Five Books You Need To Read This Month: May

Our five titles this month are heavily US-centric, with novels set in Louisiana, California and Virginia. There’s also a weighty piece of Australian historical fiction to get your teeth into as well. We’re also featuring the new book length poem from Native American poet Tommy Pico, who is one of my favourite poets working at the moment.

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…

Junk – Tommy Pico

Junk is the third, and maybe final, instalment in Tommy Pico’s Teebs series of book-length poems. If the name Tommy Pico sounds familiar, it might be because we featured his second book Nature Poem this time last year. It’s safe to say I’m a fan. Junk has been described by the publisher as a “breakup poem”, but as with all of Pico’s work there is much more at play. Pico’s work is often littered with pop culture references (in Junk it’s Janet Jackson, in IRL it was Beyonce), whilst also offering insightful commentary on LGBT culture and current world events, and Junk is no different. Amongst the allusions to the Syrian refugee crisis, there are also discussions of the 2016 Pulse Nightclub attack, and the protests at Standing Rock.

Junk, and Pico’s other work, always prove to be equal parts entertaining and thought provoking, especially due to his subtle examination of identity. This third full-length work was on more than one 2018 Most Anticipated list, and from the short extracts I’ve managed to read it’s no surprise. The poetry in Junk is as vibrant and exciting as ever. Pico is the winner of a Whiting Award, and is the co-curator of the reading series Poets With Attitude with Morgan Parker. He is originally from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay Nation, and now lives in Brooklyn.

Junk is available now through Tin House Books.

A Shout in the Ruins – Kevin Powers

A Shout in the Ruins is the new novel from award-winning author Kevin Powers. Powers’ debut novel The Yellow Birds won the 2012 Guardian first book award, and drew upon his experiences fighting in the Iraq War as a machine gunner. With A Shout in the Ruins Powers returns to the battlefield. Albeit from another time, with one of the novel’s storylines set in Virginia before, during, and in the aftermath of the US Civil War. The novel in part follows the actions of Rawls, a hobbled slave, who falls in love with a fellow slave called Nurse, and must eventually navigate the hostility of slaveowners and the South to find her again.

It’s safe to say that A Shout in the Ruins is not going to be a light and breezy read. But nestled in amongst the barbarism and brutality of war and slavery there is a love story – albeit perhaps a tragic one. The early reviews I have read for the novel have been largely positive, with some criticism aimed towards the bombast of Powers’ prose. However, for those of you who are already fans of Powers’ work, there will surely be plenty to love here. Civil War America is a well trodden era in American literature, with A Shout in the Ruins the latest in a long line of novels, but does not look to be an unwelcome addition.

A Shout in the Ruins is available now through Hachette Australia

America Is Not The Heart – Elaine Castillo

America Is Not The Heart is the bold and ambitious debut novel from Elaine Castillo. The novel follows the story of Hero, short for Gerónima, as she embarks upon a new life in the United States. America Is Not The Heart is a tale of the Filipino diaspora, and is a vivid and tender exploration and exposition of the Filipino-American experience. Castillo, and her characters, flit between languages: English, Tagalog, Ilocano and Pangasinan all feature, with Castillo subtly unveiling the meaning of unfamiliar words to those of us readers unversed in the novels many languages. America Is Not The Heart is a story of community and of family, both of which are shaped by politics, class, sex and the question of home.

One of the novel’s strengths are Castillo’s characters, in particular the women, they’re well developed, feisty and tough! These are women that have known hardship and pain, but who have come out the other side, not unblemished, but ready to keep on fighting. Furthermore, America Is Not The Heart is a timely look at the power of the American Dream, and an immigrant community, at a time when both are under great threat. America Is Not The Heart introduces readers to a new and exciting voice in American literature, one we’ll hopefully be hearing more from in the future.

America Is Not The Heart is available now through Allen & Unwin.

The Making of Martin Sparrow – Peter Cochrane

The Making of Martin Sparrow is the debut novel from acclaimed Australian historian Peter Cochrane. The novel, as the title neatly suggests, follows the story of Martin Sparrow, an ex-convict and struggling farmer, as he comes to terms with the devastation reeked by the Hawkesbury Flood of 1806. Does he buckle down and set about the recovery of his land, or does he set off for a fabled earthly paradise rumoured to be on the other side of the mountains.

Unsurprisingly, given Cochrane’s position as a historian, the novel is well researched and brings to vividly to life the danger, dirt, and darkness of the period. The smell of death and decay hangs over the events of the novel which paints the Australian frontier as uncompromising and unwelcoming. Given the subject matter, and the 500+ pages, The Making of Martin Sparrow is not exactly light reading, but should appeal to those readers who enjoy a grittier and darker brand of historical fiction.

The Making of Martin Sparrow is available now through Penguin Australia

The Mercy Seat – Elizabeth H. Winthrop

Alone in a dingy cell in a Louisiana prison, a young African-American man faces the final hours of his life. At midnight, eighteen-year-old Willie Jones will be executed by electric chair for the rape of a young white girl – a crime he might be innocent of. The Mercy Seat is the fourth novel from American author Elizabeth H. Winthrop, and one which will undoubtedly find itself being compared to the classic To Kill A Mockingbird, and also perhaps more loosely to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The novel unfolds hour-by-hour and is told from the perspectives of nine people, each involved with the events in some way; they include Willie himself, his father, the prosecuting lawyer, and the priest who has become a friend to Willie, and who will offer him some last words of comfort.

The Mercy Seat is a moving and thought-provoking novel, which examines ideas of justice, racism and the morality of the death penalty, but does so with great subtlety and nuance. Winthrop’s characters are complex, well developed, and are recognisable to us, their actions have consequences, and whilst we might not condone those actions we can emphasise with them. The Mercy Seat should appeal to fans of Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird, but might also appeal to those that enjoyed The Help and similar works.

The Mercy Seat is available now through Hachette Australia