Another month, another five books!
April has proved to be another debut heavy month, with four out of the five featured titles being their respective author’s first novel. It’s also a bit of a US heavy month, with three novels set in the States. It’s also a bit of a rural month, with settings ranging from the American frontier, country Australia and the Scottish wilds.
Once again each of these five titles should be easily found where all good books are sold, either online or IRL. If you can, please do support your local brick-and-mortar store though. They are invaluable to the Australian literary community, and are often staffed by extremely knowledgable and enthusiastic staff, who will be only too willing to help you part with your cash in exchange for great books!
Here are this month’s five books you need to be reading…
West – Carys Davis
West is the debut novel from award-winning short story author Carys Davies, and follows the story of John Cyrus Bellman, a widower and mule breeder, as he sets out on a quest into the wilderness of the American frontier in search of rumoured colossal animal bones. The novel also touches on the story of Bess, Bellman’s daughter who he has left behind, as she traces his progress on maps and dodges peculiar neighbours. I’ll freely admit I’m a sucker for a good frontier story or western (thanks to shows like Godless, Westworld and of course Deadwood) so West certainly captured my attention. It’ll certainly be interesting, given recent debates, to see how Davies navigates the relationship between Bellman and his Shawnee guide – Old Woman From A Distance.
Early reviews of West have been incredibly positive, with many praising Davies’ prose for both it’s boldness and its pace. West is a slim volume, with the publisher describing it as a “brief epic” and a “micro masterpiece”. West promises to engage strongly with American foundational myths, despite Davies’ outsider status (she’s from Wales), the frontier she creates appears familiar and should certainly appeal to readers. I for one, can’t wait to delve further into this novel.
West is available April 30th through Text Publishing.
The House of Impossible Beauties – Joseph Cassara
This debut novel from Iowa based author Joseph Cassara was heralded as one of the most anticipated novels of 2018 but a whole host of media outlets – Buzzfeed, Esquire and The Millions included. The House of Impossible Beauties takes readers back to 1980’s New York City, and the burgeoning Harlem ballroom scene, and follows the story of The Xtravaganzas, a group of gay and transgender “kids” as they navigate this exploding subculture, and build their family of choice. The novel is inspired by the real House of Xtravaganza, made famous by the documentary film Paris Is Burning and features a handful of historical figures reimagined and fictionalised – Cassara is quick to note that though based on reality, the novel is fictional and should not be taken as historical record.
The House of Impossible Beauties is not a romantic and schmaltzy read, but is instead gritty and vibrant, full of well realised characters with plenty of attitude and sass, all of whom know struggle and hardship. These characters must navigate sex work, addiction, abuse and the looming AID’s crisis, but they do so as a group and as a family. The House of Impossible Beauties will in all likelihood not appeal to all, but should appeal to those who enjoyed Hanya Yanagihara’s devastating novel A Little Life and the work of English novelist Allan Hollinghurst. Early reviews have been overwhelmingly positive for this debut, so it certainly looks like we’ll be seeing more of Cassara in the future.
The House of Impossible Beauties is available now through Bloomsbury Australia
Ironbark – Jay Carmichael
In 2016, Ironbark was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award, now this month, two years later, Jay Carmichael gets to see his debut novel in print and in stores. Ironbark follows Markus Bello, a young man living in a small town in rural Australia, mourning the death of his best friend, Grayson. Carmichael has crafted a coming-of-age tale, that explores not only the conflict and confusion of being a gay man in rural Australia, but also the constrictive and damaging societal expectations placed upon men.
The novel has garnered some great reviews from fellow writers, with Christos Tsiolkas describing it as “A work of great and simple beauty”. Which to me seems like high praise indeed! Ironbark promises to be a moving and accomplished read, and certainly with the recent plebiscite and the discussions surrounding safe schools, and timely read for many. I’m sure we’ll be hearing plenty more from Carmichael in the future.
Ironbark is available April 30th through Scribe Publications
Varina – Charles Frazier
Varina is the new novel from the bestselling author of Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier. This new novel sees Frazier return to familiar territory, exploring the chaos and devastating consequences of the American Civil War. Only this time is looking at it through the eyes of one it’s protagonists, Varina Davis, the Confederate First Lady. With the Civil War, and indeed Jefferson Davis, recently thrust back into the American public imagination, Varina should prove to be a very timely read, and one which should hopefully lead readers to question not only the memorialisation of the Civil War, but also whether we truly have moved past the reasons that sparked it.
Varina is undoubtedly a thoroughly researched novel, but it’s historical detailing does not bog down the narrative, with the research dropped neatly and tidily into dialogue between characters. Indeed, much of the novel is told through Varina’s recollections, prompted through conversations with James Blake, a mixed race teacher with whom Varina was previously acquainted. Frazier’s prose bares the flourishes of his characters time, but is never alienating to the contemporary reader or cliched and hackneyed. Varina will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Frazier’s earlier work, but readers and admirers of great historical fiction are also sure to find plenty to enjoy amidst its pages.
Varina is available now through Hachette Australia
Sal – Mick Kitson
Sal is the debut novel from musician-turned-journalist-turned-teacher-turned-author Mick Kitson, who set out to write the novel because of his frustration at what was on the curriculum. Sal tells the story of two half-sisters who have escaped to the wilds of Scotland, after the older of the two, Sal, kills their abusive stepfather. Sal has watched heaps of survival videos on YouTube and has read the SAS Survival Guide from cover to cover, so what could possibly go wrong?
One of the strengths of Sal is its characters, the distinctive and strong willed narrator Sal, and her equally compelling and witty sister Peppa. Both sisters are compelling characters, and you quickly get invested in their unfolding story, and the two sisters relationship, as a number of reviews have pointed out, is one of their highlights of the novel. Sal is an adventure novel, but unlike those adventure novels of old, is one spearheaded by strong and capable girls. Sal is a provocative and confrontational novel, and for me is a somewhat reminiscent of some of Iain Banks’ early work.
Sal is available now through Allen & Unwin