The best books released in June – from historical fiction to memoir and poetry

Welcome to ABC Arts’ monthly book column. Each month, we’ll present a shortlist of new releases read and recommended by The Bookshelf’s Kate Evans and The Book Show’s Claire Nichols and Sarah L’Estrange — alongside freelance writers and book reviewers. This month, we’re thrilled to present recommendations from Declan Fry.

All four read voraciously and widely, and the only guidelines we gave them were: make it a new release; make it something you think is great.

The resulting list features page-turning historical fiction from a Pulitzer Prize-winner, an engrossing tale based on a real-life leper colony in early-20th century Sydney, a comic-book memoir-cum-manifesto about body image, subversive poetry from one of our great Indigenous writers, and a multi-generational First Nations family saga from Canada.

Horse by Geraldine Brooks

Hachette

A real-life racehorse is the inspiration for Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks’s latest work of historical fiction, but it’s the people and politics around that horse that will have you galloping through its 400-plus pages.

Cover of Horse by Geraldine Brooks featuring a horse looking over a fence.
Brooks is best known for her bestselling 2001 novel Year of Wonders and 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winner March.(Supplied: Hachette Australia)

The main strand of the story is set in antebellum America, where horse racing was ubiquitous — and largely reliant on the skills and knowledge of unpaid Black grooms and trainers.

Brook introduces us to Jarret, a young, enslaved man who spends his life caring for Lexington — the most famous thoroughbred of the era. It’s worth noting here that Lexington was a real horse, who drew fans in their thousands to see him race. But the character of Jarret is a creation – Brooks found only one historical reference to a “Black Jarret” who accompanied the horse across the country, extrapolating that into this character.

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‘I got obsessed with horses’ — Geraldine Brooks on her novel Horse
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The stories of the Black men who cared for these famous horses have largely been lost to history; in a way, this book serves as a correction to the record.

The character of Jarret is a gifted horseman and a loyal companion to his four-legged friend, and his expertise is respected. He’s also mistreated, bought and sold, and quietly suspicious of the rich white men who control his life.

The cruel racism of slave-era America is echoed in a modern-day storyline, where we meet Theo, a Black art historian compelled to learn more about Lexington after discovering a painting of the horse discarded kerbside.

As Theo grapples with microaggressions (a ‘meet-cute’ with a potential white love interest starts with her accusing him of stealing her bike) and far more dangerous interactions with white men in power, the reader must consider how much things have really changed for Black men in America. CN

The Coast by Eleanor Limprecht

Allen & Unwin

Cover of The Coast Eleanor Limprecht featuring a woman in a shirt and long skirt looking out over a stormy sea.
The Coast was inspired by a community museum on the site of the former Prince Henry Hospital (aka The Coast Hospital).(Supplied: Allen & Unwin)

The book begins: “Sixteen years captive.” But this is not a prison of criminals, it is a leper colony in a Sydney hospital in 1910. Alice, the central character in Eleanor Limprecht’s moving fourth novel, has lived in a lazaret since she was nine. As horrifying as that sounds, the fear of contagion was so great that isolation was standard practice for people with leprosy in early 20th century Australia. (You can’t read a novel about leprosy without doing further reading, and I learnt a reliable cure was only developed in the 80s.)

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A Métis family tree and a Sydney Leprosarium: Katherena Vermette’s The Strangers and Eleanor Limprecht’s The Coast
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The novel is set at the Coast Hospital in Little Bay, where a sex-segregated leper colony was established in 1890. The story is told in alternating chapters from the point of view of different characters; initially we meet young Alice, and as the story unfolds we discover how she ended up at the hospital.

Among the large cast of other characters are Alice’s mother Clea, who also has leprosy; Will, the committed doctor who tends to the patients; and Guy, a young Aboriginal man who served in World War I (where he lost a leg) and who contends with racism as well as the stigma of having leprosy.

Guy and Alice form a beautiful and tender bond, brought together by their shared isolation but also a recognition of each other’s free spirit.

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