A Boy Made of Blocks is a debut novel by Keith Stuart and is inspired by his experience with his own autistic son.

In the book, Sam is eight-years-old and only recently diagnosed with autism.  The trauma of bringing him up – described early on as ‘he (Sam) was like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas – small, funny but at the flick of a mental switch, easily capable of extreme and demented violence’ – has reached crises point with his mother, Jody and his father, Alex living apart in a trial separation. 

Alex has never connected with his son and mostly left Jody to care for Sam whilst using his job as an estate agent as an excuse to avoid the family home.  

The book is told solely through Alex’s first person point of view and I personally felt this is flawed on two levels. Firstly, it restricts the novel to the character of Alex and although we see Sam and Jody through his eyes, I would have enjoyed a direct view of their world through their eyes. As it is Jody becomes rather stereotyped and typecast. 

Furthermore, Alex’s initial self-pitying, self-absorbed litany (admittedly often self-depreciating and funny) does at times become tiring. It is only as the novel develops that he is redeemed and finally becomes a likeable character with whom I felt empathy.

It becomes increasingly obvious that Alex’s relationship with the world is almost as alien as his son’s. Alex’s isolation and loneliness is not as a result of  autism but started the day he saw his older brother killed by a car when they were children leaving school. A day and a death he has never come to terms with and that eventually tore the family apart, driving his sister (Emma) into a life of a globe trotter, never settling down with anyone, anywhere.

The transformation of Alex and Sam’s relationship and of their lives as a whole occurs as the result of Minecraft – an impulse purchase by his wife to help Sam fit in with his peers at school.  Based on the author’s real-life experience with his son and with his own in-depth knowledge of the gaming industry as a writer, it is only with the introduction of Minecraft that the book takes off. (As well as helping provide the title of this book!)

Minecraft acts like an extended metaphor throughout the book – the more Sam interacts with the game, the more he becomes connected to Alex and the world as a whole. The games’s low and high points – its hell, demons, creepers and finally treasure – mirrors their lows and highs in real life. Whilst staying at his best friend’s (Dan) flat, Alex joins Sam in the virtual world of Minecraft and together they start ‘chatting’ for the first time in Sam’s life as they build and build. It is this journey that finally causes Alex to see his son as a real person and not merely as a problem to be handled. ‘I saw Sam as an obstacle, something I’d have to work around. But that was wrong. Sam was the guide. Sam was my guide.’ Finally Alex realises they have more in common than he ever imagined.

The beauty and magic of the world of Minecraft is brilliantly and descriptively explained, weaving its way through the book as it widens the world for Sam.  

The ghost of Alex’s brother refreshingly haunts the pages, recounting  the events of their childhood lives and also providing an amiable side-plot through the possible romance between Dan and Emma. An aunt adored by Sam and to whom he naturally connects.

The tense in the book is unusual as it is present tense throughout and brings a sense of immediacy and involvement with the story.

A Boy Made of Blocks builds to a satisfying exciting conclusion, with me rooting for Sam along with the rest of his family and friends.

Overall, I like this book a lot but curiously enough I don’t love it. It is very well written and constructed. The start lacked the fizz and unputdownable factor of many other books, although it did pick up and I am very glad to have finished it.

Sam is pivotal for the story and the success of the book – at times I felt he was the only one making sense of the confusing mess of this world. He has depth and immediately likeable, personable and always original. Sam shines through for me. The lesson he has learnt is applicable to us all: ‘Life is an adventure, not a walk. That’s why it’s difficult.’

netgalleyI received a free copy of this book from the NetGalley in exchange for a honest and impartial review.

Rating:                           3.7 out of 5 stars.

Publisher:                      Little Brown Book Goup UK

Publication Date:        1st September  2016                         

Price:          £ 6.99       Kindle       –   Amazon UK          

                     £ 7.99        Paperback – Amazon UK

                    $ 20.41        Hardback –   Amazon US


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  2. I want to read this, I’m always interested in how different films and books will portray characters on the Autism spectrum. I don’t think the main character’s self-pity would bother me too much but I guess that depends on how prevalent it is. I usually prefer books where the narrator is on the Autism spectrum (rather than a friend or family member being the main character) but I still think this sounds like a good read. Great review, keep it up! 🙂

    1. Sarah, thank you so much for your comment! I do hope you have a chance to read the book … it brilliantly portrays the boy’s autism, and I think the father’s behaviour is a result of him floudering with his son’s diagnosis. It is amazing to see how they both grower closer, the father wiser, as they find each other.

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  4. Interesting how the father’s change of heart came about!
    My oldest sister is mentally handicapped, due to being born
    with a heart defect. But my younger self did not understand
    her inner beauty 😦 Now older/wiser, I’m so humbled/honoured
    by her (and others like her) capacity for human empathy 🙂 ♥ ❤

    1. Jackie (hope I got your name right), your comment has so touched me. When young it is never easy to understand others, one is often fighting to try and find ones own place in this world. I am sure your love of your sister always shone out and as you say now, wiser to fully empathise and see her inner beauty. I am honoured to know some youngsters who are ‘different’ – they teach me so much by how open they are with their love of others, their joy pure and unadulterated.

  5. I taught preschool children with developmental delays,but a myriad of challenges, OT, PT, SLP, and our psychologist were scheduled into our week. I had at least three children with autism every year, out of 24 children, two classes of 12 children a year for nine years. Most of them adapted through music, swings, water play or sand box play. It was amazing the more routine and repetitive activities, the better that responded. I imagine the Minecraft structure would work. Obviously, this father has a son whose character shadows the real participation of the game. Wonderful review and so glad you featured this for some who may not know much about autism. There have been autistic children who grew up and attended college! 🙂
    The two directions of thought on how to create patterns for children with autism are the ABA system and Floor time.

    1. Robin, this is so interesting and thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experience. Wonderful that some have been able to take their education further – no doubt down partly to the support of teachers like yourself. I haven’t heard of the two systems you mention but will have a look. I’m curious.

  6. Silver Threading

    Sounds like a great read, Annika. I just recently met a new friend whose son has autism. I had no idea the trials and patience you must have to deal with these kinds of issues. Hugs to you! ❤

    1. Colleen, having read quite a few books about children with autism has made me realise how very hard their lives are. The lack of communication and connection with the child seems to be one critical point – missing out on the spontaneous hugs, the throwaway ‘I love you’, the general chit-chat of life. Also in this case the sudden violent behaviour must be so upsetting – you can understand it come from frustration but even so. Wishing you a lovely day. 😀

  7. This does sound like an interesting book, Annika…delving into the complexity of Autism and the very timely Minecraft game. I know a little about the game because some of the kids I teach are obsessed with it. Your note on the author’s chosen point of view in telling the story is well taken . I have trouble sometimes deciding which POV works best. Great review!

    1. Lana, the interweaving of the game with the story is one of its strong points – although at first I really didn’t think this would work! Interesting that you have noticed your students becoming obsessed with the game – it definitely seems to have that quality and from the young people I know who play it, it really is all about Minecraft! As for the POV it is always tricky to get this right – on my first draft of my WIP I tried a few chapters in first person and a few in third just to see which worked best. Definitely the latter. It was worth the hassle of rewriting the first person chapters to reach this decision.

      1. POV is always a problem for me ever since I read one literary journal’s comment. They said if it wasn’t in first person, then make them believe it. Actually those journals say things much more weird than that, ha ha. Glad you revamped your WIP to what works best 🙂

  8. This line alone made me curious to read the book: “It becomes increasingly obvious that Alex’s relationship with the world is almost as alien as his son’s.” Fascinating. I’ve been reading tons of stories by women authors, featuring female protagonists. I recently read a male-authored book in which the male MC felt sorry for himself and, I dunno, I don’t have patience for it. Maybe I’m subjected to too much of that already in real life?

    1. Eve, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at your last comment. Now I am intrigued about the sorry-for-myself chaps in your life! The main problem I had with the book at the start was the self-pitying character of Alex who really did seem to buckle under. Admittedly life was tough but I feel as an adult it was partly his responsibility to find a way to cope. Maybe harsh but just my opinion; luckily Minecraft was introduced quite early on and the book picked up – I couldn’t help but adore Sam and the stoic quiet strength of Jody who had understandably short-term meltdowns!

  9. I feel I’m missing something, Annika, because I’m not familiar with Minecraft. I take it this is a real game? You can tell, I’m not a gamer 🙂 As you started your review it struck me just how many dysfunctional families we have in our world. How very hard it must be to live with autism and related illnesses and try to find a way to make family life work.

    1. Jo, Minecraft is a PC game (now also available on other platforms) and it has various ways to play: build, conquer, survival. It can be played solo or virtually with a group of people on other their own computers. So in this book Alex meets Sam online and together they start playing the game and building and then go on missions together whilst trying to survive. Actually quite intense! The book realistically highlights the difficulties of a family with an autistic child but as with all good books the transformation in the two main characters and their relationship are pivotal and emotional.

        1. My friend’s son is a huge Minecraft fan so I’ve learnt a little over the years…it seems to have split the younger generation – those who love it and those who really can’t see the point of it.

  10. Anonymous

    Good review Annika but I don’t think it’s a book that I could read, purely for personal reasons. The connection with Minecraft is a topical one though and It’s interesting how this proves to be the key to the communication between father and son. Iit seems that there is a usually a way to communicate but the trick is finding it.


    1. Mike, it is interesting that you pick up on the issue of communication as this is key to this book and really to life itself. Without it both parties become depressed and isolated. In this book Minecraft is a lifesaver – my thought at the end was what would life have been like for Sam and his family if they hadn’t found Minecraft and the new world it opened up for them all? I am sorry you feel this book is not for you. I do understand but would only say that ultimately it is a very uplifting and rewarding book.

  11. Great review! It sounds like a good book. It is true that people with handicaps are seen as something to work around. Hopefully, that is changing and this book will help..

    1. JC, I think that comment in the book made me the angriest as everyone is a human being whatever the age, whatever the problem. However, it is a tender and sweet moment when Alex (and also presumably the author) finally realises the error of his ways and understand that not only is his son a child but one who can also be as supportive and vital in his lives as Alex is in Sam’s.

  12. delphini510

    ‘Life is an adventure, not a walk. That’s why it’s difficult.’ Are the wise words of Sam. How interesting what wisdom children can find and even more those suffering handicaps.

    You have again written a wonderful revue Annika. I really get the feelings of the characters in this book. It is not the first time , and I fear not the last, that I hear how a handicap children can cause break ups in families. It is wonderful that Alex finally found a way.

    I am surprised that Jody didn’t get more of a space. Would be interesting to hear the author’s view on this.

    1. That phrase was first coined by Jody in the book in one of her many attempts to help Sam make sense of this confusing world. It is an emotional moment when he says it back to his parents – he’s helping them to try and understand the events around them. A message applicable to us all at some stage. Mirja, the difficulties faced by parents like Alex and Jody are huge so it is not surprising the relationships splinter and go through huge difficulties. Hopefully for some there will be a happier reunification as they can help and live together,.

  13. An interesting review, Annika. I can see why the book was engaging, but also why it might not reach the “I loved it” level. I don’t know a thing about Minecraft, so that interweaving through the story sounded intriguing. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Diana. As I knew a little about the game my heart sank to start with as I wasn’t too taken with it. However, I was only too happy to be proved wrong and the interlacing of the game with the main story is the strongest feature of the book and works brilliantly and is cleverly executed.

  14. This sounds interesting. I write a lot about Minecraft on my teacher blog–it’s so popular and now Microsoft is giving it for free to educators. I might grab this book from NetGalley just for that part.

    I also love reading about unique children and how they–and their parents–struggle to accommodate their needs. I wonder if I’d be strong enough if I were in Alex’s position.

    1. Jacqui, I think this book would be perfect for you to read as an educator using and writing about Minecraft. I must admit I knew very little about the game (apart from my friend’s son being obsessed with it) but this book really opened up my eyes to its story, detail and co-operation required between players to advance. To my eyes it has always looked like a 1980s game – I assume that is deliberate.

      Oh, I had to smile at you wondering if you would be strong enough in Alex’s position – absolutely. I can imagine you like Jody, super-organised, learning all about autism, seeking and fighting for help. I felt for her though as despite all those years of hard work and care, in the end Sam and Alex fall easily into a companionable friendship. For Jody this was only positive and she comes across as a very warm and kind hearted soul.

  15. An interesting and very current topic. I like the Minecraft metaphor and structure of the story because it’s both modern and seems to apply to the way autistic kids can communicate.

    1. The structure and way it was written is superb – particularly the intricate weaving of Minecraft and their big build developing alongside their relationship. For Sam (and Zac, the author’s real son) Minecraft seems like a lifeline, allowing them for the first time to communicate to the outside world and also interacting with others, both online and offline. A fascinating and core aspect of the book.

    1. Thank you so much, Julie. This was rather tricky to review in some ways as it is based so much upon the author’s own life but I tried to be subjective. Although some books go over the top with POVs I really feel this one would have benefited from hearing directly from Jody – the stronger character I felt. Wishing you a happy weekend. Hope you can get out into your garden/land!

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