The Furies, by Mark Alpert

The Furies, by Mark Alpert
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
320 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

Another novel that I expected to primarily be a fantasy with some science fiction aspects, it instead is a straight up thriller adventure, a spy story built around a unique premise. The premise of “The Furies” is clever and interesting. The title does not refer to figures of Greek myth, but rather to a family. The idea is that in the distant human past, a group of individuals evolved incredible abilities that augmented intelligence and lifespan. These newly evolved humans used their abilities to try to better the species. But throughout history they were treated as suspect and dangerous – the tales of witches – and were subjected to persecution, leading them to seclude themselves as a secretive society in the wilderness of the New World. Intelligence and longevity bring great strengths to their community. There is just one problem: the evolved abilities are sex-linked. With two X chromosomes, only females benefit. The Y chromosome of males robs the men of the community from the same traits the women enjoy.

While I really enjoyed the premise behind this story, the execution beyond that premise was not stellar. As a simple action story the novel remains entertaining, but also fairly predictable once the facts behind the community begin to be revealed to the reader and protagonist. The most frustrating part of the novel, however, is the science. The science behind the premise is technically correct as explained. As the author is a writer for Scientific American, this isn’t surprising. The problem is that the science is used to advance parts of the plot that stretch disbelief far beyond the points of reasonable suspension. Science fiction works when the explanation behind some fictional phenomena is both accurate and reasonably believable, even if stretched beyond or current understandings of the universe a bit (like interstellar travel for instance).

A lot of the biology and biochemistry of this novel seemed absurd, from the damage that could occur due to female’s cells having two fully expressed X chromosomes, to the ‘catalyst’ that is used to activate abilities in men. Somehow it also works on other species quite easily (and rapidly!). Also, an injection into a human, or in an entire river will affect organisms the same way. Dilution? That is some potent stuff.

If you don’t really know much about biochemistry and biology and want an interesting action novel that puts a unique explanatory spin on witch persecutions in history then this would be a perfectly entertaining light read.

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

Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler

Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 1250039819
320 pages, hardcover
Published March 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This novel is a lovesong to small town America and the struggling people who inhabit it. Written from the point of view of four life-long friends and the wife of one of them, it details their struggles to stay together in friendship and discover their adult selves in terms of past glories and failures. It is a type of novel that many people are just going to adore, because it has some psychological depth, steeped in realism, and in the end is uplifting, warm, and generally ‘feel-good’. Despite their struggles and faults all the characters in this book are really good people at heart, people who want the best for their family, their friends, and their small home town. They slip up, they aren’t perfect, but they in the end they are loyal and true. Strong midwestern folks all. In fact, the only character in the entire book who isn’t portrayed this way is a Hollywood actress who never wants anything to do with the small town and its populace, a person of the city and ultimately selfishness.

In a certain way, this all makes the novel rather simplistic, and despite its ‘realism’, somewhat contrived and a little too worshipful of a type of life and ideal person. Yet still, Butler makes it work. With something that could easily turn sappy and saccharine and utterly disingenuous and trite, Butler manages to keep things balanced between a realism and some midwestern ideal that is this lovesong. The majority of the narrative comes from the point of view of three characters, the most sincere and virtuous ones at that, but Butler intersperses those with the points of views of those that are not ideal, those that may still be lovable, but are still clearly damaged and weak.

If you want a warming and ultimately optimistic literary read of small town America then this is certainly something you should check out.

Four Stars out of Five