Diary in a dark world: Never Let Me Go – By Kazuo Ishiguro

Dystopian, Fictional Memoir, Romance, Sci-Fi

I was around two-thirds of the way through Frankenstein when I realised I had barely read in a week. I’d enjoyed the book up until halfway, at which point I often found myself re-reading the same paragraphs, forcing myself to go on. I was in a rut. Whether this was due to the book or my state of mind I’m not sure, but I wanted to get out of it. Looking up at my stack of books for inspiration, I realised almost immediately what I should read. I’d bought Never Let Me Go a while ago after hearing about the book and the even more popular film. It’d been sitting on my shelf for a while, and for no particular reason, I had never got around to reading it.


Never Let Me Go is set in a darkly distorted version of our present – too familiar to be dystopian, but not quite true-to-life enough to be realistic fiction. The book centres on three students’ childhood in a picturesque boarding school and their lives after leaving, following their friendships and romances. Written from the near future, the narrative meanders spontaneously as Kathy H, the narrator, recalls memories from her past. It reminds me of a diary – descriptive, but not boring; somewhat digressive, with one anecdote leading on to the next, but not difficult to follow. Although it’s hard to put my finger on how, the book is definitely well written whilst also remaining highly readable – a rare feat.

Before starting the book, I read the cover’s review excerpts; one described the novel’s subject as ‘ourselves, seen through a glass, darkly.’ (Margaret Atwood, Slate.com) When I began reading, however, I was confused – I struggled to recognise any of our society reflected in the book’s skewed world. It was only as more details were revealed, near the end of the book, that the setting stopped being a distant horrific fantasy, but became conceivable, something that I could imagine happening. I was left with a scary thought, a dismal vision for the world’s future.

Overall, Never Let Me Go is a fantastic book – readable, well-written, and a familiar narrative with thought-provoking themes running beneath the surface. I would recommend the book to those who enjoy books largely about relationships; it is also great for people who like dark, somewhat dystopian stories.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (7)

Pace: Slow/Medium

Buy at Waterstones (UK)

Buy on Amazon (UK)

Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)

Buy on Amazon (US)

Depressed Dystopia: The Program – by Suzanne Young

Dystopian, Romance

Often in dystopian books, one destructive force – usually an evil leader, government or science experiment – is held responsible for the world’s problems. In The Program‘s case, Sloane, the protagonist, blames epidemic teenage depression and the government’s extreme measures to combat it. She dreams of a better life without these issues, convinced that they are the root of her troubles. This is implausible, even in a fictional setting. If mental illnesses were somehow cured and the government was reformed or replaced, wouldn’t other difficulties still exist? Yes, life would be better – but it certainly wouldn’t be perfect. The irony of dystopian novels is their surprising proximity to utopian ones: they describe worlds in which everything would be perfect, if only for the elimination of a handful of difficulties. Sloane’s tunnel vision, perhaps due to the gravity of her circumstances, means that she is unable to look past them. Is this done to simplify the reader’s experience, or to encourage appreciation of their own reality? This naive approach makes for an enjoyable read. People like a black-and-white world, desperate to grasp onto something, or someone, to point the finger at. Although there’s no doubt that I love reading YA dystopias, this is their fatal flaw, a common feature that often defines them as lower-quality books.

Despite this fault, I enjoyed the book, finishing it in days (which is quick for me). Likeable – although complex and confused – characters, an interesting plot line and frustrating developments that, increasingly, create dramatic irony (the reader knows much more about the ‘bigger picture’ than the protagonist and her peers do) impelled me to read on. I struggled, however, to appreciate the extent – even the existence – of the depression experienced by many characters. From what I understand, depression is powerful yet ephemeral. It can’t simply be characterised (as this book does) by someone repeatedly doodling black spirals or vacantly staring into the distance. This lack of description and dimension diminished The Program‘s credibility and intrigue; although this could have been intentional (to make a mystery of the illness or suggest the government’s incompetence to properly cure the illness), I’m not convinced.

On the whole, I loved the characters and was captivated by the plot, but the writing is lacklustre, over-dramatised, and at times ‘world-building’ is flimsy. Read if you’re looking for a standard YA dystopia, but don’t be disappointed by its mediocrity.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA (6)

Writing: AAAAA (5)

Pace: Medium/Slow

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Buy on Amazon (US)

The Maze Runner (Book 1) – By James Dashner

Dystopian, Romance, Sci-Fi

The premise of The Maze Runner is complicated, but well-established: Thomas wakes up in a dark elevator, which eventually opens in a courtyard with dozens of teenage boys staring accusingly at him. He can’t remember his former life or why he was there, and is utterly confused about the other boys’ acceptance of their adversity. Even more perplexing is his innate attraction to becoming a runner – a dangerous job that involves running around The Maze to map it, in the hopes of finding an escape from their predicament. When Gally takes an instant dislike to Thomas, claiming he had seen him before, the others become suspicious and start to question the new boy’s innocence; as uncertainty and unrest propagate, blame is laid on Thomas, who many see as the trigger, the root of all their problems.

After seeing the film (shamefully, I often see the film before I read the book when it comes to YA), I was worried I’d find the book boring. But, although it took away from the suspense, I enjoyed it nonetheless – the plot and setting are what really made it. Dashner’s extensive ‘world-building’ and engrossing plot kept me reading when I otherwise would have given up long before – because apart from these attributes, it wasn’t a great book. Concise chapters are employed to maintain interest and anticipation, which, although effective, become tiresome and often feel forced. Additionally, suspense is sometimes unnecessarily (and clumsily) re-built at the end of a chapter:

“And then something rounded the corner… Something unspeakable. A Griever.”

Suspense had already been built – and with more skill – earlier on when the Grievers (fictional mechanical monsters) were approaching; Dashner’s by now familiar two-word sentences were redundant, even injurious. Apart from Thomas, who is somewhat credible and interesting, and offers an insight into a typical teenage boy’s mind, the characters are largely two-dimensional, underdeveloped and cliche: there isn’t enough opportunity for Teresa to be fleshed out, and I found sympathising with Chuck difficult because of his personality’s lack of substance and appeal.

As a whole, The Maze Runner has a great, engrossing plot and intriguing setting, but is clunkily (see what I did there? – you’ll know what i’m referencing if you’ve read it) written. For someone like me who enjoys character- over plot-driven books, it’s disappointing. However, I think you’d enjoy it if you like Hunger Games-esque books and a lightning-fast pace.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA (7)

Writing: AAAA (4)

Pace: Fast

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Another Hunger Games? The Selected – by Kiera Cass

Dystopian, Romance

The Selected, a dystopian YA romance, sounds anything but unique. Lovable, grounded female lead? Check. Two attractive love interests? Check. A protagonist who gains fame and opportunity by chance, yet wants neither? Check. Its similarities with The Hunger Games are unnumbered – I felt like I’d read parts of it before. Yet despite all of these things, I powered through it at break-neck speed: I was desperate to know what would happen, even though the plot was fairly predictable; I couldn’t help myself loving it, sucked into the fandom like so many others.

Set in the future United States, The Selection is about America, who works as a musician, born into a family of artists with low social status. The book opens soon after a notice has been sent out to the teenaged girls of Illéa (their country), inviting them to sign up to a competition, the Selection, in the hopes of winning the heart of Prince Maxon, and being made his wife and Queen. 35 girls are chosen – ostensibly randomly – to live in the palace, where they will meet the prince and train to become a member of the aristocracy. However, America might be the only girl in the country who has no interest in being one of the Selected – in fact, it’s her worst nightmare, because it would mean leaving her secret love Aspen; after a series of unexpected events, she meets Prince Maxon, and all of her certainties disintegrate.

I’ll be the first to admit that the book doesn’t sound especially promising from the synopsis, and there’s no question that the plot is often predictable, and the characters two-dimensional. As I’ve said, the book definitely has its problems, but – not to be condescending – you kind of expect these things from a YA book. As I approached it with such low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised: the characters were more realistic, the plot was more interesting, and the setting better established than I had hoped; what really made the book was that it exceeded my expectations. So what if it’s not the next War & Peace? It’s not meant to be! It’s a fun, enjoyable YA book that offers an entertaining, easy-to-relate-to escape from life; it does its job well!

Regarding its likeness to The Hunger Games, it’s important to point out that, although the worlds and plots are alike, they are portrayed in different lights and from contrasting perspectives. America isn’t looking to lead a rebellion – in fact, she fears the rebels and is perplexed as to what they’re angry about (despite being a slave to the country’s merciless caste system). Unlike the famed Katniss, The Selection‘s protagonist is only interested in love, and perhaps charity – they’re all she knows.

I commend this book to anyone who loves a good dystopian YA, especially The Hunger Games – but with plenty of romance and no gruesome fighting. It’s short, fairly fast-paced and very easy to read; I don’t suggest it to those who don’t like YA books, or those which are ‘plot-based’ (rather than ‘writing-based’: merited for their good writing, not an interesting plot).

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA (6)

Writing: AAAAA (5)

Pace: Medium/Fast

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Only Ever Yours – by Louise O’Neill

Dystopian

Only Ever Yours is a dystopian book about a world in which women, called ‘eves’, are designed and synthetically produced (instead of being born naturally), their sole purpose being to satisfy the needs of men. Eves are brought up in schools by strict teachers, called ‘Chastities’, who train them in the arts of pleasing men. At graduation, the most highly ranked eves are made ‘companions’, living with their husbands and breeding sons until no longer useful. The narrator, freida, (the eves’ names are not capitalized, highlighting their irrelevance in the society) has been best friends with isabel since her design, but as the pressure to be perfect mounts up, isabel starts to seemingly give up, gaining weight, and the girls who were once so close rapidly drift apart. freida, determined to remain popular, betrays her only true friend.

The world in which Only Ever Yours is set is an interesting and insightful exaggeration of our culture today; it warns us of what is to come if we don’t change our ways. After reading the blurb and the first couple pages, I had high hopes and an already strong interest in the book’s plot and characters. However, by its middle, my hopes remained unfulfilled: the characters lacked dimension, and the plot was repetitive and slow-paced. Overall, the book left me underwhelmed: characters needed more depth, particularly isabel, who was not as intriguing and intelligent as she evidently was intended to be. The icing on the cake for me was the irritatingly inconclusive ending: after suffering through 380 depressing pages, I was offered no mercy or closure. Perhaps it was for ‘effect’; I think, however, it was simply a cop-out. The book had great potential to be heart-wrenching and thought-provoking, but was unfortunately badly executed.

Despite this somewhat negative review, I think you might enjoy this if you like YA books, particularly those about women’s position in society. It’s quite slow-placed at times, so I definitely would not recommend this book for people who prefer fast-paced books.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAA

Pace: Slow/Medium 

Catalyst – By Helena Coggan

Dystopian, Sci-Fi

Catalyst is about a world that is divided between the magically Gifted and the non-magical Ashkind. The protagonist, Rose Elmsworth, is a Gifted, with a dangerous secret about her identity. When an old enemy of her father threatens to reveal her secret, she must betray her loved ones in order to protect them.

Every detail in Catalyst has been intricately thought out; the sheer credulity alone struck me as quite spectacular, rivalling hugely popular trilogies like Divergent and The Hunger Games. However, at times, I felt the characters fell flat, and I lost interest in them. Nonetheless, I always managed to be drawn into the story in some way, and by the end I was desperate for a sequel.

I would recommend this book for people who like sci-fi, fantasy or dystopian books, as it occupies all of these genres. It’s a fairly light read on terms of readability,which is expected from a YA book. This book is suitable for 11-year-olds and older.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAA

Pace: Medium/Fast

Noughts and Crosses – By Malorie Blackman

Dystopian

Noughts and Crosses approaches the sensitive and ever relevant topic of racism in a unique way: cutting to to its core, by  describing a society where black people are superior over whites. Living in this society are two childhood friends: Callum, who is white, or a ‘nought’, and Sephy, who is black, or a ‘cross’. As they grow up together, they fall in love, desperately fighting the powers of ignorance, innocence and discrimination that fuel strong social barriers.

This book illustrates and reveals how hard and deep discrimination and racist views are dug into society, and how difficult it is to break them down. Blackman does this in a readable, absorbing way; however, she uses somewhat ‘pedestrian’ language, utilizing lots of clichés and common sayings. This cast a slightly ‘cringey’ atmosphere in the book. Perhaps Blackman did this to make parts of the story more casual and relatable, but I found it to be irritating, trivializing parts that would otherwise have been serious.

You would enjoy Noughts and Crosses if you want to read a book on the topic of racism, but are looking for a light, readable way to learn about it. You would also like this book if you like Young Adult books. I would recommend this book for eleven-year-olds and older.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAA

Pace: Medium/Fast

The Matched Series – By Ally Condie

Dystopian, Romance

The Matched Series is a dystopian romance about Cassia, a teenage girl who lives in the Society, where the deterministic government have taken away choice and decide everything for its citizens. Cassia has always believed in the Society, and when she is matched to her best friend Xander, her belief grows ever stronger… until another face flashes on the matching screen for just a moment. Suddenly she has a choice thrust upon her. Who will she choose? Xander or Ky? The Society or rebellion?

The Matched books: Matched, Crossed and Reached, are beautifully constructed, especially Reached, because it is narrated in turn by each of the three main characters: Cassia, Xander and Ky. Perhaps you could guess which partner she will choose, as this choice has existed since The Garden of Eden, between the accepted and approved, and the illicit and forbidden. What makes this version of the famous dilemma different is the way the choice manifests why she made it.

This book is good for people who like easy-reading, dystopian books, and romantic novels. This book is not good for people who want brilliant pieces of literature, or very slow or fast-paced books. I would recommend the Matched Series for people 12 years old and older.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAA

Pace: Medium