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review 2018-05-04 19:34
If you believe in the power of stories and love magic, theatre, families, and heart-warming novels, you must read this feel-good book. Love at first-read.
Days of Wonder - Keith Stuart

Thanks to NetGalley and to Little, Brown and Company UK (Clara Díaz in particular) for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed Keith Stuart’s first novel A Boy Made of Blocks, a truly extraordinary book, a couple of years ago, and loved it. I could not resist when I was offered the opportunity to read the author’s second novel. And, again, it was love at first read.

Days of Wonder has some similarities to A Boy. It does center on the relationship between a father and his child (in this case, Hannah), and how their relationship is shaped by a specific condition affecting the child (Asperger’s in the first novel, a chronic cardiac illness that cannot be cured and will only get worse in this novel). All the characters are beautifully portrayed, not only the protagonists but, in this case, also an array of secondary characters that become an ersatz family unit.

Tom, the father, runs a small theatre and has close links to the amateur theatrical group. His wife, Elizabeth, left the family when their daughter was three and leads the life of a high-flier, with no real contact with her family. Hannah has grown-up in the theatre, surrounded by the players and by stories, both on stage and out.

The book, narrated in the first person by both Tom and Hanna (mostly in alternating chapters, although towards the end there are some that follow the same character’s point of view, due to the logic of the story). Hannah’s narration in the present is interspersed with what appear to be diary entries addressed to Willow, (the theatre is called The Willow Tree). She is a strong girl, who loves her father, the theatre and the players, her friends, and who has a can-do attitude, despite her serious illness, or perhaps because of it. She knows how valuable each moment is, and lives it to the fullest (within her limitations). She is worried about her father and how much he has focused his life on her and decides that he must find a woman and live a fuller life. She loves comics, fairy-tales, is funny (having a sense of humour does help in such a situation, without a doubt), witty, and wise beyond her years, whilst being a credible teenager who worries about boys and can sometimes have questionable judgement. I challenge anybody not to fall in love with Hannah, her enthusiasm, and her zest for life.

Tom is a father who tries his hardest in a very difficult situation, and who sometimes finds himself in above his head, unable to function or to decide, frozen by the enormity of the situation. He is one of the good guys, he’d do anything to help anybody, and some of his philosophical reflections are fairly accurate, although, like most of us, he’s better at reading others than at understanding himself. His date disasters provide some comic relief but he is somebody we’d all love to count as a friend. Or, indeed, a father.

One of my favourite characters is Margaret, an older woman who has become a substitute grandmother for Hannah, and who is absolutely fabulous, with her anecdotes, her straight speaking, her X-ray vision (she knows everything that goes on even before the people involved realise what is going on sometimes), and she is a bit like the fairy-godmother of the fairy tales Hannah loves so much. As for the rest, Callum, Hannah’s boyfriend, is a very touching character, with many problems (the depiction of his depression is accurate and another one of the strong points of a book full of them), and the rest of the theatre crew, although they appear to be recognisable types at first sight (the very busy mother who wants some space for herself, the very capable woman whose husband is abusive, a retired man whose relationship with his wife seems to be falling apart, a gay man who can’t confess his attraction for another member of the group…), later come across as genuine people, truly invested in the project, and happy to put everything on the line for the theatre.

The novel is set in the UK and it has many references that will delight the anglophiles and lovers of all-things-British, from language quirks to references to plays, movies, TV series and festivals. (Oh, and to local politics as well), but I’m sure that the lack of familiarity with them will not hinder the readers’ enjoyment. Although there are also quite a number of references to theatre plays and comics (and I don’t know much about comics, I confess), they never overwhelm the narration and are well integrated into the story, adding to its depth.

The book deals in serious subjects (family break-ups, abuse, chronic physical and mental illnesses [affecting young people, in particular], aging and death, growing-up, single-parent families) and whilst it makes important points about them, which many readers will relate to, they are seamlessly incorporated into the fabric of the novel, and it never feels preachy or as if it was beating you over the head with a particular opinion or take on the topic.

Reading the author’s comment above, I can vouch for his success. This is indeed a book about love, life, and magic. It is a declaration of love to the world of theatre and to the power of stories. The novel is beautifully written, flows well, and the readers end up becoming members of their troupe, living their adventures, laughing sometimes and crying (oh, yes, get the tissues ready) at other times. Overall, despite its sad moments, this is a hopeful feel-good book, heart-warming and one that will make readers feel at peace with themselves and the world. It has a great ending and although I wondered at first if the epilogue was necessary, on reflection, it is the cherry on top of the trifle. Perfect.

The book is endlessly quotable and I’ve highlighted a tonne of stuff, but I couldn’t leave you without sharing something.

Here is Hanna, talking about magic:

I don’t mean pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing people in half (and then putting them back together: otherwise it’s not magic, it’s technically murder). I just mean the idea that incredible things are possible, and that they can be conjured into existence through will, effort and love.

As I’m writing this review on Star Wars Day, I could not resist this quote, again from Hannah:

I feel as though it’s closing in around me, like the trash-compactor scene in Star Wars, except I have no robots to rescue me although I do have an annoying beeping box next to the bed doing a twenty-four-hours-a-day impression of R2-D2.

Oh, and another Star Wars reference:

It’s as though the spirit of Margaret is working through me, like a cross between Maggie Smith and Yoda.

And a particularly inspiring one:

Margaret told me that you must measure life in moments —because unlike hours or days or weeks or years, moments last forever. I want more of them. I am determined. I will steal as many as I can.

A beautiful book, a roller-coaster of emotions, and an ode to the power of stories, to their magic, and to family love, whichever way we choose to define family. I urge you to read it. You’ll feel better for it. And I look forward to reading more books by its author, who has become one of my favourites.

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review 2018-01-09 13:40
My Review of A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart
A Boy Made of Blocks - Keith Stuart

A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart is a story of a father, Alex, and his son, Sam, who is autistic. Alex has to learned how to cope with Sam before he loses his family by divorce.

 

Based on the author's own experiences with his own sons, I felt that this story gave some insight as to what it must be like to have a child diagnosed with autism. The struggles Alex has, in the story, are eye opening. I have never known anyone with autism, but I felt the author conveyed the struggles and reality of the feelings a lot of parents feel quite well.

 

This story is written very well, and had me laughing, crying, and sometimes just downright mad. It took me a bit to actually get into the story, though. I felt as if the author was repetitive quite often, but overall, a good read.

 

I received a copy of A Boy Made of Blocks from St. Martin's Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-06-12 03:04
Sweet book
A Boy Made of Blocks - Keith Stuart

Alex loves his family, and yet he struggles to connect with his eight-year-old autistic son, Sam. The strain has pushed his marriage to the breaking point. So Alex moves in with his merrily irresponsible best friend on the world’s most uncomfortable blow-up bed.

As Alex navigates single life, long-buried family secrets, and part-time fatherhood, his son begins playing Minecraft. Sam’s imagination blossoms and the game opens up a whole new world for father and son to share. Together, they discover that sometimes life must fall apart before you can build a better one.

Inspired by Keith Stuart’s own relationship with his autistic son, A Boy Made of Blocks is a tear-jerking, funny, and, most of all, true-to-life novel about the power of difference and one very special little boy.

 

Review:

Dear Keith Stuart,

Your book was one of the sweetest books I have read in a while without being overly saccharine. We meet thirty-something Alex not at the best moment of his life. He is separating from his wife Jody and eight year old son Sam. They clearly love each other, but Sam is on the autistic spectrum and Alex not being there enough for Sam (not for the lack of trying but the result is the same) had been enough for Jody and she wants Alex to figure things out and do it elsewhere.

The book also hints that Alex had to deal with something that happened in the past which affected him, which turns out to be a family tragedy for which Alex had a lot of misplaced guilt he had to deal with. To me the book was mostly about Alex figuring out his relationship with his son (and then with his wife), so while there is some angst about the past, I honestly didn’t think there was too much of it.

Alex also is also losing his job early in the book, so that added to him not being in the best of spirits.

The book is written in the first POV. Alex narrates it and I really liked the guy, his mistakes and missteps notwithstanding. He loves his family, he just got lost along the way because he could not figure out how to deal with Sam. As an aside, of course mom didn’t have that luxury of figuring things out or not figuring things out, she just had to be there for her boy all the time. I totally got why it became too much for her at some point.

In any event, Alex figures out pretty soon that he has to try and try again with Sam, even though initially more frustration came out of it. However in one of his visits back he learns that Sam likes to play Minecraft and the mentioning of the game even stopped Sam from crying and screaming.

So Alex decided to start playing with him and the game seemed to help Sam in many different ways. The disclaimer here, I understand that portrayal of Sam is a portrayal of one child on the autism spectrum, however as you can see from the blurb author’s son is also on the autistic spectrum and “Minecraft” helped him to improve leaps and bounds as well. I am not going to question the portrayal of the autistic child by the parent who deals with the autistic child every day.  Obviously Sam is not cured from the autism because he started playing “Minecraft” and fell in love with it, but it helped him to become more articulate, more creative, it helped him to meet friends more easily and he met some real friends who loved him very much.

And it helped Alex and Sam to reconnect with each other.

“As we work, I realize something. Normally, when we play together – in the precious moments he is prepared to concentrate – it is as a shared solitude: I watch or guide or worry about him. Or when we play with the building blocks or Lego, I make something he plays with for a few minutes or simply knocks down. But here, for a few hours, we are working as one – well, as I do what I am supposed to do. But that’s another positive. In this universe, where the rules are unambiguous, where the logic is clear and unerring, Sam is in control.”

“Daddy!”

It is the sweetest sound, piercing four days of great blank silence. My son, miles away, but suddenly right here under the same boxy clouds. And he sounds happy to have me here, even after everything. He has let me into his world. I’m so stupidly excited I don’t know what to do with myself. He still wants to play with me. I get another chance”.

I thought that interactions between Alex and Sam were very sweet; but I was also very impressed how the author managed to make the descriptions of the computer game fun. Then I read that the author wrote about computer games for the Guardian for a long time before he wrote this book and was not so surprised anymore, but still thought that Alex and Sam playing “Minecraft” were some of the best parts in this story.

Don’t worry; they are not playing “Minecraft” all the time. As I mentioned in the beginning Alex has to figure out a lot of stuff when the book begins. He deals with his past, with his friends and his family and for the most part manages to do quite well. I thought he definitely grew up throughout the book, he was not a horrible person when the book began, he did not experience personality transplant, but he understood things better and dealt with the past trauma in his life.

The book is by no means a romance, I would classify it as a family drama, but it had very hopeful HFN ending.

Grade: B+

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review 2017-01-04 21:58
"Life is an adventure, not a walk. That's why it's so difficult."
A Boy Made of Blocks - Keith Stuart This book reads very much like a memoir and I had to check back to convince myself that it was a novel, but the author writes from first hand experience with his own autistic son and it therefore has a very authentic feel. The other reason I connected with this novel was that Alex, the father of Sam, an autistic boy, finds a bond with his son through Minecraft, an on-line computer game that was played by the three boys who I child-minded for many years. Alex had avoided the issue of his troubled son by spending long hours at work, convincing himself that his responsibility to the family was to bring home the money. When the stresses between himself and his wife reach breaking point, she asks him to move out for a while and to get some psychological help. Suddenly he is sharing a small flat with his childhood mate and his world has fallen apart. The author does an excellent job of describing the issue of autism for those without first-hand experience - "He has trouble with language, he fears social situations, he hates noise, he obsesses over certain things, and gets physical when situations confuse or frighten him." He wears "special T-shirts with all the linings and stitchings masked so he doesn't feel it on his skin." Although I knew a bit about autism, I realise that there was still a lot I hadn't grasped. Despite the more serious issues, I loved the author's sense of humour - " 'Daddy', says a voice from downstairs. 'Some of the Coco Pops have got out.' " and I had to relate to - "Ikea, I now have a rickety single bed, rather than an air mattress. I also have a lamp (because you never come away from Ikea with just the thing you went in for) and a cheap rug that generates enough static electricity to power the lamp." Members of my book group were less enthusiastic than me about this book and had some valid reasons why, but my ratings depend on my own enjoyment and I thoroughly enjoyed this. Even just judging from the number of highlights I made as I read. 4.5 stars from me.
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review 2016-09-05 13:12
Beautiful, emotional and genuine
A Boy Made of Blocks - Keith Stuart

What an absolute delight this book is and how wonderful it is to read a positive, uplifting and thoroughly enjoyable tale about a family's voyage with a child who has autism.  I have read other books that deal with this subject recently but have found them a little disheartening and bleak. So, when the publisher contacted me to offer an early copy for review my first reaction was to say thanks but not this time.  What a mistake that would have been!  I am so, so glad that I decided to read it.

I adored watching how Alex and Sam's relationship developed through the book and delighted in how the other characters' stories played out alongside.  I also learned quite a lot about Minecraft, which I hadn't come across before as my sons only ever played FIFA Football and Call of Duty!

It has been so refreshing to read about a family struggling and succeeding in this modern world. 

Beautifully written, emotional and  genuine.  I really can't recommend this book highly enough.

Many thanks to the publisher, via Netgalley for offering me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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