Punch by Barbara Henderson Ages 8+

Punch is a fantastic example of tense, masterful storytelling, with wonderfully engaging characters that had me totally captivated right from the start.

The story begins in 1889 in Inverness when 12 year old Phineas is abruptly woken by ‘Uncle Ewan’ who has forgotten to include the sausages in an order from his butcher’s shop.   To prevent an unhappy customer Phin is send on a mission to retrieve the missing part of the order from the shop in the market before delivering it to the customer.

However, Phin finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time as the night takes a shocking and unexpected twist and he is accused of a dreadful crime. With no other feasible options open to him, he decides to run.

After a startling encounter with an escaped prisoner, he and Phin form an unlikely alliance and when they meet a family of travelling entertainers Phin’s life really begins to change.  He suddenly finds himself immersed in a world of performance, puppetry, dance, fiddles, dancing bears and royalty as the group begin to find success.

However, the fact that Phin and his companion are still on the run and are always looking over their shoulder never escapes them and Phin is tormented by memories of his previous life which slowly come to light.  The relationships that build between the characters is very touching, and there is a real theme of kindness, understanding and empathy throughout.

I love a bit of historical fiction, especially when it is set close to home.   It is clear throughout that Barbara Henderson really knows her stuff and this attention to detail makes it an even more exhilarating read.

Punch is jammed packed full of drama, intrigue and tension.  It is a cracking piece of storytelling, which vividly brings late nineteenth century Scotland to life with wonderfully descriptive settings and characters you embrace and believe in.  I absolutely loved it and would recommend to readers young and old.

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The Nowhere Emporium by Ross MacKenzie Age 8+

Whether is it is falling down a rabbit hole to Wonderland, climbing through a wardrobe to Narnia or scrambling up a tree to a magical land, children’s literature is full of stories of escaping to wondrous places and The Nowhere Emporium is a glittering example of just that. It opens up a fantastical world of imagination to the reader, embracing a sense of escapism and blurring the boundaries between reality and imagination. Before you even open it, the exquisite cover inspires you to read on. It is a beautiful, sparkling book that is even more wonderful when you begin.
Daniel is an orphan unhappily living in a children’s home in Glasgow. One day, as he is trying to outrun a group of bullies, he runs into a previously unseen shop to escape – The Nowhere Emporium, where he meets the enigmatic and mysterious owner, Mr Silver. This seemingly chance encounter begins a series of events that gives him a chance to not only escape the bullies, but ultimately to escape his unhappy life. The Nowhere Emporium is a place of pure fantasy – a grand, sprawling, breath-taking maze of wonders and Daniel is entranced its magic and by the mysterious characters who live there. Daniel becomes Mr Silver’s apprentice and he begins to learn the secrets of The Nowhere Emporium, and when its very existence is under threat Daniel must take responsibility to help save it and those who live there.
The story is cleverly balanced between Daniel’s experiences and the past tale of how The Nowhere Emporium came to be, strands which ultimately come neatly together. There is also a theme of loss that is sensitively dealt with throughout with Daniel still coming to terms with the death of his parents.
Overall The Nowhere Emporium is an enchanting and engaging fantasy that I absolutely loved. It is expertly written and a wonderfully enjoyable book which I definitely would recommend. I cannot wait to get started on the sequel, The Elsewhere Emporium!

The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle by Victoria Williamson Age 9 +

This is perhaps my absolute favourite book of all time and I urge everyone who reads this to get hold of a copy. You will not be disappointed.  The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle is a magical, inspiring story of hope, empathy and understanding that made me laugh, cry and reflect throughout.

Set in Glasgow, it tells the story of school bully, Caylin, who is struggling to cope with an impossibly difficult home life and an alcoholic mum who can barely take care of herself, never mind her daughter.  Lonely and isolated she is getting by any way she can.

We then meet Reema, a Syrian refugee who moves into the same block of flats as Caylin.  Miles away from home and in a strange country, Reema struggles to fit and adapt to her new life.

Initially at odds which each other, the two girls form an uneasy alliance as we discover more about their families, their homes and their backgrounds.  We discover they have a shared love of running, and when the girls discover a family of foxes they endeavour to care for them, eventually working together.

I don’t think I have ever read a book that made me think so deeply about it afterwards.  It is written in such a thought-provoking and sensitive way, without judgement being cast on any of the characters, that it forces you to reassess your own preconceptions and reflect on your own attitudes.

The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle is a beautiful, powerful novel and the themes of empathy, hope and understanding linger with you long after the final page.    An absolute must read.

The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller

I do love a wee heart-warming Christmas story and this one was no exception.  The Night I Met Father Christmas is visually stunning, the beautiful cover enticing you in from the moment you spy it on the shelf.  The snow-flaked edged pages make you feel like you’re in a Christmassy snow storm and the illustrations throughout by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini are quite marvellous, reminiscent of books I remember from my youth.

The story itself is about a young boy, Jackson, who has a raft of questions he wants to ask Father Christmas and his curiosity means he endeavours to stay up to meet the man in question.   When they finally meet we are taken on a charming and life-affirming journey, following a grumpy and mean little elf called Torvil.  Throughout the tale we are introduced to many magical and wondrous characters (including my favourite – the talking, walking fir tree) as we follow Torvil’s journey to discover the true meaning of Christmas.

Following in the footsteps of A Christmas Carol, our main character is taken on a journey of self-reflection and comes out the other end a better person (or elf). But far from feeling clichéd or predictable, The Night I Met Father Christmas is a quirky wee tale full of its own wit and charm.

This is an enchanting and magical book and a wonderfully enjoyable read.  It is a delightful Christmas tale that I would absolutely recommend to get you in the festive mood!

A Pattern of Secrets by Lindsay Littleson Ages 8-12 Cranachan Publishing

A Pattern of Secrets is an honest account of Victorian life which poses questions about inequality, compassion and morality.
Set in Paisley, Scotland in 1876, it tells the story of 12 year old Jim and his battle to save his family from a desperate future. We first meet the Muir family after Jim’s father, Frank, has lost his job as a weaver at the Rowat’s factory and the family are facing eviction from their flat. With nowhere else to go the family end up at the Poorhouse where Frank and Jim are swiftly separated from the rest of the family and put to work.
As Jim battles to rescue his family from the grim reality they face, he pins his hopes on finding a Paisley patterned shawl that he believes contains hidden money in its seams.
As we follow Jim’s story we are introduced to Jessie Rowat, a girl whose wealthy background is a stark contrast to Jim’s. The two characters go on to develop an unlikely bond, based on understanding, kindness and a shared experience of loss.
The harsh realities of Victorian life are vividly brought to life as we follow Jim’s struggles to save his family and, although the difference in Jim and Jessies’ background is huge, we discover that Jessie has had plenty of struggles of her own to face.
Although set over 140 years ago, A Pattern of Secrets focusses on themes that are still relevant today. Jim and Jessie, two characters from very different backgrounds, demonstrate the importance of understanding and empathy as they discover they have more in common than they thought and Jim’s determination shows a level of reilience and perseverance that sends a positive message to us all.
One of the things I loved about this book was the way in which historical facts, locations and characters are entertwined with fiction. This creates an utterly believable and relevant story with characters you empathise with and will to succeed.
Overall, A Pattern of Secrets is a fantastically gripping historical adventure that provides an excellent insight into Victorian life, while its themes of compassion, resilience and empathy make it a relevant and must read novel.