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Publisher's Summary

A gritty and gorgeous debut that follows a cast of gay and transgender club kids navigating the Harlem ball scene of the 1980s and '90s, inspired by the real House of Xtravaganza made famous by the seminal documentary Paris Is Burning

It's 1980 in New York City, and nowhere is the city's glamour and energy better reflected than in the burgeoning Harlem ball scene, where 17-year-old Angel first comes into her own. Burned by her traumatic past, Angel is new to the drag world, new to ball culture, and has a yearning inside of her to help create family for those without. When she falls in love with Hector, a beautiful young man who dreams of becoming a professional dancer, the two decide to form the House of Xtravaganza, the first-ever all-Latino house in the Harlem ball circuit. But when Hector dies of AIDS-related complications, Angel must bear the responsibility of tending to their house alone.

As mother of the house, Angel recruits Venus, a whip-fast trans girl who dreams of finding a rich man to take care of her; Juanito, a quiet boy who loves fabrics and design; and Daniel, a butch queen who accidentally saves Venus's life. The Xtravaganzas must learn to navigate sex work, addiction, and persistent abuse, leaning on each other as bulwarks against a world that resists them. All are ambitious, resilient, and determined to control their own fates, even as they hurtle toward devastating consequences.

Told in a voice that brims with wit, rage, tenderness, and fierce yearning, The House of Impossible Beauties is a tragic story of love, family, and the dynamism of the human spirit.

©2018 Joseph Cassara (P)2009 HarperCollins Publishers

Critic Reviews

"Narrator Christian Barillas's respectful performance successfully navigates a potential obstacle course of stereotypes, starting with his authentic-sounding Spanglish and Puerto Rican accent, which solidly place this heartrending story in the Latino community. In addition, he deftly sidesteps cartoonish inflections while infusing the characters' dialogue with an outward sassiness and a hint of their deep vulnerability. Listeners will long remember the experiences of these young people who are uncomfortable with the expectations of their birth gender or sexual preference and who want nothing more than acceptance and love." (AudioFile)  

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

As real as it gets

The House of Impossible Beauties threw me into a world I knew close to nothing about. The Harlem Ball scene of the 80s and 90s was a culture born of intense, largely unrecognized struggle, and Joseph Cassara’s fictional ode to the time is likewise chock full of character. Pure, undiluted, super-concentrated character. This book is brutal. It is unflinching, and it is as real as it gets.

Like have you ever seen Requiem for a Dream? It’s on the same page of, “Wow, I can’t believe anyone could endure this,” type emotional shock. But where that movie follows a drug addict's bleak downward spiral, Cassara’s characters never fail to demonstrate a life-affirming and indomitable strength that is, simply put, beautiful.

Joseph Cassara clearly vetted narrator Christian Barillas super closely, as this is a book that demands fluidity between languages, genders, and class all at once—I think it would have been an impossible task for nearly anyone else, but Barillas nails it.

**This book is graphic**

13 of 14 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

An OK book, that could be better

I was really excited about this book. As a gay guy, and as a fan of the ball scene you don't get to find something many books with characters you can relate to. This audiobook however did not live up to my expectations.
The story has many good moments that are entertaining and worth listening to. Nevertheless, I think the book could have a lot more about the ball scene, about vogging, about transitioning into trans and about other queens from the xtravaganza house as well as others.
The main thing that I would change about the story is that it was awfully, and unnecessarily harsh. I know the real characters must have had struggles, but the fictional version could have balanced the difficult parts with the happy ones. Specially the ending could have been a bit more optimistic.
About the interpretation of the audiobook I would complain that sometimes it felt a bit flat. Also, there were many unnecessary repetition of a monotonous "he said" "she said". This may not be a problem in the written version of the book, but are extremely repetitive in the audiobook.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Heartbreakingly Honest

I tend to stay away from LGBTQ fiction because the narrative tends to be similar:cis (usually white) guy falls in love with a straight (also usually white)cis guy. This narrative can get boring and i rarely see myself in a character. This book was SO different. I could see myself and the people I’ve loved and, sometimes, lost in these characters. Everything felt so familiar that I couldn’t put it down because it felt like I was suddenly remembering a memory I had forgotten. The tragedy, the love, the shade, the sorrow, the longing,the realness...it’s all here.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Beautiful and painful

This book left me stunned. The performance by Christian Barillas is gorgeous and brings the story to life. Anyone who has seen Paris Is Burning will appreciate this book, but you won’t need a reason to care deeply about these characters. Each one is richly drawn and full of conflict.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Wow

This book was gut wrenching, beautiful and will be impossible to forget. Don’t even want to read anything else right away because I want to reflect on this experience some more.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Wonderful character studies

The performance was spot on, and a lot of the book was very entertaining and an interesting look into a lifestyle I am certainly aware of, but know little about. Very poignant. The book was just overly long. There are long sections of the book of interactions and conversations that go nowhere, do nothing to add to the storyline.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Exhilarating & Tragic

I didn't know what to expect with this book, but it was recommended highly by a fellow lover of drag. I didn't understand the Harlem Ball scene, and I still don't, but I picture roaming gangs of drag queens. Since reading this book, I've read up on the real people that this is based off of, and they're all fascinating. I found some of the drug scenes and the casual way prostitution is discussed in this book shocking, in that I can't imagine living like that. It was both an exhilarating and tragic read, though.

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On point. Both hilarious and tragic

Written from the heart and captures a sliver in time when the world was turned upside down from the AIDS epidemic. I only wish that the author captured more of the joyous aspects of the Balls and KiKis that made these kids shine in such an unforgiving era. Christian Barillas is a gifted narrator who takes you to the heart of the Latina world of drag queens in New York. Bravo!

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A heartbreakingly beautiful tragedy

A heartbreakingly beautiful tragedy too real to be fiction. Capturing the voice perfectly of the beautiful lost ones of the late 80s epidemic

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Good Effort at an Impossible Task

This book has lovely and heart-breaking character studies hidden throughout it, but like accessories, this book should have looked in the mirror, and taken something off. It could have been much shorter and stronger for it.

If the author did research and performed interviews, I think I would have enjoyed the non-fiction offering more. This isn't a read on the author's writing skills, which are completely capable. But just imagine trying to write a 20 minute episode of Rupaul's Drag Race: Untucked, even if you are familiar with the queens, they are always too dynamic and unpredictable for one fan to guess what they will (or would have, in this case) actually said.

I think that Joseph Cassara truly loves the subjects and era of this book, and it shows, but he also padded every conversation with excess lines, the internal monologues with too many reactions, and the overall story with the sense that the author is trying to stall for time before he has to let these queens' stories end. Which just makes the hard lives of these unsung oppressed glamazons come off as tedious.

That said, INCREDIBLE ending.