Monday, June 4, 2018

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King was my Chloe’s Choice Challenge book for January.  My youngest daughter, who is choosing one book a month off our shelves for me to read, chose the book because she liked the title and the cover and because, “It has been on the shelf ever since I can remember.”  Honestly, I think that I have had this book since long before she was born in 2007.

The narrative is five interconnected stories that share a common theme—how group behavior can affect people in a negative fashion.  The first two stories, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” and the title story, “Hearts in Atlantis,” are by far the longest (I would call them novellas) and introduce the reader to all of the main characters who will pop up in the stories.  Both main stories are set in the 1960s, with subsequent stories being spaced out chronologically until 1999.  Group behavior, first in small town childhood and then in college, sets the tone of these first two stories and gives the reader insight into what is looming on the horizon for these kids (Vietnam) and how their crowd mentality, learned in childhood and adolescence, will adversely affect their future actions.

A common question with Stephen King books is whether or not it is a horror novel.  The only thing that comes close is the first story, “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” but even that is more a sci-fi vibe than horror.  “Hearts in Atlantis” has a psychological element to it.  “Blind Willie,” the third story, was, in my opinion, the weakest story; it almost has it’s own theme, with its emphasis on the morality of the choices made by a Vietnam vet after his return from the war, but you do see the group behavior element quite strongly in Willie’s flashbacks.  The premise of the story was great, but I just felt that it lacked emotional punch and thus was a missed opportunity.  The last two stories, “Why We’re in Vietnam” and “Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling,” have a very slight magical realism element to them.

Overall, I enjoyed this book.  Structurally, the book succeeded in that the short story format allowed for large jumps in time and diverse settings.  Watching the characters evolve made for excellent character development, both through the individual stories and then through time into subsequent revelations in later stories. 

What cost this book a fifth star was continuity.  The character element was the only area where I felt like every story flowed smoothly into the next.  In the sci-fi/magical realism area there wasn’t any continuity, and its lack made the stories feel disjointed despite their common characters.  The first story was sci-fi, the second psychological, the third had no supernatural elements, the fourth had a ghost, and the fifth wrapped things up for two main characters with a baseball mitt that traveled mysteriously through several stories.  There were just too many different supernatural elements for there to be flow in that regard, and it was enough to cost the book a fifth star from me.

Despite my feelings about the supernatural forms being inconsistent, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would absolutely recommend it.  My only caution would be for readers who won’t read books with any profanity.  Two of the main plots in the stories involve college boys and soldiers in Vietnam, so yes, there is some profanity.  If you can get past that, this book will make you really think about group behavior—how it affects individuals and society and the role it has probably played in the decisions you have made in your life.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

As is no doubt obvious from my less than stellar rating, I didn’t find as much to appreciate in Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists as some reviewers.  The author chose an interesting premise: four children go to a fortune teller who tells them the exact days on which they each will die.  The rest of the book is divided into four sections, one for each of the kids—Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya—that, with the exception of Varya, cover the span of their lives.  I did find the premise of the book enticing and kept going because I wanted to know what became of the characters.

One of my major complaints about the book—and one I noticed put off many readers to the extent that they dropped the book in its first section—was the very graphic homosexual sex scenes in Simon’s story.  Literary fiction is not erotica.  In my experience, readers of literary fiction do not want graphic sex scenes, be they heterosexual or homosexual, in their novels.  And before you go off and call me homophobic, I invite you to look on my blog, Lit in the Last Frontier, where you will discover that my number one novel of 2017 was The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne.  I understand that Chloe Benjamin was trying to show Simon’s tumultuous experience in 1970s and 80s San Francisco, but she needs to learn the value of the literary “fading to black” and letting the readers fill in the rest from their imaginations.  There are other places in the book where she inserts odd, needless sexual references.  In all of these cases the graphic portrayals neither further the plot of the novel nor flesh out its characters in a way that couldn’t be accomplished in a more literary fashion.

The other three sections cover the other characters, with each one being given a time frame: Klara from 1982-1991, Daniel from 1991-2006, and Varya from 2006-2010.  Unfortunately, this format doesn’t do the premise any favors.  Such large segments of Daniel’s and Varya’s lives are jumped over that the author has no opportunity to develop their characters, and, as a result, the things that both characters do seem very out of character for the people they were when we last spent any pages with them.

I found the plotting rather weak in places, making it easy to tell how the characters are going to die.  For instance Simon’s story—that of a gay young man who tells his siblings that the fortune teller told him he would die “young”—in early 1980s San Francisco, is pretty easy to predict.  To give Ms. Benjamin her due, where a crystal ball isn’t necessary to know where the plot arc is taking us, the emotion with which the stories are told carries the reader through.

This book almost got two stars from me for the above reasons.  However, Chloe Benjamin writes beautiful prose, worthy of the literary genre.  She just needs to perfect her intimate scenes to bring them more in line with what literary readers want from their novels.

I also felt that the separate, almost interconnected short story format didn’t work for the premise of the book.  The reader really needs the opportunity to see how the characters develop year by year as a result of knowing how their days are numbered.  Jumping large time segments robbed Ms. Benjamin and her readers of the opportunity to explore the entirety of her characters’ development.  A compellingly successful example of interlinked short stories comes from the book I read just, Hearts in Atlantis.  In this 800 plus page novel, Stephen King uses the same format but takes the time (and the pages) to flesh out his all of his characters.  Perhaps the 300 plus pages in which Ms. Benjamin tries to tell her story were simply not sufficient to the task.

Overall, this book is a solid three stars.  It has issues that I know some readers will find extremely off-putting.  For those who are either unbothered by the first section’s sex scenes or are willing to scan over them in order to get to the heart of the book, I think you will find, as I did, that the premise is interesting, the prose is lovely, and the characters engaging enough to keep you turning the pages.  

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Crack in Creation by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I don’t write very many book reviews.  When I do they are usually motivated by one of two reasons: the book is fabulous and compels me to become a book pimp, or the book got an abysmal rating from me that needed explaining.  Every now and again I write a review for a third reason: the book is important.  As in “if you are human you need to read this book.”  A Crack in Creation is that kind of a book and will likely be the most important 249 pages you read this year.  I highly recommend this work for book clubs that look for thought-provoking books that incite serious discussions.

Authors Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg give their readers a brief history of DNA, genetics, and gene editing followed by an explanation of their own breakthrough research with a biotechnology known as CRISPR/Cas9.  Building on the research of many of their predecessors, Dr. Doudna and her team made a discovery that vastly simplified the process of gene editing, allowing for cutting a DNA strand at a given sequence and replacing it with an alternate sequence.  While gene editing was possible before, it was complex and so costly that even some universities couldn’t afford to research it.  Using CRISPR/Cas9, scientists—and even hobbyists in their homes—are now able to target specific sequences of DNA, allowing for gene editing that can remove mutations that cause a variety of heritable diseases, add desirable characteristics, or edit out those that are less desirable.

The explanation of what exactly CRISPR/Cas9 is and how it functions is what cost the book a fifth star from me.  The authors struggled to pinpoint their target audience; for the average reader the explanation is rather dense, but for a fellow scientist it would be too simplistic.  If you are the average reader, my recommendation is to power through it even if you find yourself struggling to wrap your brain around the information.  Trust me, the back half of the book makes it well worth it.

Several reviews that I read of the book are critical of the authors, saying that they do not give credit to others who paved the way in the field of gene editing and don’t reveal their own commercial interests involving their technology.  I completely disagree.  The fact that the main researchers have founded biotechnology companies is openly discussed, and all throughout the book the authors lay out the chain of discovery that led them to their breakthrough, mentioning countless scientists whose research was invaluable to their success.  The authors even ponder the curious mix of collaboration and competition that exists in the field of biotechnology.  In the final chapters, they express their excitement or unease as they have watched where their fellow biochemists have taking their discovery.

CRISPR/Cas9 technology is changing the world as we know it, and the jury is still out as to whether it will be for good or for ill or some of both.  Dounda and Sternberg do a masterful job laying out the directions in which their fellow scientists are taking the technology and sketching for their readers the pros and cons of these different uses of the technology.  Their writing is organized, lucid, and thought-provoking.  Even if you struggle through the scientific descriptions earlier in the book, the back half makes it worth it with its presentation of the many sides of this complex issue.  One major concern expressed by the authors is that the technology isn’t 100% en pointe for targeting exactly where in a human’s genome to cut and zipper in the replacement code, which could prove catastrophic if rushed into human clinical trials.  There are also huge ethical considerations that need to be addressed.  As Dr. Doudna and her partner, Emmanuelle Charpentier, pursued their research, they hoped to pave the way to a method that could, on a cellular level, heal those stricken with devastating heritable illnesses.  Other uses such as improving crops, both in terms of yield and disease resistance, editing the human germline (editing heritable diseases out of a person’s DNA, ensuring they cannot pass on to descendants), recreating extinct species, and the eventual possibility of “made to order” babies are discussed.

Dr. Doudna is concerned about the ethics of many possible uses of CRISPR/Cas9, even those that might, on the surface, seem to have no apparent down side.  She addresses the issue in the book and talks about her efforts to engage fellow researchers, legislators, and the public in open discussion about the technology and how it should—or should not—be regulated.  Herein lies the reason that I feel this book is so important.  This technology has the potential to change the future of the human genome, agriculture, the environment, and animal biology, and the implications of that are enormous.  It is crucial that people have a thorough understanding of just what CRISPR/Cas9 makes possible so that they can fully grasp its impact on their lives and those of their descendants and make informed decisions as individuals and members of society.

For me, gene editing became very personal a couple of years ago when I was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a rare and inheritable disorder which causes a body to produce insufficient levels of collagen, which leads to serious connective tissue deficiencies.  There is no cure, no surgery, and no medication that can cure or treat EDS.  Currently, the location of the mutant gene that causes my illness is unknown, but my hope is that during the time it takes for CRISPR-Cas9 technology to become more target specific, researchers will locate where the EDS causing mutation is in the human genome.  CRISPR/Cas9 could ensure that my children, grandchildren, and further descendants do not have to endure the pain and medical issues that I live with every day.  Millions of people worldwide suffering from diseases such as sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, Down’s Syndrome, and many, many others, could eventually be cured by this revolutionary discovery, but we need to ensure that the dark possibilities, such as a new brand of eugenics, don’t evolve alongside this bright future of biotechnology.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

As Christmas of 1984 approached, I looked forward to one thing.  My elder brother, Dave, was coming home from college.  Yes, I was excited to see him, since Minnesota is a long way from Germany and communication was not what it is today.  I, however, had another motive for wishing him home quicker: Dave was bringing home my first pair of Nike running shoes which were, at the time, unavailable in Germany.  When I heard that Nike founder Phil Knight had a book out, I was almost as eager to read his story as I was to lace up that first pair of his running shoes.

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight was one of those books where I had to try incredibly hard to find something that I didn’t like.  This nonfiction book tells the story of Phil, otherwise known as the guy who created the Nike shoe and sportswear empire.  I am not a fan of autobiographies; in general, I find them either self-aggrandizing or a stilted coverup job.  Phil’s book is neither.

In order to set the stage so the reader understands his background, Phil tells a bit about his suburban upbringing, his relationship with the sport of running and some of its legends, his education, and how the idea to build a shoe business grew out of a college presentation assignment that most of his classmates dozed through.  Phil never put the idea on the back-burner, though, and a gap-year trip around the world included a stint in Japan, where he pitched the idea to a group of executives at a shoe factory.  The rest, as they say, is history.  A very rocky history.

Phil’s story is inspirational not because he built an empire, but because of everything he had to go through along the way.  Readers will marvel at Phil’s grit as they follow his very unconventional management style.  While his practices might make your average MBA cringe, they show that, in Phil’s case at least, following your gut, respecting others (their oddities and quirks included), and building a culture of creative collaboration can build something amazing.

From a mechanical standpoint, the book is well put together.  The story flows so well it is difficult to quit reading, or in my case, listening.  Narrator Norbert Leo Butz is the perfect teller of this story.  His voice is engaging, grasping Phil’s dry wit and letting the reader feel the heart at the center of the narrative.  It is one of those first person narrations where you feel like the author is narrating the book and pulling you in with warmth and confidences.  I’d highly recommend the audio of this one.

Whether you have ever laced up a pair of Nike shoes or not, the company is so dominant in our culture that I think all readers would enjoy learning the inside scoop on the megalithic sportswear company.  Readers with a business background will find much of interest in Phil’s candid sharing of the mistakes he made along the way and how, time and again, he made unconventional choices that pulled his company back from the brink of ruin.   

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017: The Top Ten

2017 was a fantastic reading year for me, both in terms of the numbers (boosted due to some pretty crappy health issues) and in terms of the quality of what I read.  I read a total of 81 books: 43 fiction and 38 nonfiction.  Forty print books added up to 14,185 pages and 41 audios to a total of 532.5 hours.  I had ten five star novels and six five star nonfiction reads.

Some years, I announce a number one choice for fiction and one for nonfiction.  Others, I find it impossible to rank them, so I just list them all.  I try to always select five each for fiction and nonfiction, but some years, I just have to cheat.  Trying to pick five novels this year, let alone select a number one, has been nearly impossible.  However, last year I made a commitment to play by the rules, at least to the extent of picking five in each category.  This year I’m forcing myself to pick a number one selection in each category as well.

So…Lit in the Last Frontier’s number one novel of 2017 is:

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

John Boyne is best known for his stark, shocking novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.  He has managed to take all the emotion that he poured into that YA novel and double it in his newest adult release, The Heart’s Invisible Furies.  This novel explores those universal questions: who am I?, where do I come from?, and where am I going?  Layer in an intricately wrought exploration of love, and you have a novel being justifiably hailed as “transcendent.”  As I think back on reading this tale, it isn’t plot twists or even the characterizations that come into my mind.  It is the way the book deposited a lump in my throat and a tightness in my chest every time I cracked open its cover.

The other four fabulous novels, in no particular order, to make my Fiction Five for 2017 are:

A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor

A reading friend of mine, Sheila, recommended this one for me, and it almost took my top pick for the year.  Sheila says that it reminds her of a Dickens novel where everyone is nice.  On one hand I agree with her, but at the same time, it doesn’t pull any punches describing the squalor and hardship suffered by street children during the Age of Industry in England’s big cities.  This historical fiction, based on actual people and events, has been put on my daughters’ high school reading list.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Of all my selections, this short novel about two lonely people, an older man and a young girl, who look out for each other as they travel in the Old West, is the least heart-wrenching.  Which isn’t to say that it lacks emotion; tissues are still required.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

You will need tissues from start to finish for this historical fiction that is also based on true events.  There are two plot lines, one following stolen children during the Great Depression and the other a modern family living with its legacy.  This is a staggeringly beautiful novel that is in turns uplifting and gut-wrenching and will keep you riveted until the last page.  It is another novel that almost took my top spot for the year.  Of all my fiction selections, this is the only one I’d really recommend for good book club discussions.

Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva

One of the last books I read this year, this biographical historical fiction about Charles Dickens and the writing of his Christmas Carol knocked A Gentleman in Moscow out of my top five (or maybe Homegoing—so many good ones this year!).  Samantha Silva did a masterful job of creating a plot that echoes the themes of A Christmas Carol and yet remains fresh.  

Honorable Mentions for 2017 fiction are:

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

The top billing for 2017 nonfiction, a hands-down winner, is:

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano Lesnevich

I knew from the moment I finished this true crime story that it would be my number one nonfiction of the year.  It is just that striking; I’ve never read another book like it.  The author tells the story of her own abuse woven into the fabric of the story of a death penalty criminal for whom she has been tasked to prepare a legal defense.  It is a story of wrestling with demons, finding moral footing, and exploring whether truth can ever be an absolute.  If you struggle with dealing with an abusive past, this might be too intense for you; for all others, this is a must read.  This would be a fabulous, fabulous book club selection!

The four other nonfiction works to make the 2017 cut are:

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

The author was a physician in New Orleans, working at Memorial when Hurricane Katrina hit.  This is the shocking story of what went on in that medical facility during and after the storm.  It is not a pretty story.  This is another book that would be great for book clubs.

The Loyal Son: The War in Ben Franklin’s House by Daniel Mark Epstein

I love a book that rehashes a story we all know but does it from a totally different perspective.  Everyone knows the story of Ben Franklin and the role he played in the Revolutionary War.  The story that is seldom told is that of his son, William, who remained loyal to the Crown, and the tension that existed in their family as a result of their divided loyalties.  This is an engrossing, well-written work telling both sides of the story.

Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival by Jeffrey Gettleman

This work takes the “journalist in a danger zone” story and pumps it up to a whole new level.  Jeffrey Gettleman writes a beautifully candid narrative expressing his love affair with Africa and how he feels called as a journalist to share the stories of both carnage and hope to be found there.  The other side of the narrative is that of his other love: his wife and their family and his struggle to find a life of balance between the family he treasures and the stories he knows he is meant to write.  I read a lot of this genre of books, but I have to say, I really, really loved this book and hope it gets a wider readership.  If I hadn’t read Fact of a Body this year, this would have been my top pick for nonfiction.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

I knew only the basic outline of the story of Patty Hearst, so experiencing it in all of its crazy glory through the writing of a narrative nonfiction master, Jeffrey Toobin, was a wonderful reading experience.  I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to know the full story beyond all the media hype.

Nonfiction honorable mention for 2017 goes to:

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

My number one audio for 2017 is:

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This was another book that was strongly in the running for my number one fiction slot this year.  I’m glad the audio is so fabulous, allowing me to give this story of two sisters, one sold into slavery, the other married to a slaver, its due.  This novel, which reads like a series of interconnected stories, traces the descendants of both sisters for three hundred years.  The audio can get a little challenging to follow who is narrating, but the quality of the narration makes up for those issues.  Whether you do it in print or audio, this is a must read! If you would like to read my full review, you can do so here.

Honorable mention for 2017 audio goes to:

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald  You can read my review here.

I hope your reading year was amazing, and I wish you a fabulously bookish 2018! 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi ✮✮✮✮✮

This has to be one of the finest debut novels I have ever read! It optimized the use of a unique format, flowed smoothly, successfully sifted through a huge cast of varied characters, and spanned both generations and multiple locales with ease.

At its heart, this is a novel about family couched in the history of slavery and prejudice. As the novel opens, the reader is introduced to two young African village girls who are then followed into their marriages. Each section of the novel as it progresses tells about a pivotal time in a new character's life and gives enough backstory for the reader to understand how that character is related either directly to one of the initial two young women or her descendants. The novel progresses in a clean chronological line from the time of slavers on Africa's western coast into the present.
I listened to the audio for this one (marvelous, if rather slow-paced, narration by Dominic Hoffman) and at times it was a struggle to follow along through the generations. To the novel's credit, I never did have to resort to looking for a character list or family tree online--something that frequently happens when listening to these types of multi-generational works. Mr. Hoffman's talent for the many required accents also helped me to keep everyone straight.

I have read several critiques that said that just as soon as the reader began to get attached to one character, the novel would spring forward to someone else. I actually loved that about the book. It kept the book from ever lagging since only the most relevant times in each character's life were laid out for the reader. In being introduced to so many subsequent generations, I felt like I was able to see just how each character's life impacted those of their descendants. You also found out some "epilogue" type information about earlier characters through the later chapters about their progeny.

One of the themes that I felt strengthened the novel was that of setting and how regardless of time or place, there were certain elements that were found in the experiences of every character. This element really came into play when the novel was brought to a perfect full circle at its conclusion.

I cannot recommend this one highly enough! Reading about the "black experience" is not a topic that I, as a white woman with no family connection to the subject, naturally gravitate towards, but this novel is rich in so many ways--history, family, finding one's self, to name a few--that it is likely to appeal to a very broad base of readers. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017


If asked to sum up this novel, words like "idyllic" and "heartwarming" would come to mind. There is nothing complex or extraordinary about either the story line or the characters. It is a simple story about the simple people of a small town in Iowa and one unremarkable Swedish woman who manages to shake up their status quo.
Since I tend to like characters who are a bit more opaque and plots full of twists and layers, it is surprising that I enjoyed this novel as much as I did. In many ways it reminded me of The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore but lacked that novel's fantastical elements. Both novels share a small town setting, some stereotypical characters that would be found in that setting, and the usual plot elements that one might find in a small town where everyone is in everyone else's business.

The unusual plot element in Readers of Broken Wheel is the legality of the main female character's residency status in the United States and how the whole town bands together to fix things so that she can stay. Along the way, several unlikely couples find each other and work their way, by novel's end, to happily ever after.

There is nothing terribly unique to be found here; it is simply a feel-good story. What pulled the novel from three to four stars for me was the narration talents of Fiona Hardingham. The audio absolutely blew me away. From the waitress at the local diner to the immigration officer and his police sidekick, every single character had their own distinctive voice and persona--a feat made all the more admirable when you realize that within a given section Ms. Hardingham would flow seamlessly from a woman with a Swedish accent, to a southern black shopkeeper, to a local do-gooder, to name just a few. Fiona Hardingham's narration was so outstanding that in the future I will listen to her books, not because I have any interest in the books themselves but because I know her interpretation will make the novels well worth my listening time.

If you are looking for a read that isn't at all demanding and could be classified as gentle entertainment, I think you would find this worth your time. Better yet, cue up the audio and check a few things off your chore list while you listen.