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.

Holding Smoke – By Elle Cosimano

Holding Smoke Rating:

Note : I received an ARC of this book via Veronica’s blog giveaway. Do check out her lovely blog here.

Synopsis2John “Smoke” Conlan is serving time for two murders but he wasn’t the one who murdered his English teacher, and he never intended to kill the only other witness to the crime. A dangerous juvenile rehabilitation center in Denver, Colorado, known as the Y, is Smoke’s new home and the only one he believes he deserves.

But, unlike his fellow inmates, Smoke is not in constant imprisonment. After a near death experience leaves him with the ability to shed his physical body at will, Smoke is able to travel freely outside the concrete walls of the Y, gathering information for himself and his fellow inmates while they’re asleep in their beds. Convinced his future is only as bright as the fluorescent lights in his cell, Smoke doesn’t care that the “threads” that bind his soul to his body are wearing thin-that one day he may not make it back in time. That is, until he meets Pink, a tough, resourceful girl who is sees him for who he truly is and wants to help him clear his name. 

Now Smoke is on a journey to redemption he never thought possible. With Pink’s help, Smoke may be able to reveal the true killer, but the closer they get to the truth, the more deadly their search becomes. The web of lies, deceit, and corruption that put Smoke behind bars is more tangled than they could have ever imagined. With both of their lives on the line, Smoke will have to decide how much he’s willing to risk, and if he can envision a future worth fighting for.

My review I havent read too many YA books which just have that slight touch of paranormal. The few I have read recently have been disappointing especially a couple of them which are about mind-body-soul because the book somehow ends up reading like religious fiction instead of what was promised in the synopsis. Thankfully, Holding Smoke not just lives up to what is promised in the cover blurb, but also exceeds it by miles.

No aspect of the book threatens to eclipse the other – the murder mystery complements beautifully with the human stories of the inmates. That’s a rarity in mystery books with a sizeable secondary cast – where sub-plots often tend to test your patience and make you question their need. But here, you actually do enjoy and empathize with everyone – with all their background stories that have been added cleverly into the book through Conlan’s paranormal power. I loved all the prison scenes, there was no unnecessary amped up melodrama but yet it is so effective – whether it is the counseling sessions or the power play in the yard. I feel like this is probably one of the biggest strengths of the book – to never lose sight of the fact that this is a juvenile rehab and NOT an adult prison. No matter how “hardened” they might be because of the circumstances, their vulnerabilities as teens are always bubbling beneath the surface.

I loved how we got the background story of how Conlan ended up in the detention center. The author takes her time to build it up gradually – whether it is the details of the fateful day or nuggets from his earlier difficult years with his abusive father. Conlan’s life is a template of childhood degraded, a present devalued and a future lost – A future that had a college degree and a well-paying job.  This is also the story shared by a lot of characters at the center. Of course, if you are lucky you might have an empathetic warden or a counselor taking an interest in you and reinforcing the belief that you can finish your education and making something of your life once you get out. But no inmate seriously believes it.

There is no romance in this book. What Conlan and Pink have between them is more of a strained-friendship-with-romantic potential and that’s a good thing because both have a lot of things going on in their individual lives. Pink is practical and gosh – just so gutsy! Not some wannabe badass. Conlan initially seeks her out because he needs her help but later does start valuing her and respecting the life she leads. He also feels like he is losing out on someone important to him when turns her away at one point in the story. Despite his feelings for her, I liked how Conlan never turns reckless in using his paranormal ability just to meet her.

I really liked the murder mystery though I guessed the “who” halfway through the book. But I think it is more due to the fact that I have gotten pretty good at guesswork than anything else. I couldn’t guess the “why” though. I also liked all the red herrings the author used and explained in the final pages. The only issue I had is probably the presence of another girl – Vivian – in the story. I felt like the book didn’t really need her. I think any other existing character(s) could have contributed whatever she did to the story. But it is a pretty minor gripe and well, I understood why she was there once I read the Author’s Note in the end. (Do read that once you finish the book!!! You will find some great personal insights there.)

There is an epilogue that I felt was not required. I got my closure even without that. Well, with or without the epilogue, it was such a bittersweet conclusion and an immensely satisfying one.

[ARC Review] The Infinity of You & Me – By J.Q. Coyle

Rating:

Hardcover:  256 pages
Expected publication: November 8th 2016
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Note: I won an ARC of this book via Goodreads giveaways. Would like to thank the publishers!!
Buy Links:

Kindle      Hardcover

Synopsis

What if every life-altering choice you made could split your world into infinite worlds?

Almost fifteen, Alicia is smart and funny with a deep connection to the poet Sylvia Plath, but she’s ultimately failing at life. With a laundry list of diagnoses, she hallucinates different worlds—strange, decaying, otherworldly yet undeniably real worlds that are completely unlike her own with her single mom and one true friend. In one particularly vivid hallucination, Alicia is drawn to a boy her own age named Jax who’s trapped in a dying universe. Days later, her long-lost father shows up at her birthday party, telling her that the hallucinations aren’t hallucinations, but real worlds; she and Jax are bound by a strange past and intertwining present. This leads her on a journey to find out who she is while trying to save the people and worlds she loves. J.Q. Coyle’s The Infinity of You & Me is a wild ride through unruly hearts and vivid worlds guaranteed to captivate.

My thoughts

I think I must be going through a blogger’s block because I am really struggling to come up with complete reviews these days. So I thought I will do something different this time:

multiverse Alicia finds out that the world contains NOT a universe but a multiverse and that all her nightmares are actually real lives and scenarios playing out. It took some time for me to realize a basic fact – what makes her special is not that she has different selves, but that she has the ability to consciously flit between the bodies of all her selves. She has the “awareness” that there are more lives of hers out there. The term for such people is – Spandrel (this is an actual word in English, btw). This was interesting and in some ways reminded me of another genre – time-travel. Now, time-travel is something that I have slowly gotten familiar with, atleast familiar with some “rules” that a lot of authors employ. For example, your past and present selves can’t meet without bad consequences.  But with multiverse being new to me, and with this book being a standalone (?), I felt that there was probably too much of complications packed in. This is not exactly a criticism. Considering it is a standalone, I felt the authors did a really good job staging everything. But there were a few things which could have made better sense if brought up by Alicia. Like for example, why didn’t she ever question anyone what will happen if people’s two selves meet? For most of the book I thought maybe that is not even possible because, from what I had understood this is not like time-travel but alternate realities. So, I thought maybe two selves meeting each other isn’t a possibility. But, something like that actually happens with a character in the end. But Alicia isn’t freaked out or wondering at all. I was surprised she wasn’t curious what would happen in such a case. I felt that is such a big thing to be sprung out at us in the end without any explanation as to how that works. Apart from these issues, I found it quite entertaining and fun to read. And may I say, despite all the problematic logic, I understood this better (whatever was put on paper) than a time-travel fiction I read earlier this year.

diversity.jpgAlicia’s best friend is Hafeez, an American-born of Pakistani descent. I rarely come across best friends of South Asian ethnicity in the books I read. Since the focus isn’t really on Hafeez or his family in this book, we don’t get to know much from his POV. But still, I liked how his family’s background and what he might have gone through all his life was subtly incorporated.

parenting.jpgAlicia has been diagnosed with everything you can think of when one says “mental health” – from ADD and anxiety to hallucinations and paranoia. She struggles to make daily decisions and it is so severe that the thought of choosing from the cafeteria menu can trigger a panic attack. So, I found it ironical that the one decision that Alicia is sure of – accept what she can do and be in a multiverse – is not met with encouragement but resistance by her mother.  However, truth be told, I could see where her mother was coming from. It is a pretty perplexing way to live. Moreover, I could understand why she didn’t want to lose a “single” Alicia to someone with knowledge of her different selves.

eternityIn the book, we see a character that set off a chain of unfortunate events with the intention of doing the right thing. But, I found it interesting that the “selflessness” was borne out of the knowledge that the person can have or branch into many selves and a “sacrifice” in one branch of life is palatable when you can live a “happily-ever-after” version in another branch.  But, the character is never really able to create or live a proper and fulfilling “family life” because the other participant is tired of inhabiting different realities and abandons the idea. So the character creates a partial reality that plays out the desired phase of life. It was honestly kind of sad to read about because the whole scene was set up like a doomed end to an incomplete love story.

final.jpgThis wasn’t perfect and there were couple of other things that I felt could have been dealt with better:

  • Addressing mental health – I would have liked it if a clear distinction was made between the symptoms manifesting as a result of what Alicia was actually suffering from all her “universal” life and the symptoms which were a result of her turning into a spandrel. The way it was explained, it looked like everything was because she was turning into a spandrel and that she never really had any mental health disorders in the first place.
  • Love Interests – There are teens developing crushes and falling in love, but that made no difference or impact on the story whatsoever. Alicia is attracted to the boy – Jax – from her “dream” from the first time she sets her eyes on him and well, it is clear that this is the “REAL” love story (and not Alicia-Hafeez, because, well, of course Hafeez being the best friend will be friend-zoned). But it didn’t make any impression on me whatsoever. I didn’t care whether they would get their happily-ever-after or not.

But.. but… but… despite all crinkles, I really enjoyed the book. It was wildly entertaining and imaginative.  I had so much to think about and say once I finished reading, so I couldn’t wait to start typing and get out of my reviewing block!

[Book Spotlight] The Urban Boys : Discovery of the Five Senses (Volume 1)

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Author: K.N. Smith
Genre: Action Adventure/ Paranormal
Publisher: Two Petals Publishing
Release Date: September, 2015

Synopsis:

The Urban Boys: Discovery of the Five Senses is an action-adventure story about five teen boys who are mysteriously exposed to a foreign energy source that gives them extremely heightened senses. Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell become hypersensitive gifts that forever change the world!

The story chronicles their effortless interrelations and later exposes the testing of their deep bonds, and introduces the reader to an array of supporting characters who alter the boys’ lives forever. The Urban Boys offers young and mature readers central themes of loyalty, responsibility, honesty, fear, and triumph, which become artfully integrated with cinematic-level action and high drama.

We wonder, will they pass the test of fate, and will each of us pass the test of our very own lives? Intriguing, intelligent, and full of action, The Urban Boys offers a memorable, emotion-packed, thrilling ride for traditional and digital readers of all ages! (first in a series)

About the Author:

K.N. Smith K.N. Smith is an American author and passionate advocate of childhood and family literacy programs throughout the world. She continues to inspire students of all ages to reach their highest potential in their literary and educational pursuits. Her creative, lyrical flair sweeps across pages that twist, turn, and grind through elements of paranormal and action-adventure in diverse, exciting, edge-of-your-seat narratives. She lives with her family in California.

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