Random Review: Scarlet by Stephen Lawhead

August 29, 2014 Leave a comment

This review contains mild spoilers.

For my review of the first book of the King Raven Trilogy Hood, click here.

Book Name: Scarlet
Author: Stephen Lawhead
Series: Book #2, King Raven Trilogy
Publisher(s): Thomas Nelson Publishers
Format(s): Hardcover/Trade Paperback/Audiobook/eBook
Genre(s): Historical fiction/Fantasy
Release Date: June 10, 2008

Rating: 10/10

Simply put, Scarlet is one of the best books I have read in a long while. The story is of William Scatlocke, AKA Will Scarlet, and how he came to join with Rhi Bran Hud and the Grellon. In a departure from the style of Hood, most of the story in Scarlet is narrated by Will Scarlet himself when he tells his tale to a monk named Odo as Scarlet waits to hanged for his crimes against God and the Crown by sheriff Guy of Gysborne. There are alternating chapters set in the current time centering on the Ffreinc and their continued attempts to capture Rhi Bran Hud and Wales.

What’s interesting is that Will Scarlet doesn’t tell his story as if he thinks he’s a dying man. In fact, he does just the opposite and tells his story in a manner knowing that he needs to give Bran ap Brychan time to mount a recue. So he tells what appears to Odo to be a winding tale full of important information but instead Scarlet leaves out anything that would allow the sheriff to find Bran. The relationship between Scarlet and Odo, while a touch predictable, is nonetheless written very well.

Scarlet does not start off as fast paced as Hood generally was, matching the personality that Lawhead gives to Will Scarlet. In the original Robin Hood myth Scarlet is an angry young man that tends to fly off the handle at a moment’s notice. Lawhead has turned him into a thoughtful gentleman, and has also changed Scarlet’s ability from being a great swordsman to being just as good of a shot with a bow as Bran. It’s a skill that comes into play in two pivotal scenes in Scarlet.

In Scarlet we see the true frustration of the Ffreinc in their failure to swiftly capture Wales, and the book does a lot better than Hood in portraying the true villainy of the Ffreinc. Lawhead once again doesn’t go for clichés in that area, but instead shows how shockingly evil the Ffreinc were to the Welsh people and their way of life through simple, basic stories. While many of those scenes are written with the Robin Hood mythos in mind the truth was the invading Normans were just as terrible to the local inhabitants as Lawhead describes in Scarlet.

Lawhead is known for throwing real history into his settings as he reworks legends to match when they were first likely told, and in Scarlet he does it again. In a series that has major religious undertones–both Christianity and pagan–just as the era had, Lawhead throws in the issue of there being multiple popes as an important element in the story. With Pope Urban II being the legitimate pope in exile and (Antipope) Clement III in Rome and each being supported by different regents the intrigue of someone switching papal elegances for personal gain plays a role in the plot.

The rescue of Scarlet, which obviously was going to happen at some point, is humorous and well written. Lawhead uses a bit of bait-and-switch as he makes it seem one thing will happen, and them slowly makes obvious what is really going on. In the end it might be a little over the top, but it fits nicely within the story and is toned down by the characters themselves not really believing it worked so well. He does it again with their final means of escape, and just as the reader makes up his mind something implausible has happened Lawhead gives the simplest explanation as to how it occurred. I would bet most would not have guessed Bran’s men would have done what they did, and yet it seems so obvious once it’s explained.

The only potential checkmark against the book is the events on Scarlet do not pick up right where Hood ended. But based on the style Lawhead used in this book, how could it? Just as Scarlet tells us of what transpired between the two books, and Lawhead sets the stage nicely for the finale, Tuck.

Also, well before reading Hood and Scarlet I’d read that Lawhead’s was proselytizing in the series. I don’t have the slightest idea how anyone could come up with that idea. Lawhead writes of the Catholic Church just as it was in the last 11th century. The number of bad things done in the name of Divine right in the first two books of the series should have been enough to dissuade anyone from that opinion. But you don’t have to take my or anyone else’s thoughts on that, you get to read them for yourself and decide. And I suggest you do so.

Listening to audio books really isn’t reading

August 28, 2014 Leave a comment

After talking to some friends about this topic, I was shocked at the number of people that considered listening to audio books as reading. Some of them were to the point of being angry I would even suggest that it’s not. It really makes me wonder how anyone could possibly think listening to someone else reading a book is the same thing as you reading the book yourself. I look at it this way, if you’re listening to an audiobook you’re basically watching TV or a movie without the pictures. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I’m saying listening to audio books isn’t the same as reading.

Now, I get why people listen to audio books. Many of my friends have long commutes to and from work and chose to listen to audio books in their car over listening to radio. If my commute to work was as long as theirs I’d likely be doing the same thing. But just because they have a great reason for listening doesn’t mean they read the book. If you order a pizza delivered to your place you wouldn’t tell people you cooked the pizza, how is listening to an audio book any different?

When reading a book it’s the reader who decides how a scene appears to them. The reader interprets the words on the page for themselves and develops his/her own mental image of the action. When listening to an audio book it’s the narrator who interprets the scene, and through their vocal tones, character voices (be they significant or not), and/or inflection they paint a picture for the listener. Everything the writer puts in the book is important, in one way or another, to the story. Narrating often misses many of those elements because your ears can’t pick up why the author started a new paragraph, or used a comma instead of a period, or any other of the various grammatical features that don’t express well in narration.

Another way of looking at this. I have read a couple of books by Luis Miguel Rocha. The original language these books were written in was Portuguese (it actually might be Spanish, but that’s not specifically relevant) and I read the English translations. I would bet good money there was information lost between the Portuguese and English versions and I doubt you’d find too many people that would disagree with that. Yet there are apparently a huge number of people that think reading the book and listening to an audio book are the same despite the exact same issues between audio books vs reading and translations from different languages appearing.

I have an author friend that in public rants about audio books being exactly the same as reading. Of course she does, because she wants sales of either of them and has no interest in alienating any potential customers. But get a few drinks into her and she’s just as adamant in private that listening to the book isn’t the same as reading. If you were to look up opinions of authors on the subject I suspect you’d be hard pressed to find many that would argue listening to audio books isn’t reading, and those you did find are likely to be at the top of the sales list where their books would sell no matter what the format was. Of course authors that need your money aren’t going to go against the grain and say they aren’t the same. It’s career suicide for them to do so.

So just to be clear, I’m not saying listening to audio books is bad and you shouldn’t do it. If it’s the easiest–or only–way you can get the story, then by all means listen to the audio book. But don’t tell me you read the book, because you didn’t.

Categories: Books, Rant Tags: ,

Random Review: Eye For An Eye by Ben Coes

August 25, 2014 Leave a comment

This review contains mild spoilers.

Book Name: Eye For An Eye
Author: Ben Coes
Series: #4 in an ongoing series
Publisher(s): St. Martin’s Press
Format(s): Hardcover/Mass Market Paperback/Audiobook/eBook
Genre(s): Thriller
Release Date: July 9, 2013

Rating: 8/10

In Ben Coes’ fourth book featuring larger than life hero Dewey Andreas we get one of the standard thriller plot hooks: revenge. Now, of course with a title like Eye For An eye there’s little doubt that’s what the story is about, but while Coes does follow the standard cycle of “bad things happen to the hero and then the hero takes care of business” Coes takes a path not usually taken by writers. He makes his hero seem “normal” without resorting to clichés. Well, as normal as an operative with little or no official government help can be while jet setting around the world killing bad guys.

In a story that spans the globe Coes goes for the heart just as tenaciously as Andreas goes for the throat. Eye For An eye is about as fast paced as a novel can get, with even the back story portions seemingly running at full throttle. The plot is a touch over the top at times with Andreas performing more than a few death defying actions that would likely kill a mortal man, but because Coes doesn’t use those things as a crutch to hold up a weak story it all fits together nicely. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

In what is perhaps the oddest thing in Eye For An eye Coes has Andreas playing ice hockey with the president of the United States. It plays no significant role in the main plot and is more of a back story to help define all the characters, but it’s one of those little things I like to see in books. It’s hard for an author to take something so out of place within the confines of the whole story and weave it in seamlessly. Coes, being a self described hockey fanatic, chose that sport. While it would be unfathomable that the president could manage to sneak away from the White House every week to do anything, once again Coes makes it seem plausible. And from another hockey fanatic I should add those scenes are very well written.

Without giving away the plot, Coes does relay some real-life issues as his plot device involving the US and China and a potential monetary crisis in our future. It’s not preachy, nor does it fail to poke a finger at both political parties for their basically ignoring the issue. If it comes true it could become the scariest part of the book.

In an interview last summer Coes was asked about his future plans for Dewy Andreas. Coes replied St. Martin’s has already paid him for the next three Dewey books, so either you will see them or you will see his editor hunting him down with a machete. If Coes’ editor is half as good with a machete a Andreas would be Coes is in big trouble.

Categories: Books Tags: , ,

Get to know me a bit better…55 bookish questions! (part two)

August 22, 2014 1 comment

A couple days ago I posted the first of a list of 55 questions I stole borrowed from “Chrissi Reads”. Now I’ll answer the last half. To remind folks of the questions and answers I gave previously, here is the the first 23.

24. Favorite Biography:
Guessing this includes autobiographies, Long Time Gone by David Crosby. It’s so good it’s the autobiography I judge all others against. If this doesn’t include autobiographies then I guess it would be My War by Andy Rooney.

25. Have you ever read a self help book and was it actually helpful?
Never read a self help book. Never had the urge to either.

26. Favorite cookbook:
Don’t have one.

27. Most inspirational book you have read this year:
Not sure. I read books for entertainment.

28. Favorite reading snack:
I’m partial to potato chips.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience:
I generally don’t fall for book hype, either I was going to read it or I wasn’t. So I’m not sure there is one.

30. How often do you agree with the critics about a book?
Overall, about 2/3rds of the time, although I guess it would really depend on the critic.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
If a book deserves it (and by book I mean the book and not the political views of the author, some have too hard of a time separating the two) then I have no issue with it. But the reviewer better have a good reason. I’ve seen negative reviews of a book because the person didn’t like the typeface. Really? What does that have to do with the story?

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which would you choose?
Sometimes the way some authors write English seems like a foreign language, but in all seriousness I think I’d like to read Spanish better than I do.

33. Most intimidating book I have read:
I can’t recall ever being intimidated by a book.

34. Most intimidating book I am too nervous to begin:
Again, I’m not intimidated by books.

35. Favorite poet:
Don’t really have one.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?
I don’t check books out of libraries.

37. How often do you return books to the library unread?
See above.

38. Favorite fictional character:
Spenser as written by Robert B. Parker.

39. Favorite fictional villain:
It’s either Moriarty of “Sherlock Holmes” fame by Arthur Conan Doyle or Batman’s nemesis The Joker. What’s funny is they’re both so different, and yet exactly the same.

40. Books most likely to bring on a vacation:
I generally take pulp-style stand alone novels, although if you plan your vacation right there’s no time to read anyway.

41. The longest I have gone without reading?
Presuming this means novels for entertainment I’m guessing a month or two. It’s been a long time since I went even longer than a couple days without reading the book I was on.

42. Name a book you could/would not finish:
The last one was Book of Joby by Mark J. Ferrari. It’s gotten pretty good reviews but I just couldn’t get into it.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
Loud noises. I like it moderately quiet. A little soft background noise is fine.

44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel:
A lame answer, but the “Lord of The Rings” movies.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation:
Is The Cat In the Hat a legitimate answer? Not an especially long book, but certainly a terrible movie. Although just as I type that answer Watchmen comes to mind. There may not be a worse one out there than that.

46. Most money I have ever spent in a bookstore at one time:
Easily over $100. That’s not typical, of course.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
Almost never. If the blurb on the back doesn’t interest me enough to buy it there’s no reason to skim.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through?
It would have to be beyond terrible. Luckily that has seldom happened to me.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
Both my “to read” shelves and the books I’ve saved are alphabetical by author and then by release date, although in the case of series where the author released different books it’s the release date of the first book.

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once they’re read?
I used to compulsively save everything, now I generally give away the books when I’m done with them. I still save a few, but in general I now offer them to friends or give them to charity.

51. Are there any books you have been avoiding?
If by “avoiding” this means I’m not interested in reading them, then yes, I’m avoiding a large number of popular books.

52. Name a book that made you angry:
I’m sure one has but I can’t recall any right now.

53. A book I didn’t expect to like, but did:
Seeing as I only buy books I think I’d like I never expect to not like a book.

54. A book I expected to like, but didn’t:
Avoiding using the previous book I didn’t finish again, I’ll go with Empire and Honor by W.E.B. Griffin. It’s about a quarter new material and the rest rehash of the previous novels in the series. And to be blunt, the new material was far below Griffin’s standard.

55. Favorite guilty free guilty pleasure reading:
I wouldn’t feel guilty about reading anything. I read what I want and who cares what others think of it.

Categories: Books, Rant Tags:

Random Review: Wonderland by Ace Atkins

August 21, 2014 2 comments

This review contains mild spoilers.

Book Name: Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland
Author: Ace Atkins
Series: #42 in an ongoing series
Publisher(s): Berkley
Format(s): Hardcover/Mass Market Paperback/Audiobook/eBook
Genre(s): Mystery/Thriller
Release Date: May 7th, 2013

Rating: 5/10

Wonderland is Ace Atkins’ second go around with Robert B. Parker’s legendary character Spenser, and just like his first attempt in Lullaby Atkins comes up short against the high bar set by Parker. Atkins attempts to mimic Parker’s style, and while he has the action sequences figured out pretty well the dialogue and “down time” portions of the book generally miss the mark. Also, Atkins virtually ignores many of Parker’s supporting characters which leaves large holes in the story. Hawk is completely missing from the story, and while Susan does make an appearance it seems like it’s almost an afterthought.

Spenser’s sidekick in Wonderland is Zebulon Sixkill, a character introduced in Parker’s last Spenser book before he died, Sixkill. My guess is Parker intended “Zee” to be a tertiary character, but Atkins throws him and gym owner Henry Cimoli into the limelight in a plot that could have easily come from Parker. I feel Parker would have told the story better, and certainly would have included more of the supporting cast.

I know that Atkins will never be able to truly replace Parker, but in my opinion he does need to better capture the feel of a “Spenser” novel. Parker always had some little tidbits in his story to make the characters seem real, and that’s missing in Atkins’ books. Atkins is giving Spenser more of an edge than Parker did and in that regard I like where he’s taking the character, but he really does need to work more on the little things in this series. He also needs to keep the smart-assed comments by Spenser. Atkins plays those comments as sarcasm, but they’re not supposed to be.

Would I have rated the book higher were it not a Spenser book, but instead told of random characters with no history? I may have, but on the cover is says it’s a Spenser novel. And, unfortunately, it’s not a very good one. I will, however, keep buying them. I’ve read them all so far, no reason to stop now.

One thing I wish to add, and I want to make it clear this did not play any role at all in my liking the book: putting the author’s name in the title is dumb. Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland makes no sense because Parker played no role in the book other than creating the characters. The plot, dialogue, etcetera is Atkins’. I know the estate wants to keep Parker’s name on the book, but they should have gone with the format of “Robert B. Parker’s Spenser in…”. That makes tons more sense.

Get to know me a bit better…55 bookish questions! (part one)

August 20, 2014 4 comments

I was scrolling through some of the new blog posts the other day tagged “books” (which is why you should tag your posts correctly, but I digress) and stumbled into a post on “Chrissi Reads” called Get to know me a bit better…55(!) Bookish questions!. I thought many of the questions were interesting, and seeing as I’m trying to blog more often it seemed like a good idea for me to do to. Now make sure to give the link a click so you can see how she answered. Because 55 seems like a post that would be way too long I’ll do 23 now and the last 22 a little later on. So, here we go…

1. Favorite Childhood Book:
I don’t recall a specific book, but I really loved the “Hardy Boys” books when I was younger. Of the 58 original hardcovers (How is it I know how many there were in that series?) I had well over 40 of them. Each was read multiple times.

2. What are you reading right now?
As I type this, Scarlet by Stephen Lawhead. As for what I’m reading when I post this, I don’t know for certain yet but odds are it will be book three in that series, Tuck.

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
I don’t borrow books from the library.

4. Bad Book Habit:
Not sure I have one. I’ve come back to this one two or three times now but still can’t think of one.

5. What do you currently have checked out of the library?
I don’t borrow books from the library.

6. Do you have an e – reader?
No, and I’m not planning on getting one anytime soon.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
I generally read one at a time. If circumstances require me to be reading two different books I make sure they are of different genres.

8. Have your reading habits changed since you started a blog?
Not at all.

9. Least favorite book you have read this year:
The Book of Joby by Mark J. Ferrari. It’s the first book in a long, long while that I did not finish. After about a third of the way through I just couldn’t stomach another page of it.

10. Favorite book I have read this year:
In Danger’s Path by W.E.B. Griffin. It’s the eighth book in his “The Corps” series and might be the best book he’s ever written.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
Just about never.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?
Science fiction/fantasy, mysteries, thrillers. I’ve been on a historical fiction kick lately.

13. Can you read on the bus?
I used to be able to, although I haven’t tried in 20ish years.

14. Favorite place to read?
I have a very comfy Queen Anne chair in my office I like to read in.

15. What’s your policy on book lending?
I just about never lend books, but because I’ve gotten over the compulsive need to keep everything I’ve read I do tend to give away lots of books.

16. Do you dog ear your books?
Absolutely not!

17. Do you write notes in the margin?
Another emphatic “NO!”.

18. Do you break/crack the spines of your books?
Doing so would likely cause me extreme emotional distress.

19. What is your favorite language to read in?
Well, English is the only language I’m comfortable reading in. I can read Spanish reasonably well, but I know I’d lose so much of the story were I to try to read a book in Spanish.

20. What makes you love a book?
It starts with the characters. If you don’t like the characters, you can’t possibly like the book.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
Well, loving the book would have to the reason.

22. Favorite genre:
Science fiction/Fantasy

23. Genre you rarely read, but wish you did:
I should read more biographies.

Categories: Books, Rant Tags:

Random Review: Hood by Stephen Lawhead

August 18, 2014 2 comments

For those unaware of the Robin Hood myth this review may contain spoilers.

Book Name: Hood
Author: Stephen Lawhead
Series: Book 1, King Raven Trilogy
Publisher(s): Thomas Nelson Publishers
Format(s): Trade & Mass Market Paperback/Audiobook/eBook
Genre(s): Historical fiction/Fantasy
Release Date: June 5th 2007

Rating: 8/10

For those unfamiliar with the writings of Stephen Lawhead, his general style is to take the legends of long ago and research them to rewrite the stories as if they were in the time and setting they were most likely first told. In Hood Lawhead removes Robin Hood from Sherwood Forest in Nottingham and places him in Wales, and resets the timeline of the legend to the late eleventh century during the reign of William the Red and the Norman invasion of Wales.

Hood is the story of Bran ap Brychan, the son of a minor Welsh king. His world is thrown upside down as the Ffreinc begin to strangle the small kingdoms of Wales and insert their own nobility. Lawhead slowly reveals the story of Bran and the people of Elfael, and what we initially see in Bran is the typical pouting youth that wants no part of his royal linage but is constantly reminded of it at every turn. As with the well know Robin Hood myth, eventually Bran finds himself afoul of the new ruling class and after an arrest and escape is thought killed. It’s here that the real story of Bran, and the Hood, appears.

While generally following the legend Lawhead does a great job of expanding on some things and glossing over others that don’t fit into his telling of the story. He does an even better job of painting the Ffreinc as evildoers, and manages to do that without resorting to the clichés that many other authors use. His character building, both of Bran and Elfael, really advances the story and despite most knowing where the paths lead Lawhead somehow paints the picture in an entirely new light.

One of my two issues with Hood is the manner in which Lawhead reunites Bran with Mérian. The thoughts that Bran used is an anachronism, and once he makes that leap in logic it’s obvious where the train is headed. The only question is “how”, because quickly the “where” becomes self evident. It’s the only real hiccup in a nicely told story, and it is easily overcome by the pace Lawhead sets for the action that takes place around it.

A bigger issue for is that even though it’s obviously written as the first of three books Hood simply ends, not with any sort of bang but instead as if there’s nothing left to be told. There is an epilogue that carries the story forward a little, but in my opinion Hood needed something more story-wise at the end. Lawhead did include a well thought out writer’s note at the conclusion, but sillily the publisher put the pronunciation guide after everything while it should obviously be at the beginning of the book. That error was corrected in the second book of the “King Raven Trilogy”, Scarlet.

Hood was very close to rating a nine (or ten!), but the lack of a solid ending dropped it a touch. I still wholehearted recommend the book. One amazing fact of the story…not once does Lawhead use the name “Robin Hood”. You’ll have to read the book to find out why.

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