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.

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.