“Kismet” by Luke Tredget (2018)

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“The bus to Kilburn is a long time coming, and while waiting Anna looks back and forth between two versions of the Edgware Road, the real and the digital.”

As the chronically single member of my friendship group, I’m the only one who has much experience with dating apps. Most of the people I know seemed to get in just in time and settled down before they could download. I’m not particularly a fan though, as it’s often difficult to maintain a conversation with someone when there’s no need to reply immediately and you can project whatever version of yourself on there you like. There’s no denying, however, that they have changed the dating landscape forever, and some people seem to become obsessed with them. Luke Tredget’s book, therefore, is very timely.

Anna is having a bit of a crisis. While her career is going from strength-to-strength, and she’s got a great boyfriend in Pete, her thirtieth birthday is inching ever closer, and she begins to doubt whether she’s really got what she wanted. Intrigued, she downloads Kismet, a dating app that matches you to people nearby, but to her dismay she finds that the app has been so successful in the last few years that there are barely any single people left. That is, until she meets Geoff. He’s quite a bit older than her and, while handsome, she wouldn’t normally consider him dating material, but Kismet has given them a match of 81, which is extraordinarily high.

She starts to question everything, not least her relationship with Pete which Kismet rates at 70. Surely if there’s an option to do better, she should take it? She’s become all the more nervous because she’s accidentally discovered that Pete is going to propose after her birthday dinner and she isn’t sure she’s ready for that yet. As she looks at her life and all the things she’s yet to do, the stability of everything crumbles around her, all for the sake of a simple number on a screen.

The cover quote says that this is the book equivalent of Fleabag, which is true in that it’s about a not particularly likeable woman showing agency regarding her sex life, but I would say otherwise that it’s not quite the same thing. It is, however, a hugely important book for the zeitgeist. We are so used to algorithms now telling us what we should like, do and be, that even when it comes to love we’re happy to pass over responsibility to an artificial intelligence that thinks we’re compatible with someone just because we’ve watched the same TV show. You only need to spend five minutes on a dating app to know that these numbers are mostly meaningless. For example, I just checked my rarely-used OK Cupid profile and have a 91% match with a girl, but the entirety of her profile is a single “I’ll fill this in later” and it seems to therefore be based on the fact we both think Paris is more romantic than a camping holiday, and an aversion to horror movies. Hardly enough to make me drop everything and run off to find her.

The book is a romance, but not many of the old cliches are in evidence, which is nice. Rather than being desperate to settle down with her partner, Anna is scared by the commitment of marriage, and the mistakes she makes with her job are not part of her “ditzy but charming personality”, but rather quite serious and have actual consequences. While superficially, she and Geoff are a good match, Tredget does a good job at dismantling the notion that we are better off with someone just because it’s better on paper. It doesn’t account for everything, as there are some things that even Amazon and Facebook don’t know for sure about us. Kismet is shown as a particularly advanced app, but with a lot of secrecy embedded into its functionality, and it works on a whole other level to Tinder and its kin, suggesting this is a slightly altered version of our world where technology has developed a little faster. The app is spooky, but the world seems obsessed by it, as Anna is frequently seeing news stories and adverts for it, implying it is a hugely influential piece of tech.

I enjoyed the book because it toys with that notion of finding “the one” and how we’re all imperfect people trying to find perfection. Tinder only works because you can swipe left with few consequences, as another face will be along in the blink of an eye. How many people have you rejected on dating apps that you’d probably actually have quite a good time with? Kismet makes the reader face up to the idea of being happy with what you’ve got, rather than constantly striving for something that you think will be better, regardless of whether or not it actually is.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“The Last Romeo” by Justin Myers (2018)

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“I felt disoriented, and a bit peaky.”

The vast majority of my friends are coupled up, co-habiting and/or married now, so as one of the few singletons they know, any movements in my (by choice non-existent) love life are keenly dissected. They are amused by things like Tinder, having never had to use it, and freely admit that if they were suddenly single again, they’d have no idea how to meet someone new. The dating scene has changed rapidly in the last few years. Internet dating became the norm, and then apps took over again. We swipe and decide it doesn’t matter if we reject that face, because here come fifty more. You’d think we’d all be bored of it all by now, but no, people want to keep talking about love and dating like it’s shameful to want to be single.

Celebrity journalist James is thirty-four and his six-year relationship with the gym worshipping Adam has just ended. He moves into a new flat and nurses his pride, not helped by the fact he hates his job and his best friend has just announced she’s off to Russia for a new job. Before she leaves, however, she encourages him to get back on the dating scene, which he does, recording the details of all the dates in an anonymous blog, One More Romeo.

As James meets a plethora of attractive, strange or just inappropriate men, the blog begins to gain traction and he’s soon got a small but devoted following and a chance to write a column for a big magazine. Naturally, it all goes tits up when he tells his followers about his night with a closeted Olympian and the post goes viral. Now finding himself in the middle of a social media shit storm, James begins to wonder if he can ever get back his old life and undo the damage…

This is one of those books where the main character just lacks something. He seems almost too good to be true, constantly described by others as nice and handsome and kind, but a lot of the things that prove it take place off the page, so it’s very much a catalogue of informed traits. What we see of him is quite shallow, vain, desperate and nasty. He doesn’t think about what he’s doing and becomes entirely selfish. He gets worse from there on in, arguing with his Olympian beau about why he should come out and not listening to the other side, and neglecting his godsons and friends to the point of injury and forgetting birthdays. Although the main premise is about him being two characters, it seems a bit too literal at times. His personality jars and the two halves don’t quite fit together. It’s perhaps an idealised version of what the author wishes his life was like. The secondary characters have a bit of fun to themselves, but no real agency, most of them existing solely for James to bounce his dialogue off.

Generally though, I wasn’t entirely put off by it. The jokes are thick and fast and Myers has an astounding way with metaphor and analogy that I’m actually a bit jealous of. His descriptions of people are witty and they usually feel solid enough, even if their personality lacks. There are also a couple of moments where he so accurately nails what it’s like to be single in today’s society – such as feeling like you’re always intruding on other people’s times – that my heart hurt. It also has some interesting stuff to say about coming out, and in general with how we identify. It is, really, a book about who we are and the face we choose to show the world. Anonymity may have some benefits, but there are drawbacks too. The same is shown to be true of fame. The Internet has allowed us to throw even more masks on, hiding behind cartoon avatars, Instagram filters and witty bios.

Although I’m sure some people would argue it does nothing to work against stereotypes that pervade regarding gay men, in general it’s not a bad book. I think its heart is in the right place, even if James’s isn’t, and there are some decent lessons to be learnt here if you choose to acknowledge them.

“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.