The Incredible Talking Machine by Jenni Spangler

Pull back the curtain and enter a world where mystery and magic take centre stage in a gloriously gothic, Victorian era adventure.

Twelve-year-old Tig works at Manchester’s Theatre Royale, cleaning, selling tickets, crawling along beams to light the gas stage lamps and anything else that is asked of her by her deliciously villainous boss, Mr Snell.

A strange and intriguing new act, a talking machine, arrives and behaves in a way that Tig just can’t work out. The machine appears to be hinting at a dangerous secret, so Tig must race against time to solve the mysterious clues. Just when she thinks she has, it turns out she was wrong and, because of her impetuousness, problems occur and her close friends start to mistrust her.

An action packed Victorian adventure full of ghosts, gadgets, a dress with pockets (if you know, you know) and shifty villains.

Jenni Spangler has used a real story to create a tense, atmospheric tale involving a cast of characters so well written that I read it in one afternoon. It helps that I have always been fascinated by stagecraft and inventions/curiosities like this

There is plenty of action, from Tig balancing on beams high above the stage in the dark, lighting the new gas stage lamps to mysterious thefts, disappearances and races to try to prevent the machine’s “open to interpretation” predictions of catastrophe.

However, the strength of the story lies in the characters that Jenni has created.

  • Tig, the feisty, impetuous, determined heroine.
  • Nelson, the sensible, cautious friend.
  • Mr Snell, the villainous, permanently nagging boss.
  • Gus, the ambitious but sneaky stagehand.
  • Mr (oops, sorry, Professor) Faber, the eccentric German inventor of the talking machine.
  • Eliza, the stage manager, who does her best to look after Tig when her “act first, think later” attitude gets her in trouble.
  • Euphonia, the talking head…does she have a mind of her own?
  • Annie…you will need to read the book to find out about her.

Chris Mould’s brilliant illustrations capture perfectly the array of characters and the gothic feel of the time, adding even more texture to an already well woven story.

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.

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny

Nothing is as it seems in Rookhaven. No one is as they seem in Rookhaven.

Mirabelle and her family are suddenly exposed to the outside world when two orphan siblings, Tom and Jem, accidentally find their way through the invisible shield that protects them from the outside world…or is it the other way round? Who wouldn’t want to be protected by carnivorous plants?

The family are a bit of a mismatched group, all with their own past experiences and special skills. Especially the enigmatic Piglet, the being locked in the cellar. Is everything as it seems? Would it make things better or worse if Piglet is released?

Pádraig Kenny has written a classic gothic tale for children. There are echoes of other fictional worlds but the author has created a unique world with unique characters. Every one of them finds out more about themselves and we as readers are led to think one thing then forced to re-evaluate what we already thought we knew.

Themes of family, friendship, trust, fear, community, grief, morality and mortality are tackled deftly.

Edward Bettison’s illustrations are used to superb effect throughout the book, like light shining through the dark.

Endpapers…I love them and these by Edward Bettison are stunning. They are an added extra that echo the illustrations throughout the book that complement the story telling.