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In our final post for 2020, the Underground Team have rounded up all their favourite new releases for this year. Read on to discover (or rediscover!) the books that kept us going through 2020 and why they were so great:

Jemimah Halbert Brewster

The Spill by Imbi Neeme (published June 2020)

‘In 1982, young sisters Samantha and Nicole are in the car with their mother, Tina, when it overturns on a remote WA road. No one is seriously hurt, but the girl’s conflicting memories of the event and its lead-up have lifelong ramifications. Flash forward to their mother’s funeral several decades later and the sisters have long-ago drifted apart, their relationship twisted and fractured by decades of secrets, misunderstandings, bad communication, and poor parenting. But a revelation from Tina’s sister, Meg, sets in motion an unravelling of everything the sisters think they know about their mother, their family, and each other.’ I devoured this book in a day and a half; the characters are so real and relatable, and their lives so normal and extraordinary in a way that really stays with you. Months after reading it I still think of some of the things they do and say, how infuriating and potent they are in their mistakes and relationships. Read the full review on Jemimah’s website here.

How to be Australian by Ashley Kalagian Blunt (published June 2020)

‘On the surface this is a story of two people migrating from one country to another and the various challenges and disasters that entails. But it is just as much a story of identity and growing up, as it is coming to terms with adulthood and settling down after the restlessness of youth.’ I really enjoyed this memoir because it’s such an insightful dissection of Australian culture, from the little things – like coffee – to the big things – like the history of oppressive colonialism that the country as we know it is based on. I think this is an important read for every Australian. You can read the full review here.

The Salt Madonna by Catherine Noske (published February 2020)

‘The Salt Madonna is a tense, slow-burning examination of despair, faith, hope and power in a small community. It is told by Hannah, who grew up, got out, and then returned as a teacher to Chesil, a fictional island off the coast of Western Australia. Chesil, like many isolated rural communities, is gripped in a slow but unstoppable economic decline, accompanied with the regular exodus of its young people to the mainland, most of them never to return. In the midst of this depressed, violence-tinged community is Father John, a Catholic minister who sees visions of his deceased wife, and Mary, a 14-year-old student of Hannah’s whose coming of age is stalled when she makes a bid for freedom.’ Reading this novel I was shrouded in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Noske’s fictional island; it reminded me of small towns I grew up in, and yet it is timeless in its examination of religious fervor and the mistakes people make when they are desperate to believe in something. You can read a full review on ArtsHub here and in issue 30: Thriller.

Ebony Bryant

The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham (published March 2020)

Sonny never imagined that a secret porn stash and her intoxicated grandmother would bring Vince back into her life. But in the two years that have passed since Vince was hauled off to juvie, Sonny is no longer sure if he’s still the boy from her childhood. Set in South-West Sydney, The Coconut Children follows two teens as they navigate their way through the complexities of love, life, and familial expectations. You can read the full review here.

Small Steps: A Physio in Ethiopia by Julie Sprigg (published March 2020)

Julie Sprigg recounts her time volunteering as a physiotherapist in Ethiopia in this heartfelt memoir. As a young woman excited by the opportunity to make a difference, Julie jumps at the chance to help at a convent clinic in Addis Ababa. But what begins with ideal expectations quickly turns into a demoralising reality, as she is forced to confront the limitations of her abilities in a developing nation. Throughout this piece, Julie offers an honest insight to her time in Ethiopia and the triumph and sorrows she faced in her journey to ‘do good’.

Found by Bruce Pascoe, illustrated by Charmaine Ledden-Lewis (published August 2020)

An incredibly heartfelt and moving story of a young calf in search of its family after seeing them carted away in the back of a truck. In this children’s story of family and hope, illustrator and Kestin Indigenous Award winner Charmaine Ledden-Lewis has teamed up with author Bruce Pascoe to deliver a visually stunning book that captures the raw beauty of the Australian outback and the emotional journey of the lonely calf. You can read an interview with Charmaine here.

Jess Gately

Little Jiang by Shirley Marr (published September 2020)

Mei Ling Pang was born at an inauspicious time on an inauspicious day, so wherever she goes, misfortune follows. When Little Jiang hops out of his grave and into Mei’s life, fangs and all, her luck goes from bad to worse. But in trying to help Little Jiang, Mei might just make her own future brighter. ‘Little Jiang is an easy read, a great introduction to some of the Chinese folklore and mythology that exists, and it encourages all the qualities we’d hope to see in kids: kindness, empathy, resilience and a desire to understand.’ You can read the full review in Underground Issue 32: Horror

Windfall by Ketan Joshi (published September 2020)

‘Every problem is insurmountable before it is surmounted. Every change is slow before it is fast. Every apocalypse is inevitable until it is cancelled.’ Ketan Joshi attempts to fight the rising tide of ‘doomism’ which he describes as just as infuriating as denial, in this fascinating and hopeful examination of the renewable energy debate in Australia. It is essential reading for Australians engaging in the climate-change movement. You can read the full review here.

Smart Ovens for Lonely People by Elizabeth Tan (published June 2020)

Elizabeth Tan returns with this bittersweet and surreal collection of short stories. One minute you’re laughing at her playfulness and imaginative nature, the next you’re sitting in silent awe at the emotional turmoil she unravels within. Witty and insightful, these stories are a mixture of social critique and mental exploration, an expertly woven vision of what is and what may be. A full review will be coming to Underground soon.

Kate Lomas Glendenning

Death Leaves the Station by Alexander Thorpe (published September 2020)

‘In Thorpe’s debut novel, the Australian Gothic is explored and modernised in this contemporary novel. Initially set in the outback, a nameless friar dines as a grand station house where the station owner’s daughter, Ana, reveals she discovered a body in the desert; however, when the household sets out to find the body, the body is gone. Agatha Christie lovers will devour this book, and those looking for a great new Gothic read will be equally impressed.’ You can read a collaboration of reviews here.

I Want to be a Superhero by Breanna Humes, illustrated by Ambelin Kwaymullina (published November 2020)

‘A beautiful children’s book that explores the concept of heroism in the everyday. Although the main character wishes she possesses the ability to fly like a superhero, she ultimately learns that the superheros in this world are the doctors, nurses, and lawyers who impact the lives of everyone. A beautiful, short story for adults and children alike.’ You can read the full review on the Glamadelaide website here.

Return Ticket by Jon Doust (published March 2020)

‘In Return Ticket, Jack Muir “returns” to us! Jack recalls his youth as a restless wanderer who finds his hometown (WA) to be unfulfilling and dreary. Jack’s wandering finds him in Cape Town during the height of apartheid and so he escapes to a kibbutz in Israel. As we follow Jack on his journey, Jack recognises and discovers love, friendship and family across time and continents. A brilliant read for those looking for adventure and enlightenment.’ Read the full review for Underground Writers here.

Lauren Pratt

Living on Stolen Land by Ambelin Kwaymullina (published July 2020)

This small manifesto is packed with amazing prose about Australia’s colonial history and the ongoing trauma for First Nations people caused by colonial invasion. ‘It pulls apart the myths at the heart of our nationhood, and challenges Australia to come to terms with its own past and its place within and on ‘Indigenous Countries (@blackfulla_bookclub).’ Listen to the author Ambelin Kwaymullina in conversation with Blackfulla Bookclub co-founder Teela Reid hosted by James Ross from Gleebooks here.

Where The Fruit Falls by Karen Wyld (published September 2020)

Where The Fruit Falls is Karen Wyld’s debut award-winning novel which delves into an inter-generational family full of strong First Nations women who are finding their connection to their land amidst an unjust colonial Australia. The story is poignant and beautiful while exposing the harsh reality of Australia’s colonial history—a history which is still impacting First Nations peoples today.’ This is a marvelous debut book and a story that touches the heart. Read the full review here.

Bindi by Kirli Saunders, illustrated by Dub Leffler (published November 2020)

Kirli Saunders has created a wonderful verse-novel for children about conserving the Australian landscape and animals. Bindi is about an eleven-year-old girl who has fun with her family and school friends while also witnessing the devastating impact that bushfires have on Land and the community. It is an educational and beautiful text written in both Gundungurra Language and English. Keep an eye out for a review coming to Underground Writers in the new year, as well as an interview with the author and the illustrator.

Shelley Timms

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings (published July 2020)

Flyaway is a stunning debut in the realm of magical realism, with gorgeously Gothic themes and complex characters. It follows Bettina Scott, a resident of a small Queensland town plagued by all manner of eerie creatures and strange occurrences. The prose is lyrical and atmospheric, making the reader feel as though they are suffocating under the heat of the Australian sun.

Either Side of Midnight by Benjamin Stevenson (published September 2020)

[CW: mention of suicide]

It takes a lot for me to give five stars to a thriller, but I read this sophomore release from Stevenson in almost a single sitting. When popular TV presenter Sam Midford dies by suicide live on air, it thrusts investigator Jack Quick back into the world of crime solving and into imminent danger. Midford’s brother Harry is convinced he was murdered, and so Jack must work hard to get to the bottom of the mystery. Stevenson’s writing is whip-smart and fast-paced; it’s easy to see why his first novel, Greenlight, won the Ned Kelly Award.

Second Skin by Christian White (published April 2020)

This Audible exclusive is short and sweet, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack a punch. White experiments with the idea of reincarnation in this thriller, with jaw-dropping effect. When young girl Erin starts recounting “past life memories” to her concerned mum Marcy, it sets them on a path that uncovers a series of secrets that will change their lives and the lives of strangers forever. This book has been likened to the work of Stephen King, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Grace Wholley

Hysteria by Katerina Bryant (published September 2020)

Hysteria is the story of mental illness. It recounts the mental health journey of Katerina Bryan, detailing how she navigated her symptoms, searched for a diagnosis, and eventually recovered. But as much as this debut is about illness, it is also about deconstructing the cultural frameworks that permeate common understandings of women’s mental health. While ‘hysteria’ is now an outdated term, Bryant argues that ‘…its legacy remains when women enter the waiting room… sick women are still told by medical professionals and bystanders alike how well and happy they might be if they drink water, try yoga, exercise more, sleep well, take melatonin, and maybe even smile.’ This is a dimensional and powerful read that will impact the lives of many. Read the full review here.

The Freedom Circus by Sue Smethurst (published November 3rd, 2020)

The Freedom Circus, written by journalist and author Sue Smethurst, follows the Horowitz family and their brave escape from Poland during the Second World War. It is a tale of hope, love, and resilience, originally intended to be a family project as opposed to a published work. Smethurst writes ‘…this never began as a book, it actually started as a family history project. I had heard snippets of my grandmother-in-law’s story from my husband and I’d always been intrigued by it, but Nanna never spoke about it. As she got older and we could see time was running out, I became more anxious to make sure we knew what had happened to her family and how she came to Australia for our children’s sake, I felt it was very important they knew their heritage and where they came from. So I started visiting Nanna in the nursing home where she lived to talk to her about it and take down her story’. The Freedom Circus is a touching piece that has remained with me since I read it. Keep an eye out for an interview with Smethurst coming to Underground Writers in the new year.

Underground Team

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