Review: ‘Crashing the A-List’ by Summer Heacock

After four months of unemployment, former book editor Clara Montgomery is still stuck sleeping on her little brother’s ugly couch in Queens. Determined to keep her minuscule savings account intact, she takes a job clearing out abandoned storage units, but is in no way prepared for stumbling upon dead snakes or trying to identify exactly where the perpetual stench of beets is emanating from.

When Clara comes across a unit that was once owned by an escort service, she finds the brothel “résumé” of a younger Caspian Tiddleswich… an astonishingly famous British actor. Her best friend thinks she should sell the gossip to a tabloid to fund her way off the couch from hell, but Clara instead manages to track down Caspian’s contact info, intending to reassure him that her lips are sealed.

Unfortunately, Caspian misinterprets Clara’s attempt at altruism and shows up on her doorstep, accusing her of blackmail. When the paparazzi capture a photo of them together, Caspian’s PR team sees an opportunity to promote his latest film—and if Clara wants to atone for her “crimes,” she’ll have to play along. Pretending to be Caspian’s girlfriend seems like it will be a tolerable, if somewhat daunting, penance … until their fake romance becomes something more than either of them expected.

This was another one of the books I read on my cruise last month, and the only one I read in paperback (which is why I’ve got a picture of it on the balcony of my stateroom at the bottom of this review!).

I’ve been excited for this book since I first heard about it; I read and loved Summer’s The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky, and was looking forward to more of that awkward humour. And there is a lot of awkward humour in this story — the whole inciting event is basically the main character, Clara, getting drunk and calling a celebrity to reassure him that his secret is safe with her. She doesn’t remember doing it afterwards, and is therefore very shocked when he shows up at her door.

She’s even more shocked that he thinks she’s blackmailing her … but not as shocked as poor Caspian must be that Clara is, he thinks, about to destroy his life.

This chick lit has the sort of romance that goes from hate to love, although the arc does involve a few more bouts of hate in amongst the love parts. Despite the way Caspian treats Clara at times, it’s clear from very early on that he is actually a good person who is scared and feels trapped. That doesn’t excuse some of his behaviour, something that Clara thankfully holds him to account for — if she hadn’t, I’d have been disappointed, but Clara is nobody’s doormat.

This book definitely has the “what can go wrong will go wrong” aspects of Summer’s previous novel, but the stakes felt a lot higher in this book than in Getting Lucky. I think I had a bit of a crush on Caspian myself by the time that Clara did — despite my indifference to Benedict Cumberbatch, the clear inspiration for the character — so every time something came up that threw a spanner in the works, I was all nooooooooo.

Crashing the A-List was a wonderful holiday read that kept me up too late and made me laugh, swoon and tear up a little. Get it in your eyeballs.

 

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Review: ‘All Aces’ by Ellie Marney

A teenage contortionist and a young cardsharp risk danger to right a family legacy of injustice…

Nineteen-year-old contortionist Ren Putri is committed to circus, study and self-discipline – in that order. But after being rescued from a carnival fire by cardsharp Zep Deal, she’s overwhelmed by some highly disorderly thoughts. Zep has a history of trouble, and now he’s been suspected of sabotaging the circus that’s become his whole life. Ren is already coping with family, and keeping secrets of her own – but she can’t resist a mystery. Will Ren’s penchant for solving puzzles bring the case against Zep to rights, or will digging further into the bad blood between rival carnivals only put them both in danger?

Dark YA romance, with a criminal twist – Circus Hearts: Step. Right. Up.

I read this book hot on the heels of All Fall Down (book two in the series) and I loved it almost as much. I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about why it wowed me slightly less — and don’t get me wrong, I still gave it 4.5 stars, and it was still awesome. I mean, it has a main character who is, if anything, even more interesting than either Sorsha or Fleur from the previous books. Sorsha was struggling with trauma but is overall very sweet, and Fleur is an alpha personality who doesn’t like to ask for help, but Ren shows the signs of having obsessive compulsive disorder.

I love that Marney and the other characters don’t make a thing about it — this isn’t a book about OCD, if that makes sense — it’s just a book where the main character has these traits but is also an awesome contortionist and a very determined young lady who is out to save a hot guy she knows and has decided, against the advice of her friends, to befriend.

The relationship between her and Zep is a bit more of a slow burn than either of the previous two, but they had some awesome chemistry and Marney’s ability to write a hot kissing scene has not diminished as this series has progressed. Oof! As with the first book, especially, I loved the description of each of their talents: Ren’s contortionism and Zep’s cardsharp skills.

One of my tiny niggles with the book — and there are slight spoilers for book two here — is that it seemed to start off on a slightly odd note; I don’t know why the circus folk would be giving Zep side eye and assuming he might have been directly responsible for the accidents in All Fall Down when the perpetrator had been arrested at the end of the previous book. (Maybe they assumed he was a co-conspirator and I missed it? I mean, it could have been true — but he did save Ren during one of the incidents, so he’d have had to be in two places at once.)

Another thing I found a bit jarring but that was 100% in character was Ren’s decision-making around the trouble she gets herself and Zep into over the course of this story. Talk about stirring up a hornet’s nest! But given the way that she thinks about the world — as a puzzle or a problem to be solved — I can also see her wanting to take charge the way she did. She also comes from a complicated, more traditional family situation where her mother is trying to pressure her to leave the circus, and her perceived inability to break free from that was definitely a contributing factor.

Overall, I’m sad this book has ended and that the series was only a trilogy. You should 100% check it out if you like books that blend romance, crime and carnival life into a spangled, steamy whole!


Review: ‘All Fall Down’ by Ellie Marney

A ringmaster’s daughter and a bearded lady’s son join forces to stop a saboteur…

Nineteen-year-old Fleur Klatsch is loyal to her trapeze team and her ringmaster father, dedicated to the circus, and tough on everyone around her. After a series of accidents at Klatsch’s Karnival, Fleur is left holding the ball: she’s running the carnival, trying to stop a saboteur, and taking care of her dad. She doesn’t need anyone’s help, least of all Eugenia Deloren’s son, Marco, who’s been trying to break out of show life since the moment he was born into it. All Marco needs to do is get Klatsch’s back on its feet so he can leave. But after one fateful kiss with Fleur, will he really want to? And will Fleur and Marco figure out who’s trying to kill the show before someone kills them…

Dark YA romance with a criminal twist – Circus Hearts: Step. Right. Up.

This book is set a few months after the events in All the Little Bones, and follows a different pair of characters, Fleur and Marco. In fact, each book in this trilogy focuses on a different romance with the same overarching setting (like Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner did in the Starbound series). Strictly speaking, you don’t need to read the first book to appreciate the second, but it would definitely help give useful context for events early on.

I was a bit apprehensive going into this one because Fleur is a bit of a typical “mean girl” and a spoiled brat in the first book — Sorsha interprets a lot of what she does as resulting from feeling threatened because Sorsha is a better trapeze artist than Fleur (not arrogance, just truth). But even in the first book it was clear that Fleur thought that Sorsha and her monumental baggage were a threat to the circus more broadly, not just to her personally. I liked that nuance. Of course, that didn’t stop Fleur from doing something stupid, which she is still paying for at the start of All Fall Down.

Fleur does learn from her mistakes, though she is still far from perfect: she’s proud, stubborn and doesn’t want to ask from help, least of all from Marco, the childhood friend that disappeared from her life. Still, she doesn’t have a choice, and over the course of the book she really grows into a leader who not only thinks about the wellbeing of her employees but earns their trust too.

Like the relationship between Colm and Sorsha, the one between Fleur and Marco is sizzling and built on a solid base of friendship. Hawt. I also appreciated that the obstacles to the romance in this book don’t feel contrived (my pet peeve in romance, as I mentioned last time — I once threw a book across the room because one of those obstacles would have been so easily addressed by the main character if she’d bothered!).

The crime element of this story is more front and centre than in All the Little Bones; I really enjoyed trying to figure out who was behind the “accidents”, and wondering what was going to happen next.

I can’t rave about this series enough, you guys.

 


Review: ‘All the Little Bones’ by Ellie Marney

A teenage trapeze artist and an apprentice strongman on the run from a terrible crime…

Seventeen-year-old Sorsha Neary’s life is changed in one night when she defends herself behind the vans of her family circus troupe. Now Sorsha and apprentice strongman Colm Mackay are travelling south, to evade the fallout and escape the long arm of the law. All they have in their favour is talent, an old promise, and slim acquaintance with the crew members and performers of their new home, Klatsch’s Karnival. But the question for Sorsha and Colm isn’t if the police will catch up with them, but when…

Dark YA romance, with a criminal twist – Circus Hearts: Step. Right. Up.

I’ve read Ellie Marney’s Every trilogy (you can read the reviews of those books here) but I didn’t realise that she’d also self-published a trilogy of books set in a circus until recently. When I saw them, I had to snap the first book up. I read it recently, during a reading binge while I was on holidays, and then I had to download the second and third books the next time I had internet access because I was so captivated by the first one.

I thought about reviewing all three in one post, because I read them back-to-back and all of my thoughts about them are a bit jumbled up, but I’ll try to unpick them and be coherent about All the Little Bones specifically.

The story is told from the perspective of 17-year-old trapeze artist Sorsha, who from the first line is clearly running from a trauma that she doesn’t want to dwell on and that she’s been pushed to duck responsibility for. The trauma is fresh, and she’s still in the “nightmares and vomiting” stage of coping with it. Poor thing. I just wanted to give her hugs, cookies, and the name of a rock solid therapist and lawyer.

Beside her is Colm, who is sweet and supportive, throwing away everything he had and taking literal beatings to keep Sorsha safe. He is adorable and a great fit for her; her healing process throughout the story is in part due to him.

Still, despite the romance sub-plot, this isn’t a romance genre novel — although boy howdy, can Marney write a kissing scene! Sorsha and Colm start out clearly attracted to one another, and there’s no big, contrived fall-out between them to generate plot partway through (which is my least favourite romance genre trope). I’d describe Every as a young adult crime series rather than a romance one. All the Little Bones is a little less crime-focused in that the crimes take place before the book starts; it’s more focused on the aftermath.

And it’s focused on the circus! I loved that as a setting — it, as much as Marney’s gorgeous prose, is what made me gobble up this book and spend my mobile phone data downloading the next two. I love the glitz and glam, the behind-the-scenes action, the second-hand thrill of performing (which I’d hate in real life, let’s be real). It was so much fun to read about.

Definitely check this one out.

 


Review: ‘Greythorne’ by L.M. Merrington

How did Lucy Greythorne die?

From the moment Nell Featherstone arrives at Greythorne Manor as a governess to eight-year-old Sophie, she finds herself haunted by the fate of the mistress of the house, and entranced by the child’s father, the enigmatic Professor Nathaniel Greythorne.

When a violent storm reveals Lucy’s body is not in her grave, Nell becomes suspicious about the Professor’s research. But what she discovers in his laboratory will turn all her ideas about life and death, morality and creation on their head.

Enthralled by a man walking a fine line between passion and madness, Nell must make an impossible choice between life, death, and life after death, where any mistake could be her last.

Disclaimer: L.M. Merrington and I worked together, once upon a time. Still, I’ve done my best to give this an honest review. 

I’ve been meaning to read Greythorne for more than a year; I bought it on ebook a while back, but I’ve been in a massive reading slump that has been hard to break out of. Still, I recently went on a cruise that meant I had to pack light, which meant I turned to my Kindle for most of my reads. It’s fair to say that the gothic horror genre didn’t really suit the sunny, tropical places my trip took me to, but I still really enjoyed this story!

Greythorne is by Aussie writer L.M. Merrington, but it is set somewhere that reminds me of coastal Victorian England. (I can’t remember if the book actually gave an exact location and timeframe, but it definitely had that feel to me: cold, crashing beaches; horse-drawn carts; trains and gaslight.)

The manor in which the story is set has the sense of crushing isolation that you’d expect from a gothic horror novel. This isolation is amplified by the fact that Nell, a first-time governess, has no family of her own, and that those who know her aren’t expecting to hear from her any time soon — or perhaps at all. She is truly alone on the island.

From very early on the story’s main male character, Nathaniel Greythorne, gives off serious Dr Frankenstein vibes, with his interest in biology, death and the “natural sciences”. I love speculative fiction in all its forms, so I was so there for this part of the story, trying to figure out what mischief Greythorne was up to in his cellar laboratory. (There were some surprises for me, despite how avidly I was watching, so yay!)

If you’re after a fast-paced read, this book may not be for you; true to its gothic horror roots, the story is told in a way that seems almost gentle, conveying a creeping dread and a growing sense that something is very, very wrong. The slow build is really hard to achieve, but Merrington did a great job — once Nell got to the island and met the Greythornes, I was hooked.

On the other hand, if you’re after a relatively short, “spoopy” read with a creepy setting and a mad but charming antagonist who wouldn’t be out of place in Arkham, then definitely check Greythorne out

 


Review: ‘Invasive’ by Chuck Wendig

Hannah Stander is a consultant for the FBI—a futurist who helps the Agency with cases that feature demonstrations of bleeding-edge technology. It’s her job to help them identify unforeseen threats: hackers, AIs, genetic modification, anything that in the wrong hands could harm the homeland.

Hannah is in an airport, waiting to board a flight home to see her family, when she receives a call from Agent Hollis Copper. “I’ve got a cabin full of over a thousand dead bodies,” he tells her. Whether those bodies are all human, he doesn’t say.

What Hannah finds is a horrifying murder that points to the impossible—someone weaponizing the natural world in a most unnatural way. Discovering who—and why—will take her on a terrifying chase from the Arizona deserts to the secret island laboratory of a billionaire inventor/philanthropist. Hannah knows there are a million ways the world can end, but she just might be facing one she could never have predicted—a new threat both ancient and cutting-edge that could wipe humanity off the earth.

I read (ok, listened to the audiobook of) Invasive just after finishing Zer0es, because I wanted more. Not necessarily more of the hackers from the first story, but more of that weird parallel Earth with its almost sci-fi tech and its Hollywood-esque storytelling.

It’s fortunate that I didn’t go into Invasive expecting it to be about the hackers from the first book, because it wasn’t (although Wade does get a brief cameo, and Agent Hollis is a secondary character). It was closer to single POV — the main character is Hannah, and although we get chapters from other characters, they are interludes rather than whole chunks of the story.

I loved Hannah. She’s a futurist who gets anxiety attacks about the direction humanity is heading in, the child of doomsday preppers who absorbed what they taught her but didn’t subscribe to their beliefs about the futility of trying to improve the world (except maybe in her nightmares). She’s good with people, good with tech … but not so perfect as to be super-human and unbelievable.

Did I mention that I love her?

Like Zer0es, Invasive is fast-paced. Unlike Zer0es, it has a lot more gore. If this were a movie, it’d have an MA15+ rating (an R rating in the States) for the gore alone. The blurb mentions weaponising the natural world, and one look at the cover will tell you which part of the natural world. Let’s just say that I wasn’t scared of ants before I read this book, but … well, I won’t be walking past a trail of them any time soon. Urk.

Still, I actually think this is a better book than Zer0es (which I loved). Having less POV characters gives it more focus, makes you more invested in the action, because a lot more is riding on Hannah’s perspective and efforts. In an ensemble cast book like Zer0es, the characters feel more … disposable, almost?

I don’t know if there will be more stories in this world, but I really, really hope there will be.

 

 


Review: ‘Zer0es’ by Chuck Wendig

Five hackers—an Anonymous-style rabble-rouser, an Arab Spring hacktivist, a black-hat hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and an online troll—are detained by the U.S. government, forced to work as white-hat hackers for Uncle Sam in order to avoid federal prison. At a secret complex known only as “the Lodge,” where they will spend the next year working as an elite cyber-espionage team, these misfits dub themselves “the Zeroes.”

But once the Zeroes begin to work, they uncover secrets that would make even the most dedicated conspiracy theorist’s head spin. And soon they’re not just trying to serve their time, they’re also trying to perform the ultimate hack: burrowing deep into the U.S. government from the inside, and hoping they’ll get out alive. Packed with electric wit and breakneck plot twists, Zer0es is an unforgettable thrill ride through the seedy underbelly of “progress.”

This is a very different read (or listen) than the last audiobook I devoured. Zer0es is a techno-thriller, and not a genre I normally read, but I love Wendig’s urban fantasy and, to a lesser extent, his Star Wars books, so I figured, why not? It’s the sort of book that you can’t help picture as a Hollywood movie even as the story progresses — car chases, action scenes, witty dialogue — but with lashings of dystopian future tech that about halfway through take us into the truly bizarre.

The bizarre, and the supernatural, in our own world are my jam. It’s why I love urban fantasy so much. So I loved Zer0es. (Note: this isn’t a supernatural story. But some of the tech could be described as “science magic”.)

The characters are archetypes in many ways, but Wendig does his damndest to undermine the tropes as their stories progress. In particular, Reagan, the self-described troll, goes from utterly detestable to, well, unpleasant but sympathetic (even as I didn’t want to sympathise with her!). Wade, the scruffy vet conspiracy theorist, is probably my favourite character. Either that or FBI agent Hollis Copper.

The story is multi-POV, which I know some people find divisive, but I don’t mind that. Likewise, Wendig isn’t afraid of “the swears” and has a love affair with the grotesque … so if you’re squeamish, maybe give him a miss. But if you love high-speed apocalypses, conspiracy theories and tech gone wrong, then definitely check out Zer0es.