Top shortlist makes for controversy-free award with Miles of good reading

THERE is unlikely to be an outbreak of controversy when the Miles Franklin, still Australia's most significant literary prize, is presented in Brisbane tonight.

The judges are working from what appears a scrupulously selected shortlist. Last year, when there was a shortlist of three books by male writers, it was criticised for its brevity and its gender exclusivity.

From left: <b>Gillian Mears</b> <i>Foal's Bread</i> Odds $2.50; <b>Anna Funder</b> <i>All That I Am</i> Odds $2.63; ...
From left: Gillian Mears Foal's Bread Odds $2.50; Anna Funder All That I Am Odds $2.63; Favel Parrett Past The Shadows Odds $4.50. Source: Sportsbet. 

But this year the shortlist includes three women writers - Anna Funder, Gillian Mears and Favel Parrett; a former winner of the Miles in Frank Moorhouse; a debut writer in Parrett; first-time novelists in Tony Birch and Funder, and the return to publication by Mears after 16 years.

And while the judges have in the past excluded books for lack of Australian content - for example, Moorhouse's Grand Days, the first in his trilogy about an Australian woman at the League of Nations - they have this year been allowed to be more liberal in their interpretation of Franklin's stipulation that the winning novel must be the one ''which is of the highest literary merit and which must present Australian life in any of its phases''.

<b>Favel Parrett</b><br><i>Past The Shadows</i><br>Odds $4.50
Favel Parrett
Past The Shadows
Odds $4.50 

While the hottest Australian favourite in any race this week is Black Caviar in Saturday's Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot, on form Funder must be considered the favourite for the Miles. All That I Am, her novel about an elderly Sydney woman's past as an early opponent of Hitler, has had a dream preparation, sitting pretty in bestseller lists and winning several prizes, including the Barbara Jefferis and the Australian Book Industry's Book-of-the-Year Award.

But favourites are there to be beaten. Indeed, Sportsbet, not previously renowned for its literary form-setting, has Mears' Foal's Bread at slightly shorter odds than the Funder. The book is steeped in equine lore and imagery as it tells the story of a family on the high-jumping circuit at country shows in the late 1930s. It is brilliant on the age-old connection between horses and their riders and the dramas that afflict even the most loving of families.

<b>Tony Birch</b><br><i>Blood</i><br>Odds $9.00
Tony Birch
Odds $9.00 

Favel Parrett was named best newcomer in the industry awards and her heart-rending Past the Shallows, a story of three boys in Tasmania negotiating a harsh life with their father after the mysterious death of their mother, has attracted plenty of admirers. Birch's Blood also has children navigating a disjointed world. Told in the stark voice of 13-year-old Jesse, it ratchets up the tension as he and his half-sister, Rachel, navigate the turmoil of violence and crime their troubled mother leads them into.

Moorhouse is back on the list for Cold Light, which concludes the astonishing Edith's excursions on the world stage and brings her back to Australia in an attempt to find meaningful work in the diplomatic circles of Canberra.

But judges and tipsters often get things wrong. The surest way to discover the best book is to read them yourself and make up your own mind. One thing's for certain, you will have a good time in the process.