“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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“The Well Of Lost Plots” by Jasper Fforde (2003)

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wolp“Making one’s home in an unpublished novel wasn’t without its compensations.”

As I continue on with my reading of Jasper Fforde’s work, we come to the third installment of the Thursday Next series. As explained last time, continuity once again hits hard so there will be spoilers from the off. There are also spoilers for another of his books within, but we’ll deal with that further down the page. So, for now, settle in and let’s discuss the third book.

Thursday Next has decided that she needs a break. After all, being hunted down by a sinister corporation that controls everything, making an enemy of one of the UK’s most powerful politicians, and finding yourself pregnant by your husband who doesn’t exist is enough to make anyone a bit stressed. She takes up residence inside fiction. Quite literally, she moves into an unpublished (and terrible) novel called Caversham Heights, with the stipulations that she must take on the role of Mary Jones and play her part, as well as continue working for Jurisfiction, the organisation that polices books from the inside.

But it’s not exactly going to be restful. Down here there are issues with an escaped Minotaur and a horrible accident with a mispeling vyrus, two Generics who are struggling to develop personalities before assignment, an apparent plot to kill prominent members of Jurisfiction, and the 923rd Annual BookWorld Awards to attend. And every day the memories of her husband become fainter and fainter…

As usual, there’s a lot more to this plot, but I don’t want to overload it. More than others, it sometimes feels like a string of funny scenes that Jasper Fforde has thought up and wants to get in, but I’m not complaining. The plot runs along and never gets lost in the madness, and the madness all works so beautifully that more than anything I’m simply angry that I didn’t get there first. This book is the first to spend the majority of the time inside fiction instead of the real world (the Outland) and so we get to explore in more depth some of the earlier concepts. These include the use of footnotes by characters to communicate with one another, finally showing them at their most wonderful in the climax of the novel, an explanation of how spelling errors get into books, and how some people are employed full time to fix plot holes, as well as introducing us to the way that characters are born and get their roles.

While some characters appear and are fictional within this world too, others are known to us. We get to spend a lot of time inside Wuthering Heights and Shadow the Sheepdog, both to hilarious effect. We’re introduced to heroes of literature such as Mr Toad, Miss Tiggy-winkle, Quasimodo, Captain Nemo, and a whole host of nursery rhyme characters. The latter group here are currently campaigning for more rights, as it’s tough being a character from the Oral Tradition with no set book to call home. If only they could be granted a novel where they could life in safety and find literary success… Frankly, this is the most bonkers and wonderful subplot in the entire series. No, actually, second. The first is still two or three books away.

As usual, I have very little bad to say about Fforde. It’s slick, hilarious, fiercely intelligent and a real love letter to literature. Here we learn that books are constructed within the Well of Lost Plots, the words being beamed directly to the author’s pen or keyboard once the words have been dredged up from the LiteraSea. I can’t fault this series, it’s so wonderful and it’s impossible not to laugh, or feel a little tug on the heartstrings when you catch a mention of a book or character that you love.

If you love books and still haven’t got round to this series, for goodness sake why?

“The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley (2012)

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rook“Dear You, the body you are wearing used to be mine.”

Over the years I’ve encountered so many books that I wish I’d written, but known that I’d never be able to do them as well as they were done. Rowling and Fforde have both done wonders with their works, but there are numerous other titles too. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, for one – I had a very similar idea about a week before I found the book. And Superpowers by David J Schwartz: I considered something very similar for about a month before finding it. But then there are books that I didn’t know I wanted to have written until after I’d read them. This brings us to The Rook – a book oddly written by an Australian, first published in the USA, but set very definitely in Britain.

Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a London park, surrounded by gloved corpses and with absolutely no memory of how she got there. A letter in her pocket informs her of whose body she is inhabiting and she makes her way to a hotel to sleep and hopefully recover some memories. When none come, she finds another letter and is asked to make a choice. She can either run away and start a new life that the Myfanwy Thomas writing her letters has arranged for her, or she can choose to continue impersonating Myfanwy. Although originally going for the first option, when the time comes she finds it impossible to resist the second. Thus, her life becomes something rather strange indeed.

It turns out that Myfanwy Thomas is an operative in the Checquy, a top secret agency that deals with the supernatural, bizarre and downright weird. Everyone working for it has a superpower of some kind – Myfanwy can manipulate people’s nervous systems – and the positions of high office are named for chess pieces. Myfanwy is a Rook. She finds herself thrown into a world where the magical seems mundane, and she has to try and convince everyone that she is the real deal, which proves harder than one would imagine when she doesn’t know a thing about her predecessor.

Before look, Myfanwy and the reader are catapulted into a series of adventures involving a centuries old group of dangerous Belgian scientists who have given a whole new meaning to “biological warfare”, dragons, vampires, secret schools for the superpowered, a prophetic duck, and piles and piles of paperwork. On top of this, she must try and work out who it was that came before her and what happened. No small task when you can’t even remember your own address.

It’s hard to try and explain this book any further without ruining the surprises along the way. It’s mad, it’s intelligent, it’s incredibly funny, and it’s creative to all extremes. It seems nonsense, but it works, and everything hangs together neatly. The Rook plays with your expectations. The heroine is not a gung-ho adventure type, but a quiet, shy, efficient bureaucrat. What you think you see coming as the final showdown happens two hundred pages before the end, opening much more speculation about what the hell could come next. The exposition is neatly handled in a genuinely realistic way. The magic and powers on show are highly unusual and wonderfully creative. And best of all, there’s barely a hint of a romantic subplot, without having to resort to turning Myfanwy into a man-hater or indeed give any excuse for why she does or doesn’t seek a husband at every waking moment.

It’s peppered with wonderful, interesting characters, not least Myfanwy who is incredibly likeable, and everyone with a name is given some characterisation, often rather a lot. I’m particularly fond of Ingrid, Myfanwy’s super efficient personal assistant, and Gestalt, a mind with four bodies. The idea of having the original owner of Myfanwy’s body leave her a lot of notes behind to help her means that the exposition comes with humour and seems natural, rather than having to have the other characters explain things over and over again. Somewhat wonky in its chronology, jumping between narrators – primarily the two owners of the heroine’s body – it manages to grip you and keep you interested for nearly five hundred pages.

The book’s cover states “Welcome to MI5 … for wizards” but it’s so much more than that. It’s a science fiction fantasy mystery comic novel about a fully-realised, brilliantly constructed universe in which magic is kept hidden from the general population. O’Malley has given real thought to the history of this organisation, and the jokes come thick and fast, interspersed with some really quite horrific scenes.

I’ve gone a bit overboard on the adverbs today, but it feels necessary. This book is a gem of the genre – whatever genre that might be – and is sure to delight anyone who likes a bit of magic and mystery in their lives.