Moth and Spark, by Anne Leonard

Moth and Spark, by Anne Leonard
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 0670015709
368 pages, hardcover
Published February 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“Moth and Spark” is not the novel I initially expected it to be, and it took me quite awhile to figure out what star rating I could give to it. If going off my own interest and experience I would say two, perhaps even one. But that would be grossly unfair simply because it is a kind of story I don’t enjoy or get much from. If this were my thing, I would probably be inclined to rate it higher, at three or four stars.

The novel is a romance, one written for a predominantly female audience that Leonard has modeled in the spirit and tones of Jane Austen, but set within a fantasy realm. This is quite significant, because fantasy and science fiction rarely contain an infusion of material that may appeal to people who like an Austen or chick-lit type tale, particularly “high” fantasy. (Urban and supernatural fantasy abounds in female influence I would say). But the ‘epic” or ‘high’ fantasy subgenre, being so defined in Medieval (European) institutions and customs, is not terribly female character friendly.

With this, Leonard rather effectively creates a gripping romance within such confines of a vaguely Medieval European fantasy realm populated with dragons. On the plus side, she does this well, writing some beautiful prose and creating an excellent, likable protagonist. The other characters border on being a bit too simplistic in that the majority are just so good or so evil. Those that need to get along with the heroine protagonist do so without any issue at all. They simply adore her, loyally love her with nary a naysay. With the prince and King in particular as men, these ‘perfect’ characters create that strong, but suitably emotional support for the female protagonist. These perfect men are able to fight, make love, or talk deeply about their feelings at the drop of a hat as required. In this, the novel becomes almost like the exact opposite of most fantasy in this genre, where the men have become some ideal of masculinity to suit the heroine.

While this is nice in that it recognizes the defects and deficiencies of the genre, it also falls into the same trap of being equally unrealistic and off-putting. Though just as there are men out there that adore reading a book of mindless action filled with stereotypical women, so will there be women that feel at home reading a lush romance with its idealized supporting male characters. While the protagonist is brilliant, witty, and strong, she still is placed in the confines of being feminine, needing emotional support, attention, and a committed romance in a way that a male protagonist would never be written as needed. She thus remains exceedingly traditional, despite showing at least the ability of independence.

The fantastic aspects in this novel also take a strong backseat to the other elements of the story. Magic and the dragons make an appearance at the very start, but then the majority of the novel is only about romance and court intrigue, indistinguishable from a story that could take place in our own historic reality if we bent the roles of gender social conventions a bit. Fantasy doesn’t enter back into the story (nor much ‘action’ for that matter) until the final third of the novel. It therefore ends up feeling as if it were two distinct types of novel all set into one story, and I think I would have enjoyed the novel far more had there been a better integration of the two.

Three Stars out of Five

The Forever Watch, by David B. Ramirez

The Forever Watch, by David B. Ramirez
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

“The Forever Watch” is an exceptional science fiction novel, a complex and perfectly crafted vision of the ‘generation ship’ interstellar travel archetype story. Ramirez’s writing is crisp and fluid. Dialogue and thoughts ring true, information is given to the reader unobtrusively; the pacing is spot on, mixing slower descriptive passages with minimalistic action, slowing time down to extend important moments while sweeping across a month in a few pages with equal grace.

Most strikingly, this novel is not predictable, yet by the end makes perfect logical and emotional sense, leaving you to ponder the power and dangers of freedom and truth, of sacrifice and devotion. It is neither predictable in plot nor genre style (or tone). The earlier parts of the book felt strongly like a crime or mystery novel, just in a science fiction setting. But then about halfway through a shift occurs and the narrative steps out from a close focus on the main characters alone in their secretive investigations and sweeps out in scope and feel to become something far larger and unique. At first this sort of disappointed me, because I was getting used to the familiarity of common ‘mystery story’ styles and themes, and that comfort was then shattered and my eyes, in perfect parallel to those of the characters, suddenly became open to much more.

The breadth of science covered in “The Forever Watch” is also quite broad, including elements of biology/genetics, computer science, psychology, and engineering. Within the realms of this finely crafted universe even elements such as mind-reading and psychokinesis come across as closer to science than to fantasy. While not as detailed-laden as a hard sci-fi book may take things, these various pieces are ‘explained’ well, to a suitable depth for the tone of the story as a whole.

Often novels I enjoy reading as much as this give me a certain disappointment at how they manage to tie everything together at the end, and for a moment I thought this would be similar. However, the novel ended in fantastic fashion, leaving just satisfaction. I hope this is a start to a really prosperous career for Ramirez.

Five Stars out of Five

The Tyrant’s Daughter, by J.C. Carleson

The Tyrant’s Daughter, by J.C. Carleson
Publisher: Random House
304 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast of NPR Books and someone mentioned that young adult books often focus on how the actions of adults affect the lives of children, but rarely how children drive the lives of parents or other adults. That made me think about this novel and how Carleson’s work follows both directions of impact. The majority of this novel is about how the life of Laila (and the lives of her fellow young) are dictated by their family and culture. Yet, the novel also addresses the lack of freedom inherent even in the lives of the adults, whether they be parent, dictator, or (apparent) CIA officer. Furthermore the novel is that coming-of-age tale where the child begins to exert more freedom and actually turn the tables of control over so that they are now steering the course of their parent’s life.

I finished “The Tyrant’s Daughter in one day. It is an ‘easy’ read, but it is also full of great ideas, intriguing characters, and compelling plots. The story is profound and it is populated with realistic people; the text flows naturally. Nothing in this book seems superfluous, and Carleson nicely makes use of her personal experience to craft a taut thriller amid the literary underpinnings of Laila’s story.

I appreciated just how well this novel mixes entertainment with significance, conflict with insight. This is a book I would have enjoyed even when younger.

Five Stars out of Five

In Retrospect, by Ellen Larson

In Retrospect, by Ellen Larson
Five Star Publications
(Gale-Cengage Learning)
268 pages, Kindle Edition
Published December 2013
Source: NetGalley

As a light sci-fi mystery this novel works really well. The characters are interesting, the writing is professional, and the plotting is done well to keep you guessing how things will exactly turn out. Beyond an entertaining diversion there isn’t much here, and that’s fine if a little diversion is all you’re looking for. I would have liked a little more emphasis on the world-building here, and on the science that allows this little mystery plot to unfold. Most jarring, the characters speak exactly like we do today, slang and all, despite being set over a millennia into the future. So to enjoy this one does have to suspend a certain measure of disbelief at the setup and go along for the ride.

The narrative is told through chapters that skip back and forth between different time periods of the life of the protagonist, Merit, starting at the onset with her apparent murder. Larson manages to write these narrative shifts in time without losing the reader, and this is really important, because the book simply wouldn’t work except written in a round-about temporal manner. It is this construction that allows the mystery, as events of Merit’s past now come back to force the present situation.

Merit is probably what I enjoyed most about the novel. Her character is complex and conflicted, unsure of who she can trust any longer, and uncertain of her own capabilities and strengths. Although the novel lacked aspects that I would usually want to see in a sci-fi book, the depths of that character really brought this novel into something interesting to read.

Three Stars out of Five

Courting Greta, by Ramsey Hootman

Courting Greta, by Ramsey Hootman
Publisher: Gallery Books
ISBN: 1476711291
374 pages, paperback
Published June 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This novel was a pleasant surprise that I did enjoy despite its simplicity. Both the story and the writing are straight-forward, with no complex, artistic manipulations of the language and no surprise twists, making a quick read. Yet I enjoyed reading it the entire way, despite the predictability and its general positivity where things work out despite the travails of life.

It works because it is so straight-forward and simple. Hootman’s purpose here is not elaborate plot, exciting action, or rich, inspiring poetic prose. The novel is about characters, the protagonist and the woman he is courting, Greta. The majority consists of dialogue or the internal thoughts of the protagonist, little attention is given to the details of surroundings or the world apart from the one of the relationship between these two people. The story of their relationship, amid all of their eccentricities and metaphorical baggage is entertaining and enrapturing simply because Hootman is so exceptional at rendering the characters realistically.

I wish Hootman were able to achieve these strengths of characterization while still fulfilling other aspects of the novel, such as descriptions of the settings, or the personalities/histories of secondary characters who end up feeling terribly wooden compared to the fluidity of the novel’s stars. If you like touching and realistic stories of a developing romance then this is something you should without a doubt check out, but I’m not sure if a broader audience would appreciate it as much.

Three  Stars out of Five