“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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“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.