Review: ‘Fake’ by Beck Nicholas

Seventeen-year-old Kath McKenny has a date to the end-of-term party with her since-forever crush. He publicly messaged her to confirm, but there’s been a recent status update: he’s taking the new girl — giggly, pretty, well-developed Lana Elliot — instead.

After being thoroughly humiliated in front of half the school, best friend Chay talks Kath into revenge: a scheme to create the perfect — and very fake — online guy for Lana. Once she falls for him, they’ll show her what it’s like to get brutally dumped.

Everything is going to plan until Kath starts spending more-than-just-friends time with the other new kid in town — Lana’s dreamy older brother, Sebastian. Kath finds herself getting in deep — in love and drowning in guilt, she tries to put an end to her prank, but it’s taken on an unstoppable momentum of its own, with very real consequences.

As her plotting begins to unravel, so do the people Kath thought she knew: Her mother has a secret online life. Her father has a whole new family. Her best friend is barely recognisable. Her boyfriend has a disturbing hidden past.

And her enemy is more familiar than she knew.

I’ve only previous read one book by Beck Nicholas, The Last Days of Us, which came out at the start of last year. Fake pre-dates it by a few years, and was apparently Nicholas’s debut, but the writing is as clean and compelling. It isn’t so heart-wrenching as Last Days, but is still an interesting exploration of teen and family relationships.

I was really able to relate to our main character, Kath; she’s indecisive and comes across as a little shy, but it’s more because she wants to coast under the radar at her school and in the town that her mother and she fled to almost a decade earlier. The reasons why don’t become clear till late in the book, so I won’t reveal spoilers, but it’s clear her father did something to betray the family that landed them in the news. As a result, Kath does not want to be the centre of attention. She’d rather write stories in her head and maybe go to the end-of-year party with her long-time crush.

Her best friend, Chay, is very different. She also comes from a troubled family life (we never see her father, but he’s strict in a way that seems heavy handed and possibly abusive) but her solution is to be loud and proud, dressing and acting in ways that are designed to get attention. Chay is sometimes a hard character to like, because she does pressure Kath into doing things that are against Kath’s nature for her own reasons, but she never actually wants to hurt Kath and stands by her with things get rough.

Sebastian is sweet and mysterious. I found that the nature of the mystery was very well telegraphed, but others might not have the same experience with the story, so I’ll leave it at that! His sister, Lana, is the “mean girl” of the story and pretty easy to hate … but as the story progresses, we get a good look at her and can see why she is behaving the way she is. Personality-wise, she’s very much a combination of Chay and Kath, so it’s fascinating to see how it all goes wrong between them. I found myself feeling a tiny bit sorry for her (and I don’t blame her in the slightest for her eternal loathing of Kath by the end of the book — let’s be real, the friends had it coming).

The other star of this story is Kath’s mother. Maybe it’s because I’m an older reader, but I really emphathised with her struggle with a teen girl who is at times volatile and sarcastic, and her desire to find something new for herself. Love the present parent in young adult fiction.

I am definitely going to track down more of Nicholas’s books; she has a knack with telling in a compelling way a story that has complicated characters. If you like to read young adult — whether you’re a teen or not! — then definitely check out this book.

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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: ‘Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow’ by Jessica Townsend

Morrigan Crow may have defeated her deadly curse, passed the dangerous trials and joined the mystical Wundrous Society, but her journey into Nevermoor and all its secrets has only just begun. And she is fast learning that not all magic is used for good.

Morrigan Crow has been invited to join the prestigious Wundrous Society, a place that promised her friendship, protection and belonging for life. She’s hoping for an education full of wunder, imagination and discovery — but all the Society want to teach her is how evil Wundersmiths are. And someone is blackmailing Morrigan’s unit, turning her last few loyal friends against her. Has Morrigan escaped from being the cursed child of Wintersea only to become the most hated figure in Nevermoor?

Worst of all, people have started to go missing. The fantastical city of Nevermoor, once a place of magic and safety, is now riddled with fear and suspicion…

If you threw Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland in a pot, added in some Wizard of Oz, and stirred vigorously, you might get something like the Nevermoor books. And, frankly, I think that’s all the recommendation you should need. 😉

If you need more than that, you can read my (gushing) review of the first book, Nevermoor, here. If you haven’t read it yet, then be aware that this review will be a little bit spoiler-y of the first book. It’s sort of unavoidable.

In Wundersmith, twelve-year-old Morrigan finally gets to study at the Wundrous Society, a secretive organisation that promises her the sense of belonging that she never had with her family. Of course, things are never that simple, and she finds that she is regarded with everything from disdain to outright hostility by her peers and even the teachers. Still, she has a steadfast friend in Hawthorne and a devoted (if rather overworked) mentor in Jupiter. She also has a sanctuary in Jupiter’s hotel and with the staff there, which means that she is never completely overwhelmed by the occasional awfulness at the society.

I loved both Morrigan and Jupiter. Morrigan is determined and insightful, often serious as a result of her strange upbringing and circumstances, but never boring. Jupiter is exuberant and fierce, and — as an adult reader — I have a crush on him and his wild ginger hair. ❤ Just a little bit. (As an aside, Dumbledore could stand to learn a few things from Jupiter in terms of how the mentor thing should really work!)

The story is enthralling and strange, well paced and delightful. The content is solidly middle grade, but with the same broader appeal to older readers that Harry Potter has. There are no romance and no swearing or real violence (unless you count bullying). There are some scary scenes at different points, but nothing too overwhelming.

I read that Townsend is planning nine books in this series, and I am so here for this!


Mini-Review: ‘Iron Lights’ by Felicity Banks

Emmeline Muchamore was respectable once. Her sweetheart, Matilda Newry, certainly put a stop to that. But when Emmeline gains magical insight into a disastrous future battle, she weaponises her wild reputation in order to draw trouble and death away from her adopted home … risking everything and everyone she loves in the process.

Iron Lights is a steam-powered tale of honour, love, magic, adventure, and mechanical spiders.

This will be a short review, because it’s of the third book in the series, and I always feel like people would find the reviews of the first — or even the second — book more useful. Also, everything I said in those reviews is true of Iron Lights (except that the back matter isn’t a story in the style of Choose Your Own Adventure but a series of of letters from side characters in the main book).

I really enjoy Emmaline as a main character. She’s the sort of intellectually curious scientist and adventer that I can’t recall seeing much of in fiction (even if she does lean a little towards the “mad” variety of scientist, if I’m honest). She’s also unfailingly polite; devoted to her sweetie, Matilda; and capable of coming up with the most harebrained schemes I think I’ve ever seen! I wonder if it’s because she gets the science of things, but not necessarily the humanity of them. Seriously, some of her schemes in this book were never going to end well!

I love the world that Iron Lights is set in, with its magically activated metals, clockwork soldiers and cyborg-ish creatures. I also love Banks’s writing style. It’s beautiful, and is a large part of how Emmeline’s pure Britishness is conveyed. I’m always left wanting more, wishing the stories weren’t quite so fast-paced, because I don’t want them to end.

If you enjoy alternative worlds and steampunk, and would like to see both of those things in a colonial Australian setting, then check this series out.