Review: Circus Hearts 2 and 3 by Ellie Marney

Almost immediately after reading and reviewing All the Little Bones – the first in the Circus Hearts series – a began reading the second, All Fall Down. Once I finished that I went straight onto number three, All Aces.

If nothing else, that will tell you how easy these books are to read, and how easy is it to want to read them. So here we go, with me telling you why these next two books (and the whole damned series) are so good.

Circus Hearts 2: All Fall Down

While the first book, All the Little Bones, follows trapeze artist Sorsha Neary, All Fall Down is about Fleur Klatsch, who looked set to be Sorsha’s worst enemy in the first book.

The aftermath of the final events of All the Little Bones are infused in the opening of All Fall Down, where Fleur is dealing with the consequences of her actions. There’s also the little matter of the accident that could have killed her.

Fleur is determined to make up for her mistakes and face her responsibilities full on. She is, after all, the ringmaster’s daughter and one day she’ll be running Klatsch’s Karnival.

One day happens sooner than she’d like, when a series of accidents, which are very obviously not accidental, put her father in hospital and the whole circus at risk. In the meantime, she’s confronted with the return of her childhood best friend, Marco Deloren, who against all stereotypes ran away from the circus.

Fleur is hard-headed and domineering. She’s also loves her father, is passionate about the circus and, despite some of her history, has the potential to be a great leader. All of these things are put to the test as she’s thrust into leadership. Marney draws a textured picture of someone who could easily be unlikable, and instead makes Fleur complex, deep and sympathetic.

Like All the Little Bones, there’s romance here, and it’s elegantly balanced and entwined with the story of the dangerous acts of sabotage, the history of Klatsch’s and its rivals, the personal histories of the players and Fleur’s transition from a bossy child to a substantial woman.

Marney’s depiction of Klatch’s is also fantastic – you can damn near smell the greasepaint, the sawdust, the sweat; the smoke and the fire.

None of the books indicate what city, or even what country, Klatsch’s and its rivals might operate in. I think it’s a good choice. Circuses operate as worlds of their own, and the only truly ‘real’ places in these books are within the canvas and wooden walls of the carnivals, and with the people who inhabit them.

Circus Hearts 3: All Aces

All Aces, like the first two books in the series (All the Little Bones and All Fall Down) is written in the first person from the point of view of the young female protagonist. It was a great way to introduce Sorsha and then Fleur and give them great agency.

Getting inside the head of Indonesian-born contortionist Ren Petri is also fantastic, and even more so because Ellie Marney has found a distinctive voice for her. Along with being supremely bendy, Ren is studious, kind, very organised and very brave. She’s sharply observant and has some behaviours that indicate a degree of neurodivergence, which serve to make her unique perspective even more engaging. She’s also surprisingly impulsive: where others run away, she’ll run towards. That impulse prompts some of the best and the worst things that happen to her throughout All Aces.

All Aces, like All Fall Down, begins with events that overlap the previous installment. Circus worker and card sharp, Zep Deal rescued Ren from a fire and she’s still suffering health issues. The repercussions for Zep, whom some believe to have been criminally involved with those events, are different but just as unpleasant.

At the same time, Ren is juggling family obligations and is keeping some secrets, but not as many as Zep, who joined Klatsch’s circus to escape his father and a shady past. Far from keeping them apart, these secrets and their efforts to untangle Zep from his draw the two of them more and more closely together.

Once again, Marney winds the YA romance intricately together with the overall plot so that it’s perfectly balanced. It’s also perfectly charming and delicious. It’s a pretty sure bet that things will work out in the end, but the superbly written trick of it trying to see how on earth it will.

Like Ren’s extraordinary and graceful contortions, the plot bends and loops and provides plenty of surprises – and like Zep’s exquisite skill with a deck of cards, it’s all sharp and snappily paced, with Aces appearing from nowhere with perfect timing.

I’m sad it’s the last of the Circus Hearts stories: the whole world Marney has built is so lively and textured. I’m going to miss it a lot.

Review: Love and other Perils – A Regency Novella Duet by Emily Larkin and Grace Burrowes

It’s always delightful to have a new Emily Larkin story to read, and when Ms Larkin announced this duet novella with Grace Burrowes, both stories with a prompt to include cats, I (naturally) pounced.

Given both novellas contain Regency era manners, cats and a love story, they’re very different while both being very charming!

Lieutenant Mayhew’s Catastrophe by Emily Larkin

Lieutenant Mayhew’s Catastrophe doesn’t contain any of the fantasy elements of the Baleful Godmother series, but it does trip along with all the vivacity and wit I’d expect.

Willemina Culpepper, who grew up around army camps with her family and father, Colonel Culpepper, is on her own now but determined to get back to having an adventurous life, which she’s definitely not getting in the quiet village where she lives with her aunt. She’s meant to be going to Twyford to become a companion for an ambassador’s children, but when she helps a fellow passenger – Lieutenant Mayhew – find the wayward kittens he’s taking as gifts for his niece and nephew, they both miss the coach.

A series of mishaps keeps them in strife as they try to meet the coach, find new modes of passage or just keep from falling in the mud on their way to Twyford. Willemina – Willie to her friends – has an absolute delight in the unpredictable, and Mayhew’s honour, good humour and chivalry make all their trials more of a friendly adventure than anything dangerous.

The escalating ridiculousness of their predicaments and shared laughter are comical, and a final disaster turns out to be perfectly timed for the happy ending. It’s all a confection of fun and fluff, and an adorable read on any day when you need something light and uplifting.

Catnip and Kisses by Grace Burrowes

The courtship of Antonia the prim librarian and Max the unkempt scientist commences when Max brings an unsolicited cat to the library to act as a mouser. But there’s a lot more to Antonia than her perceived spinster primness, just as there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes for Max Haddonfield.

Max, mostly raised by his sisters, is as big as a bear and gentle as a lamb, fostering stray cats and a stray pickpocket as well, as he carries out scientific studies he hopes will improve the lot of his fellow human beings. Antonia is not as isolated a bluestocking as she appears, and is plagued with a cousin who thinks their ‘inevitable marriage’ will keep the money in the family, and seems incapable of seeing that this is not, perhaps, the way to woo.

These two unusual people who defy stereotypes set about falling in love in their own distinctive way, with obstacles (largely but not solely in the shape of the obnoxious cousin) to overcome and wider lessons to be learned.

Their unexpected journey is witnessed by a lively supporting cast, including the two elderly Barclay sisters who haunt the library. Max’s young, thieving protege, Dagger, is a fabulous too, and the scene where he reveals the fears stoking his behaviour is one of my favourites.

Catnip and Kisses contains a lot of both cats and kisses, which is as it should be, made fun and light with a pair eccentric characters whom you can’t help loving, and cheering for.

Buy Love and Other Perils

Review: Lillian Armfield by Leigh Straw

Leigh Straw, who has previously written about infamous Razor Gang crime boss Kate Leigh, has picked up the threads of the first female detective, Lillian Armfield, who played a significant role in policing the 1920s ‘Razor Wars’ between Leigh and Tilly Devine, in Lillian Armfield.

There was a lot more to Lillian Armfield’s trailblazing policing work than those infamous and bloody battles in Sydney, and Straw has set to unfolding Armfield’s life in the police from the earliest days, when she and Maude Rhodes were recruited in 1915 as the only two members of the Women’s Police.

Straw has pulled together a comprehensive view of Lillian Armfield’s professional life, and a some of her closely guarded private life, by working from a variety of sources – including contemporaneous newspaper reports, articles from the Police Gazette and other periodicals, published histories of the events (including Rugged Angel, Vince Kelly’s 1961 biography of Armfield based on interviews with her and witnesses of the events and times) and interviews with surviving family and Sydney locals.

After a glimpse of her work helping to apprehend cocaine dealer “Botany May” Smith in 1928, Straw backtracks to examine Armfield’s family history, with its First Fleet convict connections and Hawkesbury River settlers through to Lillian’s early life in Mittagong.

What follows is a detailed study of Lillian Armfield’s life and work, first in an asylum and then as a police woman who worked for 35 years, until her retirement in 1949. The quality of her dedication, compassion, toughness and skill becomes clear very early on, particularly as it served as a beacon to others. She was even respected (if not actually liked) by her arch-enemy, Kate Leigh.

Straw takes the time, throughout the book and particularly at the end, to look at Lillian Armfield’s legacy; the way she argued for more women to join the force, for their work to be taken more seriously, and the success of the Women’s Police which led to police services around Australia eventually recruiting women to active roles in detection and policing.

I particularly liked both the Epilogue, highlighting some of the women who have followed “In Her Shoes”, and the Afterword, which looks at an unsolved mystery in the public understanding of Armfield’s private life which may suggest a key in understanding the attitude she took with her into working with women, children and communities on the often mean and sometimes bloody streets of Sydney in the first half of the 20th century.

Lillian Armfield is an excellent study of how one determined and gifted woman changed the shape of Australia’s early policing and women’s roles within it.

The Lady Novelist is Charmed by a Hobbit Village

I am once more on the road, spending 11 days in New Zealand with my travel-writing husband, Tim Richards. Starting in Auckland, we’re taking trains (and a ferry) in stages southward and will end up in Christchurch.

Our first day in Auckland was spent initially with Dane of the Home Fires of Tamaki, learning about Maori history through arrival, colonisation, contemporary issues and the future – a superb, engaging and dynamic experience, and Dane’s an excellent and passionate storyteller. That afternoon was a wine tour on Waiheke Island which Tim’s written about.

The next day, however, we zipped down to Hamilton on the train and met Amber, who drove us to Hobbiton!

Samwise and Rosie’s house

I knew of Hobbiton of course. I remember that in the early days, just after Lord of the Rings, people had started to seek out the New Zealand farm that had been transformed into the hobbit village in the Shire where Bilbo Baggins, Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin all lived.

underhill window

The place had been meticulously built with lots of detail, but after the filming was over most of it was taken away again. People came to see it anyway. Then The Hobbit (expanded into a trilogy) was made, so Hobbiton was recreated all over again, only this time the Armstrong family (owners of the sheep and cattle farm on which the village was built) managed to negotiate to keep everything in situ.

Now, hundreds of thousands of people visit a year, and you can’t go through it without a guide (possibly to make sure LOTR fans don’t go breaking off bits of hobbit houses to take home, or keen gardeners don’t denude the gardens and landscapes of cuttings).

A florist lives here

I thought I might find the hobbit village cute and fun to visit because of its Tolkein connections: I didn’t realise just how delightful the whole thing would be! Because it’s not just a leftover set from a set of two trilogies.

Giant bumblebee on the left…

Hobbiton in fact works on several levels: one of which is that it’s a living landscape, with glorious flowerbeds and lush vegetable patches; it has apple trees and herbs like mint and rosemary growing tall; as you walk around the village and up the hill to Bag End, a dell full of bluebells is below one track. A fat, loud, frankly enormous bumblebee (of the size I’ve seen in the UK but never in Australia) looms around bright red flowers.

The scent of all this nature combines with the fragrant smoke of four or five chimney stacks, which are stoked up with manuka woodchip to add the final touch to a delicious aroma that infuses Hobbiton.

On another level, Hobbiton is like a sculpture garden, with its curated plant life dotted all round with an art installation: “The Homes of Hobbits and How They Live”.

The fake oak tree over Bag End

At the same time as you’re enjoying the charming garden, and marvelling at the artistry of the hobbit houses and all the fine detail that is put into making the village feel occupied and as though the hobbits are all just at a party at another village, you have the nostalgia of remembering the films, and then the insider-delight of seeing under the skin of the movie magic.

For lovers of the Tolkein books and films, there’s the delight of seeing the Party Tree under which Bilbo holds his eleventy-first birthday party. That’s a real tree, unlike the oak which stands atop Bag End, which is entirely artificial and has 200,000 leaves wired onto it.

Southfarthing brews

After cooing over Hobbiton – our guide, River, even has a Middle Earthish name – we walk down the path to the Green Dragon Inn, where a hungry hobbit or human can fill up on a well made lunch or try out the ale, stout, cider or ginger beer (all brewed locally by Hamilton brewer Good George). The first three are brewed exclusively for the Inn, and I discovered for the first time that stout is… chocolatey! The ginger beer is still my favourite though.

A green dragon over the inn door

If you’re wondering if it’s worth a trip to Hobbiton, is absolutely is. Even if you’re not a fan of the Peter Jackson films or even Tolkein at all.

Find out more about Hobbiton Movie Set Tours

Party tree to the left, the Green Dragon over the lake.
Bag End

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