“His ‘N’ Hers” by Mike Gayle (2004)

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“With a remote control in one hand and a Budweiser in the other, I’m slouched on the sofa in front of my widescreen TV and The Matrix on DVD.”

Imagine that you’re in the pub with your best mate telling you a story, a table full of pints and peanuts in front of you. At the same time imagine you’re in the most comfortable claw-footed bath in the world with a good wine in one hand and a great book in the other. Add to this the thought of being in the front row of a really great comedy gig. Top it off with watching a weepy romance film at the cinema. Got all that? Congratulations – you have just got some idea of what it’s like to read a Mike Gayle novel.

Jim and Alison seemed to have a great relationship, but it’s been four years since they broke up and moved on with their lives. When the cat that used to belong to them both but now lives with Alison dies, she is compelled to call Jim for the first time in years and let him know. Jim decides to go with her to the vet, and the two both begin to wonder where it all went wrong.

The timeline skips back to the two meeting at university for the first time, both young and heads full of dreams about being a rock star (him) and a famous author (her). Their relationship takes a while to get going, what with such interruptions as other boyfriends and unattainable girls, but soon they’re an unstoppable match, doing whatever it takes to keep them together. But as their relationship grows and changes, so do they, and sometimes things aren’t meant to be. In the present, they’re all but entirely different people. What if it isn’t all quite over just yet?

Immediately warm and inviting, Gayle has the narration switch between Jim and Alison, and is equally adept at playing the roles of male and female characters. They both feel nicely rounded out, and while the secondary characters never get a huge amount of space on the page, they are still welcome and feel real too. It is Jim and Alison that get most of the attention – quite rightly – and they are well-crafted and finely-honed characters, with flaws and issues, and prone to silly arguments that feel all too realistic. That’s the big thing here – they feel like people you’d know. Very little runs smoothly for them. Life, and love, is not a case of having everything work out perfectly, and here they do get to experience sadness and difficulty along with the good times.

Gayle is sharply funny and prone to some great observations about people and their circumstances. We feel for Jim as he loses his drive to be a rock star and instead settles down to be an accountant, and the quiet tragedy of Alison’s slightly obsessive ex-boyfriend is played straight and never dwelt upon too much – just enough to allow you to infer your own interpretation of Alison’s feelings on the subject. There’s a curious nuance here about how relationships work and how life never turns out quite like we expect.

Gayle is one of my favourite writers, hands down. I realised last year that I hadn’t read him for ages, so as well as starting all the Agatha Christie mysteries again this year, I’m also powering back through Gayle’s work, and that of Lisa Jewell, another favourite with a similar sense of humour and style. It’s been a long time since I read these earlier books of his, although I have kept up with his more recent output, and there is honestly nothing quite as comfortable as this. Reading his stuff again is like popping on your favourite slippers and dressing gown and settling in for the night.

I look forward to continuing the journey through this back catalogue.

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 check it out!

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“Me Being Me Is Exactly As Insane As You Being You” by Todd Hasak-Lowy (2015)

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“4 Conflicting Parts of Himself Darren Jacobs Attempts to Ignore as He Tries to Ask a Particular Eleventh-Grade Girl for a Really Big Favor on Friday, April 25, at 10:38 a.m.”

I’m one of those people who loves lists. I write lists for everything – books I’ve read, films I need to watch, things to buy, errands to run. I’m also one of those who adds things to lists just to cross them off to make myself look productive. Every list I write begins “Write list”, simply so I can cross that off immediately. However, I can’t say that it had ever crossed my mind to write a novel entirely in lists. It’s too late now anyway – Todd Hasak-Lowy has beaten me to it.

Darren Jacobs is your average, awkward fifteen-year-old living in Chicago. He’s had a terrible year, with his parents divorcing, his brother moving away to university, and his best friend leaving the state. He’s also still hopelessly single. Things reach a head when Darren learns that the reason for his parents divorce is that his father is gay. Unwilling to deal with the fallout, or put up with the long drive to Ann Arbor to visit his brother Nate with his dad, Darren instead approaches one of the cool girls at school, Zoey Lovell, and asks if she’ll give him a ride to the bus station so he can go alone.

It’s only when the bus stops along the route that Darren discovers Zoey came along too, and the two unlikely companions find themselves with Darren’s cool brother Nate exploring the drug-laden world of university. Darren isn’t sure if Zoey is now is girlfriend, or even if she wants to be, and when she disappears, he starts to wonder if any of it ever happened. That one daring weekend, however, will have consequences for everyone that make it clear it really unfolded…

Were it not for the unique style of this novel, I think I would have been far less generous in my thoughts about it. Without the structure of everything being written in lists, it’s your classic “awkward American teenager meets a manic pixie dream girl and joins a band” sort of thing, although not without charm. Zoey doesn’t interest me much as we’ve seen her type too many times before, but I am fond of the Jacobs family, particularly Nate, the older brother. Yes, he’s something of a cliche too, but I find him and his relationship with Darren particularly engaging. I can’t recall off the top of my head many stories that focus on sibling relationships – and even fewer on positive ones – so that makes a nice change.

The novel’s real charm, of course, comes from the unique trait of it being written solely in lists. They run the gamut of listing emotions, memories, dialogue and reasons for things happening to simply rings of a telephone, fingers, letters and items in a bag. One page simply has “5 Months That Have Passed” and listing them, rather than just saying “Five months passed…”, another lists “8 Best Things Darren Ever Built out of Legos, in Chronological Order”. In this style, we jump back and forth through the timeline and learn about Darren and his world in an interesting, if somewhat academic way. It’s very easy to read though, and while I’m not sure it would work for most genres or stories, it fits perfectly here. The lists themselves are not referenced until towards the end when there is a comment about whether the lists we give ourselves in life are good or bad, so even though the book is entirely lists, they never feel intrusive.

An intriguing take on story structure that saves and enhances a tale we’ve, admittedly, probably read before.

“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.