Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology. Edited by Danielle Binks. HarperCollins. $9.99.
Anthologies need some sort of connection among their elements to have even a small chance of being appealing from start to finish. This one has two such connections: the basic theme of beginnings and endings, and the fact that all the authors write young-adult fiction in Australia. The overly cutesy title belies the fact that there is very little that is cute and even less that is funny in these 10 stories, several of whose authors are well-known in Australia but none of whom is particularly popular (yet) in North America. The writing is generally professional and generally undistinguished: the target age range is clear from the authors’ style and their choice of topics and settings within the “begin/end” formula, but most of the material is presented in a fairly bland way – few of these writers have a distinctive voice, at least in these short stories.
Unsurprisingly, the tales are varied enough so that different readers will gravitate to some and be turned away by others. Those interested in girl-girl relationships, for example, may like Amie Kaufman’s One Small Step and/or Lili Wilkinson’s Oona Underground. The stories’ settings are quite different – the former is set on Mars, the latter in a magical-realist sort of underground urban sewer system – but the basic theme of discovering who you are sexually and whom you want to pair with is the same in both.
Readers more oriented toward heterosexual teenage romance can try Will Kostakis’ I Can See the Ending, which has the intriguing premise of a family genetic propensity for knowing the future, and the consequences thereof for one’s love life; Melissa Keil’s Sundays, a much more ordinary weekend-party-interpersonal-dynamics tale; and/or Gabrielle Tozer’s The Feeling from Over Here, about an extended bus trip that requires the female protagonist to sit next to a guy she sort of liked who hung out with guys she didn’t and who insulted her and didn’t apologize and it’s all just so awful, you know?
The five remaining stories are even more of a mixed bag. Alice Pung’s In a Heartbeat is about a pregnant teen determined to keep her baby even though pretty much everyone is against it and against her and, in fact, is pretty awful and judgmental. Michael Pryor’s First Casualty is an extremely obvious outer-space story about the importance of being kind to aliens (real aliens in this story, but very, very obviously stand-ins for “aliens” in the sense of immigrants) – and the awfulness of politics, politicians, and adults in general. Ellie Marney’s Missing Persons is an odd boy-girl friendship story whose title hints at detective yarns and whose central characters echo the Sherlock Holmes canon for no discernible reason (the girl is called Watts, reminiscent of Watson, and the boy is called Mycroft even though his real name is James). And then there is the focus on sibling relationships and deafness in Last Night at the Mount Solemn Observatory by the book’s editor, Danielle Binks; and there is the clever time-travel concept of Jaclyn Moriarty’s Competition Entry #349 – whose irritatingly juvenile style, however, will not be to all tastes.
The stories range in length from 20-some pages to 40-some, but the differing lengths are unrelated to the depth of character development, or lack thereof. Some of these authors obviously want to keep readers’ focus on the characters, while others care much more about the events and are content to leave the participants in those events unidimensional. There is a fair amount in the book that shows the authors to be Australian – it helps in one case to know what the drink Milo is, in another to know about Malvern bicycles, in a third to understand HSC exams – but there is even more material here that could be written by YA authors anywhere; and there is actually nothing in the book dealing with uniquely Australian geography, flora and fauna, concerns or worries. Indeed, part of the point here seems to be to show that Australian authors writing for teenagers – sorry, Young Adults, appropriately capitalized – can convey messages just as universal as those put across by YA authors from other countries. Be that as it may, the book also shows that Australia’s YA writers are just as much a mixed bag as those from elsewhere, with just as many ideas and concepts and approaches as in other YA writing – and just as many (or just as few) glimmers of genuinely innovative plotting, setting and characterization.
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