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.

A House for Happy Mothers – By Amulya Malladi

A House for Happy MothersRating:

Buy Links:

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Synopsis2A stunning new novel—full of wit and warmth—from the bestselling author of The Mango Season.

In trendy Silicon Valley, Priya has everything she needs—a loving husband, a career, and a home—but the one thing she wants most is the child she’s unable to have. In a Southern Indian village, Asha doesn’t have much—raising two children in a tiny hut, she and her husband can barely keep a tin roof over their heads—but she wants a better education for her gifted son. Pressured by her family, Asha reluctantly checks into the Happy Mothers House: a baby farm where she can rent her only asset—her womb—to a childless couple overseas. To the dismay of friends and family, Priya places her faith in a woman she’s never met to make her dreams of motherhood come true.

Together, the two women discover the best and the worst that India’s rising surrogacy industry has to offer, bridging continents and cultures to bring a new life into the world—and renewed hope to each other.

My review (contains some spoilers)

Told in alternating POVs, this story lets you into two starkly different lives of the women – Priya and Asha. Spanning nine months, we see their ups and downs, their moral dilemma and them assuaging their own guilt.

Following years of miscarriages and failed IVF treatments, Priya opts for surrogacy. After a lot of research and a trip to India with her husband Madhu, she finds a good, affordable clinic and a surrogate – Asha.  Priya then returns to the US and spends the next many months waiting, worrying, sending care packages to Asha and gifts for her and her entire family. During this time, we also see more of her life with her husband, their social circle and also Priya’s niggling doubts of whether she will be able to land a good job if she does take a break from her career. Since Priya has been brought up and raised in the US, all her reactions during her India trips – such as the traffic and beggars is understandable. It is something that I have seen and read too many times; so I almost expected it. But where I couldn’t understand Priya is that though she mentions a couple of times that she has always wanted to find her “roots” and so she was happy that by marrying an Indian, she is somewhere closer to discovering herself; she doesn’t seem to be too fond of anything “Indian” – I mean, she can’t stand her husband’s Indian friends, has pretty condescending thoughts towards their wives, doesn’t watch any Indian movies (well, okay she doesn’t watch Bollywood, and Bollywood is not equal to all Indian movies, but it is just something I inferred not just because of this but also some other things in the book), learnt to cook Indian food by going to Indian cooking classes only after feeling that slight twinge of jealousy on seeing her husband relish the kind of food his mom makes on their Indian trips. I just felt she was too judgmental and snarky and well, it didn’t help that some of the Indian characters she was acquainted with felt like exaggerations of “behaviors” that is already associated with Indians. Take, for example – “Indians don’t respect personal space”. How is this proved in the book?  Well, in the dinner party at Madhu’s friends’ place, one of the wives casually mentions the surrogacy (which Madhu had shared only with her husband who is his best friend) in front of everyone; thereby outing their secret (because they didn’t want to really let everyone know yet) and also providing everyone the opportunity to join in the conversation. Everyone start asking Priya and Madhu for more details and one of them even cracks a funny (not!) joke about it. Honestly, I cringed.

But, what about the other Indian characters? I felt Priya saw every Indian stay-at-home wife as someone dumb and just happy to live off her husband’s money. Heck, she even described one of the wives as “dim”. Umm.. why? We don’t get any reason. So, I am assuming it is because she doesn’t work. She continues to leap into judgments about all the stay-at-home Indian wives she knew throughout the book. Both in US and India.  Funnily enough, Priya’s condescension doesn’t extend to her non-Indian friends.

Okay, I will stop with ranting about it and proceed with the rest of my review. I really liked Priya and Madhu as a couple. We just got the right amount of romance, history and glimpse into the daily couple-y things they do. Priya and Madhu have been together for quite a few years and so it is just nice to read the “routine” they have fallen into after years of living together – all the small habits and things you do every day. The way they deal with the whole surrogacy process is also interesting. Priya is just very vocal about everything she feels, all the stress and anticipation as she calls Asha as frequently as possible, to talk to her, and keep asking about the well-being of the mother and the unborn child. Madhu just internalizes everything and asks Priya to back off or calm down sometimes.

While there is a lot about Priya’s side of the story that I thought was sketched well, I personally felt Asha’s was better. She is sort of manipulated into becoming a surrogate as her sister-in-law had done it once. She is never fully convinced about it, and finds it unnatural but seeing how her brother-in-law managed to buy a new flat with the money they received, she agrees to do it too. Not for a flat, but to pay for son’s admission to a better school – one that is equipped to hone his exceptional intelligence. As the weeks go by, she slowly sees the Happy Mothers House for what it is – just a shady business. We also meet other surrogates in the house, and as Asha spends time talking to the others, she gets more apprehensive as time passes by, wondering whether she will find the strength to give up the baby. She wonders whether the scales are truly balanced – Just how much money can really be a worthy price for a womb? She also slowly realizes that the amount she is going to get is nowhere near what is required to pay for her son’s entire education and is terrified that she might have to go through this again after a few years. Gosh, I felt so bad for her when I saw how hard it is for her to even voice out any opinion to her husband regarding financial decisions. She has been raised in a small village where patriarchy rules and where women don’t really have the final say in such decisions. She has also grown up seeing men shout at and beat their wives. So she idolizes her husband Pratap who is “unlike” the other men she has grown up seeing because hey, Pratap is gentle with words, doesn’t beat her and spends time with the kids after work. Considering where she has come from and the life she has seen around her, she considers herself lucky to be married to him. He works outside, and she cooks at home and takes care of the kids, and earns a bit by sewing whenever possible. It was upsetting to her Pratap feeling entitled about the money and entertaining the plans of a flat even though Asha is against it. He brings up the topic more than once. The story resolves in a way that they might have money for the flat without compromising on their son’s studies, but honestly neither Pratap nor his brother inspire much confidence when it comes to sensing their wives’ apprehensions and respecting their wishes. I was left with the queasy feeling that Asha will end up being a surrogate again after a few years.

Coming to the overall storyline, it was nothing murky or complicated. But, I just felt like the author toyed with a couple of ideas to make a “shady surrogacy scam” storyline but didn’t really expand on it much. And I think that was okay as it was easy to understand what the author implied anyways. But I felt a couple of other scenes that were unnecessary and could have easily been edited out. For example, there were two dinner parties, and I felt one was completely unnecessary and didn’t add anything new. I also have a feeling there were some other ideas, like confrontation scenes between two families which never made it to the book. So yea, some awkward editing.

While we are on the subject of editing, I wish the last paragraph of the book was completely edited out. It tried to summarize everything as some sort of HEA for both the ladies and that despite their differences, they were “equal”. Uh, no.  Priya’s challenge will be “How to raise a baby while balancing a six-figure paying job”. Asha’s challenge is going to be “How to send my kids to a city school for the next fifteen years without becoming a surrogate again”.

The Dowry Bride

Rating:

The Dowry Bride, Shobhan Bantwal’s debut novel, throws light on the tradition of the dowry, an age-old custom that is still prevalent in India, in spite of being outlawed decades ago.  Megha, the eponymous protagonist, is married off to Suresh Ramnath immediately after completing her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. Unhappy with her father’s decision and choice of groom, she tries her best to convince him about letting her pursue her education further….. and fails. She quickly accepts her marriage as fate, stops dreaming about a career in journalism, and settles into the routine of domesticity. But it turns out to be harder than she bargained for – long hours of cooking, cleaning, washing and other chores, a mother-in-law determined to make her life miserable, and a cold and insensitive husband. Her father-in-law is the only person in the Ramnath family who is kind and respectful towards her, but too weak-willed to stand up to his wife, Chandramma.

More than a year passes by, and to her rude shock and horror, she overhears her mother-in-law and husband planning to kill because her father is unable to pay the dowry instalments. With no one else to reach out for help, she seeks refuge at her husband’s cousin, Kiran’s apartment. Kiran, who has nursed a crush since the first time he met her, protects and takes care of her. Touched by his affection, Megha reciprocates his love , thereby convoluting an already messed up situation.

I tried really hard to like this book, but this book reads so much like a desi soap opera from the previous decade that I found the similarities unintentionally amusing – A newly-wed bride.  A mother-in-law from hell.  A father-in-law without a voice in the house. A husband tied to his mother’s apron strings. And a knight-in-shining-armor brother-in-law.

We are repeatedly told that Megha is fair and beautiful, the Ramnaths are dark and plain. Kiran is tall and well-built. Suresh is short and puny. Chandramma is evil and ugly.. very ugly. And we are reminded of that very frequently. Hence, everyone is reduced to caricatures, both in terms of physicality and personalities. The writing is too wordy and descriptive, even when not required. It honestly felt like an overkill at times.. and a bit silly:

Sample this :

Taking a deep breath, Megha braced herself to run for it. Her only hope for escape would be to dart quickly past the unsuspecting stranger, fly down the stairs at lightning speed and disappear into the night before he knew what hit him. She’d have to count on the element of surprise to help her along. With any luck the person would be too stunned to react instantly. Clenching her fists, she readied herself for escape.

Or this:

Her large, dark eyes opened wide with alarm. She was going to be killed! Realization struck her like a punch in the stomach. Terror replaced numbing shock, sending her heartbeat soaring.

I found the turn that the story took and its conclusion quite unsatisfying. The author spent most of the pages in establishing Megha and Kiran’s love story. Occasionally, we see Megha fuming about the injustices heaped on her and swearing revenge on the mother-son Ramnath duo. But she doesn’t actively make any decisions and go beyond just words. Her reliance on Kiran for everything got a bit cumbersome to read.  I wish we got to see more of her personal growth, career aspirations and new-found independence. But all we get is a hint of everything wrapped up in a rush in the last few pages; almost as a footnote.  I loved the title and cover of the book, but sadly the rest of the pages just didn’t live upto the expectations I had. A book addressing the issue of dowry system deserved better storytelling.