The word ‘cornucopia’ sounds so much better than ‘mixed bag’, doesn’t it? But that’s what I have for you this month.
The raison d’être of this column is to support stellar writers of the Canberra region, of which there are many. We are fortunate to include former journalist and now best-selling crime fiction writer Chris Hammer to that number.
His latest cracker of a novel is Treasure & Dirt (Allen & Unwin, 2021), a standalone, but possibly the beginning of a new series with linking vestiges to his previous book, Trust.
Set in a remote NSW opal mining town, the story starts with the murder-crucifixion of long-time opal minor Jonas McGee, which Sydney homicide detective Ivan Lucic is sent to investigate.
Lucic is joined by a junior cop, former local Nell Buchanan, and together they dig up a lot of dirt and not much treasure – the murder itself, family secrets and feuds, corporate greed, violent assaults, abuse, stock market manipulation, a dodgy religious sect and sexual misconduct.
Its complex plot and fascinating array of characters drive a story deeply connected to the dusty landscape and to current societal issues.
Dorothy Johnston’s new sea-change mystery, The Lodeman (For Pity Sake Publishing, 2021), sits at the cosier end of the crime fiction spectrum. It’s the fourth of her books set in Queenscliff, Victoria, with lead character, local police officer Chris Blackie, and like its predecessors, it exudes a strong sense of place.
Dorothy is no longer a Canberra resident, but was for many years before moving to the Victorian coast. She is a former winner of ACT Book of the Year and the author of 10 novels, including a shortlisting for the Miles Franklin Award.
The Lodeman follows the investigation into the death of a member of the sea pilot service and is very much about dogged police work. Local knowledge again proves the key to the solving of crime in Chris Blackie’s patch, despite the insertion of a more senior city cop, who characteristically throws his weight around.
It takes a while for the relationship to work, and it is an equally interesting study as the police investigation itself.
Dorothy’s writing is practised, her approach to crime writing sympathetic and character-centric. Her fans have been eagerly waiting for this one and won’t be disappointed.
COVID-19 and the isolation it has enforced for so many people has thrown mental health issues into the public gaze. Local artist Susannah Crispe has teamed up with young regional NSW writer Isabelle Duff to create charming picture book Cookie (EK Books, Australia, 2021) which is focused on childhood depression and its effect on the whole family.
The story is told in the voice of a lively, but sensitive, little border collie dog, Cookie, who observes through innocent but intelligent eyes the family of Girl, who is often sad. This faithful friend is part of the solution, capable of enjoying the pleasures of being in nature, but also in giving comfort through cuddles and constancy.
There’s gentle humour in this book – for example, the annoying brother is called Stoppit – but there is also a great deal of beautifully drawn and written seriousness. It’s definitely one to be shared with young readers in our homes and schools.
Another much needed tonic is the latest book of verse by Braidwood writer, performance poet and teacher Harry Laing, Rapperbee (Ford St Publishing, 2021), which is illustrated by Anne Ryan.
Most of the works are funny, playing with sound, rhythm, rhyme, shape, the glory of words and the boundless possibilities of the everyday. They’re meant to be said aloud and are perfect for sharing.
However, amid the frivolity there are also poems extolling the wonder of the natural world – a homage to the endangered regent honeyeater; luxuriating in the physical pleasure of surfing a perfect wave; and the marvel that is the stingray.
Anne Ryan’s fanciful illustrations are also a source of pleasure. It’s always enjoyable to find a book that will enhance a love of poetry in our children, one which normalises it as a way of communicating all manner of thoughts from the ridiculous to the profound.
Harry also teaches and performs in local schools. More information on him can be found here.
Barbie Robinson is co-founder and a content creator for Living Arts Canberra, a not-for-profit media outfit supporting arts and community in the Canberra region, and books worldwide through its website, podcast interviews and a 24/7 internet radio station at Living Arts Canberra.