The Universe Versus Alex Woods, by Gavin Extence, Hodder & Stoughton, RRP£12.99, 416 pages
Gavin Extence’s debut tells the story of teenager Alex Woods. Aged 10, he was hit on the head by a fragment of meteorite, leaving him prone to epileptic fits. This, along with the mollycoddling of his hippyish mother, makes him a target for bullies (“In secondary school, being different is the worst crime you can commit”).
He finds solace in a friendship with an elderly neighbour, American widower Mr Peterson, with whom he bonds over a shared love for the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. When Mr Peterson starts to suffer from a debilitating illness, Alex agrees to help him seek a dignified death.
Alex describes the various difficulties he encounters with a strange equanimity, and compared with other literary misfits (Christopher Boone, hero of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, comes to mind) his narration can seem curiously inert. Nevertheless, Extence’s plotting is astute, and he handles the theme of euthanasia with an affecting delicacy.
Review by David Evans
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, Black Swan, RRP£7.99, 368 pages
When Queenie drops a note to her former colleague Harold Fry informing him of her terminal cancer, Harold painstakingly constructs a reply. A chance conversation when he steps out to post his letter persuades him that, if he keeps walking to deliver it personally, Queenie will survive. So he does, and travels 500 miles from Devon to the north of England.
This unlikely pilgrimage serves as the plot of Joyce’s gentle but excellent debut novel. Through Harold’s thoughts, and the phone calls to his bewildered wife Maureen, Joyce gradually reveals the staleness of the Frys’ marriage, stifled for decades by things unsaid.
Conversations with strangers en route tease out Harold’s long-repressed stories. His journey attracts a motley band of caricatured misfits who end up following him but it’s his own shrewdly drawn character – regretful, uncertain, naively optimistic – that charms in this quietly redemptive novel of an ordinary man doing something extraordinary.
Review by James Urquhart
Raising Girls, by Steve Biddulph, HarperCollins, RRP£12.99, 234 pages
Steve Biddulph, parenting guru and author of the multimillion selling Raising Boys, has written an equally upbeat, practical guide for parents of girls. His starting point is that experts began to observe a sudden plunge in girls’ mental health about five years ago – just when social media really took off. “Problems such as eating disorders and self-harm … were now happening in every classroom and every street, ” he says.
The solution is for parents to take control of girls’ computer use and to call on family friends and older girls to become “aunties” – positive, fun role models outside the family unit and outside peer groups.
From day one being calm as a parent comes high up on his wishlist. (“Being calm is not a character trait, it’s simply a skill.”) There’s a lot that’s cloying (To mothers: “Your place in their hearts will always be as if you were standing right beside them”) but there’s also sensible, wise advice to help us navigate the very different world our daughters inhabit.
Review by Isabel Berwick