And Now For Something Completely Different

Amidst the novels and short stories, there’s a type of tale that’s often overlooked and forgotten about.  It seemed to be more popular twenty years ago, though you still occasionally see new ones.  This is, of course, the Choose Your Own Adventure, a page-turning classic adventure that puts the reader in the driver’s seat.  If you’re unfamiliar, a CYOA presents the reader with a bit of story, ranging from one paragraph to several pages, and then offers options.  Each choice they could make directs them to a different page, and a different path the story can take.  It’s a more interactive type of book, having much in common with the old text-based adventure games.

Most of the CYOA’s I’ve read have a specific goal in mind, and story paths that don’t lead there end up in dead ends, sometimes even in death for the viewpoint character, requiring that the reader start over again, or at least try to remember where to go back to and attempt a better choice.  Some will have battles, requiring the reader to roll dice and determine injuries.  Others will have an inventory, limiting the reader to a few items out of a number of choices (unless if they decide to cheat and assume they have whatever is necessary at any given moment).  A CYOA ends up being a one-player game, and that’s no bad thing.  Before I give you any information on today’s book, let me make it perfectly clear that I have a great deal of respect for anyone who can and has taken the time to assemble the multi-threaded adventure that is a CYOA.  It’s a lot of work to keep everything straight, particularly when multiple sections lead to the same result, and to not have overlapping information and events within any one thread.

This particular book, titled Venice and written by Michelle Novak is self-published.  It came, oddly enough, from the Renaissance Faire.  Honestly, you find some of the weirdest booths there.  This one in particular advertised “Books & Art”, with some decent art prints, some very short retellings of classic fairy tales for kids, and Venice.  It was clear the tent had been a deal between Novak and a friend, as she was the only author featured, and all the art had clearly come from a single hand.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with such a choice, these are just my observations.

Opening Venice for the first time, I was struck with immediate disdain for the page format.  The margins on the outer and bottom edges are far larger than they need to be, emphasizing the fact that this is a self-published book.  It also falls prey to the self-publishing trope of needing another read-through by an editor.  Multiple grammatical errors and a typo have caught my attention as I’ve read.  Spellcheck may confirm that all words are spelled correctly, but those might not be the words the writer intended to use.  I’m also under the impression that Novak is not an especially experienced author or reader herself.  There were a number of explanations, translations, and notes in parenthesis.  It’s not a bad technique every now and then, or in a blog like this, but it doesn’t work well in the context of a story, even a CYOA.  Commas would be more sophisticated.  Or rephrasing things to incorporate whatever text would have been in parenthesis.  Instead of saying “an English poet (Lord Byron)”, say “the English poet Lord Byron”.  This particular exerpt wasn’t a list of poets, so it would have worked quite well.

As for the actual content, the book notes on the back cover that it is “historical fiction/travel”.  I don’t know that the historical notation is useful at all, considering that the book, a mere year old, takes place in present time.  During the Carnevale, true, but this could be this year, last year, next year, but not too far into the future or past.

Venice, I feel, has a very specific target audience.  Namely, women around the same age as the author, whom I estimate to be in her mid-forties.  I like travel and while I’ve not yet been to Italy, I’d certainly be happy to get to Venice myself.  (Yes, that is where the entire book takes place.)  However, if I did go during Carnevale, I would not bother dressing up in Baroque women’s fashion.  I don’t do elaborate costumes, I am not a fan of spending money on impracticalities (books are totally practical), and I really don’t care for crowds.  Anyway, I don’t imagine there are that many men out there who would appreciate an entire section about how much of a pain in the ass it was for women to dress in the 1700 and 1800s.  Not to mention all the makeup this woman puts on with her costumes!

I also feel like I can’t take all of the information in this book at face value.  I’ve read fantasy set in Venice – it is, coincidentally, the Heirs of Alexandria series by Eric Flint, Dave Freer and Mercedes Lackey mentioned last post – and I feel like I can trust the information in there much more than Novak’s book.  Novak may be an amateur historian, but there is no proof, one way or another, that many of the specifics in this book are factual.  So I’m inclined to doubt.  According to the back cover, Novak has an M.A. in Speech & Interpersonal Communication.  Not the sort of person you’d expect to be an expert on a specific European city within a particular timeframe.  Sure, I believe she did a fair bit of research on the issue of Venice sinking, but some of the other factoids thrown out seem suspicious.

Then there’s the viewpoint character herself.  Now, the point of a CYOA is to put the reader in control and allow them to be a part of the action.  However, this character does not even have a name!  Now, this is not the first time I’ve encountered such a creation, but the last time was a parody of CYOA and roleplaying games and was designed to be ridiculous while still functioning as a CYOA.  Garth Nix is a man of many talents.  But in this case, I couldn’t help thinking of books where the main character is left so very blank and bland that they end up being wish fulfillment for the reader.

This book made me think that Twilight would have been even more popular if it was a CYOA.  Think about it.  What if those Team Jacob fans were able to choose for Bella to end up with the werewolf?  Can you imagine the insanity that could ensue?

(No, I’ve never read Twilight.  I will never read Twilight or anything from Stephanie Meyer.  I would sooner read and reread every book by Anne Rice, including the Jesus ones, and you know my opinion on those type of books.  At least she knows how to write properly.)

I’m pretty sure Michelle Novak owns all of Twilight. Based on what I’ve read in Venice, it seems likely.  By the way, I swear that the viewpoint character should have been raped or mugged multiple times.  Of course, she could never possibly come to any danger in this book.  But if a man can have his pocket picked in the souk in Jerusalem hours before Shabbat begins, a woman traveling alone in Venice is a prime target.

I’ve read the book twice now.  The first time, the words “THE END” came upon me swiftly and unexpectedly.  The second time I had more clues that this story thread was wrapping up.  I have to admit that both threads I read were fairly unique and had little tying them together.  As for the quaility of the story…it was mediocre.  Marred by the spellcheck errors and the persistent feeling that Novak would happily be the next Stephanie Meyer.  Venice was, at least, something different, and not an anthology.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to sell it for more than a pittance, or fob it off on a friend.  I don’t know that many people who fantasize about wearing elaborate costumes in foreign cities.

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