Review: All This and More by Peng Shepherd

July, 2024
Allison Zhao, Blog Correspondent
Allison Zhao lives and studies in Toronto. She loves reviewing books, always appreciates cafe recommendations, and probably has a pen you can borrow.

Note: This review is not spoiler-free! 

Editor’s Note: All This and More features a fictional reality show of the same name, which is referred to with italics within the book. For clarity in this review, All This and More italicized will refer to the book itself, while “All This and More” in quotation marks will refer to the television show within the book.

Marsh (a shortened version of Marshmallow), the main character of All This and More, is offered the chance of a lifetime to star in a reality show of the same name. “All This and More” previously hooked millions of watchers around the globe with its promise to transform its season’s star’s life, past and present, into all they have ever wanted (and more!). It began airing without warning on television, but was so entrancing that it had four billion viewers by the end of its first episode. Recently, Marsh has lost her job as a paralegal, her marriage has collapsed due to her husband’s affair, and she is struggling to connect with her teenage daughter. Why Marsh is chosen out of presumably thousands or millions of applicants to the show, which supposedly has a truly global reach and many equally deserving candidates, is temporarily less relevant than the main sell of the novel, which is its choose-your-own-adventure structure. As Marsh seeks to redo her life through the “All This and More” reality-bending Bubble, the reader gets to pick some of her paths to join her in seeing how her life could have turned out. 

Extremely vaguely explained quantum technology powers the Bubble, in which Marsh can go back to different points in her life and make seemingly infinite edits over a finite number of episodes within her season on the show. The vagueness of the technology might be less egregious if the novel does not begin with highlighting how unknown the technology is. Some questions about it (why can’t it stop wars or reverse climate change?) are briefly addressed (the Bubble can’t fit more than a life or two). But other questions, including those about the nature of reality within the Bubble, are dismissed with “Nobody cared” and “What was a pesky thing like truth compared to happiness?” The gaps in the foundation of the show, which is placed in a world that otherwise seems identical to ours, are immediately so obvious that it is hard to suspend disbelief for the rest of the book. 

All of Marsh’s choices are broadcast live, and, mirroring current-day social media, viewers keep up a constant stream of comments that Marsh, for her sanity (and to prevent the book from having to replicate the effect of an endless accompanying barrage of internet commentary), mostly ignores. In practice, every reader starts with the same setup and reads through the first few chapters until prompted to make a decision for Marsh’s path in the show. Depending on your choices, you might be then prompted to just turn the page, or to skip ahead to the relevant section. 

With a format like this, readers should be tempted by different options and feel encouraged to revisit them; such a book would be at its most compelling when the choices are difficult, and lead to hugely varying paths. The structure is continuously entertaining, and it is always very tempting to “cheat” by looking at the different sections and seeing roughly which choice leads where before picking one. The reality show setting is vaguely acceptable and makes sense at the surface level for a reader to make choices and advance Marsh through the TV season structure. However, like with the quantum technology that apparently makes “All This and More” possible, the ramifications and logistics of such a show are mostly hand-waved away or ignored entirely. How can the Bubble only be limited to Marsh’s life, when inevitably alterations to her partners will affect their lives and career changes will redirect the paths of her colleagues and friends? Marsh is clearly allowed to change the past, such as never having dropped out of law school, so what happens if she creates a life in which the show never existed, or one fundamentally alters other people’s lives, such as choosing to not have had a child? The number of unanswered questions does often counteract the immersive nature of making Marsh’s choices for her. If the setting is paper-thin, how can the consequences of decisions be any more substantial? 

Marsh’s determination to reinvent herself and the reader’s role in her path also makes it difficult to establish Marsh’s distinct personality traits. Her desire to be a better version of herself and to explore possibilities beyond what could be accomplished in one lifetime is easy to empathize with, and one constant across all the choices is that she loves her daughter, a promising musician. Her main traits being so generally relatable, however, also make her a flat character that gets buffeted around by the repeated introduction of new environments. Mother and daughter are generally an easy pair to root for, but if Marsh is a translucent character, her daughter is rendered completely formless in the changing situations. Among other lives, Marsh goes back to law school and becomes an extremely successful lawyer, chases a rare species of butterfly as a photographer and wins a prestigious award, is an actress, and in each also goes down different possibilities with her ex-husband and a past lover. Her daughter simply accompanies each version of Marsh’s life, with varying degrees of involvement and distance from her mother, reworked like part of the setting. As the Bubble starts to break apart, indicated by mysterious rogue messages in the group chat and the appearances of past TV crew members inside the Bubble, Marsh is not strong enough of an individual character to keep the story engaging without the novelty and drama of her created lives. By that point in the story, it has also been long clear that the science and setting also cannot be relied on to prop up the story, putting the novel in a persistently awkward position. 

The difficulty of a premise of infinite possibility is that the necessarily finite ones that can be presented in a functional book never feel like enough. All This and More is perhaps at its most interesting when Marsh starts intensively adjusting even the most minute details of her chosen life in the Bubble, simply because she can. An even more “perfect” life might always exist, and indeed Marsh is chasing it, but it would also be intolerable for a reader to eternally chase that with her. Despite the plot points of the Bubble and the reality show starting to break apart, this reviewer’s first read-through was one that ended in a life where “All This and More” is completely successful in exactly what it promises. Marsh’s life is perfect and settles that way permanently. By her own admission, she wouldn’t change a thing; everything is so perfect that it becomes eye-twitching. Without Marsh knowing exactly why, and to the confusion and horror of her partner, she begins wilfully destroying pieces of her life like breaking gifts and burning food. It could be a compelling statement on perfection and happiness, though its delivery relies on the reader’s external comprehension, not Marsh’s understanding of what has happened to her. 

The other endings (including one where Marsh becomes the host of the show, taking over from the woman who guided her through her season, and one where the reader is taken into the show as its next star) take a different angle, where characters are trapped in cycles. The grim implications of All This and More have a lot of room to build on, and Shepherd committing to the sinister endings makes for very entertaining reading regardless of which one a reader lands on. All the endings that this reviewer encountered, however, were quite short, especially in comparison to the episode sections. There is very little space for a sense of the consequences that Marsh has to live with in each one, and perhaps each could have been more impactful if expanded upon a bit further. 

All This and More sets out huge goals for itself and creating a coherent choose-your-own-adventure novel is a substantial feat. However, like the promises made to and echoed by Marsh, as she recites the novel’s titular phrase over and over, it cannot totally deliver. Changes and trade-offs are made, which is especially easy in this format, only for a reader to look back and wonder what they are left with. 


Acta Victoriana would like to extend thanks to the publisher, HarperCollins, for the review copy.

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