Originally appeared at The Edge of the Forest, Issue 10, December 2006.
Named one of my Best Books of 2006.
Cathy's Book: If Found Call (650) 266-8233 by Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman. Copy supplied by Running Press Publishers.
First things first: you may have heard about Cathy's Book pre-publication because of product placement. The makeup that gets mentioned, though, is barely noticeable—other books mention many more brand names than get mentioned here. If I didn't know about the controversy, I wouldn’t have even noticed.
Second things second: Cathy's Book advertises itself as an "original interactive teen book." Does it deliver? Absolutely: it's a believable teenage girl's diary; it's a fast paced adventure; and it's a lot of fun. The packaging (more on that below) easily could have been a gimmick—instead, it works to create a full, realistic story.
Hold Cathy's Book in your hands, and it looks like a sketchbook. Open it up and there is a clear envelope of "proof" on the left-hand side and the sketchbook on the right. Do I read the book, which is full of doodles and sketches? Do I open the envelope and see what's inside? There are phone numbers and websites—what about those?
Let's start with the book. It begins on January 30, and ends February 9th. Victor has broken up with Cathy, and she wants to know why. She's the type of girl who wants an answer, so she goes to Victor's house. And it's not really breaking in if the door is unlocked, right? What she finds leads her to a much bigger mystery than why Victor dumped her. If the book existed just as the book—a smart, funny Veronica Mars/ Buffyesque teenage girl stubbornly solves a mystery—it would be a simple fun read.
But the book doesn't stop with the text. And this ups the enjoyment. Remember that envelope? Remember all those phone numbers and websites? Your pick what to explore first; and just how much, and how deep, you want to go.
The envelope is full of the items Cathy picks up as she investigates first Victor and then a murder: photos, newspaper clippings, a birth certificate, a menu. The book isn't annotated. In no place does it say "stop now and look at the matching item." That's left to the reader. Interactive, remember? The book isn't dictating the story. I felt like Cathy as I poured over the "proof," noting things she didn't.
The phone numbers and websites give more opportunities to become Cathy, and one of the websites, www.doubletalkwireless.com, contains full color copies of everything in the evidence bag, plus other things Cathy has discovered. (So all you librarians who are worried about the items surviving check out, have the website and password* handy; the proof will always exist virtually.)
I've long wondered when authors would take real advantage of the Internet for storytelling. Not just the internet, but modern computers for publishing allow the cool envelope of stuff to be included with the book. There's been more and more use of the Internet recently, with playlists and character blogs. But Cathy's Book takes it to a new level, and I'm a bit annoyed that the whole product placement thing has stopped a conversation on the fascinating way this story is told. The reader becomes part of the story, because of the items and because of the Internet sites and phone numbers. These are not just "extra" items—they give additional information and depth and also allow the reader to discover things Cathy hasn't. At the same time, the story works regardless of how little, or how much, the reader wishes to explore. It's no surprise, then, that one of the authors, Jordan Weisman, is a video game developer. Many modern computer games are not just "games," they also tell stories that must work regardless of the player's choices.
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