Gamebook Wednesday: Asterix: Alea Jacta Est! #1, ‘The Meeting of the Chieftains’

This is another selection from my childhood collection. My brother Malcolm and I absolutely loved Asterix as kids and had tons of the comics, as well as several gamebooks. I didn’t play this one from the Alea Jacta Est! series nearly as often as the more-tactile Asterix Adventure Books we also had (they’ll be replayed soon!), so it was a treat to be able to replay it recently without remembering much about the story.

Asterix: Alea Jacta Est! #1 The Meeting of the Chieftains

In this gamebook you play as Justforkix, a character from the comic book Asterix and the Normans. Justforkix is the nephew of village chief Vitalstatistix and is tasked with the mission of retrieving his uncle from a spa visit so that the latter can return to the village and attend an important meeting with a rival chief. It sounds a bit pedestrian, but in typical Asterix style it’s a fun romp along the roads of ancient Gaul, either avoiding or getting into fights with Romans as per your preferred play style.

The book comes with a play aid sheet for keeping track of scores and inventory (I had to rub out a lot of decades-old pencil marks). You also need a six-sided die, which was fine. I am obsessed with dice and have a special dice bag full of them. Part of this is due to the too-shiny dice displays always catching my eye when I go to the UK Games Expo.

Game aid

Some of the choices in the book are a bit odd (at one point you bump into Asterix and Obelix and they ask if you want them to accompany you; if you’re a fan of the stories, then the natural choice would be to say yes, but in this book it results in a game over as Asterix decides you’re clearly not up to the task if you want them to help!). However, it’s mostly fairly intuitive – you’re rewarded later in the game for gathering information in the village early on, and there’s a fun maze section where you need to find your way out while getting into as few fights with Romans as possible.

Once you’re out of the spa town, it’s a fairly straightforward journey home and a slightly abrupt ending, though it is fairly satisfying story-wise. The game was meaty enough to take me a few evenings to get through, which felt like just the right length.

This is the only one I have in this subseries, but as mentioned above I am really looking forward to replaying my Asterix Adventure Books soon.

Useful link: listing at Demian’s Gamebook Web Page.

Gamebook Wednesday: Nintendo Adventure Books #1, ‘Double Trouble’

Having been in an interactive fiction place for some time now, I’ve been going back to my old childhood gamebooks for a bit of bedtime reading. They were very well-loved back in the day by me and my brother Malcolm and travelled everywhere with us, but it’s been a long time since I cracked them open. Recently, I thought I’d give them another go and see what they were like from an adult viewpoint.

The first one I pulled off the shelf was the first in the series of Nintendo Adventure Books, Double Trouble.

Double Trouble

In addition to (likely) being in a slightly different gamebook headspace from where I was as a child, I’m also in a slightly different Nintendo headspace. In the ’90s, I knew Mario from my Game Boy, where he was a tiny black and white cluster of pixels jumping high into the air to bash blocks and jump on monsters. I loved Super Mario Land (platformers were my absolute jam from my first bumbling small child attempts at HunchBack on the BBC Micro circa 1988-1989 right through until the end of the ’90s, by which point adventure games had taken over my world), but the monochrome Mario didn’t have much of a personality.

Fast forward to the early ’20s, where I am in the process of transitioning from a wonderful decade spent with my 3DS to the shiny delights of my new Switch Lite. These days, I know Mario through games such as Paper Mario: The Origami King (my gaming highlight of last summer), which are considerably more story-driven than Super Mario Land! As such, I have a much more concrete idea of all the main characters and their places in the Mushroom Kingdom.

This had a pretty big knock-on effect when I flipped open Double Trouble the other week for the first time in decades. In the ’90s, the books in this series were a pleasant expansion of the limited amount I knew about the Mario universe; in the present day, the details are just different enough to jar. Bowser was still King Koopa back in 1991, when this book was published; Princess Peach was Princess Toadstool; her dad was still in the picture; there were a ton of minor characters I haven’t seen mentioned in games for a long time. Still, once I adjusted my worldview back a few decades, there was quite a bit to enjoy.

The story is a fairly daft premise about Bowser King Koopa trying to cause havoc in the Mushroom Kingdom by cloning all the citizens (the actual brains behind the cloning machine is his son Iggy, later retconned as not Bowser’s son and another character you don’t hear about very often these days). The gameplay is a mixture of standard ‘make a choice and turn to page X’ and ‘solve this wordsearch or maze puzzle to find out whether you get to turn to page Y or Z!’ The latter can be frustrating and dull, although thankfully most of the pencil marks that Malcolm and I made back in the day are still intact.

There’s a fairly annoying and slightly lazy mechanic where you get hit on the head a lot, resulting in amnesia, which is meant to be the explanation for why you keep getting sent back to the same passage you’ve already read when you make a wrong but not wrong-enough-for-game-over decision. I wouldn’t mind, but Mario spends his entire life hitting blocks with his head, so you’d think his skull would be tough enough to withstand a few thumps from turtle minions.

You also collect a lot of coins, like you do in the platform games. However, there never seems to be anything you can spend them on – it seems they’re just meant to represent points at the end of the game.

Still, it’s a fun little story that can be finished in twenty minutes or so. I’ve got another couple of the books in the series, so I’ll be coming back to these soon!

Useful link: listing at Demian’s Gamebook Web Page.

Event Review: Marian Keyes in conversation with Laura Jane Williams, Words Weekend 2019, 7th December 2019

It’s the last event review from 2019. So from this point on I will only be a year behind with the reviews!

I booked to see this Marian Keyes talk at the Sage Gateshead as soon as I heard about it. I’ve always enjoyed Marian’s appearances on Strictly: It Takes Two, but I wasn’t familiar with her work. However, when I was newly sober at the start of 2019 and exploring a lot of quit lit (sobriety-related books), I kept coming across recommendations for her novels, and was interested to find out that Marian is many years sober herself. As such, I thought it would be good to go along to the Sage and hear her story!

Marian Keyes at the Sage Gateshead
We were sitting at the back, so my photography is as blurry as ever I’m afraid!

Marian is a lively speaker and talked a lot about her early life, sobriety and how she started writing her books. This was obviously of interest to me as a sober writer, but Geth really enjoyed the talk too – it was warm and funny and very relatable.

I was surprised not to have heard about Words Weekend up until that point – despite being on Sage Gateshead’s mailing list since shortly after I moved to Newcastle in 2015! However, it turns out that it was a brand new festival, and one that moves around, as it was scheduled to take place in Salford in 2020. Hopefully they’ll be able to get going again once the pandemic is over.

Meanwhile, I’ve now got a few of Marian’s books on my to-read list. Rachel’s Holiday looks like a good place to start!

Book Review: The Sea Of Monsters

This is the second in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series – I reviewed the first here. I’ve been getting through the series (and now the sequel series) a chapter a night since last summer, so it’s about time I caught up with my reviews!

The Sea Of Monsters

It’s a year since the events of the first book, and after getting attacked by monsters at (and then expelled from) yet another school, Percy returns to Camp Half-Blood for another summer. The magical tree guarding the camp has been poisoned, and the only thing that can cure it is the Golden Fleece. However, this time it’s not Percy who’s granted the quest to find the Fleece, but instead his camp arch-enemy Clarisse. Of course, Percy follows her and gets himself involved anyway, because he’s certain that it’s the only way he’ll find his missing satyr friend Grover.

It’s another good adventure story, probably with a slightly tighter narrative and faster pace than the first one, and the tale is livened up by the introduction of Percy’s Cyclops half-brother Tyson, who at first is a target of mockery but gains the demigods’ approval and Percy’s affection over the course of the story. There are also a lot of fun sideplots with evil goddesses who turn humans into guinea pigs and the like, and more of the background plot by the Titan Kronos to vanquish the gods is revealed.

Overall, I’d say this one has the edge over the first entry in the series for me – if for no other reason than the pirate ship that shows up in the second half. I love a pirate ship!

Book Review: I Know This Much: From Soho To Spandau

I’ve been going through a bit of a spate of rock star autobiographies lately, and I have several more lined up on my Kindle for the year ahead. My most recent read was I Know This Much, the memoir of Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp.

I Know This Much

It’s a very enjoyable read and probably my favourite of the rock autobiographies I’ve read so far. The story covers Kemp’s childhood in the pre-gentrification Islington of the ’60s and ’70s, his teenage successes in music and acting, the formation and early days of Spandau Ballet, their heyday in the first half of the ’80s, and the decline of the band and Kemp’s move towards acting as the ’90s approached. It then jumps forward to the royalty court case brought by other Spandau members in the late ’90s, and finally the band’s reunion a decade later.

The narrative is warm and engaging, and I found the focus on Kemp’s parents – who seem to have provided a form of stability, never changing in outlook or lifestyle even when their sons became famous pop stars – very touching. It’s their lives that bookend the story, and in some ways they are the central figures.

Kemp’s account of his band’s role in the story of London’s Blitz club and the wider UK music scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s also paints a vivid picture – it’s fascinating to realise how small a scene it was, with every other face in the crowd a future international pop star. It’s difficult to imagine a more modern equivalent – maybe this kind of scene is just something that doesn’t happen anymore. One part I really appreciated was the story of how True, which is probably Spandau’s most enduring song, was inspired by Clare Grogan, who’s one of my favourite fellow Scotswomen!

The highlight of these pop star cameos, though, is Boy George, who shows up in the narrative approximately once per chapter – on stairwells, in recording studios, in the street – purely to heckle Kemp and the other members of Spandau Ballet, like a slightly bitchier Statler and Waldorf. I like to imagine that this is still happening to this day.

I’m going to try and read the other Spandau memoirs sometime soon, while this one is still fresh in my mind – it’ll be really interesting to compare and contrast.

Book Review: Riders

In the mid-’00s, I used to watch the BBC programmes Grumpy Old Men and Grumpy Old Women, which involved older celebrities complaining about the modern world and was very funny. One of the contributors to the latter was Jilly Cooper, who always came across as quite jolly and cheery despite the show’s title. I made a mental note that I should probably give one of her books a go some day.

Because I am a terrible procrastinator, it took me over a decade to get round to it, meaning I downloaded Riders on my Kindle and thus had no sense of how long it might be (one of the disadvantages of ebooks). It’s long. It’s super long. 278,000 words of long, according to the internet. I’d actually be interested to see a physical copy, ’cause it’s probably a real doorstopper.

Riders

The story is a saga about showjumpers and their love lives that spans the ’70s, culminating in a finale set at the 1980 Olympics. There are what feels like hundreds of characters, and almost every single one of them is an awful human being. The one exception is treated so abysmally by the other characters that she ends up attempting suicide towards the end of the book. None of the others get any kind of comeuppance whatsoever, which is a bit frustrating when you’ve spent 278,000 words really hating them and are looking forward to the freak fire that burns all of them to death in a glorious blaze of justice.

Oh, hang on, there were some other characters that I liked! They were all horses though.

The book’s apparently famous for its sexual content, but in all honesty it’s fairly tame by today’s standards, and the characters are so horrible that it’s just depressing anyway.

I thought I might read the whole series, but I think one will probably do me.

Book Review: I’m OK – You’re OK

Geth and I have a good-sized pile of classic productivity and self-help books that were donated to us by Dad a few years back. Last year, when I was going through our books after the move, this one caught my eye, and I put it aside for reading.

I'm OK - You're OK

It’s about human psychology, which I always find quite interesting – it focuses on the way that our experiences in the first five years of childhood, during which we are constantly told that we’re doing things wrong and are therefore ‘not OK’, form problematic habits in feeling and thinking that last into adult life. It also gives advice about ways of mitigating this problem – for instance, understanding that others’ reactions may be coming from their ‘not OK’ child inside – although I didn’t find that part hugely helpful.

The book was written in the ’60s, and so a lot of the context is hugely dated nowadays (for instance, an example of conflict is given where a white man gets upset about his daughter bringing a black boyfriend home, and this is presented as a normal thing!). As such, I’d be keen to read a modern discussion of what is introduced in this book, as I think it is an interesting way of looking at things.

Book Review: Now We Are Thirty: Women Of The Breakthrough Generation

I picked this book off Mum and Dad’s shelves while visiting as it looked really interesting. It focuses on the reflections and fears of women around my age (well, a little younger, I suppose – now that I’m thirty-four I’m very definitely ‘mid-thirties’!), but as it was written and released around 1980, it’s really about Mum’s generation. This made it even more interesting to me, as I’m fascinated by 20th century social history.

Now We Are Thirty

The author, Mary Ingham, based the book on interviews with women who had been in her year at school, all of whom had gone on to live very different kinds of adult lives – a stark contrast to their mothers’ generation, where almost all women ended up living a similar existence as housewives and mothers. In childhood, Ingham and her schoolfriends had expected that they would live similarly to their mothers, but as the world changed beyond imagination in the ’60s and ’70s, many of them found themselves working, studying, flatsharing, travelling, and only realising as they approached thirty still unmarried and childless that their lives had not gone quite as they planned. Others did live more traditional women’s lives, and the contrast in mindsets is very interesting.

For me, the best thing about the book is the very vivid picture it paints of the rapid societal change in the mid-20th century and the way it so drastically altered women’s options that many of them felt adrift. It’s also very interesting that, although we now see thirty as still relatively young, in 1980 the mindset seemed to be that if you’d focused on your career or studies during your twenties, it was probably too late to have a husband and family (this is very definitely prior to the ‘women should have it all!’ pressure that arose in later decades). Of course, this kind of thinking is strange in hindsight – my own mum spent her twenties working abroad and didn’t meet my dad until she was in her thirties – but the book demonstrates that at the time, it really was considered a decision that you had to make very early in adult life.

Mum said I could keep the book, so I expect I’ll reread it at some point!

Book Review: The Lightning Thief

I’ve been rereading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series lately, as I’ve never managed to finish the Heroes of Olympus sequel series (despite them all sitting on my shelves for years) and wanted to read the whole thing again from the start.

The Lightning Thief

I didn’t get into this series until about 2011/2012, by which time the whole of the first series had already been released and were ready on Amazon in a handy boxset for me to devour in one go. The reason, I think, why I hadn’t been interested in reading them – despite being a fan of well-written ‘middle grade’ children’s literature – was the advertising for the film version, which made it look very similar to Harry Potter. This did the books a disservice, I feel, because they have a very different feel and a very different writing style (Riordan’s voice, which is personable and humorous, has become one of my favourites in this genre).

The Lightning Thief does a great job of introducing a world of teenage demigods and fantasy creatures. The story kicks right into action and doesn’t let up till the end, with Percy and his new friends Annabeth and Grover embarking on a desperate mission to find Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt before it causes a war among the Greek gods.

The story is actually very educational – I studied classics at university and yet there are Greek myths I remember better due to this series than due to my studies – but never in a dry or po-faced manner. The way the myths are translated into a modern context is always very fun, and the classic mythical figures are characterised really nicely.

I’m already several books down in this series, so I’ll be reviewing the others soon!

Book Review: The Boss

I’ve been reading author Jenny Trout’s blog for quite a few years now. She’s very active around fighting problematic messages in women’s fiction, and writes very funny recaps of books that have these kind of messages yet are inexplicably popular.

Under the pen name Abigail Barnette, she’s contributed her own series to the subgenre of ‘billionaire erotic romance’ with the aim of portraying a healthy relationship rather than the borderline abusive ones so common in romance as it stands. The first entry in the series, The Boss, is free to read, so I gave it a shot.

The Boss

The protagonists, Sophie and Neil, meet again six years after a chance encounter in an airport hotel…except this time, she’s an assistant at a fashion magazine, and he’s her new boss. Despite a world of ethical issues to deal with – Neil is also twice Sophie’s age and extremely rich – romance blossoms again, although the book ends on an unhappy cliffhanger, setting up for the sequel.

I’ve not read much erotic romance before, and I find it’s not really my thing – I prefer romances to be less sexually explicit – but I did enjoy the story, especially all the stuff to do with the fashion magazine, as I’m fascinated by the fashion world.

I also really like Trout’s writing voice, and so I’ve been reading her new YA story on Radish, Nightmare Born, which I’ll review once I’ve finished it!