Book tours have probably been going since shortly after Caxton first polished up his fancy new printing press – you can just picture Byron signing copies of Don Juan in every town he visited – and they are still a feature of the book world today. They vary from a local author sitting in the shop on a wet Tuesday smiling hopefully at everyone who passes them to superstars not leaving until they have signed copies for the fans who have queued around the block. And, to be fair, both are good – they sell books, they allow authors to meet readers and they can get people into bookshops who have never visited before – but they are, I find, so last century in some ways. apparently what all the cool authors do now is a blog tour. Which is, basically, the same as an actual book tour but without having to worry about delayed trains or even changing out of your pjs. Since I am one of the aforementioned cool kids*, and I, obviously, have a blog, I was really happy to throw my virtual hand in the air and shout ‘oo, me, me, pick me Miss’ when the publicist for Gavin Extence’s new novel was calling out for blog tour participants over on the Twittersphere. I have read and enjoyed Extence’s two previous books – The Universe Versus Alex Woods and The Mirror World of Melody Black – so I think I can count myself as a fan.
The Empathy Problem, like the earlier books, centres on a character who looks at the world rather differently from most people. Alex Woods is a nerdy teen who develops epilepsy after being struck by a meteor and Abby (confusingly perhaps, Melody herself is a minor character in the novel named for her) is a young woman whose worsening mental health problems are triggered by discovering a dead neighbour. In this book our focus is on Gabriel Vaughn – hedge fund manager with an angel’s name and a very unangelic attitude to the rest of humanity – and his brain tumour. Gabriel is, in some ways, almost a caricature of the worst kind of person working in London’s financial world – he treats women badly, looks down on lowly admin and service staff (or rather never considers them at all) and generally believes that money can get him anything. In short his problem with empathy – from our point of view – is that he has none. But the tumour starts to change him and, in particular, his emotional responses.
I have sat in hospital neuro wards listening to people who, in previous times, were mild-mannered to a fault but now are rude, foul-mouthed and prone to wandering hands. The tumour has changed their personality and this is exactly what happens to Gabriel – but in reverse. There is no question that he will die, the tumour is inoperable and we are told this right at the beginning, but the book explores how Gabriel discovers that there is a better way to live your final days. This book is never sentimental and Extence doesn’t make the mistake of having Gabriel suddenly becoming perfect but by the end he is someone you’d have as a friend. Along the way we learn the value of honesty, love, music and loyalty. As well as the joy of perfectly aimed revenge…