Shelf Control #150: Echo Boy by Matt Haig

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Echo Boy
Author: Matt Haig
Published: 2014
Length: 400 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Audrey’s father taught her that to stay human in the modern world, she had to build a moat around herself; a moat of books and music, philosophy and dreams. A moat that makes Audrey different from the echoes: sophisticated, emotionless machines, built to resemble humans and to work for human masters. Daniel is an echo – but he’s not like the others. He feels a connection with Audrey; a feeling Daniel knows he was never designed to have, and cannot explain. And when Audrey is placed in terrible danger, he’s determined to save her. Echo Boyis a powerful story about love, loss and what makes us truly human.

How and when I got it:

I bought it a couple of years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I’ve read a few of Matt Haig’s books by now, and just love his writing. This is a YA book, as far as I can tell, and I’ve only read his adult books, but the premise sounds really good, so count me in!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Book Review: The Humans

Book Review: The Humans by Matt Haig

The HumansThe Humans is full of such wonderful writing that I almost turned into one of THOSE people. You know the ones I mean. The super-annoying ones who interrupt you every five minutes to read you yet another quote from the book they claim is totally fabulous. Awful, right? Yet in this case, I would have been perfectly justified. The Humans is, in fact, fabulous — and absolutely loaded with quote-worthy lines and passages that practically beg to be read out loud to whatever audience is available.

What’s it about? In a nutshell, The Humans is the story of an alien from a world far, far away… and light-years ahead of Earth in terms of understanding technology. When an Earthling mathematician named Andrew Martin makes a startling breakthrough that could, unbeknownst to him, completely change life for humans in ways detrimental to the rest of sentient life in the universe, the Vonnadorians decide he must be stopped.

An alien impersonator is sent to assume the life of Andrew Martin, figure out how much damage has been done, and then wipe out all evidence of his progress — which means eliminating not just computer files and notes, but also his wife, son, best friend, and anyone else who may have learned of Martin’s leap forward.

Faux-Andrew (he doesn’t actually have a name) shows up in Cambridge naked as a jaybird and has but minutes to adapt to life on Earth. Almost inevitably, he ends up in a psychiatric ward diagnosed with a mental breakdown, then is sent home to recover. And it is here that complications arise. The real Andrew Martin was kind of a jerk: completely absorbed in his work, completely neglectful of his vulnerable teen-aged son Gulliver and his lovely but ignored wife Isobel. But faux-Andrew, in his quest to complete his mission, actually pays attention to the people around him as he tries to ferret out what they know and what real-Andrew has told them… and the results are interesting, touching, and not at all what the alien visitor expects.

The Humans shows us what we Earthlings look like from an outsider’s perspective, and it’s not terribly flattering, especially at first. To be frank, humans are kind of disgusting:

I was repulsed, terrified. I had never seen anything like this man. The face seemed so alien, full of unfathomable openings and protrusions. The nose, in particular, bothered me. It seemed to my innocent eyes as if there was something else inside him, pushing through.

More than appearances, it’s the humans’ behavior that confounds the alien. The emotions, the beliefs in consumerism, religion, the micro-focus on their own small worlds and concerns while ignoring the greater events of the universe — all of this is completely bewildering and leads the alien to consider humans to be devoid of any sense of values:

The news was prioritized in a way I could not understand. For instance, there was nothing on new mathematical observations or still-undiscovered polygons, but quite a bit about politics, which on this planet was essentially all about war and money. Indeed, war and money seemed to be so popular on the news, it should more accurately have been titled The War and Money Show.

However, as he spends time among humans, things start to change. Faux-Andrew starts to feel, and has to reconsider whether a world such as his own — without pain, without change, without death, and without flaw — is really the best life has to offer. When faux-Andrew starts to feel pain, he also starts to feel love, and to realize that pleasant and easy are not substitutes for the things in life that have to be fought for — like relationships with people who matter, who hurt and who can cause hurt, and for whom he’d be willing to sacrifice his own well-being if that’s what it takes to protect them.

Ultimately, as faux-Andrew learns more and more about the people of this planet, The Humans become a meditation on what it means to be human. It’s quite lovely, actually. As voiced by a true alien, the homilies and lessons learned come across as real discoveries, not just a recitation of truisms or wisdom for the ages à la Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Even in a chapter that consists of a numbered list of faux-Andrew’s pointers to Gulliver, entitled “Advice for a Human”, the words of wisdom avoid being treacly. Instead, the advice is concise, real, bittersweet, and often funny, and sum up a view of humans that we lack the distance and perspective to see for ourselves.  Some of my favorites:

6. Be curious. Question everything. A present fact is just a future fiction.

25. There is only one genre in fiction. The genre is called “book”.

33. You are not the most intelligent creature in the universe. You are not even the most intelligent creature on your planet. The tonal language in the song of the humpback whale displays more complexity than the entire works of Shakespeare. It is not a competition. Well, it is. But don’t worry about it.

37. Don’t always try to be cool. The whole universe is cool. It’s the warm bits that matter.

47. A cow is a cow even if you call it beef.

75. Politeness is often fear. Kindness is always courage. But caring is what makes you human. Care more, become more human.

I could go on and on… see what I mean about how quote-worthy this book is? I honestly can’t stop marking pages and lines that I think are just wonderful.

So maybe that’s where I should leave this review: by saying that The Humans is a wonderful book. The writing is an amazing balance of clever, funny, and a straight-to-the-heart emotional punch. The plot is smart and creative, and our first-person narrator, the unnamed alien, is more human than most actual humans by the end of the story.

The Humans is the third book I’ve read by Matt Haig, having previously read the vampires-in-suburbia novel The Radleys and the Hamlet retelling The Dead Fathers Club (my review is here). I’ve loved all three; at this point, I can safely say that I’ll be reading more by Matt Haig — much more, I hope.

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The details:

Title: The Humans
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Book 🙂
Source: Library book

Thursday Quotables: The Humans

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Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

If you’d like to participate, it’s really simple:

  • Follow Bookshelf Fantasies, if you please!
  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now.
  • Comment on this post with the link to your own Thursday Quotables post.
  • Make sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com).
  • Or… have a quote to share but not a blog post? Leave your quote in the comments!
  • Have fun!

This week’s Thursday Quotable:

I know that some of you reading this are convinced humans are a myth, but I am here to state that they do actually exist.

And a bit further on:

Magazines are very popular, despite no human’s ever feeling better for having read them. Indeed their chief purpose is to generate a sense of inferiority in the reader that consequently leads to a feeling of needing to buy something, which the humans then do, and then feel even worse, and so need to buy another magazine to see what they can buy next.

Source:  The Humans
Author: Matt Haig
Simon & Schuster, 2013

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

Link up or share your quote of the week in the comments.

The Monday Agenda 8/19/2013

MondayAgendaNot a lofty, ambitious to-be-read list consisting of 100+ book titles. Just a simple plan for the upcoming week — what I’m reading now, what I plan to read next, and what I’m hoping to squeeze in among the nooks and crannies.

How did I do with last week’s agenda?

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The HumansTrash Can Days: A Middle School Saga

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling): Done! My review is here.

The Humans by Matt Haig: About 100 pages into it so far, and loving every moment.

Trash Can Days by Teddy Steinkellner: Done! This one was almost a DNF; however, I did end up finishing it and wrote up my thoughts here.

The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis: About 2/3 of the way through. The end is in sight!

Fresh Catch:

No NEW new books this week, although I did finally get my hands on a copy of Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. I read it in the spring as a library book, loved it, and have been looking for a copy ever since. I ended up getting the UK paperback version, which looks like this;

Eleanor & Park

Plus, I have a trip to plan, so I picked this up while I was at the library:

Fodor's Alaska 2013

Exciting!

What’s on my reading agenda for the coming week?

The HumansThe ReturnedLetters from Skye: A Novel

The Humans is so good! If I have time to sit and read — without interruptions — I shouldn’t have any problems finishing this up in the next day or so.

I have a review copy of The Returned by Jason Mott that I’m eager to get to. So far, I’ve heard good things!

And — just got an email from the library saying the copy of Letters from Skye that I’d requested is now available.

My son and I should be close to the end of The Silver Chair this week. Onward for the glory of Narnia!

So many book, so little time…

That’s my agenda. What’s yours? Add your comments to share your bookish agenda for the week.

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Book Review: The Dead Fathers Club

Book Review: The Dead Fathers Club by Matt Haig

The Dead Fathers ClubTake one devoted son, add in a recently deceased father, ghostly visitations, a suspiciously helpful uncle, and a vulnerable mother, and what do you get? In the case of The Dead Fathers Club, the answer is a modern-day Hamlet retelling that is hip, smart, and moving.

11-year-old Philip Noble’s dad was the owner of the Castle and Falcon pub (he wears a “King of the Castle” T-shirt) until his sudden and tragic death in a car accident. Philip’s poor mother is left to deal with the family business and its shaky finances, until garage-owner Uncle Alan (with perpetually black-stained fingers) steps in to save the pub and woo Philip’s mother, much to the poor boy’s chagrin. Making things worse is the appearance of dad’s ghost, who informs Philip that a) he’s been murdered, b) Uncle Alan is the murderer, c) the only way for dad to rest in peace is for his murder to be avenged, and d) Philip is the one who has to make sure it happens. Nothing like a little pressure on an already barely-holding-on kid.

Philip struggles to figure out what to do, but there are no easy answers. His kind-of girlfriend Leah tries to help, as does her brother Dane, but Philip’s plans invariably go awry, ultimately with tragic consequences. Meanwhile, his dad’s ghost begs him for justice, and his mom is desperate for Philip to be normal, move on, and try to be nicer to Uncle Alan, who — as it turns out — will be around quite a bit once they get married.

From the very first pages, in the opening chapter entitled “The First Time I Saw Dad After He Died”, you can just tell that you’re in for quite a ride. The writing is clever without being overly cutesy; the Hamlet references are certainly present, but the story stands on its own as well.

The Dead Fathers Club is written in the first person and told from Philip’s perspective. Philip’s voice is quite distinctive; his narration flows with little or no punctuation*, and he free associates in a way that’s almost poetic. His fears and obsessions seem realistic for an 11-year-old, and the sense of being out of control is conveyed through Philip’s every action and observation.

*Quick note on the punctuation in The Dead Fathers Club: I was quite amused to come across this post (“30 Things To Tell A Grammar Snob”) by Matt Haig, literally on the day I started reading this book. Check out #9 — I assume that this is book he’s referring to.

As a fan of Hamlet, I couldn’t help but be amused by the shout-outs, small and large, to the source material — even little details have meaning, such as Philip’s pet fish being named Gertrude. Likewise, I did a double-take when I got to this passage, once I realized, “oh wait, this is the To Be or Not To Be soliloquy!”:

My heart was doing its funny beating with no stops in it and I thought why am I me why am I not Mum why am I not the ticking clock why am I not a fish why am I not a loaf of bread why am I alive and most people are dead how do I know Im me how do I know Im alive and I thought it must be good to be dead not dead like Dads dead but to be nothing like when you sleep but then I thought it might be a bad sleep with lots of nightmares like the one I had last night when I was trapped in the black box and then my hand started shaking and I was scared why my hand was shaking and I thought I was going to die and I said Mum! Mum! Mum!

The Dead Fathers Club is a quick and engaging read. It’s touching, it’s quirky, and despite telling a well-known story, manages to pack in a few big surprises. The course of this novel does not run exactly as you’d expect, and that’s a good thing. Never predictable, but always a pleasure to read — I recommend The Dead Fathers Club for anyone who enjoys a classic story turned upside-down.

And a further footnote: Matt Haig is the author of the excellent vampires-in-the-suburbs novel The Radleys, and his new novel, The Humans, is due out in July. Can’t wait!