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The days of the straightforward Bildungsroman are over. Charles Dickens pretty much exhausted the subject completely with his comprehensive telling and re-telling of the childhoods, adolescences and adult lives of a myriad characters, from David Copperfield to Martin Chuzzlewit .These days, for a Bildungsroman to capture the imagination, it must include some aspects of the unknown or the unusual. For examples, see J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, whose protagonist recounts his tale from the confines of an undefined mental facility, or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, whose main character grows up through a rapidly changing society and alongside the principle proponent of its change.
Never Let Me Go falls into this category as well, due to its realistic depiction of the coming of age of three children in a situation that is thankfully (at least, at the time of writing), detached from our reality.
Since its nomination for the Man Booker Prize in 2005, it has been converted into a Hollywood movie, which I must confess to not having yet watched. However, just to clarify: this is a review of the book, not the film, of Never Let Me Go .
From the outset of the novel, the story is presented through the eyes of Kathy, a care worker of unspecified specialisation, as she looks back over her life. We can estimate Kathy’s age to be around 30, and the novel is divided into three subsections: “Childhood”, “Adult” and “Donor”.
The very beginning of the book does not give any clues as to the unusual subject matter and it appears, initially, that the narrative is just one more reflective faux-memoir.
However, clues creep in as the story progresses, with the words “donor”, “carer” and “completion” cropping up often and a heavy emphasis placed on the physical well-being of the children. Their teaching seems to focus heavily on the arts – especially the creation of arts, in all of its forms – and next to nothing is taught about practical life skills or scientific or mathematical knowledge.
Furthermore, the increasingly unhinged and unsettling episodes of “Miss Lucy”, who clearly is torn between being entirely honest with her young charges and the requirements of her job and orders from her superiors, give further clues as to the unorthodox nature of Hailsham (the school which the children attend).
Indeed, it is Miss Lucy herself who eventually reveals the fates of the students – they are being merely bred to serve as organ donors for “normals” (presumably, everyday members of society like the reader). Miss Lucy’s frequent breaks from protocol ultimately end in her dismissal.
The story then progresses on to the adolescence and blossoming adulthood of the trio, as they are transferred to The Cottages. The relative squalor and uncomfortable nature of the new location, alongside interactions with teenagers from other schools besides Hailsham, reveal that their education and lifestyle there was vastly different and much more luxurious than most of their contemporaries.
Finally, the third segment focuses on the lives of the three central characters after they have left the education system and have become either carers or donors. In the interim, a period of ten years has passed since they last saw each other and the state of their respective relationships has changed dramatically, as have they, in some cases.
On the one hand, Never Let Me Go is simply the skilful and emotive narration of the course of Kathy’s life, from her confused childhood through her inquisitive adolescence, through to her gradual maturation and her role as a carer.
Kathy’s development is mirrored by that of her two closest friends, Tommy and Ruth, and, specifically, in the relationships between these three. Ruth’s selfishness jars with Kathy’s self-effacement and well-intentioned efforts to help others, with Tommy acting as the hapless middleman between the two.
Ishiguro’s relation of specific events and anecdotes, and the feelings that these invoked in Kathy, add a layer of truth and believability to the story, which readers can both relate to and sympathise with.
However, this careful manipulation of emotions and sensibilities is merely a foil for the greater theme of the novel – the ethics of genetic engineering, and specifically the ethics of creating or “harvesting” human clones with the specific purpose of using their healthy organs to save others.
By presenting the clones’ side of the story, Ishiguro skilfully condemns such ideas (although, thankfully, in our world, they are not in practice… yet) and invites the reader to reach similarly damning conclusions, all without specifically stating his abhorrence. Instead, he focuses on their humanity and draws us into empathising with them, thus establishing them as equals and therefore the treatment of them as unfair and perhaps even barbaric.
In this manner, Ishiguro is able to make profound criticisms of genetic engineering, without becoming bogged down in the technicalities or coming off as preachy or pretentious. Though Ruth might be seen as a callous and selfish figure, who only repents when it is too late, the implicit message is that the unseen populace (i.e. us) are the real monsters, for allowing such sacrifices to be made and such abuses to be committed.
A fantastic read which engages the reader of an emotional level and rings true with our own experiences, yet with a hidden condemnation of a practice that hopefully will never become a reality.
Brilliant anecdotal writing which elicits sympathy and absorption in the characters from the reader; a subtle but damning view of a touchy subject without explicitly condemning it; novel subject matter.
The ending, somewhat bleak and inconclusive as it is, may leave some readers unsatisfied.
If you can’t stop thinking about the respective plights and fates of Kathy, Ruth, Tommy – or indeed any of the donors – and want to discuss the finer points of the story, please do so below.Why not even mimic the summary format of the last part of my article? That way you can also create a book review for Never Let Me Go in an abridged and stress-free form.
I’d genuinely love to get involved in a dialogue about what the book meant to you, as an individual.