This devastating fever by Sophie Cunningham
Fiction, Ultimo Press, $32.99
In This Devastating Fever – which took Sophie Cunningham 16 years to write – a fictional writer named Alice (a replacement for Cunningham) spends 16 years writing a book called… This Devastating Fever. The book is to be about Virginia Woolf’s husband Leonard, which would be a hard sell anyway – but Alice’s search becomes an obsession, interrupting its timelines with red rabbit holes and international trips to distant archives , as his editor’s impatience reaches tipping point.
“No more sex! asks its editor – and so we get four pages of points on the Bloomsbury group titled “Who’s fucking who”. “Fewer footnotes!” her editor proclaims – but Alice (read: Sophie) can’t seem to kill her darlings. It’s queer historical fiction about the Woolfs, yes – but it’s also autofiction and metafiction about the writing of the book. It’s very funny, very clever and surprisingly moving too. – Steph Harmon
Marshmallow by Victoria Hannan
Fiction, Hachette, $29.99
It’s the stuff of nightmares: After a busy birthday party for two-year-old Toby, his young parents and their friends meet outside for a beer, a joint and some relaxation. Inside, unattended for a while, the little boy found a stray marshmallow, choked on it, and died. No one is to blame. Everyone is to blame.
Her first book since her acclaimed debut, 2020’s Kokomo, Victoria Hannan’s Marshmallow deals with the fallout for each of the five friends, who – in alternating chapters – deal or don’t deal with trauma, on the first anniversary of Toby’s death. . With easy comparisons to Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, it’s a compelling, tender and empathetic take on how grief and guilt affect everyone differently – and how tragedy can bring us together or tear us apart. – SH
Harold Holt by Ross Walker
Biography, Black Inc, $34.99
In writing this startling, literary, and fresh biography, Walker aimed “for a midpoint between biography and narrative non-fiction – the story told as a story.” Much of it centers on who Holt was before he became Australian Prime Minister in 1966, a year before his notorious disappearance at sea. Although there’s a lot about that too: Walker shows how Holt was drawn to water all his life – training to hold his breath while bored in parliament and scaring his wife when she found him submerged in the tub.
These are small examples of the man Walker reveals to be adventurous, stoic, and kind by nature, beautiful character traits overshadowed by the circumstances of his death. Where there are gaps in first-hand accounts, Walker makes shrewd observations about how Holt may have behaved or reacted using what is known. It’s a confident, and often beautifully written book – which is unexpected for a political biography. – Sian Cain
Wildflowers by Peggy Frew
Fiction, Allen and Unwin, $32.99
All of Peggy Frew’s novels, in one way or another, explore the dynamics between families, looking through a variety of lenses to reveal the complex and struggling individuals at their hearts. Wild flowers is a culmination of Frew’s best qualities – beautifully, deeply observed; overflowing with tension; deeply domestic.
In it, three sisters – Meg, Nina and Amber – travel to a remote holiday home in Far North Queensland in an attempt to right past wrongs and reconnect. Frew has, once again, demonstrated his remarkable insight into the conflicted individual lives and traumas that lurk beneath the surface of families. – Kavanagh Beak
Meet Chris Flynn’s Leviathans
News, UQP, $32.99
Chris Flynn’s latest book, Mammoth, was told by a 13,000-year-old extinct American behemoth – and it captured the personality of old bones so well that the author ended up with a side job at Museums Victoria. Here Be Leviathans is a collection that picks up where that experience left off, as Flynn gives voice to the voiceless: a self-expanding ape about to be shot in space; an airplane chair that lands in the Siberian forest after an explosive crash; a family of sassy otters with a flair for the visual arts; and – in one particularly prescient story – a saber-toothed tiger stalking a Jurassic Park-like playground for the terrible rich.
The cute premise would be sickening from a lesser writer, but Flynn works with such humor, voice, and empathy that the stories can’t help but move you. – SH
Bon and Lesley by Shaun Prescott
Fiction, Giramondo, $29.95
Shaun Prescott’s 2017 debut The Town was an evocative and eerie satire on Australian regional towns – capturing both the apathetic suffocation of being trapped (geographically, psychologically) and the tendency they have to vanish. The book has won worldwide distribution, critical acclaim and comparisons to Gerald Murnane’s The Plains – so its follow-up five years later represents a bit of an enlightened global moment.
I haven’t read this one yet, but at first glance, Bon and Lesley come across as a sidekick; again surreal and tongue-in-cheek and dark; again in a desolate regional Australian town, where the character Bon finds himself after a bushfire stops a train on which he was fleeing town. The author describes it as his “doom metal novel…I couldn’t write anything else until it got out of my way”. – SH
Against Disappearance, edited by Leah Jing McIntosh and Adolfo Aranjuez
Trials, Pantera Press, $32.99
This collection of First Nations writers and writers of color—the 20 finalists for the Liminal and Pantera Press Nonfiction Award—contains some incredible writing. Among the contributors, Hasib Hourani, who made me burst out laughing with thoughts that were as funny as they were serious, lonely and acerbic; and Kasumi Borczyk, who inventively layers family narratives on top of each other. Lur Alghurabi writes with pathos and intelligence, and Brandon K Liew delivers a piece of Melbourne history that is also something the city could never belong to: an intimate account of a specific time and place; a family history that only he could bring to life.
Buy a copy for yourself, buy a copy for your friends, and prepare to be overwhelmed. – Declan Fry.
People Who Have Lunch by Sally Olds
Trials, Upswell, $29.99
The Melbourne-based critic’s debut spans a range of social scenes (most of them quite club-heavy): from secret societies to art fairs to crypto. Each piece in the collection – subtitled “essays on work, leisure and the free life” – asks you to think more about how we earn money, celebrate and take care of each other. Olds’ writing is relaxed and direct, driven by a keen intellect and a radiant, unaffected interest in the world around him. With enviable clarity and style, she eliminates assumptions about class and gender.
And she’s not afraid to take the scalpel in her own life – questioning, in a compelling essay on polyamory, the political potential we might grasp, or miss, in the way we structure our closest relationships. Another writer once described Olds to me as “very underrated” – this book should fix that. (Plus: best cover of the year? I think so.) –Imogen Dewey