PIP SMITH (ALLEN & UNWIN, $32.99)
Eugenia Falleni has long captivated writers’ imaginations. Italian-born, New Zealand-raised and thought to be the oldest of 22 children, Falleni would today be referred to as transgender, but in 1880s Wellington she was thought of as just plain strange. Dressing as a boy from an early age, ostensibly to find work and perhaps to appeal to her mother’s obsession with boy babies, Falleni eventually ran away to sea before making Australia home, where she lived a life that included marriage to two women and a conviction for murder. In her debut novel, Half Wild author Pip Smith climbs deep inside Falleni’s mind, combining a faithfulness to facts with her own soaring imagination. Her prose is magical, but readers will need their wits about them to keep track of the broad cast of characters.