It’s that time of year again when ‘Best of’ lists begin to dominate across the arts media, and the same names and productions are festooned with awards, leaving other equally deserving titles forgotten and trailing in their wake. Here, hence, is a selection of personally curated underrated books (a couple are even debuts) that have perhaps flown under the radar.
Hovering, Rhett Davis
A surreal and dystopian novel, Rhett Davis’ debut is set in fictional Fraser (that bears more than a passing resemblance to Melbourne) where protagonist Alice, an artist, returns home after some time away. Hovering’s narrative is not straightforward. In the age of social media, it employs a number of stylistic tricks – text conversations, computer code, interview transcripts and magazine articles – in its storytelling. Fraser itself starts to shapeshift, with buildings literally moving around overnight. Is that a metaphor for an unstable reality? It’s a challenging read, but worth the effort if you’re up for something experimental.
An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, Paul Dalla Rosa
The title is ironic in this collection of tales about the world of modern labour. They are satirical and melancholic in tone, these stories of the loners and the desperates trying to navigate a world of checking in and checking out, with low emotional wattage attached to their jobs and the false promise of globalisation simply leaving people feeling disenfranchised rather than connected.
Bedtime Story, Chloe Hooper
A memoir that tracks the author’s life when her partner and the father of her two young children (Don Watson, a writer himself and Paul Keating’s speechwriter) becomes sick with cancer. Hooper, who’s written several novels and books of investigative journalism, here turns inwards to reflect on this very private matter of grief and struggle. Addressed to her sons, the book reads like a novel as she marshals all her energies to prepare them for what may come. Hooper enlists the help of children’s literature and some best-known authors (Brothers Grimm, Dahl, Carroll, Tolkien) across the ages to see what wisdom they can impart. Illustrations by Anna Walker are also featured.
In a book that monitors the pulse of a contemporary world, Olds’ essays on ‘work, leisure and loose living’ is an erudite collection that bristles with insights into a range of topics that include the various subcultures of cryptocurrency, communes, polyamory, clubbing and secret societies. Olds writes about community and technology, ‘free’ love in relationships and various disruptions to capitalist society. It’s a heady, far-ranging and thought-provoking collection.
Young Adult Fiction
All That’s Left Unsaid, Tracey Lien
A family drama and suspense book, Lien’s debut tracks Ky, a Vietnamese-Australian woman who returns home after her brother is murdered in Cabramatta, desperate to find out what had happened to him. The police are ineffectual and indifferent (they assume he must be a junkie or a gangster) so Ky takes it upon herself to investigate. All That’s Left Unsaid explores the bonds and strictures of family and community, of generational trauma, and of social and racist discrimination in prose that’s urgent and compelling.
We Who Hunt the Hollow, Kate Murray
Priscilla is not quite a normal teenager: she’s the descendant of a family of Hollow Warriors who kill monsters from another universe and protect the unprotected. She is, however, uncertain of what her own powers can summon. A coming-of-age debut with fantasy elements, this book with its feisty, kickass women is centred on the very relatable adolescent anxieties of grappling with identity, and of wanting to belong and to prove oneself to peers and family.
Do you have anything less Domestic?, Emilie Collyer
Collyer explores the nexus between the public and the private in this witty and provocative collection of poetry that moves from the familial sphere to the world at large. It’s an acerbic, playful and feminist book. Divided into five sections, its subheadings are taken from unsolicited comments offered to the poet at various points in her life, including: ‘Don’t write about your family, nobody cares’, ‘It’s important to keep up weight-bearing exercise’, ‘You have a nice smile, you should use it more’, ‘I hope I won’t put anyone off by saying this is genuinely feminist’ and, of course, the titular impudent query.
Resilience, Mascara Literary Review, edited by Michelle Cahill, Monique Nair and Anthea Yang
To celebrate its 15th year, Mascara Literary Review has released its first print edition, an anthology that explores the theme of resilience in fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction. Featuring a diverse list of contributors, the book wonders out loud what exactly is resilience: what does it look like, how do we claim it and is it even sustainable?
The Bookseller’s Apprentice, Amelia Mellor
A mix of fact and fiction, this novel is set in Melbourne in 1870, where 12-year-old Billy is desperate to work at a bookstall in Paddy’s Market (far more interesting than the nail factory where his father wants him to work). The Bookseller’s Apprentice is in fact the prequel to The Grandest Bookshop in the World, Mellor’s wildly popular earlier novel. Once again she shows us how she hooks kids (and adults) into her storytelling by use of magic, magicians and riddles.
Come Together: Things Every Aussie Kid Should Know about the First Peoples, Isaiah Firebrace. Illustrated by Jaelyn Biumaiwai
In this picture book, Isaiah Firebrace, a musician and a Yorta Yorta and Gunditjmara man, introduces to children 20 key topics about First Nations knowledge alongside radiant illustrations by Mununjali and Fijian artist Jaelyn Biumaiwai. Firebrace uses his own personal story and culture, from the diversity of First People’s languages and clans, to the importance of Elders and the Indigenous origins of AFL. The book was inspired by his petition to the Australian Government calling for Aboriginal history to be taught in every classroom.