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.

Medusa by Jessie Burton Illustrated by Olivia Lomenech Gill

Exiled, with her sisters, to a far-flung island by the whims of the gods, Medusa has little company except the snakes that adorn her head instead of hair. But when a charming boy called Perseus arrives on the island, lost as he sails the seas on a quest to save his mother, her lonely existence is disrupted with the force of a supernova, unleashing desire, love and betrayal…

The stunning illustrations throughout the book, by Olivia Lomenech Gill really being the island world of Medusa alive.

Jessie Burton has retold this myth superbly, bring it bang up to date with the feminist slant it very much needed. It is told from the view point of Medusa and because of this, the themes come across much more emotionally and with impact.

As Medusa and Perseus gradually tell each other their reasons for being on this far-flung island, we can see that perception of themselves and others is a very personal thing. Perseus holds Poseidon in high regard, Medusa hates him with a vengeance. Similarly, their views on Athena differ too.

There are strong themes of self worth, perception of how you are viewed by others and how this affects your behaviours and attitudes, how the opinions (real or perceived) of others impact on you and ultimately change you.

There are strong themes of consent and respect. Medusa’s feelings of how Poseidon should have behaved towards her (as opposed to abusing his power) and how she was not to blame are deeply felt. Her sisters’ allyship is strong but not all other women are her ally. Athena’s use of privilege and power are selectively abusive.

The promises we make…do we actually know what we are promising at the time? Open ended promises are not always good ones.

Throughout the retelling, Medusa’s view of herself, others in her life and her awareness of how the rest of the world perceives her opens up opportunities for conversations to be had. Important conversations.

Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for the eARC review copy.

The Memory Thieves by Darren Simpson (due out 5 Aug 2021)

What you don’t remember can’t hurt you…

Cyan has lived at the Elsewhere Sanctuary for as long as he can remember, freed by Dr Haven from dark memories of his past life. But when Cyan finds a mysterious warning carved into the bones of a whale skeleton, he starts to wonder what he had to forget to be so happy.

New resident, Jonquil, begins to resist the sanctuary’s treatment, preferring to hold on to her memories – even the bad ones. So when Dr Haven resorts to harsher measures, Cyan embarks on a secret mission to discover the truth about the sanctuary…and himself.

This is an intricately constructed dystopian world, a mixture of what we know blended with sci-fi … an island where the tide went out and never came back again, no wildlife, an invisible boundary shield, a building that can reset its rooms (like 3D Tetris), tracking devices, clocks with no hands, memory suppressing drugs and teenagers who just want to forget.

The themes tackled in this story are difficult ones and raise many ethical questions. Guilt, sorrow, medically induced memory loss, secret experimental drug trials.

Through the story, the author helps us to see that all our memories, experiences and feelings make us who we are, mould us into the people we become. Just because you cannot remember a key event or person does not mean you are no longer unaffected, even subconsciously.

Despite the difficult themes and my worry for what comes next for the characters, I thoroughly enjoyed the story and was engrossed in the lives of the characters and the world they inhabited. This is the first book I have read by Darren Simpson but it definitely won’t be the last.

Thank you to NetGalley and Usborne for the eARC.

The Follower by Kate Doughty (due to be published 23.3.2021)

The Follower is a YA story that follows the story of teenage triplets, Cecily, Amber and Rudy Cole. They are the personalities that front the family’s social media influencer account about house flipping. They take on multi million dollar makeovers, live-streaming and photoshopping their way to sponsorships that increasingly become needed due to the family finances. The majority of followers (The Cole Patrol) are in awe.

The triplets each had their own “thing” on social media. Cecily does make up and wanted to delve into the chemicals and science of the make up. Amber has been relegated by mum to the behind camera operations, despite wanting to promote her plus size fashion tips and Rudy has become the “host with the most”, when all he wants to do is investigate and dabble in his music.

But all is not as “prefect” as it seems, both on social media and in their lives. The triplets are increasing fed up with their mother’s control of their output (mainly due to financial pressures) and the never ending need for the perfect shots to up the follower count.

When they take on a house in the New York suburbs that has been empty for a few years after a suicide, the locals are none too happy and neither is one particular follower. This is when things start to totally unravel for the Cole family.

The Follower posts messages to their account warning them off “my house”. The family ignore these until strange things start to happen. Items are moved or disappear, doors are locked that were previously open, shadows are seen, footsteps heard…but no solid evidence. The normally encouraging and cheerleading followers start to take notice of The Follower’s postings and accuse the Coles of fake news and faking accidents for internet hits, turning against the family.

I wanted to tell them to stop posting, but like all horror stories, characters always do things we all know would be sensible not to.

The incidents become increasingly life threatening but are difficult to prove to the police. Rudy takes on his own investigation, with the support of his sisters and a couple of local teenagers they have befriended. This just increases the rage of The Follower.

The tension builds during the story, clues lead in a range of different directions until the final, slightly bemusing denouement. I felt there were not enough hints earlier in the story to have possibly worked out who The Follower was. However, the explanation added to the depth of the back story. There is no final “happy” ending…we are left wondering what will happen next.

There are some difficult themes in this book: loss, disfigurement, stalking, death, suicide, as well as the overarching theme of social media portrayal of life vs reality (lies vs truth?), which leads the narrative and is very uncomfortable at times.

There are some follower posts between each chapter, on a background of a shadow (The Follower). These add to the creepiness of the story. I noticed that the shadow is not always in the same place, which added to my unnerved feeling.

Cover and other illustrations are by Hana Anouk Nakamura.

This is a story loosely based on an ongoing true story. It is deeply unsettling.

Thanks to NetGalley and Amulet Books/ABRAMSbooks for an eARC.

Beyond the Setting Sun by Sarah J. Dodd, illustrated by Cee Biscoe

Beyond the Setting Sun is due to be published in July 2021. I received a digital preview copy via NetGalley.

In the African Savannah, beautifully portrayed by Biscoe’s illustrations, very hot and tired Ekundayo and his mum, along with their herd, search for water to drink. Mum keeps Ekundayo distracted by singing to him. The rains finally arrive, but too late for mum.

Ekundayo at first refuses to believe she has died and tries singing to her. As his loss sinks in, Ekundayo refuses help from his aunt and he becomes very sad, angry and frustrated, wandering off on his own.

With the support and understanding of his aunt and father, Ekundayo learns to remember his mum through the happy memories and the songs she sang to him, realising her love and influence will always be with him.

The end papers are glorious silhouettes of elephants travelling, against the backdrop of a stunning evening sky.

This is an excellent, sensitive picture book to help support discussions about death, and the emotions surrounding it, with children.

There is useful information about grief at the back, as well as some links to support.