'
'Yes,' I said. 'Hello.'
I'm not going to bother describing Chief Inspector Hearse or Deputy Inspector Cunningham for you at any great length. Mr Treadstone, my old English teacher, used to say that when you're writing about a person, you don't need to describe every last thing about him or her. Instead, you should try to give just one telling detail to help the reader picture the character. Chief Inspector Hearse had a mole the size of a five-pence piece on his right cheek. Deputy Inspector Cunningham had the shiniest shoes I've ever seen.
They sat down opposite, and gestured that I should sit down too. That was when I realized that I'd stood up when they walked in the room. That's one of the things they taught you at my school – to stand up whenever an adult enters the room. It's meant to demonstrate respect, I guess, but after a while, you just do it without thinking.
They looked at me for quite a long time without saying anything. I wanted to look away, but I thought that might seem rude, so I just kept looking straight back and waited.
'You know, Alex,' Chief Inspector Hearse said finally, 'you've created quite a stir over the past week or so. You've become quite the celebrity ...'
Straight away, I didn't like the way this was going. I had no idea what he expected me to say. Some things there's no sensible response to, so I just kept my mouth shut. Then I shrugged, which wasn't the cleverest thing to do, but it's very difficult to do nothing in situations like that.
Chief Inspector Hearse scratched his mole. Then he said: 'You realize that you're in a lot of trouble?'
It might have been a question; it might have been a statement. I nodded anyway, just in case.
'And you know why you're in trouble?'
'Yes. I suppose so.'
'You understand that this is serious?'
Chief Inspector Hearse looked across at Deputy Inspector Cunningham, who hadn't said anything yet. Then he looked at me again. 'You know, Alex, some of your actions over the past hour suggest otherwise. I think if you realized how serious this was, you'd be a lot more worried than you appear to be. Let me tell you, if I was sitting where you are now, I think I'd be a lot more worried than you appear to be.'
He should have said 'if I were sitting where you are now' – I noticed because I already had the subjunctive on my mind – but I didn't correct him. People don't like to be corrected about things like that. That was one of the things Mr Peterson always told me. He said that correcting people's grammar in the middle of a conversation made me sound like a Major Prick.
'Tell me, Alex,' Chief Inspector Hearse went on, 'are you worried? You seem a little too calm – a little too casual – all things considered.'
'I can't really afford to let myself get too stressed out,' I said. 'It's not very good for my health.'
Chief Inspector Hearse exhaled at length. Then he looked at Deputy Inspector Cunningham and nodded. Deputy Inspector Cunningham handed him a sheet of paper from the clipboard.
'Alex, we've been through your car. I think you'll agree that there are several things we need to discuss.'
I nodded. I could think of one thing in particular. But then Chief Inspector Hearse surprised me: he didn't ask what I thought he was going to ask. Instead, he asked me to confirm, as a matter of record, my full name and date of birth. That threw me for about a second. All things considered, it seemed like a waste of time. They already knew who I was: they had my passport. There was no reason not to cut to the chase. But, really, I didn't have much choice but to go along with whatever game they were playing.
'Alexander Morgan Woods,' I said. 'Twenty-third of the ninth, 1993.'
I'm not too enamoured with my full name, to be honest with you, especially the middle part. But most people just call me Alex, like the policemen did. When you're called Alexander, hardly anyone bothers with your full name. My mother doesn't bother. She goes one syllable further than everyone else and just calls me Lex, as in Lex Luthor – and you should know that she was calling me that long before I lost my hair. After that, I think she started to regard my name as prophetic; before, she just thought it was sweet.
Chief Inspector Hearse frowned and then looked at Deputy Inspector Cunningham again and nodded. He kept doing that, like he was the magician and Deputy Inspector Cunningham was his assistant with all the props.
Deputy Inspector Cunningham took from the back of his clipboard a clear plastic bag, which he then tossed into the centre of the table, where it landed with a quiet slap. It was extremely dramatic, it really was. And you could tell that they wanted it to be dramatic. The police have all sorts of psychological tricks like that. You probably know that already if you ever watch TV.
'Approximately one hundred and thirteen grams of marijuana,' Chief Inspector Hearse intoned, 'retrieved from your glove compartment.'
I'm going to level with you: I'd completely forgotten about the marijuana. The fact is, I hadn't even opened the glove compartment since Switzerland. I'd had no reason to. But you try telling the police something like that at around 2 a.m. when you've just been stopped at customs.
'That's a lot of pot, Alex. Is it all for personal use?'
'No ...' I changed my mind. 'Actually, yes. I mean, it was for personal use, but not for my personal use.'
Chief Inspector Hearse raised his eyebrows about a foot. 'You're saying that this one hundred and thirteen grams of marijuana isn't for you?'
Excerpted from The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. Copyright © 2014 Gavin Extence. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted August 1, 2013
I really enjoyed this book! The author did an amazing job making the characters vivid and engaging. I cared about every one of them. The story was educational without being boring and I had more than one laugh out loud moment. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a good feel good story.
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Posted July 21, 2013
Alex Woods is an unusual young man. When he was twelve years old, he was hit by a rare meteorite that left him in a coma for two weeks. When he finally wakes, he was not the same boy. This is his story for the next five years as he learns to cope with his resulting "fits" and develops an unlikely friendship with a curmudgeonly American war vet, Mr. Peterson.
The storyline is told in Alex's unique voice. I was immediately drawn into the story when it opens with Alex being arrested as he tries to cross the border back into England. From there, as only Alex could tell it, we are taken back to the beginning to learn about his life from the moment he wakes up from his coma five years earlier. He is forever changed by that event and must now navigate through life with a fortitude that few individuals could match.
The dynamics between Alex and Mr. Peterson are difficult, frustrating, but ultimately uplifting as these two people share an unique friendship. I cannot say enough good things about this book. Mr. Extence has a gift for storytelling and this is one of the best books I've read this year. I would highly recommend this book to everyone who loves a wonderful underdog story. Not that Alex is an underdog because as he would say, he was only doing what was right and there was no other choice left to him.
I received this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.
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Posted March 25, 2014
This was a fabulous first novel for Gavin Extence and you have to hate him for being so talented at only 30! it was funny, laugh out loud and touching and wonderful and i highly recommend it! i am so looking forward to reading the novel he is working on now!
Posted February 16, 2014
Alex Woods is a remarkable boy who not only overcomes his obstacles but sticks to his beliefs. Certain things in Alex’s life set in motion, all starting with a fallen meteor knocking him unconscious . Whether it is the meteor or the way he was brought up Alex sometimes looks at things too logically. Especially when he later becomes friends with a man, Mr. Peterson, in the neighborhood. There friendship and the future decisions they make will surprise the world.
I absolutely love books that have book lovers in the story. Especially one as knowledgeable as Alex Woods who goes from reading about the universe and the mind to Kurt Vonnegut. Now that I have finished reading the book I look back and think “Wow, a lot happened to Alex”. Alex is not afraid to speak his mind and sometimes comes off naive. The fact that he is a teenager the naive part of Alex felt real not to say the outspoken Alex did not feel real, it just seems unique to me.
I had a hard time getting to the end of the book because I did not want to leaves Alex’s world which in truth is not different than ours. So I guess I really wanted to stay with Alex some more.
Excellent writing and description. I fell deeply into the story. The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a heartfelt exploration that will make you think about what your beliefs are and whether the are right or wrong.
Posted October 30, 2013
Stepped in silently, and looked for prey. A babbling brook shimmered in her eyes, and caght her attention. She padded to the brook, and widened her eyes. It was swollen and rushing, from the last snowfall. She skimmed over it, looking for injured or stranded cats, her eyes worried as branches swept by, threatening to clasp her paws on the shore and sweep her away.
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Posted October 25, 2013
This is the best book I've read all year. Alex is a great character. his IQ is off the charts. When he was 10 he was hit by a meteorite which results in a month-long coma and life-long epilipsy. His relationships with school mates his mother, his neurologist, and with Mr. Peterson are just great. The story line is dear and true. He is so smart and so quirky. As I was reading it, I felt like I was on vacation. I also learned a lot about astronomy, astrology, physics, and the brain. I would definitely recommend it for book clubs. You'll love this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 22, 2013
Funny, educational, unique, and everything I look for in a book. I can't wait to read this talented writer's next book!! :)Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 4, 2013
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Posted August 20, 2013
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