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Man at the Helm

Narrated by: Imogen Church
Length: 9 hrs and 51 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (7 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

National Book Award Winner

Man at the Helm, the debut novel from Nina Stibbe - the much-loved author of Love, Nina - is a wildly comic, brilliantly sharp-eyed novel about the horrors of being an attractive divorcée in an English village in the 1970s, and a family's fall from grace....

My sister and I and our little brother were born (in that order) into a very good situation and apart from the odd new thing life was humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when my mother listened in to my father's phone call and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel - a thing she'd only have done in an absolute emergency.

Not long after her parents' separation, heralded by an awkward scene involving a wet Daily Telegraph and a pan of cold eggs, nine-year-old Lizzie Vogel, her sister and little brother and their now-divorcée mother are packed off to a small, slightly hostile village in the English countryside. Their mother is all alone, only 31 years of age, with three young children and a Labrador. It is no wonder, when you put it like that, that she becomes a menace and a drunk. And a playwright.

Worried about the bad playwriting - though more about becoming wards of court and being sent to the infamous Crescent Home for Children - Lizzie and her sister decide to contact, by letter, suitable men in the area. In order to stave off the local social worker they urgently need to find a new Man at the Helm.

Nina Stibbe was born in Leicester. She is the author of the hugely acclaimed, Love, Nina. She now lives in Cornwall with her partner and two children. Man at the Helm is her first novel.

©2014 Nina Stibbe (P)2014 Audible Studios

Critic Reviews

"Man at the Helm, a first novel, joins on my shelf a small but joyous set of much-loved books narrated by girls… If you loved I Capture the Castle, you will love this… In Stibbe’s hands I laughed hard, page after page. Brisk, ruthless, understated, English comedy gold." ( Times)
"This joyous read, full of wit and charm, will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. The glorious cast of characters includes a faithful Labrador called Debbie, a charismatic pony called Maxwell and the child-hating daily help Mrs Lunt… I am already longing for Nina Stibbe’s next book." (Cathy Rentzenbrink in the Daily Express)
"The narrator's voice is wonderful and the adults gloriously bizarre… All hail a book that's funny! This book's a winner, isn't it?" (Barbara Trapido, author of Brother of the More Famous Jack)
"I’m sure I haven’t been the only one eagerly awaiting Nina Stibbe’s follow-up. Her debut novel doesn’t disappoint … Read it and be charmed." ( Independent)
"An unassuming comic genius" ( Independent)
"Charming, warm-hearted and gently but irresistibly funny" ( Sunday Times)
"Funny, warm, life-affirming and accutely well-observed . . . A hoot" ( Metro)

What listeners say about Man at the Helm

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    5 out of 5 stars

My favourite reading ....ever

A perfect reading of a funny and beautifully written novel.
Most readers struggle to convey a variety of characters, but this reading is superb.
a moving but bloody funny story.
Highly highly recommended

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  • S. Yates
  • 04-02-2018

One of a kind, funny and at times surreal

4.5 stars. So I loved this, but admit that it is likely an acquired taste. The humor is cutting and sardonic, innocent and wise, slapstick and heartbreaking. Our narrator is Lizzie, who begins at age 9 and progresses, relays the story of her parents' marriage coming to an ignoble end, their newly man-less family's (Lizzie, older sister, younger brother, and mother) forced move to the country, their ill-welcome given that the family lacks the eponymous "man at the helm," and how a steadily declining financial situation strains their new life and tests their eccentric and depressed mother. If this sounds maudlin and melancholy, it typically soars above those feelings. Lizzie is so precocious and wry and naive as a narrator, with that odd mix of perceptive, adult intelligence with swaths of childish oblivion, that the innate humor of their situation shines. Lizzie and her sister almost immediately determine that their mother needs a new man at the helm and much of the book's exploration of their family is done through the prism of their trying to track down a man for their mother. The reader laughs, cringes, roots for, and tears their hair out in frustration as things go in predictable and unpredictable ways. All this told in a 1970s England, with economic issues cropping up for many and the fast evolving feelings about love, sex, and a woman's place. All in all, this is a book that beggars real description. It is not a love story or a farce, or a coming of age story or a Dickensian tale of children down on their luck. It is not a slice of life or historical fiction novel, satire or tale of latchkey kids. But it combines aspects of all of these in a unique and engrossing way. Peculiar and particular, but recommended.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Ellen
  • 02-03-2017

Listened to it twice in a row!

Imogen Church is a magnificent narrator, and Lizzie and her family some of the most delightful and original characters I've had the pleasure of reading about. I'd give it 10 stars if I could!

2 people found this helpful

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  • Ozzie
  • 21-10-2015

Most enjoyable book

This was my first audio book and I congratulate the narrator who related the story so well. The unfolding tale is told from the perspective of a young girl, Lizzie, now an adult, of a fairly wealthy family split apart by unfaithfulness. The mother and three children move from the city to a village where they don't seem very well liked. Adapting to their changed circumstances throws up many challenges and with a mother seeming unable to cope, the children decide the only solution is to find a new man for their mother. Their efforts are both funny and entertaining. I look forward to reading more books by this author.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Mitzi
  • 26-05-2015

Lovely story - Poor narrating choice

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

If a friend had to choose one book by Nina Stibbe, I would recommend she read "Love, Nina", rather than "Man at the Helm"

How did the narrator detract from the book?

I am not sure whether the narrator has a natural "child-like" voice or was staging one for the sake of this book. In either case, this was not the right voice, in that it is clear from the text that the story is not told from the child's perspective but from the adult woman's viewpoint. In the logic of this fiction, a woman is retelling the story of her childhood and the problems her mother faced after her husband left her for another man before remarrying another woman. So the childish voice is misleading. (The reader is a good reader! But not for this book)

Any additional comments?

It is a lovely story (albeit predictable). Great characters (esp. the mother), wonderful irony, direct effective descriptions: you want to read/listen to the whole thing... Not a boring let-down moment.
I enjoy Stibbe's writing very much and am a super fan of her memoir "Love, Nina" which I would recommend in the audio version (more than the print edition) to everyone! That's a glorious piece of genius. This one, A Man at the Helm, is good.

1 person found this helpful

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  • rikrayrik
  • 28-03-2015

This is one of the best books I've listened to

All I can say is if you don't appreciate this beautiful story, I'm sorry for you. The reader is fantastic.

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  • Antonio
  • 15-03-2015

Well Done!

Delightfully funny, surprisingly insightful, and heartbreakingly touching! This is a wonderfully well written book, and the narrator does a marvelous job telling the story through distinct character voices that you remember and recognize throughout the program. Well Done!

1 person found this helpful

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  • Toby
  • 30-08-2014

An absolutely perfect novel of wit and character

If you could sum up Man at the Helm in three words, what would they be?

I want more.

What was one of the most memorable moments of Man at the Helm?

There were many. The horse on the second floor. The boy pretending to be a dog. The children enacting their mother's play. The men. The girls.

What does Imogen Church bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

She was a superlative reader. Wonderful. Perfect cast to her voice for the various characters. Just amazingly good.

If you could take any character from Man at the Helm out to dinner, who would it be and why?

Lizzie, of course.

Any additional comments?

If only there were more novels full of wit, wisdom and charm. This is so beyond the norm of the day. Stibbe reminds me a bit of Barbara Pym, as well as Trollope and even Kingsley Amis in his early days. Masterful!

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  • Kez
  • 16-08-2020

The title says it all

Why does a woman need a man at the helm? I though that this book would be satirical, amusing, entertaining, but not that it would come to the conclusion that a woman actually needs a man at the helm and can't be alone, I am bitterly disappointed. The performance was excellent, she did the different voices beautifully.

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  • ETWisconsin
  • 06-07-2020

lots of hidden gems

The author doesnt drew a lot of conclusions for you, but that is a good thing. as you listen to what parents need or do through the eyes of a child, so much about relationships becomes clear.

love the dry sense of humor woven throughout.

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  • Cekabe
  • 23-05-2019

What's funny about a lonely alcoholic?

Bought this because she won the honor award this year, and the book that won had descriptions of dental procedures that I didn't want to hear, but I couldn't finish this. The premise is funny; two kids trying to set their divorced mom up with married men in their community (because they are proven marriage material) but really nothing funny about the divorce, the drinking, the ostracism, or the lack of interest this woman shows in her kids. Ugh.

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  • Philip
  • 18-09-2014

Just as good as expected

Love Nina has become one of my favorite (and funnniest) books. I loved Nina's first fiction, her voice recognisable from her diaries, but wonderfully telling a quite tragic tale from a child's point of view, beautifully observed with great '70's detail. And very funny. Highly recommended.

10 people found this helpful

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  • Katie
  • 31-08-2015

Humorousness and sadness all rolled into one

In a Man at the Helm an immature voice is commenting on her family, creating some humour and some sadness. It is this voice, the voice of Lizzie that is the key to both the humour and the sadness of the often quite difficult situations they all find themselves in. It reminded me of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, in this respect as both books have this element; they have a sort of fly on the wall aspect to them from a young person's point of view.

A mixture of the humour and fun, some kindness and the odd touching scene make this book worthwhile to listen to, if not the best thing I've ever read as some scenes get really, so very sad. However the narrator does an excellent job and raised the book into being the very best it could be.

8 people found this helpful

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  • Kaggy
  • 12-07-2015

Enchanting comedy

'Love Nina' is an extremely hard act to follow but Nina Stibbe does it brilliantly with this lovely story of two little girls dealing with abandonment by their father and having to cope with their batty but beautiful mother. After receiving a hostile reception in their new community the girls hatch a plan based on the older sister's theory that a family needs a man at the helm, no matter how awful he may be, and the results of their plotting are hilarious and surprisingly bawdy in places.

Despite the overall comic theme the story is handled with great sensitivity and I couldn't help falling in love with this dysfunctional little group of people. Some parts really had me guffawing out loud (check out the neighbour with the bath water problem) and the mother's activities are wonderfully and almost shockingly abandoned.

Nina Stibbe is a fantastic writer and I hope her first novel gets all the accolades it deserves. Please hurry up and write another book!

7 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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  • amanda court
  • 03-07-2018

found this book dull

not my cup of tea... it didnt go any where and was hard going. .

5 people found this helpful

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  • Lyndsay
  • 15-06-2016

My kind of people

I really enjoyed listening to this book. The narrator was brilliant and carried off the child-like voices and delivery without sounding wrong in the way some narrators sadly do.
I'm originally from Leicester but forgive the mispronunciations of some of the place names: 'Belvoir' is 'Beever' - (who knew?) and I felt right at home hearing words like 'cob' being used without excuse or explanation (it's a roll - by the way).
The story made me laugh out loud at times thanks to the writer's ability to voice a child's view of the ridiculous and confusing mess adults make of life. The comments made by the children were, therefore poignant and funny rather than maudlin. The narrator had also helped to convey this and I don't think the story would have amounted to much if it had not been told so convincingly through the child's eyes.
A small aside: I'm not sure if it is just me but I found the sound of posh people swearing to be very funny!

4 people found this helpful

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  • Claire
  • 07-12-2014

Excellent low key humour......addictive...

Would you listen to Man at the Helm again? Why?

Yes definitely re readable and wouldn't say that easily

Who was your favorite character and why?

The central character Lizzie
Closely followed by mother

Which character – as performed by Imogen Church – was your favourite?

same

Did you have an emotional reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

All kinds of emotions evoked but very interested in the way it was written....great style

4 people found this helpful

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  • Mrs C Garstang
  • 16-07-2015

I loved it!

I'd read Nina's Letters Home and was delighted to come across this book. As a single mother, it made me laugh and nod equally hard!

3 people found this helpful

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  • bookworm
  • 17-08-2015

Surprisingly lovely

I didn't expect to like this much and couldn't remember why I'd chosen it, but I loved every minute and put my life on hold to finish it. Very light and undemanding but not in any way silly or overly fluffy.

8 people found this helpful

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  • newyorkhereicome
  • 28-01-2016

Loved every minute of it

What made the experience of listening to Man at the Helm the most enjoyable?

Was worried that this book wouldn't live up to my expectations but it was wonderful and I didn't want to miss a word of it.
The reader did an amazing job giving every character their own very believable voice.
Love the phrasing that the writer uses. She packs so much into her books and I can't wait for the next one.

4 people found this helpful

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  • Mary
  • 05-10-2015

Hmmm

Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

Perhaps not to my own friends. The book is slight, sometimes amusing, not always very credible - but it seems to me to lack the warmth and laugh-out-loud moments I relished in "Love Nina".

Would you ever listen to anything by Nina Stibbe again?

Yes. She can write with real originality and sense of fun.

Have you listened to any of Imogen Church’s other performances? How does this one compare?

No. Nice voice for the young daughter she portrays and good variation for the others.

Was Man at the Helm worth the listening time?

I am rather sad to say that I do not think so.

Any additional comments?

It really wasn't too bad. Faint praise, alas.

9 people found this helpful