17 February 2022

The Canberra Bookshelf: Scarlet Stilettos, crime and poetry

| Barbie Robinson
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Book cover

Emily Brugman’s The Islands draws on her family history. Photo: Supplied.

It’s always a cause for celebration when our region’s writers win literary awards. Hearty congratulations to Canberra writer Hayley Young, the 2021 Scarlet Stiletto Award winner for her short story Monster Hunters.

The Scarlet Stiletto is an annual national competition for short crime stories, run by Sisters in Crime, the first being held in 1994. Its original purpose was to unearth new talent and it now boasts hundreds of entries each year, including from well-established crime writers. Hayley’s story is a rural police procedural focussed on the illicit drug trade.

Monster Hunters and other commended stories are available as an e-book in The Thirteenth Cut from Clandestine Press, along with editions from previous years. Hayley’s one to watch as she has won or been shortlisted for a couple of other writing already awards this year.

While no longer a Canberra resident, Emily Brugman grew up here, so I count her as one of ours. Her exquisite novel The Islands (Allen & Unwin) is a story of migration which draws on her Finnish heritage.

It is set in the Abrolhos Islands off Western Australia where the Finns came to take up cray fishing leases in the 1950s and on the WA mainland and the Australian eastern coast. It’s rich in history, an intense exploration of family and the quest for belonging.

The deep pleasure of reading this book lies both in its emotional complexity and the beauty of the author’s language. She tosses us through time but paints her scenes with such vividness that we never flounder.

Whether it be the terror of childbirth without the necessary language, preparation or support or the windswept nakedness of Little Rat Island, we are thrust into place with almost filmic immediacy.


Killernova by Omar Musa has just been released. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Omar Musa also explores otherness – disconnection and alienation – in Killernova (Penguin Random House Australia, 2021). However, for those used to seeing him as a performance poet, an ‘angry young man’, this book provides a broader view.

His poetry is partnered with his woodcut prints, recently exhibited as wall works at Humble House Gallery in Fyshwick. He sees these visual art works as an opportunity to play more, to make and leave mistakes without angst.

In this book, the writer still urges us to attend to socio-political matters, to our racism, to the environmental destruction we have overseen. He also writes of family, of heritage and of love. It is doubtless an emotional outpouring, but the poetry is finely honed and meticulously edited so that no spare word remains. It’s an affecting work, both for the form and the content, and will bear many readings.

Children across Australia are mostly back in school, but just towards the end of the summer holidays Tracey Hawkins’ The Riddle of Tanglewood Manor was published by local author Samantha Tidy’s newly expanded Canberra publishing house Storytorch Press.

Tracey Hawkins is a former police officer with the Australian Federal Police and writes both adult non-fiction and children’s books.

Book cover

Tracey Hawkins’ Tanglewood. Image: Supplied.

Tanglewood is a time travel mystery set in a vaguely COVID-19 time – the impetus for the family of the two young protagonists to move to a crumbling old house in the country, a family inheritance with strings attached. Fittingly, the old house takes brothers Sam and Harry back to the time of the Spanish flu epidemic.

Historical details are woven into a story that whips along at a pace young readers will enjoy. Tracey Hawkins is adept at writing the youthful male voice, no doubt drawing on her own family life experience and intensive workshopping with school students.

The many conversations which drive action in this novel are true to life and infinitely relatable to contemporary adults, be they parents or grandparents. So too is the push and pull of the relationship these siblings have, with its ebbing balance of power and inter-dependence.

Young boys and humour are never too far apart and this author perfectly captures that sense of youthful buoyance and bravado along with the honest admission of sometimes being a bit scared.

Two more novels will follow in this series. Books like The Riddle of Tanglewood Manor are a delight because they provide multiple layers – some entertain the young and others evoke thought in the adult reader.

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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