“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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“While The Light Lasts” by Agatha Christie (1997)

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“The Ford car bumped from rut to rut, and the hot African sun poured down unmercifully.”

Were this a blog where I discussed all manner of pop culture issues, I’d open with a loud scream of joy that Doctor Who has finally taken a great step and cast a woman in the lead role. I, for one, cannot wait to see what Jodie Whittaker does with the part, and I fail to understand anyone who has considered themselves a fan of this show all the while a man has been central to it, yet has somehow failed to pick up on a single one of its messages about tolerance, peace and equality. As it is, this is a blog that deals mostly with books, so if you want more of my mad rantings about Doctor Who, follow me on Twitter. Here, we’re getting back to another superb woman – hello, Agatha.

While the Light Lasts collects together nine of her most disparate stories together for the first time. Published in 1997, it feels very much like an act of mopping up the few that were yet to have been captured, which isn’t a complaint. Most of these, if not all, were writing in the 1920s at the beginning of her career, and each of them sparkles with a promise of greater things to come. That’s not to say that these stories aren’t good on their own merit, they’re great, but ideas used here occur later in far more famous tales.

“The Actress”, for example, is about, what else, an actress who tries to take revenge against a blackmailer. Her method of doing so will reappear later in Evil Under the Sun. The titular story, “While the Light Lasts” takes on a new life in the romance novels she wrote under the name Mary Westmacott. Each story is accompanied by an afterword that explains further about the story and how it came to be. “The Edge” was written not long before Christie’s disappearance, and seems to lay bare many of the feelings she had at the time about her husband. “Christmas Adventure” has links to her childhood homes.

Perhaps the most interesting story is “Manx Gold”; not because it’s especially devious but because of how it came into being. The novel was written to contain clues for a very real treasure hunt on the Isle of Man. Conceived to boost tourism, the local council hid four “treasure chests” around the island and Christie then wrote a novel which showed characters trying to find them. The characters are successful in finding all four, and smart readers are able to hunt down all of them by following the clues within the text. In reality, only three of the prizes were found. While the story lacks some detail because at no point can the characters fully explain where they are or what they’re doing, it’s still compelling, and the truth behind the story is perhaps even more interesting.

Two of the stories here also contain supernatural elements that Christie occasionally employed, many of them gathered in The Hound of Death. Two more contain Poirot, but a couple contain no crime at all, especially “The Lonely God” which is about two lonely figures bonding over a statuette in the British Museum.

A charming collection and a quick read, enough to whet the appetite of any Christie fan.

“The Poisoned Chocolates Case” by Anthony Berkeley (1929)

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“Roger Sheringham took a sip of the old brandy in front of him and leaned back in his chair at the head of the table.”

During the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, dozens of authors tried their hands at writing murder mysteries. When Anthony Berkeley published this one, he attempted to subvert a genre that was saturating the market and yet was nowhere near being over. Agatha Christie had only published eight of her books by this time; Ngaio Marsh was yet to publish anything. However, the tricks and tropes of the genre were well-established, and so people were already playing with the conventions. Here, Berkeley does it with serious aplomb.

The murder in question here is that of Joan Bendix. Devotedly married to her husband Graham, they seem to have an ideal life, until a box of chocolates drops into their life. Joan is killed by poison hidden within the chocolates, and the police, led by Chief Inspector Moresby, are at a loss to explain who killed her. It seems, after all, that she was never to be the intended victim, as the chocolates had originally been delivered to Sir Eustace Pennefather. Disinclined to have a sweet tooth, he passed the chocolates onto Graham Bendix and he in turn gave them to his wife as a gift.

Stumped, Moresby calls upon his friend Roger Sheringham, who leads the notable group the Crimes Circle, a motley crew of amateur detectives who love nothing more than discussing crime and murders. Each is given exactly the same details that the police have, and sent out to test their skills – can they, in the space of a week, solve the crime that has plagued the police? The six amateurs – including a crime novelist, a dramatist and a lawyer – set about their task, but when all six of them return with six entirely different solutions, how can anyone be sure who the real killer is?

Berkeley does a great job at bringing up the fatal flaw in detective fiction. In most stories, whatever importance the detective hero ascribes to an object or clue is taken at face value and it is assumed that he is correct. The characters here, quite wonderfully, display that any clue can be taken in any number of ways. There are only three obvious clues here – the box of chocolates, the wrapping they came in, and the accompanying note sent to Pennefather – but the characters manage to construct whole theories based around these items.

Each theory is actually entirely compelling and believable, and it’s remarkable to see each character bring forward their solution, only to have it torn down by the next one. Each uses different methods, focuses on different aspects of the case, and comes up with an entirely different killer. Members of the Circle themselves are accused, and one of the characters even manages to build a watertight case against himself, thus showing the readers that anything can be “proven” if you look at the facts in a certain way.

Even more wonderfully, at the end of the original book, it becomes clear who really had the right answer, but that was then. In the 1970s, writer Christianna Brand who knew Berkeley penned her own ending, changing the outcome to a seventh villain. And in the new edition I have, published by the British Library, contains a brand new, never-before-seen ending written by the current president of the Detection Club, a very real version of the Crimes Circle that, over the years, was presided over by such luminaries as Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers. As such, with each new chapter we are given a new solution, meaning the book now contains eight alternative theories, each which could potentially have led to an arrest if used alone.

It is an outstanding piece of work, occasionally dry due to the language, but funny and clever enough to keep my attention. Anyone who loves a good mystery will find something to appeal to them here. In fact, I would compare it a little to the podcast Serial. Several of my friends listened to it and, with our own backgrounds in different fields, we each came up with different ideas as to what really happened.

A remarkable novel.

“The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud (2015)

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“Ready?”

Ah, comics. Sorry, “graphic novels”. I’ve never been one for superhero comics or anything sprung from that world, but visual stories are far more than that. I’ve not submerged myself in the world of graphic novels at all, but I dip a toe in now and again. I’ve read some Shakespeare adaptations in that form, and I’ve read Scott Pilgrim and am up to date with Saga, one of the best and strangest graphic novels around. Earlier this year I read the story of Agatha Christie’s life in the form. It’s definitely an area of publishing that seems to be maligned and ignored, although slowly they seem to be gaining slightly more prominence. I present to you today The Sculptor.

David Smith was once an admired artist, one of the greatest sculptors in America, if not the world. But times have changed and now he’s struggling to make ends meet, unable to create or have anyone show an interest in his work. He declares that he would give his life for his art, a statement he may come to regret.

He meets Death, who gives him that very option. If David takes up his offer, he will be able to create whatever he can imagine, just using his hands to mould any material he comes into contact with. However, if he chooses this path, he will die in two hundred days. David, so consumed by the desire to create, thinks that it can’t possibly be as bad as all that – he’ll achieve immortality with the art created from his new skills. Unfortunately, he’s just fallen in love, and time is ticking…

There are some stories that only work in certain mediums, and this is one that couldn’t possibly work as a traditional novel. It’s requires the visuals, and the old cliche of “a picture paints a thousand words” holds fast here. McCloud has a wonderful ability to use the right number of panels to set up anything, as well as setting up locations with great angles. In fact, I can see that it would work pretty well as a film, although I’d worry someone in a suit and a film studies degree meddling with it and adding or subtracting plot points. The story is plenty solid enough as it is. The artwork is beautiful, and McCloud balances well the panels that show us what’s going on without dialogue and those that contain speech.

It’s a really brilliant tale about how our obsessions consume us and to what extent we’ll go to do the things we love, no matter the cost. It’s a story of promises and carelessness, caution and mistakes, tragedy and art. I confess I even shed a tear towards the end. Graphic novels can move us just as much as a traditional novel. It’s heartbreaking and painful, but there’s a sense of hope among it, about making the most of our lives and accepting that we’re not all going to change the world, no matter how much we want it.

It’s a hefty tome, but I breezed through it in a couple of hours, lapping it up with great joy. It’s so real, and so vivid. If you think graphic novels aren’t for you, you could do worse than starting here.

“Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor (2013)

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“There have been two moments in my life when everything changed.”

Be honest, we all want a go in the TARDIS. Everyone has that one point in history they’d like to go back and experience first hand. For me, I’ve got several. I’d love to go and experience the London Frost Fair of 1814 (as seen in this week’s Doctor Who, incidentally), to hang out with the Ancient Greeks, and to have a picnic on a Jurassic hill, watching the sauropods pass by. We all know the rules though – look, don’t touch. This is the rule that has led to the creation of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, where we will be spending the duration of this review.

Madeline “Max” Maxwell is a history doctorate, specialising in Ancient History. With a slightly mysterious background, she is an expert in her field, and one day called upon by an old teacher, Mrs De Winter, to join St Mary’s. She soon discovers that this is historical research with a difference – they can go back in time and observe contemporaneously. After rigorous training and an entire shake-up of her worldview, Max is soon a qualified Historian, finding herself being sent back in time to get the real answers about history.

Along the way she falls for techie Leon Farrell, befriends many of her fellow St Mary’s recruits, and becomes one of the first humans to ever see the dinosaurs alive. But all is not as it seems, and Farrell has a secret. He is from the future, sent back to prevent a rival organisation from meddling with the timeline to fit their own means. Suddenly dinosaurs are the least of her worries.

This is such a neat concept, and one that has been twisted and shaken by most science fiction writers over time. I enjoy the concept of these jaunts into the past merely being observational and, of course, being human, they can’t help but intervene, with History all the while pushing back against the new arrivals and trying to ensure the timeline is kept in tact. There are also some genuinely funny quips and one-liners. However, and I wish I didn’t have to say this, there’s something distinctly lacking about the whole thing.

The plot is disjointed and sprints around all over the place, with occasional scenes added simply for the sake of it. I wonder if the books saw much in the way of an editor, and I was surprised to learn that while this book was published in 2013, the eighth installment was released last month, implying not much proofreading is going on. There are a couple of sections where the use of pronouns and lack of dialogue tags completely flummoxed me and I couldn’t work out who exactly was speaking, or who they were speaking about. The time frame, ironically for a book about the importance of time, is also unclear. The novel races through Max’s training, giving the impression (unless I missed it) that it’s all being undertaken in a matter of months, or even weeks. It becomes clear later that the novel has covered at least five years of time. The list of main characters in the front contains several of their ages, but it’s not clear at which point in the story they are the age noted.

Several times people seem to come to conclusions, make decisions or have knowledge of things that it seems they otherwise shouldn’t. Characters often go by two different names, depending on who’s speaking. There’s an unexpected fantastical addition towards the end of the novel, and at one point there’s suddenly an incredibly graphic sex scene out of the blue in an otherwise fairly chaste novel. Max’s own history is absent, with just a few mentions that lead us to surmise she had a terrible childhood and apparently doesn’t speak to any family, but it’s never made clear what the situation is. On the last few pages, something else entirely otherwise unmentioned happens and is supposedly important, but at the moment it’s hard to tell how.

I don’t want to put the whole series down, as there’s a good chance I’ll return here and see what happens next, but I think I expected better.

“The Circle” by Dave Eggers (2013)

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The circle must be completed.

The circle must be completed.

“My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.”

The Internet has changed the way we live in ways and to degrees that no one could ever have predicted. With a few clicks and taps, we can go shopping, share information, review products, communicate with people on the other side of the planet, tell the world about ourselves, pay bills, check our accounts, research topics and a myriad other things. Social media, Facebook, Twitter and the like, allow us to tell everyone what we’re thinking at any moment. Even more remarkably, we don’t even need to be in front a computer to access these powers now – we can be almost anywhere. But, really, is all of this for the good?

Mae Holland has just got a job – thanks to the string-pulling of her friend Annie – at The Circle, the vast corporation that controls most of the social media and online facets of the world, having subsumed Facebook, Google and everyone else sometime in the last six years. Users sign up using bank details and therefore there are no fake accounts anymore, and everyone can share their thoughts 24/7. Mae is employed at the campus in customer support where she must respond quickly to any of the advertisers who require help. But while she’s doing that, she’s got to attend all the non-mandatory but community-building events of the campus, share her own thoughts on everything, answer a constant stream of survey questions and read everyone else’s news feeds too.

While getting acclimatised, she meets two men who are curious about her, and she is fascinated by them. One is the clumsy but caring Francis, with a tragic past that has inspired his future goals, and the other is the strange, ethereal Kalden, a man who doesn’t even seem to exist anywhere in the Circle networks, but has access to everywhere on campus and is adamant that the circle must not be completed. Mae is enjoying her time at the campus, but when it comes to the attention of the bosses – the Three Wise Men – that she isn’t sharing quite as much as she could be, she becomes a cause for concern. As the Circle develops more and more ways to chip away at people’s privacy – all in the name of safety and community – Mae stumbles deeper into a network that is far greater than anything she could have imagined.

So, there is a lot in this book that owes itself to 1984, and probably Brave New World as well, and while I’ve read both, I remember more about the former. Like all good visions of the future, it brings into play our fears and concerns of the modern day. Already Fitbits and health trackers are worn by many, but in this book they become mandatory, measuring your heart rate, calorie intake and stress levels at all times. When the head honchos at the Circle develop SeeChange, tiny cameras that can be placed anywhere in the world without causing a distraction, the book really shows off its main conceit – that “secrets are lies”, and “privacy is theft”.

Mae begins as slightly unusual in this setting, as she doesn’t feel the need to share every waking moment of her life, which causes her colleagues and bosses some consternation. After discovering that Mae occasionally goes down to the bay to kayak by herself, they show genuine distress that there is absolutely no mention of this hobby on any of her networks – not one photo, zing (their version of a tweet), video or joined group that shows her interest in this. Why didn’t she tell anyone what happened when she visited her sick father that weekend? Could her experiences not help someone else who is dealing with a parent with MS? Determined to make her bosses happy, Mae quickly comes round to their way of thinking.

This book is terrifying. This is a world where secrets are seen as evil, and people believe that if anyone has a secret then they must be bad, because if all your thoughts and feelings were good, then why would you hide them? The Circle runs under the guise that knowing everything will lead us, as a species, to be our best selves, as there can be no crime or dishonesty when everything is known. It all makes perfect sense too, if you use that logic, but it’s misguided, and these people are in so deep that they might not be able to see the problems of this new technology.

The parallels between this and our world are also hammered home, but enjoyably so. The man behind the Circle’s foundation is Ty Gospodinov is a hoodie-wearing, rarely-seen expy of Mark Zuckerberg. The Circle campus, too, seems to be parodying Google’s campus, the Googleplex, with its laissez faire attitude – parties every night, thematic offices and general sense of “cool”. The company itself, while possibly having begun as a Facebook-like social network, now encompasses all areas of the Internet, and, like Google, is investing money in a myriad of other fields, such as self-driving cars, deep-sea exploration and crime prevention. Money makes the world go round.

As reality becomes more and more connected, we are perhaps not taking into account the issues of this level of information overload. Do we need to know everything? Are people’s opinions really that vital? Are secrets and lies necessary, even?

Far and away, this is the best book that I’ve read so far this year. It’s been a while since I read something that I could hardly put down, and even though it clocks in at around five hundred pages, it somehow didn’t feel long enough. Mirroring the issues the characters face, the information comes thick and fast, with speedy pacing, great narration and characters who couldn’t belong anywhere else, but fit this universe like a glove. It’s not just a novel – it’s a warning. This is the future, and it’s much closer than we think.

“The Seven Dials Mystery” by Agatha Christie (1929)

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It's murder o'clock...

It’s murder o’clock…

“That amiable youth, Jimmy Thesiger, came racing down the big staircase at Chimneys two steps at a time.”

Agatha Christie was absolutely known as an expert at plotting tight mysteries but it’s also hugely accepted that the woman couldn’t write thrillers. I beg to differ as anyone who has read The Secret Adversary knows (although perhaps not those who have seen the recent TV adaptation, which was good but very different from the original text). The reason for this reputation is because of this novel, The Seven Dials Mystery. A sequel of sorts to The Secret of Chimneys, containing the same location as the original and a return of a number of the characters (including one of my favourites, Lord Caterham), it is not your average thriller, simply because it is a parody of thrillers. No one at the time understood this and so Christie was written off as a thriller novelist, possibly simply because the big boys at the time couldn’t believe someone – let alone a woman – would mock them.

The novel opens with a group of young friends staying at Chimneys, a grand country house, as guests of the current occupants Lord and Lady Coote. One of them, Gerry Wade, has enormous trouble in waking up and getting down in time for breakfast so the others decide to play a prank on him. They purchase eight alarm clocks and, when Wade is asleep that night, set them up in his room to go off at intervals starting at 6.30 the following morning. Happy with their prank, they retire to bed.

But the next day it’s lunchtime and Gerry still hasn’t arrived downstairs. There’s no way he couldn’t have heard the noise as it woke everyone else up, so is he just stubbornly ignoring it? No. He’s dead. The group feel guilty about their prank, but there’s a further twist in the tale – the alarm clocks have been lined up on the mantelpiece and one of them is missing, leaving just seven. And when another member of the party is discovered dead, things begin to look very sinister, with everyone wondering if they’re next.

Gerry’s half-sister Loraine Wade, his friends Jimmy Thesiger and Bill Eversleigh, and the daughter of Chimneys’ owner, Bundle Brent, take it upon themselves to work out what happened. Bundle contacts Superintendent Battle who was so helpful to them when there was last a murder at Chimneys but he advises her to keep out of it. When she refuses to do so, she and her fellow amateur sleuths stumble into a world of secret societies, highly valuable political secrets, and more trouble than they quite know what to do with.

So why is this not considered a thriller? It contains a secret society, eager young girls, fast cars, loaded guns and the threat of Communism looming over everyone’s heads, so surely it perfectly fits the bill? Unfortunately, as mentioned above, Christie was, to put it bluntly, pretty much taking the piss. Oh, she was definitely not a revolutionary figure by any stretch of the imagination – she spoke poorly of the lower classes and there are definite racial undertones to some of her earlier works.

But above all, and what people forget given her reputation as a private individual, is that she was very funny. She had a hugely dry sense of humour, notable in both the Poirot and Marple novels in particular. Christie here takes the basis of what we expect from a thriller, and with the sleight of hand of the finest magician inserts her own twists and turns into it, meaning that by the end what we expect to happen doesn’t and, once again, the rug is pulled from under our feet and we are left in awe at what she manages to achieve. If written today, this would be considered postmodern and meta-fictional, so it’s way ahead of its time. It’s even something of a feminist piece, with the men routinely having to be saved by the more daring and intelligent women.

Above all, though, this does work as a thriller, a mystery and a comedic piece of work. The laughs start as we chuckle at the hapless aristocracy, and the narrator’s asides about what does and doesn’t need to be mentioned. It isn’t actually unlike a Jeeves and Wooster story, the language being more akin to that of Wodehouse. Perhaps the funniest moment comes when Bundle is proposed to by someone she’d rather not marry, and not knowing how to say no without breaking the rules of etiquette, merely gives a flat response of “no” and jumps out of the window. The only thing perhaps funnier than that is her suitor’s message to her father saying that she is merely coming around to the idea.

It’s an early one, but it’s one of the best. Christie has hit her stride and she’s away, with no end in sight for a good fifty years yet. And I’ve only got nineteen left to go…

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