DAYS OF WONDER: A BOOK REVIEW

Daysofwonder

As a huge fan of Keith Stuart’s debut book ‘A Boy made of Blocks’ I was thrilled to be offered the opportunity by the publisher to read and review a pre-release copy of his latest novel. As always on such occasions when I eagerly look forward to a new publication, I hesitated for a fraction before plunging in to read … I just hoped the book would not disappoint. I need never have feared – it is truly a gem! 

From the first couple of paragraphs into ‘Days of Wonder’ I knew I was in for a treat and settled back to enjoy, savouring the story, becoming engrossed with the characters and their lives. By the end my emotions had been on a rollercoaster ride, ending in tears, at times laughing out loud, all the time moved and touched to the core.

Keith Stuart’s first book was based on his own life experience as a father with an autistic son, ‘Days of Wonder’, his first fiction novel, also centers on the relationship between a father and his child; in this case a 15-year-old daughter, Hannah and her father Tom. Not only is Hannah seeking her natural independence, experiencing first-love, fretting about A-level options, she also has to contend with an uncertain future – and perhaps none at all. Since being diagnosed with a life-threatening heart-condition cardiomyopathy, her whole life has been under its shadow. 

The disease has brought father and daughter wonderfully close together, their bond inseparable since her mother left whilst Hannah was still young. Tom has raised Hannah on his own, with the support of his eclectic theatre group which he manages. The members are close-knit and effectively a second, albeit quirky, surrogate family to Hannah, caring and understanding.

Since the initial diagnosis at the age of five, Tom has sought to bring magic into her life and a professionally produced birthday play at the theatre has been key to this … a tradition Tom is desperate to continue, one that Hannah feels less keen on in the cusp of adulthood… an adulthood that may never exist for her. 

Starting the book my one fear was that the disease would dominate the book, that it could become mawkish and moribund. Not at all! The disease is a backdrop to so many stories within the book; the uncertain future of the theatre, how it has saved so many people. It’s about lives, relationships, friendships, love. Of living and dying. I became totally absorbed into not only Tom and Hannah’s lives but that of Ted, Angela, Margaret, Callum, Sally to name a few. Their fears, frustrations, courage and perseverance were uplifting and soulful.  

 Throughout feisty gutsy Hannah is insightful and wise beyond her years, whilst loving and worrying about her father as she desperately seeks to find him a date. Furthermore, she finds and becomes supportive of her first boyfriend; a young man equally crippled with a very different illness.

The book is effectively and skilfully told through the two-viewpoints of Tom and Hannah. With the latter, it is as if overhearing a private conversation, immediate, at times raw, at times swinging perfectly into modern jargon. As with Tom and the other characters, the sense of humour is impeccably narrated, the put-downs perfectly timed. Through Hannah’s words we learn about her best friends, including a very special 81-year-old lady, the dramas of school, relationships.

Tom’s narrative is personal, emotional, realistic … comically sardonic at times, other moments relating such humorous dating escapades I cried with laughter! As a reader, I couldn’t help but warm to him and feel for his predicament- caring and being over-protective and struggling to let go of his daughter. All the time, unaware his daughter is trying hard to protect her father from the future and for the future. His gentle, confessional tones mingled with the comic and drama persona whilst the ghost of his ex-wife lingered in the background, the possibility that they might yet be a family.

For both of them, there will never be a normal life … and as the novel develops they learn to embrace their predicament; their love and bond growing stronger as a result. 

An interesting additional narrative format is the occasional letters in the book … deeply revealing about past events in Hannah’s life and written by her, it is only towards the end the reader becomes aware for whom they were written. This is yet one more poignant and emotional revelation in a novel which has heart-wrenching moments cascading throughout. 

The descriptive detail by the author is superb, he is wonderfully visual in creating settings, presenting plays, and I became engrossed in them all and felt as if I’d been watching a film. 

‘Days of Wonder’ is ultimately, and perhaps unexpectedly, a powerful, life-affirming and inspirational book. I was hooked from the very beginning and did not want to put it down for any breaks. It’s one of those books that I just had to read one more chapter until I sadly had to say goodbye to my new friends!

 
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I received a free copy of this book from the publishers via Netgalley in exchange for an honest and impartial review.
 
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Publication Date: 7th June 2018
Price:  Amazon UK:    £ 12. 99 Hardback.      £ 6.99 Kindle    
             Amazon US:  $ 9.82  Kindle
Publisher:  Sphere (Imprint of Little, Brown)

A BOY MADE OF BLOCKS: A BOOK REVIEW

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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