Book Review: Underdog edited by Tobias Madden – A Powerful and Relatable Collection of Stories About Australian Teens

Underdog, #LoveOzYa Short Stories. [Authors:] Sophie L Macdonald, Tobias Madden, Felicity Martin, Stacey Malacari, Sofia Casanova, Cassi Dorian, Kaneana May, KM Stamer-Squair, Sarah Taviani, Vivian Wei, Michael Earp, Jes Layton

Short tales from the Australian writers of tomorrow.

#LoveOzYA celebrates the best of new Australian writing for teenage readers. It has grown from a humble hashtag into a movement, reflecting the important role young-adult fiction plays in shaping our current generation of readers. This anthology collects, for the first time, some of the tremendous work from the #LoveOzYA community.

Featuring a foreword by award-winning Australian novelist Fleur Ferris (Risk, Wreck, Black and Found), Underdog celebrates the diverse, dynamic and ever-changing nature of our nation’s culture. From queer teen romance to dystopian comedy, from hard-hitting realism to gritty allegory, this brilliant, engrossing and inspiring collection of short stories will resonate with any teen reader, proving, yet again, why there is just so much to love about #LoveOzYA.

My review:

I am floored, friends. When I was given the opportunity to read Underdog, an YA anthology of debut Australian writers, I was excited. But now, having read all the stories and being immersed in such incredible narratives, inspired visions, and powerful voices, I am ecstatic to tell you all about this anthology and its brilliant stories. From dystopia to comedy to explorations of grief and love, Underdog promises something for everyone – and you will definitely find a new favourite short story within this anthology.

Meet and Greet by Michael Earp

My goodness, the first story was absolutely delightful and such a powerful start to this anthology. It follows Cooper, a boy meets boy story that takes place at an author and book signing event. Earp’s story celebrates the importance of representation and how books and their stories can be meaningful to people, but also portrays the small but meaningful things of meeting an author (and just how exciting and incredible these moments can be and mean to people!), the beauty of meeting someone new, especially one who clicks with you, and taking chances. Meet and Greet was pure fluff and thoroughly wholesome, and such an accurate and lovely portrayal of how it feels to be at a book event and the precarious but exciting possibilities of new and budding queer relationships.

Breathe Me In by Sophie L. Macdonald

First of all: it was an utter mistake to read this late at night and after everyone was asleep. I’m personally a little superstitious, so reading this story at night terrified me and, I admit, had me hiding under my covers. Breathe Me In follows Mina, an English teen who moves to the countryside in Australia, and meets a mysterious girl by the name of Talia, who hears and sees things from the creek. This story adopts a tone akin to urban legends that older kids tell you to scare you, but the narrative voice is so alluring and the story within the story incredibly compelling. I was scared, but I could not stop reading. Though a horror story at its heart, this story also touches on how people perceive mental illnesses and mentally ill people and the price we pay to save others.

Remnants by KM Stamer-Squair

Wow. I have to share a quote from this story, because when I read it, I knew I’d love it instantly:

The Old Days don’t exist anymore. Back then, the seasons were shorter and the weather was milder and the food tasted better—although not everyone had it, not even then.

Stamer-Squair’s story about climate change, its catastrophic effect on humanity, and how humans have had to adapt was brilliant and unforgettable. The story follows Melody, a teen who lives in an underground with her family because above ground is now uninhabitable. I loved how the story examined how life would be for a teen living in such circumstances, and that the story implores you to juxtapose Melody’s life, her ambitions, her concerns, and her life with your own as you read. The ending itself was bittersweet and provocative, and definitely made me reflect on the smallness and brevity of humanity, and how that there may be hope that exists beyond us.

Mediocre Heroes by Sarah Taviani

I adored this story, and if you love The Sidekick Squad anthology, then you will too. The story follows Nat, who lives in a world where superpowers are the norm and attends a support group for people like her – those whose powers have never manifested. A light-hearted story at its core, Mediocre Hearts is about superheroes, friendship, and how sometimes our identities are defined by others. Underneath that though, Taviani’s story also offers subtle and excellent discourse on bureaucracy, how ‘normal’ is absolutely and completely arbitrary (and why we should not let others define who we are), and the importance of finding your people – people who understand you, share the same experiences as you, and finding joy in who you are, no matter who you are.

The Swan by Felicity Martin

This story hit me so hard, and is certainly a story that will stay with me long after reading it. Similar to the analogy of the ‘black dog’, The Swan follows Marlowe, who, at a young age, is plagued by the persistent presence of a black swan as it sits on her chest, pecks at her, and follows her across her life. Despite Marlowe’s desperate, and sometimes intense, efforts, the swan never leaves, and I think perfectly describes and portrays the pervasiveness and persistence and heaviness of depression. The imagery and writing of this was vivid, heartbreaking, and poetic, and will certainly resonate with people who live with depression and anxiety. I also loved the end, and loved that it was able to inspire hope.

The Chinese Menu for the Afterlife by Vivian Wei

The moment I read that this book would combine familial relationships and food, I knew that I would love this instantly. Wei’s gorgeous and bittersweet story is about an unnamed Chinese-Australian teen illustrates the transcendent power of food, and how it intertwines with tradition, identity, culture, food, and place. I loved the focus on family in this story, and how food is such a powerful and binding force in Chinese culture, and how it can be an expression of love, grief, belonging, and home. I related to this story immensely, and – honestly? It made me hungry for some homey Chinese food. A profound and wonderful story.

Variation by Tobias Madden

Variation is a rare story that seems to tread the fine line of being both heart-breaking but also hopeful. It follows Andy, a boy who has an affinity for ballet, despite the fact that ballet is the antithesis to Australian masculinity. The story explores how masculinity is so closely intertwined with identity, anti-homosexuality, how insecurity and confusion is internalised, and how our lives and our perceptions can change if only we be honest with ourselves. Though the story features some anti-gay rhetoric, it is challenged, and the open-ended ending provides space for thought and reflection — and it made me hope that Andy changes for the better.

Chemical Expressions by Jes Layton

This story caught me off guard, and it’s not often that stories do this. Layton’s incredible story features non-binary teen, Autumn, who tries to get marijuana from their school’s weed dealer. The story oscillates between ‘Now’ and ‘Then’, and examines Autumn’s struggle and anxiety over the transaction and how they grapple with being scrutinised by school bureaucracy for possessing drugs. I really loved the ‘twist’ in the end – not only because it surprised me, but because it really subverts your expectations of what you think this story is about. And I loved that. This was such a brilliant story; one that I will remember for a long time to come.

The Bees by Stacey Malacari

The Bees was a refreshing and sobering perspective in the Underdog anthologybut I appreciated the sombre tone. It follows Remi, a teen escaping the floods that have submerged most of her city, and refuses to leave her Nan (grandmother), who has decided to not escape the flood, behind. As well as its overarching theme of global warming, the story also examines the choices that we make, maternal bonds, the decision of when to live and when to die, and how life sometimes works in cruel ways. A great story, albeit a sad one where the characters’ futures are bleak, and fitting in light of the climate change protests that have occurred recently.

The Gap Between Us by Sofia Casanova

I adored this story immensely, for its soft edges, soft insides, and its quiet brilliance. The story follows Lucy and Liz, two best friends who go on an impromptu road trip before the turning point of their lives. (The more I think about this story, the more I love it.) At its heart, it’s a story about close friendships, trying to figure out who you are, and the distance between two people who love each other but are at different places in their lives, and the fraught dance of catching up/slowing down for each other. The end was hopeful, lovely, and inspiring. I absolutely loved the tone of this, and I can’t wait to read more of Casanova’s work, whatever she may write.

Afterdeath by Cassi Dorian

Goodness, this story was so unexpectedly intense, and I could not put this story down. Afterdeath follows Jewel and Romy, two teens in a romantic relationship, with the former finding herself locked in purgatory and confronted with her boyfriend’s death. Though it has mystery elements – How did Jewel and Romy die? What happened? – this story also explores their interracial relationship, and the struggles that come with family approving of their relationship and coming to terms with one’s choices and the choices made for you. The story contained some horror elements – some of the imagery was creepy and brilliant – and the open-ended ending was excellently done.

Living Rose by Kaneana May

This story hit me hard – so, so, so, so hard. Living Rose is a story about two very different sisters; Olive dedicates her time and life to studying and coming on top of tests to secure her future, whilst Rose lives in the moment and has big dreams of travelling in the future. Though seemingly mundane at first, and examines the everyday dynamic between two sisters who clash (but clearly love each other immensely despite) and how social media are expressions of who we are, Living Rose also explores what it means to live a life worth living and finding our dreams in others – two things I often think about. One of my favourites in the anthology, and one that made me want to give my little sister a big hug.


I have said this several times when talking about this anthology, but let me say it again: if the stories in Underdog are any indication of the future of Australian literature, then the future is bright and promising. All of the authors in this anthology should be absolutely proud of themselves for crafting such memorable, evocative, and thought-provoking pieces. And I cannot wait to read more stories by them in the future.

Goodreads | Book Depository | My short review on Goodreads

Is this book for you?

Premise in a sentence: An anthology about Australian teens by Australian authors.

Perfect for: Readers who love anthologies; readers who like a wide-range of tone, subject, and diversity in an anthology’s stories; readers who enjoy short stories.

Think twice if: Any of the above (perfect for) are not your thing.

Genre: anthology; contains contemporary, romance, superhero science-fiction, horror, post-apocalyptic science-fiction.

Trigger/content warning: horror themes (Breathe Me In), depression, anxiety, self-harm (The Swan), death of a loved one (The Chinese Menu for the Afterlife), anti-gay rhetoric [challenged] (Variation), drug use (Chemical Expression), death (The Bees), death, death of loved one (Afterdeath), death of loved one (Living Rose)

Let’s discuss!

I’m currently working on a feature where I will be inviting some of the wonderful authors in this anthology to the blog to talk about their stories, their experiences as writers, and, well, to have a friendly chat about anything and maybe everything! I’m super excited for this to see fruition, so if you are keen to read Underdog and aren’t quite sure if you’re convinced yet — watch this space. I promise that after reading the feature, you’re going to want to read it. 💛


3 thoughts on “Book Review: Underdog edited by Tobias Madden – A Powerful and Relatable Collection of Stories About Australian Teens

  1. i have never heard of this anthology but it really looks so so good!! it really inspired me to go look for more novels by australian authors, since we don’t see those being promoted and talked about on social media. thank you! i’m gonna check this out! looks perfect for me 💓

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Maha! I really enjoyed this; it’s such an underrated and underappreciated gem and I think it was one of the more down-to-earth stories that were specifically about teens and their experiences. Such a good anthology!! I hope you get the chance to pick it up. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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