Punch by Barbara Henderson

This is not a new book, it was published in 2017. I discovered it by chance, having seen a different book on Twitter and following a link to the publisher’s website (@cranachanbooks https://www.cranachanpublishing.co.uk/ ). Being Scottish, with a fascination for Victorian times and also Punch and Judy, I obviously ordered it. I also ordered some other books, but that is for another blog.

Punch tells the story of Phineas, an orphan living in 1889 Inverness under the volatile guardianship of his “Uncle” Ewan. He is sent on a nighttime errand, which ends with the town market halls being set on fire. Falsely accused and justifiably scared of the reaction of his guardian and the police, Phineas goes on the run.

He forms unlikely alliances with an escaped prisoner and a family of travelling entertainers on his journey, which includes encounters with a dancing bear and Queen Victoria. He learns new skills, including becoming a puppeteer. He also has a bounty on his head, wanted for arson. Can he clear his name? Can he resolve his issues with his turbulent past? How he became orphaned is haunting him. This and way he was treated by his guardian means he struggles with trusting his new companions. Are they on his side or biding their time to turn him in for the money?

Barbara Henderson has written a gripping story based on a true event (the market halls in Inverness did burn down). The strength of this story is in the characters: their backstory, their relationships with each other, how they support each other to make sense of what has happened to them and how they finally resolve misunderstandings of their own and other people.

Themes of broken families, living with a bullying adult, friendship and trust run through the story, as does compassion, hope and love. When I took a break from reading, I was thinking of Phineas and his predicament and I wanted to get back to it as soon as possible…the sign of a very good book. I plan to read more of Barbara’s books.

The cover art, which I love, is by Corinna Bahr.

Mystery of the Night Watchers by A.M. Howell

MAY, 1910. As the blazing Halley’s comet draws close to the earth, Nancy is uprooted to start a new life in Suffolk with a grandfather she has never met. With every curtain drawn shut, Nancy is forbidden from leaving her grandfather’s house: no one must know that her or her mother are there.

Yet, when Nancy discovers the house’s secret observatory, she watches her mother and grandfather creep out every night… Where are they going? And why mustn’t any of them be seen? Why does the Mayor hate her grandfather? As the mysteries pile up, Nancy has to bring dark secrets from the past to light – even if doing so will put her own life at risk.

A.M. Howell has done it again. A very enjoyable, mysterious, quick-paced adventure with many secrets being revealed to Nancy about her family as she investigates what her mother and grandfather are up to. Some of the secrets she is happy to discover, a couple not so much. The story is about family, the secrets they keep (and the reasons why), trust, power (how not to use it) and standing up for what you know to be the right thing, no matter how difficult it is or who it is you are standing up against. Sometimes you can be surprised by who else will stand with you once you start.

Anyone who knows me, knows I love a map in the front of a book. A.M. Howell doesn’t disappoint, featuring a map of 1910 Bury St. Edmunds as brought to life by Nancy and friends.

I was provided with an eARC of this book by NetGalley and Usborne Publishing. It is published on 8th July 2021.

Girl 38 by Ewa Jozefkowicz

Girl 38 is three stories in one. Kat finds herself, as a teenager, feeling lonely and realising her best friend since nursery is actually very controlling, bullying her into things she does not want to do.

As an escape from this, Kat creates comic strip stories set in the future about Girl 38, a strong, brave character. People in her life provide her with inspiration for the qualities, both good and bad, of the comic strip characters.

At the same time as a new boy joins her school, annoying her best friend, Kat finally meets and begins a friendship with the elderly Polish lady, Ania, who lives next door.

Ania begins to tell Kat about her search for a friend in World War II, a story that includes jumping from a train, sewers and grim determination. Kat, without telling Ania what is happening in her own life at the time, reflects on Ania’s experiences and makes links to her own situation.

As the tale unfolds, will Kat find inspiration and courage from Ania’s experiences to finally stand up for herself? Will she find the right ending for Girl 38?

This is one of those books that has been on my tbr pile for too long. I cannot believe I did not read it before now.

The author deals with the difficult subjects of control, bullying and the occupation of Poland in WWII with aplomb. There are themes of moral courage, bravery, friendship, hope and finding light in the dark, which Ewa Jozefkowicz tackles with a sure touch, enabling the readers to enjoy the story whilst also contemplating the impact people in your life have.

The stylish cover illustration, by Anna Hymas, beautifully depicts the three stories told in the book.

The House of One Hundred Clocks by A.M. Howell

It is 1905. After the death of her mother Helena finds herself moving to Cambridge with her father, a clock maker, and her precious parrot Orbit. Her father has accepted a job in the house of Mr Westcott. The job is a strange one, to keep all the clocks in the house ticking, never letting them stop and to never discuss any strange goings on. Helena finds this bizarre but then discovers other things that deepen her resolve to get to the bottom of the mystery. Just as she works out one puzzle, another one appears.

She befriends Florence, Mr Westcott’s daughter, and Stanley, the only servant left in the house. Together they try to work out why the clocks can never be allowed to stop, why Mr Westcott and his sister, Katherine, do daily clock inspections, what happened to Helena’s father’s predecessor, what is behind Katherine’s mysterious behaviour and why the clock keys disappear.

This is a well paced story with plenty of twists and turns. It also provides plenty of discussion points along the way, including the historical backdrop of the development of flight by the Wright Brothers.

The story has many themes, including loss, grief, superstitions, attitudes to females in engineering/academia at the time and that doing the wrong thing for whatever reason is not going to end well.

It is unusual to find end papers in paperback novels so I was excited to discover this book has them. Saara Söderlund has beautifully illustrated clues to different aspects of the story…clocks, books, hats and feathers.