You can write in trees

NYC trees font by Katie Holden 'More Trees Please' on Ashley Kalagian Blunt
Artist Katie Holten has created a living tree alphabet for New York, based on NYC trees. Each letter is its own tree: A for Ash, B for Birch, C for Crab Apple, etc.

You can download the font free from nyctree.org! As they explain, ‘The New York City Tree Alphabet is an alphabetical planting palette’ and they’re planting submitted messages around the city with actual trees.

The font is lushious and a joy to play with. Here’s a short excerpt from my current manuscript in progress, How to Be Australian, written in nyctrees, and with the translation beneath. The page looks like a forest!

Ashley Kalagian Blunt 'How to Be Australian' in NYC Trees font
Unlike the birds, trees didn’t factor into our conversations beyond ‘wow, a lot of these trees have some sort of bark disease.’ Walking through my neighbourhood surrounded by anonymous trees was a reminder that I was a stranger here. As an elementary school student on the Canadian prairies, I had to collect leaves, glue them to paper, and draw and label the trees those leaves were once part of, like the world’s most boring CSI episode. But the exercise ensured that my adult self knew Canada’s birch, pine and Douglas firs without knowing this mattered. No-one in Sydney was going to force me to collect leaf samples and label them, though I wished they would. I kept telling myself I’d buy a book of Australian trees, but I was drowning in academic theory on diasporan cultural identity.

‘Do you think they’d let me sit in on a grade three class for a few days?’ I asked Steve toward the end of May, peering at him from behind the pile of textbooks on the kitchen table. ‘Just to learn about the birds and the trees?’

It’s fascinating thinking about our knowledge of trees as a type of literacy. I’d love to see an Australian version of this alphabet, with banksia, eucalypt, moreton bay figs, wattle (my person favourite). And maybe then I could finally develop my Australian tree knowledge!

I did make some progress on my Aussie flower knowledge lately, thanks to some lovely people who taught me about pink heath, flannel flowers and gum blossoms:

Which makes me think we could have flower alphabets! And then plant gardens of blooming messages too. So many fabulous ideas, and here I sit with zero drawing skills.

Ashley
xo

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Brisbane: more than Discount Melbourne?

I travelled to Brisbane last week for the launch of Griffith Review 63: Writing the Country, which features an excerpted chapter from my current manuscript, How to Be Australian.

Despite living in Australia for eight years, this was my first time in Brisbane, the traditional land of the Turrbal people. I’ve visited all the other capital cities, so Brisbane had a lot to live up to. My first impression, with its yellowish river, walking bridges, and Southbank tourist hot spot, was ‘huh, Discount Melbourne’. Brisbane skyline travel photo by Ashley Kalagian BluntBut is Brisbane more than that?

One thing Brisbane has to offer is Wheel of Brisbane. It’s not the Wheel of Brisbane, just Wheel of Brisbane. This made me think that it’s a Queensland version of the popular game show Wheel of Fortune, but all the prizes are cane toads.

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Brisbane is also home to the world’s longest running science experiment. The pitch drop experiment uses bitumen (aka asphalt) to demonstrate the liquidity of a compound most people would consider a solid (few other liquids can be shattered with a hammer). The experiment is effectively an hourglass filled with bitumen instead of sand, and drops have been falling from the top compartment in the bottom since 1930, at a rate of about one drop every nine years. Thrilling!

As Atlas Obscura points out, this experiment not only outlived its creator, but will likely still be around when all of us are dead and buried.

I was hoping to visit the pitch drop experiment in person, but I was quite unwell in Brisbane (this is where I’m at with my chronic fatigue: well enough to travel, too sick to enjoy myself). No worries though: you can watch the pitch drop LIVE ON WEBCAM.

Tens of thousands of people have tuned in since the pitch drop went live. This digital connectivity is a far cry from life in Brisbane just over a century ago, when the flood of 1893 destroyed the Victoria Bridge, leaving no means of communication between North and South Brisbane. It’s a good thing the pitch drop experiment wasn’t happening then, that’s all I can say. There would have been riots.

My Brisbane explorations also included the Queensland Museum. In fact, this was the first place I visited, because I arrived in the city under a roasting noon sun and needed to find somewhere cool, quiet and dimly lit.

I was expecting to learn some Queensland facts and maybe see some taxidermied snakes. I was not expecting to see the most brutally violent museum display I’ve ever encountered in my life, but of course I did, because this is Australia.

(Maybe skip the next photo if you’re not into mummified animal remains.)

The display was in a single case. It stood alone from the main fauna exhibition, as if the curators knew it didn’t quite belong, but didn’t know where else to put it. It was at waist height, if you’re measuring by my waist, the waist of a fully grown adult woman. Which means it was at exactly eye level for the average child.

The case contained a dried-out goanna that had attempted to shove an entire echidna in its mouth, spines and all. The spines lodged in the goanna’s mouth and throat and ‘unable to swallow or disgorge, this unfortunate lizard choked to death. Locked together, predator and prey died, then mummified beneath the desert sun.’

IMG_1146 Goanna.JPGThe display’s sign concluded with the line, ‘This curious exhibit was acquired and displayed by the Queensland Museum prior to 1912.’

‘Curious’ isn’t the adjective I would have chosen. But then again, I’m not Australian. (Well, I am. Legally.)

What’s especially sad about this exhibit is that it memorialises the worst mistake that goanna ever made. Maybe up until the day he decided to cram an entire echidna is his mouth, he had a reputation among the local reptile community as being quite clever. I’d hate to have that time I put petrol in a diesel engine memorialised in a museum for well over a century.

I’d also like to meet the naturalist who chanced upon the mummified carcasses and thought, ‘That belongs in a museum!’

Much like all of Australia, Brisbane definitely has unique things to offer. Which is why I love this crazy country so, so much.

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Fighting with a monkey

For the past week I’ve been in an ongoing fight with a monkey. It’s not clear who’s winning.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt author
Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

The specific monkey I’m fighting with is Mailchimp, because – surprise! – I’m planning to send out the best author emails you’ve ever received.

Q: Ashley, I already read your website, why would I sign up for your email news?
A: Because you can’t get enough of me? I am very loveable. Actually, aside from the fact that my emails will feature different (and even more exciting!) content, you should sign up because I’ll be doing monthly giveaways of excellent books. You definitely want to get in on that.

Q: How often will you email me?
A: Every hour, on the hour. Or maybe monthly.

Q: Wow, you’ve convinced me! Where do I sign up?
A: If I were winning my ongoing battle with Mailchimp, I’d say you could sign up right here, in this form that I’ve beautifully embedded right into my website. But that monkey knows kung fu or something. So instead, you’ll have to sign up at this link.

Q: What if the monkey ultimately destroys you in battle?
A: I have sworn that, once dead, I will not haunt anyone who’s signed up to my email list. That’s a little added bonus.

 

The latest in my Revenge plot

If the police ever had a search warrant to seize my computer, I imagine they’d be very excited when they opened it up. How often do suspected criminals have folders all over their desktop labelled REVENGE?

But they’d be disappointed when they opened the files and discovered I’m not actually plotting revenge against anyone. At least not yet. (If I were, I’d label those files VEGAN SOUP RECIPES. The police will never find them.)

Kalagian Blunt - My Name Is Revenge cover image smallWhat the police would find in my files is the fabulous cover of My Name Is Revenge, which is being released in print by Spineless Wonders this April.

The cover features Mt Ararat in the background, a national symbol of Armenia. In the foreground are gum leaves and the foliage of the Australian bush, drawing on the connections made within the book, particularly the novella.

The print edition includes two additional essays considering different aspects of the Armenian genocide, as well as a collection of photos from my travels through Armenia.

The ebook, which came out in October, has been receiving great reviews. I was delighted by this review from history professor and author Peter Stanley, co-author of Armenia, Australia and the Great War: ‘My Name is Revenge deserves to be noticed by those concerned with honesty in history. Ms Kalagian Blunt’s story is a fine example of why history matters and why we should be pushed to reconsider assumptions about how history was and how it might be understood.’

If you’re in Sydney, you’re very welcome to join me for the launch: RSVP via EventbriteBook launch of My Name Is Revenge, writing on the Armenian Genocide

If you’re not in Sydney, I’ll have links up to pre-order the book very soon. In the meantime, here is my favourite vegan soup recipe. I’m not even vegan, but seriously, this creamery goodness is the soup to end all soups.

 

Quantifiable excitement

I don’t know about you, but my 2019 started pretty rough. I  can show you exactly how rough, thanks to my daily step count (part of my chronic fatigue recovery process).
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You can see that extreme crash on January 7, a day I could barely get upright. And then a few semi-functional days, followed by another extreme crash. If this was a mountain range, it would be impassable.

Now look at this!
Step count for chronic fatigue syndrome recovery
It’s less a mountain range than a gentle stroll! Okay, okay, that’s not even a full month, I know. I shouldn’t be getting excited. And I’ll wait to share the thing I’ve been doing differently this year that may or may not be the reason for my stabilising energy levels. But contrasting those two images, it’s quantifiably clear how much better I’ve been feeling the past few weeks.

Put in the context of the past year, this is the best stretch of consistent energy I’ve had since early 2017.
Step count for chronic fatigue syndrome recovery

My daily step max is still significantly lower than my previous daily average, so I’ve got a ways to go. (My husband and I refer to Healthy Ashley as if she is a separate person from me; we both like her better than Sick Ashley.) But this is the most optimistic I’ve been feeling in a while.

Which is good, because I’ve got big plans for 2019! I’m looking forward to reading more great books, getting more writing in, and attending more writing events. And I have some exciting news that I’ll be able to share with you soon!

Wishing you day after day of reliable energy.
Ashley
x

A new life of mud pits and stink water

I recently discovered Anna Altman, an American author with chronic migraines. Altman  perfectly highlights truths like this: ‘Our culture encourages us to think that, if we push ourselves hard enough, we can overcome whatever ails us.’

As she discovered when her migraines became debilitating, it’s simply not true. But we deeply want it to be true, which is why it’s such a pervasive idea. In an essay about living with chronic illness, Altman describes what felt like her ‘failure to bear up under average hardship’ when she could no longer work full time. Yes, I thought. Exactly.

After trying all kinds of doctors and treatments for years with little success, Altman says, ‘I ended up finding that giving in to my limitations and trying to find a meaningful, happy life within them helped a lot.’ Her mother counselled that in spite of what she had to give up, she could make a new life for herself.

Giving In To Limitations And Forging A New Life was definitely the theme of my recent trip to New Zealand. When I say ‘recent’ I mean two months ago, because this is yet one more way I’ve given into limitations.

Steve and I booked the flights early last year. I suppose we thought I might be significantly better after all those months. We were very optimistic, it turned out.

In the past, planning a trip to New Zealand would have involved researching all the best hiking trails, kayaking spots, and sunrise yoga on the beach. By November though, it was clear I wouldn’t be doing anything physical. We still refer to the mildest incline as my nemesis.

If I couldn’t hike or kayak or swim, if I had to give into those limitations, what could I fill that gap with? What could this new life as a chronically ill person still desperate to travel look like?

Te Ika-a-Maui, New Zealand’s North Island, had a perfect answer: HOT SPRINGS. Living within the limits of chronic illness, traveling to hot springs

This photo from The Lost Spring looks incredibly relaxing, but what isn’t pictured is the chainsaw and wood chipper blasting away on the other side of that wall. It was actually intolerable, since one of my least fun symptoms is noise sensitivity.

But that was okay, because New Zealand has dozens of hot springs, and I’d planned to visit as many of them as possible. Hot springs are definitely within my limitations, as you can see here at Hell’s Gate mud spa, which was blissfully chainsaw free.  Traveling with chronic illness, hot springs in new Zealand

New Zealand is full of options. When you’re done slathering yourself in mud at Hell’s Gate, you can soak in this even smellier sulphur pool. It was super weird and I loved it. Traveling with chronic illness, hot springs in New Zealand, sulpgur

At the right time of day, you can visit Hot Water Beach in Hahei and get your able-bodied husband to dig a sand pit that will fill up with geothermically heated water. It seeps out of the ground at 65 degrees Celsius, so dig the pit carefully to make sure some cool ocean water seeps in also.  Traveling with chronic illness, hot water beach in New Zealand

Or just visit a traditional New Zealand cat cafe, where you can spend an hour sitting quietly, drinking a cup of tea, and feeding kibble to 17 cats. Traveling with chronic illness, cat cafe in New Zealand

I was able to see and do a lot while mostly sitting down and relaxing, which meant I felt especially good in New Zealand. I was still disappointed to miss out on sights like Cathedral Cove in Hahei, which was only accessible via a rather vertical one-hour hike or an expensive boat journey that would have been exhausting for me. I stayed in the shade on the beach and Steve hiked up on his own. Traveling in New Zealand Cathedral Cove

All that resting meant I was able to see some of the flatter sights, however. This was especially exciting in Rotorua, one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever seen. It’s an active geothermal area, which means all sorts of weirdness goes on. This is a park in the city, where there is a variety of steaming lakes and bubbling mud pits. This steam blows right onto one of the major streets. Travelling with chronic illness to Rotorua, New Zealand

I wasn’t kidding about the mud pits.

To see these sights, I had to walk around. This meant planning carefully and rationing my energy. It worked out. The highlight was Wai-O-Tapu. The website describes this ‘Thermal Wonderland’ as ‘a spectacular showcase of New Zealand’s most colourful and unique geothermal elements sculpted by thousands of years of volcanic activity’ and it is not wrong.

This is Champagne Pool, named for its bubbly constitution. Traveling with chronic illness, Champagne Pool, NZ

And this is Devil’s Bath, which Atlas Obscura describes as a ‘neon green pool of stagnant stink water’ and compares to ‘a cartoonish radioactive dump site’.  traveling with chronic illness, Wait-O-Tapu New Zealand

Trust me, I loved every minute of this. Even the minutes where my symptoms flared in the heat and I struggled to breath after battling a mild incline.

I’m very lucky to have been able to travel to New Zealand at all. Many people with chronic fatigue syndrome and other chronic illnesses wouldn’t be able to. Still, part of me insists that if I push myself hard enough, I can overcome my illness. Every time I try, I make myself worse.

So, welcome to 2019: The Year Of Giving In To Limitations And Forging A New Life … Again.

PS. In New Zealand, shopping carts are called TRUNDLERS. Really. Made my day.

 

Two furry weirdos make your day

Those who have been closely following my journey through chronic fatigue will remember my tedious recovery routine, which I described back in March. The routine involves multiple daily rest periods in which I’m allowed to do very little except drink tea and look at trees.

I’m also allowed to pat a pet, but as I wrote at the time, ‘This sounds great, except I don’t have a pet (I am in the market to borrow your pets, if you don’t mind bringing them by five times a day, or just donating them for the duration of my illness).’ Someone suggested I get a cat, but I was pretty certain no cat would permit the strict patting routine my recovery program requires.

I was right.

Still, when I was offered the opportunity to look after two cats over the holidays, I wasn’t going to turn it down. Especially because the cats live in a gorgeous house in Singapore, a house belonging to a friend who is both a talented artist and art collector.

Cat One would occasionally allow me to pat her for part of a break. When she was happy, she’d headbutt me. She also had a tendency to drool huge puddles when I scratched her ears. She was a sleek goddess of a cat with pure silver fur, always slinking off. Cat snuggles during chronic fatigue rest break
Cat Two loved sleeping on keyboards. That was his thing. Here’s his little tail twitching in utter delight because of all those plastic keys under his fur.

They had fancy cat names, but I was too tired to remember them, and they didn’t answer to them anyways. They’re cats. We called them Cat One and Cat Two because that was the order we met them in (Cat Two managed to get himself locked in a bedroom before we arrived, and required first locating, then rescuing, hence his secondariness).

Cat Two almost never allowed me to pat him during my rest breaks, because my breaks didn’t involve a keyboard. But he loved it when I sat down to write, which I managed to do most days for an hour or two. As soon as I sat at the desk, he’d appear in the doorway, jump onto the desk, and flop onto my keyboard and papers. This earned him the nickname Flopsy Mopsy.

He’d lie on the keyboard, purring like a little engine, and stretch out his paws one a time, like he was doing cat yoga. He also liked to rub his jaw on the corner of my laptop screen. When I wasn’t looking, he’d try to drink from my water glass. He did this so often, I eventually I brought him his own water glass.

When he tired of me, he’d leave abruptly and head to the hottest room in the house to spend the day roasting. He’d lie in the sun, and when it had moved past the windows, he’d press himself against the wall to absorb as much heat as possible. I was surprised he didn’t shrivel up like a raisin, though perhaps this is because I followed him around with his own personal water glass.

Results of the study: my hypothesis was correct, cats are not ideally suited to chronic fatigue recovery routines. However, I felt better in Singapore than I have for the past few months. So perhaps patting a pet at any point during the day can have positive health impacts. If anyone has several alpacas or a domesticated fox they would like to lend me, I’d be happy to continue the study.

 

Resolutions I sincerely plan to achieve in 2019

At the start of 2018, I often struggled to leave my apartment due to the severity of my chronic fatigue. So for the first time in my adult life, I set no resolutions or goals for the year.

It was weird.

Because not only do I normally set resolutions and goals, I am also one of those over-ambitious weirdos who tracks them through the year, periodically reflecting on my progress.

I’m starting off 2019 still sick. I need to be realistic about what I can achieve.

Or do I? If I’m not going to achieve my resolutions anyway, this is a chance to set some truly grandiose resolutions, the type of things I’d definitely attempt if the phrase ‘you can do anything you set your mind to’ was actually true (it’s not, sorry).

Resolutions I Sincerely Plan to Achieve in 2019

  1. Summit Mt Everest in a Pikachu onesie.
  2. Prove the Big Bloop is a giant undersea creature and not just ‘shifting ice plates’ like ‘scientists’ want you to believe.
  3. Learn to speak hieroglyphics.
  4. Train a romp of sea otters to compete in the synchronised swimming competition at the 2020 Olympics. Admit it, you’d watch that.
  5. Construct a building using only pancakes and industrial-strength maple syrup on the border between two nations. Not a house though. Maybe a bank?
  6. Catch a serial killer (this could tidily knock two items off my long-standing bucket list, depending how it plays out).
  7. Grow a third arm.
  8. Successfully petition for sea otters to be eligible to compete in the 2020 Olympics.
  9. Circumnavigate the Earth north-south on a unicycle.
  10. Finally get my pet chinchillas, Pretzel and Popcorn.

For once, I feel no anxiety about these resolutions. I know they’re doomed to failure. And allowing myself to fail is, under the circumstances, actually a pretty good feeling. 2019 is shaping up to be a stellar year, even if the reality is most of it will pass much like 2018, ie like this:
Chronic fatigue syndrome

 

2018: The reading year in review

One of the few positives of putting most of my life on hiatus due to illness is that I’ve actually had more time for reading.

I’ve always loved reading. I used to walk home from school with an open book, looking up only before crossing the street, and even then only if I wasn’t at a really good part.

When my chronic fatigue was at its worst in 2017, I wasn’t able to read. I’d start a sentence, and by the time I finished, I’d forgotten how it began. I’d re-read the same sentence over and over, but my brain was too tired to both decipher the writing and hold onto the meaning.

I still have days where I’m too tired to read, but they’re becoming less frequent. And because I have spent so much time home on the couch, I actually read more this year. Comparing the past six years indicates how much time I spent at home by the number of books I’ve read.
2013: 20 books
2014: 23 books
2015: 26 books
2016: 21 books
2017: 32 books (gradually becoming ill)
2018: 50 books (ill all year)

It turns out the secret to reading a lot is being chronically ill (maybe that is Reading in Winter’s secret? Or maybe she’s one of those healthy people who just don’t sleep, which is basically a superpower).

2018 reading breakdown
50% nonfiction
64% Australian authors
57% women authors
24% debut authors, of which 22% (11 books) were debut Australian women authors
6% zombie fiction

Australian women authors 2018
Debut Australian women authors published in 2018

2018 reading highlights

Vodka & Apple Juice by Jay Martin (NF)
Having left a successful career in Canberra, Martin is both excited and nervous to spend three years in Poland accompanying her husband on a diplomatic posting. Her narrative traces her efforts to learn the Polish language and the unwritten rules of Polish life, as well as the challenges of making meaningful friendships and helping her marriage survive the long, grey winters. Her writing is personable, peppered with gentle humour and introspection.*

Traumata by Meera Atkinson (NF)
Traumata is a sense-making project, or rather the summary of Atkinson’s lifelong effort at sense-making. Interspersing research into trauma, memory and psychology with explorations of her personal traumata – the plural of trauma – she presents an incisive case study of trauma’s effects, how it can compound at an individual level, and how it operates in society. (First published in The Australian)

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett (NF)
Everett spent 30 years in the Brazilian jungle, living among the Pirahã tribe. His book recounts his experiences in the jungle, and his efforts to translate the language of this still-isolated tribe. Through his cultural immersion, his life and religious views change dramatically, as does his understanding of foundational concepts of linguistics, and more profoundly, how and if people from diverse cultural contexts can truly understand one another. Inevitably he learns far more from the Pirahãs than they take from him. The prologue frames his experiences by describing the morning an entire village of Pirahãs woke early to observe a visiting spirit on the beach. They insist the spirit is as present before them as Everett is. ‘Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahãs’ culture, could see reality so differently,’ Everett writes. ‘I could never have proved to the Pirahãs that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.’*

Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang (NF)
Msimang grew up in exile from South Africa, the daughter of a freedom fighter and follower of Nelson Mandela. Her eloquent memoir of home, belonging and race politics traces her childhood in Zambia, Kenya and Canada, her university years in America, and her return to a South Africa that is free but not just. (First published in The Big Issue)

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee (NF)
Lee’s experiences, both professionally and personally, make clear the human fallibility and biases of the justice system, and how it is stacked against women. Women and children are often victims of crime in their own homes, and the perpetrators are people they know. But juries are unlikely to believe any woman who isn’t the ‘perfect victim’, a woman who appears chaste, is not on birth control, and is preferably attacked by a shady-looking stranger in public, not an average-looking bloke she happens to know, even casually. And if a complainant is inconsistent in her reports, if she becomes too emotional, she is less believable, even though these are normal responses to trauma. Read the full review here.

Being Shot by Gail Bell (NF) 
Blending memoir with journalism, Bell examines her own experiences, alongside those of a number of other shooting victims, to consider both the physical and psychological aftermath. She also interviews recreational gun owners, war veterans, and police and RSPCA officers who use weapons in their work. In an effort to understand the appeal of guns, she considers their 500-year history and current prevalence in pop culture. Read the full review here.

How I Rescued My Brain by David Roland (NF)
Roland was a psychologist who developed post-traumatic stress after working with violent offenders in the prison system, as well as traumatised patients. This and other stressors, including financial ruin and the breakdown of his marriage, likely played a role in the stroke that reduced his cognitive capabilities. His gentle narrative explores both the devastating effects of his conditions and the steps he took toward wellbeing, including mindfulness meditation. Having suffered frustrating cognitive limitations myself since the onset of my illness, I appreciated Roland’s direct, clear descriptions of his cognitive symptoms. He separates these into three categories: the general confusion of fog brain; rubber brain, the inability to take things in; and sore brain, the physical hurt that cognitive strain would cause, even for a task as simple as making lunch for his children.*

The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver (NF)
Just as loneliness causes us harm, friendship can dramatically affect our physical health, as new research shows. Having a caring social network of close friends may lower your risk of Alzheimer’s, obesity, heart problems and high blood pressure, and improve your chances of staying fit. Likewise, having a close friend at work can improve attention span, mood and even productivity. And while friendship can’t cure depression, spending time with friends and cultivating strong friendships can be part of good mental healthcare practices, alongside healthy eating and exercise. Combining scientific research, interviews and memoir, The Friendship Cure explores the many benefits of friendship, along with a few of the perils, through pop-culture references and anecdotes of both successful and failed friendships. Read the full review here.

Claiming Noah by Amanda Ortlepp
Under the umbrella of contemporary women’s fiction, this novel is part of the emotional thriller genre. Set in Sydney, it centres around two mothers and the realities of IVF and postpartum psychosis. With a quickly paced plot and blurred lines between protagonists and antagonists, it’s an engaging read.

*First published at On Writing, from Writing NSW