The Making of Martin Sparrow by Peter Cochrane

‘Colonies are built on dreams, but some dreams threaten ruin.’

Martin Sparrow, a convict expiree, is already deep in debt, dithering and drifting through life when the flood on the Hawkesbury River hits his farm in March 1806. Will he rebuild, with all the hard work that will entail? He’s heard of a paradise on the far side of the mountains, a place where men are truly free. To get there, Martin Sparrow needs to pay a toll. Choices always have consequences: who else will be caught up in Sparrow’s choice?

There are more than forty Dramatis Personae listed at the beginning of the novel, all neatly organised by category or place for those of us who can easily lose track of such important details. The story itself unfolds over five parts, with much of the first part setting the scene for what is to follow. And by the end of the first part, I was so engrossed in the story I could hardly put it down.

‘History’s naught but gossip well told.’

The main characters include the constables Alister Mackie (the chief constable on the river), Thaddeus Cuff and Dan Sprodd, Griffin Pinney (a game hunter), George Catley (a botanist), Beatrice Faa (a transportee who had been captured by sealers), and Caleb and Moowut’tin (two of the First People).

In 1806, the area around the Hawkesbury River is still frontier territory. Those who live there, pushing away the First People, are soldiers, convicts on assignment, expirees, whores and struggling famers. There are also opportunists, sly groggers and plenty of dangerous creatures.
The scene is set for an epic story, one in which the environment (alien as it is to the Europeans) is also a character. And Martin Sparrow? What does his choice mean for him, what impact does it have?

In a conversation near the end of the novel, Alister Mackie and Thaddeus Cuff have this to say:

‘If it’s Sparrow for company it’s a poor bargain.’

‘Not as poor as you might think. Affection for a fellow creature can fix a man, make him resolute, worthwhile.’

‘Sparrow is a midge, a wretch beyond salvation.’

‘Sparrow was a rudderless heart, that’s all.’

Yes, it is the making of Martin Sparrow.

I really enjoyed this novel, the way in which Mr Cochrane used an historic event (the Hawkesbury River flood of March 1806) as a starting point for this story. I finished the novel wondering what might have happened next.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Hangman by Jack Heath

‘The more of me you take, the more you leave behind. What am I?’

A fourteen-year-old boy is on his way home from school when he vanishes. A ransom call is made to his mother. A deadline is set, it is only hours away and the police have no leads. The Director of the Houston Field Office of the FBI, Peter Luhzin, calls in Timothy Blake (codename Hangman). He has a reputation for solving impossible cases but he’s the FBI’s last resort. Why this is so will quickly become apparent. It is a secret that Timothy Blake is desperate to keep hidden. Timothy Blake has seemingly preternatural observational skills and can make connections that other miss.

Warning: this is not a novel for the squeamish, and it’s not one of Jack Heath’s children’s novels. It is a murky roller coaster ride through several dark sides of humanity. Timothy Blake’s story, gradually revealed as he tries to find the kidnapper, reveals a dark past. We quickly learn that Timothy Blake is a cannibal, it takes longer to learn why.

‘One body for every life I save. That’s my deal with Luhzin.’

There are plenty of twists in this novel. Each chapter is introduced with a riddle, some of which I found easier to work out than others. Each riddle has its place in the story (and the answers can be fond on Jack Heath’s website for those who need them, but don’t read ahead. It may ruin your enjoyment of the novel.)

Timothy Blake is assigned a partner by the FBI (after all, they can’t let cannibals work unsupervised, can they?). But Timothy has a problem: his partner is a woman linked to his past. Will they find the kidnapped boy in time? And just who is the kidnapper?

While I found aspects of this story unbelievable (hey, it’s my sanity and I’m trying to save it) I was totally caught up in the journey. We know that cannibals exist, we just hope they’ve not yet been accepted into law enforcement bodies.

‘Right now, the cops will be scraping my blood off the fence and my hair off the headrest in the car. Soon they’ll be searching databases for my DNA. I’ve been careful, so I’m hoping they won’t find any matches. But you can only eat so many people before someone notices. Maybe I left a trace somewhere. Maybe some cop has been hunting me for years, and this is his big break.’

Timothy Blake may not be as polished and urbane as Hannibal Lecter, or perhaps as focussed as Dexter Morgan, but who knows? What does the future hold for Timothy Blake? I’m keen to find out.

Recommended, but not for the squeamish.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Nowhere Child by Christian White

 

‘Mind if I join you?’

Kim Leamy is a photography teacher in Melbourne, Australia.  She’s taking a break between classes when she’s approached by a stranger.  He shows her a photograph:

‘Her name is Sammy Went.  This photo was taken on her second birthday.  Three days later she was gone.’

He says that he is investigating the disappearance of Sammy Went from her home in Kentucky twenty-eight years earlier.  He believes that Kim is Sammy.  Kim believes that he is mistaken, but when she starts looking into her family background she finds that some questions can’t be easily answered.  Kim has happy memories of her childhood with loving parents.  But she can find no photographs of herself as a baby.  Curious and in search of the truth, Kim travels to Manson, Kentucky to find out more about Sammy.  What she discovers is a twisted mess of secrets, of conspiracy, involving a religious cult.

While some aspects of this story are predictable, there are a few twists which I did not expect. Those twists kept me turning the pages and kept me in suspense until very close to the end of the novel.  This is Mr White’s debut novel.  I hope that it is the first of many.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Hachette Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Inside the Bone Box by Anthony Ferner

‘He walked slowly; any kind of exercise seemed a form of expiation.’

Nicholas Anderton is a consultant neurosurgeon. He is morbidly obese and although he’s largely been able to ignore the impact of his obesity on his marriage, he can’t ignore the limitations it’s starting to impose on his professional life.

‘Operating was now the only thing, other than eating, that gave him a sense of purpose and identity, and if he continued to gain weight, he’d sooner or later be unable to continue.’

Nicholas is married to Alyson, a lawyer. Alyson, who despises him for his weight gain, has an alcohol addiction. Two unhappy people, each with addiction issues, each with security issues, each blaming each other (and others) for the problems they have. Both Nicholas and Alyson are aware that change is needed, and while they work towards the what and the how, they reflect on the past.

It’s cleverly done. Mr Ferner alternates chapters between Nicholas and Alyson. Nicholas’s chapters draw their titles from events or memories largely external to Nicholas but in which he participates, while Alyson’s chapters have only her name. Nicholas as observer, perhaps, while Alyson is kept focussed by her anger. Neither character is particularly likeable, but both are recognisable. Each addicted to self-destructive behaviour, each aware of the risks. Who knows what really goes on ‘inside the bone box?’ Nicholas can explain, from a neurological perspective, how the brain works. Alyson can explain how she feels but I doubt that either could explain their own behaviour. Each is imprisoned by a mixture of emotion and addictive response.

But just as I begin to think that neither Nicholas nor Alyson will be able to step back from their personal abysses, there is a glimmer of hope. A possibility that all is not lost.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Fairlight Books for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. Thanks also to The Idle Woman, whose review (https://theidlewoman.net/2018/06/13/i…) intrigued me and led me to request this title.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Nutshell: Ian McEwan

And so, another book I feel I must read sooner rather than later …

The Idle Woman

★★★★

Imagine that you’re privy to a murder plot: a fiendish, heinous plan to kill your father. Imagine that one of the conspirators is your own mother. Even worse, her accomplice is your uncle, your father’s own brother, who has slipped happily between the prematurely-vacated bed-sheets. And imagine, in this horrific scenario, that there’s absolutely nothing you can do but listen as the scheme unfolds along its pernicious course. That’s the fate of our narrator in this brilliant, playful novel, who is rendered powerless by virtue of being a nine-month-old foetus within his mother’s womb. A cross between Hamlet and Look Who’s Talking really shouldn’t work, but this does, triumphantly: it’s one of the most sumptuously-written books I’ve read in ages.

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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W Tuchman

I loved this book when I first read it many years ago. I’m tempted to reread it.

She Reads Novels

I tend not to read non-fiction very often, but Barbara W Tuchman’s 1978 history of the 14th century, A Distant Mirror, is one I’ve been intending to read for years. It looked like such a long book, and I’d heard that it was also a very detailed one, so I knew I would need to pick the right time to read it – and that time came at the beginning of April this year. It took me all of that month to read it, but I actually found it a much easier read than I’d expected, due partly to the style of Tuchman’s writing and partly, of course, to the 14th century being so fascinating!

I couldn’t possibly list everything that this book covers, but here are some of the topics it explores: the Hundred Years’ War, the conflict between England and France usually dated as beginning in 1337…

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Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien

‘Who was I, Elizabeth Mortimer?’

In 1399, King Richard II of England is barely clinging onto power. He’s angered many nobles by his ruthless taxation and his attempts to curb their power. So, when John of Gaunt’s exiled son Henry of Bolingbroke returns to England while Richard is visiting Ireland, he can rally support to replace Richard as king. Richard II abdicates, Henry of Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV.
But for Elizabeth Mortimer and her family, there is only one rightful King – her eight-year-old nephew, Edmund. Edmund is descended from Edward III’s second surviving son, Lionel. Henry of Bolingbroke is descended from Edward III’s third surviving son, John of Gaunt. But there is little support for another child king: Richard II had been king since he was ten years old, and Henry is an adult.

Elizabeth’s husband, Henry Percy (Harry Hotspur) and his family, pragmatic and powerful, support Henry IV. But what of Elizabeth? Can she reconcile her divided loyalties? At what cost?

Told in the first person, from Elizabeth’s perspective, Ms O’Brien brings the intrigues of this period to life. The novel is set between 1399 and 1408 and follows the ambitions and fortunes of the Mortimer and Percy families while Henry IV struggles against plots and rebellions.

‘Once you were Queen of the North. What would be your ambition now?’

I knew next to nothing about Elizabeth Mortimer before reading this novel. I’d heard of Harry Hotspur and was aware of how Henry IV became king, but I’d not focussed on the detail. Reading this novel gave me more insight into the competing claims for the throne at this time. It also gave me more background into the later struggles between Lancaster and York.

If you are interested in this period of English history, you may also enjoy this novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith