A Century of Friendship

Children’s book about the ethics and etiquette of friendship

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

A Century of Friendship

“A Century of Friendship” by Littlebeanseeds is a children’s chapter book about Helen and her friends Mark, Shelly and Yasmin who, while exploring on a school camp, discover a secret in a rundown cottage. While the children navigate their own relationships with one-another, they soon discover that the secret has a particular significance for Helen. At the end of each chapter, the author invites the reader to think about notes on friendship, and answer questions for self-reflection about friendship, what makes a good friend, how to be a good friend and how to resolve disputes.

This is a simple yet effective story aimed at pre-teens that explores some of the more subtle issues and nuances around friendship. It is quite a unique book because it balances low fantasy against self-help – two genres that I honestly do not think I have ever seen combined before. I think that inviting children to consciously think about their relationships and what kind of behaviour they expect from themselves and others is a worthwhile thing to do.

I think probably the biggest difficulty for young readers might be the balance between the time spent enjoying the story and the time spent thinking about the questions and having the immersion interrupted. I wonder perhaps if this kind of book might be suited to being read to a class by a teacher, and then inviting the children to participate in a discussion as a group, rather than reading it alone.

Nevertheless, a very original type of book with an overwhelmingly positive message and a cute story as a backdrop.

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Me Too – Stories from the Australian Movement

Literary event at Muse Canberra with Miriam Sved and Ginger Gorman hosted by Emma Macdonald about the #MeToo movement in Australia
Content warning: sexual harassment, sexual assault, bullying

18 months ago, a storm hit Twitter under the simple and otherwise innocuous hashtag #MeToo. Originally a means to highlight the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault that women experience, particularly in the workplace. As more and more women shared their experiences, and as the movement grew and evolved, and controversy after controversy has emerged, questions have arisen about the purpose and the extent of the movement. I certainly have a lot of questions about the implications and limitations of #MeToo, so when I was invited to come see editor Miriam Sved and contributor Ginger Gorman discuss the new book “#MeToo: Stories from the Australia movement” at Muse Canberra with HerCanberra associate editor Emma Macdonald, I was very eager to hear what they had to say.

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Image from Muse Canberra

Macdonald kicked off the conversation by asking where Sved and Gorman were when #metoo happened. Sved said that she recalled being impressed, awed and horrified. She said that she was not an online discloser, and it did scare her seeing so many people putting their personal trauma out there. She said that she did not participate, noting that as a fiction writer she prefers to hide behind stories, but could see that it was a watershed of relief for many people. Gorman said that as a Twitter junkie, she had been glued to the phenomenon. She said that the media industry is rife with sexual harassment, and #metoo was the first time she had ever written down her own experiences being sexually harassed by a senior colleague in the workplace. She said that at the time, she recalls a lot of people worrying that their experience wasn’t as bad or didn’t count. Macdonald said that she is a private person, but she felt that she couldn’t keep it inside. She said that she made an oblique post, but remembers feeling a sense of relief and that she wasn’t alone.

Macdonald then asked Sved about the how the anthology came about. Sved said that she had read so many fascinating experiences online, and that they had published two anthologies previously, but they still worried about whether or not they were the right people to do it. However, eventually they figured that someone should. Noting that many of the narratives so far had been from predominately rich, white Hollywood celebrities, they wanted this book to include more diverse voices. They decided to approach it with a public call for pitches across different forums to get some different perspectives from different industries. Sved acknowledged that there had been a real focus on the media, and Gorman noted that it was the media that had the platform to share the stories. They discussed how ubiquitous harassment seems to be in nursing, and how it is an open secret.

Macdonald noted how nuanced the book was and said that while nothing was shocking to her, it all hurt. She mentioned a particular contributor Sylvie Leber whose story of being violently raped really stayed with her. Sved said that her story was powerfully disturbing, and they had to include it. She said that they didn’t want to say that people were “only” sexually harassed in comparison, but that it was a challenge to represent the whole spectrum.

Gorman noted that there is an overlap between #metoo and predator trolling. She said that cyberhate costs $3.7 billion to the economy, and while both men and women are targeted, the type of harassment women receive is different. She said that women are more likely to experience doxing, violent threats and intimate image abuse, and that the harassment is far more sexualised and violent. She said that it is all indicative of coercive control, and it is real life men trying to do harm because they are angry and believe feminism is to blame.

Macdonald asked whether they thought men are more predisposed to this kind of harassment. Gorman said that she felt that it was cultural rather than innate. She said that one woman in her book who had been stalked, harassed and threatened said that men hate her because she is talking about things that they would usually talk about, and they perceive that as her taking up their space. Macdonald noted that there seems to be a theme of anger, and Sved said that editing the book was enlightening and alarming. She said that there are silos of people who are silenced and disempowered. She said that things like trolling, harassment and domestic violence are considered private and something that women should police themselves. She said that the reality is that these things exist in plain sight.

A member of the audience took the opportunity to ask a question about anger, and whether or not it is leading to change. Gorman said that she believes you cannot solve hate with hate. She said that while researching her book on trolling, she formed friendships with some of these people. She said that you can be angry, but ultimately she didn’t want to hurt them back. She said that she instead used something she calls radical empathy – going in and listening, learning why someone behaves like that and why they hate women so much. She said that while anger is a motivator, ultimately it is destructive and polarising. Sved said that she swings between pessimism and optimism. She said that organisationally, there can be changes and attention can be brought to the right people. However, she said that there was a problem with reaching women broadly, and that she felt that the broader focus should be on empowering women. She said that in a time where there is a lot of job insecurity, and when people prioritise jobs so much, it can be hard to either speak up about things or even get the support to speak up.

Gorman raised the point that as a result of #metoo, some people have lost their jobs and there have been some instances of social justice. Macdonald raised the issue of Geoffrey Rush’s defamation case, and how the outcome of that has been damaging to the #metoo movement. She also noted that not everyone shared the same views about #metoo, and that Australian author Helen Garner, who she described as “tough”, had advocated an approach of “kicking him in the nuts“. Macdonald said that that approach doesn’t take into account power dynamics, expectations of politeness, embarrassment or fright. Sved said that she felt that the Garner question pits women against each other generationally.

Gorman said that when her experience happened, she was 21 years old and a man massaged her shoulders uninvited in the workplace and told her “that necklace looks good on you. You know what else would look good on you? Me.” She said that she told her managers, and they said that he does that to everyone, and that the man was later appointed the sexual harassment officer. Sved said that women are socialised not to make a fuss, and Gorman agreed that there is an understanding that women who make a fuss don’t last long in the workplace.

Macdonald asked whether they thought that structural change is happening, and if not, how do we move it forward. She acknowledged that there had been similar movements before, such as by Anne Summers. Sved said that she felt that there had been some structural changes, and that there had been some traction through social media. She said that in the book, there is a graphic narrative that is quite pedagogical which essentially states that alone, nobody can change anything and that most of us do not have the luxury of making sweeping changes, but that everyone can make small changes in their own world. Sved asserted that we still need sweeping legal and industrial relations changes. Gorman said that there has to be nuance. She said that there had been calls for movements for partners, for all women including trans women, and for supporting those around you. She talked about the issue of bystander bullying and the strategies of amplification, like women in the Obama administration, and the technique of using polite, corrective speech to help combat trolls. She says that she retweets other women and helps to enforce polite social norms.

An audience member asked the panelists a question about whether they thought that the public sector was better than the private sector for women’s safety. Sved said that she felt that at the heart of all these problems are structural issues, and that even academia, which is considered to be “family friendly”, there are has equality issues. Sved invited people to simply look at how much unpaid care work women still do. Gorman said that in workplaces, she has been bullied and harassed mostly by women. She said that she feels that often women feel like they have to fight over scraps of power and behave like the archetypes of 1950s men. She said that giving other women a break can be seen as soft.

Macdonald said that she felt that the public service is so far ahead of other industries, that it might be an unrealistic standard. She said that she found moving from the Canberra Times to HerCanberra to be mindblowingly different in terms of culture. Sved said that she felt that the community sector is the same, and that there are so many women (though acknowledged that it is a low paid industry so men often don’t go for jobs). Macdonald said that she felt that the real area that needs change to be forced upon it is in politics, and the audience resoundingly agreed. Sved said that her experience of the legal sector was also dreadful. She mentioned the “pure juvenile misogyny” Fiona Patten had experienced, and Macdonald noted Tanya Plibersek deciding not to run for leader of the Labor party due to caring responsibilities.

However, Macdonald said that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern does suggest that there is hope. Gorman said that a man she had spoken to who was part of the incel movement, who didn’t agree to being in her book, said after a year of speaking to her that he doesn’t hate women any more. Sved pointed out that the movement was originally started by a woman who was exploring human connection, and was co-opted by toxic masculinity and became all about whose fault it is. Gorman said that hatred wouldn’t be online unless it was already in society.

Another audience member asked a question about whether men who engage in sexual harassment behaviour really understand how it affects women. Gorman said that she felt that often they don’t. Gorman referred to a “This American Life” podcast episode about a woman who tries to discuss catcalling with the men who are catcalling her, and how the men genuinely did not seem to understand the impact it had on women.

I managed to ask the last question, and I wanted to go where I felt like the conversation hadn’t quite gone yet: has #metoo gone too far? I shared an example of someone I knew who had been publicly accused on social media of sexually assaulting a woman, someone I was certain hadn’t done what he was accused of. I also acknowledged that there is a deficit in the legal system, and that the difficulty in getting a conviction for a sexual assault in court can explain why people would seek justice elsewhere such as via social media. I asked the panel what they thought about the interaction between #metoo and the role of the legal system.

The panel agreed that social media is not really equipped to prosecute individual cases, and discussed grey areas like Geoffrey Rush’s alleged conduct and the anonymous article published about a date with Aziz Ansari. They agreed that there is a need for law reform, and reforms in the workplace. However, they said that they did not feel that #metoo had gone too far because the purpose of #metoo is to facilitate structural change and that in that regard, there is still a long way to go.

The discussion was wrapped up there but if you want to find out more about the movement, people’s experiences and its limitations, you can check out the book yourself.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Scottish novel about routine, denial and coping when it all crumbles

Content warning: trauma, childhood trauma, mental illness, substance abuse

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman is an eponymous novel about Eleanor, a 29 year old woman who lives her life completely by routine. Every week she works in her administrative job, reads the newspaper, completes the crossword, listens to public broadcasting, watches television and drinks two bottles of vodka over the weekend. Eleanor has no friends, no family and no social interaction aside from unsolicited marketing calls and jokes at her expense by colleagues. Eleanor tells herself that everything is completely fine, but when she develops a crush on a musician, and inadvertently opens herself to the possibility of change, she may not be ready for everything else that comes flooding in.

This is an extremely readable book. In a style not dissimilar to Graeme Simsion, Honeyman has a real knack for dramatic irony. I’m always very impressed with authors that manage to carry this off, because let’s be honest – it’s always a smug feeling when you feel smarter (or in this case more socially adept) than the character you are reading about. Eleanor’s bumbling is particularly endearing, but I think that Honeyman importantly gets the balance right by allowing for enough character development and conflict so that the story is not just a series of cringeworthy exchanges. I also really enjoyed how she took really mundane, everyday things and made them new with Eleanor’s unique perspective.

A criticism I have made about many, many, many books I have read is the use of trauma, especially childhood trauma, as a plot device – but I’m going to make it in a slightly different way for this book. I feel like a lot of novels use the idea of repressed memories as a means for exploring difficult issues such as childhood trauma. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I’m a psychologist and give a commentary on the controversy around the idea of repressed memories. However, I do want to note that for an unacceptably high number of people, trauma is something they have to live with everyday. There are already far too many barriers to people disclosing traumatic events as it is, let alone the phenomena of repressed memories, and I think that I’d like to see authors explore some of those issues instead.

However, unlike another book I read, I did really appreciate that Honeyman emphasised the importance of counselling and social support in recovery, and I felt that she did a really good job of depicting Eleanor in crisis.

A well-written, enjoyable read that emphasises the importance of human connection.

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No Friend But the Mountains

Memoir of an asylum seeker in indefinite detention

I borrowed a copy of this book from a colleague. We had a bit of an office book club, and this was one our master list of books to discuss. This book garnered a significant amount of attention after publication for many reasons, but there were two that really stuck with me. First was that this book was written text message by text message over WhatsApp and then painstakingly translated. It is an enormous amount of work to write a book with the luxury of a laptop, but to type one out on a mobile phone is nothing short of remarkable. Second was that the author won two extremely prestigious awards in Australia, but due to being detained on Manus Island, was unable to accept the awards in person. Needless to say, this was a book I very much wanted to read.

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“No Friend But the Mountains” by Behrouz Boochani and translated by Omid Tofighian is a literary memoir about Boochani’s experiences as an asylum seeker in detention centre on Manus Island. The book begins by detailing harrowing attempts by Boochani and other asylum seekers to travel to Australia by boat, and the impact of failed attempts on the safety and morale of passengers. Eventually, after another dangerous attempt, Boochani’s boat is intercepted by Australian authorities and he is transported to Christmas Island before being transferred to Manus Island. Once there, it becomes clear that this is not likely to be a temporary stay. As time stretches on and the prisoners endure competition for access to food and facilities, tension from the guards and local Papuans and ultimately violence, Boochani begins to try to understand the logic behind the centre.

As we enter our 7th year of offshore detention policy, this is a critically important book. I’m going to break the fourth wall for a moment here and say that this is a very difficult review for me to write. Our media and political discourse has been dominated by polarised opinions about how best to manage the phenomenon of asylum seekers who attempt to travel to Australia by boat from Indonesia, and I have and continue to have a lot to say on the topic. However, I think that I need to set that aside for the purposes of this review and focus instead on Boochani’s book. The primary reason for this, aside from it being the subject of this review, is that I feel that largely the voices of people who are in offshore detention are excluded from discussion about the policies that directly impact them.

The translator, Tofighian, spends a long time before the book begins outlining some of the history of Iranian literature and the theories that Boochani has developed to try to understand the mechanism of offshore detention and the way the centre itself is run. This was invaluable later in the book to help understand Boochani’s unique style of prose intermingled with poetry and the broader implications of what is described as “Manus Prison Theory” and the “Kyriarchal system“. Boochani argues that the prison is deliberately run to cause conflict among the prisoners and between the prisoners and guards, and the availability of food, toilets, showers and any form of entertainment is deliberately limited to cause stress and hopelessness.

Boochani’s intellectualism oozes from the pages, and emphasises the self-awareness of people in offshore detention. Boochani wryly acknowledges that the difference between him being taken to Manus Island and him being assessed on mainland Australia was nothing more than a matter of days. Boochani styles himself as largely an observer of the prison dynamics, however he is ultimately never able to forget his status as a detainee and is never able to completely isolate himself from the pain his fellow detainees feel. In fact, this heightened and overwhelming sense of empathy between his efforts to rationalise what is happening is what really makes this book. The interludes of poetry, although I would hardly consider myself an authority on poetry, is where Boochani does what I feel that Australia has largely failed to do: highlight the humanity of the people on Manus Island.

I think that the main thing I struggle with about this book was a criticism I often level at memoir. In this case, it was Boochani’s decision not to explain in detail his personal circumstances that led him to flee Iran, and his decision not to explain the thought-process and mechanics of paying someone to take him to Australia by boat. I completely understand that there may be sensitivities around divulging this information, not just for Boochani’s safety but for people who may have assisted him. However, I did feel that given the strength of the rest of the book in building empathy and understanding, this was somewhat of a wasted opportunity. I won’t descend into a lecture about the legal status of refugees in the countries between Iran and Australia or the availability of rights and resettlement in Indonesia, but I felt that a by being a bit more frank about these issues Boochani’s book may have addressed some of the most frequent criticisms leveled at asylum seekers.

Nevertheless, this is a necessary book that brings a much-needed perspective to an issue that my country has been fighting over for years. Boochani has a strong, haunting voice and I think that this is a book that not only should be read by as many people as possible, but one that has and will continue to leave a mark on Australian literary history.

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Sweet Bitter Cane

Italian-Australian family saga

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Sweet Bitter Cane” by G S Johnson is a family saga about a young woman called Amelia who, after a wedding with a stand-in for the groom in Italy, moves to Queensland to meet her new husband Italo and support him in growing sugarcane. Although young, Amelia is smart and resilient and soon overcomes her language barriers and finds her place managing the financial side of the farm. However, haunted by a connection she has with her neighbour’s son Fergus and increasingly isolated by her social and political choices, when the war breaks out and Italians are targeted, the secrets and nationalist pride Amelia harboured to keep herself safe suddenly threaten to destroy everything her family has built.

This is an epic story that traces the life of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who leaves everything she knows behind to start a new life in a country that largely doesn’t welcome her. Johnson does an admirable job of setting the geographic and political scene of a seemingly hostile new life and has a particular flair for character development. Amelia hardens as the story progresses, and it’s unusual (and refreshing!) to see such an evolution of a character while still retaining the essence of who she is. Johnson isn’t afraid to explore Amelia’s mistakes to their full consequences and her flaws and poor choices juxtaposed against her successes make her all the more relatable. The internment of Italians during WWII is another forgotten pocket of Australian history, and Johnson written a nuanced account of something that truly happened to people living here.

For the most part, I was impressed at how Johnson told Amelia’s story but one thing that I was perplexed about throughout the book was the appeal of Fergus. While Amelia’s character remained interesting and engaging throughout the novel, I wasn’t always on board with her relationships and how she managed them, and most particularly so the connection she had with Fergus. Although for the most part the pacing of the novel was good, I did feel at times that some of the writing was a little too descriptive and could have been condensed a little more.

Regardless, this is an interesting and important story about the experience of women during a period of Australian history rarely discussed.

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An American Marriage

Domestic drama about institutional racism

Content warning: racism, sexual assault

I first heard about this book when I saw the author speak at the opening event of last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. She told the most amazing story of how her book came to be, and after the event I ran to the foyer to try to get a copy for her to sign. Unfortunately, for reasons unclear to me, they weren’t doing book-signings so I have had to make do with an unsigned copy. With a jolt of inspiration, while I was writing this review, I decided to go on Spotify and see if anyone had made a playlist, and would you believe it? Someone had. Thank you to the Free Black Woman’s Library LA. 

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“An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones is an American literary fiction novel about Roy and Celestial, a couple settling into marriage and emerging success. Roy is making a name for himself in business while Celestial’s hand-crafted dolls are starting to sell for a significant amount of money. However, while staying in a motel while visiting Roy’s parents in a small town in Louisiana, Roy is arrested and accused of raping a white woman. Sentenced to 12 years in jail, he and Celestial write to each other while he tries to have his conviction overturned. However, the chemistry and fire that sustained them doesn’t seem to translate in the letters, and it gradually becomes less certain that when Roy gets out, there will be a marriage left waiting for him.

This is a wonderfully subtle book about a very real issue and the devastating impact that incarceration has on individuals and their families. Jones has an incredible sense of empathy, and is utterly convincing in exploring each of her character’s perspectives. For a book that was apparently inspired by an overheard conversation, you can certainly tell that Jones is a people-watcher and perceptively draws from each character their own voice, thoughts, desires, dreams, anxieties and observations about the characters around them. As the book progresses, and an additional layer of complexity is added with Andre’s point of view, Tayari’s flexibility as a writer shines through.

I honestly cannot get enough of books like this. Although Jones certainly does address issues of race in modern America, like “Letting Go” by Maria Thompson Corley, this is not a book about stereotypes and disadvantage but rather about the pursuit of love and excellence – black excellence – and the barriers that still remain in American society regardless of class.

As much as I enjoyed this book, I’m not sure that it will be for everyone. It moves with a quiet intensity that mirrors the way life feels: with some highs, and some lows, but mostly with a relentlessness as things unfurl in ways that you can never guess in advance but can always see in hindsight. This is a book that demands that you put yourself in another’s shoes, and walk these lives yourself. It’s an easy read linguistically, but it is not an easy read emotionally.

This is an excellent book about love, hubris and making the best of the life that you have. I can’t wait to see what else Jones publishes.

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Sabrina

Graphic novel about the aftermath of a terrible crime

Content warning: gendered violence, mental illness

Shortly after starting at a new job, I managed to rope in some colleagues into starting a work book club with me. To kick off the first meeting, we put together a list of books including some from the 2018 Man Booker Prize longlist. This book is the first graphic novel to ever be longlisted for arguably the most prestigious prize for English language fiction, and as a long-standing fan of graphic novels, I had to check it out.

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“Sabrina” by Nick Drnaso is a graphic novel about a young woman called Sabrina who goes missing and is later found brutally murdered, and the ripple effect this crime has on the people in her life. The story follows Sabrina’s boyfriend Teddy, Teddy’s childhood friend and recent divorcee Calvin and Sabrina’s sister Sandra. Both Teddy and Sandra struggle to make sense of what has happened to Sabrina, with Teddy becoming a recluse in Calvin’s empty house and Sandra no longer finding meaning in her everyday routine. Caring for Teddy fills up the time left by Calvin’s absent family, but with Teddy largely uncommunicative and staying in his room in his underwear occasionally eating the takeout Calvin buys, his house is still extremely lonely. Meanwhile, after Sabrina’s body is found and footage is leaked of her murder, conspiracy theorists begin to target Teddy, Sandra and Calvin with accusations that they are crisis actors and that Sabrina’s death was actually a false flag operation.

Graphic novels, especially when written and illustrated by the same person, are unique in that not only is the author communicating to you through their writing, but they also communicate via their art. Drnaso is very minimalist in both his writing and illustration style and the pared back conversation and sparse scenes are very effective at conveying the everyday and each of the characters’ searches for a new normal. He has a real talent for capturing the mundane and I do think that this is a really astute work on suburban America and the interplay between work, relationships, friendships and social media. The focus of this book is undoubtedly conspiracy theories, and the impact that they have on the families and friends of victims of tragic events. Drsnaso excels at building a gradual sense of unease and paranoia, especially for Calvin, as the impact of media reporting, invasive messages from conspiracy theorists and caring for Teddy begins to affect his work and personal life.

I agree that there are a lot of strengths in this graphic novel, but I must admit I am a bit incredulous that this graphic novel is the first one to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Was it good? Yes, it was fine. Was it the best graphic novel ever written? Not by a long shot. I think one of my biggest issues with this book was that despite Sabrina being the eponymous character, and the victim of an appalling case of gender violence, Sabrina’s story is the backdrop to Calvin’s, Teddy’s and, to a lesser extent, Sandra’s stories. As someone with a close friend who went missing and was later found dead, the focus of this book made me deeply uncomfortable.

I understand how losing your girlfriend in such circumstances could lead some to depression, and I understand that caring for someone with mental illness can be challenging, but I really don’t think this book went anywhere close to deep enough on the impact of Sabrina’s death on her family, especially Sandra. Considering the vast majority of this book is men talking to other men, I don’t think that there was really ever enough analysis on why Sabrina was murdered. At one point Sabrina’s sister calls Teddy and berates him for his lack of action, including primarily not coming to Sabrina’s funeral, and I kind of see where she’s coming from. I understand that Drnaso made changes through the editing process to make Sandra’s story more prominent, but she probably gets about a tenth of the airtime Calvin and Teddy get.

I think I really just feel that if you’re going to write a book about American conspiracy theory culture following tragic events, I think that you should at least do the tragic event itself justice. Sabrina didn’t have a voice in life or in death, and I just feel that given the horrendous statistics globally, but also in the USA, on women who are subjected to violence by men, I would have liked Drnaso to have taken a bit of a stronger stand in helping to empower the women affected by this kind of violence – even if it was to show how valued they were in life and how missed they are in death.

Look there is plenty more I could say about this book about themes of gratitude, relationship breakdown and workplace culture, but I might leave it there for now. Anyway, I am nevertheless glad to see that graphic novels are finally starting to be taken seriously in mainstream literature. I think that Drnaso has produced a chilling piece on the impact of conspiracy theories, but if you’re tempted to give graphic novels ago, there are plenty of other excellent award-winning ones that you might like to try as well.

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