Stibbe’s Man at the Helm | RA Crossroads

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to Readers’ Advisory (RA) Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection RA service goes where it may. In this column a young girl in search of family leads me down a winding path.


Stibbe, Nina. Man at the Helm. Little, Brown. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9780316286671. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780316286749. F
manatthehelm32315Lizzie Vogel and her siblings have a problem. Their mother just threw a pan of eggs (wet, not hot) at their father, and he has her pinned to the floor with his hands around her neck. Needless to say, the marriage doesn’t survive. That is how, as Lizzie informs readers in her wise, observant, and opinionated way, she and her mother, sister, and younger brother came to live in a village outside of London, a community unwelcoming of a family without a man at the helm. As their mother, who has spent her life in the glorious care of others, struggles with depression, Lizzie and her sister devise a plan to find her a husband. They don’t have great choices: there are the married men who are more than happy to sleep with the new divorcée but unwilling to leave wives, an engaged teacher who is obviously a last resort, and all manner of mean, shady, and tryingly allusive candidates. More than one causes harm. The joy of Stibbe’s first novel, after her highly praised memoir, Love, Nina, is how funny and sly it is, how gracefully it advances, and how perfectly and rather suddenly it all ends. Lizzie is wonderful company, droll as only a child can be. She has a sharp eye for what is sad, what is bothersome, and what matters. In her world, it’s important that her mother is happy and that they are whole as a family. Her story alternates among riotously and airily funny, disturbing, and harebrained. Stibbe achieves it all through deft characterizations, authentic dialog, and wry insight.


Barker, Raffaella. Hens Dancing. Anchor. 2002. 288p. ISBN 9780385721820. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781408851616. F
hensdancing32315Mixing adroit and charming personae and laugh-out-loud humor, Barker’s novel about a family mending itself after divorce makes an excellent next-read for Stibbe fans. Venetia Simmons’s husband is a cad. He leaves her with two rambunctious boys and a baby girl known only as the Beauty to fend for themselves in a country house and garden in rural England. Friends and family flit in and out of the picture, but the central plot follows the daily and seasonal efforts of Venetia to cope and thrive. She and her children are endearingly lovable, which makes it all the more fitting that dishy carpenter David Lanyon, who appreciates them all, comes around. Told through Venetia’s diary entries, the quirky and at times madcap story rambles along with the same winsome grace as Man at the Helm and a comparable level of intimate immersion.

pursuitalicethrift32315Lipman, Elinor. Pursuit of Alice Thrift. Vintage. 2004. 304p. ISBN 9780375724596. pap. $13.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307429230. F
If Lizzie could grow up and become a writer there is a strong chance she would elect to become Lipman. Real-life author and fictional character share a similar sense of whimsy, and they both convey a knowing tone. All of Lipman’s novels enchant; however, given the difficulties Lizzie’s family has in finding a good man, Stibbe fans may want to begin with Lipman’s account of a con man and the woman he takes for a ride. Alice Thrift is a beleaguered intern at a Boston hospital, a bit maladroit and socially inept. When Ray Russo, a traveling fudge salesman, shows up, not much goes well—except Alice, similar to Lizzie and her family, does finally find a path of her own. Like Stibbe’s work, Lipman’s grift-filled tale is funny, sweet, and satisfying.

beachstreet32315McNeil, Gil. The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club. Hyperion. 2009. 432p. ISBN 9781401341220. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9781401396343. F
Stibbe fans who want another charming yet smart novel about making life whole again might wish to meet Jo Mackenzie and her two young sons, Jack and Archie. Their story, told by Jo in the same confiding and private tone Lizzie takes, is also one of a broken home and finding one’s feet. The night Jo’s husband, Nick, tells her he wants a divorce she becomes a widow, as Nick crashes the car after storming out of the house. Faced with an unexpected second mortgage and few viable job prospects, Jo moves her family to the seaside to take up management of her grandmother’s knitting shop. There, she finds her center and a life for her boys. Like Man at the Helm, McNeil’s novel is quickly paced, witty, and pleasingly funny.

Further Fictions:
Man at the Helm doesn’t have additional subjects to explore through nonfiction, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other titles to suggest. Here are three novels that offer readers various paths to follow, each using Stibbe’s story as a launching pad.

Allen, Sarah Addison. First Frost. St. Martin’s. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9781250019837. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250019844. F
firstfrost32315In the long-awaited sequel to her best-selling debut, Garden Spells, Allen explores the ties and comforts of family in a story that might lead Stibbe fans into the sublime joys of magic realism. Bay Waverley is the daughter of Sydney and niece of Claire Waverley—two sisters who are notorious in Bascom, NC, for their special gifts. Claire creates food and candy that change moods, cause long naps, or nudge people into falling in love. Sydney styles hair in ways that make for perfect days. Bay knows where things belong, and she knows that there is a boy in school, one trailing soot behind him because he is burning away in such misery, who belongs with her. Allen’s lush and unpredictable tale follows the Waverleys as they await the turn of the season and cope with change. While Bay doesn’t narrate the story herself, Allen is skillful at channeling her hopes and fears.

Bradley, Alan. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Bantam. (Flavia de Luce, Bk. 1). 2010. 416p. ISBN 9780385343497. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780440338468. F
Another solid choice for Stibbe readers looking to branch out might be to meet Bradley’s delightful, gleeful, and just a tiny bit of a pill Flavia de Luce. The 11-year-old is obsessed with chemistry and lives in a home that was old when she was born in the late 1930s. She occupies the vast space with her father and two older sisters (annoying, both), a housekeeper, and a shell-shocked gardener. When her father is accused of murder, the brave, adventuresome, and unflappable Flavia takes up the case—and relates the story. It’s a delightful cozy mystery, the first in a series that now numbers seven (all of which are most capably read by Jayne Entwistle in audio format) that offers Stibbe enthusiasts a different direction in which to observe adorable children with tales to tell.


Semple, Maria. Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Back Bay: Little, Brown. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780316204262. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780316204286. F
Readers willing to venture further into bighearted, snarky, wherebernadette32315and fun novels but who are also content to stray from direct parallels might enjoy Semple’s sophisticated and quirky tale of letters, emails, and faxes (among other ephemera) that recount, in fractured style, the family dynamics of the gifted, cagy, and clever Bernadette Fox; her husband, the equally smart Elgin Branch, who heads a big project in AI at Microsoft; and their brilliant daughter, Bee. After hiring a personal assistant in India to take care of much of her daily obligations and engaging in passive-aggressive fights with neighbors, Bernadette disappears. Bee is hot on her trail, piecing together her mother’s flight and doing her utmost to keep her family intact. Sharp social commentary combined with fluid writing makes Semple’s novel pure pleasure.


I Capture the Castle. color. 113 min. Tim Fywell, dist. by Samuel Goldwyn Films. 2003. DVD UPC 043396405028. $20.95. Rated: R
icapturecastle32315Stibbe readers wanting films that advance their experience of Man at the Helm might want to consider this adaptation of Dodie Smith’s beloved debut novel about a destitute family living in a decrepit English castle in the 1930s. It traces the ways the lives of the two daughters change when Simon and Neil Cotton arrive on the scene. The novel is told through the journal entries of Cassandra Mortmain, the youngest of the daughters, who shares with Stibbe’s Lizzie a veneer of innocence that gets shattered as she is witness to a love triangle between her sister, Simon, and Neil—one that tears at her heart as well. Her immediate, anxious, and confiding voice is well captured in the movie’s voice-overs, as is the setting and era. It’s not as sprightly or nearly as funny as Stibbe’s story, but it’s a sure bet that Lizzie and Cassandra would have become fast friends. And odds are great that Bay and Flavia would fit in, too.


Stibbe’s first book, Love, Nina, a beguiling and fresh memoir about working as a nanny in a very literary household, is available on audio in digital download. Stibbe reads it herself, and hearing her voice—comedic, quick, and opinionated—gives some glimpse into how Lizzie might sound when she reaches her early 20s.

SELF-eLearn More
SELF-e is an innovative collaboration between Library Journal and BiblioBoard® that enables authors and libraries to work together and expose notable self-published ebooks to voracious readers looking to discover something new. Finally, a simple and effective way to catalog and provide access to ebooks by local authors and build a community around indie writing!
Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at