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On Ryan North’s “To Be or Not To Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure”

15 Aug
It's available for pre-order! Don't be "that one guy" who doesn't read this thing!

It’s available for pre-order! Don’t be “that one guy” who doesn’t read this thing!

1. Welcome to the chooseable-path review of Ryan North’s new chooseable-path adventure, To Be or Not To Be, which hilariously takes one of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies and recreates it as a humorous, illustrated, maybe-but-maybe-not tragedy! North joins with dozens of the internet’s best/most popular Web comic artists to gamify Hamlet: “play” as Ophelia, Hamlet, or King Hamlet Sr., make choices throughout the book, and see where your will can take your character! This was originally a Kickstarter project that set the bar at a low $20,000 goal, but its novelty and the inclusion of some heavy-weight names (plus, who isn’t interested in Shakespeare …? No, really, who isn’t? Because I’m going to give you a scolding), catapulted the book to a lofty $580,905. Although it’s too late to donate to the project, you should still check out the site to see what it took to get this thing off the ground.

As you can probably already tell (I hope), this is not your average Hamlet reboot. We’ve got some rehabilitated ghosts, deep sea diving, and dinosaurs even. Ophelia actually has a personality (other than emotionally unstable and suicidal), and Hamlet is decidedly emo. Now, I’m all in favor of revitalizing the classics, because I understand how difficult it is not to sound silly while bouncing through archaic words in iambic pentameter, and because high school theater renditions never get the sword fight choreography right, and because of that whole creepy make-out scene with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close. And that’s where North and Co. step in.

Blech. You can do better than that, Glenn. (And she does, but later. Hell yeah, Mia Wasikowska!)

Blech. You can do better than that, Glenn. (And she does, but later. Hell yeah, Mia Wasikowska!)

  • To read about the novelty of bringing kitschy chooseable-path books back, skip to section three.
  • To read about how my fingers are all wonky from trying to keep track of all the book’s crossroads so I didn’t miss any variations, but then failed and will have to reread the whole thing, skip to section seven.

2. North doesn’t just change the structure of a classic: he introduces his own quirky humor into everyone line. The writing is silly and aimed at getting guffaws out of readers. While certainly no high literary work, TBoNTB had me giggling from pretty much the first line the cover, and I just never stopped giggling. I’m giggling right now, in fact. And that’s the point. North makes Hamlet entertaining in an entirely different way than the original play. His humor is accessible to everyone, and isn’t too crass for even young children, which explains why the Kickstarter project was able to donate hundreds of books to public schools. Some naysayers are going to say, “nay,” and they may also say, “Hey now, Ryan! You’re ruining our babies by watering down the classics and bastardizing time-honored works of literature!” And to them I say, “Welllllll, that’s pretty much what Bill Shakespeare did and look where that got him.”

  • To read about other ways North bastardized this time-honored work by adding sweet, sweet illustrations, skip to section five.
  • To read my tangent on making Shakespeare fun, skip to section four.

3. Did you ever read them as a kid? The Choose Your Own Adventure fad of the 1980s and 1990s? I devoured these little books and reveled in my ability to interact with a book’s plot on a different level. As much as I love novels (and they are the greatest love of my life–sorry, SO), there is something to be said about newer media for story-telling, like video games. Modern gaming is place a stronger value on good narratives (emphasis on “good”) nowadays, seeing the benefit of combining quality story-telling with intense action and, most of all, user interaction. Gamebooks like the Choose Your Own Adventure series are evidence of modern story-telling placing a stronger value on a different kind of active readership.

My personal fav.

My personal fav.

North applies this awesome structure to a universally recognized classic (and when I say “universal,” I mean it, because General Chang knows it in its original Klingon, so we’ve come a long way), and the result is perfect.

"To be or not to be." Christopher Plummer goes native in what was, up until now, the best integration of Shakespeare with outright bad-assery.

“To be or not to be.” Christopher Plummer goes native in what was, up until now, the best integration of Shakespeare with outright bad-assery: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

  • Read about North’s singular humor and skip to section two.
  • Read about how Klingons changed the way we read Shakespeare, skip to section six.

4. Tangent alert! I wholeheartedly believe in keeping literature alive and well in the world. No matter what age we live in, no matter what language we translate it into, William Shakespeare’s plays will still speak truly to its readers/viewers/actors. Some things will always be lost in translation, but Shakespeare writes about love, betrayal, cross-dressing, teen angst, and those things will always be around for us to relate with. And pretty much since Shakespeare’s time, we (his loyal fans) have been creating reboots. Personally, I’ve seen Macbeth as American politicians, Hamlet as a bunch of animated lions, Othello as a star basketball player, and Romeo and Juliet as gangs in New York who sing and dance in massive coordinated numbers and sometimes shank each other, among others. Redoing Shakespeare is nothing new. In fact, redoing Shakespeare is practically its own genre of performance and literary arts. The reason people keep remaking his plays is because it works. To be fair, though, North remakes Hamlet in an entirely new way.

  • To get back to the main show, skip to … the following section! Did I trick you?

5. TBoNTB involves some serious internet celebrities. Dozens of the universe’s favorite Web comic artists pitched in to illustrate every single possible ending to this linearly challenged book, and the combination of genius produces some awesome results. I mean, I just don’t know how many times I’m allowed to use the word “AWESOME” in a single blog post. Some of my absolute favorites played some big roles: the fabulous Kate Beaton (Beatonna) of Hark! A Vagrant, Noelle Stevenson of Gingerhaze, the notorious Randall Munroe of XKCD, and David Hellman of the video game Braid and other projects. Every artist adds unique talents and hilarity to an already talent-filled and hilarious book, and a lot of my giggles come from the ridiculousness of Ophelia’s, Hamlet’s, and King Hamlet Sr.’s multitude of deaths. I’m thinking North and Co. can make a killing just selling the prints.

  • If you get tired of reading this and are just looking for the nearest exit, skip to section eight.
  • To read about how confusing but awesome chooseable-path books are, skip to section three.
Ladies and gents, the unparalleled Kate Beaton.

Ladies and gents, the unparalleled Kate Beaton. I mean, she drew this. This isn’t her in the picture or anything…in case there was confusion.

6. Klingons didn’t just change the way we read Shakespeare. Shakespeare was Klingon. In fact, he is Klingon with the amazing powers of everlasting life (due to his bad-ass bardic super abilities) and he heard you say Shakespeare was an English playwright of Elizabethan ages, and now he’s coming over and gutting you with his bardic bat’leth!

Can you just imagine a fearsome warrior wielding this and wearing tights and a ruff coming at you?! Frightening!

Can you just imagine a fearsome warrior wielding this and wearing tights and a ruff coming at you?! Frightening!

Well, you die, because no one really survives Klingon Shakespeare’s bat’leth skills. Thanks for playing! Maybe try this again and make better choices?

The end.

7. My fingers are all wonky from trying to keep track of all the book’s crossroads, because I didn’t want to miss any variations, but I failed, and now I’ll need to reread the whole thing.

  • To read the conclusion of this review, continue to section eight.
  • To trap yourself in an eternal loop, skip back to section one.
Don't travel through time! Because you die! (Illustration by the talented, hilarious Noelle Stevenson.)

Don’t travel through time! Because you die! (Illustration by the talented, hilarious Noelle Stevenson.)

8. There isn’t too much more to be said about North and Co.’s feat of ingenuity, except I would encourage all of you to read To Be or Not To Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure right away. Support Kickstarter projects, support Shakespeare, support Ryan North’s other book (which is also entirely focused on death, go figure), support our troops, support your local sheriff, and just be supportive in general.

The real end.

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On Bray’s “Beauty Queens”

10 Dec

images“Miss Congeniality” meets “Mean Girls” meets “Lord of the Flies” in Bray’s newest young adult novel. An airplane full of teenage beauty pageant contestants crash lands on a tropical island, and some expected oh-no-I-broke-a-nail-while-building-a-water-catching-trap comedy ensues. Bray introduces a pleasant variety of girls–some stereotypically ditsy, some overly ambitious, some resentful–but it’s her attempt to tackle the much more complicated issues of nascent womanhood that makes this novel worth reading.

The young adult genre has traditionally been wholesome, didactic fare safe enough for even the most conservative PTAs of our country, but it’s evolving thanks to authors like Bray. In “Beauty Queens,” characters deal with sexuality, gender identity, abusive childhoods, single-parent households, and love (obviously), not to mention guns, conspiracies, reality TV drama, and evil dictators.

This isn’t to say the book is all adolescent feelings and controversial teen sex. I haven’t laughed so hard reading a book since … well, since reading “Going Bovine.” This certainly isn’t great literature and may not be introduced into high school classroom curricula, but it’s entertaining, and I value that pretty highly among literary qualities. “Beauty Queens” also appreciates the complications of being a young woman in American society, and doesn’t shy away from difficult human issues that are hidden away from young women in particular.

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys YA fiction or a good, easy laugh.