Choose Your Own Adventure for Grown-ups

Photo by Sushiesque on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Did you read these as a kid?  I had one that was about a mystery in a horse stable (Google tells me it was #127, Showdown.)  These type of books are sometimes called “gamebooks,” because the narrative structure allows you to participate in the story by making choices.  There are multiple plot threads and endings to the story, which can be “good” or “bad.” It can even end with you dying!

These books were targeted at young teens, but I read two books recently that update this concept in a more mature fashion, though each in a distinct way.

Jane, Unlimited

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This novel, the latest release by Graceling author Kristin Cashore, was originally written in the second person as a choose-your-own-adventure with five different possible endings.  However, in the revision process the protagonist developed into the titular Jane, and the different endings, which split off about a quarter of the way through the book, should be read in order to get the most out of them.

The story begins with Jane being invited for a visit to the island mansion Tu Reviens; her late beloved Aunt Magnolia curiously made her promise to go there if she ever got the chance.  At Tu Reviens, Jane’s curiosity gets her embroiled in a number of mysteries, and each of the different ending spin out of which one she chooses to tackle first.  Though she’s struggling to find her place in the world, Jane is a fun and quirky protagonist; she likes Doctor Who and Winnie-the-Pooh and makes umbrellas as a hobby.  She also reads as bisexual, though the romance aspects are relatively minor.

In short, don’t judge this one by the ugly cover.  It’s one of the most creative books I’ve read this year.  Though the endings build on each other, each one also takes on qualities of a specific genre: heist story, spy drama, psychological thriller, sci-fi, and fantasy.  I don’t want to say too much else, just be ready to hold on and enjoy the ride.

One neat concept that is threaded through the endings, and is in fact tied to the choose-your-own-adventure format, is the idea of a multiverse: summed up by one character, “everything that could conceivably happen does happen, somewhere, in alternate universes across the multiverse.”

“…every time something happens, everything else that could have happened in that moment also happens, causing new universes to break off from the old universe and come into being.  So there are multiple versions of us, living different lives than the ones we live, across multiple universes, making every decision we could possibly make.  There are versions of us we wouldn’t even like, and some we’d barely recognize.”

It’s a great concept, and one that makes me want to re-read Jane, Unlimited to really appreciate its depth.  Is each ending taking place in a different dimension?  Is one of those dimensions “ours?”  There is some evidence that says yes…and some that says no.

Lastly, this book owes a lot to two classic Gothic stories of “orphan comes to a house of mystery:” Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, which has inspired me to read and re-read them, respectively (they are both also selections for the Great American Read).  There are a few other interesting literary and artistic references as well.

My Lady’s Choosing

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This entertaining book is billed as an “interactive romance novel.”  It reminded me greatly of the old Choose Your Own Adventure format.  You begin the story as a penniless companion to Lady Craven and can go on to have any number of adventures including getting kidnapped in the Egyptian desert, delivering a foal in the Scottish Highlands, visiting a London brothel, and staying at a creepy Gothic manor.

There are four main love interests that you can end up with: Lady Evangeline, Lord Craven, Sir Benedict, and Captain McTaggart.  Each has several storylines and endings, plus there are a few other “side” endings you can also choose.  My favorite was ending up with Kamal, the nerdy curator of Lady Evangeline’s Cairo museum of artifacts.  We also have “many adorably studious children.”

This is not a serious romance book, but rather a bit of a satire of one.  It pokes fun at Regency romance tropes, including using a plethora of terrible puns and creative euphemisms in the sexy parts.  I found it absolutely hilarious, possibly because I read a lot of Regency romance.  If you would laugh at phrases like “a vision of Scottish virility” and “You kiss as though you are discovering islands off each other’s hidden coasts,” plus a mansion named “Manberley,” you are in the right place.

The “choose” points come up pretty frequently, and have hilarious little flavor text such as:

What, did you actually think you could fight off four enormous henchmen single-handed? Come on now.  Think of a better plan and turn to this page.

I was reading this on a Kindle which was an interesting experience for a choose-your-own-adventure.  It was nice because of the automatic links at the choose points that immediately direct you where you want to go.  But the links also mean there is no easy way to go back one choice and try a different path, which I used to do in the print versions by holding pages.  You’d have to keep making and deleting bookmarks or something.

I read through many of the endings because I was having so much fun.  I don’t think I would buy this book to read again, but it was definitely good for a few hours of entertainment.

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A Darker Shade of Magic

After I had my kid last year, I was kind of in a reading slump.  A good 80% of my reading was being done only on my Kindle between the hours of 11pm-6am while feeding the little Jedi, and I was reading mostly Regency romance novels.  There is nothing wrong with romance novels; it is simply a very uncharacteristic choice for me, a habitual reader of fantasy and sci-fi. In any case, I felt like I was missing something.  I guess I was missing the way I used to read.

A Darker Shade of Magic was the book, and then the series, that released me from my slump.  From the first chapters I knew it was going to be special, just as countless other bloggers and readers had told me.

Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black. (Goodreads)

As an ambassador (and the adopted son) of the king of Red London, Kell is tasked with visiting both the brutal monarchs of White London (and their Antari Holland) as well as George III of Grey London.  But he also runs an inter-world smuggling business on the side, and when a hand-off goes wrong he gets mixed up with Grey London street thief Lila Bard and a magical conspiracy that spans all four worlds.

This series has many strengths (world building and a neat magic system, an exciting and suspenseful plot), but to me its biggest asset is its characters.  Kell and Lila are so well crafted they feel real, and the supporting cast has wonderful depth as well—particularly Holland, Kell’s brother Rhy, and the pirate Alucard.

Kell with red coat
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Lila with knives

Kell is probably my favorite character, and he reminded me strongly of another favorite character of mine: Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist.  Both Kell and Ed are completely dedicated to their brothers, willing to do anything to protect them.  They both have serious personalities, their default expression generally being kinda frowny.  They both do magic by drawing circles.  And of course, they both have awesome red coats.

Edward Elric from FMA

Lila is another fun one.  Her dream in life is to have a ship and be a pirate, and she prefers wearing men’s clothes.  I pictured her in my head looking a bit like Tilda from Into the Badlands because of her hair and knives, but her personality is really more like MK, impulsive and a bit immature.

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Tilda with sharp objects
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You should watch this show, too.

I loved the pacing of the trilogy, because a lot of the plot structure remind me of the Star Wars original trilogy.  Vitari and Osaron kind of reminded me of the first and second Death Stars.  The Essen Tasch in the second book was like Lila’s version of Luke’s Dagobah training.  And the cliffhanger ending of that same book, where Lila rushes off to help a captured friend, is straight out of The Empire Strikes Back.  I loved that cliffhanger, which is such a weird thing to say when normally people hate them.

My only real complaints about the series are that I didn’t get a real “Regency” vibe from it, especially Lila who’s from our London but doesn’t use any thieves’ cant or anything, and also that perhaps the last bit of the third book was not quite as tight as the rest.  But I felt satisfied with the ending.  I’m already planning to buy the series so I can see those beautiful covers sitting on my shelf and relive the magic whenever I want.

Review: The Prince and the Dressmaker

I’m not reading a lot of print books right now, but I’m glad I made time for this cute tale.  The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang is a graphic novel for all ages with charming artwork and a message about being yourself and accepting others for who they are.

The two title characters are good friends Sebastian and Frances.  By day, Sebastian is a prince whose parents are trying to make a royal match for him; by night, he is Lady Crystallia, and Frances is the dressmaker who makes Crystallia’s fashion dreams come to life with her creations.  But Sebastian is continually worried that his secret will get out, and Frances starts to worry that she will never be able to reach her full potential.

Of course, they do manage to find their way through their troubles together, leading to an entertaining happy ending.

Frances and Sebastian

The writing and art go well together, whether it’s a scene of heartfelt and endearing simplicity…

…or a scene bursting with Parisian fashion and glamour.

Although I’m not an expert on LGBT literature, I thought Sebastian’s cross-dressing/genderfluidity was handled well.  Rather than discussing labels or gender pronouns as a contemporary story might do, it comes at it from a more organic perspective, letting Sebastian and the other characters tell their own truths with plain and honest language.  Sebastian explains:

“Some days I look at myself in the mirror and think, ‘That’s me, Prince Sebastian! I wear boy clothes and look like my father.’ Other days it doesn’t feel right at all. Those days I feel like I’m actually a princess.”

I would definitely recommend checking out this charming story.  I have a feeling it will be one of the most popular graphic novels this year.

 

Review: Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card

34713646Most fans of anime will tell you that there was a “gateway drug,” so to speak: one show that hooked them and got them into the medium of anime in general.  Ask people of my generation, and they will name shows like Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon as shows still hold a special place in their hearts.

For me, it was Cardcaptor Sakura by CLAMP.

From my first viewing of the terrible English dub Cardcaptors, I was hooked.  The manga, with two story arcs of six volumes each, was even better, and remains to this day my favorite manga.  I own two versions of it, a boxed set of the volumes and an omnibus edition.  If you like magical girl anime, it doesn’t get any better than CCS.

When I heard a few months ago that CLAMP was putting out new volumes of Cardcaptor Sakura, I screamed so loud my husband came to ask me what was wrong.  Wrong?  Nothing’s wrong!  This is only the best day of my life!

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The first volume of Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card is now available in English, with more to follow in the next months, and the anime is currently running in simulcast on Crunchyroll and in “simuldub” on Funimation.  I have not seen the anime yet, but I devoured the first manga volume when I got it for my birthday recently.

The Clear Card story arc picks up exactly where the Sakura Card story arc left off.  The first chapter expands on the last scene of the last manga, where Syaoran surprises Sakura on her way to middle school, saying he’s returned to Tomoeda to stay for good.

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S+S shippers rejoice!

The story continues in a very familiar fashion, hiting all the typical Cardcaptor Sakura beats: a mysterious figure appearing in Sakura’s dreams, strange forces working in Tomoeda, new cards (this time they are transparent), a new, upgraded staff, and of course new costumes made by Tomoyo-chan!  All of Sakura’s friends and family are back as well.  I like that it has such a familiar feel, and I can’ wait to see what twists and turns are coming as the story develops more.  What secrets are Syaoran and Eriol keeping?

The artwork remains absolutely gorgeous.  There are so many beautiful large panels and two page spreads that really let you appreciate the art.

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Release!

I really enjoyed the experience of reading this volume, because for me it was the first time reading a CCS manga without having seen the anime first.  I’m sure I will watch the anime soon, maybe even before reading more volumes, but it was kinda fun to have an “all new” manga to read.

The only thing I found slightly jarring was the incorporation of modern technology in the story, like smart phones, email, and texting.  While it was worked seamlessly into the story, it was just surprising to me because the story takes place immediately after the original volumes which were produced in the 90s and therefore barely had the concept of primitive mobile phones. So it was a big jump forward in technology with no jump forward in time.  However, I don’t think they could have handled it any better and it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story.

Basically, it’s just wonderful to be back in the CCS world after fifteen years away.  And this volume has only just whet my appetite for more.  This is just the beginning!

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2017 Reading Review

I was fortunate that I got to read approximately 100 books this year (not counting re-reads).  Unfortunately, I did not find much time to review many of them.  I enjoyed another year of the bimonthly GeekyNerdy Book Club which expanded my reading selections (look for one last post for the year presently).

Here are a few books I’d like to highlight from this year’s reading.

Most-read author

8367225This title is awarded to Georgette Heyer.  This year I went on a huge Regency Romance kick (a plurality of the books I read fall into this category), and part of that was discovering this wonderful author whose wit and historical detail is unrivaled in the genre.  I read 21 of her historical romances, and I look forward to reading more in the future.  The Grand Sophy was the one that really got me hooked, and it’s a great place to start for anyone intersted.  I recommend her work to anyone who loves Jane Austen as I do.

YA trilogies:

I read a lot of YA fantasy, and I find the vast majority of it enjoyable.  However, it’s rare to find a series as well-written as Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy.  It wasn’t entirely my style, being a bit too dark and Gothic, but I really felt there was a depth to the story not often seen in YA fantasy.  In particular, I liked the author developed themes of free will, including the use of classic literature.  And the characters are surprisingly diverse considering it is set in a girls’ school in Victorian England.

This series was translated from the original German a few years ago, and it is one I definitely stayed up late reading.  Though nominally set in contemporary times, the main character is a time traveler trying to uncover a conspiracy, so we get to travel to several different time periods in the course of the books.  I was so impressed with how well all the time traveling fits together over the series; the author clearly plotted the whole thing out very well beforehand.  It’s also really fun for all the mysteries to be revealed over the course of the books.  The characters can be a bit emo at times, but hey, they’re teenagers.

Classic YA Fantasy:

8464112I can’t believe I had never heard of these two short novels (published in ebook format together), let alone read them.  The first book introduces the rebel Mel on her quest to overthrow a corrupt king with the help of her brother and their people…and some unexpected help along the way.  The second book sees brash Mel getting an education in the subtle politics and court life of the capital city.  There’s also a wonderful slow-burn romance.  Each book has a slightly different tone, but they work beautifully either together or separately.  The characters and wordbuilding in particular are memorable.  It really gave me vibes of The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, which is high praise indeed.

15722552I came across this series after it was recommended to me by Purple Pumpernickel on my Regency Romance post earlier this year.  I love Patricia Wrede, author of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, so I was excited to pick this up, and I was not disappointed.  There’s plenty of magic, mystery, adventure, and a bit of romance and whimsy.  It is told in epistolary form, as a series of letters between cousins Kate and Cecelia, with each author writing one character.  An unusual form, but it really works here, especially feeding into the Regency setting.

Non-fiction:

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For the GNBC I enjoyed reading As You Wish (Cary Elwes’s memoir of making The Princess Bride) and Carrie Fisher’s Shockaholic

The most affecting nonfiction I read this year was the best-selling Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.  It tells of the author’s upbringing in rural West Virginia and Ohio, surrounded by poverty, family dysfunction, drugs, and declining jobs.  Vance eventually made it “out,” but in some ways these parts of his youth will stick with him his whole life.  I thought this might be a dry read, but it was anything but.  I read it as fast as a novel.

Much has been made of the divide in the US between urban and rural, blue state and red state, haves and have-nots.  This book does not do much to put forward ideas to solve any of the problems of drugs or lack of jobs affecting communities like Vance’s, but that’s not really its point.  Its point is to help us better understand why these communities live the way they do, and to have some empathy for them without judging them.  I can’t say it changed my political views or anything, and I already understood some of these concepts from living in Ohio, but it really did make me think and expand my worldview while being an engaging read.

You can check out the other books I reviewed this year with the Book Review category (click here) or the GNBC tag (click here).  There was a distinct lack of sci-fi on my reading list this year, so hopefully that will change in 2018.  I also read some contemporary YA and some comics, and hopefully I’ll be writing more about those in the future.

 

Here’s to more great books in the new year.  What books did you enjoy most in 2017?