Best of 2021

There’s a certain irony in the title of this post, as 2021 wasn’t a great year in some regards. Politics seemed crazy and crazier. People seemed to be getting over the virus, for the most part, but some were really sick or lost their lives. Healthcare providers seemed to get a handle on it, but not entirely. Oh, there were some bright spots in 2021, such as overall success for the stock market, and college football seemed almost normal.

And, entertainment, especially streaming video, always appreciated, became even more so. Everyone needs a break from reality. So, here’s some of the best books and shows I enjoyed in the past year:

On YouTube TV, hubby and I both very much enjoyed Yellowstone. This show is a modern western, with cowboys and rodeos, guns, big pickup trucks. The story reminds me of family shows of the past, such as “The Big Valley” which I saw in re-runs when I was much younger. However, the Dutton family is led by a patriarch instead of a matriarch, with Kevin Costner doing a fantastic job as the father of three grown children, and the head honcho of the ranch. His offspring are diverse and all interesting, if rather flawed. The Montana setting is certainly an important part of the series, and if you haven’t tried this show, unless you are extremely prudish or need a knight in shining armor to be the main character, I think you’ll like it.

Other streaming winners include the comedy series, Ted Lasso, which is now in its second season over on Apple TV, and Lost in Space in its third season on Netflix. Ted Lasso is a quirky story about an American football coach who is hired to coach a professional English soccer team. Lost in Space was originally a campy cult classic, but the modern iteration is more far more serious and has killer special effects along with good acting and quite a bit of suspense. The first season was amazing, the second season suffered from the sophomore blues, and season three is somewhere in the middle. Overall, it is one of the better space operas online, far surpassing any Trek or Star Wars recent entries that I have seen. (BTW, my son likes the Mandalorian, but I haven’t seen that, so the comment might not be entirely fair.)

The best book I read in 2021 was probably The Book of Lost Names, by Kristin Harmel. This novel is set in set in Europe, during World War II. In The Book of Lost Names, the point of view character remains the same, but there are some deliberate time skips as the story moves from 2005, wherein the main character, Eva, is quite elderly, and 1942-46, when a young Eva spent several months forging documents in order to save people from the Germans who were occupying France (and threatening all of civilization.) Eva’s story is a real page turner, as there are moments of suspense, of hardship, and (thankfully) success, both in saving children from the Nazi war on Jews, and in Eva’s growing affection for a fellow member of the resistance. While I don’t want to include any spoilers, the book in the title refers to a code added to an existing book in the library of the local Catholic church, and the code included the real names of children who were perhaps too young to remember their birth names, which had to be altered so they could travel using forged documents.

Other good reads included Walter Issacson’s The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, which I reviewed on this site. And, since I didn’t read them until 2021, I will mention Inside Marine One by Colonel Ray L’Heureux and Star Trek Voyager: A Celebration. None of the honorable mention books are fiction, which is rather unusual for me, as I am primarily a fiction reader. My most oft used source for fiction these days is a daily email from BookBub. Depending on the taste (or tolerance) of the reader, many eBooks are free or very low in price. Reading hasn’t been this cheap since I used to go to the public library every two weeks.

Inflation may be raging, but between streaming and eBooks, entertainment is fairly inexpensive these days. Gas and groceries are skyrocketing, but being entertained is fairly easy. Welcome, 2022!

Shaken (Quake Runner Book 1) by Kevin Tumlinson— brief review and commentary

This is a pretty good novel. The main character, Alex Kayne, is sassy, super smart, and just vulnerable enough to avoid the “heroine can’t die” syndrome that afflicts almost all comic book super hero characters, or Lara Croft (heroine of the Tomb Raider games/films). Alex is a fugitive computer whiz who needs something to do as she hides from all the forces who want to either kill her or “bring her to justice”, so she kinda does her version of “The Equalizer” in that she helps people who have a specific need. The needy person in Shaken is a surfer/marine biologist named Abbey, who lost an arm to an encounter with a shark. Abbey received a prototype bionic arm, in part due to her high profile injury, and someone stole it. The arm and it’s charger, gone. Who the heck steals a limb from an amputee? (Literate folks might respond with another story, “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Conner, but I digress.)

So, we have Alex Kayne, who manages to change her appearance, her lodging, her cell phone, and her method of transportation more frequently than anyone in any spy novel I’ve ever read. In this book, she is mostly hiding out in Disney World. Other characters include Eric Symon, the FBI agent who nearly nabs fugitive Alex, Abbey who needs her arm back, and a cast of suspects or villains, depending on how the mystery unfolds. The action in this novel is well told, and not quite believable, but that’s part of the fun of it all.

Readers who enjoy puzzles and/or action heroines and want to be entertained for an evening (or two) should try Shaken (Quake Runner Book 1.)

Now, for the commentary. This was my first book by Kevin Tumlinson, but I certainly intend to try another. At the end of this book there’s a note wherein the author explains that he didn’t plan to self-publish this novel, intending to put it in the hands of an agent. However, he thought better of it and put it into his self-publishing stable of products. For many authors (yours truly included) self-publishing is better, due to control of the process and potential financial gain. That decision is understandable, but when the author said he wrote the book in roughly 15 days, I was shocked. Shocked.

Y’all, fifteen days is like two weeks. I can’t edit a book in two weeks, much less go from beginning to end. Wow. I had a whole new perspective on the novel after that. I thought it was a good, if not spectacular read, with very few errors. However, the very idea that such a book could be dreamed up and written in such a short time is simply hard to believe. However, as the author of Ecclesiastes says, “There is no new thing under the sun.” Shaken is a bit like that, in that the elements in the story have been used before, but perhaps not in precisely this manner. The author’s website is a feast for those who want to know more about marketing and branding, especially marketing self-published novels. Clearly, Tumlinson is not just prolific, but also understands how to get the product to customers, too.

Inside Marine One by Colonel Ray L’Heureux

While I seldom read biography, when I do, I usually really enjoy it. Marine One: Four U.S. Presidents, One Proud Marine, and the World’s Most Amazing Helicopter is a really good read. The author, a retired Marine, knows his subject matter, of course, but the book’s organization, which is both linear yet focused, helps make it an engaging read.

After an opening which describes the “victory lap” circling Washington on Inauguration Day, which is a taste of one of the final “missions” that the author participated in, the usual chronological approach takes the reader back to the time when the author’s love of flying helped him choose a career path. Lacking the funds to pursue a private education in aviation, Ray L’Heureux (call sign “Frenchy”) decides to join the Marine Corps as a pilot. During his very successful training, he decides to fly helicopters rather than jet aircraft, which most of his fellow Marines sought as their specialty. While on duty in California, Frenchy is in the audience gathered to see President Reagan land at his base. As he is impressed with this unit, Frenchy decided that he wanted a tour of duty with HMX-1, which is the name of the part of the Marine Corps which provides helicopter transportation for the President.

L’Heureux actually served in HMX-1 twice during his thirty year career in the Marines, hence the “Four Presidents” in the sub-title. He was a junior officer during the Bush 41 and Clinton administrations, meaning that he was part of the group that planned the helicopter trips (called “lifts”) and occasionally flew as co-pilot for dignitaries. L’Heureux returned as commander of HMX-1 during the presidency of George W. Bush, with whom Frenchy became friends. When Bush 44’s term was over, the author was still the commander of HMX-1, thus he flew the Obamas for a few months before his assignment ended and the reins of HMX-1 went to another Marine pilot.

While not overly technical, L’Heureux lets the reader know quite a lot about how helicopters work. The focus of the book is on HMX-1 and their two sorts of helicopters, all painted dark green with white on the top, but the author also flew in other types of helicopters with other missions, and that’s of interest. However, the “inside” view is largely about how the military goes to great lengths to insure both the safety, comfort, and efficiency in providing transportation for the President, the Vice President, and heads of state of visiting nations. Whether the reader knows much about helicopters, the military, or just recent history, or not, there’s something for everyone in Frenchy’s book. According to the author, President Eisenhower was the first U.S. President to use helicopters for day to day transportation, as it was faster and far more convenient for everyone. Motorcades require a number of security measures, which, of course, takes time and impacts traffic. When the President boards one of the “white top” helicopters, he can be where he needs to be more quickly, and traffic is unimpeded. So, since Eisenhower, most Presidents have relied upon Marine One for quite a lot of their transportation, whether going to Andrews to board Air Force One, or just a short trip to the Presidential retreat, Camp David.

One of the aspects that I found quite interesting were the stories about Camp David, which is a 45 minute ride from the White House via helicopter. The author describes playing “Wallyball” with Bush 41. Later, L’Heureux, both an athletic guy and a Marine, was invited to ride mountain bikes with Bush 44, and that experience began their friendship. During his time of flying George W. Bush, the author was frequently at the ranch in Crawford, Texas, and helped build a bike trail on the ranch.

Another interesting aspect of the book is that when the U.S. President travels abroad, the helicopters go over first, so that the President is always flown by Marine pilots. The effort necessary to dismantle, load, unload, and reassemble and then test the helicopters before the arrival of the President is a bit mind boggling. In his memoir, L’Heureux describes flying Marine One over Normandy for D-Day anniversaries, landing in Germany so the President could meet with Angela Merkle, and even landing at Windsor Castle, so the President could have tea with Queen Elizabeth.

For readers who enjoy history, insider information, or just an entertaining read, do check out Inside Marine One.

More from D.A. Boulter— One Trade Too Many and Trading for War

Some years ago, I discovered D.A. Boulter’s ebook series about a family of traders who traveled via space going vessels to various ports of call. Recently, I bought a couple more entries in the series, books 3 and 4, with the respective titles above.

As I previously touched upon earlier books in the series, here are links to Courtesan, Trading for the Stars, and Trading for a Dream. I’ve also read some of his stand alone books and other series, but the Yrden Chronicles remain my favorites in his growing booklist.

In One Trade Too Many, the Clay and Colleen Yrden are doing what their family does, traveling, trading, and raising their kids onboard one of the combo passenger and cargo ships, Blue Powder. During this entry, the Captain of Blue Powder (Clay Yrden) asks the head of security, Adrian Telford, to play passenger in an attempt to ferret out a possible saboteur, and one of the passengers, a widow, begins stalking Mr. Telford. While not boring, the story takes a while to build, but there is significant suspense toward the end of this third volume of the Trading series, and it has a cliff hanger ending. Some folks hate such endings, but as I purchased books 3 and 4 at the same time, I just swiped on over and read Trading for War. The latter is largely about warfare, and focuses on Colleen Yrden, who has a host of problems: her husband is missing, her son is growing into manhood with revenge on his mind, her family’s business is being disrupted by pirates and mercenaries, and her two mothers hate each other’s guts.

Nowadays, authors tend to follow other forms of media and rely upon bad language, sensuality, and inorganic plot twists to entertain readers. D.A. Boulter’s stories do not have any of those characteristics. Indeed, while not written for kids, or even young adults, these stories are entertaining but almost squeaky clean. Honestly, it is quite refreshing to read Boulter’s stories, which rely more upon world building, character evolution, and wholesome themes than anything shocking.

Fans of science fiction and multi volume stories should take a look at the works of D. A. Boulter. He’s one of the first eBook authors I ever read, and he remains a favorite a decade after I discovered his work.

Searching for Shelter: Aftermath Book 1—a brief review

In short, this is a disaster upon disaster yarn.

Searching for Shelter is actually a pretty good book. I was a bit surprised that it holds together as well as it does, with three authors listed. While I haven’t done a collaboration novel, most of them involve a “big name” author lending a helping hand to a newbie, or one author does an outline while another does the grunt work. I have no idea how these three folks did it, but Searching for Shelter gets better as it goes along, and it goes along at a good pace.

As a southerner, and one who has travelled in Mississippi, I appreciated the setting and the types of characters that populate the novel. Or maybe I liked it because I grew up in the era when “disaster movies” such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Andromeda Strain were blockbusters at the theatre. Anyway, this novel is in the genre of “you need to be a prepper to survive into the next book” that seems to be growing in popularity. While not as pedantic as the last “prepper” novel I read, this one does have some instruction interwoven into the plot.

A rather large cast of characters, in the Mississippi delta region, are introduced in the early chapters. They include a young couple (Edward and Maria) and their midwife (April), as their first child is about to be born in the midst of the biggest hurricane anyone in that hurricane prone area has ever seen. Indeed, the storm is labeled a category six (and there are only cat 1-5 storms now, so that lets the reader know just how bad this rascal is going to be for the landscape and its citizens.) Another main character is Rita Sloan, a young lady with a very troubled past, desperate to get home, who ultimately seeks shelter in a mechanic’s garage, along with the owner of the shop and his nephew. Other important characters include prisoners at the state penitentiary, as those are invariably built in rural areas. The storm first knocks down almost every building, then the storm surge floods all but the highest ground. In short, this is a disaster upon disaster yarn. As this is a novel about being prepared, or not, most characters have a skill or a stash, or want to take something from someone else. For instance, Edward and Maria have lots of food stores, as they are farmers, while April desperately wants to get home to her stash, which includes a good supply of medical items, from medicine to bandages. Even Rita has her “go bag” in the car and manages to hang onto it through the entire book.

Like the Johnny Cash song, eventually all of these characters, and a slew of others, are goin’ to Jackson. However, each one’s journey is fraught with peril, from ne’er do wells looting and stealing to gators looking for their next meal. And, once the characters reach the city, the devastation is so great and the population so ill prepared, that the shelter they are seeking remains elusive. Thus, while some plot lines are resolved, many are left for the successive novels to explore.

I haven’t decided to purchase books 2 and 3, but they are definitely on my “maybe” list.

Nowadays, there’s just so much free and cheap reading available. And, I’m a total reading glutton. For real!

Time for Dystopian Science Fiction?

Reader’s Alley, a nifty site for bargain eBook lovers, divides their science fiction offerings into sub-genres: sci-fi romance, sci-fi thriller, and science fiction, dystopian. While those first two descriptors would seem self-evident, the dystopian flavor is considered by some (mostly jaded members of academia) as the only serious science fiction. Typically, I avoid reading dystopias because they tend to be so darned depressing. But, with all that is happening in the news, which I also try to avoid, perhaps it is time to take a look at the genre.

One of the finest books about the history of science fiction is Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, which covers science fiction literature from its beginnings to the early 1980s. Aldiss does discuss many sub-genres, but the thread of dystopia runs strongly throughout his encyclopedia of science fiction in printed form. The term, dystopia, is applicable to “a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. Dystopian literature shows us a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future. Usually the main themes of dystopian works are rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters. On the other hand, Utopia is a perfect world – exactly opposite of dystopia.”

Science has, until recently, been viewed as a two edged sword; while it can make life much better, mis-use of science has been the root of all sorts of evils. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is often considered to be the first science fiction novel, and the dark side of science is clearly the central theme of the novel. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment and Rappacini’s Daughter, short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also feature mis-use of science as their main themes. When teaching those stories, which used to be in many American Lit anthologies, one way to make it simple for students is to say, “Hawthorne is basically telling his readers, ‘don’t mess around with Mother Nature’.”

Later novelists fine tuned dystopian themes, with societies becoming more and more restrictive upon the populace. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 share these themes, “including the consequences of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Burgeron is one of the most widely read dystopian stories, due to its inclusion in anthologies for students, and I recently read a news story liking our current government policies to Vonnegut’s didactic work. Y’all, it is scary when dystopia becomes reality.

Of course, many fans of science fiction today seldom, if ever, read it. Instead, what they know of utopia and dystopia is presented via video. Early episodes of Star Trek explored both sides of the scientific divide. The Ultimate Computer, rather dated today, explored the man vs. machine conflict, using future war games as a setting for its rather disturbing premise. Various dystopian novels have been adapted to long form (movies) video, including everything from 1984 to Planet of the Apes. There are literally dozens of dystopian sci fi films. Some are rather laughable now (Mad Max?) but others are quite troubling.

My own fiction, which has many conflicts for characters to attempt to resolve, certainly isn’t “happily ever after, ” but it isn’t as dark as some of these works, and that’s because my outlook on life is more pragmatic. Hopefully, there will be some gravitation away from the totalitarian policies of modern politicians and administrators. But, when I consider what I am seeing when I do go out and about, I wonder. I really do. Remember this: In each fictional dystopia, the goal was to make things better for certain segments of the population, and bad outcomes are unhappy accidents. Be careful what you wish for—