“Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

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“My name is Kathy H.”

Kazuo Ishiguro was this month awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the news marked one of the very few times that I’ve agreed with the results of a major literary prize. I would have awarded it to him on the strength of this novel alone. Despite the huge fanfare that exists around The Remains of the Day, I’ve yet to have read it – the focus of this review and Nocturnes are the only Ishiguro I’ve read, but they’re heaven.

This is actually the third time I’ve read Never Let Me Go, but it had yet to feature on my blog and what with the need to be somewhere familiar and meaningful and the aforementioned award, I felt a reread was in order. I was wary about how many spoilers I would put in here, as I’m not sure how well integrated the story is to the cultural consciousness, but there are aspects I want to discuss that I can’t without giving away major plot points and so I say here now, there are spoilers below – stop reading now if you want to discover this book on your own.

The novel is narrated by Kathy H. She’s a young woman in England, reminiscing about her time at Hailsham, a prestigious school that houses some of her fondest memories. She is now trying to understand her childhood, with her friends including the bad-tempered by innocent Tommy, and the somewhat manipulative and tactless Ruth, and what it means for her adulthood. She now spends her days driving around the country, working as a carer, but it’s quite soon evident that Hailsham wasn’t quite what it seemed to be at first, and Kathy isn’t exactly ordinary.

This is an alternate England, where medical science clones humans and uses them for organ donation freely. Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and all their friends at Hailsham, and at various other schools around the country, are merely clones, and are taught that one day they will grow up and begin donations. As they grow up, their relationships strain, against maturity and the inevitability of their futures, and Kathy now just wants to try and make sense of what she’s been taught. And maybe she’s hopeful … maybe there’s another option. What if they could find their old teachers and ask for help?

The text is haunting in the way it grabs you and doesn’t let go. I first read this as a set text at university – one of the very few I enjoyed – and it hasn’t left me yet. There’s no big reveal as to what’s happening – information just drips in, mimicking the way the students seem to learn about it. This fits, too, given that Kathy is seemingly writing to a reader who is in the same position as her. You can’t help but feel sorry for them all, but the discovery of the truth is so gentle in its delivery that when it arrives, you’re also not terribly surprised and seem capable of taking it all in.

The characters themselves, the main ones at least, feel very rich, and while some people have questioned why they don’t try to run away from their circumstances, they fail to appreciate that psychologically their “purpose” is too deeply ingrained and besides, they have nowhere to run too. Because they can’t reproduce, sex isn’t a taboo among the students and is discussed freely, whereas topics of religion and philosophy are ignored or shied away from. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are all very deep and I enjoy them all. Ruth is catty and downright poisonous to Kathy and Tommy’s relationship, but she seems to be the one struggling most of all with their situation, lying to herself and to others. Kathy is perhaps the most passive, but also the most introspective, but part of that may just come from the fact she’s narrating, so we only really know what she’s thinking.

The biggest aspect of their time at school is that the main focus is on creativity. The best examples of their paintings, pottery and poems are then collected by the mysterious “Madame” for reasons they are unable to fathom at first. When the explanation comes, it will break your heart, as so many aspects of this book do. It’s easy to read, but it’s hardly the most uplifting novel. However, like I said, you get drawn in and if you emerge unchanged, then you might be beyond emotional rescue.

Little is explained about the wider world and exactly how and why this timeline veered off from our own. However, much of England is hinted at being somewhat dilapidated and underpopulated, and it’s explained later that the clones began to appear not long after “the war”, again assumed to be World War 2. But in a creepy England, where science and medical advances run on without much apparent worry surrounding ethics, it’s only later you begin to wonder – who won the war?

As a bibliophile of the highest order, I know I’m not really meant to have an answer when people ask me what my favourite book of all time is. It’s like asking a parent which of their children they love most. In all honesty, I don’t have a concrete answer, but Never Let Me Go sits, without question, somewhere in the top five. I can give little higher praise.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Destination Unknown” by Agatha Christie (1954)

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“The man behind the desk moved a heavy glass paperweight four inches to the right.”

Agatha Christie is, of course, most known for her murder mysteries, but she never limited herself to just one genre. She wrote romance stories under a pseudonym, dabbled in supernatural fiction and ghost stories, and now and again wrote thrillers, as the Sunday Times said, “just to show that she can.” Her best one, as I’ve gone on about on the blog before, is The Seven Dials Mystery, but Destination Unknown is to be ignored at your peril.

The world is in crisis. Leading scientists from across the world are disappearing, and those working in international intelligence are completely stumped. Bodies are never recovered, so there’s no consensus on whether these people are dead or alive, and a whole host of countries are losing their greatest biologists, chemists and researchers. Mr Jessop, a shady figure in the British government, is at his wits end. That is, until he encounters Hilary Craven.

Hilary sits in a Casablanca hotel room, preparing to commit suicide. Her attempts are interrupted however by Jessop who lets himself in and declares he has a more exciting way for her to die. She is to pretend to be Mrs Betterton, the wife of one of the missing scientists who is believed to be on her way to find her husband. However, in her travels, she has died in a plane crash, leaving the space open. Hilary is asked to take over the role and find out where Mr Betterton, and presumably the other missing scientists, are being held. With nothing left to lose, Hilary agrees and soon finds herself embroiled in something much larger than anyone could have imagined. With no idea who she can trust or who is working to what ends, Hilary is soon brought before Tom Betterton – and his reaction is perhaps the most surprising thing of all…

OK, so it’s not the most famous or well-regarded of her novels (indeed, it’s one of only four to never receive an adaptation for screen, stage or radio), but it’s still an interesting adventure story. Penned less than ten years after the end of World War Two, its events are shadows over what happens here. A character is introduced with ideas that may not be particularly welcome to many people, but Hilary finds herself almost hypnotised by the rhetoric, even going so far as to mention the similarities to Hitler – the words were ordinary, but the way he spoke was apparently very engaging. In a week where we’ve seen Nazis and white supremacists marching openly in America, it really struck home how dangerous words can be in the wrong hands. I try not to bring up topical events while discussing books, but the reason we read is to better understand the world, I think, and sometimes the parallels are too real or shocking to ignore.

The final scenes feel a bit rushed, and some of the explanations as to how the solution came about bypassed me really, but it doesn’t matter. How we got there is fascinating enough, and it’s a great look at how the real rulers of the world are those with the money, rather than those in obvious positions of power. As the book says, “one is never surprised to find out that behind the importance and magnificence there is somewhere some scrubby little man who is the real motive power”. Judge not on appearances, trust no one, and know that things mayn’t always be as they seem.

A quick read, a fun jaunt with inspiration obviously taken from Christie’s own travels, and a story that, while titled Destination Unknown, shows that journeys in novels so often end in the same place.

“Dead Tomorrow” by Peter James (2009)

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How far would you go to save someone you love?

How far would you go to save someone you love?

“Susan hated the motorbike.”

I’m back to Brighton’s Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, and realising that it’s been far too long. This is the fifth installment in the series after Dead Simple, Looking Good Dead, Not Dead Enough and Dead Man’s Footsteps. All but the first are also on this blog, so if you’re concerned about what happened previously in the series, then start back there. But, really, while there is a story arc connecting them all, it rarely plays a massive part and they can be read without prior knowledge. Each one centres around a very different case, and introduces a whole host of new characters as well as the familiar police officers.

In the fifth book, we once again meet a group of characters who had first seem to have nothing to do with one another. There’s Roy Grace, the detective who will be put in charge of the cases in the novel, a decent, hard-working copper who has just been blown away after learning that his girlfriend Cleo is pregnant. There’s Lynn Beckett and her daughter Caitlin, who desperately needs a liver transplant. There’s Simona, a poor drug-taking girl living on the streets of Bucharest and dreaming of a different life, perhaps escaping to England now that they’re in the EU. There’s the shady figure who spends his evenings in Brighton’s casinos, and has just had a nasty phone call telling him that someone is very disappointed in him…

Roy Grace is struggling with a new case. A body has been dredged up from the English channel, a teenager who appears to have recently undergone surgery and is missing all of his vital organs. Worried there are more, the police search the area and find two more bodies, both in a very similar state. Perhaps they’re ritual killings, or perhaps they’re evidence of someone trading in illegal organ brokering. Lynn Beckett is at the end of her tether and is desperate to save her daughter’s life. When the NHS fails her, she turns to the Internet and finds a company that claims to be able to source any organ required within a week, but it comes at an enormous price. The characters and stories soon find themselves twisting together as their threads become entangled and no one is ready to give up on getting what they want any time soon.

I’ll probably end up repeating myself here, spouting things I’ve already said about Peter James and this series. This is the longest book of them all so far, at around 650 pages, but it never feels it. The pacing is wonderful, and you’re pulled along with the plot as you try and work out how everyone is connected and how it’ll all tie together. Jame has such a natural voice that he’s an easy read, even if some of the material is a bit strong. This is definitely not a book for the weak-willed, as there are a few particularly graphic scenes, some of a sexual nature, that some readers may find disturbing or uncomfortable. Just fair warning, I feel. Otherwise, the book has the same perks as the others in the series.

What makes them so good? They’re set so solidly in the real world. Researched to within an inch of its life, the book portrays a realistic world of police work and the criminal underclass. The world is very much ours, and James makes strong use of brands, companies, music and film to bring it to life. The characters, even minor ones, are given personality and are all introduced with their appearance, habits and some of their backstory. Even when you encounter a chapter that gives the point of view of a character you never see again, you feel you get to know them. Every character has their own history and struggles, be it the marriage troubles of Norman Potting or Glenn Branson, or the stresses and strains of the job seen through the eyes of E-J Boutwood who is still recovering from a car accident two or three books previously. Clothes are described in detail, and rooms are painted clearly for us.

The themes in the book are pretty deep and serious, covering human trafficking, child prostitution, illegal organ harvesting, and liver disease, but while some of the characters use gallows humour to get through the horrors of their day, the subjects are all dealt with respectfully and somberly. James is unlikely to offend anyone, but will almost certainly make you think.

Peter James is a marvel, and I’m still very much enjoying the adventures of Roy Grace, one of the finest police officers in fiction. Gripping from the first page, I could hardly put the book down. It’s compelling, addictive and will have you rooting for the good guys throughout, even if it’s not always clear exactly who they are.