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Man at the Helm - July book club

(116 Posts)
CariGransnet (GNHQ) Tue 30-Jun-15 13:44:03

A day early - yes. But a pre emptive strike grin

Our July book is Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe - more info HERE

If you got a free copy (they are on the way if no one has had yet!) then don't forget to leave questions and comments for Nina before the end of the month. If you weren't lucky this time - why not buy or borrow a copy and join the conversation?

hopstone Sat 25-Jul-15 13:11:37

Not doing anything for me I'm afraid. I've read a couple of chapters and I cannot 'get into it' at all. Sorry :-(

Buddie Sun 26-Jul-15 15:57:55

After my initial enjoyment of the book I began to find I was suspending belief just a bit too far. There are parts I did find funny and at first the language did indeed seem to fit a child of the age and time. The premis of the children trying to find a new man for their mother seems very plausible but the actions of many of the adults in the story, not least those of the medical profession, just seemed too far-fetched.

I agree with several others that the bad language used added nothing to the story and seemed outside of the supposed time scale, too. I would like to know if the author has personal experience of this period and if so whether it was spent in a rural location.

granniefinn Sun 26-Jul-15 17:32:00

I have just started reading man at the helm the jury is out on it I am struggling with it I find it hard to belive girls in the seventies would be so muture at that age are maybe they just had to grow up quickly I was hopping for a feel good book but it is just making a little cross at the adults in the book will keep reading as it is well written and I what to see if they succeed smile

lettie Mon 27-Jul-15 10:43:44

I did enjoy the book although it took me a while to get into Lizzie's 'voice'. At first I hoped there might be a change of point of view part way through, but once I accepted that it was going to be Lizzie all the way I relaxed into it. I enjoyed Lizzie's reporting of her mother's comments and attitudes which provided much of the book's humour and the book is peppered with wry, witty and honest observations on life, families, pets, etc., 'It's like having over-diluted Ribena,' our mother explained. 'it's almost worse than having no Ribena at all.' was one of my favourite observations (although there are plenty of funnier examples in the book). There's also lots of 1970's references to enjoy.

I did get the premise of the story: that someone Lizzie's age would worry about being taken into care and that the children would 'rally round' their mother, who was clearly struggling with her personal demons. I found Lizzie's reporting of her mother's 'language' quite in character for both of them and it added to the humour and texture of the story so I didn't find it offensive at all.

Having finished the book, I find the characters of Lizzie, her sister and brother, and her mother (and dog!) remain with me and I can visualise their houses and the assortment of neighbours, friends, etc., which for me is the sign of a well-crafted book. I would recommend this for summer holiday reading, or for whenever you are feeling a little jaded with life 'as is'.

I would like to ask Nina about her reasons for including Lizzie's mother's play dialogue - it didn't seem to carry the plot any farther forward. Was it to inject some 'white space', or for another reason? And, without naming names, were any of the main characters (humans or animals) inspired by her own experiences.

Thanks Nina, and Gransnet, for a good read.

bumblebee Mon 27-Jul-15 18:26:22

Most gracious thanks to Gransnet and Penguin Books for a copy of this book. I seem to have received it a lot later than everyone else, looking at the dates of the above posts. As a result, I still have a bit of a way to go to complete the book, but shaping up to be a good read so far.

I'd like to ask Nina a few general questions, if I may ......

QUESTION ONE:- Do you have a personal favourite out of the two books you've had published? And out of books published by other authors?
QUESTION TWO:- What would be the first piece of advice you would give to anyone attempting to write fiction?
QUESTION THREE:- Can I ask you about your writing process? How do you plot everything? What was the initial spark for 'Man at the Helm', and was it based on personal experiences, completely made-up, or a mixture of the two?


middleagespread Wed 29-Jul-15 16:44:21

Lizzie, aged 11, is the storyteller of this tale of a manless, unhappy pill popping Mother recently separated from their homosexual Father. Left with no income, three children and a temperament unsuited to housework (her words) the children are largely left to cope with many situations that are often beyond their capabilities. Little Jack is carried through life by his older sisters who also have responsibility for caring for their Mother who substitutes caring with a sun lounger and gin and tonic. Their lives change with the loss of a cook, a chauffeur and a large house with ponies and a mundane existence is on the cards. However, the girls, (and in particular) Lizzie's acceptance of her duty to ensure her Mother has a new man in her life involves them in a very unconventional lifestyle until things hit rock bottom when their Mother has to find a job. A most curious book, unique in its style and lots of comical situations which are in many ways also calamitous and damaging to young children. Their very real fear of being made wards of court encourage the children to protect and pander to their Mother. It's a woeful tale in some ways yet curiously page turning too.The constant use of brackets (as above) annoyed me in the first instance yet as I read on I noticed them less and less.

Rosannie Wed 29-Jul-15 18:16:36

I too struggled initially with this book, the time setting seemed to be incongruous with the themes and the use of graphic words in a domestic setting. I did persevere with Lizzy's narrative and it was well written from the child's point of view, but I didn't enjoy the book.
I would like to ask Nina if she had a target 'audience' in mind, was she writing for a particular age group?
It seems that the use of some unnecessary offensive words has upset several gransnetters, I think it was unnecessary to use such language because it didn't enhance the story or the characters. Such language would restrict who I might pass the book on to.
I personally think that the book would appeal to older children who might find themselves in a similar position but the 'c' word would prevent me recommending it for this age group.

northernfi Thu 30-Jul-15 00:41:59

I've just finished the book and felt quite satisfied as I closed the cover. Lizzie and her family had obviously grown on me, because halfway through I was really struggling with the same issues that a lot of other Gransnet readers seemed to have - far too many distracting brackets, the unnecessary bad language, the purpose of the mother's play. Often Lizzie's viewpoint and phrases didn't feel authentic for a nine year old, even in her situation, and I didn't have any of the spontaneous laughter the reviews on the cover led me to expect.
But I did want to persevere with the book and I did smile at many of the situations the family ended up in.
I'd really like to know what inspired Nina to write the book and how much it changed from her first draft. And is she working on another book?

philatel Thu 30-Jul-15 13:17:54

Thank you for my copy. I am just over halfway through but, sadly, I do not find it hilarious. It is readable and I will try and continue to the end - simply because I cannot bear not knowing how a book ends - but I do not find it comical, hilarious, etc.

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 09:32:59


It's funny isn't it how different people see the same book in different ways? I have often thought "so what" about books people have raved about. However back to Man at the Helm - I thought it was a wonderful read. Charming and funny and reminiscent of a period I remember so well myself. I found it original and thoroughly enjoyed it and would like to ask the author whether it's based at all on her won experience?

Thank you. So glad you enjoyed the book. Yes, It is based very much on my own childhood.

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 09:35:38


Yes I agree bookmad. I didn't win a free copy this time but bought it on my kindle and was not disappointed. I found some bits laugh out loud funny and read it very quickly. I would like to ask how Nina Stibbe found writing it compared to her first book which was a memoir?

I’m sorry you didn’t win a copy, but glad you enjoyed it. Writing ‘Man at the Helm’ was very different to writing ‘Love, Nina’. ‘Love, Nina’ was made up entirely of old letters that I don’t even remember writing! ‘Man at the Helm’ was a story based on part of my childhood.

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 09:44:00


I enjoyed this book, humorous but innocent somehow. it has a great range of characters, especially Lizzie. It was a nice reminder about how life was in the 70s which i do remember, however you get the feeling that it wouldn't take much for things to get completely out of control. The family, although believable, are a bit odd, and what can I say about that mother!!!
I'd like to ask Nina if she is still using characters from her real life 'Love Nina' period as that household also seemed a bit chaotic. I love Alan Bennett, and would love to see him portrayed in a novel.

I’m glad you enjoyed ‘Man at the Helm’ and ‘Love, Nina’

Alan Bennett is a lovely character, as are the boys (now men!) I have no plans to write about them more though. There’s a lovely ebook by Mary Mount all about Sam Frears - called ‘Being Sam Frears’ if you’re interested in him and his amazing life.

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 09:48:51


I brought my children up in the laid back seventies and I don’t think the mother’s character is all that exaggerated. It was much safer to let children roam free in those days and her attitude of ‘controlled neglect’ was not unusual in those who lacked any real parenting skills because they'd once had the money to pay others to care for their kids. The two girls yearning for something more solid and stable reminded me of Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky.
I’m glad there was a happy ending (of sorts). It’s a touching moment when the mother is finally shown some sympathy and support by a man.
Do you plan to write a sequel, Nina…..Teenagers in the Thatcher era for example?

Yes, I am writing more adventures of Lizzie Vogel. It will start in her teenage years in the late 1970s when Lizzie is just growing up and making her way in the world of work.

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 09:49:57


many thanks for my free book.
I read this book in a few days as I couldn't put it down once I had started reading it.
It does make you smile, but not laugh, at the way it is written, and is amusing, but sadly it has a good sprinkling of "F" words.

Sorry about all the swearing! The book was based on my own very sweary childhood and it would have seemed odd to leave the swears out. I know some people find this language offensive but it was such a normal part of my day to day experience, it’s easy to forget. My relaxed attitude to swearing has got me into trouble a few times.

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 09:50:55


I've enjoyed Man At The Helm, though would agree that the dust jacket reviews are over the top. I found it bitter sweet, and though there was plenty of humour and a few laugh out loud moments, there were desperately sad ones too. The voice of young Lizzie rang true with me, though she is no Adrian Mole. I particularly empathise with her and little Jack's experience at the village fete fancy dress competition - I've definitely been there! Thank you again to GN and to Nina for the entertaining read, and I'd like to ask Nina whether her depiction of village life and the treatment of the incomers was based on experience.

Yes! The book is very much based on the real life experience of seeing my mother being rejected and judged by the people in the village who felt threatened by a divorced woman. And seeing her efforts to make a new start thwarted.

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 09:51:37


I think that Nina has captured the voice of a 9-year old in the 1970s perfectly and she has an excellent ear for the absurd. The jokey style hides some truthful and honest observations which jumped out at me . I enjoyed this book as much as her first one.

I would like to ask Nina if she based Lizzie on herself or her sister or on a mix of them both?

Thank you! Yes, Lizzie is very like me (or me her!) and my sister in real life is very like Lizzie’s sister.

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 09:52:49


Finished Man at the Helm today and found it a page turner. I agree with Maggiemaybe's review very much especially the bitter/sweet. Life is hard in many ways for many children, sadly. From my own childhood experiences your way of life is all you know and it is very normal to you. Everyone has different standards and priorities and even with the children's problems they were not horribly mistreated were they? They were loved, going to school regularly, had food if not the best and beds to sleep on and much more. I think Nina Stibbe is a talented writer and I will read 'Love, Nina' and look forward to her future work.

Thank you for this. I agree wholeheartedly with what you say and I’m glad you felt this. We did have a tough time, but not that tough compared to others around us. We were loved and, though our mother had difficulties, she cared for us and did her best. We were surrounded by books and culture and, apart from worrying about our mother, were actually pretty happy!

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 09:53:34


As someone else has said - interesting to see so many differing view on the same book. I loved it.

I understand that it is semi autobiographical and having read that Nina has children of her own would like to ask whether he own childhood experiences have shaped the way she has been as a mother?

Yes, very much! I know how important it is to feel your mother is OK. I worried a lot that my mum was sad and lonely. I make sure my kids never have to worry too much about their parents (yet!)

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 09:53:57


I would like to ask if she has any other books in the pipeline? Did she find it difficult to start the book and if so what made her "go for it".

I ‘went for it’ because I had the confidence (to write in my own voice) after my book of letters was a success. I think feeling confident to use your own voice is a huge thing and makes writing possible.

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 09:54:30


I would be interested to read the same story from the mother's point of view

Very interesting. Me too. I will tell my mother. Thanks. x

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 09:55:06


Thank you for my copy of 'Man at the Helm'. I have started it but we are going away for a while and I shall take it with me to finish. As there will be no internet access I need to post a question for Nina now.

Nina, I'm enjoying your book so far but why so much use of brackets? (Like this!) It's taking me a while to get used to your style (of brackets that is) I'm a little confused please enlighten me (if possible) Thank you, Nina.

I don’t know why I do that. I’m an over-explainer, which is a sign of anxiety, and I think that’s why. I do it when I’m talking too. Keep going back to make sure the person I’m talking to knows what I’m talking about and is still ‘with me’. A lot of people have mentioned it (the brackets). I’m trying to have the confidence to stop. x

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 10:00:18


I found the book full of humour, the world seen by a 9 year old girl, Lizzie. She and her siblings are trying to find a man for their newly abandoned mother, to cheer her up and make them more socially acceptable. The children are a mixture of precociousness and innocence. The plot is unrealistic, verging on farcical, so we know we are not to take it too seriously.
A question - Will we have a sequel titled Woman at the Helm?
My daughter found she was an abandoned mother, and went through the tears, drink and pills phase quite quickly and moved on to a confident Woman at the Helm, steering her young family through new ventures and experiences! She did have family and friends though, who would not let her deviated from the course of independence!!

I’m so pleased to hear your daughter’s story. I think times have changed and women aren’t treated quite so badly when they find themselves alone. I’m not planning another book that’s so focused on the mother, but am writing more of Lizzie and we will see how sorted her mother has become.

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 10:00:55


Hello Nina,
First of all , I'd like to thank you for such a brilliant read.It was different from anything I've read before.I have to confess that I haven't read 'Love, Nina' So I didn't know anything about you prior to reading this book.

I loved all the characters, the flawed Mother who you couldn't help but like.The feisty elder sister, Lizzie who narrates and little Jack who may even be a shred Autistic.I could see them all ! You not only made the main suitors real, but brought to life the neighbours and shopkeepers.

I grew up in a village, and in it's early days, it was just like the village you have crafted, so I really could relate to some of the insular behaviour of it's inhabitants since I wasn't actually born there.

Did you grow up in a village ? I feel you must have, if not you have been extraordinarily clever in reproducing that feel here.I don't want to say too much about the story here in case some people haven't finished reading it yet.
Have you another book in the pipeline ? I hope you do, I shall buy it, and am now off to look for 'Love Nina'.

This would make a fantastic stage play, I bet you get approached about it !
Good luck to you and thanks for a superb read.

Hello! Thank you for this lovely review. I’m so glad you liked it.

Yes, I did grow up in a village. Yes, they were bl**dy horrible to my poor mum! I’m writing more about Lizzie Vogel as she grows up. I like her voice and her take on the world.

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 10:01:39


It did take me a while to get into this book but when I did I enjoyed it. It must be difficult to write from the point of view of a young girl but I think the tone was just right. I loved the children,wanted to give the mother a shake but she had depression and I suspect many children are in the same situation. They did what they had to do to get by and I'm glad of the happy ending. I would like to ask the author what made her decide to write from a child's prospective ? I' m on holiday in Turkey so I have left the book in the hotel's library for other people to enjoy and spread the author's name.

Good question! It felt real to me. I have a very good memory of being a 9/10 year old and it just felt right to use that voice. I think pre-teens are very wise and not too self-conscious. I was also helped by the fact that I had 10 and 12 year-old kids when I was writing it and their language and thought processes were constantly around.. sort of corroborating my memories.

NinaStibbe Fri 31-Jul-15 10:02:02


I was very pleased to be one of the people who was sent a copy of this book " Man at the Helm" and I must say it would not normally be one I would pick off the shelf. I found the first chapters a bit of a struggle and was tempted to give up, but as time went on I wanted to find out what happened next to this very exceptional family. I was surprised the author made the children so " street wise" but it all added to the plot of the book. The author must have either a good idea of children of that era or did she base it on any personal problems in her life? Sometimes I found it over descriptive at times and it was not for me the hilarious read it was advertised to be, but that does not mean it did not make me smile at times.
I will pass it on to one of my daughter-in-laws to see how she views he book as a younger person.

The book was pretty autobiographical. I only wrote what we actually did - or would have done or said. We were very mature in some ways and our mother was unusually frank with us on certain subjects.