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.

Shepherd & the Professor – By Dan Klefstad

Rating:

*Note : I received a digital copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review*

Buy Links:

Paperback         Kindle

Synopsis2

Most people take comfort knowing their family and friends will remember them after they die. For Susan Shepherd, “remembering” is bullshit. She wants an eternal shrine to her sacrifice: a book that never goes out of print.

Shepherd served her country in the Gulf War, got shot while serving her community as a cop, raised an ungrateful daughter by herself — and for what? A diagnosis of terminal cancer and she isn’t even fifty. If you were in her shoes, you might agree that nothing short of national perpetual acknowledgement will do.

She’s glad you feel that way; she just wrote a memoir and sent a flurry of query letters, hoping a publisher will memorialize her with a best-seller. After hitting Send, she waits not-at-all patiently for an editor to decide if her story will sell enough copies — that is, if her life really mattered.

My review

The writingUnconventional and refreshing. Slightly acerbic at times, Klefstad isn’t afraid to let his characters indulge in highly-charged conversations at the risk of not sounding PC. The format of the book does lend itself to being categorized as an epistolary (but it is one long query letter, and not a series of short ones) and it did take some time for me to get used to the changing narrators (as different people take over at from Susan at different times) and the initial time-leaps in the reminiscences. But once the book hit its stride – I got more comfortable reading it after 35-40% – I appreciated the atmospheric detailing that made the small university town of Charters come alive.

(Check out some of my favorite quotes from the book here.)

The charactersThis is Susan’s story and I found it interesting that Klefstad completely skips addressing the details about the big cancer-related chapter of her life – and I think it is a gutsy decision! I mean, kudos to the author for not making this entire book and Susan’s life about cancer.  Instead, we are given brief glimpses of a couple of early incidents in her life, including her only significant but brief relationship with a guy (who is the father of her child). All these experiences left indelible marks but I would like to think they only made her stronger and more equipped to deal with everything that came with single-parenting.  But from what we see of Susan’s twenty-something daughter Emma, and by Susan’s own admission, she has a lot of regrets with how things have turned out for her daughter. Although as a reader, Emma is absolutely infuriating to read about, an ungrateful brat who is hell-bent on throwing away whatever her mom is working very hard to provide.

Though this is Susan’s story on the query letter, the plot itself doesn’t move by the precipitating actions of any one single character. It is an ensemble plot in the truest sense as every character’s actions have a ripple effect though each one thinks they are doing what is required for them to survive and move up in Charters. So, there is a student, who is at loggerheads with his devout lecturer by arguing the under-representation of atheism in literature. Then there is a campus law enforcement chief vying for the position of the new President of the University. There is a also a radio jockey fighting to keep the seven-minute interview hosting slots amid reports of falling ratings. Finally, there is a woman identifying herself as Judy Peterson who is a bit of an enigma, a loose cannon willing to do what it takes to become the president.

Through all this radio station, university and law enforcement politics, there is a shady drug dealing business that Susan keeps trying to shoo away from Emma and herself, but her efforts prove futile as Emma is bullish about sticking to her drug-peddling boyfriend.

The plottingI felt that the book could have used one single high-stakes plot point centering all the characters instead of many – such as the president nomination, funds misappropriation, drugs consumption, investigative journalism and so on. The only thing holding these characters together in one book is the university and I just found the whole plot surrounding the president post a bit weak and unconvincing. Maybe it is because I could never get a sense of how “evil” Judy is. I mean, she is described as someone who has gotten away with scheming for years and yet, she makes so many mistakes – so many basic ones – that I just couldn’t believe she has never got caught. She came across as too vulnerable.

Then there was this drug peddling business that the Sheriff’s department has been looking for an opportunity to bust. I was a bit confused about how the entire thing went down. The department apparently was “successful” by the end of it, but the result of the entire operation seemed to be a heap of mess, so I am not sure what happened there.

Overall impressionsWould definitely recommend the book if you want to read something that just – well – reads differently! It tested my patience at times (especially the first half), but I began enjoying the leisurely vibe later on.

The Silkworm – By Robert Galbraith

Rating:

When Leonara Quine approaches private detective Cormoran Strike to find her husband, he is quite glad to take it up. He is fed up with running surveillance operations involving wealthy embezzlers and cheating couples. And Owen Quine’s disappearance doesn’t seem too complex to solve. After all, Mrs. Quine is sure he is sulking in some writer’s retreat and just needs Strike to get him back home. But as Strike digs further, it becomes apparent that there is something murky about this disappearance. None of his colleagues or friends seem to know where he is. And no one is particularly fond of him either. And everyone is worried about whether he will go ahead with his threat of releasing his next book, with or without a publisher. Because that book is vile, libellous and macabre work of erotic fiction with thinly veiled references to real people – authors, publishers and editors. When Quine is finally found – badly mutilated, disemboweled and very much dead, Strike has to find out which one of them took the phrase “Life imitating art” to a whole new level.

Halfway through the book, I realised that I have to not just pay attention to the book but also the book within the book authored by Owen Quine: Bombyx Mori (aka the silkworm’s scientific name) so that I don’t feel lost when the mystery starts unravelling. Not to mention all the timelines and what happened on which day (which is important to keep track of in any well-plotted murder mystery). I spoke about paying close attention to Bombyx Mori because that holds the key to the entire plot – its characters and how Quine chose to reference and depict all the real people through them.

And damnnnn , the plotting.. Rowling is soo good at his. (Okay, so before I proceed further, I will call the author by Rowling in the review, and not Galbraith, because that just feels weird. I will index this review under Galbraith though) I don’t remember the finer details of Cuckoo’s Calling, but I do remember feeling underwhelmed by the book overall, and found it difficult to erm…. adjust to the idea that JKR has proceeded to writing something non-HP .. (haven’t read Casual Vacancy) .. But this time around, I am more .. uh.. prepared. And Silkworm is definitely a lot more cleverer, intricate and rounded. Almost every character introduced is somehow used to make the mystery knottier, and this makes it so much fun to take guesses!! There are some comments and observations made on publishing, indie works, e-books and the less than flattering opinions female authors have to face about their writing skills and commitment. Considering the well-known story behind why “J.K Rowling” is the name which finally appeared on the book covers, it does seem like something she quipped based on personal experiences. And the reference to struggling writers self-publishing semi-pornographic and fantasy-erotica fiction did make me chuckle a bit.

The running arc about Strike’s famous father, the reflected fame, his narcissistic ex-flame and his army background continued in this book. But what took more space were his secretary and unofficial partner in surveillance Robin and her fiancée Matthew’s tiffs regarding her work with Strike.  A considerable amount of pages were about Robin trying to change Matthew’s opinion about her boss and her future career plans. If you aren’t really interested in what happens with Robin and Matthew, it is a bit distracting from the main plot. However, I guess Rowling is setting this up as a long term background arc, and it will be interesting to see where this goes from here. I hope it doesn’t take the clichéd route of Strike and Robin getting together romantically… but it does seem to be on the anvil sometime in the later books. And may I add that I have warmed up to Strike in this book. Well, okay, a li’l bit more than from Cuckoo’s Calling. I have found him a bit impersonal and inaccessible otherwise. But I guess it is a “thing” about detective fiction in general. You can’t spend too many pages fleshing out and spotlighting people’s feelings and background stories. If I do think about it, Rowling has done a good job balancing things out by giving Strike opportunity to muse and vent about things in his past, even if privately.

As I have said earlier in my blog, I do love reading good old-fashioned and no-frills PI mysteries. So I would definitely recommend Silkworm!!

Buy links:

The Silkworm – Kindle
The Silkworm – Paperback
The Silkworm – Hardcover

So with this review, I end my first year in blogging.. (technically less than six months though J ) .. I have had a wonderful time reading and writing about books, and discovered a whole new world of online world of book blogging and learnt quite a few “blogging lessons” along the way..

Looking forward to more reading and blogging next year. Wish you all an amazing 2016!!