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Pauline's Fantasy Reviews

Reviews of fantasy books, plus some mystery, sci-fi and literary works, and my random thoughts on book-related matters.

Currently reading

Dragon Queen (The Memory of Flames, #5)
Stephen Deas
The Splintered Eye (The War of Memory Cycle #2)
H. Anthe Davis, Erica Dakin

99 Reasons Why

99 Reasons Why - Caroline Smailes This is a weird book, in several ways. It's written in the first person by a young woman who's obviously several sandwiches short of a picnic, and set in the sort of estate most of us are thankful we never have to live in. From the argot, I presume it's around Newcastle, but with few changes it could be any major city in Britain. Warning to those averse to bad language - there's a lot of it here, and also some moderately graphic sex, but it's totally in character and not gratuitous.

The protagonist writes as she would speak. Random sample: "The leaflet'd come through the door with that free Herald local newspaper. The newspaper'd been pushed through the door and left on the mat for a couple of days. I pick it up and two leaflets fall out. One's a leaflet offering a free garlic bread if you buy two pizzas from Nice Kebab. It's all glossy. I go in the front room and give the leaflet to me dad." And so on. Now, this could get seriously tedious, but somehow it has the same oddly hypnotic pull of the TV in the corner of the pub showing some random European football game or a quiz show - you just can't tear yourself away. Not sure how it would play with non-Brits, mind.

So I more or less got drawn into it, and as the story goes along, the complexities of life on the estate and the family life of Kate, the protagonist, became more interesting. There's a sort of horrified fascination at all the goings on, which are fairly bizarre but just close enough to most people's idea of sink estate life to be credible (which I suspect may not bear any resemblance to real life). It's a testament to the author's skill that she makes these slightly cartoonish people real enough to generate genuine pathos. Of course, since Kate isn't all there, there's also the amusement for the reader of working out the tensions and undercurrents and relationships that sail blithely over her head. So none of the endings come as much of a shock.

And that brings me to the book's big gimmick. Each chapter is titled as one of the 99 reasons ("21: the reason why I'm square" for example), but after number 88, there's a mini questionnaire, where you pick a colour, a number and an object, and are then given one of 11 possible endings. There are 9 in the book, another one on the author's website, and the final one will be hand-written and auctioned for charity. On the Kindle, you can choose a different ending if you like, and it's also possible to simply page past the questionnaire and read all the possible endings, one after the other. [Note: on the iPad version, there's a wheel to spin to get an ending, but I don't know whether you can see them all). They vary from happy ever after to - well, less happy. There's a certain amount of overlap, obviously, but all of them fit perfectly well with what's gone before.

Now this is all very clever, and the publishers are marketing the book as state of the art, new use of technology and all that, so that ebook readers get the ending they want. Which is nonsense, of course. Links in ebooks are very nice, but they aren't exactly a quantum leap away from 'turn to page 99' in a printed book. And as for getting the ending you want, what you actually get is completely random. Maybe there's some deep psychological theory as to why one combination gets you an upbeat ending and another gets you something tragic, but since you can immediately go off and read a different ending, it hardly matters.

The real problem with this sort of strategy is that it completely destroys any suspension of disbelief. Yes, of course we all know that there's no Kate Jones, no mam, no Uncle Phil, no Andy Douglas. But the whole point of telling a story is to make us knowingly go along with the pretence that there is, to the extent that we can feel real emotion for these completely imaginary characters. As soon as an author says: well, I could have a real prince come along and sweep the heroine off her feet, or I could have them all wiped out by a meteor (not a spoiler), what do you think? Well, then it just becomes an academic exercise. The bubble has burst. I'm sure this was an interesting challenge for the author to write, and it's definitely a marketable technique (I bought the book because of it, after all), but I really don't think it works for the story. Some of those endings would have been very affecting to read, had they been the only one, but being one of many reduces the impact.

On the plus side, the story is absorbing (up to the alternative endings, anyway), it's well written and the characters are genuinely interesting and (on some level) emotionally engaging. But the gimmicky multiple endings drag it down to three stars.