The Last Balfour by Cait Duggan

Iona Balfour’s life is turned upside down when her beloved aunt Grizel is executed for the crime of witchcraft. Before she dies, Grizel appoints Iona as guardian of a precious family bloodstone and tells her she must flee their village and deliver the stone to the mysterious Guild of the Green Lion.

Accompanied by a new friend, Cal, Iona soon realises that she’s awakened the powers of the bloodstone. But it promises to be a perilous journey. The wolf month is no time to be on the road. And there’s a witch hunter on Iona’s trail, who has a strange obsession with the stone.

When a devastating betrayal throws her into the hands of her enemies, Iona soon finds herself in the fight of her life. Will she suffer the same fate as her aunt, or will she escape the witch hunter and fulfil her destiny?

This was a very interesting and insightful historical fantasy story that took me to historical Scotland at a time where witches were burnt at the stake and folk lore was at its peak. It was quite an engaging and interesting story to follow I enjoyed it from beginning to end and I was able to connect with Grizel, our main character and felt her fears, sadness and intensity especially when it came to her sisters Iona and Ishbel. I also enjoyed the clever way the plot unfolded and as well as the characters we met along the way – how their roles intertwined with Scottish folk lore. I can tell thorough research went into the setting, time and legends and it was written very well.

Special thanks to Harper Collins Publishers Australia for sending me a copy of this book for review and for also helping us organise for Cait Duggan to join us as special guest author at our last session, hearing about Cait’s writing journey, Scottish folk-lore and how she managed to blend historical fiction and historical fantasy was truly fascinating. Refer to Read3r’z Re-Vu social media platforms for pics.

Annie

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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

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

The Blue Rose by Kate Forsyth

Moving between Imperial China and France during the ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution and inspired by the true story of the quest for a blood-red rose.

Viviane de Faitaud has grown up alone at the Chateau de Belisama-sur-le-Lac in Brittany, for her father, the Marquis de Ravoisier, lives at the court of Louis XVI in Versailles. After a hailstorm destroys the chateau’s orchards, gardens and fields an ambitious young Welshman, David Stronach, accepts the commission to plan the chateau’s new gardens in the hope of making his name as a landscape designer.
David and Viviane fall in love, but it is an impossible romance. Her father has betrothed her to a rich duke who she is forced to marry and David is hunted from the property. Viviane goes to court and becomes a maid-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette and a member of the extended royal family. Angry and embittered, David sails away from England with Lord Macartney, the British ambassador, who hopes to open up trade with Imperial China.

In Canton, the British embassy at last receives news from home, including their first reports of the French Revolution. David hears the story of ‘The Blue Rose’, a Chinese fable of impossible love, and discovers the blood-red rose growing in the wintry garden. He realises that he is still in love with Viviane and must find her.

Viviane escapes the guillotine and returns to the ruin of Chateau de Belisima to rebuild her life. David carrying a cluster of rosehips finds her there, and together they decide to grow the fabled red rose of China in France.

This book was so beautifully written and I am so humbled to have received an advance copy of this book which helped me prepare for the in conversation I hosted with Kate the other week. I would rate this 4.5 stars. Once again, Kate weaved an intricate story that blended history with a beautiful fairytale that became a unique tale about overcoming boundaries, acceptance and unconditional love. It was fascinating to learn about the cruelty of the world in 1700 and the parallel between France and China. The connection between our favourite characters David and Vivianne truly warmed my heart.

-Annie

Beautifully written. I loved how all the elements of the story are tied in so well together, from the commonalities between the Imperial France and Imperial China, the French Revolution and the class system, to the characters and their encounters. I felt the storytelling was masterful. In true Kate Forsyth style, this novel drew inspiration from the Blue Rose fairy-tale from China with the central themes of achieving impossible love, freedom and hope through the symbol of the blood red rose. What I enjoyed most about this book is the exploration of freedom and how it is presented in both the ancient fairy-tale and through the French Revolution. In particular, freedom to choose who you love, freedom to live the life you want, and freedom to be who you want to be. It also presents an insight into imperial China. Kate Forsyth has done massive research into Imperial China and has respectfully represented the differences in cultures and understanding, as well as used symbolism to weave a thoughtful and delicate love story set during turbulent times of the French Revolution. The writing is elegant and thoughtful, each chapter engaging and takes the reader on an immersive journey. Highly recommended.
-NJ

With special thanks to Penguin Random House Australia for sending us an Advanced Review Copy of this book.

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.

Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise.

And nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three magic gowns for the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. With this impossible task before her, she embarks on a journey to the far reaches of the kingdom, seeking the sun, the moon, and the stars, and finding more than she ever could have imagined.

“A tailor’s worth is not measured by his fame, but by the happiness he brings..”

This was one of the most anticipated reads of 2019 (for me). This unique story is told by Maia Tamarin, a young girl who strives to her restore her family’s honour through her skill as a tailor.

“Don’t work so hard you become the kite that never flies..”

In a world where only males can be imperial tailors, Maia takes her brother’s place by disguising herself as a boy to embark on a challenge to become A’landi’s master tailor.
With a touch of Mulan and a hint of Aladdin, complimented with action, betrayals, forbidden romance, intensity, demons and adventure, this was one exciting book that kept me turning the page from beginning to end.

“Magic is a wild, untamed energy that exists all around us”

I was engrossed in this book, I loved Maia’s determination to succeed not for glory but for her family, to restore their honour and be their provider. I enjoyed the competitive jealousy among the participants during the initial challenges for the imperial tailor selection process as it really brought out true nature of those who resort to vile acts when they’re so insecure about themselves. As the story progressed, I grew to love the connection Maia had with the Lord Enchanter and the ending has left me invested and yearning for the sequel.

Well written, fun to read and enchanting.

Special thanks to Penguin Random House Australia Publishers for sending me a review copy of this book.
-Annie