Finishing the 2020 review pile! Hornby-Ryan-Dolan

It’s nearly February, and I realised that I still have three books unreviewed that I read in 2020. How could I leave them that long? I’ve always found that getting my thoughts down about a book soon after reading, not only fixes it more firmly in my mind, but also makes them easier to review, I’m more likely to think of a hook to build the review around too. I still want to review every book I read though, (Lory posted about this subject recently too here). Ordinarily, each of these three could justify a longer review on their own, but I’d rather now clear the decks (and my dining table where they’ve been piled for too long).


Just Like You by Nick Hornby

There’s a lot going on in this novel in the background – it’s set against the historic Brexit referendum. The main subject, however, is a dual-issue romance. The fact that it’s between a Black man and a White woman isn’t unusual, but when the man is 22 and Black, and the woman is 42 and White, it takes on a deeper significance. Lucy and Joseph meet over the butcher’s counter where he works part-time.

The pretty dark-haired woman came in when it was still raining, and there was hardly anyone in the shop. He almost pushed Cass out of the way to serve her. She’d stopped coming in with the loud blonde woman, and Joseph couldn’t work out whether it was a coincidence, or whether it was something to do with him. […] Maybe a lack of sex was making him imagine that women who were asking for lamb shanks and free-range chicken breasts were actually asking for something else.

Some typical Hornby humour there, and there are plenty more of his bons mots throughout. Anyway Lucy gets talking to Joseph, engages him as babysitter to her two boys, and it soon goes further; both of them stay confused by their feelings throughout. Both struggled to date people their own ages, but it was difficult to see once they got together where the relationship would go in the long term. The Brexit parallels made an interesting diversion, particularly Joseph’s confusion over how he was expected to vote, and the differences between generations and class backgrounds, but I felt that Hornby dwelt on this too much in the second half, I wanted to read about Joseph and Lucy.

I enjoyed this novel, but maybe preferred the snappy dialogue and brevity of 2019’s State of the Union. (7/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you. Nick Hornby, Just Like You (Viking, 2020) hardback, 309 pages.

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Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan

Donal Ryan is one of the best of the latest crop of Irish authors and Strange Flowers which was published last summer cements his reputation further. This novel is about things not said, not so much secrets as stories not ready to be told yet, and it yields them gradually, which given the main setting in Tipperary, rural Ireland in the early 1970s, you can understand the need not to say certain things.

One day Molly Gladney, aged twenty, leaves her home and disappears off on the bus. Her parents, Paddy and Kit are devastated, but have to carry on. Pat as a morning postman and afternoon hand on his landlord’s property. Then five years later, she reappears, and her parents are overjoyed.

  So Kit and Paddy had a short time of near perfect peace that Friday afternoon and all of the next day, and the swirling questions about where Moll had been and what she’d been doing and why she hadn’t written to them to let them know she was alive at least, and why she had taken herself off in the first place, were no more bothersome than a gentle breeze through the top of the half-door would be, and they were able just to look at her, to watch her sleeping, to listen to her even breaths, and the soft whistle in her exhalations that caused Kit to suspect the girl had taken up smoking, but if she had itself what about it? …

Moll had gone to London, that much they get out of her. But it is not until others follow her from London that the stories start to be told. She is married to Alexander with a son Josh, but the shock is that Alexander is Black. Why did she abandon them to come home? Life will get very, very complicated. Paddy, however, does his utmost best to welcome them and the two men gradually bond deeply and Alexander does his best to fit in. The overarching theme of this book is love in all its forms – I don’t want to say any more about the plot – but Ryan’s prose is more poetic, more full of perfectly chosen words than ever, as all the relationships play out in this extended family drama, which relocates to London with Josh in later years. A lovely, deeply tender novel, that I heartily recommend (as do Susan and Ann). (9/10)

Source: Own Copy. Donal Ryan, Strange Flowers, Doubleday 2019, hardback, 229 pages.

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Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Finally, some words about this rather fine debut novel from another Irish author, which was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer Award a couple of months ago. Ava is 22 and has left Dublin for Hong Kong where she’s found a job as a TEFL teacher for rich kids, and a flatshare with two other girls. Once she’s been there for a few weeks, she has a lucky break – she meets Julian in a bar. Julian is her opposite, a banker, rich, Eton-educated, but he likes company, and offers to let her have his spare bedroom – no rent needed. Exciting times are promised.

Ava becomes his plus one, and is introduced to his friends (all horrible) and his father Miles (rather lovely). Julian and Ava often share a bed too, but their relationship is no strings, just good friends. When Julian is sent on a lengthy assignment back to England, Ava doesn’t miss him at first, but his friend Victoria is on hand to tell her about his old girlfriend who’s there.

…she asked if I found it weird that Julian claimed we weren’t going out when we clearly were. I said I didn’t. ‘It’s weird,’ she said, authoritatively. She added: ‘Do you fuck?’. which I thought in its own way a remarkable collation of words. She said it with the same tone in which one might say, ‘Do you vape?’, another sentence I would never utter. I replied that I did lots of things. ‘I’m sure you do,’ she said. Then: ‘Are those your real eyelashes?’

Ava decides she can’t sit and wait, so goes out and finds Edith and the two girls start a relationship. Ava will have to choose when Julian returns, but I won’t say more.

The story is told by Ava, and she’s a wonderfully acerbic, spiky character with a bit of a class chip on her shoulder and a great line in put-downs. She hates her job, but is growing to like her life of luxury in Julian’s flat, so she’s conflicted which makes her such an interesting young woman and you really want to find out what will happen in her life. Dolan’s writing goes from witty and light to darkly comic, I often found myself chuckling out loud. Books that make you laugh like this are rarities: I loved it and will look out for Dolan’s next. (See reviews from Susan and Rebecca too). (9/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you to FMcM. Naiose Dolan, Exciting Times (W&N 2020) hardback, 279 pages.

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14 thoughts on “Finishing the 2020 review pile! Hornby-Ryan-Dolan

  1. Jenny Holden says:

    I love the sound of all these, just to add to my ever growing TBR pile! I’ve never read Donal Ryan but he sounds good. Thank you! Jenny

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      If you like lyrical, Strange Flowers is a book for you. His previous two books were both superb too.

  2. Cathy746books says:

    I love Donal Ryan’s writing – he’s so good. I’ve been resisting the Nolan, probably because of the Rooney Effect, but too many people whose opinion’s I trust are saying that it is good, so I think I’ll give it a go.

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