Thursday, October 27, 2016

Isis Orb


















Isis Orb (A Xanth Novel)- Piers Anthony
Open Road Media
Release Date: October 18, 2016

Rating (Out of 5):
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Warning: Potential Spoilers

Synopsis: In Xanth, everyone has a talent. But that doesn’t mean everyone loves his talent, and no one understands that better than Hapless. Endowed with the ability to conjure any instrument he wants, Hapless could be an extraordinary musician if only he could play a tune that didn’t fall ear-piercingly flat. His one desire is to find an instrument he can play—and maybe a girlfriend or three. But like music, women have never been his forte.
 
When the Good Magician hears about Hapless’s desperate desire, he sends the young man on a quest to find the elusive Isis Orb, a magical talisman that could fulfill his wish. But the mysterious Egyptian goddess for whom the orb is named guards the enchanted object and won’t let anyone see it—let alone use it.
 
Setting out to achieve the impossible, Hapless meets an eclectic mix of creatures that join him on his journey. Like the musically challenged Hapless, they all have wishes they hope the Isis Orb will grant. But the only way they can control the orb is to capture the five totems from the regions of Xanth: Fire, Earth, Air, Water, and the Void. Together, this motley crew will heroically fight dragons, a six-headed griffin, and even a beautiful, seductive water gorgon who tries to rain on Hapless’s parade.
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I have to start out this review with a confession.  I am a lover of fantasy, and Isis Orb is the first Piers Anthony novel I have read.  Hard to believe, but sadly true.

Isis Orb follows the Quest of the unlikely Quest Leader Hapless.  Hapless has no social skills, no self-confidence, and no useful talent.  In a magical realm where everyone has a talent, Hapless has the ability to conjure any musical instrument every thought of.  But he can't play them.  Any attempts end in horrific results.  So the Good Magician sends him on Quest that will not only grant his wish, but will change the lives of five other people.  Each companion Hapless meets is considered a misfit among their people, they all have wishes, and all join in to gather the five totems and retrieve the powerful orb said to be guarded by the goddess Isis herself.

The world of Xanth is not only full of magic, it is full of puns.  Flying Thoughts, Wanna Bees, clothes horses, and more.  I particularly liked the bowling Alley Cats.  Although none of the Questers start out as real leaders or heroes, they learn to think "outside the box" and work as a team and to have the confidence in themselves to succeed in individual challenges. By the end of the journey they learn that sometimes the journey really is the point and magic isn't always as necessary to get your wish as believing in yourself.  Although I occasionally felt like there was a little too much repetition, and some of the jokes got a little old after the twentieth time or so, this was a great introduction to the world of Piers Anthony.  Isis Orb is a quick, light read, full of humor that Terry Pratchett fans will especially enjoy.    

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


Monday, October 24, 2016

Plots Against Hitler

The Plots Against Hitler by [Orbach, Danny]


















The Plots Against Hitler- Danny Orbach
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release Date: October 11, 2016

Rating (Out of 5):
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Synopsis:  In 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. A year later, all parties but the Nazis had been outlawed, freedom of the press was but a memory, and Hitler’s dominance seemed complete. Yet over the next few years, an unlikely clutch of conspirators emerged – soldiers, schoolteachers, politicians, diplomats, theologians, even a carpenter – who would try repeatedly to end the Fuhrer’s genocidal reign. This dramatic and deeply researched book tells the full story of those noble, ingenious, and doomed efforts. This is history at its most suspenseful, as we witness secret midnight meetings, crises of conscience, fierce debates among old friends about whether and how to dismantle Nazism, and the various plots themselves being devised and executed.  Though we know how this story ends, we’ve had no idea until now how close it came – several times – to ending very differently

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The Plots Against Hitler is a well written and well researched new look at the stories of different Germans- both military and civilian- who plotted against Hitler throughout the course of his reign.  Even knowing the end of the story, the book was full of drama, intrigue, and suspense.  I knew very little about any of this before reading Orbach's book and came away from it with a deeper understanding of Germany during World War II.  Although I sometimes had trouble keeping track of individuals and their roles in the resistance, and the book sometimes fell into repeating itself, I enjoyed this informative and suspenseful history.

Plots is a balanced look at German resistance against Hitler from 1933 through 1945 and looks not only at famous attempts like Operation Valkyrie, but other serious attempts as well. I was often amazed at how many of these plots, including attempts by individual civilians, came very close to working and it was only sheer bad luck that kept them from succeeding. 

One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the end.  After exploring the various conspiracies and attempts from military and practical views, Orbach spends the last few chapters analyzing the motivations and, to a degree, the characters of members of the resistance.  He tries to discover what their motives were in terms of their own morals and ethics, whether that means they were driven by religion, patriotism, or empathy.  And he does this by analyzing everything not through the lens of 21st century hindsight and morals, but from the morals and characters of the men and women in 1930s and 1940s Germany.  The results are thought-provoking and fascinating. The Plots Against Hitler are not the stories of kings and tyrants, but of individuals making hard decisions and struggling to decide what they can live with and what sacrifices they are willing to make for what they saw as the greater good.

A must read for any history lover, especially those interested in World War II history.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Quiet Life in the Country

A Quiet Life In The Country (A Lady Hardcastle Mystery Book 1) by [Kinsey, T E]

















A Quiet Life in the Country- T E Kinsey
Thomas & Mercer
Release Date: October 4, 2016

Rating (Out of 5):
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Synopsis: Lady Emily Hardcastle is an eccentric widow with a secret past. Florence Armstrong, her maid and confidante, is an expert in martial arts. The year is 1908 and they’ve just moved from London to the country, hoping for a quiet life.


But it is not long before Lady Hardcastle is forced out of her self-imposed retirement. There’s a dead body in the woods, and the police are on the wrong scent. Lady Hardcastle makes some enquiries of her own, and it seems she knows a surprising amount about crime investigation…
As Lady Hardcastle and Flo delve deeper into rural rivalries and resentment, they uncover a web of intrigue that extends far beyond the village. With almost no one free from suspicion, they can be certain of only one fact: there is no such thing as a quiet life in the country.
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The first of a promising new series, A Quiet Life in the Country introduces readers to the mysterious Lady Hardcastle and her maid/friend Florence Armstrong.  An unconventional widow, Lady Hardcastle has traveled the world both with her husband and, after his death, with her maid- who through shared life and death experiences becomes her close friend and confidante.  Through some of her conversations and Flo's memories we learn tantalizing bits of of their past exploits.  I'm torn on whether I hope to get more details about those exploits in future books or if its more fun to imagine the circumstances that get blithely referred to.  I think I lean towards hoping Kinsey continues to give us entertaining hints without the details so we can fill in the gaps ourselves, which not only allows us to imagine all sorts of things but also keeps the narrative flowing smoothly instead of getting bogged down in establishing long past histories of characters. 

A Quiet Life is told from Flo's point of view, giving us not only some delightful below stairs scenes but also Flo's entertaining and occasionally irreverent train of thought as events unfold.  She and Lady Hardcastle have retired to the country for a quiet life and on their first walk through the woods they discover a dead body.  The quiet life quickly goes out the window as Lady Hardcastle decides the police aren't on the right track and she wants to step in and 'help'.  Unlike many amateur detectives, Lady Hardcastle and Flo gain the appreciation and support of the inspector on the case. Inspector Sunderland turns out to be not just an 'official' figure but an intelligent man who learns to overlook not only the fact that Flo and Lady Hardcastle are civilians, but women as well.  A budding friendship between these three people from very different backgrounds and social positions will be interesting to watch develop in future books.

 Jewel theives, dodgy musicians, suspicious cricket players, obnoxious social climbers, and another dead body convince us all that there is no such thing as a quiet life in the country.   

A Quiet Life in the Country is a delightfully entertaining, wittily written, fast paced mystery full of delightful characters and charming English country life.  Mystery fans will enjoy this new voice on the English murder mystery scene. 

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.






Sunday, October 16, 2016

Being A Dog


















Being A Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell- Alexandra Horowitz
Scribner
Release Date: October 4, 2016

Rating (out of 5):
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Synopsis: To a dog, there is no such thing as “fresh air.” Every breath of air is loaded with information. In fact, what every dog—the tracking dog, of course, but also the dog lying next to you, snoring, on the couch—knows about the world comes mostly through his nose.

In Being a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz, a research scientist in the field of dog cognition and the author of the runaway bestseller Inside of a Dog, unpacks the mystery of a dog’s worldview as has never been done before. 

With her family dogs, Finnegan and Upton, leading the way, Horowitz sets off on a quest to make sense of scents, combining a personal journey of smelling with a tour through the cutting edge and improbable science behind the olfactory powers of the dog. From revealing the spectacular biology of the dog snout, to speaking to other cognitive researchers and smell experts across the country, to visiting detection-dog training centers and even attempting to smell-train her own nose, Horowitz covers the topic of noses—both canine and human—from surprising, novel, and always fascinating angles. 
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Being a Dog is Alexandra Horowitz's search into the mysteries of a dog's sense of smell: what it is, what it tells them, what they learn, what they can do with it, and can people follow their dog's examples? How do dogs experience the world through their noses?  

The book mixes science with the author's personal experiences- both as a dog owner and as a person exploring her own sense of smell.  She describes studies she does that any dog owner can do: what what your dog is interested in sniffing while on a walk, what do you notice other dogs sniffing (and marking) and what might those clues tell you about the information the dogs are receiving? There are also examples of 'smelling tours' or tests that she does to explore what the human sense of smell is like compared to that of a dog, and whether it is possible to improve your senses.  In my opinion, these parts of the book tended to go on longer than they needed to.  There is some rambling (perhaps intentional, to get the reader to consider new ways of looking at the world?) and repetition that made me want to skim sections.  But where the book really shines is in the scientific and investigative explorations into the world of the nose of a dog.  What's happening cognitively in a dog's brain when they smell something? Why do they like scents that humans can't stand (dead fish anyone)?  How is it that a dog's sense of smell is so much better than a human's and what does that mean for both species?  

There are wonderfully written, very interesting sections on different kinds of working dogs and how they are trained: be it bomb detection, search and rescue, or truffle hunting.  Horowitz explores why dogs are able to do these jobs and why some are better at it than others.  One very interesting observation at the end is how as pets, dogs have begun to lose their sense of smell- or at least not rely on it the way they used to.  While no dog owner would believe this, an interesting anecdote about scent classes for pet dogs does certainly seem to show it's true.  

Pet lovers and science fans alike will enjoy this search into the world of scent and come away with a new view of dogs and their world.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley for an honest review. 






Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Closer to the Chest






















Closer to the Chest (The Herald Spy #3)- Mercedes Lackey
DAW Books
Release Date: October 4, 2016

Rating (Out of 5):
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Synopsis: Herald Mags, the King of Valdemar’s Herald-Spy, has been developing a clandestine network of young informants who operate not only on the streets of the capital city of Haven, but also in the Great Halls and kitchens of the wealthy and highborn.  In his own established alternate personas, Mags observes the Court and the alleys alike, quietly gathering information to keep Haven and the Kingdom safe.
 
His wife Amily, is growing into her position as the King’s Own Herald, though she is irritated to encounter many who still consider her father, Herald Nikolas, to be the real King’s Own. Nonetheless, she finds it increasingly useful to be underestimated, for there are dark things stirring in the shadows of Haven andup on the Hill.  Someone has discovered many secrets of the women of the Court and the Collegia—and is using those secrets to terrorize and bully them.  Someone is targeting the religious houses of women, too, leaving behind destruction and obscene ravings. 
 
Mags and Amily take steps to minimize the damage while using both magic and wits to find the evildoer.  But just as they appear to be on the verge of success, the letter-writer tires of terror and is now out for blood.  Mags and Amily will have to track down someone who leaves few clues behind and thwart whatever plans have been set in motion, and quickly—before terror turns to murder.

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Closer to the Chest follows Herald Mags and his wife Herald Amily as they grow into their roles within the King's Court.  The roles of not only Heralds, but Herald-Spy and King's Own.  They are thrown out of their depth with a new mystery: someone writing Poison Pen letters to women at Court.  Things get even more serious when it seems that the same mysterious writer is destroying religious houses devoted to women.  Will they catch the mysterious villain before things escalate to murder?

People who have read Lackey's Collegium Chronicles in the Valdemar series (Foundation, Intrigues, Changes, Redoubt, and Bastion) will already be familiar with almost all of the characters.  That series followed Mags and his friends as they came to the Collegia for school and, in Harry Potter-like fashion, had adventures that shaped them into the adults we see in The Herald Spy series.  That said, there are definitely references to events that a reader starting off with Closer to the Chest will not get.  I don't think it would affect enjoyment of the story, although probably going back and reading the Collegium Chronicles series (as well as the first two Herald Spy books) would enhance Closer to the Chest.

The Valdemar series continues to have everything a fantasy reader would want to see: magic and mystery; royalty, nobility, and peasants working together (or not!); and, of course, the magical, horse-like Companions.  Closer to the Chest is a bit slower paced than Lackey's usual books and has a more relaxed style of writing than her earlier works.  I find I still prefer her earlier books to these later ones with the different writing style, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying them.  Chest contained more repetition than I think was necessary- there are only so many times I need to be told that this was the hottest heat wave in memory for instance.  

However, Closer to the Chest was a fun, light read.  I enjoyed following characters I already knew and watching them grow into their new roles as adults and their new responsibilities, and when the mysterious Poison Pen letters begin to escalate to worse and worse things the mystery picked up and got interesting.  Fans of Mercedes Lackey will enjoy returning to the world of Haven.  Fantasy lovers and Harry Potter fans looking for their next series will enjoy a good introduction to Mercedes Lackey- and hopefully get hooked into reading the rest of the Valdemar saga! 

I received an ARC of this book through NetGalley for an honest review.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

George Washington's Secret Spy War

George Washington's Secret Spy War: The Making of America's First Spymaster by [Nagy, John A.]

















George Washington's Secret Spy War: The Making of America's First Spymaster- John A. Nagy
St. Martin's Press
Release Date: September 20, 2016

Rating (Out of 5):
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Synopsis: George Washington was America’s first spymaster, and his skill as a spymaster won the war for independence.
George Washington’s Secret Spy War is the untold story of how George Washington took a disorderly, ill-equipped rabble and defeated the best trained and best equipped army of its day in the Revolutionary War. Author John A. Nagy has become the nation’s leading expert on the subject, discovering hundreds of spies who went behind enemy lines to gather intelligence during the American Revolution, many of whom are completely unknown to most historians. 
Using George Washington’s diary as the primary source, Nagy tells the story of Washington’s experiences during the French and Indian War and his first steps in the field of espionage. Despite what many believe, Washington did not come to the American Revolution completely unskilled in this area of warfare. Espionage was a skill he honed during the French and Indian war and upon which he heavily depended during the Revolutionary War. He used espionage to level the playing field and then exploited it on to final victory.
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As someone who has only started to read in depth about the American Revolution I was very interested to try this book and learn about more about the battles that took place behind the scenes- of personalities and spy rings, and perhaps how some everyday people helped to influence the outcome of the war.

Sadly, the book ended up being a considerable disappointment.  While an enormous amount of research clearly went into this book, the advance copy I received contained so many problems as to be practically unreadable at times.  Abrupt topic changes and convoluted arrangement of subjects made it very difficult to follow the progress of events.  It would have been much easier to follow if the book had been arranged more in a linear timeline, so that the reader could follow the progress not only of the war, but of what Washington learned and how he grew his spy networks based on building experiences over the course of the war.  Often a great deal of detail would be given about something that didn't seem particularly important, then something that seemed very important would be mentioned with no follow through, leaving me to wonder why it was mentioned at all.  A large amount of repetition on certain topics, sometimes almost word for word, also made this a very frustrating book.  There are only so many times I needed to be told that Washington preferred to act on information from multiple, independent sources; or that spies often worked for whoever could pay them best; or how it was impossible to control smuggling and how spies could take advantage of smuggling to get information through enemy lines.

I have learned that the author passed away in April 2016, which might account for some of the lack of polish to the book.  The writing was uneven, transitions were nonexistent, and the books' sequence of events convoluted and incredibly difficult to follow.  Hopefully the final copy of the book was edited to improve on all of this.

Overall, this was a disappointing book and I ended up with virtually no more understanding of Washington's spy rings than I when I began, and was incredibly frustrated with the book.  It is quite possible that more advanced American Revolution scholars will get more out of the book than I did.  However for the amateur, like me, I would recommend if you pick up the book at all to read the conclusion only- a repeat of the book as a whole with no additional information to provide.  It will save you considerable frustration and you can then go on to find a book that might be more readable, informative, and enjoyable.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley for an honest review. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

Do You Want To Start A Scandal

Do You Want to Start a Scandal (Castles Ever After) by [Dare, Tessa]


















Do You Want To Start A Scandal (Castles Ever After/Spindle Cove series)- Tessa Dare
Avon Books
Release Date: September 27, 2016

Rating (Out of 5):
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Synopsis:On the night of the Parkhurst ball, someone had a scandalous tryst in the library.

Was it Lord Canby, with the maid, on the divan? Or Miss Fairchild, with a rake, against the wall? Perhaps the butler did it.

All Charlotte Highwood knows is this: it wasn't her. But rumors to the contrary are buzzing. Unless she can discover the lovers' true identity, she'll be forced to marry Piers Brandon, Lord Granville--the coldest, most arrogantly handsome gentleman she's ever had the misfortune to embrace. When it comes to emotion, the man hasn't got a clue.

But as they set about finding the mystery lovers, Piers reveals a few secrets of his own. The oh-so-proper marquess can pick locks, land punches, tease with sly wit . . . and melt a woman's knees with a single kiss. The only thing he guards more fiercely than Charlotte's safety is the truth about his dark past.

Their passion is intense. The danger is real. Soon Charlotte's feeling torn. Will she risk all to prove her innocence? Or surrender it to a man who's sworn to never love?

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Do You Want to Start a Scandal finally gives us the story of Charlotte Highwood (Spindle Cove series), a sensible, adventure-loving young woman whose mother would give Mrs. Bennet a run for her money in desperation to get her daughters titled, wealthy husbands.  At  a friend's house party Charlotte knows her mother is going to not-so-subtly try and catch a marquess (Piers Brandon, Lord Granville to be exact), for Charlotte's husband. Charlotte tries to warn Piers and reassure him that she has no desire to marry him, but no sooner has she said that than the two of them have to hide from a mysterious pair of lovers taking advantage of what they think is an empty library.  Charlotte and Piers end up getting caught together and Piers saves Charlotte's reputation by announcing their engagement.  Charlotte decides to discover the identities of the mystery lovers to clear her name; Piers is trying to do some investigating of his own but keeps getting distracted by his attraction to Charlotte.  Maybe this fake betrothal is a good idea after all?

This was a great book.  Dare's sense of humor comes through more strongly than her last few books and the fast-paced mystery kept me turning pages long after I should have put the book down for the night.  Charlotte shines as a young woman who is confident enough in herself to try and lead the life she wants, who will flout convention and marry for love and not for scandal.  Piers ended up being one of my favorite of Dare's heroes: secretive, with a brilliant dry wit, and a traumatic childhood that has shaped him into a man who refuses to believe in love or that he's worthy of the love Charlotte offers.  Despite their differences, he quickly  discovers that this seemingly odd pairing may be the perfect match.

We get more of Mrs Highwood here than in some of the other Spindle Cove books and I really loved how, instead of just making her a characture of the ultimate Matchmaking Mama, Dare gives us a great scene between Charlotte and her mother where we get to see into Mrs Highwood's past and discover what shaped her into the mother that she is.  There is also a scene where Mrs Highwood tries to explain marital relations to Charlotte that is one of the most painfully hilarious scenes ever- and Charlotte gets her revenge in the perfect way!

The chemistry between Charlotte and Piers is off the charts and the most innocent scenes between them steam up the page.  The secret of the mystery lovers and the mystery Piers has been sent to unravel end up dovetailing perfectly- and wasn't an answer that I guessed before Piers and Charlotte did, which I always like.

A definite must-read for not only Tessa Dare fans but anyone looking for a fun, fast-paced, brilliant book that they won't be able to put down.  The question is: Do you want to start a scandal? The answer should definitely be: Yes!