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!

Redshirts by John Scalzi—a brief review and commentary

Fans of Star Trek, the original series, will immediately understand the premise of this very humorous novel. For the few folks who aren’t familiar with the show, there were a handful of officers who were the “stars” of Star Trek. In the show, the starship ventured from planet to planet. Often, one or more officers left the ship on “away” missions, and they were almost always dangerous. Those bridge officers were usually accompanied by security officers, and in the color scheme of the original series, security staff wore red shirts. As the show couldn’t lose any main cast members, the extras, playing security staff, would invariably be the ones to be maimed or killed.

In Redshirts, the author follows a young officer assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. Ensign Dahl is thrilled to be onboard, but soon becomes apprehensive, because he quickly realizes that when lowly crew members accompany the captain, its chief science officer, or its chief engineer, those lowly crew members would bear the brunt of any dangerous action. In other words, Ensign Dahl is a “red shirt” without actually wearing a red uniform. So, as a very intelligent young officer, Dahl must navigate the command structure of the Intrepid and learn how to stay alive. Quickly, he figures out that it is best to be anywhere other than on an “Away Mission.”

At times, Redshirts is laugh out loud funny. For instance, any attack on the ship will take out the lower decks, but the bridge always remains unscathed. And one young lieutenant has so many close calls, but he never dies, as he is a “main character.” Soon it becomes apparent that only a few characters will always survive. More experienced crew members seem to have figured out how to dodge being tapped for away missions, thus newbies like Ensign Dahl are more likely to end up dead. Rather than explain what they do and what the manage to figure out, I will simply say that the novel goes where the reader might not expect. And, while the novel really is funny, it is also a bit challenging.

Not since Galaxy Quest have I seen such a good parody of television space opera. Fans of the genre will certainly find something to like in Redshirts. And, for those few folks who have never seen Star Trek in any of its various iterations, this novel is still funny, but probably won’t resonate quite so well. However, the novel is rather, well, novel in that it doesn’t end at the end. Instead there are three sections after the end, called Codas. Some reviewers liked them, some did not. Hopefully, some of my readers will take up the challenge and try this book.

Science fiction fans tend to be smart, and it takes some smarts to appreciate this novel. That said, it is quite creative.

Joyful Passage: A Woman’s Path to Retirement, by Joan B. Reid— a brief review and commentary

While reading a business article about retiring in Florida, without a lot of monetary resources, the author was mentioned, hence my purchase. First off, I am a bit farther along this same path. So, I really wanted to like this book. At times I did enjoy her insights, and at times I was rather frustrated. I’m a very practical person, so I was hoping for some tips on how to make the path to retirement and into retirement in a better manner. This book is more about feelings and less about specifics.

Like many of the boomer generation, Ms. Reid moved from full time to part time employment. That’s not always possible, but often recommended. However, like many other boomers, she was less valued by her employer, and ultimately she was pushed into full retirement. (This happens a lot, trust me!) Fortunately, she had secured a second part time position, which gave her both a bit of income and validation. This book is really a series of very short essays, mostly first person accounts, but there are some others sprinkled in which recount similar journeys by friends and colleagues. Boomers will no doubt find something to identify with in these essays.

This book is self published via the Amazon platform, and while there are a few technical issues with formatting, it is overall fairly well done. While I noted a few punctuation issues, probably the average reader would not notice. Spelling and grammar were fine.

My non fiction reading tends to be either “how to” books or an occasional biography, and this is neither. I would liken it to a group therapy session for soon to be or newly retired boomers. There’s quite a lot about feelings, both good and bad, in this journey. Ultimately, Ms. Reid decides to love retirement. I wish her well. And, I hope she will write another book, with some of those practical tips that she must have acquired during her Joyful Passage.

Walter Issacson’s The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

This is a big book in so many ways. Walter Isaacson is known for in-depth biographies of such diverse people as Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin, so he is certainly a “big name” author. The book itself is 485 pages long, not including the notes, which brings the page count to 536. As the sub-title indicates, the central figure in this book is Jennifer Doudna, but many, many others have significant roles in this not so brief history of CRISPR (which can be loosely defined as a way to edit genes.)

Jennifer Doudna grew up in Hawaii, the eldest daughter of a college professor. Her father, who doted on her, once left her a copy of Watson’s book on DNA, The Double Helix, and she mentions this book as one of the reasons she pursued a career as a scientist, despite being told by her high school guidance counselor that “women don’t do science.” Rather obviously, she not only did science, but she has done it well enough to earn the Nobel Prize in 2020.

In The Codebreaker, Isaacson follows Doudna’s career, but intersperses it with pertinent information about the gradual unfolding of modern genetic studies, along with brief sketches of the scientists and scholars who influenced Doudna’s work. Two terms which come up over and over are RNA, which is the “worker bee” that carries out many functions in life, and CRISPR, which has to do with the structures which help organisms adapt to needed change (such as when bacteria “learns” to resist a virus.)

There are a lot of pages in this book devoted to what was discovered, by whom, when, and who managed to get published first. That’s the nature of academia. Then there’s the quest for patents and prize money, which is how some academic institutions manage to pay for enormous labs and pay their large supporting staff. Again, this is a book that is about more than a single researcher. Over and over, Isaccson stresses the importance of collaboration in modern science.

There are some really important concepts discussed in the later chapters, including the ethics of manipulating human genes. One researcher took it upon himself to edit the offspring of Chinese couples in an attempt to eliminate the possibility that they could have HIV, which is apparently quite shunned in modern Chinese culture. Other possible reasons to edit offspring would be to eradicate such conditions as Huntington’s disease, which ends in a horrible decline before inevitable death. Eliminating genetic diseases are worthy uses for CRISPR and other genetic engineering, where is the line? Should prospective parents be able to choose the genetic characteristics such as height, intellect, or even hair color of their offspring they way we might choose dishes in a cafeteria? A number of scientists, including Doudna, have had many meetings, discussing such topics, and these are summarized in The Code Breaker.

When the nasty CV hit, a situation that the author sometimes describes as “the plague year,” many of the scientists mentioned in this book, including Doudna, put aside their competition for prizes and first published honors, and collaborated to produce accurate and rapid tests for the pesky illness. Then, in short order, they turned to prevention, and the mRNA vaccines. Not only were these vaccines quick to develop, they also lay the groundwork for more to come, as the same techniques might be used to prevent other illnesses.

The Code Breaker is more than a biography, as the title states, and it is a longish, sometimes challenging book, but like other works by Walter Issacson, ultimately quite rewarding. It isn’t cheap to buy, compared to many of the books I read, nor is it “light reading.” Like a gourmet meal, it is complex, memorable, and enjoyable. Readers are urged to read, then think, and ultimately savor this work.

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.