My review of the Choose Your Own Adventure series continues!

I really want to like Your Code Name is Jonah. I really do. I remember first getting this book back in the early 80s and thinking, “Wow, a CYOA secret agent adventure! This is going to be great!” It wasn’t great. It was a dud. And I was pissed.

Your Code Name is Jonah by Edward Packard

Published: 1979

Number six in the series has a promising opening. “You” are a dashing secret agent, meeting in a top secret office “six levels below the White House lawn” with J.J. Obbard, director of the Special Intelligence Group. He tells you that Dr. Claude DuMont, a noted whale scientist, was working on deciphering the language used by humpback whales from a mysterious whalesong tape. Then he disappeared, believed to have been kidnapped by KGB agents. (This was written during the height of the Cold War). Your job is to find DuMont and the whalesong tape. Your mission has top priority. And yes–your code name is Jonah! (Wink wink, get it?)

This opening could be one of the biggest “grabbers” in the entire series. In fact only one set-up in the entire run of the books is better than this one, and that was much later (I’m thinking of Who Are You?) That makes it an even bigger shame that the whole rest of the book tanks so quickly.

The first choice after this grabber opening is itself disappointing. Do you go visit Dr. Hans Klein, a Boston scientist who was working with Dr. DuMont, or do you visit the Center for Marine Studies, where DuMont did his research?

Huh? How about hunting down the KGB agent who kidnapped DuMont, popping a cap in his ass and rescuing the old guy? Why isn’t that a choice? Wouldn’t that be much more in line with the “thrilling” spy adventure this is supposed to be?

Indeed, although Jonah has a discernible plot–which certain other books by Edward Packard (ahem) notably lack–it’s not a very interesting one. There’s a lot of traveling, mostly in New England and Nova Scotia, and chasing various people who supposedly have pieces of the puzzle. The problem, though, is that the puzzle itself isn’t very interesting. There are one or two endings where you figure out why the US and USSR’s intelligence communities are so interested in where whales go when they dive (*cough*secretsubmarinebase!*cough*), but frankly there’s so much aimless running around in this book that by the time you get there you just don’t care anymore.

Here are some elements I liked about the book. The list is pretty short.

  • You get to roar around in a Triumph BR-50 coupe (p. 36). You don’t get to drive sports cars very often in this series.
  • “You” are clearly inhabiting a fictional character. The secret agent is drawn to resemble a typical late-70s alpha male, with perfectly coiffed hair, and a turtleneck under an ugly plaid coat. I like these “you are somebody else” type stories.
  • The very precise choice of swimming courses, illustrated by a map, on p. 107.

Here’s just a few things about the book I didn’t like.

  • The stone-age ecological message. Be one with the whales, man! In the various endings where you decide to give up spy work and instead study whales for peaceful purposes, you feel like Packard is beating you over the head with the message. I don’t mind the message, but it’s awfully ham-handed in execution.
  • The villains are two-dimensional, cartoonish and hardly pose a threat to anyone. The KGB thugs you meet on page 26 are a case in point.
  • Nothing freaking happens! I mean, nothing worthy of being called a spy adventure. (I know a little bit about writing spy fiction). This is just dull. You won’t care. Really. You won’t.

I think this was another “demo” book, like Deadwood City, commissioned to show off the proof of the CYOA concept. I mean, if they’re going to do an interactive book series, they’ve got to do one where you’re a secret agent, right? Where this one really went wrong, I think, was the whale song idea. Why do you need something like that anyway? Why not a more standard spy adventure involving a MacGuffin–secret documents, a defector, something like that? Especially if this was a demo project, that approach would have made the most of demonstrating how the format works within various genres. Grafting an ecology message onto a spy thriller written for children is like…well, I was going to say putting an ecological message in a Star Trek movie, but that actually turned out pretty well. Much better than this.

Your Code Name is Jonah is pretty much a flop. Don’t bother. There are much better books in this series. Read those instead. But in a perverse sort of way I admit this book, despite its flaws, is still kind of fun.

Grade: D-

More CYOA reviews are coming!