The contents are the important bit, of course. I was a little surprised that there was no foreword or introduction, but that's obviously not essential - again, it's just the kind of thing that you usually get with a competition anthology. The stories themselves are, to resort to an over-used expression, a mixed bunch, although it was interesting that most of them were contemporary (mine is, but I thought there might be a few more historical stories or some science fiction or fantasy), and generally serious. I thought the quality varied considerably - there were some pieces that gave the impression of the writers being very new, with awkward phrasing and a few grammatical stumbles spoiling the flow of the prose. On the whole, though, the writing is pretty good, and although the majority of them are concerned with relationships, the stories show plenty of imagination. Sometimes competition anthologies get a bit samey, with the judge's personal taste stamped a little too firmly on the selection. That doesn't seem to be the case here.
Highlights for me were the story included came second, Dorothy Schwarz's Requiem for Lisa, a poignant tale of a woman obsessed with her voice coach but lacking any real talent for singing, striving desperately to perform one song perfectly so she can win his heart. Last Rites by Benjamin Dipple makes effective use of a dual timeframe, dual location narrative to tell the story of an elderly poet about to receive an award for his latest work, a book of poetry that draws on terrible memories from his past. And Ben and the Bomber by Susi Holliday, set during the Second World War, which includes some fantastic period detail and a heart-rending conclusion.
So the stories themselves are generally strong. It's a shame, then, that they're let down by the presentation. The general quality is fine - it's similar to my anthology, a typical print-on-demand grade of paper and glossy cover, which some people don't like but I think is perfectly acceptable. It doesn't say who was responsible for the editing, but although all the stories use the same font, there are big differences in how they are laid out. Some of the stories use indenting for paragraph breaks (although they are unusually big indents), while others look more like they're formatted for on-screen reading and one or two have no gaps or indents at all. This is possibly something I only noticed because a rogue line break turned up in my story, giving what should just have been a regular paragraph change unnecessary emphasis. It definitely wasn't like that in the proof version I signed off. In some of the stories there are missing words, typos, or commas in odd places. These are small details, I know, but flaws like that do take the shine off the finished product.
The annoying thing is that with a bit more effort, this kind of slip could have been avoided. The Graft has been two years in the making, after all. The prizewinning stories in the collection represent an outlay of £4000, and by my reckoning that kind of expense justifies a little more polish. And considering the organisation behind this is Chapter One Promotions, there was a distinct lack of any announcement to herald the book's release. No launch party, no mention on Twitter, no Facebook page, nothing. I can't imagine anybody who's not got a story in the book has any idea it's been released. You have to dig around on the Chapter One website to find it, and when you do, it's very expensive - £12, plus £2.50 for UK P&P. There's no other option - you can't buy it from Amazon and there's no ebook version.
Ultimately, the anthology seems like a wasted opportunity. It missed the chance to sell to people to people looking to enter the 2011 competition, and now that it is available it's too expensive and too hard to get hold of, plus it's let down by some sloppy editing. All this means I'm very reluctant to recommend it to people, which is a shame, because there are some good stories in there.