Friday, 23 June 2017

BOOK CLUB: The Humans by Matt Haig

By Gillian Hamer

This month on Triskele Book Club we discuss The Humans by Matt Haig.

About the book: After an 'incident' one wet Friday night where Professor Andrew Martin is found walking naked through the streets of Cambridge, he is not feeling quite himself. Food sickens him. Clothes confound him. Even his loving wife and teenage son are repulsive to him. He feels lost amongst a crazy alien species and hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton, and he's a dog.

About the author: Matt Haig is a British author for children and adults. His memoir Reasons to Stay Alive was a number one bestseller, staying in the British top ten for 46 weeks. His children's book A Boy Called Christmas was a runaway hit and is translated in over 25 languages. It is being made into a film by Studio Canal and The Guardian called it an 'instant classic'. His novels for adults include the award-winning The Radleys and The Humans. The Guardian summed up his writing as 'funny, clever and quite, quite lovely' by The Times and the New York Times called him 'a writer of great talent'.


Here, Triskele collegues Gill Hamer, Jill Marsh, Liza Perrat and Catriona Troth discuss. 


Did you have any preconceptions about book before you read it?

(GH) Possibly I thought it was more super-natural and so had chosen not to read it earlier because I'm not a huge fan of that genre. Whereas in fact, there is very little about space travel or aliens in the book. Quite a lot about mathematics though!

(JJ) I've read other books by Haig, so expected a mixture of insights, humour and philosophical ponderings. I wasn't disappointed.

(CT) Hard to remember now what my preconceptions were, as it is almost four years since I read it. But I do remember a feeling that the book took me by surprise.

(LP) I didn't really fancy it as I thought it would be too paranormal and fantasy for my tastes. How wrong I was; this book couldn't be more grounded in reality.


The author relies on a wide range of emotions here, added with a light touch, and some parts were moving. How do you think the author handled this?

(GH) One thing I found particularly clever was the gradual 'humanising' of Andrew Martin and his first taste of the human emotion 'love' - which was completely unknown to him. As a being whose only knowledge of humanity came from a back issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, I did think it very believable how the small, almost unseen, steps led him on a totally unexpected journey. Also, seeing the world through eyes of a stranger was quite satisfying - the good things and bad.

(JJ) The light touch leaves room for the reader to fill the gaps with their own experiences. Just as any outsider enters a culture and makes observations on what is different, it focuses attention on habits and behaviours that we take for granted and don't even think about analysing. The touch may be light, but it goes deep when we start to think about how we treat 'aliens' in our environment.

(CT) I've described before it as a concerto in three movements, with each movement having a very different feel. In the first movement, we have advanced-alien-adapting-to-being-in-a-human-body, making foolish mistakes (what is the point of wearing clothes, anyway?) and seeing us at our worst. It has the slightly sniggery, adolescent tone of a Simon Pegg / Nick Frost movie. That light-hearted tone nevertheless allows Haig to sneak in a few serious comments about the human condition. The second movement hits a deeper note. ‘Andrew’ begins to discover some of the more worthwhile things about human beings (like Emily Dickinson). This section is tender, almost lyrical in tone. The third movement, when ‘Andrew’ has to make choices between the interests of his own people and the interests of humans, is shockingly different, sometimes violent. And then there is a coda, which I won’t spoil by saying anything except that it strikes a different note yet again.

(LP) I think it was his light and humorous touch that was so successful in exploring such a wide range of emotions. Issues were never pushed down your throat, or in your face. In fact, you barely knew what he was getting at, until after the event. Then there was the "ah ha" moment, so to speak.

Other than ET, I can't think of too many aliens who have got me emotional! It can't have been an easy task to write an alien character but the author made it look easy. How did you feel about the use of characterisation?

(GH) I'll be honest, I thought the 'wooden' style of the alien character's dialogue might annoy me early on in the book, but I think I must have mellowed just as the character did, because after a while, it seemed perfectly natural. I did relate to Andrew and empathised with him as he faced the conflict of interest that led to the big decision he made. The supporting cast were great, solid and real, especially Gulliver as the confused teenager, and of course, Newton the dog.

(JJ) I'd agree with the term 'mellowed'. The changes the characters undergo are gradual and incremental, and the reader adjusts alongside them. It's something I recognise in people who've lived in other countries for a while. The adaptation changes one's personality, sometimes to the extent that returning 'home' is as much of a shock as leaving in the first place.

(CT) I can think of quite a few aliens that have made me emotional over the years [Alien Nation, District 9, Defiance...] But yes, certainly, the middle section of the book was very moving. Imagine encountering the idea of love for the first time, not as a hormone-fuelled teenager, but as a mature adult. Having all the intensity and freshness of adolescent experience, while still being able to appreciate the subtleties of grown-up, married love.

(LP) I too, cannot get emotional over aliens, but I did start empathising with Andrew as soon as the author "humanised" him, with the human emotion of love. I felt the author created very real people in the other characters too, especially the dog!


There were some laugh aloud moments. What sticks in your mind as the funniest section?

(GH) I thought the opening scenes, with the Cambridge professor wandering the streets naked were particularly funny. And at the opposite end of the scale, when Andrew admitted his adultery, totally unaware of the impact his words were having, were also humorous - but not for him!

(JJ) Yes, that was entertaining, especially in his attempts to respond in kind to outraged motorists. I also found his realisation about Martin's various relationships very funny, as he tried to work out exactly what was going on from interpreting human behaviour.

(CT) I loved innocence of the narrator when he first arrived on Earth, with absolutely no idea why he was utterly failing in his mission objective to ‘just blend in.’ It reminded me of the Petit Nicolas books by René Goscinny (better known for Asterix).

(LP) Yes, I agree, a particularly humorous moment was when Andrew admitted his adultery in all innocence, to his wife and could not understand her terrible reaction.

One thing I found appealing, was how the author cleverly used a stranger (or alien) to point out the negatives about what it is to be human. I thought this was very smart. What insights did you find the cleverest?

(GH) I think Gulliver finding the strength to face down his bullies was a very strong storyline. I like how the author showed that you didn't need super powers to make a difference.

(JJ) Probably the essence of how much time we waste on the insignificant and how little we spend on appreciating the truly valuable.

(CT) I think the overall sense that we humans could be better versions of ourselves if we would just let the scales fall from our eyes and see things with fresh vision was what made the deepest impression.

(LP) That most of us never take the time to "really smell the flowers"; that we don't live for the moment. 


Overall, what most appealed to you about the book?

(GH) Probably the clever insights into humanity that as humans we fail to notice. Much of the time it was as much to do with what the author didn't say, as what he did. To see the world through the eyes of a stranger has a way of putting things into perspective, and I think the author used this approach really well. I certainly came away from the book with lots of ideas.

(JJ) The biggest impact for me was applying the same light-hearted points about acceptance, repulsion and confusion regarding social codes to real situations, such as the refugee crisis. It makes us ask ourselves, what does it mean to be human?

(CT) That change of key from the crudely funny to the tenderly lyrical was so well handled and crept up so unexpectedly.

(LP) The author's excellent insight into the human race: the good, the bad and the ugly. All seen through the eyes of an alien and thus, objective and totally believable.

Despite the humour of the story, the author also uses the book to put across the importance of a range of issues from climate change to bullying. Do you think this was an important part of the book?

(GH) I felt this was the author's main purpose in writing the book, but it wasn't done in a patronising way, and it certainly wasn't rammed down the reader's throats either. It was more of an explanation of where we're heading and the changes we need to make now if we want to make a difference. I take my hat off to the author for being brave enough to write the book for that reason - and for keeping the book so entertaining too.

(JJ) Very much so. It would have been easy to skirt such issues and keep this full of laughs. I admire Haig's willingness to tackle tough subjects and point out the responsibilities of the individual. It's a thoughtful story which doesn't patronise, as Gilly says, but does insist you think.

(CT) I think the book was trying to get a handle on what it means to be human in the 21st Century, and that also means getting to grips with the problems humans have created in the last two million years, and how we might go about solving them. That sounds ambitious, but humour is an excellent way of making us stop and think about these things.

(LP) Like Gillian, I feel this was the author's point of writing this story. However, he did it in such a quirky and clever way, we don't reallly notice it.  

Have you read any other Matt Haig books? If so, how did this compare?

(GH)  I've read The Radleys a few years back and I have Reasons To Stay Alive on my Kindle. I really like the competent fluidity of his writing, and the fact he's never afraid to push boundaries or write about controversial issues. I like authors that break rules, and I think Matt Haig is a rule breaker!

(JJ) Yes, several. As a writer, Haig has a very vulnerable style, an honesty and openness which doesn't hide behind cynicism or sarcasm. This, perversely, is powerful and affecting. I like his writing and share many of his concerns, so always enjoy his books.

(CT) No, I haven’t. (So many books to read – so little time!)

(LP) No. As Kat says above, so many good books, so little time!

Who should read this book? What readers would it appeal too?

(GH)  Anyone! I think from YA readers to contemporary readers, those who like humour to those who appreciate reading about humanity would enjoy this book. If you don't think you would - why not break the rules and give it a try!

(JJ) The Humans would appeal to anyone from eight upwards. I also think more disaffected readers would enjoy this. It isn't preachy, it breaks a few taboos, it's funny and it's accessible. I'd give it to anyone, confident they'd come away from it with a smile on their face.

(CT) If you’ve enjoyed books like André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs that use a non-human perspective to make us think about what it means to be human, then this is for you. And if you haven’t read anything like that before, then this is a damn good place to start.

(LP) Anyone with an open mind, willing to look at themselves, and hummankind, realistically.









Friday, 16 June 2017

Post Launch Showcase: JD Smith, The Rebel Queen

What is it?

The Rebel Queen is the fourth book in the Overlord series, chronicling the life of the 3rd century Queen of Palmyra, Zenobia.


Who will enjoy it?

Fans of Bernard Cornwell, Michelle Moran and Maurice Druon. The Overlord series has also be likened to a 'real life Game of Thrones'.


When and where is it set?
The main action is based in Roman Syria at a time when the Empire was close to collapse. The Palmyrene army was the only thing standing in the face of Persian invasion.


Where should I read it?

By the fireside with a glass of smooth red.


Why should I read the fourth in the series first?

Although they do flow in a chronological timeline, you can read the books in any order, each one with its own beginning, middle and end.


How will I feel at the end?

Probably sad. This volume is effectively the beginning of the end. After all, by the time you've finished this book you'll be 2/3rds of the way to finishing Zenobia's tale.


Extract from The Rebel Queen


Beside me, Zenobia parried and sliced with the rest of us. I saw now how hard she had trained in the years of peace. I knew her to practice with the men, I spent hours with her myself going over and over the best positions to attack and defend, but never before had I seen the bloodthirst take hold and watch her face a true enemy in battle instead of our training arena. The muscles on her arms gleamed with sweat, her face hard in concentration, and she wielded her sword as well as any man. She had been in battle before, but this was the first time I witnessed her clash, one on one with the enemy, instead of standing back from the front line, her position a political one, a child in her belly and no wish to risk the life of an unborn heir to Palmyra’s thrown.

Something had changed.

Her position was still a political one, I acknowledged as I parried again and again, watching over Zenobia as much as myself. She fought with the men because she claimed to be one of them. They exulted in seeing her in their lines, unafraid of death. An equal. She had the strength of youth but also the muscle only age rather than training can build. Twenty-five years old and there was no stopping her.

She killed.

I saw it out of the corner of my eye, the slice that shed a man of his life, ripping through muscle and cracking against bone.


Order your copy here


To the world of all things design and literary I'm JD Smith, to everyone else I'm just plain Jane. I'd like to think I'm not too plain - I love books and stories after all.

I am the author of several historical fiction novels, a member of the Triskele Books collective, editor of the writers' ezine Words with JAM, and the readers' review site Bookmuse.

I am also an award-winning book cover designer. I love books, both the physical and the words contained within. I'd like to think it was no surprise that I ended up immersing myself in the world of book design rather than marketing materials for corporate companies, but in many ways it was.

My office door is always open if you wish to join me for a cup of tea.

I love cake. Just in case you were wondering.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Highlights from the Launch Party


On Saturday 3 June, Triskele Books returned to The English Restaurant in Spitalfields for our third book launch at this venue. This time, we brought some friends.

L-R: Catriona Troth, JD Smith, Gillian Hamer, JJ Marsh, Jessica Bell, Alison Morton

The celebrations were for six books: Sacred Lake by Gillian Hamer, Bad Apples by JJ Marsh, The Silent Kookaburra by Liza Perrat and The Rebel Queen by JD Smith (Triskele Books) with Dear Reflection by Jessica Bell and Retalio by Alison Morton, two of our favourite friends and ALLies.


Readings, interviews, photographs, chats, fizz and food, it was all a good book launch should be and we want to do it all over again. Here are a few shots of the event:
The guests

The authors

The party

Guests were challenged to match the ideal accompaniments to each book. How would you do?
  • Ice cold Gin & Tonic with a twist of lime service with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sorbet.
  • Ale, red wine and ginger cake sat around a fire pit on a summer's night.
  • A Virgin Mary, while listening to PJ Harvey in a cafe in Santorini.
  • Wiener Schnitzel followed by strong coffee with French brandy, to the sounds of Bach's Toccata.
  • Grilled sardines, coffee with a shot of aguardente and the theme from La Lettre. 

  • Retalio
  • Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel
  • Sacred Lake
  • The Rebel Queen
  • Bad Apples

The Winner - Roz Morris with prize and goody bag

And we finally got to meet our Big 5 Competition winner in person! Sophie Wellstood came along to celebrate with us. If all goes to plan, she'll soon be having a launch party of her own.

Triskele Books with Sophie Wellstood

Thank you to all our guests for coming along to support us and roll on next time!

Photos courtesy of Erika Bach, Jane Davis, Ellen Durkin and Roz Morris