Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

“The imagination of mortals shaped the gods, carving their faces and their myriad forms, just as the water molds the stones in its path, wearing them down through the centuries…”

The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this dark, one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.

The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own. Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true. In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld

“There is a bit of the devil in every man, if he may act the part of the saint…”

Having read about this on a blog as an anticipated upcoming release, I wasted no time in getting myself a copy then dropping everything to read it. I am very happy I did this. I found this to be such an intriguing book, a page turner, a story that I was able to immerse myself in about a culture and legend that is often forgotten in the world. Drawing on Mayan mythology and Mexican folk-lore, this was very interesting. Casiopea is our main character and at a time of 1927, she is often noted as outspoken and disobedient when really she is just head strong and knows when to set boundaries. As she unleashes something so unexpected from her Grandfather’s chest, her life changes as she is suddenly affiliated with a god. Her cousin Martin, at first I hated him – but I came to understand his behaviour as the story progressed and found that his character and attitude toward his female cousin was indicative of that time.

Although this was a very intriguing story, I found at times parts of it did drag on, particularly the first 20 pages but if you stick with it, you will find it really is worth your time reading it. I highly recommend this book to those whom, like me, enjoy fantasy fiction with a cultural and mythology infusion. Mayan mythology and Mexican folk-lore is something I have never read before and I was thoroughly impressed.

-Annie

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Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

“Knowledge is truth, Little Bird. Those who refuse to learn live in a world of falsity…”

Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, but when her beloved father is murdered, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of an unstable kingdom. Determined to find her father’s killer, Hesina does something desperate: she engages the aid of a soothsayer—a treasonous act, punishable by death… because in Yan, magic was outlawed centuries ago.

Using the information illicitly provided by the sooth, and uncertain if she can trust even her family, Hesina turns to Akira—a brilliant investigator who’s also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of her kingdom at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high?

In this shimmering Chinese-inspired fantasy, debut author Joan He introduces a determined and vulnerable young heroine struggling to do right in a world brimming with deception

Tyrants cut out hearts. Rulers sacrifice their own

This was a solid, fantastic debut. A complex and immersive story that captivated me from beginning to end. The world building was intricate steadily paced but very interesting. The secrets and twists are what I love most about the book. It was written very well and cleverly executed. I was invested in Princess Hesina of Yan, I enjoyed her as a character and I love her loyalty and courage. I found all of the characters had something to offer in this story, whether they were the hero or villain, I was engrossed in the story and really wanted to know what became of them. The element of mystery, the supernatural and the magic weaved a brilliant story on the backdrop of the ancient setting.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, it really was worth waiting for this book to hit Sydney shores – I really look my time with it, it was enchanting.
-Annie

The Astrid Notes by Taryn Bashford

A compelling contemporary YA in the vein of Sarah Dessen and Brigid Kemmerer about finding your true voice in a world of love, loss and lies. Astrid Bell is a dutiful daughter and classically trained singer who yearns to write pop songs and overcome her stage fright when she uncovers a shocking family secret. Jacob Skalicky might be a trust fund kid and talented performer, but after he loses everything, he refuses to sing again.
More than just a love story, Taryn Bashford weaves a narrative that provides a fascinating glimpse into the exclusive world of the professional teen, exploring themes and issues that gifted young adults face when dealing with the demands of pressure.

Having read “The Harper Effect”, Taryn’s debut novel, I have to say I liked this one better than the first. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the first book, it’s just that in this one I can see growth with the author and her writing. The storyline was interesting as it relates to a teenager who is subject to extremely high expectations on account of her mother’s musical talent. A story that rings true to many. However the way it was written was quite easy to follow and I found the connection between Astrid and Jacob beautiful and the underlying message of courage to be who you want to be in life. The characters were written pretty well and the storyline was engaging. It has a little bit of everything and of course like most if not all YA novels, there is the romance that can either make you snort in derision or laugh.

Overall an enjoyable book and recommended to YA readers from the ages of 14 years and up. Additionally recommended to those who love music as a theme to the YA novel.

Special thanks to Pan Macmillan Publishers Australia for sending me a review copy of this book.
-Annie

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

In Russia’s struggle with Napoleon, Tolstoy saw a tragedy that involved all mankind. Greater than a historical chronicle, War and Peace is an affirmation of life itself, `a complete picture’, as a contemporary reviewer put it, `of everything in which people find their happiness and greatness, their grief and humiliation’. Tolstoy gave his personal approval to this translation, published here in a new single volume edition, which includes an introduction by Henry Gifford, and Tolstoy’s important essay `Some Words about War and Peace’

“…man’s greatest happiness lies in struggling to achieve them [truth and goodness]. We must live, love and believe.” – Tolstoy

This novel has taken up four and half months to finish reading. It’s hard to write a short review for such a long book but I must say that I’m glad I read it.

My book has tags all throughout the book because there were so many moments where the writing resonated with me. This book may appear to be about the Napoleonic War in Russia, but it is actually more about life, the lack of control we have or felt (during war and peace), it explores the meaning and purpose of life and an in-depth exploration of the human condition during times of war, and peace. I enjoyed each of the character’s reflection on their life and choices. Parts of the novel contains Tolstoy’s point of view in an almost essay form, which is very un-novel like. I was surprised by how liberally Tolstoy used his narrator’s voice in the book to share his views about the war and life in general.

It was an interesting read despite being someone who doesn’t really like war themed books, however I can see why this is a very important and relevant novel to read as it contains many great reflections on life, war, happiness and purpose.

-NJ

My Father’s Shadow by Jannali Jones

Kaya is completing her Higher School Certificate when she is woken in the middle of the night by her mother. They are to pack immediately and go to their holiday home in the Blue Mountains. Her father is ‘not coming back’. He has been involved in a court case to give evidence against some dangerous criminals.

Months later, they are still in hiding and the mysteries are multiplying. Kaya is not sure who to trust: her mother’s new friend, the policeman or her new friend, Eric, from the local store. She is also recovering from memory loss caused by PTSD after a chilling encounter with the criminals. She is seeing a psychologist in an attempt to recall the evidence she might have to give in a forthcoming trial.

Her best friend, Jemma, has gone overseas and Kaya is trying to make sense of what is really happening.

I am very impressed with this debut novel!! Full of mystery and suspense, from the first page through to the end it was just constant questions and twists – even gave me goosebumps. A story written very well capturing drama, thrill and importance of family. It starts in the middle of the night where Kaya’s life is about to change as they pack their bags and head off to the blue mountains, leaving phones and her life behind her include her father – as she’s told he is never coming back. We know that previously, Kaya’s father is mixed up with the wrong people and Kaya is also a witness in a court case but a lot of her memories have faded and are slowly trickling back. As the story progresses, Kaya is struggling to determine who she can trust.

With the suspense and mystery, we explore the importance of family and indigenous culture which I found quite interesting. It’s fast paced, intriguing and gives you goosebumps – keeps you guessing to the end.

Special thanks to Magabala Books for sending me a review copy of this book and congratulations to Jannali Jones on winning the Black&White! prize and publishing her first novel.
-Annie

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim

Anna Chiu has her hands pretty full looking after her brother and sister and helping out at her dad’s restaurant, all while her mum stays in bed. Dad’s new delivery boy, Rory, is a welcome distraction and even though she knows that things aren’t right at home, she’s starting to feel like she could just be a normal teen.

But when Mum finally gets out of bed, things go from bad to worse. And as Mum’s condition worsens, Anna and her family question everything they understand about themselves and each other.

A nourishing tale about the crevices of culture, mental wellness and family, and the surprising power of a good dumpling.

A late night decision to start this book and keep reading was probably one of the smartest decisions I made. This wonderful story really touched my heart. A book that explores cultural clashes in the western world, bullying, racism and mental illness – a concept that many still do not fully understand and still holds cultural stigmas today. Wai did a fantastic job in capturing this from different angles – a family member watching another family member suffer from it, a friend who is listening to another recovering from it and being subjected to ridicule and the person who is suffering from mental illness. This important concept was captured and weaved it into a touching YA story of unconditional love and real teen issues that made me cry, laugh and feel hope.

There were times I even found it frightening and confronting. This was written very well, it was very realistic and a story that will probably resonate with me for some time. I was able to connect with Anna, Lily and even little Michael. I could understand why each character behaved the way they did throughout the book and I was also able to relate to some of the cultural expectations Anna was subjected to like how do you say what you really feel to your parents and still be their loving, dutiful daughter?

No doubt on some level, everyone who reads this story will find a connection either with the themes explored or the characters we meet – side note – I love Rory..

This is such a great book, please read it when it’s out. Special thanks to Allen & Unwin Publishers for providing me with a finished review copy of this book.
-Annie

Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte + Exclusive Q&A

Seventeen-year-old Keralie Corrington may seem harmless, but in fact, she’s one of Quadara’s most skilled thieves and a liar. Varin, on the other hand, is an honest, upstanding citizen of Quadara’s most enlightened region, Eonia. Varin runs afoul of Keralie when she steals a package from him, putting his life in danger. When Varin attempts to retrieve the package, he and Keralie find themselves entangled in a conspiracy that leaves all four of Quadara’s queens dead.

With no other choices and on the run from Keralie’s former employer, the two decide to join forces, endeavoring to discover who has killed the queens and save their own lives in the process. When their reluctant partnership blooms into a tenuous romance, they must overcome their own dark secrets in hopes of a future together that seemed impossible just days before. But first they have to stay alive and untangle the secrets behind the nation’s four dead queens.

Told in multi-perspectives, this was an interesting book. Each chapter sent me to a different character’s story which got a bit frustrating as you wanted to know what was happening with the character you were reading but it was all the more for me to keep turning the page.. Looking forward to the next installment I am sure there’s plenty more intrigue where this came from!!

Exclusive Q&A with author Astrid Scholte

Congratulations on releasing your debut novel “Four Dead Queens!” Whilst we can always read the blurb and your book, I would like to know from your own words, how would YOU pitch “Four Dead Queens” to someone who hasn’t read it yet?
Four Dead Queens is an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery set in a nation divided into four very distinct regions, ruled by four very different queens. When a 17-year-old thief intercepts a message that shows all four of the queens brutally murdered, she must figure out who did it and why, and not be the next on the murderer’s list.

How did you create the world and ‘sectors’ in your story – did you create a map yourself? Did someone help you construct the world? It’s very creative!
Thank you! This might sound a little cliché, but I had a dream where I was sitting in a horse-drawn carriage when a futuristic silver car flew past. When I woke, I wondered what kind of world would exist with such contrasting technologies and how this would impact the people who lived there. I wanted the regions to be exact opposites of each other, as this always creates great drama! Eonia was the first quadrant that was solidified, with their focus on technology and medicine but with a repressed society. From there, I wanted one quadrant to be contrasting that, which was Ludia, which is the pleasure quadrant who revel in only the lighter things in life. It was a bit of a balancing act, creating enough push and pull between the different quadrant. While I did draw a version of the map, it was no way near as beautiful as Virginia Allyn’s version in the book!

If you could teleport to any realm or sector of your story, where would you want to go and why?
I’d want to go to Ludia. It encompasses all the things I love: literature, art, music, entertainment and much more! I’d love to roam the colorful streets, eat the fluffy pastries (they would have to be gluten-free!) and enjoy the party atmosphere. I’m a big kid at heart, so anything that captures my imagination is where I’d want to be.

Astrid Scholte was a Supa-Star guest at Sydney Supanova, appearing on the “Supanova Bookclub” panel as well as “Writing powerful women in fantasy and horror” and “BIFF – BAM – POW!! Writing kick ass fight scenes”

 Which was your favourite panel to sit on in Sydney Supanova and why?
I loved them all! But “Writing powerful women in fantasy and horror” was probably my favourite as I think it’s important to discuss and highlight women with agency in fiction – something YA does very well!

Why do you believe it is important to have powerful female characters in books?
I think it’s important to see female characters working harmoniously together, rather than at odds with each other, in this current political climate. Many fantasies have mostly male casts, aside from the main character, with kings often in power or an evil queen that needs to be overthrown. If there are multiple female characters, they tend to be at odds with each other—vying over the same crown, or love interest. In Four Dead Queens, I wanted to create a monarchy that was made up of four women, each different and strong in their own way, who supported one another, rather than tearing each other down. While the monarchy of the four concurrent queens is not perfect, it has maintained peace in Quadara for over hundreds of years, and it’s not until the queens begin to be murdered, that the system crumbles.

When you are not writing or reading – what would you be doing?
I love oil painting and can often be found in my “art studio”, also known as my garage!, painting my favourite fictional characters. I also painted the characters from 4DQ, which you can see here: https://www.astridscholte.com/thequeens
I’m also a massive Disney fan, so you’ll often find me daydreaming about my next Disney theme park trip!

Top Ten “This or That?”

1. Tea or Coffee?

Coffee, but it must have lots of chocolate and sugar!

2. E-Books or Paperback?

Paperback

3. Bookstores or Libraries?

Bookstores

4. Summer or Winter?

Summer

5. TV Series or Movies?

TV series

6. Stand alone books or series?

Standalone

7. Flawed or Flawless Heroes/Heroines?

Flawed!!!

8. 90’s Hits or Hits of Today?

Hits of today

9. Books about a stranger coming to town or the protagonist going on a journey?

Protagonist going on a journey

10. Open endings or closed endings?

Closed endings with a few loose threads…

With special thanks to Allen & Unwin Publishers for sending me a review copy of this book and to Astrid Scholte for participating in our exclusive blog Q&A
-Annie