26 August 2022

The Canberra bookshelf: rural crime and family stories take readers to home turf

| Barbie Robinson
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book cover of Wake

Shelley Burr’s Wake is a nail biter and has the CWA’s tick of approval. Photo: Supplied.

This has been an excellent year for Australian crime fiction with highly successful new works by established authors (Sulari Gentill and Dervla McTiernan included). In our region, two authors have written superb debuts – rural crime novels focussed on missing children.

Shelley Burr’s Wake (Hachette, cover design Debra Bilson) is a dark study of the long trails of domestic abuse, of aberrant personality and of the impact of a disappearance on the family. Set in the fictional NSW town of Nannine, the book follows the procedural model with hero/anti-hero private investigator Lane Holland.

There are two missing child cases interwoven in the plot, which is fiendishly well structured to maximise suspense for the reader. Though we learn a lot about Lane early in the story, we do not fully understand until much later his motives and methods in pursuing a career as an expert in finding missing children.

The author explores public opinion, media and social media, the attitudes of community to the outsider and the strength of family relationships in a thrilling and believable account of such cases. It’s thoughtfully and meticulously written with deep respect for the real victims of these crimes.

book cover of Dirt Town

Hayley Scrivenor’s Dirt Town explores dark secrets in rural communities. Photo: Supplied.

Also in rural crime territory, Hayley Scrivenor’s Dirt Town (Macmillan, cover design Deborah Parry Graphics) is an insightful look at small towns and how they work. This character-rich story is indeed a police procedural, led by Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels from the city. The book is told from a number of points of view, giving the reader the opportunity to sleuth but also to understand how things can be seen differently by different members of any community.

This is clever work, dense in ideas and full of contemporary social issues. The author demonstrates a thorough command of the genre, but significantly a keen sense of the importance of justice in crime fiction.

The story is reeled out, pieces of the big picture emerging with every development in the investigation, but we are always conscious of concealment, of the difficulty of knowing truth. It’s an accomplished work, hard to put down once started.

book cover of Amber Wolf

Amber Wolf is set in a dystopian future. Photo: Supplied.

For something completely different, regional debut author Lauren Searson-Patrick has self-published the first in an adult fantasy series, Amber Wolf. While the beautiful cover design by Franziska Stern points to romance, the book is actually set in a dark (and perhaps not too time-distant) dystopia.

Climate change has created refugees who flock to a walled city where lawlessness and depravity abound and where Lish, our story heroine, works as an enforcement officer. Her mysterious magical powers are kept under wraps but soon rise to the surface.

Drawn by her as-yet merely guessed-at heritage, she ventures outside the city and into a pre-apocalyptic world of forests and villages. However, evil is also at work there and her quest to find answers about her own origins and the death of her mother leads her to take on a brutal general.

As is customary for the adult fantasy genre, there is romance, there is a good dash of erotica and there is a partially happy resolution – just enough to lead us on to book two, which is due out any tick of the clock.

book cover of Painting the Light

Ned Manning’s Painting the Light is inspired by his parents’ story. Photo: Supplied.

Family relationships and histories are often a stimulus for writers and a major theme in works of all kinds. Ned Manning’s connection with Canberra through family and politics entitles him to a place in this column with his historical and partly factual fiction Painting the Light (Broadcast Books, cover design Daniel New).

Spanning Australian history from pre-World War II into the 1950s, it is inspired by the life of his parents and their experiences on the land and then in the heady sphere of Labor politics. The author shows particular understanding of the difficulties faced by women in the era.

As always, there’s plenty to celebrate in our region. August is also the month for Canberra Writers Festival.

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.

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