“Turning Thirty” by Mike Gayle (2000)

Leave a comment

“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)

Leave a comment

“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 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)

Leave a comment

“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)

1 Comment

“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)

Leave a comment

“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!

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

1 Comment

“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)

2 Comments

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.

Older Entries