“13 Dates” by Matt Dunn (2017)

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“I fall in love with Angel the moment I see her.”

Romantic fiction has long been considered the realm of women, with people like Helen Fielding and Sophie Kinsella dominating the field. However, there are a good number of men doing their best to prop up the genre with novels from the points of view of the male characters, and often with great aplomb. Mike Gayle might be the best of the bunch, but Matt Dunn also does a good job, and I return to him again this week.

Noah Wilson has just met Angel Fallon in his local Starbucks and instantly fallen in love with her red hair, wry smile, and love of spontaneity. Unfortunately, in meeting her, he’s now found himself late for a blind date. He decides he doesn’t care and desperately wants to see Angel again, but can’t seem to track her down anywhere in Richmond. His friend Marlon helps him seek her out, with the advice that it takes thirteen dates to realise if you love someone. If Noah can just get those next twelve dates, then his future is secured – right?

The journey to true love never did run smooth though, and while Noah does manage to find Angel again, before he can confirm whether the two of them are destined for one another, they’ve first got to combat horses, jellied eels, a rock climbing instructor and more parkruns than are probably healthy. But will thirteen prove to be lucky for some?

At first, I was somewhat disappointed that it was simply a case of “awkward man meets manic pixie dream girl and she changes his life”, and while some of that is true about the story, it’s actually much more than that. Seemingly predictable, Dunn has a curious way of pulling the rug out from under you just as you think you’ve settled into the story, he changes tack and introduces something else. Some of them are somewhat cliched and contrived – but I’ve always been someone who quite likes a well-used cliche – but the story works as a whole. I can see how Angel would grate for some people though. As I mentioned above, she does fit the “manic pixie dream girl” type (and if you don’t know what that term means, think Zooey Deschanel in every film role she’s ever had) and even her name (Angel Fallon / fallen angel) feels a tad ridiculous. She’s not someone I would particularly care to meet, but then again I’m more like Noah in that I like to have a plan.

Despite my minor griping, I’ve got to fall down on the side of liking the book because it’s very funny. Dunn makes good use of awkward characters and situations, misunderstandings and people stuck in situations they really don’t want to be in. I particularly enjoy that every single person the main characters come up against who works in a public-facing role has already reached their daily quota of how much bullshit they’re willing to put up with from customers and clients, and as someone who has worked in customer services for a decade, it’s a position I strongly sympathise with. Another great line is when Noah’s elderly landlady is trying to think of the word Dignitas, she asks Noah for the name of that place where all the old people go, and he responds, “Eastbourne?” Even the minor characters get some good lines here, and the world feels richly populated somehow, even though we only meet a very few of the people in either Noah or Angel’s circles.

An interesting and funny take on the road to love. I remain convinced that Matt Dunn is a sharp talent and always worth your time.

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“The Man I Think I Know” by Mike Gayle (2018)

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“You’re stopping my dole money?”

Mike Gayle has long been one of my favourite writers. With a tone that always sounds like he’s just telling you a story over a pint, and a sharp turn of phrase, his books are lined up for a re-read sometime soon, as only a couple of them are on the blog so far, which means it’s been a long time since I read his earlier books, and I think they’re all worth talking about. Let’s focus today, however, on his newest book, The Man I Think I Know.

Danny and James haven’t seen each other for many years – not since their time together at one of Britain’s most prestigious boarding schools. Every student who attends ends up curing a disease, serving in government, making big headlines, or generally just being a complete success in whatever field they chose. And yet our heroes are entirely at odds with this. Danny has just had his dole money cut off after failing to find work yet again, and James has had to move back home with his parents after The Incident that changed his whole way of life.

When James’s parents go on a much needed holiday, James is booked into a care centre for the duration, where he meets Danny who now works as a carer. Trouble is, when he introduces himself, Danny says he doesn’t recognise him. This is a lie. The two men form a strange bond. In James, Danny finds someone who doesn’t think he’s a hopeless waste of space. In Danny, James finds someone who treats him like the man he used to be before The Incident, and not as a fragile patient. Desperate to get out from his parents’ home, James offers Danny the chance to move in with as his live-in carer. What happens next will change both of their lives for the better.

In my experience, media focuses far more on romantic relationships than any other, with family coming second, and platonic friendships a long way down the list. Even rarer are stories about male friendship. Mike Gayle is one of the few writers who has tapped into this market and writes brilliant stories about men growing up and trying to maintain friendships. This is perhaps his most tender, with the relationship between James and Danny front and centre of the story. They are both single thirty-somethings who have been dealt an unfair hand by life, although in very different ways.

Gayle sympathetically writes about ABIs (acquired brain injuries), which is what James is now suffering from, and it’s clear he’s done his research into this world. In the chapters narrated by James, it is clear from his way of speaking that The Incident had a profound affect on him, and while we aren’t treated to any scenes of him before his ABI, indications of who he was do slip through. James is a great figure as he also destroys the harmful stereotypes some people have about those with mental illness. As James reminds us throughout, people treat him differently because he has difficulty walking and talking, but inside he is still intelligent, ambitious, and capable of telling jokes. This is an important thing to never lose sight of in the real world, as too often we judge on appearances. Danny is also very compelling. Perhaps at first it’s easy to write him off as someone unworthy of our sympathy as most of his problems seem to have been caused by his own failings, but as the story unfolds, we learn the tragedy at the heart of his existence and cheer him on as he picks himself up and finds some direction in life.

Gayle’s usual warmth, wit and charm are all present in this book and I’m far from the first to heap praise on it this year, but I’m more than happy to add my name to the list of fans. A very engaging read.

“Turning Forty” by Mike Gayle (2013)

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Life begins?

Life begins?

“Wiping my hand against the steamed-up window of the taxi I press my nose against the cold glass to get a better look at the worn but sturdy façade of my destination.”

Despite still occasionally getting asked for ID in Waitrose when stocking up on alcohol, I am actually a mere fortnight away from being twenty-eight-years-old. As such, a book titled Turning Forty may seem to have little between its covers that could interest me. As it is, it’s written by Mike Gayle, one of the favourite writers, and is the sequel to his book I read probably about ten years ago, Turning Thirty. Despite being a follow up, with the same characters ten years on, it doesn’t seem necessary to have to remember the first book, as I can recall very few specific details about it, just that I liked it.

Turning Forty is the tale of Matt Beckford, a thirty-nine-year-old IT industry professional who appears to have it all – wonderful wife, high-flying job that takes him around the world, and he’s just bought himself a shed. Frankly, he’s made it. But then his world comes crashing down around him, and a combination of a breakdown from the stress of his job, and the final acceptance from both himself and his wife Lauren that they don’t love each other anymore, sees him now facing his fortieth birthday divorced, broke and unemployed. With nothing else for it, he returns to his family home in Birmingham where his parents are happy to see him but concerned. Matt, however, has come up with an insane plan – he’s going to find his old on-off girlfriend Ginny and get back with her.

Fate, however, intervenes. He does indeed find Ginny again, and despite rumours of marriage, she’s still single. They embark on a whirlwind romance and book tickets to travel the globe, as they should’ve done when they were young, but she very quickly calls time on the budding relationship. Broken once more, Matt starts to wonder if his life will ever get any better.

The book, from what I remember, mimics the plot of Turning Thirty, where Matt returns home just before his thirtieth birthday to find his old friends and, as this time, rekindle things with Ginny. As you can guess from this, it’s a story about the past, about letting go and moving on, and about how one cannot stay in a rut forever. Time keeps passing, whether you like it or not, and it doesn’t always produce developments that you’re keen on.

Fundamentally, Matt is a decent character, but doesn’t always act on the best impulses. He is overly concerned about his age, and spends much of the novel comparing himself to people he knew from school and what they’re doing with their lives now. Most of them are introduced with their school superlative and then their current lifestyle, if only to further showcase how many people lose sight of their dreams and end up with a life that they didn’t particularly want. Although I don’t know what it’s like to be forty, many of the characters here are in their twenties, and the way they are portrayed, and especially their reactions to a deadbeat forty-year-old, strike a chord. I’m not so fond on Ginny as a character, but that may just be because we see her from Matt’s eyes. She isn’t painted as evil, and Gayle, as usual, does wonders with three-dimensionality, bringing to life characters who are fully-rounded, full of flaws and complications, the number of which only increase with age.

Gayle’s writing is warm and I always get the feeling that you’re hearing the story in a pub over a pint, just chatting with a mate. Some readers, including myself, may note the surprising number of coincidences that pepper the story, but they can be forgiven because none of them lead to anything good. If a story must have a coincidence in it, then it must lead to bad things, an idea I played with a little in my novel. It ends on a bittersweet note, and with an emphasis on the importance of family, something that seems to recur often in Gayle’s work. Although Matt may be falling apart, there’s no doubt that Mike Gayle is simply getting better with age.

“Seeing Other People” by Mike Gayle (2014)

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seeingotherpeople“A loud noise.”

And so we begin the year by revisiting one of my favourite authors. I’ve only actually reviewed Mike Gayle on here once before, but with the completion of this I’ve now read all but one of his books (Turning Forty is still absent from my ‘completed’ list). His books are the equivalent of a pint and a packet of peanuts down the local with your mates – comfortable, fun and good for a laugh – but they all have a harder edge too, dealing with the harsh realities of life that never goes the way we want it to.

Seeing Other People begins with journalist Joe Clarke waking up in a bed that definitely does not belong to him with a woman who is definitely not his wife. Unfortantely for him, he can’t remember anything about how he got there. The last thing he remembers is that he was on his way home and an intern at his office, Bella, was texting him, asking him to meet her. And apparently he did, and it’s now the morning after the night before and it appears he cheated on his wife, Penny.

He skips around the truth for a few months and vows to be a better husband and father than ever before, saying that it was just one night. But then his ex-girlfriend Fiona appears, over-perfumed and as antagonistic as ever before. She tells him that he didn’t cheat after all, but that isn’t the most alarming thing about this: it’s that Fiona is dead. And if she’s dead, why can Joe see her? Joe begins to wonder if he’s having a breakdown and he must decide whether to admit all to Penny or let it go.

Gayle writes with such a casual style that it just flows easily and you get caught up in the drama. He is a master of telling stories that show you don’t need robots, aliens, werewolves or magic to make a story great – you can do it with a simple domestic incident. His characters have always been interesting, fully rounded and just as prone to making mistakes as you or me. Gayle really gets into the mindset of his characters and is very skilled at writing relationships, exploring how they grow from strength to strength or wither if not given enough attention. There’s a romance here, certainly, but it is also excellent to see him tackle male friendships, a subject that there often seems to be a lack of. It’s nice to see blokey sorts sitting around and discussing their problems. I think it’s seen more as a female thing to do, but men do it just as much.

The supernatural elements of the novel are more the B-story and far from dominate the page. This is a good thing. If memory serves, this is the first of his books to introduce a plot point like this, but it’s been years since I read his earlier stuff so I can’t be sure. (I’m thinking now that I might have to re-read all of his back catalogue once I’m done with Coupland and Rowling…) Fiona isn’t a particularly nice character, but nonetheless she retains a frightening believability. Joe is someone that you’d happily go for a curry with, which I think is standard in Gayle’s work. His main characters are all flawed but tend to be genuinely nice people, as I think most people are, in reality.

Probably not my absolute favourite of his books (I still think that’s Brand New Friend) but definitely in the top three and an excellent way to start the new year.

If, however, you do fancy something with magic and mystery in it, please download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, and help keep me in wine for another year!

“What Not To Do And How To Do It” by Danny Wallace (2011)

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For anyone who has ever felt awkward. Ever.

For anyone who has ever felt awkward. Ever.

“‘Well,’ I say, trying to make it sound like an important word, an historic word.”

Everyone has that list of historical or famous people in their head that they’d love to go to the pub with and discuss the ins and outs of the world over a couple of drinks. Mine, for example, includes Agatha Christie, J K Rowling, Stephen Fry, P T Barnum and, in a category of his own, Danny Wallace.

Wallace is one of those people who is incredibly prolific, but most people still seem unaware of who he is. He’s presented a few TV shows, turns up on panel games occasionally, voices a character in the Assassin’s Creed games, but is probably most famous for his books. He is the former flatmate of Dave Gorman, a man well known for ridiculous challenges, like travelling the world to find people who shared his name, or living his life by horoscopes. This rubbed off on Wallace, who has since formed a cult simply by asking people to join him, or spending six months answering “yes” to every question he was asked.

This one, however, is simply about the awkwardness that he faces in day-to-day life. He did this once before in Awkward Situations For Men, and this is the sequel, because things haven’t stopped being awkward. Here, he’s just had a baby and that adds to further embarrassment and confusion about how to behave. The book centres around the notion of unspoken rules about the world, and what happens when people break them. For example, how are you supposed to react when someone sits next to you on a park bench, even though all other benches are unoccupied? Or what’s the protocol for when you and a stranger fall into step with one another in the street? And how many times can you ask someone to repeat something you haven’t heard before you have to reply? (Three.)

Wallace writes in a style that makes it feel like you’re just sat in the pub (much as I said I desired in my previous fantasy). He has a middle-class innocence about him, a sweetness and a desperation to make sure he doesn’t accidentally insult someone or appear racist or unfriendly. Whether he’s being made to feel bad about his lack of masculinity by a fox, or hoping people don’t think he’s incapable of pressing a lift button, Wallace tells it like it is and struggles with his Britishness to survive the horrible awkwardness of every sitation.

The title may announce that these are awkward situations for men, but they apply equally to both genders so if you’ve ever felt a bit awkward and not really known what to do (and, let’s be honest, you’ve probably felt that way at least twice today already), this book will help you realise that you are not alone.

“The Stag and Hen Weekend” by Mike Gayle (2012)

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stag hen

Confuses the hell out of people sat opposite you on the Tube.

“Shouldn’t you be packing?”

Stag and hen weekends have become bigger and bigger over time. They used to just be an excuse to get hammered at the pub, and now they’re whole weekends in spas, foreign cities, paintball ranges or water parks. This book is about two very big ones, and should my stag do be only a quarter as eventful as these ones, it might still be good much.

This is actually two books in one. Two hundred pages cover the events of the stag weekend, and then you flip the book over and read from the other side for another two hundred pages of the hen weekend. Or, read the hen weekend first and then go for the stags. I don’t know if it makes too much difference. I read stag-then-hen, which seemed to make most sense to me, but going the other way would probably be fine – either way you won’t understand things in the other until later.

So, this is the story of engaged couple Phil and Helen. He owns an electronics store, she is a successful local DJ and they appear to be blissfully in love. But here, a week before their marriage and spending time with their friends, the cracks are beginning to show. It doesn’t help that things have turned sour between their best friends, married couple Simon and Yaz, and that Phil’s hateful sister Caitlin is going on the hen weekend, or that Phil’s estranged dad has crashed the stag weekend.

I’ve read all of Mike Gayle’s work now, and I am a fan of his. In many respects, I see quite a lot of him in my own writing. Perhaps I’ve borrowed a style from him. It’s not exactly the same, but occasionally our phrasing overlaps. He’s just got more talent than me. I can’t pretend that this is the best of his work (I think that’s Brand New Friend) but it is enjoyable and the concept is unique and engaging. The main characters are perhaps not particularly likeable – rash, fairly selfish and plagued by insecurity – but the suspense left at the end of the novel is really rather palpable.

It’s a novel about doing the wrong things and saying the right things. And it’s sometimes pleasing to see that even when you’re in your late thirties, you still don’t really know a thing about life.