How do you pick the next book you’re going to read?

I get asked that question a lot, especially from friends that have wandered into my office and see the bookshelves full of stuff I haven’t read yet. Right now my “to-read” list is about 200 books long (I don’t count it that often and don’t remember the exact number it was when last I did), which is a lot when you consider only books I own are on that list. But picking what I’m going to read next isn’t as hard as one might think.

Right now, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m working my way though W.E.B. Griffin’s “Badge of Honor” series. As I’m reading them one after another picking what I’m going to read next is easy: the next one in the series. Like last summer when I ran though Michael Connelly’s books this summer was supposed to be all Griffin, but his stuff reads a lot slower than Connelly’s so it’s taken longer. “Badge of Honor” is the third series of Griffin’s I’ve read this year, and after I finish it (two more books to go!) I’ll just have his “Men At War” series about the OSS left.

After I finished his “Brotherhood of War” series I took a short break and read a few other things, two books I’d been waiting for that were in the military/thriller genre and then I went to Karen Miller’s “Godspeakers” trilogy for a change of pace. Picking the Miller series was easy, I said to myself “pick a fantasy trilogy”, and when I looked up there was “Godspeakers” right in front of me at eye level.

Then it was back to Griffin again for his “The Corps” series about the US Marine Corps, and when that was over I once again took a break for a book I was waiting for and continued on to Stephen Lawhead’s “King Raven Trilogy” while I waited for another book to come out. I picked the Lawhead books because I noticed they were separated into different bookcases. My OCD needed to keep them together, and the easiest way was to read them next. After I got bored with the fantasy stuff I saw I had a book misfiled (Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith) so instead of moving a ton of stuff to put it in the right place I read it next.

Which brings us to where I am now, nearing the end of the “Badge of Honor” series. Now as to what I’m going to read next I’ve already decided it will be The Gods of Guilt by Connelly. Assuming nothing comes out that I’m looking for before I finish the Connelly book it’s a good guess I’ll be switching back to sic-fi/fantasy for a bit. As some point before the end of the year I’ll start “Men At War”.

I know I’ll likely never read every book I’ve bought, mostly because I buy a lot of stuff from new authors just to support their hard work. Obviously most people don’t have as many at their finger tips to chose from as I do, so I’m curious as to how other decide what to read next. Do you just wander into a bookstore and pick up what catches your eye? Do you just fill up your e-reader and pick like I do? Or do you buy a large amount of books and work your way through them before buying more? I’d love to read your answers…

Random Review: Tuck by Stephen Lawhead

This review contains spoilers.

Click the links for my reviews of the first two books in the King Raven Trilogy, Hood and Scarlet.

Book Name: Tuck
Author: Stephen Lawhead
Series: Book #3, King Raven Trilogy
Publisher(s): Thomas Nelson Publishers
Format(s): Hardcover/Trade Paperback/Audiobook/eBook
Genre(s): Historical fiction/Fantasy
Release Date: February 17th 2009

Rating: 8/10

It was going to be a tough challenge for Stephen Lawhead to create a finale as good as the middle book in the “Raven King” trilogy, and while he didn’t reach the high bar he set in Scarlet Lawhead gives us a really fine concluding book in Tuck. Like the previous book Lawhead uses the voice of the title character to tell the story. Brother Aethelfrith, AKA Friar Tuck, is a Saxon who was taken in by the Church during his youth and is as good and kind as the antagonist Abbot Hugo is self-centered and evil.

Tuck picks up at the exact moment Scarlet ends, with Bran ap Brychan having declared war against King William the Red and Hugo, who William has given control of the lands that should have been Bran’s under an agreement made in Scarlet. While originally outnumbered Bran uses superior tactics and weaponry–the Welsh longbow was the most potent weapon of the era–to whittle down the manpower of Hugo, and even after receiving reinforcements Rhi Bran y Hud continues to tilt the scales toward his favor.

As Lawhead did in Scarlet we have another great escape story in Tuck, only this one in the far north as Bran tries to raise an army. This is where the last of the legendary Robin Hood main characters, Allan a’Dale, is introduced. Bran’s efforts are for naught as he returns without any soldiers, and to further add to his misery against Bran’s wishes Mérian has gone home looking for help from her father and has not returned. A visit from Tuck to arrange her release finds Mérian’s brother is now king, and he is a loyal vassal to the Normans.

After Bran’s eventual victory results in Hugo and the Normans returning to King William with their tail between their legs, William calls his lords to raise an army to defeat Bran and the Welsh. Only, not all of his lords answer the call. There is a large skirmish before the main battle where everyone’s intentions are set in stone, but on the morning on what will undoubtedly be a large battle Tuck stumbles into a position to influence King William.

The ending is a touch anti-climatic, but truly fits the tenor of all the books. It’s a fine reimaging of the Robin Hood myth, and very well done. At the end of the book Lawhead has included some notes about the books, which are a great companion piece to the trilogy. Throughout Tuck there are several poems which tell the plot of the book as if a minstrel is singing it. It takes until the epilogue to get their full story, and is another nice touch by Lawhead.

So with three books in the series I’ve rated highly is there anyway I can not recommend “The Raven King” trilogy? Of course not. It was an outstanding series, and well worth reading.

Random Review: Scarlet by Stephen Lawhead

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.

Random Review: Hood by Stephen Lawhead

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.