- Flyaway, by Kathleen Jennings. Picador. $24.99.
Award-winning short story writer and illustrator Kathleen Jennings now lives in Brisbane but was raised on a cattle property in Western Queensland.
She uses rural outback settings to good effect in her debut novel Flyaway, an impressive mixture of gothic and folklore; it's almost Jane Harper meets Garth Nix.
Jennings has commented, "When I was small, the books available painted pictures of two landscapes: a lovely, green, myth-haunted North, and desperately grim Australian landscapes of terror and fire and a 'dead red heart'.
"But I loved the countryside where I grew up: it glinted and glimmered, and before I knew the bloody history of my own district, I learned to view it through a net of those borrowed enchantments.
"Flyaway, although set in a fictional part of the country, is about that terrible, thrilling beauty, and also a little about the power and danger of ignorance and imposed tales."
Once a lively and rebellious young teenager, 19-year-old Bettina Scott is now buttoned-down, "graceless and unlovely", living with her controlling mother Nerida in the small outback town of Runagate.
This is a place full of dark secrets, where you'll find "roses planted in wire-fenced gardens on the buried corpses of roadside kangaroos", a town where "memory seeped and frayed, where ghosts stood silent by fence posts".
Her "mocking father" and two older "unloving brothers" disappeared three years previously, but her mother has always parried her queries as to their fate and Bettina has now repressed her memories of them.
When a note arrives, allegedly from one of her brothers, with the words, "You coward, Tink", her nickname, she begins to question her mother's account of the past.
She thinks back to a time when she wasn't always "responsible and civilised and winsome".
She begins, with the help of two former estranged friends Gary and Trish, to pull at the threads of her family's secrets. In the process, she hopes to find her true identity and "take my life into my own hands".
Short lyrical chapters, interspersed with accounts of eerie local legends and dark folklore, may seem a strange narrative structure.
But it works well to evoke a growing sense of tension as Bettina and her friends investigate the possible murder of her father and the enforced disappearance of her siblings.
The starkness of the rural landscape emphasises the blurring of the boundaries between humans and nature.
Jennings' black-and-white woodcut illustrations evoke memories, as does the novel's dramatic resolution, of Angela Carter's dark magical realism stories.