Read: A crack in creation: gene editing and the unthinkable power to control evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg

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A crack in creation: gene editing and the unthinkable power to control evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg is a non-fiction book that explains CRISPR cas-9 and its potential societal uses as well as implications. I first learned about this book after catching a tv broadcast with an extended interview with Doudna. Having heard about CRISPR in passing, the interview intrigued me and her succinct, easy-to-understand descriptions made me want to read her book which was being released soon.

While a non-fiction science book about genetics, the overall tone reads more like a narrative than dry facts. Since her career dovetails well with the emergence of gene editing and her role in its popularity, she and her co-author tell the story from her point of view, adding in additional information about what others were doing around the world for the same endeavor, as appropriate. The narration certainly makes it a much more readable book, despite its technical scientific topic. By presenting the science within a story, the content is approachable.

Also, briefly, the writing style is simple and straight-forward, making what could be an otherwise complicated topic easier to understand. The authors employ a wide variety of smilies, as well, in order to ensure that the reader comprehends the science. The clearly wanted everyday people, regardless of their familiarity with science, to read and discuss their book and the potentials and pitfalls of gene editing.

So, what is gene editing? It is the new method to make changes to anyone or any living things’ genetic code that controls traits. Previously, gene splicing (using the genetic code from one living creature to change another’s) was the leading technology. Gene editing can use one’s own genetic code with greater accuracy, ease, and less cost. Due to this, the field of scientists testing CRISPR cas-9 for gene editing has exploded in the past few years alone, and along with it comes amazing potential and worrying detriment depending how this technology is used.

The book itself is divided into two part: the tool and the task. The first part covers all of the technical science behind CRISPR cas-9 and gene editing. It is also the main story, covering Doudna’s career and the rise of gene editing. While it is dense at times, it is well written and not too overwhelming although it does have some jargon since it is difficult to get away from it entirely; but again, the authors explain the terms and procedures well.

The second part enumerates the potential benefits and pitfalls in four chapters that cover uses in food supply (both plants and livestock), medical treatments and elimination of certain conditions, risks and ethics, and finally the concern about abuse of the technology and unknown damage to society and humanity as a whole. The last two chapters begin to tease out a very important distinction when talking about gene editing: somatic versus germline editing. Basically, one of the main debates is where to edit just one person’s genes, such as with a cancer treatment, or to edit germ cells which is inheritable by future generations so that, say, everyone born with the edited gene already never gets that cancer. While gene editing is precise and very accurate, it is still an unknown as to what may happen by changing a gene for future generations or even introducing a gene to mosquitoes that would make them unable to reproduce and kill them off as a species so that they could no longer infect anyone with diseases. Another use could be creating “designer babies” with the exact traits and gender desired by the parents, or at least correcting particular genes to prevent certain conditions before they could develop. Gene editing is very powerful and could do great good or harm, depending on how it is used.

The authors intend this book to spark discussion among society, since they believe if and how gene editing with CRISPR cas-9 is used should be a collective decision. Whether or not that actually happens as more and more scientist explore the possibilities and companies see the money-making potential in this technology is another question.

Recommended?: Yes! I am certain that as testing continues, the general public will be told more and more about this incredible technology. This book is an excellent introduction to it and lays out a lot of information and questions to consider. If nothing else, it is very good food for thought. I wasn’t sure where I stood exactly and even after reading this book, I am still not sure. More to ponder as the technology continues to develop.

A crack in creation: gene editing and the unthinkable power to control evolution book cover

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Read: A is for alibi by Sue Grafton

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Perhaps it is fitting to end the year with a final book review by an author who suddenly passed away recently. I decided to start reading mystery novels to broaden my reading diet and who better to start with than Sue Grafton, who published her 25 of 26 “alphabet mystery novels” this summer. I figured I should get reading in time to be caught up for Z, but sadly that’s no longer an option. Grafton’s daughter has already said “As far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.” The final novel in the series was planned to be called Z is for zero, but without a draft or even an idea, it will never be written.

A is for alibi (1982) is the first novel in Grafton’s series that focuses on PI Kinsey Millhone, a twice-divorced longer who used to be a cop but prefers to work for herself. The main plot is trying to figure out who actually killed Laurence Fife, whose wife at the time was found guilty of his murder and served 8 years in prison, and being recently released wants to know who actually killed him. As Millhone digs deeper into the past to figure out was actually responsible, she finds herself in difficult spots with hard decisions to make. Trust is not easy to give or receive, although she already understood that from her life experience already.

The writing style makes for an easy, quick read. Though simple writing, it is highly enjoyable and well detailed. The plot slowly unfolds, becoming more complex and intriguing. Although not a twist or surprise ending, I found the resolution satisfying. The novel neither tried to be too tricky or over-the-top, which I appreciate. It read as a realistic and plausible story, and I appreciate that. Some stories are unbelievable, with too much action and drama for the sake of drama. Grafton did a great job of writing a mystery that’s compelling yet realistic. Even before I read the sad news about her passing, I had already decided to continue the series; now, though, I’ll prioritize them over trying out other mystery authors at this time.

 

Recommended?: For mystery lovers and those who want to become one. While a crime drama to some extent, there’s no blood or gore; maybe due to the time in which it was written, unlike today. There is a sexual relationship but nothing too graphic described and the main focus, as far as the relationship goes, is rather Millhone dealing with how to have another person in her life, and if she can.

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Read: Stranger and stranger (an Emily the Strange novel) by Rob Reger and Jessica Gruner

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The second of four in the series, Stranger and stranger by Rob Reger and Jessica Gruner continues to document the life of goth teenager Emily the Strange. While it chronologically follows The lost days, this novel can be read also as a standalone since the most important details from the first are incorporated.

The overall themes remain the same between the two novels: exploring a new town, enjoying her hobbies (sewer and late-night exploring, skateboarding, experimenting), and emoting her gothic laissez faire attitude. More emphasis is given to her artistic and scientific sides in this novel, which brings out elements of her personality that were subdued in the first one.

The novel itself has the same format as a somewhat graphic novel written in a loose diary-style journaling with hand-drawn doodles and many 13 point lists. Considering her age, it works really well and makes the book more approachable. There’s also a consistency for the readers, if they have read the first one.

In Stranger and stranger, the main plot is Emily the Strange wanting to pull off the ultimate prank on the new town. Although still unknown, her mom periodically moves them to a new place for a fresh start. While the prank originally starts off as an ambitious duplication of everyone in town, she ends up replicating herself first by accident and must learn to live with a second Emily the Strange. At first, she’s not sure what to think but then it gradually becomes clear that the duplication also split certain parts into each Emily, so that their personalities and motivations are not identical like she originally thought. At one point, the girls accidentally swap journals and the Other Emily begins writing the story, sharing her side of things. Part of what’s interesting is the idea of what makes you, well, you. Emily the Strange and the Other Emily both are obsessed with who the “real” one is but in the end, it’s a matter of needing both of them to make up Emily the Strange.

Recommended?: Yes, for Emily the Strange fans and those who enjoy YA graphic novels/journal format. The novel is simpler than the first, since there isn’t a complex mystery; the story itself if more straight-forward even if it gets a little more complicated when they swap journals. If you’ve ever wondered what “typical” life is like for Emily the Strange, this is the one to read.

Stranger and stranger book cover

Read: The punch escrow by Tal M. Klein

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I originally heard about this 2017 novel from a professor friend who is teaching it as part of his Freshman course this fall. Since then, I have seen many articles praising and discussing Tal M. Klein’s The punch escrow: B&N lists their favorite aspects, Paste Magazine interviewed the author, and Lionsgate already obtained movie rights.

Set in 2147 in New York, the premise is that technology has reached a point in which teleportation is a reality and a popular form in of transportation. Like a subway or metro, people go underground but then wait in line for an individual room with a single chair. Once seated, the conductor in the adjoining area watching over it then teleports the person to their destination–to an identical room with a chair anywhere else in the world. After confirmation that the person will arrive exactly as expected the other location, then the person is sent from the original location. If the arrival location has any issues with the teleport, then the person remains at the original location. This fail-safe method is really what caused the boom in teleportation popularity.

With that in mind as the basis, the story itself is about Joel and his wife Sylvia. Besides instant teleportation, there are many other technological advances including food replicators and implanted communication devices. Joel is a salter, hacker, who makes apps including communication avatars more human by teaching them. Sylvia works for International Transport (IT), the company that created teleportation as a mode of transport and the device known as the punch escrow used for teleportation. Of course there opulent be much of a story unless the corporation had secrets and questionable hidden research in the works. Sylvia runs a covert research project at IT that leads to mayhem when she uses it out of desperation to save Joel. Due to it being a thriller, I’m not going to give much else away.

As far as the concept goes, I might have liked it more if the author didn’t invoke Star Trek at the beginning of the novel. Klein quotes Star Trek II: the wrath of Khan and because I’ve become a Trekkie recently (Thanks, Amazon Prime streaming!), the similarities popped even more. While the teleporters and food replicators come from Star Trek, Klein had his on twist and deeply engages with the plausible reality of teleportation in his own way. For me it was distracting at the start, comparing them, but maybe for some Trekkies they will love it even more because of it. That said, Klein ground the technology in hard science, giving a basis for its creation. However, for me, it got in the way of the flow of the story.

With most sci-if, new concepts and technology typically don’t get explained and if they do it’s very briefly. While I commend Klein for trying to justify his world with hard science, it breaks up the flow of the story. It’s is interspersed a little in the narrative as well as many lengthy footnotes in the first couple of chapters, then fewer footnotes as it progresses. In the other sci-if that I’ve read, though not extensive, either there’s a character who needs explaining to for the purposes of plot or there’s no real attempt to explain how the world and it’s technology work. Part of it is left to the imagination and the general how is conveyed in the text. By trying to include the how and why things work, the flow of the story is broken up and made it harder for me as a reader to fully engage. That makes the rest of it more difficult to enjoy, since it’s no longer just a story but a bit of a textbook. Also, on the flip side, later on there are no footnotes when I want and almost expected explanations. While for me it was a bit jarring, maybe other readers wouldn’t mind it or just skip them. However, there could have been others ways to educate the reader, such as a manual or overview of some sort either at the beginning or end. Joel is knowingly sharing his story with people from a different time so I think that would make sense.

Recommended?: For science fiction fans and anyone whose’s ever wondered how teleportation would actually work in everyday life. It’s a solid novel, with lots of action and suspense, although it’s quite technical at the beginning, and especially in the footnotes, during the set-up. If done right, it will make an awesome movie, too

The punch escrow by Tal M. Klein book cover

Read: Crazy rich Asians: a novel by Kevin Kwan

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In need of a hilarious, ridiculous novel that will make your family seems tame by comparison? Crazy rich Asians by Kevin Kwan is a ruckus good-time that gives readers a peek inside the uber-rich Chinese families in Singapore, their drama, and lavish lifestyles that they take for granted.

While the book contains many characters, the main two are Nick Young and Rachel Chu. They met and have been dating for quite a while in New York City but are both Chinese who moved to the US. Rachel’s mom moved with her when she was just a child, so all she knows is life in the US. Nick, on the other hand, grew up in Singapore and has only recently lived in NYC. Nick decides to take Rachel home for the summer to Singapore, where they will first attend his best friend’s wedding and then enjoy Asia for the remainder of the trip. But, the best laid plans are never that simple. The whole novel revolves around the wedding and Nick’s large family, with Rachel unwittingly caught in the crosshairs of both.

Kwan deftly portrays family dynamics of all sort throughout the novel, adding even more intrigue to the main plot. Rachel, similar to the reader, has not be warned or prepped in anyway before meeting his family since Nick doesn’t see it as a big deal, although him cousin Astrid warned him that he should. Much of Nick’s family is concerned with lineage and wealthy, to varying degrees, and Rachel unfortunately has neither since she was raised by a single mom without knowing any other family. She and Nick are blindsided by particular members in his family when they realize the expectations. Power and control, especially of information, are also used freely to influence and coerce as family members and friends deem necessary to achieve their goals and personal gain. Everyone in Singapore seems to want to climb the social ladder and bask in societal attention except for Nick and Rachel.

This novel also showcases different versions of wealth and opinions of it, which adds more friction between some of the characters. Some downplay their wealth, spending very little of it and never discussing it, while others flaunt it with gaudy purchases and extravagances, flashing it any chance they can. Due to these disparities in opinion, Nick doesn’t realize just how personally wealthy he is, and stands to inherit, since he lived with his low-key grandmother and was other family members who flaunted their riches. This is partly also why he didn’t explain anything to Rachel because while he was rich, he never thought of himself or his immediate family as uber-rich. Among the multitude of characters, there are many subtle differences between them that highlight the variation in the rich and their opinions of themselves and others. I can’t begin to do it justice in this post but it’s a pleasure to read.

Crazy rich Asians is very funny and a fun read. From what little I have seen (my sister’s the real expert), The Real Housewives of… tv series is similar to this novel as it follows a group of rich women and documents their lavish lifestyles and heightened drama. Except that this novel takes everything to the max, can be incredibly over-the-top and ridiculous, putting even The Real Housewives to shame. It is mind-boggling how easily so many characters spend so much money like it is mundane. To not be uber-rich myself (unless there’s a massive windfall hiding out there for me), it can be absurd to the point of sheer amusement to even just have a glimpse of that reality. Again, Kwan showcases a range of elegant to tacky rich Asians throughout, so it’s not all cringe-worthy flaunting of wealth but it’s all compelling in the novel and propels the plot well.

Part of why I enjoyed the novel so much likely is the fact that I visited Singapore for a long weekend a few years ago. The descriptions of the locations, stores, and especially the food take me right back there. Now I’m craving Singaporean food from hawker stalls and thinking about another trip there sooner than later, and while we still have friends to visit, too!

 

Recommended?: Yes, especially if you want to be transported to hot, flavorful Singapore to briefly live alongside the crazy-rich Asians, and be thankful that they aren’t your family members. It’s certainly an adult novel, with some swear words and sexual references but no real sex scenes; mostly the family dynamics, manipulation, and commentary on money and marriage might not be as interesting or appreciated by younger, teen readers. I’m so glad it’s a trilogy and can’t wait to read the next–hopefully they live up to this first one!

Crazy rich Asians by Kevin Kwan book cover

Hard to tell in the photo but the cover design gives it a gold sparkly shine.

Read: The Lost Days (an Emily the Strange novel) by Rob Reger and Jessica Gruner

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Full disclosure: in high school I loved Emily the Strange and had one or two (or eight) of her t-shirts. My favorite was a long sleeve black shirt that had a picture of Emily the Strange in her laboratory poking at a brain in a jar with one of her cats looking on nearby, with a caption like “Emily loves to pick your brain”. For a sassy, dark humored teen, what’s not to love?

Emily the Strange is a 13-year-old punk rock loner who loves her 4 black cats. She dresses in all black, has long black hair, and an attitude to match. Originally featured on stickers, posters, and t-shirts, Emily now has graphic novels, comic books, YA novels, and apparently video games about her. Supposedly there’s even a (stalled?) animated movie in the works. She’s expanded her empire since the early internet store days with classic t-shirts such as “Your silence is golden” with Emily plugging her ears, “Emily didn’t search to belong. She searched to be lost.”, and her take on an American war recruitment meme “I WANT YOU…to leave me alone”. She loves the creepy and spooky, priding herself in being strange. However, she’s anything but one-dimensional as she is a musician, scientist, and artist in addition to being a troublemaker with her slingshot always at the ready. Emily is unique and revels in it, not caring what anyone else thinks about her.

The lost days by Rob Reger and Jessica Gruner is illustrated by Rob Reger and Buzz Parker. This young adult novel is written in a journal style with many doodles, notations, and drawn Polaroid pictures as if they were taped in. Emily also loves her lists and they’re always 13 items long. The format is very appealing because every page has some little doodle or large picture, so it breaks up the overall text, which is written more like a journal or diary than actual chapters in a book. The style also makes it very quick read since there’s no forced end/chapter breaks to the story, the reader just flows from one page to the next. There are headings for each day in the novel, but this is tied more closely into the storyline itself rather than being a distinctive marker of a particular section or chapter.

The story is very compelling, since when we first meet who we know is Emily the strange, she does not even know herself. She is suffering from amnesia and unsure why in an unfamiliar town with no one who seems to know her. The mystery only further ensues as the novel progresses, making it as perplexing for the reader as Emily herself as she tries to figure out just what is going on with her in this small town of strangers. The mystery, mood, and tone of the story and novel fit very well into the culture and personality that is Emily the Strange. The end is also very satisfying when the mastermind plot is fully revealed; Reger and his team did well to write not just a great story for fans but also for anyone who happens to read the novel, not knowing anything about the Emily the Strange universe.

Since I donated all my Emily the Strange t-shirts around the time I went to college, I haven’t followed the website anymore. The series of four novels was a complete surprise to me when one of my husband’s middle schooler’s requested that he borrowed them for the classroom from the local library. When he brought them home from the library, I just had to read them before they went off school for the kiddos!

Recommended?: Definitely for all Emily the Strange fans, lovers of darkly quirky stories and characters (such as Tim Burton fans), and YA journal format. This book is a fun, super-quick read  with a compelling mystery up to the very end. True to character, Emily the Strange is still her truly strange self throughout The Lost Days, even if she doesn’t remember.

The lost days: an Emily the strange novel book cover

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Read: It devours!: a Welcome to Night Vale novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

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Okay, I’ll admit it. I am a Welcome to Night Vale fan girl. The podcast is quirky and bizarre but so creative and intriguing that it didn’t take long to hook me. The writers already published a book based on the podcast that I reviewed earlier. However, It devours!, their second Night Vale novel is even more amazing and works better as a standalone so that you don’t have to have listened to the podcast before reading it.

Night Vale is not the average American town. Time flows differently for everyone, the dog park is not really a dog park since no one is allowed in it, and the City Council and secret police constantly monitor the citizens–but this is all normal and taken for granted by the residents. Well, except for the handful of scientists who have moved into town to study the various odd (to them) phenomenon. His experiments based by City Council, head scientist Carlos enlists Nilanjana to look into the strange occurrences of random pits that form and sink buildings around town, taking with them anyone inside or near enough to the pit. As more people disappear, the stakes become greater. Early on, Nilanjana gets a flyer from a local, newer church in town and it seems suspiciously connected in some way the the pits and destruction around town.

The novel itself quickly takes on the massive theme of science versus religion. Despite the quirky town and the fact that the church believes that a giant centipede is its god, the arguments for and against science and religion are applicable to the real world. In many ways, Night Vale is similar to our world, it’s just a bit off in some ways. This makes it all the more intriguing and still somewhat universal. Nilanjana begins hanging out with Darryl at the church, first to find out answers but then romantically. Beyond their relationship, the whole event makes Nilanjana feels more like a resident of Night Vale instead of a transplant. In trying to solve who is causing the disaster and why, she and he both reconsider their beliefs and work together, their plan benefiting from both science and religion.

Compared to the first, this novel explains more of the quirks and points out things a first time visitor might not know about Night Vale but needs to in order to understand it. They are casually worked into the narrative and so never feel out of place.

While it’s fiction, it’s difficult to place It devours! into a more specific category. It mainly reads as a mystery, trying to figure out who or what is behind the attacks in order to stop them. The alternative reality and town quirks push it more into magic realism more so than sci-if or fantasy. Then there are the satirical elements and absurdity that are bizarre to the reader but normal in the world of the Night Vale. Regardless of how the novel could be described, it’s a fun story that’s well written and is a pretty quick read.

Recommended?: Yes, especially for fans of Welcome to Night Vale or quirky alternate reality that includes paranormal and an off-kilter this town. As long as you read this novel with a sense of humor and as a bit tongue-in-cheek, you are bound to enjoy it too. Just a note, there are two romantic relationships: one gay and one heterosexual. There is sex but it’s not really described and it’s between the heterosexual couple. Plus, the book is gorgeous–purple edging on the pages and creepy teeth artwork (even more so inside the cover!).

Joyfully, it devours!

Finally bought swag from the Night Vale store. Couldn’t resist the mugs and beer glass any longer!