“Turning Thirty” by Mike Gayle (2000)

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“Here’s the thing: for a long time I, Matt Beckford, had been looking forward to turning thirty.”

In times of trouble, it is always nice to return to something comforting, be it a fish finger sandwich, a warm bath, or a Mike Gayle novel. I’ve spoken about him before a few times on here, but I’m slowly rereading them to get reviews of all his novels up on the blog and here is another, ironically the twenty-ninth book of the year.

Matt Beckford is looking forward to turning thirty. He’s got a great job in New York City, money in the bank, and a great girlfriend in Elaine. However, with barely six months to go before the big day, he and Elaine suddenly break up and he decides to take a job in the Sydney office to explore a new part of the world. But first, he’s heading home to Birmingham, to catch up with his parents, see his old friend Gershwin, and finally turn thirty.

When he arrives home, however, he also bumps into Ginny, who serves as his on-and-off girlfriend in his youth, and when they restart their friendship like no time has passed, he decides to seek out the others of the old group, hunting down geeky Pete, goth Bev, beautiful Katrina and clever Elliot. As his thirtieth birthday approaches and he learns that while some things can stay the same but others have to inevitably change, he wonders if maybe everything is as alright as he once thought it was.

Like all Mike Gayle’s books, this is instantly inviting. He has a compelling, natural style that makes the characters feel real. In a lesser writer’s hand, this world could be flat and lifeless, but the normality of the characters and their everyday world shines through and they become engaging. Matt seems a decent bloke, and his friends are all given enough personality and character for us to like them. I particularly enjoy that every person he meets that he knew in school gets a descriptor of who they were once and who they are now. They’re usually throwaway comments, but fun nonetheless. Some of these work out exactly as planned, such as a person who was most likely to rob a shop who is now doing time in prison for armed robbery, and some have gone entirely off book, such as the guy most likely to be a drug dealer, who is now a qualified dentist.

I suppose some people may have the complaint that there’s no real resolution on anything. It’s just a story of some things that happened with little lasting consequence, rather than having a particularly solid ending, but at the same time, Gayle eventually revisited these characters in Turning Forty, so there’s closure there. (If there’s a Turning Fifty to come, it can’t be far off now!) On the other hand, I quite like this. Not everything has to be endlessly dramatic; sometimes they can just be fun, and this certainly is. It’s a sweet, smart study into what it means to turn thirty (a milestone I hit two years ago with a not-inconsiderate bump).

However, it is also certainly a product of its time. That’s not a complaint because it’s clearly set at the time it was written, but it seems unfathomable to me now that life was like this. Published twenty years ago, it’s odd to imagine this is a time before social media and omnipresent mobile phones. I think I’ve mentioned this in earlier books of Gayle’s as well, and it gives them a certain charm, but not a timeless one. Even just a few years later, it became impossible to not know what everyone you went to school with was doing thanks to Facebook. As such, the effort Matt makes to reach out to his former friends is greater, and the things he discovers about them are more of a surprise, whereas if I just want to know what anyone I don’t speak to anymore is doing, I can just look them up. I’ve always been very lucky to still be good friends with many of the people I met school, but if we didn’t have the Internet, would we have stayed so close? Who can say!

Satisfyingly friendly, funny and fresh, even as it turns twenty.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“My Legendary Girlfriend” by Mike Gayle (1998)

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“Mr Kelly, which football team do you support?”

Recently I’ve been having a bit of a wobble regarding the bigger questions in my life. Am I where I thought I’d be at this age (not helped by my birthday looming over me)? Have I made the right choices? Am I on the path to something better? Should I have another drink? When you feel low, it’s all too easy to sink even deeper, and Will Kelly, the protagonist of My Legendary Girlfriend, has just about reached rock bottom.

Stuck in a job he hates, a flat that should be condemned, and a mindset that has ruined his last three years, Will is desperately unhappy. The weekend approaches once more with no plans, despite Sunday being his birthday. His only source of entertainment and companionship is his phone. Over the course of one weekend, Will introduces us to his world and the people who populate it on the other end of the line. There’s his best friend, Alice, who remembers his birthday; Simon, his oldest friend, who he may not be speaking to anymore; Martina, the one-night stand who won’t go away; Kate, the former occupant of his hovel; and Aggi, the one who got away, his legendary girlfriend, the one he has been pining over for the last three years. As Will wallows, he begins to think about changing his life, but how does one go about that? And is he about to do something very rash?

People complain that there’s no realism in fiction. No one in Star Wars ever pops to the toilet, for example, and no one in any of Jane Austen’s work ever gets an itch on their back they can’t reach. Here, the realism is dialled up to eleven. The entire novel takes place between Friday night and Monday morning, with long periods of loneliness and depression interspersed with phone calls from the people who aren’t in his life quite as much as he’d like (and Martina). Gayle, already showing signs of being a master of the genre in his debut novel, does great work in highlighting the excruciating boredom of a weekend stuck at home. Will’s flat is a squalid pit, and he does little to tidy it up, and over the course of the book it gets messier and grubbier. In the hands of another writer, he could be extremely unlikable, but while there is something a bit sad and pitiful about him, I found myself wanting to stick around.

It’s very much of its time, as these days the whole thing would have to be conducted via WhatsApp conversations, but the concept of basically having Will be the only character on the page for much of the time is great fun and well-executed. Gayle writes with a humourist’s touch, too, and while not laugh out loud funny, it’s sharp and witty in a way that reminds me of Victoria Wood, with very specific brand names mentioned that really populate the story. Also like Wood, it manages to balance the humour with some genuinely heartbreaking moments, as you are pretty sure you’re witnessing a man having a breakdown and you just want to get him to sort himself out. As anyone who’s struggled with depression knows, though, it’s not quite as simple as that.

I’ve read pretty much all of Gayle’s work, and this is my second time on this one, and I think I can safely say that while it’s still an entertaining story, he’s still learning and they get better. Still, if my debut had been as good as this, you wouldn’t have been able to beat the smugness out of me with a crowbar. Entertaining, honest, and very raw, it’s well worth checking out.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Mr Commitment” by Mike Gayle (1999)

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“Have I missed something here?”

Commitment is still seen in our culture as a scary word at times. This is particularly skewed towards men, who are viewed as never wanting to grow up, leaving women wondering when the man-child they’re dating is ever going to get down on one knee. Most romance stories seem to deal with this from the female point of view, so thank goodness we’ve got Mike Gayle on hand to share the other side of the story.

Duffy has been dating Mel for four years and is very happy with how things are going. Mel, however, needs something more. She is so desperate to marry Duffy that she has proposed instead, and when his response does not match up to the one she wants – and he doesn’t even suggest moving in together as an alternative option – she decides that maybe she’s been wasting her time. Scared to lose her completely, Duffy agrees to marry her, but she knows his heart isn’t in it, and after a mighty argument in IKEA, it seems like things are over for good.

As the two begin the healing process, Duffy can’t let go completely and is keen to ensure they remain friends. However, with Mel getting in touch with her previous boyfriend again, and Duffy being charmed by a beautiful television presenter who should be everything he dreams of, there are things getting in the way, and Duffy has to come to terms with his fear of commitment. Surely losing Mel forever is a scarier prospect?

I love Gayle’s writing, and have discussed it several times over on the blog, and while Mr Commitment isn’t my favourite, it’s still full of life. The jokes work, although there’s a certain irony in the fact that Duffy is a struggling stand-up comedian but we never once see him on stage or doing any of his material. I would imagine this is for the better, as it’s hard to write that kind of stuff, and it runs the risk of the reader not finding him funny. I also was struck by how much the world has changed in such a short time. Although this book was only published in 1999, I baulked when I realised that that was actually twenty years ago. This is still a world where everyone smokes in pubs, nobody has a mobile, and there’s a woman called Alexa who, twenty years on, must be going insane.

Much as I am not someone who has marriage, babies and a life time commitment to weekends in IKEA in their future and broadly speaking I think there should be more books about friendships and less emphasis on everyone finding “the one” (which entirely explains the existence of my novel The Third Wheel), I did really enjoy it. I’m not against romance or the concept of marriage at all, it’s just not really for me. It’s still great to read a book with characters that I like that has a happy ending where everything is resolved. Perhaps the trends of men being all terrified of commitment and the women being desperate for a wedding day is a bit of a tired cliche, but then again things have maybe just changed a lot more in the last couple of decades. Besides, it can’t be true as it’s usually the man who proposes in a heterosexual relationship, and they can’t all have been arm-wrestled into it. I think it’s one of those cases where you have to look at the characters and say that while these states are normal for them specifically, you can’t extrapolate to assume it’s true of all men and women. I know women who don’t want to marry and men who long to settle down. It takes all sorts.

Life is messy and complicated, and the characters here display that fully, with no one’s life running as smoothly as they outwardly present. Nonetheless, love always wins.

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!

“Dinner For Two” by Mike Gayle (2002)

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“Apparently (at least, so she told me) it all happened because her best friend Keisha had to stay behind after school for hockey practice.”

Despite the sheer number of books on my shelf that I’ve still not read, when it came to picking one over the weekend, I couldn’t seem to get my head around any of them. As such, I retreated into one I’ve read before. Mike Gayle, as I’ve said before, is one of my favourite writers, and his chatty, confessional style is very easy to absorb.

Music journalist Dave Harding is very happy with his life. He’s got a good job, a nice flat and is happily married to Izzy, the woman of his dreams. Everything seems brilliant, but his biological clock is ticking and Dave finds himself eager to start a family. Izzy, however, doesn’t seem so bothered. His life changes dramatically, however, when the magazine he works for folds and he is persuaded to take up the role of agony uncle for a teenage girls’ magazine.

He soon finds that he actually quite enjoys answering the problems of confused teenagers, and he’s a natural at giving relationship advice. He even begins written a column about how men think for Izzy’s ladies lifestyle magazine. But then he receives a letter from a thirteen-year-old girl called Nicola that stands out from the rest. She tells Dave that he is her father – and she’s got the evidence to prove it…

I didn’t remember much about this one but know I hadn’t read it since university, so at least ten years ago. As ever, it’s funny and warm, but it’s definitely not my favourite. When Dave learns that he has a daughter, he begins seeing her but neither of them inform the other most important people in their lives – namely her mother and his wife. Although obviously done for drama and to allow tension to build, in reality this all just seems a bit insane. It’s hard to be fully sympathetic with Dave when we are watching him lie to his wife and while he doesn’t actively ask Nicola to keep him a secret, he also doesn’t do anything to encourage her from telling the truth. Nicola is portrayed as a pretty good teenager, and the constant reminders of Dave – and others – that she’s a good kid don’t ring hollow, as she clearly is, although we’re only seeing things through his eyes.

In general though, it retains Gayle’s brilliant voice and the characters are otherwise wonderful and fully realised. He has a way of making you care about these people, without using a single ghost, alien or vampire. His stuff is real, and you almost feel like the events happened to someone you know personally. He doesn’t shy away from the realities of growing up and the complications surrounding relationships. We’ve all got histories, but they don’t all turn up on the doorstep long after you’ve left them behind. A pleasing read and a firm reminder that I’m doing the right thing in returning to his old books.

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!

“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!

“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.

“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!

“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.