Sunday, 5 February 2017

BOOK REVIEW: See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

See You in the Cosmos
Author: Jack Cheng
Genre: Middle-Grade
Publication Date: February 28th, 2017
Publisher: Dial Books

Book Description:
A space-obsessed boy and his dog, Carl Sagan, take a journey toward family, love, hope, and awe in this funny and moving novel for fans of Counting by 7s and Walk Two Moons.

11-year-old Alex Petroski loves space and rockets, his mom, his brother, and his dog Carl Sagan—named for his hero, the real-life astronomer. All he wants is to launch his golden iPod into space the way Carl Sagan (the man, not the dog) launched his Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. From Colorado to New Mexico, Las Vegas to L.A., Alex records a journey on his iPod to show other lifeforms what life on earth, his earth, is like. But his destination keeps changing. And the funny, lost, remarkable people he meets along the way can only partially prepare him for the secrets he’ll uncover—from the truth about his long-dead dad to the fact that, for a kid with a troubled mom and a mostly not-around brother, he has way more family than he ever knew.

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One thing that can be said about See You in the Cosmos is its genuine portrayal of the innocence of youth. It's a charming, heart-warming story that embraces the importance of family. 11-year-old Alex Petroski is prepared to give other lifeforms an insight into what life on Earth is like as he leaves his home in Colorado and heads for Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival - aka SHARF. Alex encounters people from different walks of life, and through his journey of discovery, he learns a thing or two about his own family.

I'd seen this book pop up on other websites but never gave it much attention, so when I stumbled upon it on Netgalley, I read the blurb and thought I'd give it a try. I'm in two minds about this story. One the one hand, it wasn't my cup of tea (for many reasons) but on the other hand, I loved the content, as in the issues that were raised and portrayed, serious matters that I could relate to. I wouldn't say I got into the story right away, but I did like Alex right from the get-go. He's engaging and has quite the imagination. It's a plus that he loves science, which was something I was able to relate to. Also, his ability to see the good in everyone made him that more likable. If it wasn't for Alex and his curiosity of others and the world around him, I probably would have given up reading the book as the story didn't jump out at me. That's not to say I didn't find Alex's story compelling, I did, but I couldn't connect with it for two reasons: the first being that there were too many unrealistic situations that it suspended my belief in the authenticity of the story, and the second thing I had to contend with was the writing style. I wasn't a fan, which is strange coming from me given I'm known for my unorthodox views.

Being able to visualise a story is key for me. It helps me to connect with the story and its characters. Alex is on a journey of a lifetime and I could not engage with it as much as I wanted to, and not merely because it was being told through recordings but also because I couldn't form my own impressions of Alex and his reality. We're able to make judgements only from Alex's perspective and the information he decides is important enough to log. Yes, there are many situations he can't comprehend - like the situation between Terra and Steve - that we may have a better understanding about, but I wanted to feel as though I was right there with the character, and I wanted to be able to place myself in the character's shoes so that the story could feel real to me. Even though the characters did engage in conversation - it wasn't just Alex speaking to his ipod throughout the entire book - I didn't feel as though I was experiencing the interactions between the characters. The story never truly came alive for me.

I couldn't get over the writing style. I adapted to the style for the purpose of finishing the book, but I never fully converted. I loved the idea of a book being told through podcasts. It's definitely something I haven't come across before, and it was refreshing to see, but I feel the way it was written made it difficult for me to connect with the story. I know these are podcast recordings and Alex is quite the rambler, but he's telling his story, not writing it out, so I'm sure one doesn't have to divert from conventions to the point where the story becomes disorientating. There were so many run-on sentences that it became frustrating to read at times. The opening chapters stuck to more conventional grammar and punctuation but it didn't maintain form throughout. I'm all for authors breaking conventions, but it shouldn't be distracting or overtly noticeable, which this was, as the potential harm could be that you sacrifice the quality of the story.

The story felt too long, and it wasn't due to lack of content as there was a lot of substance thrown in, so I believe it was down to structure. Speaking of substance, there were some serious matters addressed in this story that didn't go unnoticed. I loved the topics at hand, such as Alex being the carer of his mother, who is suffering from depression, and having no emotional support, albeit they are financially supported by his brother, Ronnie, who lives out in LA. There's also the issue with him seeking out his father and discovering a lot more than he bargained for. Albeit it was arid and monotonous at times, I loved the tone of the story. I didn't so much like the voice. Alex appeared to be very observant but his lack of understanding of a situation did not match his perceptive nature, which one could tell from the choices he made throughout the book. Come to think of it, there were many moments of irrational decisions made by the characters that I found it hard to persuade myself to imagine it to be real. My belief in the authenticity of the story was the hardest thing for me to overcome. I love flawed characters but they all seemed to be on the same level when it came to nurturing Alex and making decisions that were right for him. Alex was more mature than all the other characters yet he was completely vulnerable.

Given the fact that Alex was recording his journey on his ipod, it might have had more effect on me and I may have found it more engaging had I experienced the story in audiobook format. Seeing it on page, it looked too disorganised, so much so it didn't make the experience as enjoyable as I would have liked it to have been. There is definitely great potential here, and I think it's a story with many relatable elements.



Award: Silver
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
Source: Review copy via Netgalley

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