A Boy made of Blocks, Keith Stuart

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Autism seems to be an increasingly popular condition to explore in modern literature. From Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and even the 9/11 story of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Autism is a recognised and familiar trait that authors are able to use to explore what it is that makes up humans, and why we are as we are.

When I first started reading A Boy made of Blocks, I was quite skeptical – I had picked this up as a Buy One Get One Half Priced offer at the airport back in January, and wasn’t sure where it would go. I grew increasingly frustrated with Alex, the protagonist who has left his home, wife and son due to the difficulties that having an autistic child has put on their relationship. Alex initially comes across as a highly ignorant and self centred individual, unable to take on the responsibilities that come with having a child like Sam. He is stuck in a job he hates, in a marriage that focusses around one thing, and the memory of a childhood trauma which he blames himself for. He casts a semi-sympathetic figure, but mostly seemed unlikable. His grasp on autism seemed very thin for a man who has an 8 year old son with that diagnosis, and I was left wondering whether the author was simply tagging onto a new trend in which people are determined to come to understand autism better, and so are happy to read about it in literature.

Then I read the author synopsis and things came much more clearly into shape. When Stuart’s son was 7 he was diagnosed with autism, after several years of chasing a diagnosis. It seemed like a huge barrier for them to overcome, but through the use of Minecraft, Stuart claims ‘Minecraft helped us to see and appreciate him as a funny, imaginative and perceptive child – it helped us to meet our boy’. So rather than a fictional story using autism to draw in readers, this became a semi-autobiographical story of the struggle between a real father and his son. Stuart reminds us that ‘Sam is not Zac’, but this allowed me to read the novel with a lot more sympathy and understanding. Rather than growing frustrated with an author who seemed to only do lazy research, I could read this more as a father’s honest confession of coming to terms with a life long condition which means, for some, that your own child cannot look you in the eye. Once I had that understanding of the motivation for the novel, I was able to enjoy it much more, which was lucky because as it progressed, it did become a moving and inspiring story.

Alex

I’m still not sure that I really like Alex as a character, but alongside Sam he is the only one who really comes across as actually being three dimensional. The loss of his brother, George, at the school gates when they were just children, still haunts Alex who has yet to deal with it. As a result, he has never picked his own child up from school, being too afraid to face the school gates, even though it’s not the same place. The novel starts with Alex leaving home to move in with his friend Dan. The first person narration meant that I was able to follow Alex’s changes closely, from being afraid of autism and his son, to realising that it wasn’t a barrier to love, and it fact made Sam more precious and special in Alex’s eyes. It was nice to see Alex experience redundancy and turn that into a positive experience, though I think we all wish our friends could be as generous as Dan financially. Overall, Alex’s journey was very satisfying and very human – his anger over Jody’s potential infidelity, his denial and eventual search for help and his career changes, all made him  a realistic and approachable protagonist.

The others

The other characters, however, certainly seemed much more two dimensional and flat. Jody – the self sacrificing mum and tired wife who needs space. Clare and Matt – the perfect family with a dark secret. Dan – the popular, good looking best friend with an easy life. Emma – the absent sister who reunites with the family. The teachers and the side characters had little to no life of their own, and were simply objects to move the story forwards rather than well crafted creatures. The development of Emma and Dan’s relationship was obvious from the star and despite the romantic gesture, you didn’t really feel like they had come far. It was all too simple and easy. Overall, whilst the personal story of Alex was moving and inspiring, it was undermined by a totally average portrayal of other characters and their lives. I suppose this is the punishment I get for reading something as detailed as The Wheel of Time, where the author has 14 books to make sure we know every characters middle name, hair colour and favourite sandwich! But in order to engage me again, Stuart would have to work on his minor characters to prevent them from feeling like plot techniques and help them feel more like people.

Sam

Stuart’s portrayal of Sam is the redeeming and best feature of this novel. He really uses Minecraft to show how scary the world can be for an autistic child, allowing the reader to see that a sense of order is entirely necessary for a child with autism to make it through the day. Not only does the game help Alex to understand Sam better, but I genuinely feel like I’ve had a valid insight into the mind of a child with autism, which as I’ll soon be going into teaching is an invaluable thing.

Sam is a boy who finds life overwhelming. His social interactions are awkward and often stunted, but what Stuart does capture to a degree is the ability of children to ignore that and get on anyway – from Olivia and friends rebuilding the castle to Tabitha just talking at Sam and paying him attention, the children in the novel are accepting and kind towards Sam. This is paralleled with the bullying he receives in school; however, this was not really explored to any extent and again, seemed more like a plot technique than a real issue. As an aside, I have worked for and volunteered in several schools and I found Stuart’s portrayal of teachers and schools extremely scathing. Stuart must have had some bad experiences with his own son, but I hope that no teacher is as cold and ignorant as those he wrote in this novel. Bullying is dealt with in schools, as part of a legal expectation, and vulnerable children are often more watched out for than parents realise.

Sam’s progression throughout the novel, from a shy, quiet boy with no friends and no connection with his father, to a confident, brave child with a close relationship with his dad, is heart warming to watch. When he does finally enter the Minecraft competition, his final design is beautiful and shows a deep emotional connection to Alex – for once, I’m not going to write what it is here because that really would be a spoiler!

The Verdict

Overall, this was an alright novel. The writing was clear and concise – as a journalist by trade, this is what you would expect from Stuart. The story has power and meaning and the all important personal touch, despite the two dimensional nature of the novel as a whole. Most of all, though, I do believe this is a powerful novel in helping the wider population to gain an understanding of autism and an appreciation of the strain it can put on a family. That said, I think that Alex is an extreme case of disinterest, and it would have been nice to have a family in the novel where they aren’t broken down due to the condition – the only other autistic child is raised single-handedly by his mother.

I can’t say I would seek Stuart out specifically as a new author to follow, but should I have the chance I would be interested to read a book of his based on less personal experiences, as I don’t think it would have the same depth and positivity that this novel does, ultimately, show.

Lord of Chaos – Wheel of Time Book 6

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It has been a while since I wrote about anything I’ve been reading just for fun! I have to read this in small bites, as it’s been being read alongside curriculum texts and teaching theory books, and so it has been quite low on the priority list! But once I got my teeth back into it, I’ve barely been able to stop reading and am bowled over by the end! While reading this series, I try to read one Wheel of Time book, then another unrelated novel, to keep variety in my reading. This is the first time I’ve desperately wanted to go straight on and just keep reading the next book in the series, and it’s all to do with the last lines before the epilogue:

‘On a day of fire and blood and the One Power, as prophecy had suggested, the unstained tower, broken, bent knee to the forgotten sign. The first nine Aes Sedai swore fealty to the Dragon Reborn, and the world was changed forever.’

How did we get here?

It’s been so long since I read ‘The Fires of Heaven’ that I’ve had to go back and skim read my last blog post, and even then I’m not sure I can remember exactly what happened in the start of this book to get us so far! As always, there’s not enough space to talk about everything that’s happened, so I’ll pick up on a few key plot points and go from there.

The Amyrlin Seat

What I suppose was designed to be a shocking twist was actually really clear to me from the beginning of this novel. The sisters in Salidar were far too interested in Egwene to simply want to discipline her, and since no other sisters in Salidar were being specifically focussed on, it stood to reason that either Nynaeve, Elayne or Egwene would be asked to step us, especially as they are the strongest talent seen in many years. Nynaeve is easy to rule out – a wilder still cut off from the source when angry, she would not be a reliable or stable leader of a rebellious faction of the tower. Elayne has duties elsewhere – as the future queen of Andor, she would never be able to balance both responsibilities. That simply left Egwene.

I believe that the sisters in Salidar have made a wiser decision than they know. Egwene is strong minded and willful, but not so much so that she will dig her heels in and refused to be moved when faced with reason and logic. She is extremely powerful and in rediscovering the lost talent of dream walking, and receiving such caring teaching from the Aiel, she is clearly well versed in the power and her special skills. But most importantly, from our perspective, she has a clear head and a scheming mind. Already cleverly using Mat’s army to intimidate lords and ladies to join her rebellion, she has the ability to manipulate the key players in this story because she knows so much about them. Her developing relationship with Gawyn was a bit of a side step. To be honest, I would really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really love a female character in this series who is strong, independent, plays a key role in events, isn’t Aes Sedai and doesn’t fall in love (but I’ll come onto that rant in a moment!). But, I can understand how it’s happened, and it is a positive thing as ultimately Gawyn’s promise to Egwene saved Rand’s life, and we all know Rand can’t die till the final book!

Overall, I was really pleased with Egwene’s progression in this novel, and feel that her character has continued to grow in independence and strength.

That said, I still have my gripes – her speedy succession seems unrealistic and she is still very reliant on the older Aes Sedai to continue to receive support as a leader. It will be interesting to see when, and if, she has a united tower to follow her how she copes with the more mundane side of the job!

My biggest fuss over the Aes Sedai at this point, though, is the swearing of oaths on the rod being the step to Aes Sedai. I understand that this is a tradition, and that it is the Aes Sedai equivilant of a bat mitzvah, where the accepted finally becomes an Aes Sedai. But it doesn’t really effect their ability, their power or anything of importance. It holds them to a high standard of no violence except in emergencies, and truth telling, but in all honesty I cannot see the necessity in it. When Egwene, Elayne, Nynaeve and the others do arrive at the White Tower, I would like to see them stand up for themselves and refuse to take the oaths. They are limiting in dangerous times, and a little bit demeaning, even if the truth can be manipulated. I won’t dwell much more on this, but I don’t see why they should have to go through with swearing the oaths when they already go above and beyond, both talent and work-wise, what is expected of an Aes Sedai.

Girls, Girls, Girls!!!!

Faile, Egwene, Elayne, Nynaeve, Aviendha, Min, Amys, Berelain, Birgitte, Siuan…

Perrin, Gawyn/Galad, Rand, Lan, Rand, Rand, Rhuarc, Perrin, Gaidal Cain, Gareth Byrne…

This is a novel filled with strong and powerful women. In a world where it is only safe for women to channel and reach the source, you would think that there would be more women whose key focus is not men. I am excluding Aes Sedai from this discussion deliberately, because their decision whether to marry or not is mitigated by the warder situation, and I ranted enough about that last time. I will say that their lack of romantic relationships alienates them from ‘normal’ society, and is a part of what has them considered pariahs in many areas.

I’m just really sick of how much this reads like a romantic novel. I swear, if Mat, Rand or Perrin mention that they think the other ones have more knowledge about women I will throw the book across the room! There’s just so much going on in the novels already. I could have coped with two or three relationships – I like Perrin and Faile, and I like her because she is strong and stands up to her husband, but then she acts like a child and ignores him because another woman is showing interest. Perrin married her and she should not be punishing him for the actions of another. Similarly, Berelain is successfully holding a city in disarray in as much order as possible, and has ordered the deaths of nobles and peasants alike, and yet the minute Perrin shows up, she turns into a giggling teenage girl.

I don’t even want to get into the love quadilateral which is Rand, Elayne, Aviendha and Min. Elayne thinks she owns Rand, Aviendha slept with him and now seems to be considering sharing him with Elayne, and Min is trying to make Rand love her (which he clearly already does but still…). These are powerful and independent women in their own right driven to distraction by a man… Min was in love with him after one meeting and until this novel barely spent any time with him. Elayne is in love with him and has pushed him away and promised love to him within a week of each other, and is now frustrated because he wants to ‘give’ her the throne… SHE WASN’T THERE TO TAKE IT WAS SHE?! He has protected it from the many hands which would take it from her without a second thought, and has held onto it, as well as wanting to give her more. Elayne is entitled to it, but Rand has ‘won’ it, as it were. Of the three of them, Aviendha has spent the most time with Rand, has the most intense relationship with him, and yet withholds her love for the sake of Elayne. This is the one redeeming feature of the whole situation – Aviendha’s loyalty to her friends in unshakable, and her honesty has allowed their friendship to continue. Min, on the other hand, seems determined to ruin her friendship with Elayne! Argh, it’s all so frustrating.

I would just like one of the key characters to stop pining and get on with things… sometimes it’s like reading ‘Sweet Valley High’ – a guilty secret pleasure of mine when I was younger!

I will say, however, that the capture of Moghedian was very impressive, and showed what a group of girls can do, however the loss of her at the conclusion of the novel was not great really… however it is VERY clever that the transformations and rebirths in the prologue clearly played a role throughout the novel, and that the female of the pair was clearly actually a male forsaken. I’m interested to see where this will go!

That said, the only woman who shows true independence and thought is Alanna, and WE DO NOT LIKE HER. Well, I didn’t. I have a little more sympathy now that she has experienced Rand’s pain are understands what he struggles with every day. But Alanna bonded with Rand without his permission. She does not have the ability to compel him, thank goodness, which would have been very damaging, but what she did, as is stated in the novel, is equated to rape. She took away his ability to consent and acted without thought for the consequences. I am interested to see how their relationship develops as they must now be linked… perhaps Alanna will become Rand’s warder more that Rand will become hers!

Black vs White

This was potentially one of my favourite parts of the novel. Men who can channel have their own name – Asha’man. They have their own place to train – the black tower. Rand’s amnesty is paying off. Whilst their techniques, taught by the untrustworthy Taim, are violent and dangerous, they pay off. I am eager to see a time where Aes Sedai and Asha’man work together, train together and respect each other, and I look forwards to the beginnings of this relationship!

Insanity

One of the most interesting things explored in this novel is the descent into madness and the definitions of insanity. Both Mat and Rand remember things that aren’t their memories. They both show skills and abilities they can’t possibly know. Mat’s are memories, Rand’s is a voice. Looking at these with cold logic, there are elements of schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder and auditory hallucinations. I truly believe that the portrayal of Rand and Lews Therin is a powerful metaphor for the horrors of mental illness.

In this novel especially, Rand has struggled to define whether Lews is in fact Lews Therin, or whether he is simply a symptom off his own madness. The constant voice in his head and the battle for Saidin and reminiscent of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, parts of which I recently re read on a school work experience which is probably why they’re brought to mind. Similarly to when Mr Hyde eventually takes over Dr Jekyll, Lews Therin believes that he is the true owner of the body. He does not recognise or know Rand, and only begins to acknowledge him in the last few pages. Lews Therin clearly has his own insanity issues to work through, but Rand’s constant fight against him is a really testament to those who have struggled with auditory hallucinations and mental illnesses in which they lose sight of themselves and give in to another personality. Jordan touches on a difficult subject, but his portrayal of Rand’s struggle to continue to be Rand Al’Thor and now Lews Therin, is heart wrenching to witness.

The True Source

The male half of the true source is tainted, but who is to say the female half isn’t as well, in its own way? Men go mad, Aes Sedai become master manipulators and ageless. They live for long beyond their years and are driven to great extents to protect themselves. The final battle is coming (in, like 8 books time), but what will its conclusion be? At this point, I believe that to make the world more fair, better, and to eradicate the dark one, all power should be wiped out. I include Saidin and Saidar in this. Just to put it out there.

The End

Then, of course, there is the quote I opened with, and the final scenes in which the first nine Aes Sedai bow to Rand, who was strong enough to break through three Aes Sedai and then to take them out one by one. I have nothing particularly critical or analytical to say about this bit, except how satisfying it was. Aes Sedai put in their place a little. Rand continuing to step up and take control and the development of the all the characters throughout have been really interesting to watch. I’m fascinated to see where the next novel goes – will they fix the weather? Will Morgase make a comeback so everyone can stop hating Rand for something he didn’t do?

Best get onto reading another book so I can move on with this series!