Publisher: Sphere (Little, Brown)
First Published: 1st September 2016
Date Reviewed: 24th October 2016
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.