How to Stuff Up Christmas – Rosie Blake

And as she was still smiling over his logical, obvious phone-log cataloguing, as she typed in his password ‘ilovearsenal’, it had slapped her there, right between the eyes, ‘you have 1 picture message’. She wasn’t sure what made her do it. She’d never felt the urge before, or maybe she didn’t decide to do it, it just clicked up, but it was then, as she read the words ‘Wish you were here’, she realised she was staring at someone’s impeccably groomed vagina.

Eve’s fiancé, Liam, has cheated on her and she’s thrown him out. Supported by her best friend and work colleague, Daisy, as well as her mum and dad and older sister, Harriet, she’s functioning but far from over it. Two main problems present themselves: the first is Marmite, the dog Eve and Liam bought together. Liam wants him, Eve’s refusing to give him up. The second is Christmas. Eve spends Christmas with her family, the day playing out in stages honed over the years. Last year this was altered somewhat when Liam proposed to her on Christmas morning. Unable to face the day in the same house, memories of the previous year playing out, she declares she’s spending Christmas alone.

Her family are horrified but Eve goes ahead, combining some saved holiday from work and the Christmas period, to allow her a month off work. Deciding she wants to develop a skill, she books herself on a pottery course and, at the last minute, finds a houseboat to stay in while she’s there.

Before Eve books the course, the reader’s been introduced to another character, Greg, who lives in Pangbourne, where the course is taking place. He’s the local vet with a penchant for reading fantasy novels on his e-reader and a secret that sees him disappearing as soon as phone calls are received.

Inevitably Eve and Greg’s paths are going to cross. This involves hilarious combinations of Marmite, falling off the boat, geese and burnt dinners. But Eve’s not over Liam and Greg’s secretive so there’s plenty of scope for conflict and misunderstandings. Blake utilises this well. Several chapters are told from one character’s point of view and then re-told from the other’s. This is difficult to do well – the only other really successful example I can think of is Her by Harriet Lane – but Blake exploits the gaps between the two character’s assumptions and the conflict in their lives which they’ve hidden from each other.

Eve:

‘They won’t be lies,’ Greg said, taking a step forward.

‘That’s what they always say,’ Eve said, Liam’s face replacing Greg’s in her mind as she spat out the next sentence, all the things she should have said to him. ‘I’ve been messed around before so it’s really not a big surprise.’

Greg didn’t reply for a moment. ‘I’m not “they”,’ he said in a quiet voice.

‘We barely know each other anyway,’ Eve said, satisfied to see him flinch.

Greg:

‘They won’t be lies.’

‘That’s what they always say. I’ve been messed around before so it’s really not a big surprise.’

Messed around? Is that what he had done? He didn’t want to be lumped in with these anonymous men. ‘I’m not “they”,’ he said, anger swelling in his chest.

‘We barely know each other anyway.’

He didn’t hear her then, replaying that sentence, the sting of it, over and over. He thought back to the times they’d spent together; their closeness hadn’t simply been in his head. She wasn’t even letting him tell her what was going on and suddenly he felt as if he was twelve years old again and the world wasn’t fair and he wasn’t being heard.

As with Blake’s first novel, How to Get a (Love) Life, How to Stuff Up Christmas is laugh-out-loud funny. The humour mostly comes from Eve’s parents (who reminded me of Bridget Jones’ parents too), her inability to cook, and the escapades of Gerald, the husband of Maddie who runs the pottery class from her house. The book’s tightly plotted and deals with a number of serious themes – infidelity, illness, betrayal, men’s roles – whilst being entertaining. It also includes a number of recipes (a nod to Nora Ephron?) which become more complex as Eve’s cooking improves. I definitely fancy having a go at the Christmas Loaf and maybe some mulled wine to go with it. A smart, funny, heart-warming Christmas read.

 

Thanks to Corvus for the review copy.

How to Get a (Love) Life by Rosie Blake

You know a book’s going to have you howling with laughter when, before you even reach the first page, you read this:

All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Except for Chris, who is as big a knob in real life as he is in this book.

Nicola Brown, 29, works at The Sullivan Agency, Bristol’s largest actors’ agency. Chris is one of their agency’s most successful actors but I’m telling you no more about him – you’ll have to read the book to find out why he’s such a knob.

Nicola is a little bit particular about how things should be:

It always made me feel itchy when things were out of place. I couldn’t seem to settle unless everything around me was completely ordered. For instance: I’d just aimed a screwed-up piece of paper at the bin and missed. It had sailed beautifully over the room, hit the rim and fallen to the floor, where it now lay. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew I should leave it there – others would leave it – it really was no big deal…

Eleven o’clock is time for a chilled glass of mineral water, five to one is avocado salad with pine nuts, and one fifteen is a mini roll. Her workmate Caroline teases Nicola about her habits; it’s amazing the pair of them get on considering they’re almost completely opposite view on life.

Caroline has a husband and two children, Ben and Alice. The children and their toys sometimes end up at the agency (oooh look at that mess on the office floor, that must wind Nicola up) when there’s a child-minder crisis and Caroline seems to spend all her time looking out for everyone else. She’s particularly worried about Nicola’s love life, or lack there of, and following Nicola’s brother Mark telling her ‘You’ve got issues, sis’, when Caroline makes a proposal, Nicola’s pretty susceptible:

‘By that day,’ she pointed at the circled fourteen, ‘you will have been asked out on a Valentine’s date by someone wonderful.’
‘Caroli – ‘
‘ – Shush! By Valentine’s Day, you are going to make certain that you have tried everything in your power to secure yourself this fabulous date and then, and only then, will I, Caroline Haskey, agree to never again hassle you about your love life. Or lack thereof. Ever, ever, again.’
I raised an eyebrow. She wasn’t finished.
‘In short,’ she announced grandly, her eyes gleaming. ‘I dare you to get a love life.’

What follows is a string of hilarious dates (for us, not Nicola). I particularly enjoyed those organised by her brother Mark – wild dark brown hair, wears a battered leather jacket, drives a moped, works at the planetarium and is obsessed with bats. The dates take place between crises at work – Chris and last minute casting let downs – and family obligations – Nicola’s vile mother is particularly great.

How to Get a (Love) Life should be sold with a change of underwear. But while you will laugh your head off, there is a serious story underneath about not letting a broken heart rule your life. I also enjoyed Blake’s little subversions of the genre, especially the airport scene at the end (I haven’t spoilt it as it’s part of the prologue too). I’m already looking forward to reading whatever Rosie Blake writes next.

 

For the rest of today, How to Get a (Love) Life is 99p on the site that shall not be named (click on the picture of the cover to get there).

 

Thanks to Novelicious for the review copy.