The Best Books of 2021 (according to author James Schannep)
Of course, this list is incredibly subjective, but these are the books that resonated with me in 2021.What were your favorite reads (or listens) of the year?
The Island of Dr Moreau by KJ Shadmand
The first book on this list comes from a teacher who grew up as a fan of interactive fiction and gamebooks. He blended his love of classic literature and branching path narratives to create this impressive first gamebook in what the author intends to be a series of reimagined classics focusing on the works of HG Wells.
Dracula: Curse of the Vampire by Jonathan Green
This modern master also took inspiration from the classics to create a momentous accomplishment. Unlike the last entrant, Jonathan Green has been entrenched in the world of gamebooks for decades, and brings that expertise to bear in this impressive tome. Greatly expanding upon Bram Stokers mythos while gamifying the story and creating several playable narratives in one.
Best Graphic Novel
Captive by MC & Manuro
Published by Van Ryder Games, this is part of a series of interactive graphic novels. The navigation system is ingenious, and is so visually based, it’s no wonder it has been translated into several languages (it was originally written in French). I played this book with my wife and we made the choices together. Great fun.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
While plotting and researching HAUNTED, I read and listened to myriad haunted house stories, but one stood out among the rest–a forerunner and standard-bear of this medium, and well deserving of its reputation. Part horror, part psychological drama, you’ll likely see inspiration pulled from Hill House should you choose to enter the Tansky House in HAUNTED.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
Like most of the audio-listening world, I fell in love with Andy Weir’s The Martian narrated by R.C. Bray. I’m pleased to have partnered with this award-winning narrator for my new version of INFECTED and I’m also happy that Andy Weir has returned to survival space drama. I didn’t quite connect with Artemis as much as I’d have liked, but with Ray Porter narrating, it feels like Mark Watney is back in this new book.
The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer
Another book I listened to while deeply immersed in ghost stories; I found Shermer’s insight into why we as humans believe what we believe incredibly useful. I’d add Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World as an honorable mention in this category of books that highlight how thinking skeptically is actually a learned behavior, while being quick to believe comes naturally.
Best Bookish Podcast
Instadeath Survivors Support Group with Brian Hazzard
From neonate gamebook fan to expert interviewer, Brian Hazzard used the past year to dive deeply into the world of interactive fiction. He blends author interviews with playthroughs of branching-path books to bring a compelling podcast into this growing community. Yours truly is featured in an interview and it was a pleasure.
And that’s my list for 2021! But speaking of books… there’s still time to get signed and shipped Click Your Poison books before Christmas if you missed my Holiday Sign & Ship announcement. If you’re reading this blog post prior to December 20th, reach out to me and we’ll make it happen!
As always, thanks for reading. Let me know in the comments if you have any books that you fell in love with this year. Until next time, I remain…
Signed books for Christmas! Or any holiday. Or birthday. Or no special occasion; just because you want to buy something for that special someone (who could be you!).
It has now been over two years since my last in-person book signing, and I miss you guys. But — that means my garden shed is overfull with paperbacks ready to be signed and shipped directly to your doorstep! This is my first major signing event since releasing SPIED, and likely your first chance to pick it up with personalized graffiti on the inside cover. Want me to scribble an encrypted message for you?
Shipping rates have gone up in recent years, so here’s the new deal: $25 flat rate for a signed book anywhere in the US. Shipping can be combined on any order above four books. Once you go above four titles, it becomes $20 per book. That means if you get five books, one is essentially free. Plus, if you do happen to order the whole series, I’m going to throw in a little something extra…
One book: $25
Two books: $50
Three books: $75
Four books: $100
Five books: $100
Six books: $120
Shipping rates are fairly obscene elsewhere in the world right now, but if you’re not put off by the thought that you might pay more for shipping than for the books themselves, feel free to contact me for an international quote.
What’s more, I still have some first editions of PATHOGENS, so if you act fast, you can choose your cover art. Or, if you’re a super collector like me, you can get both:
The only book I *can’t* offer to sign and ship to you is the new 10th Anniversary Deluxe Hardcover Edition of INFECTED. Unfortunately, hardback books are more expensive to produce, and I can’t get author copies the same way as paperbacks. But I do want to remind you that you can get it off Amazon, because (signed or not), this would make an amazing holiday gift.
That’s it for now. Want some signed books? Reach out to me on my contact page and we’ll make it happen.
Interactive Fiction and Gamebooks are becoming increasingly popular every day. The artform peaked and declined in the 80s and 90s, but now more and more authors are emerging who use this as a preferred storytelling medium, rather than as a gimmick. I’d argue we’re at the cusp of a new golden age for branching path narratives.
One such emerging author is Greg Hickey, who recently reached out to me as part of an article he was writing with a central question: Why do interactive fiction writers do what we do? What makes juggling multiple storylines worth the extra effort? He interviewed several such authors, including some bestsellers, and I was happy to add my $0.02. Here’s what I had to say:
Click Your Poison books are, at their core, a form of collaborative storytelling. By letting the reader choose brazen action or reserved caution, for example, you get to create your own story world unlike any traditional novel. My books are meant to be re-read over and over again, with clues gained from earlier reads informing future decisions. This peel-back-the-layers approach of interactive storytelling allows for a unique experience only available to gamebooks. The immediacy of playing the role of protagonist changes the dynamic from shouting at a character, “Don’t go in the house!” to wondering, “Should I go in the house? Are the rewards worth the risk?”
-Author James Schannep
Greg has completed his article and compiled a list, which includes answers from the other authors he interviewed. I’m pleased to be able to share their wisdom with you here:
First, a quick point of order. It has come to my attention that in the new 10th Anniversary illustrated hardcover edition of INFECTED, the first choice on page 2 should go to 176. The paperback and Kindle edition are unaffected. This was an error in the code from formatting the manuscript to the new hardcover page count, but I’m told by my formatting team that this was the only error. Here is the replacement page:
With that out of the way, it’s time to talk briefly about author intent. I’m not normally someone who responds to reviews of my work. I generally assume that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and not all readers will synch up with an author’s point of view. However, I recently heard some comments that implied I had an issue with different body types based on depictions in the zombie path, and I wanted to address that.
INFECTED has been criticized for being too macho/militaristic by some readers, but also for not rewarding hardened lone wolf survivalists enough by others. I believe readers often bring their own perspective into a book; which is especially true in collaborative fiction like a branching path book. If you want a calloused, uncaring character, you’ll find a path for that. If you want to work as a team and see the best in others, you’ll find something for that as well.
Reader critiques are valid, however I want to emphasize that I did intend some of these elements as satire. After looking deeply into the genre with my research, I played off a lot of tropes that zombie stories are known for. One thing I found consistently across zombie fiction was that the apocalypse can bring out the worst in us. Summed up as: “terrible people making terrible choices.” We are the true monsters in some of these stories. Yet it’s not all bad. We can also find unlikely heroes in our midst.
On the large, societal scale, zombie stories started as a metaphor for rampant consumerism, and I took that one step further by adding a critique of unregulated capitalism. The concept in INFECTED is that a beauty product starts the apocalypse (after corporate greed speaks louder than a scientist who wants to do more research). When “you” become a zombie in the story, you start to embody these societal woes, to include some of our hang-ups on beauty. But I don’t want to paint these sections as something they’re not. The gross-out factor was intentional. It’s not pretty to become a zombie.
I don’t think that needs to carry over into real life. I have no problem with “different” people. I’m different. You’re different. Our differences make the world worth surviving. Of course, authorial intent does not always carry over into reader interpretation and a lot has changed in the ten years since I’ve written this book, to include me growing as a person and improving as a writer.
Part of this came to the forefront when the book was featured as a playthrough on the Instadeath Survivor Support Group podcast. You can listen to that episode now (and I recommend checking out all of this excellent podcast).
After I listened to his playthrough, I asked if I could record an introduction. Here’s what I added for the podcast:
Hi, Survivors. Author James Schannep here. Brian let me listen to an early version of this episode, and we thought it might be best to record a disclaimer up front. What you’re about to listen to contains gore, violence, body horror and gross-out humor, sometimes at the expense of living people. The zombie genre has a long history as satire, and in INFECTED a beauty product starts the apocalypse. The hungering zombies are a dark reflection of our society, to include some of our hang-ups on body image. I don’t want to spoil the episode for you, so I’ve written a blog post with my full thoughts which you can find at jamesschannep.com/blog or take a look into the show notes where Brian has included a direct link to the post. My books don’t have a “one true path” and part of the fun in collaborative storytelling is that your character can be as noble or ignoble as you choose to make them. I hope you have as much fun listening to Andrew’s choices as he did making them. Enjoy the show.
What do YOU think? Have you read INFECTED? Did you listen to the episode? What did it mean to you?
I’ve officially spilled ink on the opening to HAUNTED, the next Click Your Poison book. That means I’ve organized notes, themes, and the major paths, or at least to the point where I can’t hold the words inside any longer.
This was later than I intended to start, but I’ve been distracted by a few things. A toddler and an infant, for starters, but also by a screenwriting project that will (hopefully!) lead to an interactive film written by you (the audience) and me (the me). I can’t say more on this now, but I’ve done all I can to help the producers sell the project to a studio, upon which I would be paid to write one of the more ambitious interactive fiction projects I’ve had the pleasure of dreaming up.
Up front: No big news, AKA, nothing newly published for you to flip or click through from me at the moment.
I’ve been long overdue checking in with my audience, so I thought I’d let you know what’s up with me. What’s up with you? Let me know in the comments.
My family has been very fortunate in the time of a pandemic. We’re all healthy. And my daughter is practically bouncing off the walls during social isolation, so writing has been difficult. My garage is full of books from author events that never happened, but they’ll be there waiting when we’re all ready to meet up again.
We’re also preparing to move (again). We left England last summer for Alabama so my wife could attend a professional school. This summer, her work is relocating us to California. It’s an exciting, albeit stressful time.
I’ve made some progress on SPIED, though I had hoped to be finished by now. I’ve also rewritten a coming-of-age novel that I’m hoping to reach a wider audience by getting it traditionally published. That manuscript is with an agent right now. Fingers crossed!
I’m also trying to find a future where narrator R.C. Bray brings my Click Your Poison books to you via some form of audio app.
I’ve also been lightly courted with the idea of an interactive movie.
Trying not to get too excited over here; these are all big maybes years down the line!
In addition to writing SPIED, I’m planning another two CYP books — one with an exciting crossover universe of traditional novels.
Once I get settled in California, I hope to get these fingers flashing across my keyboard more often.
PS – Since I don’t have anything for you to read, an author acquaintance of mine has volunteered a sale for you zombie-lovers:
What do YOU think? Leave a comment below to join in the conversation.
Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share and subscribe!
No, not “Cover Charges” — none of those are required to read this blog post. Do people still read blogs in 2020? I know it’s been a looooooong time since I’ve blogged regularly (sorry about that), but now that we’re under quarantine seems like a good time to start back up again.
I hope you’re all well and staying safe. I’m having a fun time juggling a one-year-old, passing her back and forth to my wife (who is also now working from home). Other than that, social distancing comes easy to a writer.
Onto the post!
Three new covers, coming right up.
#1 — PATHOGENS
The more astute of you may have noticed that PATHOGENShas a new cover.
First, let me say that there’s a lot I like about the original cover. The detail work is stunning. That rat is amazing. The layers in the image are rich and deep. I also enjoy the throwback to Salvador Dali.
But, ultimately, I needed to change the cover for two reasons. First, I felt like the cover wasn’t closely related to INFECTEDenough — and since these are “equels” (not sequels or prequels, but occur simultaneously), I wanted them better linked.
See how they’re a better fit now? And of course the original Dali photo for reference.
Additionally, PATHOGENS sales were the worst of the (at the time) four books. Since I’ve updated the cover, sales have gone up. What do you think? Which do you prefer?
#2 — MURDERED
Right now, I’m in the process of updating the cover for MURDERED.
The impetus for this change was not in my control, actually. I started running Amazon Ads this year, and MURDERED was flagged for “excessive gore.” After a few back and forths with the customer service team, they clarified that the blood and (possible) corpse in the foreground was the issue — either change the cover, or lose advertising rights.
I decided to use this as an opportunity to “fix” a few issues I had with the cover. Or, I suppose, to apply lessons I’d learned over the years. First, was to get rid of the body. Okay, done. Now we have the gun atop the crate with the “pick me up” note featured at the start of the story.
Second, was to increase the size of the title. I asked the original artist to repeat the title on the police ticker tape, but in hindsight I shouldn’t have done. Additionally, the police tape was too muted — and after I added the CYP logo, didn’t fit the color scheme.
I added further police tape for my author name, adjusted the size and location of the images, and cropped out a “CYP” lamp, which was redundant given the logo.
What do you think? Which do you like better?
#3 — SPIED
A new cover for a new book.
What do you think? The cover for SPIED (still a work in progress, sorry), was “leaked” in late 2019 (by me, on Facebook& Instagram).
I’m a bit behind schedule on my Click Your Poison releases, but I’ll chalk that up to:
I’ve moved from the UK back to the US.
I’m now a father. Babies take time; writing requires sleep.
I wrote side-project. A linnear, coming-of-age novel.
I’m very proud of #3 (and #2, obviously. #1 I’m actually pretty sad about), and I’m trying to take this novel to a traditional publisher to find a bigger audience. But of course, this takes time. So, please bear with me, stay patient, and more interactive goodies will come your way soon. I’m still working on SPIED — and others!
What do YOU think? Leave a comment below to join in the conversation.
Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share and subscribe!
Merry December! You’ve survived Black Friday and Cyber Monday, but what about Author Tuesday? You know, the not-at-all made up day where you buy books! Still need something for Secret Santa? Or maybe it’s time for a little something, something for yourself.
Well, it’s time for my annual Sign & Ship™. I only do this once a year, so if you want a signed book or five, let me know! Just drop me a line on my contact page, and we’ll sort everything out.
If you act quickly, I can get you personalized, autographed books prior to December 25th. And I’m more than happy to wish your loved ones a Happy Holiday of your choice, or even a happy birthday if you’re the gift-giving sort of prepper who plans ahead.
In keeping with the holiday spirit, it’ll only cost you $20 for a brand new book, signed and shipped. Interested? Let me know on my contact page. Merry Happy!
So, how many people called you about Bandersnatch?
Deb: More than sent me those weird New Year’s Facebook messenger memes!
James: With the cats?
Deb: Yeah, the creepy cats. People were messaging and even emailing saying, “Black Mirror have done a You Say Which Way! You’ll love it.”
James: Same. With a bit of, “You should get them to do your Click Your Poison series on Netflix!” Aha! Good point, friend. I’m just going to flip the Netflix switch on my books from “disabled” to “ready.”
Deb: And when I searched #Bandersnatch it turned out it wasn’t just geeky interactive fiction writers talking about it. Bandersnatch had millions of viewers talking about endings and story and replay. Which is quite exciting. I’m always a little bit worried people will forget how cool interactive is.
James: Hashtags! #whydidntithinkofthat
Okay, so what did we think about the episode?
Deb: Well, I was worried by the first couple of choices. The random choice of breakfast cereal and then a slightly more preference based choice of music. Sure, it’s good to test viewer can actually choose and to reinforce that choosing is how this story will be experienced – but let’s have some REAL choices soon, please.
James: That was my first instinct as well. But, I’ve since heard that it does make a difference. I’ll have to go back and see if this is true. Replay value! The hallmark of a good gamebook. Already I want to go back and watch it again.
Deb: It got better though. The next choice gave me the true pleasure of interactive fiction. I got to consider two options. And the writers fooled me, I picked “wrong” and got straight to a frustrating ending. I enjoyed that.
James: See, I didn’t like that. I felt like I was being pushed towards a single path, while I wanted to diverge and explore. I wanted to see the format tested to its limits.
Deb: But then there’s clever use of recap to get to the first meaningful choice again. That’s the next big make or break test for a good interactive story – how easy is it to re-enter the adventure and get back to a pivot in the storyline? Here’s where, as an interactive fiction writer, I give Black Mirror’s writers a gold star. Getting back into the story for a different choice is really easy and, you don’t have to go all the way back.
James: Okay, fair enough. That was extremely well done.
Deb: So next time round – about one minute in screen time later – I make another choice and then the deeper layers of the story start to unfold. As a participant I’ve had a bit of subtle training now, so I trust the experience and get into enjoying choices. Okay so “enjoy” might not be the best description. I was often frustrated by two choices that weren’t too different and, sometimes, a bit appalled at the choices. At these times I was reminded that this was Black Mirror. It’s black, it’s dark. It’s not You Say Which Way. Maybe to give us some respite there’s a bit of campy Kill Bill-esque sequence to find.
James: I’ll admit—this bit made me extremely happy. Click Your Poison isn’t meant for the young or faint of heart. There are other series (like yours!) which have covered that ground so well, that many people often default to: interactive fiction is for kids, right? Not necessarily. If you want darker, black choices, head over here to the dark side. We have cookies.
Deb: Mmph mmph, these cookies are good! Yeah, you’re right, this is interactive for grown-ups and true to what we’d expect from Black Mirror scriptwriters. The stories don’t divert much at all but there’s just enough variety, shades of noir, sledgehammer to the fourth wall, and surrealism, to keep me exploring.
James: Baby-steps. This is our first mainstream interactive TV show. There weren’t that many choices, and it didn’t seem to change the story drastically, but part of me thinks that might have been the point (in this instance). The whole thing was meant to question the concept of free will.
Let’s talk about that whole breaking the fourth wall thing – what did you think?
James: If there’s a spoiler to avoid, it’s this one. Please, if you haven’t fully explored Bandersnatch, stop now, go watch the show, then go read Deb and my books. Err, I mean, return to this interview.
Deb: But we have to talk about it!
James: Of course! I enjoyed it. [SPOILERS] Bringing Netflix in as a character was brilliant. Icing on the cake? This choice isn’t available during the first play-through. How cool is that?
Deb: There was this sort of voyeur-found-out moment that I really loved. The programmer is onto us. Then his hand is shaking as he tries to resist our choice. Nice work, Black Mirror. There’s also the potential to add more story later – additional “episodes” within Bandersnatch. If I made Black Mirror I’d do that. You could dole out more choices for people to come back to. Netflix is such an ideal medium for interactive storytelling.
James: It’s this type of innovation that will bring interactive fiction its audience. We can do things with story that a traditional show, novel, whatever, can’t do. We have replay value. We have events changing context over time and with repetition.
Deb: “The interactive special” could become a regular feature for popular shows, especially since more people are consuming TV from the web these days. It could be up there with the ubiquitous musical episode and the Christmas special.
Deb: You know, there’s a story in that New Year creepy cat meme going around…
James: Once you see the cat meme, you only have seven days to live. Or two months to do your taxes. Whatever’s scariest?