In my bid to beat 2013’s paltry 70-something “books read” total, I’ve re-established this blog’s Book of the Month Club and redoubled my own reading efforts.  Now I’m sure that, next to reading a good book, there’s nothing many of you bibliophiles appreciate more than a good recommendation.  A nd so, in keeping with yet another tradition, I’m going to offer a monthly round-up of the books I’ve read accompanied by mini capsule reviews (or simply thoughts, let’s call them thoughts) for those of you seeking a little literary direction.

My January reads, eleven in all…

1RED COUNTRY – Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie has distinguished himself in a fairly crowded field, delivering gritty, visceral, yet darkly humorous tales that fly in the face of established high fantasy conventions.  His world-building is as unique and richly textured as the colorful characters who battle and banter their way through his stories, and I list him among my very favorite authors.  Period.  Beginning with his first book, The Blade Itself, and continuing through five subsequent novels, I can honestly say “I’ve never read an Abercrombie book I haven’t loved.”.  Red Country is his latest and Joe at his consistent best, a story about a young girl, Shy South, who sets off to rescue her younger siblings from a group of murderous outlaws.  She is aided in her quest by Lamb, her (seemingly) spineless soft-spoken stepfather, and the unlikeliest of allies in a group of risk-averse mercenaries.  A hell of a lot of fun.

1PERFECT – Rachel Joyce

An accident changes the lives of a young boy and his mother, setting off a bewildering, tragic chain of events.  The story unfolds in the past and present: 1972, in the immediate aftermath of the triggering incident, and decades later following its destructive repercussions.  The protagonists of the twin narratives are engaging and the premise is interesting, but the secondary characters are weak: the distant husband and father, the low class opportunist, the shallow fellow wives.  James, the childhood friend, offers a suggestion of intrigue that is hinted at but never fully realized.Perhaps more frustrating are the two female main characters who, while possessed of great depth, demonstrate behavior that leave the reader questioning their motivations.  There’s the mother who is so affected by an unfortunate turn of events that she completely loses all sense of logic.  And then there’s the woman who befriends a co-worker with mental issues and, mysteriously, falls in love with him.  I say “mysteriously” because, despite the development’s effectiveness in pushing the story toward a satisfying emotional resolve, I simply didn’t buy it.  In both cases, despite the great writing, there’s a disconnect between the set up and pay off. Equally detached are the twin narratives that, while linked, don’t ultimately dovetail in satisfactory fashion.


“Write what you know,”they say, and while Neil Gaiman may not actually know magic and monsters and otherworldly spirits, you’d be forgiven for suspecting otherwise.  His stories are fiercely creative and, at time same time, underpinned with an elegiac beauty that resonates with readers.  Here, its the power of memories and the force of nostalgia that drive the narrative as our unnamed protagonist revisits his hometown, rediscovering long-forgotten secrets and friendship.  While it may lack the depth and dark complexity of Gaiman’s other works (Sandman and American Gods come readily to mind), this short novel is no less stirring.

1TENTH OF DECEMBER – George Saunders

A diverse selection of short stories ranging from soberly subversive to wickedly weird. There’s no denying Saunders’ talent or his ability to craft stories that engender a powerful reader response, in my case ranging from mild irritation to utter delight. One of my favorite entries is “The Semplica Girl Diaries” which focuses on a middle-class father’s attempts to keep up with his wealthier neighbors by gifting his young daughter a group of living human lawn ornaments for her birthday.  The narrative unfolds in darkly humorous – and horrifying – fashion, its bizarre developments a pointed critique of consumerism and third world labor.  Other stories prove equally clever and elegantly acerbic.  “Escape from Spiderhead” offers a glimpse at a savage and deadly but efficiently-run pharmaceutical experiment.  In “Sticks”, a boy charts his father’s emotional descent through the decorative evolution of the very special pole standing in their front yard.  “Al Roosten”, meanwhile, is a modern day Walter Mitty leached by despair.  Provocative.

1SNOWBLIND – Christopher Golden

In man ways reminiscent of Stephen King’s small town horror, this novel pales in comparison.  Whereas King’s characters transcend their literary commonalities, the characters in Snowblind don’t really offer much beyond their simple introductions, ultimately undone by predictable developments and stock dialogue.  It’s a great, creepy set-up that, like a lot of horror, fails to follow-through on its effective start. The ominous threat become decidedly less frightening as the story moves along, hampered by some confusing rules surrounding the abilities and motivations of the snow entities’ former victims.  More frosty than chilling.


Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamorra ranks among my Top 5 All-Time Fantasy Reads so I was greatly looking forward to this book, the third in the series.  Events pick up where they left off in Red Seas Under Red Skies, with Locke poisoned and near death.  His best friend and partner in crime, Jean, must find a way to save his life – but the solution will involve a sketchy deal, political intrigue, and a surprising someone from our hero’s past.  The narrative shifts back and forth between two timelines, the first involving Locke and Jean’s efforts to rig a local election, the second a flashback to a younger Locke and his relationship with fellow rogue, Sabetha.  Each book in the series is distinct, this latest entry surprisingly somber in comparison to the light-hearted tone of the first.  On the one hand, a little more straight-forward and less “fun” than the previous instalments; on the other hand, certainly more nuanced in its exploration of our protagonist and his complicated love life.

1THE SANDMAN OMNIBUS, volume 1 – Neil Gaiman

At some 1040 pages long, this massive hardcover tome is just the first half of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning opus which tells the story (stories) of Dream, the rulers of Dreams.  It has the feel of a musical score,the narrative lulling and swelling, rising and falling, building to crescendos and then quietly fading.  The tales are diverse but equally inspired.  In one, Dream travels to Hell to free a long-abandoned love only to find the place shuttered as Lucifer closes up shop.  In another, we discover the true origins of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  An enormous creative accomplishment.

1THE EXPLORER – James Smythe

What starts off as a grounded, impressive SF tale takes an interesting time-travel twist – but then is undone by irritating implausibilities that stand out in contrast to a hitherto engaging and believable narrative.  As a reader, I can accept the fictional parameters set down by the book – the near future space journey, even the rules of the time travel itself –  but I have to draw the line when forced to accept the fact that a future version of our hero is able to make his way through the small ship, hiding within its walls, completely unnoticed by the rest of the crew.


The mysterious Breq is much more (and less!) than she appears.  Once a military starship possessed of Artificial Intelligence, she now exists as merely one of the thousands of former ancillaries (a.k.a. corpse soldiers) that existed as extensions of her former self.  Reduced to a single fragile human body, fueled by the memories of her powerful past, she sets out on a seemingly impossible mission of vengeance. Sound cool?  Well, it is.  And smart.  I haven’t read an SF novel this engrossing in quite a while.  And, for this very reason, I haven’t been so frustrated by an ending in even longer.  Admittedly, Breq’s “plan” isn’t much of one and the fact that this book is the first in a series should have prepared me, but I found the conclusion highly unsatisfying nevertheless.


“I don’t want to oversell what Ryan has accomplished here, but I gave God Hates Astronauts to a blind man and he regained his sight.” – Jonathan Hickman (The Avengers, Fantastic Four, The Manhattan Projects)

Okay, it may not cure blindness but this book will definitely cure boredom – and re-energize jaded comic book readers.  Without a doubt, the most outrageous graphic novel I’ve ever read, God Hates Astronauts focuses on the adventures of The Power Persons Five who, under orders from NASA, are tasked with keeping farmers from firing their home made rockets into space.  And then it gets really weird.  I mean REALLY.   Crazy, at times laugh out loud funny.

1WORK DONE FOR HIRE – Joe Haldeman

Following an enormous stage weight in which we are introduced to a writer working on the novelization of an upcoming movie, alternating between his life and the cheesy book he is writing, the story actually begins – approximately 100 pages into this novel – when the writer receives a rifle and some mysterious instructions. What follows is a conspiracy-laden (or “leaden”) adventure as our hero tries to figure out what is going on and who is pulling the strings.  The answer is both underwhelming and ridiculous.

P.S. To everyone wondering about the orange oatmeal – it’s papaya.

Let’s continue our Stargate: Atlantis rewatch with…Hot Zone!

1Upon watching this again after so many years, I still find the Weir-Sheppard confrontation bizarre – but enjoyed the episode much more as a whole.  Akemi, for her part, was much less enthusiastic because she had trouble following the last half. Nanites and EMP’s are about as familiar to her as natto and the songs of AKB48 are to me and so, despite multiple attempted explanations, she still didn’t know what the hell was going on.  “Very difficult episode, have to say,”she told me as those end credits rolled.

As always, she had nice things to say about Rodney McKay: “He’s not just geek. He’s super geek!”

But continues to have somewhat more conflicted feelings when it comes to Sheppard (“Why his name is Sheppard?  Like dog?”).  She found him arrogant and annoying in his clash with Weir, who turned out to be right by the way, and his 11th hour solution didn’t redeem him in her eyes.  Ultimately, her problem with the character stems from his role as dashing hero.  In her words: “He is ideal main character.  Too perfect.”  As opposed to: “Eli more humanish.”

So, what do you all think?  Is Sheppard too perfectly heroic?  What did you think of Hot Zone?  Chime in!

21 thoughts on “February 16, 2014: My January Reading List – Capsule Reviews! The mystery of the orange oatmeal solved! Stargate Atlantis rewatch! Hot Zone!

  1. I’m definitely a McKay fan so I agree that he’s a super geek. Shep isn’t too perfect, though.. He has authority issues. He’s flawed. This episode is freaky. Let’s hope no one can ever create such a WMD. What a terrifying way to die.

    I’m maybe going to try the Gaiman short story first. That sounds like something I’d enjoy.

    Papaya? In oatmeal? I should try that.


  2. As testament to how shallow I am, I was very tempted to skip over your insightful capsule reviews right to the pressing matter of the explanation of the orange oatmeal. I didn’t though, and I’m glad, since Red Country and the Tenth of December both sound quite intriguing – may have to pick them up!

    Speaking of the oatmeal, I’ve never heard of it being eaten with papaya. That sounds really quite good!

    Regarding “Hot Zone” (psst, your header says “Underground” – that’s tomorrow!) I remember this as the VERY FIRST full Stargate episode that I ever watched, and is what prompted me to start watching the series and then buy the SG1 DVDs and do a full rewatch of that. As a result, on the first watching there were MANY “huh?” moments, so I can sympathize with Akemi – again watching them out of order has its disadvantages. I obviously enjoyed it though, and did again this time.

    I completely understand the Weir-Sheppard confrontation, since she would have appeared quite weak if she didn’t challenge him on his refusal to go by her decision. I think it would have damaged her character development to have not said anything.

    “As always, she had nice things to say about Rodney McKay: “He’s not just geek. He’s super geek!””

    Yep, and that’s why we love his character!

  3. I’ve gone back in time and it is Feb 10th again? No thanks. It’s been a very busy week and cold.

    Hot Zone I liked. When I first started watching this episode the first time, I thought maybe some bugs from The Defiant One had made it on board the shuttle and wanted payback for killing most of them. This was the first time John and Teyla used the fighting sticks (I think) and kicked his ass.

  4. P.S. To everyone wondering about the orange oatmeal – it’s papaya.

    Oatmeal…and papaya??

    Man, O man…you must’a pooped like a freakin’ goose!



  5. I truly appreciate Akemi’s observations, they are fun but gaahhhhh, it’s like we are watching two different shows! I guess since Sheppard’s my favorite fictional character of all time I just see him differently. Completely not a perfect hero, he’s a combination of bravery and dorkiness, has authority issues (by the way he was right, not Weir – it was a military situation), self-doubt and a willingness to take his own life for granted. I love Rodney too, but on this show, he’s the almost too perfect one – brilliant, brave, gets the girls(real relationships), and his arrogance is mostly justified.

    Re the episode, I remember at the time expecting more conflict between Sheppard and Weir, but it got kind of downplayed over time and they became friends. Not a bad way to go but it would have been interesting if they had continued to clash.

    The nanites will continue to play a big role in SGA, I hope Akemi will come to understand how they work!

    (I’m still not seeing the correlation between Sheppard and Eli, I know you talked about viewpoint character but I always got the feeling that the writers were more in tune with Rodney as their/your “eyes.”)

  6. @PBMom: It at least FELT like that Russian house from yesterday’s post, this morning. So. Much. Snow…

  7. The Shep/Weir conflict… I’m surprised that didn’t happen more often, with her being a civilian and Sheppard military. But I always felt that she saw both sides,tho she only agreed with one. She saw where Sheppard was coming from but felt it was a medical matter. AND she had a point, he was ranking military officer and need him NOT to get sick. Sheppard is far from perfect, arrogant, or overly confident at times, perhaps so that alone doesn’t make him perfect. Who created his character? Who else was up for that role?

  8. THe Sheppard/Weir conflict was one that had to happen. The expedition is either a military one, or a civilian one with military support. Weir had made it clear that she recognized the boundaries of her expertise and authority. Sheppard, even after this episode, has not. At least Weir has forced him to look at his own issues of trusting the judgment of others, a nice nuance. Loved McKay, especially the “I really don’t care” comment. Great supporting bits from Carson and Zelinka. And what a nice setup for the appearance of the Replicators. I’d say one of the strongest episodes of the season, but with so many other great episodes, I will simply say it’s in the top half of the rankiings.

  9. My thoughts on Hot Zone:

    I laugh every time at the prime/not prime game. My friends and I sometimes play a similar game involving drum corps shows and the music performed therein.

    The pair of Wagner and Johnson for some reason makes me think of Funk and Wagnall.

    McKay at one point refers to Wagner and Johnson as men. Oops.

    Sheppard is a man of action. Weir is a woman of information gathering, options weighing, then decision. It is no wonder they clash sometimes. I love the part where Weir is so livid with Sheppard that she is holding back tears of rage.

    The moment where Bates chooses sides could have been more suspenseful if it either weren’t Bates in that position or if Bates wasn’t so predictable. Imagine if Teyla were in his position. What would happen? Who knows, but it would be more interesting in that moment. Nevertheless, the moment perfectly executes Sheppard undermining Weir’s authority. I can’t believe Teyla didn’t speak up sooner and stronger about his behavior.

    I have wondered why Beckett didn’t just place the group of people in a medically enduced coma or otherwise drug them until a solution could be found. Methinks that would have slowed down or stopped the nanites from completing their objective….no hallucinations at least.

    David Hewlett is brilliant, as always. McKay is so flawed and yet so endearing. Latex gloves, anyone? The awkward Zalenka/McKay hug? Handshake? Fist bump? Hysterical.

    I do think it was a bit of a cop out not to complete the convo between Weir and Sheppard at the end. She is a strong character having a difficult conversation and needed to complete her thoughts. Having Beckett and McKay come in just then may have left the audience feeling a bit happier and that things were mostly resolved between Sheppard and Weir, but I think a few more moments of uncomfortableness for the audience would have been excessively effective. We needed to sit with the gravity of it, if you will.

    This episode exposes some fatal flaws in our lead characters as well as propels us to think of the City as the Main Character of the show. Atlantis is anthropomorphized here and begins transitioning into its own sentience, from our perspective, changing from just being the city of the Ancients into something more.

    And that is all for now…

  10. Sheppard does not reach perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Is he occasionally written as a traditional and classic male sci-fi hero? Sure. Particularly in Sanctuary coming up (ergh, that episode).

    I found this confrontation weird, too. Most of the time, he works well with Weir and he’s not a wholly military personality (as you noted, more like O’Neill than a total “yes, sir” kind of guy). The only excuse I can come up with is that he feels out of place and guilty for his role in Sumner’s death and thus occasionally overcompensates in military matters, trying to think “what would Sumner do?” He also has issues with authority generally. Also, I really think Sheppard had such a risk-seeking personality that it bordered on a death wish.

    Plot-wise, this episode is kind of lame. The hallucinations make no sense, the special effects are kind of cheesy, the screaming a bit over-acted. Not the best episode. But as always, I enjoy McKay.

    Speaking of…knowing the Ancients created the human form replicators, should we assume that an Ancient descended ala Merlin to make Reese, which caused the creation of the Milky Way replicators? And why the hell would he/she do that? Ancients cause more problems than they solve, jeez.

  11. Weir was right and Sheppard was wrong. Sheppard put the whole city at risk and should have had more than just a verbal dressing down from Weir. Alas, there’s not much more that Weir could do.

    I find Akemi’s literal interpretation of the character’s names very amusing. Are there no Japanese names that are synonymous with everyday items and professions? Does she think Weir would make a good barrier across a river? And then they could use Lieutenant Ford to cross that river? Sergeant Bates could be used at the end of a fishing line to catch fish from the river. Lieutenant Miller could make flour at a mill fed from water at the weir. Dr. Biro could write about it.

    OK, I’ll shut up now.

  12. Ah, papaya. I was wondering if it was pumpkin swirled into your oatmeal!

    And, yes, the book recommendations are very welcome.

    Sorry, but I have not been able to keep up with Atlantis, But I’m enjoying Akemi’s commentary.

    And now I will head to work – bracing myself for yet another snowstorm. 3 to 6 inches this time around through the afternoon hours and into evening rush hour. Good times…

  13. Natto? Blerg. Nope, nope, nope. Do you think it tastes like old sweatsocks which have been left behind in a gym locker? That’s the nicest thing I can say about natto. Old socks.

  14. The Shepherd/Weir conflict seemed to me (at the time) that it was setup as a precursor to a larger coming conflict. That, in the end, never happened. It made me wonder if that (a larger conflict between Shepherd and Weir) was something the writers were originally moving towards and then they decided against it. Joe, any insights?

    And for those winter storm watchers out there, Chicago is getting hit with another one. This may put us over the edge of “most snowfall in a single winter”. Yee-fricken-haw! I’m ready to move back down south, but that’s not looking likely for the immediate future.

    To celebrate this snowy day, I’m taking the family down to the Chicago Auto Show (actually I decided to do this before the winter storm; it’s just tagging along for the fun of it). We’re taking Metra because the tollway will be a mess under the storm conditions.

    I’ll post some pictures on the blog later…

  15. See, it’s Weir that I found annoying. Despite enjoying other work by the actress I just never warmed to poor Weir. I love Robert Picardo, when she left the show really gelled. And I’m not just saying that because of Dreamy Shep.

    So many great reads!! Thanks for the tips. I watched Mars & Avril and wow, terrific movie out of Montreal.

    And for those of you who’d love to have Frank Darabant ruin the end of your script here is info on entering the Austin Film Fest:

  16. Your conclusions on Snowblind and Work Done for Hire were the same as mine. However, I’m still glad I read them. Any more suggestions for Military Sci-fi?

    Akemi’s observations are interesting, as always. I’m glad she likes McKay’s character. McKay reminds me of my hubby.

  17. I haven’t been able to participate in the re-watch, but I am enjoying everyone else’s “take” on the SGA episodes. I did want to add that McKay and Zelenka were always my favorite characters, followed by Bob Picardo’s character. MOST of the rest of the characters seemed too perfect to me. I had a much easier time connecting to the characters in SGU, and especially Eli. David did a great job with that role.

  18. Oddly, I never warmed to the McKay character – I found him to be on the edge of irritating most of the time. He often came across as pompous and conceited. He needed a bit of humanizing.

  19. These are my favourite blog posts of your. Reviews about books. Reviews about anime is right up there too. And Stargate the rewatch of course.

  20. I feel it was well written. However, Weir and Sheppard were BOTH wrong, if he was that important (and he was) then she could have sent someone to him and Teyla with suits. They could spared one person to grab two suits and take them to the gym! Bates followed orders and Sheppard put him in a bad position.

    As fsmn36 pointed out “I really think Sheppard had such a risk-seeking personality that it bordered on a death wish” I do not feel it is so much that but more of overcompensation of guilt and he will do anything to make sure no one dies under his command due to the deaths of his friends from Afghanistan.

  21. Of course Sheppard is too perfect. In real life, sometimes the good guy goes down for doing the right thing and no one but he ever knows it was the right thing. In real life, sometimes a soldier is ordered to do bad things – real bad things, not just making a decision based on limited info and losing the bet — and he does them and that’s the end of the story for him – no redemption, no it-turns-out-it-wasn’t-bad. If I were interested in real life, I wouldn’t be watching a TV show.

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