Some time ago I reviewed last year’s free anthology offered by the Books Alive campaign with any purchase from its 50 Books You Can’t Put Down list. Let’s just say if I was Roger Ebert I’d have given it two thumbs down. This year the Australian Government-funded campaign has been re-branded Get Reading! and there’s another anthology giveaway, so I was interested to see how it compared.
The title is still shouting at us in caps, although at least they’ve removed the extra emphasis on the ‘must’ which I found particularly grating last year considering the lacklustre contents. This year they’ve made the rather curious decision to ditch the commissioning editor. One presumes the Get Reading! committee made the selection, which includes the obvious choices of recent award-winning authors Tsiolkias, Silvey and Miller. Of the 10 writers included in the anthology, four have novels on the 50 Books list. I was surprised then that Cate Kennedy – master of the short story whose first novel, The World Beneath, has made the list – does not have a story included in the anthology. Nor current darling Nam Le, whose prize-winning short fiction collection, The Boat, is also on the list. Nevertheless there were only 10 spots to fill and omissions could be endlessly debated. Plus the committee were clearly trying to represent a range of genres and styles.
The anthology opens with Christos Tsiolkas’ ‘Sticks, Stones’, the story of a mother’s conflicted feelings for her teenage son. For my money it’s the strongest of the lot. Interestingly though, the explicit sex and swearing which is so much a part of Tsiolkas’ trademark style has been somewhat muted here. I couldn’t help wondering if the committee asked him to take it down a notch or two.
Craig Silvey’s story, ‘The Amber Amulet’, continues one of the themes of his novel Jasper Jones, centering on a twelve-year-old masked avenger in pursuit of peace. Although I think Jasper Jones a remarkable novel, I found myself skimming over much of the tedious and lengthy banter about superheroes between his characters Charlie and Jeffrey. But this delightful story had me smiling to myself.
Alex Miller’s mesmerising story, ‘Manuka’, takes us into the harsh and eerie Australian bush. The slower, almost meditative pace of Miller’s story stood out amongst the others. It focuses on two men, working the land in brutal conditions, suffering through the slow grind of it, and the tragedy that ultimately befalls them. His descriptions of the menacing landscape are sharply observed, as we have come to expect from Miller, and his prose almost musical at times. An absorbing, haunting story.
Other stories included are by Maggie Alderson, Georgia Blain, Mark Dupain, Nick Earls, Judy Nunn, Malla Nunn, and Rachael Treasure. Unlike last year’s offering I did enjoy reading most of this anthology, so it’s certainly an improvement. But the measure of a great story is whether it lingers in the mind long after the book has been put down. For me, only Miller and Tsolkias achieved this.
Next year I’d love to see the Get Reading! committee take more risks. After all, the book is free. Since they don’t need to convince readers to buy it, they can afford to go out on a limb. To include works that challenge our perceptions, take us deeper. And instead of only including the big names, why not take the opportunity to introduce readers to some of our newer, exciting writers. Kalinda Ashton comes to mind, whose debut novel, The Danger Game, was exceptional. Or fellow Sleepers author Steven Amsterdam, whose collection of stories, Things We Didn’t See Coming, was recently longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Or Chris Womersley, whose first novel won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction, and whose second book, Bereft, has just been released (and is sitting tantalisingly on my bedside table demanding to be read). All these authors also write short stories with that lingering quality. I could go on, of course, but I’ll spare you a long list of names. Suffice to say that in trying to make safe choices that appeal to a broad cross-section of readers they have ended up with a vanilla ice-cream kind of book. Enjoyable but a little bland.
So next year, dear Get Reading! committee, be bold and do something to really warrant those caps.