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Keith Stuart – A Boy Made Of Blocks

Book Cover

Gaming. Ability.

Publisher: Sphere (Little, Brown)
Pages: 390
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-751-56327-6
First Published: 1st September 2016
Date Reviewed: 24th October 2016
Rating: 5/5

Alex and Jody’s relationship changed forever when Sam was born. Diagnosed with autism, it’s been a difficult journey that Alex hasn’t coped with. Eight years in, now at breaking point, Jody suggests a separation. Alex needs to learn to relate to Sam or leave the family home for good. But as Alex tries to deal with the devastating situation of his marriage, Sam discovers the video game, Minecraft, and a ray of hope shines in.

A Boy Made Of Blocks is a semi-autobiographical novel (excuse the oxymoron), about the relationship and communication in a family affected by autism. It is an excellent work in all ways, being at once a lesson in communication and autism in general taught by someone with first-hand knowledge of parenting a child with autism and a fun story of a very popular game we have in the factual world. And to round it off it’s just a very good, solid, read.

Stuart has a particularly engaging writing style. It flows well, it’s full of emotion without going into any sort of ‘brave’ or ‘inspiring’ territory, well written whilst bereft of anything literary which is absolutely of benefit in this case. You can read the autobiography between the lines of fiction and it’s just a wonderful reading experience.

‘All the standard parenting rules are out of the window,’ continues Matt. ‘Whatever will make this easier for you. The kids can watch movies, play video games and eat crisps for two days, we don’t care. We’ll deal with the fallout when we get back.’
‘Well, I’ve got Sam on Saturday…’
‘Bring him,’ says Matt. ‘Bring whoever you want. I’ll stock the fridge with beer – you can either drink it yourself or give it to the kids.’

It’s also rather funny. Laugh-out-loud only once in a while, it sports a general happiness, joviality, even, that’s down to the other parents’ positive outlook and, increasingly, Alex’s ever-more-optimistic outlook.

Because Alex isn’t always optimistic. In writing him, Stuart is showing very bluntly how people can see the difficulties and not cope with them. Whereas Jody has had to learn how to parent, Alex has used his work life to get away from home and so the book is a lot about the adjustment he must make. It’s far more a case of bad father than any of Sam’s tantrums. Alex must work out a way to communicate with Sam – as Stuart implies, the idea should be to work around problems rather than just say it’s impossible.

Whilst this reviewer cannot comment on the knowledge imparted with any particular expertise, from what she does know, it rings true. The main takeaway in this sense – if you’re looking for a book that presents autism and the parental experience from real knowledge – is that Stuart has a child with autism, of the same age as character Sam. The novel itself makes clear that Sam has high functioning autism so the book corresponds to that particular level of ability and of course it must be remembered that every person is different – one person with autism does not reflect every other person.

For all these reasons it hardly needs to be said – this book is incredibly important.

And due to the variety of subjects and the writing style it has vast appeal. It’s by no means just for those who are interested in or have autism. For example, the information and detailing of Minecraft should prove a literary delight for gamers. On this subject it bears noting that the use of Minecraft will inevitably, unfortunately, mean the book may lose some of its significance within a few/several years. The best time to read it is within that time, most especially if you don’t have experience of the game yourself as there will be lots of resources available to learn from.

(As a brief introduction for those who aren’t familiar, Minecraft is a multi-player game, playable over the internet if the person wants to share their game with others, that involves gathering building materials and making tools in order to create shelters and farms and so forth – all sorts of things really – on a blank/semi-blank landscape canvas. In this book’s case, the building is a vast castle based on the Tower of London. The game’s graphics are retro – in a time when we have rather sophisticated software, Minecraft harks back to 80s/early 90s nostalgia. It’s suitable for a variety of ages.)

The use of Minecraft presents a conflict for this reviewer: it has been noted by many gamers that not all the references in the book are factually correct, and indeed some will be noticeable to non-gamers also, for example Sam and Alex choose to start a game in ‘peaceful’ mode, turning off the monsters because Sam is not comfortable with the idea of them, but then a few pages later to Sam’s dismay monsters arrive anyway. It’s hard to say why there are incorrect references as Stuart plays Minecraft himself and as Games Editor of The Guardian is presumably very well informed. Perhaps it was an attempt to make it easier for people who do not play the game to understand it, but it presents a conundrum: this is an incredibly important book that in all other ways is absolutely superb. To give it less than full marks may be going against the idea that perfect should be perfect, but at the same time the Minecraft references themselves in the grand scheme of things do not seem so vital. (And you know how important research is to me, and that I am a gamer myself.)

So this book gets top points with the caveat that Minecraft players may on occasion feel very frustrated.

There are so many books out there, about autism, mental, and physical health in general, that are written by ‘experts’ with little true experience of the day to day, that A Boy Made Of Blocks shines brightly in its difference. If you want to know more about autism in the context of parenting, read this book. And if you’re looking for a good reading experience that doesn’t necessary fit into any category, this is the book for you. It’s so good it’ll give even the biggest reading slump a run for its money… or crafting tools.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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My Event Report: In Conversation With Dan Richards

A photograph of Dan Richards

© Photo:Gerry Walden/ 2016

Thursday saw the first In Conversation event here in Southampton, hosted at The Notes Cafe. Dan Richards came down from Bath via Norwich – a very busy day that resulted in a likely miffed cat – and spoke to us about Climbing Days and The Beechwood Airship Interviews: how it was to be a female mountaineer in the early 20th century; the problems with climbing then as opposed to now; being greeted as the great-great-nephew of a climbing legend; interviewing popular artists about their work within their creative spaces.

With me on stage too, this post was never going to be like my other event write ups. It would have looked a little odd for me to have a notebook and pen, not least to be jumping off the stage to gets photographs… of one person and an empty chair, so I mollified myself with the occasional glance to check my live tweeter was indeed tweeting (he was but as we discovered later, he didn’t know about mentions/replies – this is why I was posting tweets the next morning) and rested assured that there was a professional photographer in the house.

A photograph of me and Dan Richards

© Photo:Gerry Walden/ 2016

Faber sent us some letterpressed prints of Stanley Donwood’s book cover art, signed by both artist and Dan, and we had all three books on sale. It was lovely to see those I’d met before and those I’d met on Twitter; April Munday joined us (we met at last year’s RNA conference) as well as Paul Cheney who I now know, through Dan, and who travelled a fair distance all considered.

It was a lovely evening and we look forward to a second – on Thursday 24th November, Elizabeth Fremantle will be joining us, Facebook event page here. Do come if you can!

What’s the most recent literary event you’ve attended?

Random Encounters With Readers

A screenshot from the Sims, of two Sims on a bench. One is reading, the other turned towards her.

Story time.

I think it’s one of the nicest literary pleasures – books, your love of them and another’s love of them, forming a connection even though you don’t know each other. Books are one of those obvious ice-breakers, unless perhaps you’re using an ereader (though that doesn’t stop the possibility, only limits it), as books are something that are visual, an insight into the person you can use to start up a conversation. It lets you form an immediate connection, bypassing small talk (yay!) and given how much we readers often lament the lack of opportunities for bookish conversation in our daily lives, it’s a real boon.

One day I sat down at the bus stop; it was one of those small basic shelters, yet to be updated, all irrelevant outdated poster timetables and little space. Chewing gum on the flip seats. A girl around my age sat on one, deep in her book. I hadn’t encountered someone reading ‘in the wild’ for some time, let alone a reader my age. Etiquette flew out the window as I asked her what she was reading. It was a very brief conversation as she wanted to get back to her book – she was reading Virginia Andrews. That was my introduction to the writing pair. I don’t think I was headed anywhere particularly mundane that morning but the conversation made my day. It must have – here I am remembering it all these years later.

A few months ago at the Curious Arts Festival – I suppose I’m cheating here as it wasn’t long ago – I was attempting to finish Before I Go To Sleep without showing off what I was reading because S J Watson was sitting nearby and I’d made an admittedly oddly specific reference to where I was in the book when I’d asked him to sign it the day before. (Page 425, if you’re wondering – why I thought he’d know what scene that would be I don’t know.) I’m very aware of the pally-pally thing, of that blogger meeting an author thing, silly really. (I once went to a concert with my father and we stood with a group of friendly women we’d been queuing behind. We unfortunately found later we were standing with people who took fandom too far. A few of these experiences later and I’m very keen on the get-item-signed-and-get-going approach.) Anyway, a girl asked if she could share my bench and wondered which Watson I was reading. We had a brief chat about it – she didn’t want to spoil the ending for me and we both had books to read. Her enthusiasm was infectious and although I was already reading as fast as I could at the time, I finished it just that bit sooner because of it.

My last story is more of a sighting. A middle-aged man walking past doing the book equivalent of eyes glued to the screen. I was more than happy to do the swerving – not only was he reading but it was a favourite book of mine. It wouldn’t have been right to stop and say something but how I wanted to. It made me interested in looking for different opinions of the book (this was before blogging) because it was historical fiction about an empress and whilst I was perhaps on the younger side of the target audience, in stereotypical terms he was an outlier. Still in stereotypical terms, however, he looked like a university teacher and thus apt.

These are my stories. I wish I had more but then would encounters have such an impact if they were more numerous?

When did you last meet a reader by chance?

Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland

Book Cover

Curiouser and curiouser.

Publisher: Various
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
First Published: 1865
Date Reviewed: 21st September 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

When Alice finds herself bored, sitting beside her sister who is reading a book without pictures or conversations, she longs to do something else. Seeing a white rabbit dressed in a waistcoat and holding a pocket watch, she follows him to his rabbit hole and promptly falls down it. At length she finds herself in a room with a tiny door and no way to follow the rabbit through, but there on the table is a bottle with a clear instruction: ‘drink me’.

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is a Victorian children’s novel of bizarre fantasy. Ever relevant and deeply ingrained in our popular culture it’s both an important read and a fun one, and it’s good at any age.

Alice is an interesting character. She is in many ways a device, a fictional person Carroll uses to teach his audience various lessons and skills, a young girl who could be said to be a bit silly, oblivious, and perhaps bad tempered for the very fact that it makes the story and lessons more obvious. In Alice we have a very good imperfect person who allows you to see mistakes that could be made, meaning you would learn the cause and effect without, hopefully – I think we can assume Carroll had this in mind – making the same mistake yourself.

As a character otherwise she can be a bit of a bother – ‘irritating’ is too harsh a word – especially as there is no real turning point where she realises what she should be doing or how she should be acting. However this is speaking as an adult and speaking at a time when the Disney film adaptation, with its very polite, perfect, Alice, is more prevalent in popular culture. It’s hard to say for sure whether it’s the product of Alice’s age – alluded to rather than told to us – or perhaps the difference in time period.

It’s fair to say that in our culture where we speak of ‘wonderland’ in terms of something we all know about, the place has become more important than the person. Wonderland is bizarre, it’s the stuff of very strange dreams and far-out imaginings. It’s in part made up of that swords and shields and heroes idea that we have in childhood – and obviously has been a mainstay of childhood for a good couple of centuries at least – partly the dream of animals being able to talk, and also various bits and bobs that you can see Victorian cultural influences from. It’s magical but of the magic that can be more baffling than dreamy. It’s a weird place that is fine to read about, but not a fantasy world you’d want to visit. That’s Narnia’s forte – Wonderland is a little scary.

The writing is simple and the tale fairly short. The text hasn’t aged beyond its few time-specific ideas (that pocket watch, for example) making it completely accessible. For the violent aspects, such as the constant ‘off with his head’ it might be regarded nowadays to be for older children than it was written for but the lessons remain appropriate to the single digit years.

In sum, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland has something for readers of any age because even when you’re past the target age range there’s a lot to appreciate.

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The Importance Of The Adaptation

A photograph of a stack of film adaptations, DVD editions, taken outside

I got thinking about this subject whilst in the midst of compiling my thoughts about the way the recent film adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd used a certain strand of the source material (yet to be posted). I noticed how much more I end up thinking about a book and the story as a whole, and how much more likely I am to write more than one post if there’s a film to be seen. (When I say this I’m meaning film, singular – I’m yet to watch multiple adaptations but it’d be interesting to compare this whole concept when/if – likely when – that happens.

To summarise, watching adaptations – and, I suppose, hearing them on the radio, I’m just not familiar with them – gives you more to think about. It extends your experience of and with the book. It adds or even creates your personal dialogue with it, extending it from the original to other people’s interpretations. You’re able thus to compare and contrast your interpretation with others and see more opinions in action which can help you decide how much impact they might have had on the story or study possibilities. Your journey therefore doesn’t end on the final page. It may be that the interpretation isn’t the author’s (of course sometimes it will be, for example if the author is the script writer) but you’re still deep in the story.

Views are more broadly applied, though they may be limited by feature length. (This is an interesting topic in itself – what gets cut, what’s deemed most important to the director, how does it compare to your own opinions?)

And adaptations are another way of sharing the story with someone else. Whilst you can join readalongs, there’s a more immediate aspect, dare I say it’s more social than reading – you’re seeing exactly the same things, the same interpretation at the same time. You can have a movie night with friends, perhaps share the story by way of film with those who wouldn’t read the book. It might not be quite faithful to the book, but in most cases it will be enough.

The adaptation is often the widely-known version of the story where more will watch that than read the book. (Tara Sparling’s post on how many copies constitute a bestseller makes sobering reading.) Due to adaptation changes it can pay to watch the film so that you know exactly what others are relating to when they speak of it. Unless it’s a highly popular book more people will want to talk film and whilst it’s unfortunate that you can’t always persuade someone to read the book, it’s better than nothing, I think we’d agree.

There is just so much benefit in the adaptation. I find myself down far more research rabbit holes if I’ve a film to watch than if there’s ‘just’ a book and it just broadens the book horizon.

Do you like adaptations? What do they add to your reading?


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