Afterworlds – By Scott Westerfeld – On YA authors, publishing and cultural appropriation

Afterworlds (Afterworlds #1) Rating:

Synopsis2BELIEVING IS DANGEROUS…

Darcy Patel is afraid to believe all the hype. But it’s really happening – her teen novel is getting published. Instead of heading to college, she’s living in New York City, where she’s welcomed into the dazzling world of YA publishing. That means book tours, parties with her favorite authors, and finding a place to live that won’t leave her penniless. It means sleepless nights rewriting her first draft and struggling to find the perfect ending… all while dealing with the intoxicating, terrifying experience of falling in love – with another writer.

Told in alternating chapters is Darcy’s novel, the thrilling story of Lizzie, who wills her way into the afterworld to survive a deadly terrorist attack. With survival comes the responsibility to guide the restless spirits that walk our world, including one ghost with whom she shares a surprising personal connection. But Lizzie’s not alone in her new calling – she has counsel from a fellow spirit guide, a very desirable one, who is torn between wanting Lizzie and warning her that…

BELIEVING IS DANGEROUS.

In a brilliant high-wire act of weaving two epic narratives – and two unforgettable heroines – into one novel, Scott Westerfeld’s latest work is a triumph of storytelling.

My reviewTold in dual-narrative, Afterworlds, the title of this book is actually the title of the book that Darcy Patel, the protagonist is working on. Darcy, eighteen years old, has landed a two-book contract for almost a quarter million, and her life, as she knew it, changes overnight. From someone who has never lived alone, she moves from Philly to NY, and is thrown into the rigmarole of what goes into the few months leading to the big debut. It was absolutely delightful to read about everything you have always suspected being a blogger, about how the life of such a debut author would be. So I guess a part of it was wish fulfillment, to see it all on page, even if it felt slightly exaggerated and surreal – all the YA author parties, gatherings, pre-pub tours, the discussions about what makes a good book, “originality” versus writing what sells, the brainstorming during editing and rewrites and so on. Then you also have Darcy’s friends, through whom you see yourself on page too, as they are yapping on about how they have read or heard about most of the not-yet-published books because of their well-connected school librarian who always got hold of the latest ARCs.

The entire book, i.e Darcy’s book “Afterworlds” is within this book. It is interspersed with Darcy’s story every alternate chapter and right off the bat you know that everything works out okay and atleast the publishing goes without a hitch, because you are practically reading the finished book within this book. But Westerfeld manages to make it interesting, especially by showing Darcy’s inexperience at pretty much everything – as an author, a lover and well, as someone terrible with her finances. Darcy can’t stick to her own schedule, is caught up with the bling of a new city and you just get a feeling that she has a “I will just wing it in the end” attitude sub-consciously. All the self-doubt about whether she was even a real author was done pretty well. At one point she wonders whether she is a fluke as she finished first draft in 30 days but she is taking months to rewrite the final chapters.

I personally felt that some of the Indian rep was done well. There were so many little things – about Darcy’s parents being believers but not that religious, her sister Nisha being great at math and hence looking over the family’s tax filings, her engineer dad, her mom’s story about how they didn’t spent any money on clothes when they first came to US and got everything from India, Darcy being naïve and clueless about a lot of things in NY because she has never lived alone, screwing up the budget allocation Nisha planned for her .. and so on.. It was a good balance between atypical and stereotypical .. because hey, there is no one “true rep” and the truth is always somewhere in between. And gosh, I loved all the moments when Darcy was searching for an apartment and ended up going atleast 500$ over-budget with the final monthly rent. She pretty much tears Nisha’s financial planning to shreds, it was a bit of a trainwreck tbh  – Darcy paying 3500k per month in NY without taking in any roommates and then casually blowing up money on food every eating outside frequently instead of, well, spending on setting up her kitchen so that she can cook at home. I think she finally does that (?) through her aunt gifting her some stuff and her dad driving over with some items(? I am not sure) but she continues to blow up money anyways. Nothing extravagant, but frugal or budgeted living is definitely not her cup of tea. She did give the impression of someone who knew she has a safety net of a stable loving home and a reasonably well-off family to return too if her writing career doesn’t take off as early as she expected.

Darcy ends up falling in love and living with another writer with Imogen and I thought the author contrasted the difference in their personalities pretty well; some of it due to their age difference. Imogen has been in atleast one relationship more than Darcy, and also has a markedly different work style when it comes to her writing. All this sort of manifests into challenges they have get through while living together, especially with Darcy struggling to give Imogen her space and privacy. Imogen, in turn worries about how Darcy will handle Afterworlds’ success (or failure). In some ways, Imogen takes charge of their present by making some difficult decisions so that they have the promise of a better future to look forward to.

I think what I struggled with the most as a reader is getting through the entire book (within the book) Afterworlds. I loved the idea TBH; Yamaraj is someone I am familiar with since I am Indian. But gosh, Yamaraj was made to be such a watered down and bland representation. Westerfeld might have as well written Twilight 2.0. Lizzie and Yamaraj’s love story was THAT kind of Hot YA commonplace. Look, I get it, the author’s intention was to show how so many stories publicized as “epic” YA romances are finally clones of one another and that so many authors have those breakthrough debuts with such stories (?). After reading Darcy’s novel, you do wonder – How on earth did THIS book get her a hundred grand in advance? The most interesting function of this book is however the conversation it generates regarding cultural appropriation. It raises questions with no definitive answers; but just further questionable topics for debate. Under what terms is “cultural appropriation” acceptable? Is there even such a thing as acceptability? Does Darcy being Indian exclude her from the criticism of getting the “essence” of her cultural history wrong when translated to paper? Considering she isn’t even that religious, can she be considered an “authentic” source of authority over the “correct” representation of Hinduism? So much of this brought up in the book, and in between Darcy is shown doubting herself. But, Darcy’s internal conflict doesn’t manifest into any real, tangible consequences.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the world-building in Darcy’s book. It was a pile of confusing mess, like Inception on steroids, except that you have ghosts and your ghostly selves on different astral projections. It was hard to keep track of the different worlds (Overworld, Afterworld, Underworld) along with the permutations and combinations of time, space, visibility and travel constraints in different worlds. So yea, definitely not my kind of fantasy novel. But if is something you enjoy reading, and can get past the slightly simplistic (deliberate?)plot stretched across half the book, then I think you would definitely enjoy Westerfeld’s Afterworlds in totality.

I quite enjoyed it for its unique idea. I might have liked it more if we didn’t end up getting Darcy’s entire novel and instead got snippet like say, Simon Snow’s fanfic in Fangirl, just enough to get an idea (and enough to drive discussions about appropriation). But I really liked all the “real” characters – be it Imogen, Nisha, Darcy or her friends. And I definitely enjoyed reading about Darcy more than Lizzie.

The Shoemaker’s Wife – By Adriana Trigiani

Rating:

Well, I admit I am not that enthusiastic about browsing through books tagged as romantic fiction. I often end up picking the ones that are formulaic, one-note and boring.. with vapid characters that you don’t care much for throughout the book.

However I do have some sub-genres that I really like, one of my favourites being historical romance. Especially the ones set in the early 1900s. And at the outset, The Shoemaker’s Wife did seem to have the kind of elements that I like reading in a love story.. or any story – Rich cultural setting, strong-willed characters, vivid descriptions of landscapes, journey across continents and well.. a lot of good people with good ethics and ..let’s just say, if you want to take a break from books with grey characters, amoral tendencies, and tragic lives, then The Shoemaker’s Wife might be the book for you. It does get a bit mawkish though but I will get to that later.

Ciro and his brother grow up in a convent after their mother, unable to take care of them, leaves the two in the care of the nuns. During his mid-teens, he meets Enza who lives in a neighbouring village with her parents and siblings. Both Ciro and Enza immediately feel a sense of comfort and companionship with each other. That singular, chance meeting is something that both cherish and reminisce about later. Sadly, that is the last time they encounter each other in Italy. Unknown to the other, circumstances force both of them to immigrate to America, search for jobs and rebuild their lives. Ciro starts apprenticeship with a shoemaker and excels at the craft. Enza puts in long hours at a blouse factory. Over the next few years, call it by the design of fate or coincidence, they do end up meeting each other sporadically. But when Enza’s exciting career prospects as a seamstress beckons her from another town and Ciro enlists himself to fight in the war, it begins to look improbable that their love does have a future.

There are a lot themes in this book that I loved reading about. There is an underlying melancholy among Ciro, Enza and the other Italian immigrants who continually miss the mountains, green fields, open air, and blue lakes of the alps back home. Who might never see their families again for years. This was the time when the only mode of communication was letters. Ciro and Enza get by with that and treasure every correspondence with their folks. But they are also grateful for the opportunities America provides them. And work hard and don’t take it for granted. And there were a lot of insights delicious expositions about food, family, music, fine arts and the inherent grace and beauty of the Italian heritage and landscape . And some reflective thoughts.

Between Ciro and Enza, I think I liked Enza more initially. She was practical and just so sure of what she wanted for her family and herself – in that order. But when she finally makes an impulsive decision for herself, I found it a bit jarring and uncharacteristically insensitive of her towards someone else. And just when I was beginning to think, “Well, nobody is perfect… “ , Trigiani slips in a nugget about the goings-on in that character’s life to somehow just justify that Enza’s choice was “right” and she and all her near and dear ones are perfect. I think that slowly began to tire me towards the end of the book.. that everyone is so nice and wonderful .. with even nicer and more wonderful friends (And that fact is explicitly hammered into our heads). It was a nice cozy read, but I would have liked if there were a bit more conflicts… or well.. just something to stir things up. I like neat, happy endings.. but I find it a bit boring if the book chugs along to a neat, predictable, happy ending.

As I mentioned earlier, the book had some cool, thoughtful passages. I will end the review by quoting one of my favourites:

“Hope is a wonderful thing. It has no memory. It fills you with possibility. Whatever your imagination can conjure, hope will design and deliver”.