“Romeo And/Or Juliet” by Ryan North (2016)

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“As we now know, William Shakespeare (1564 AD-whenever he died) was well known for borrowing from existing literature when writing his plays.”

Who remembers “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from childhood? Goosebumps did a solid range, and I had one based on a Famous Five adventure – you failed if you run out of ginger beer rations. If both dot-to-dot and colouring books got adapted for adults, then I don’t see why these shouldn’t come back too. Fortunately, Ryan North is way ahead of me, turning the classic play Romeo and Juliet on its head and letting us decide how it all plays out in fair Verona.

I’ve read this six times now, and every time produced an entirely different story. We all know the original: Romeo meets Juliet, they fall in love but their families had one another, there’s some fighting, and both the heroes die. Tale as old as him. Here, however, I several times managed to end the feud between the Montague and Capulet families without killing anyone (once within fifteen minutes of starting), somehow turned into the Nurse and took on a side quest designed like a point-and-click game, was killed by Benvolio, and even have Juliet end up marrying Orlando, who isn’t even in this play. At one point I wished to be turned into the glove on Juliet’s hand, only for my wish to actually be granted. At the beginning, you pick to play as either Romeo or Juliet, and there are options to swap between the two. You can follow through the play was Shakespeare intended, but where’s the fun in that? I still haven’t.

The best of it is that, from bits I gleaned while finding my passages, there is still so much more to explore. You can unlock a secret character to play as someone else. There are further Choose Your Own Adventure stories laced inside this one, with versions of Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to play. There are endings where Romeo and Rosaline end up together, Romeo and Juliet destroy Verona with robots, and at least one where Juliet doesn’t kill herself when she thinks Romeo is dead but instead kills everyone else. And yes, the original one is in here too. None of these are spoilers particularly, as I couldn’t tell you how to get to any of those endings, and there must be at least another forty or so.

While there are some mentions of the original text, either obliquely or in full, it’s mostly updated to modern slang with a very casual style, which is all the more hilarious. Romeo is a whiny teenage boy who is obsessed with love, and Juliet, wonderfully, is a muscular, weight-lifting, protein-shake-chugging bodybuilder who can totally take care of herself. From what I gathered, Romeo tends to get the gorier endings, whereas Juliet usually comes out of it alright and ends up doing something ridiculous.

It’s a really fun book, and I think you have to read it several times just to get the most out of it. What happens if Romeo doesn’t go to the party? What happens is Juliet tells Lady Capulet that she won’t marry Paris? What if the lovers abscond to Paris when Romeo is banished and entirely cut off contact with their families? It’s time to find 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 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!

“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!

“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!

“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.

“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!

“Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2014)

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“One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke.”

When the weather gets gloomy and cold, it’s often best to take yourself off to somewhere warm, even if just in a book. I made my way El Paso, Texas in the 1980s to escape some of the British January chill. There, I found a story that was much more than I expected.

Angel Aristotle Mendoza – known as Ari – is in many ways your average fifteen-year-old, swallowed up by self-doubt, confusion and family troubles. His brother is in prison and his father is a Vietnam war veteran: neither of these things are ever discussed. At the local swimming pool one day, he meets Dante, a fellow Mexican-American teenager who teaches Ari to swim. Ari has never had a proper friend before, and the two are soon inseparable, spending all their time together laughing and playing games.

As Ari’s self-imposed walls begin to crumble, their bond seems unshakeable, and on one rainy summer’s day, Ari saves Dante’s life, breaking three of his limbs in the process. Unable to speak about his heroic act, Ari closes down again, and Dante has to move away to Chicago with his parents for the rest of the year. When he returns, however, both boys have been changed and they wonder if their friendship can continue as they change from boys to men…

A friend of mine recommended me this and said she loved it. I generally trust her opinion on books, so went for it and was very pleased I did. I’ve long struggled with getting into much young adult stuff, but there’s something quite wonderful and wise about this. The relationships between the boys and their parents are particularly endearing. Ari gets on with his mum, but struggles with his father who is clearly suffering from PTSD. The shadow of his brother hangs heavy over them all, and there isn’t even a picture of him up in the house. It’s almost as if he never existed, but Ari can’t open up the communication channels to ask why or even what he’s in prison for, as it all happened when he was very young. Dante, on the other hand, is an only child and has a very open and affectionate relationship with his parents, which Ari is jealous of.

A lot of emphasis is also played on the two boys identities as Mexicans. According to Wikipedia, 80.7% of the city’s population identify as Hispanic or Latino, and given the city sits right on the Rio Grande with Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city, right on the other side, this is obviously an important aspect to them. Many of the other characters are also of Mexican extraction, allowing for a very diverse novel that paints a world that I’m not familiar with. Sáenz however builds a fascinating and beautiful little world, with characters who feel very real and good company. The relationship between Ari and Dante is, for the most part, kept somewhat ambigious. Ari is the sole narrator, but he’s so used to burying his feelings that he’s even capable of burying them from us.

A charming and beautiful novel about growing up and the hidden trauma that so many carry around with them.

Looking for something different to read that bursts genre and shakes up the status quo of storytelling? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available now at Amazon and Waterstones! If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“Four-Sided Triangle” by William F. Temple (1949)

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“The idea was too big for the mind to grasp in all its implications at the first attempt.”

Throughout history there have been numerous discoveries and inventions that have shaped and altered the path of human development in unimaginable ways. Penicillin, mechanical clocks, the wheel, x-rays, telescopes … the list is long and remarkable. There remain a good deal of things still out of the grasp of reality that belong firmly in the world of science fiction still. Interstellar space travel, time machines, universal translators, perpetual motion machines – we aren’t likely to get a grip on any of these for some time yet. Authors, however, aren’t limited by real technology, so if they want to invent a duplication machine, they can. And William F. Temple has.

Narrated by Doctor Harvey, medic to the English village of Howdean, this is the story of how the doctor’s young charge Bill and his wealthy, conservative friend Rob manage to create a Reproducer. This amazing device will revolutionise the world, giving them the ability to duplicate works of art, rare medical cures, food and anything else they choose. Every museum can have a copy of the Mona Lisa hanging in its galleries, and every hospital can now have huge amounts of cancer drugs at its disposal. Things become complicated, however, by the arrival of Lena.

Harvey has saved her from her suicide attempt and now, upon meeting Bill and Rob and learning of their amazing invention, she has found a reason to live. That reason, it becomes rapidly clear, is Rob and she wishes to marry him. And while Rob is indeed smitten with this girl, unfortunately so is Bill. After the wedding, Bill finds himself caught up in the madness of jealousy and begins tinkering with the Reproducer. Surely it wouldn’t take much more to make it clone living things. And then Bill and Rob could both have a Lena of their own, if she consented to be cloned. It’s only when she does that the problems really begin…

You may already be noting from the plot that aspects of the book have dated, not least the notion of Bill and Rob being able to share the same woman by cloning her. Fortunately, creepy though this is, it could be worse, and Lena (and, indeed, her duplicate Dot) is an early example of the manic pixie dream girl. She does, however, have to consent to being duplicated, but even here, it is her husband that has the final say. The science is also patchy, and Temple gets away with it by having Harvey explain that he doesn’t want to give away all the science, partly because he doesn’t understand it, and partly so that no one else can build a Reproducer. The book discusses the ethics of this and how in the wrong hands, someone could produce a whole army of workers or soldiers who all think and act the same way.

Much as this is a science fiction novel, most of the time the more fantastical elements are incidental. At its core, this is a story of a love triangle and how unrequited love is so painful. It’s also about memory, identity and individuality, and what right we have to reproduce not just unique items, but entire people. Temple is free to play around with the theoretical here, as it’s highly unlikely this sort of technology will ever be possible, but that’s often the joy in these kinds of stories – give people the impossible and see what they do with it. Or, rather, as is the way of humanity, see how they manage to cock it all up.

It’s a clever and interesting book, in places predictable, but also occasionally stepping away from the safety net and surprising you. It does, however, have one of the most accidentally hilarious final paragraphs I’ve ever encountered simply because it caught me off-guard, (it smacks a little of the loathed and hurried ending of Lord of the Flies) which does take the edge off somewhat. Nonetheless, it belongs in the canon and is well worth checking out if you’re a hardcore science fiction fan.

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