The Law of Nines by Terry Goodkind

Bet you thought that having reached the conclusion of his Sword of Truth Series, Terry Goodkind has moved on to his next fantasy series. Well, you thought wrong. The Law of Nines is just another book in the series. Sort of.

Remember the solution Richard came up with at the end of the series? The one to end the great war between Jagang and Richard? (Don’t read this part if you haven’t!) Well, this book takes place in that alternate reality that Richard created for those who wanted to be free of magic. In other words, our world.

In a not so subtle parallel to Wizards’ First Rule, Alex’s life changes when a beautiful young woman suddenly appears in his life. That young woman, Jax, warns him that he is in danger. It seems that he is part of a prophecy (and we all know how Richard felt about prophecy) that says he will save the magical world. Oh, by the way, Alex is really Alexander Rahl, the last heir of the Rahl family (in either world). After Richard defeated Jagang, the magical world enjoyed years of prosperity but now a new evil has arisen to start where Jagang left off. It is much the same battle: blame magic for all the bad in the world and eliminate it. Jax has come to find Alex and help him fulfill the prophecy because, while she has no magic in his world, she has magic in her own and hopes to save everyone. But she is not the only one to manage to travel between worlds. In fact, she is not even the first. The dark side has been sending people over for years and they have been searching for something that will allow them to conquer their own world, unless Alex and Jax can find a way to stop it.

Now there are many things that brings us back to the series itself:
-an Amnell-Rahl love story that is almost instantaneous
-remember Kahlan’s journey through the underworld to reach Richard in book 1, it’s much like Jax’s journey to reach Alex’s world (down to the fear that is might pull her back in moment)
-Jagang’s war and the current war (complete with over the top preaching) are one and the same
-something with Confessors (though this is only something hinted at since, in Alex’s world Confessor magic is a non-issue)

Despite the predictability and the near mimicry of much of the plot, I loved reading this book. For one, it kind of felt like I was reading about Richard and Kahlan again so the nostalgia was there, while still providing a new backdrop, setting, and story. Goodkind was certainly innovative when it came to how to include magic in a world where magic does not exist and I must say kudos to him for making it plausible and not a poorly explained (or worse yet, unexplained) detail.

It does answer the question of whether or not Kahlan and Richard ever had children (though the question of whether it was an evil boy as Shota predicted remains unresolved), which was a loose end that always bugged me about the series.

The Law of Nines has clearly set itself up for more and I can’t wait to see more. Particularly, I would love to return to the magical world and see how things stand. (It seems that magic has advanced to the point where everyone, not just the magically gifted, have full use of it to some degree or other.) And while Jax and Alex seem to be ready for happily ever after, we know that Goodkind never lets relationships end happily that easily. What could be in store for our newest Romeo and Juliet? (Granted Richard and Kahlan overcame what those star-crossed lovers could not, but you catch my drift…)

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The Law of Nines

A Princess of Landover by Terry Brooks

Now, you know an author has done his job when you pick up a book and not even fifteen pages in you feel inspired to write. Despite not having felt particularly excited about writing in the last couple weeks, that was exactly how I felt when I picked up this book.

Sure, it’s been 15 years since the book before it in this series was written so I’m a little rusty on the story line but even so it’s easy to pick up and Brooks gives you enough details to go along even without remembering everything from the previous five books in the series.  Disclosure here, I have a soft spot for this particular series. When I was really little I would always demand that my dad make up stories to tell me when I was bored (for example, waiting to get a haircut or something). He used to take the characters from the Magic Kingdom For Sale–Sold series and make up short stories about them. When I finally read the book myself it had a whole new dimension to it because I already knew and loved the crazy characters and their quirky personalities.

Terry Brooks has since become my favorite author. Out of the 24 books I’ve read of his, he has yet to let me down. (Something else to note, it takes Brooks only about a year or two to produce a new book, which is fantastic and exciting for readers.)

What strikes me about this book is the way he falls perfectly into the tone of the main character, Mistaya Holiday. In this case, unlike most of his other books, a fifteen year old is driving the story and the voice matches accordingly while still maintaining the mystery and intelligence of his other books. There’s always more going on than you can predict even though you are constantly being provided with clues that, when the solution is found, click into place.

This series takes place five years after Witches’ Brew. Mistaya Holiday, now fifteen, has been sent to her father’s world (Earth) to make friends, learn about people, and receive an education she can’t get cooped up in Sterling Silver (the magical, living castle that takes care of the royal family of Landover) with only inept wizard Questor Thews, Abernathy the half-dog half-man scribe, and a magical mud puppy named Haltwhistle for companions. Not a big fan of this plan, Mistaya manages to get herself kicked out of the boarding school where she was sent and returns home to a not-so-thrilled father. To make matter worse, a not-so-nobleman, recently widowed, has asked for her hand in marriage. To make matters worse, her father decides she should go to Libiris, the royal library, abandoned and located in a remote part of the kingdom, to continue her education. Being fifteen, Mistaya is none to thrilled with her parents decision and runs away, intent on staying away until she can come up with a better option than those offered to her. But where does one go when trying not to be found? (Especially when your father has a magical devise that allows him to scan the entire kingdom better than if he had a GPS tracker?) To the last place he will look for you. Which, in Mistaya’s case, is Libiris. But things in Libiris, though forgotten by the citizens of Landover, is not as forgotten as Ben Holiday would have liked and Mistaya soon finds the old library filled with mystery and danger. Can she get to the bottom of everything and save Landover in time?

If you haven’t read the rest of the Magic Kingdom Series at all (beginning with Magic Kingdom For Sale–Sold) you’ll find yourself confused while reading A Princess of Landover, as this one picks up where the others left off and many of the details are directly related to what happened in the other books. But if you have an even vague sense of the past, then you will find the return of old characters welcome (in particular we get a suprise visit from the ever mysterious Prism Cat Edgewood Dirk) and an exciting new tale in store.

The biggest downside to the book was that it felt rushed. Where most of Brooks’ books tend to be somewhere in the six to seven hundred page range, this book was only a little over three hundred pages. Not to say that a book needs to be long to be good, but it felt as though the long journey and the character growth that normally comes from it happened almost instantaneously. I would have likes a little more time in the various places that Mistaya went and for it to be a little more difficult for everything to come together in the end.

But even with the faster than normal novel, I was more than thrilled to get back to Terry Brooks’s world–any of his worlds. Landover is still as rich in detail and life as ever and Brooks has set it up for much more adventure to come.

Read the Landover Series now!

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

Caelum Quirk has the worst luck. His third marriage is failing (his wife Maureen cheated on him), he has anger management issues (large enough that he takes a wrench to attack the man his wife cheated with), his father was an alcoholic… But Caelum and Maureen agree to work on their marriage. They move to Littleton, Colorado for a fresh start, both get jobs teaching at the local high school, Columbine High School. Things seem to be working out for them, until Caelum is called back home to deal with the death of his Aunt Lolly, his closest and last-living relative. While he is home, the infamous Columbine happens. Maureen is traumatized. In an attempt to help Maureen recover from the trauma, the couple moves back to Caelum’s childhood home, a farm house next to a women’s correctional facility that his great-grandmother founded. But Caelum finds that there is more than just his wife’s post traumatic stress disorder to deal with; he discovers many secrets in his past, through which Caelum finally reconnects with Maureen and come to terms with himself as well.

Wally Lamb infuses The Hour I First Believed with rich description, using small details to bring his scenes to life and make his characters believable and compelling. Lamb’s prose smoothly weaves together the true life events with the fictional world, keeping you in the moment and allowing you to experience Caelum’s life alongside him. The beginning and ending were particularly strong, pulling you into the story quickly from the start and finishing by tying together all the pieces for a satisfying ending. (Lamb currently teaches a writing workshop at a women’s correctional facility and it is clear from this book that he cares greatly for them.)

While Lamb’s characters are each relatable and clear, the story loses itself for a while and it seems to be a third person narrative following Maureen instead of a first person narrative from Caelum’s perspective. Lamb attempts too much with his story, taking on a few too many plots so that the story loses momentum and reads slowly for a few hundred pages. Too much happens to Caelum during his journey to self discovery, too many tragedies are touched upon, which causes parts of The Hour I First Believe to feel over the top instead of sympathetic.

If you haven’t read Wally Lamb before, I recommend picking up one of his other books (I Know This Much Is True is the best in my opinion but She’s Come Undone isn’t too bad either) to start since they are much stronger and more powerful.

Read Wally Lamb’s books today:

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians is an adult, dark cross between Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. We get everything from magic school to magical wardrobes (or in this case, bushes and buttons) transporting people to different worlds to heroic journeys in Lev Grossman’s book and none to soon as the people who grew up with the Harry Potter series are no longer children and are ready to see further into the magical world. And its repercussions.

Quentin Coldwater, at age 17, still believes in magic. He still believes in the land of Fillory (the magical land of a beloved series of books he read as a child. much like Narnia). And most importantly, he is unhappy. When a strange series of events leads him to discover that not only is magic real, but within his grasp, he believes he has found what he’s always been searching for. Quentin is accepted into Brakesbill college, a secret magic college that teaches young magicians about using magic and its dangers, which Quentin soon learns are all too real.

But not even attending the only magic school in country can suppress his unhappiness for long. Graduation day comes and with no direction, Quentin falls into a destructive pattern of drinking and partying at the neglect of everything else, including his girlfriend, fellow magician Alice.

And when all hope of happiness seems lost, Quentin discovers the thing he’s been dreaming off all along: Fillory is real. He and his friends set off on an adventure in this new, magical world.

Grossman shows the dark side of magic and fantasy, the death, the loss, the injury. It’s not the glamorous, romanticized adventure of children’s books; it’s sacrifice and manipulation and a corruption of cherished childhood dreams.

My main critique of the book is that it drags on, takes a long time to get to where you know it’s going from the start. It takes a long time before Fillory and its promise of glory even enters the picture. Part of the problem is it seems like the book is disjointed, as though they would have been better served as a trilogy instead of a single, disjointed book. Somewhere near two-thirds of the way through, the story hits a lull. But not to worry, it picks up again with a bang. The last few pages at the end are a bit of a letdown (as it seems even most of the best books tend to be), but the long journey and the story behind it are anything but.

Try it for yourself: The Magicians: A Novel

Ender’s Series by Orson Scott Card

The First Bugger War is over after a surprising and inexplicable victory. But humans fear that the aliens will return so they set out to train the best tactical commanders possible, which, it turns out, is a position best suited for children. Apparently children are best able to make the decisions necessary to command strategic warfare. Not just any children of course, genius children raised in Battle School and trained at war, strategy, and survival. Enter Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, the most promising child ever to enter the school. Through his decisive and intelligent battle style he earns respect and loyalty, and of course, the position of head commander in the strike against the Buggers. This is the story of Ender’s Game.

But there is more. Ender’s Shadow, sometimes seen as a sequel, revisits Battle School but rather than follow Ender, it follows Bean. Bean is the super genius, next in command under Ender. Brilliant but tiny, he grew up on the streets before being taken to Battle School and know what it takes to survive. Card manages a brilliant retelling, hitting all the key points of Ender’s Game while making this book unique, interesting, and exciting nonetheless. Not only does it give you insight into the goings on of Battle School that Ender missed, it also weaves a tale of complexity as Bean attempts to connect with others and trust after all he has experienced.

From here Card does something interesting. He splits the series into two parts, one following Ender and his sister as they travel through space and watch humanity expand its reach in the galaxy, and one following Bean and the other Battle School kids as they deal with the ramifications of Battle School back on Earth.

Card does a fantastic job of keeping the two series connected while allowing them to develop their own paths and unique futures. He creates mythologies and politics that shroud the stories, creating a fully thought out and believably unreal universe. He leaves no detail unfinished, no plot point forgotten. And he does all this while asking big questions that keep you thinking. What is the difference between hero and xenocide? Is it worth winning at all costs? How does your family really effect your life? Can you ever overcome your past? Can you escape it? Can you ever redeem yourself?

My only complaint is that sometimes, the stories get so complex they hit that “over the top” point where you kind of wish he’d stopped just short of the last idea or two. Card has so many big ideas that there are perhaps a few too many of them crammed into the series.

Nonetheless, Orson Scott Card has created a series worth reading and from all the books I’ve read of his, this is certainly the author at his best.

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Feel No Fear by Bela Karolyi

Everybody who knows anything about gymnastics (and even many who don’t) know who Bela Karolyi is. He is the man who makes champions. Under his coaching came Nadia Comanedi, Teodora Ungureanu, Mary Lou Retton, Kristie Phillips, Kim Zmeskal, Betty Okino and Dominque Moceanu, among others. He has coached nine Olympic champions, fifteen world champions, sixteen European medalists and six U.S. national champions. He revolutionized the sport (whether one would argue for the better or worse is another question). But how did he become the controversial, but highly successful man in gymnastics?

Feel No Fear tells Bela’s life story, from his desire to study sport education at the behest of his parents (in Rumania to be a coach or phys ed teacher you needed to get a degree in that area) to his first gymnastic sessions in a tiny coal mining town to his large scale success on the international level. 

Karolyi always believed that a disciplined and rigorous work ethic is the key to success. He also believed in innovation and creativity rather than copying previous success (if you copy you will always be a step behind). Karolyi’s work with young gymnasts earned him prestige in Rumania, but in a Communist world of politics, he was eventually ousted by other coaches who were jealous of his success. 

Forced to defect for his country, Bela (and his wife Marta who he met in college and who is also well known for her involvement in elite gymnastics–she is currently the women’s national team coordinator) searched for a way to rebuild his gymnastics career. With help from friends and more than a little luck, Karolyi managed to do for the American gymnasts (the believed to be too lazy and undisciplined to ever challenge on an international level) what he had for the Rumanian team. 

But though he thought he’d left behind the politics, Karolyi discovers that while somewhat different, American gymnastics was filled with politics all the same. Jealousy and maneuvering was not exclusive to Communist Rumania. Through all his struggles, his yelling matches, his fights with convention, it is clear that though his methods may be questionable to some, he truly cares about his gymnasts–his little guys, as he calls them. 

There is something touching about reading his account (an admittedly one-sided view of his methods) and finally getting to see the man behind the reputation. Even if you dislike his policies you can’t help but admire his strength and tenaciousness. 

Unfortunately, this book is from 1994, so there are questions left unanswered and events unaddressed. Hopefully a newer version will be published to include the last 15 years during which time many big things happened (including Kerri Strug’s 1996 Olympic performance on an injured foot).

I would also recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand more about the politics and power behind gymnastics. In shows like Make It Or Break It and in movies such as Stick It, these behind the scenes maneuverings are alluded to, but reading Karolyi’s book, you begin to really understand how deeply they run.

Check out the book: Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Most twelve year olds you know spend their time collecting WII games, trying to prove themselves on the basketball court or baseball field, and are just discovering that maybe girl cooties aren’t so bad. In war torn Sierra Leon, life is not nearly so simple. That families are destroyed and people are murdered are the least of the dangers there. Young boys are forced to choose sides and take up weapons in order to survive. Civilians run from them, soldiers see them as reinforcements, and their actions will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

In A Long Way Gone Ishmael Beah courageously tells us about his flight from the rebels, the loss of his family, his forced conscription into the government army, and his fight for rehabilitation afterwards. Despite everything, Beah doesn’t hold anything back about his experiences. The honesty and pain behind his words makes his autobiography compelling and unforgettable.

Beah learned firsthand of how hatred and revenge can ruin a nation and scar a person’s life. But he also shows the resilience of children, who can survive even the darkest parts of humanity. But most amazingly, Beah comes out of his experience with hope for the future instead of a hate-filled heart. There is a chance, if people learn from his story, that the world can be made better and the evils of humanity can be made better.

While I would have liked more physical description in order to help me fully see the world he comes from, I can hardly fault him. Just delving into these memories must have been painful and his ability to confront his pain and push on in spite of it (or perhaps because of it) is inspiring. This is a book no one will soon forget.

Read the book: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

The Sword of Truth

Richard Cypher lives the quiet life of a woods guide in Westland with his loving father, ambitious brother Michael, and close friend/village crazy Zeddicus Z’ul Zorander. But Richard’s peaceful existence is shattered when his father is murdered and magic infiltrates his homeland. Darken Rahl, a dangerous wizard, is poised to take over the known world and it up to Richard, with the help of his friend Zedd (who is really a powerful wizard) and the beautiful and mysterious Kahlan Amnell, to save everyone. And it doesn’t stop there, as powers even more nefarious than Darken Rahl threaten.

Part of the brilliance this series is the way it touches on human nature. From the Wizard’s Rules (“People will believe a lie because they want to believe it’s true, or because they’re afraid it might be true.” ~ Wizard’s First Rule) to the philosophical war fought over the course of the twelve book series (the twelfth being being a prequel) lays humanity bare. Goodkind forces us to examine our the best and the worst of ourselves. The Wizard’s Rules are mostly obvious and common sense, yet they are used as turning points of the stories, important facts that everyone knows and yet continuously ignores (“The greatest harm can result from the best intentions.” ~Wizard’s Second Rule). But it is hate and fear of the unknown, which has led to murder and corruption throughout history, that takes center stage in the Sword of Truth series and Goodkind handles these issues with skill.

The love story itself is unique in that even once the couple surmounts the barriers of their forbidden love, circumstances and enemies conspire to keep them apart. But always, their relationship is what allows them to prevail, a testament to their commitment and feelings. No matter how many times they are nearly ruined, no matter whose fault it is, always you continue to hope that they will find their way back together. And always, they manage, if just barely.

But perhaps the best showing of Goodkind’s skill of representing humanity’s strengths and weaknesses is his portrayal of Cara, the Mord Sith who has been groomed in the art of torture since childhood. Like Seven of Nine from Star trek Voyager, Cara is pulled from the dark world she has known for so long as is slowly brought back to a gentler, kinder side. Her transformation is compelling and her struggles are believable. I found myself cheering for her, more than any other, despite her not being the central character of the story.

I have only a few complaints about this series. The first is that any book with a moral message runs the risk of being more sermon than story. In the later books of the series, as the adventures became a little more farfetched and wild, the books became preaching, each one filled with multiple repetitive speeches telling us what we should believe. My other problem is that Richard ended up being too all powerful while still inept. Most of his successes ended up being things that he stumbled on rather than actively did himself and often he did it without knowing what he was doing. In Wizard’s First Rule, the first book in the series, Richard actively and with his own smarts defeats Rahl, but later he seems to luck onto the solutions simply because he is such a strong wizard. It makes it harder to feel the danger and threat of the story when you know that whatever happens Richard will suddenly be strong enough, through no skill of his own, to defeat the enemy. But even with these problems, the series remains compelling.

Goodkind artfully constructs a world so detailed that it takes on a life and reality of its own. If you love fantasy and want to immerse yourself in characters that you can follow for a long time, The Sword of Truth series is definitely worth the look.

Read the series:

Chalked Up by Jennifer Sey

Every four years the world turns its focus on the Olympics and gymnastics is put at center stage. No one thinks that being a gymnast is easy. How many people can even conceive of flipping and tumbling and throwing their bodies in the air the way these young girls do? But knowing that being a gymnast is hard isn’t the same as understanding what these girls give up in order to be the best.

There are whispers of abuse and danger. Books like Little Girls In Pretty Boxes reveal some of this world but until 1986 US Champion Jennifer Sey’s Chalked Up it was only a distant, impersonal reality. With Sey’s autobiography we get a chance to really delve into the world of gymnastics and understand what it means to be the best.

Chalked Up shows the abusive coaches, the stage parents, the injuries, but what’s more, it shows the gymnasts. This isn’t simply a tale of finger pointing and accusation. While the coaches can certainly be faulted (for pushing unhealthy weight loss and pushing athletes to compete when not fully healed from injuries) and parents can be blamed (for pushing their kids further and not protecting them from verbal abuse), the girls push themselves just as hard. Kerri Strug is the perfect example. In the 1996 Olympics she competed on vault despite and injured foot, ensuring Team USA’s gold medal. Where most Americans view Kerri Strug’s as an amazing feat for her team, in that competitive world, few gymnasts would not have done the same.

Sey accepts much of the responsibility for her stressful childhood. She emphasizes her own competitive nature, repeating more than once that had it not manifested itself in gymnastics, it would have found its way to something else. “One cannot endure the intensity of the practices, the physical demands, the injuries and the stress of high level competitions unless there is an innate and fiery drive inside.” (California Literary Review, June 2, 2008)

Being a competitive gymnast means dedicating your life, your childhood to the sport, at a very young age. (Bela Karolyi discovered and began to mold Nadia Commenici at age 6.) And rarely with any pay off. Training is expensive and unless you earn medals in the Olympics, you won’t likely earn any money to make up for the deficit. What starts as parents trying to give their children the best, what their children want, suddenly becomes a sacrifice for the whole family. And once you’ve sacrificed so much, how can you risk ending it all? Reading Sey’s portrayal of her family is perhaps as, if not more, fascinating than what she has to say about the coaches.

For anyone who is interested in gymnastics, in what it takes to achieve excellence, this is a book worth reading. It’s honest and shocking, exposing a side of the sport that is often ignored.

What I find most fascinating is that despite everything she’s gone through, Sey says that it was all worth it.

Interested in reading? Buy the book: Chalked Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics