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Viking

Sean Turnell is an Australian economist who was detained by Myanmar’s military regime from February 2021 until November 2022. An Unlikely Prisoner, his account of the ordeal, has quite a personal tone as he relates his struggle with unjust imprisonment by a regime whose hallmark was ‘a mix of the needlessly brutal, the petty, and the incompetent’. This personal story is also mixed with politics, for Turnell has an insider’s view of Myanmar’s ongoing struggle for freedom, one of the great dramas of modern Asian history.

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Sometimes, for the faithful, it doesn’t do to look too closely into the life of your chosen idol. Saul of Tarsus had been an enthusiastic persecutor of Christians before his spiritual detour en route to Damascus. St Camillus de Lellis, patron saint of nurses and the sick, to whom we owe the symbol of the red cross, spent his early life as a con man, a mercenary, and a compulsive gambler – little wonder he went far in the Church. Where our secular martyrs are concerned, matters become still murkier. Mahatma Gandhi tested his chastity by sleeping naked with nubile young women and girls – one of whom was his grand-niece. And as for Julian Assange ...

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The Eagle in the Mirror by Jesse Fink & My Mother the Spy by Cindy Dobbin and Freda Marnie Nicholls

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October 2023, no. 458

The life of a spy is based on lies, but both these books make an attempt to separate fact from fiction in the stories of their subjects. 

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A lot can change in a few years. In March 2020, on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic, I wrote a review essay for ABR about the proliferation of trans and gender diverse (TGD) life writing. Back then, the most notable examples came from overseas, and – with the exception of established names like ABC’s Eddie Ayres (now Ed Le Broq), author of the 2017 memoir Danger Music – major Australian publishers had yet to take a chance on local trans voices.

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Still Standing by Chrissie Foster, with Paul Kennedy

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May 2023, no. 453

This is a book about rage, as Chrissie Foster says in her opening sentence. It is motivated and driven by rage and, if this is not an oxymoron, it is a panegyric to rage.

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Was he John or was he David? That’s the trouble with being a literary double agent: there’s always the significant other to consider. David Cornwell, alias John le Carré, devised his pseudonym in 1958, on the same day he also created his most famous character, George Smiley, on the opening page of his first novel, Call for the Dead. This was when le Carré – a fresh recruit to MI5 and on his daily two-hour train commute into central London – ‘just began writing in a little notebook’.

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There, at the back of Louis Édouard Fournier’s painting The Funeral of Shelley (1889), you can almost see him. One of the mourners to the right of Lord Byron is a tall man with light hair: one Cashel Greville Ross (1799–1882), the hero of William Boyd’s new novel, The Romantic. But Fournier’s depiction of Shelley’s cremation was a fabrication. The kneeling woman at the left, Mary Shelley, wasn’t in attendance, and neither was Cashel – for he didn’t exist.

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In the introduction to her book about Bryce Courtenay (1933–2012), Christine Courtenay writes: ‘To be Bryce’s wife was both a joy and a privilege, and I remain proud of the contribution I made to our years together. Not long after we became a couple, he said, “I love you very deeply and we make a fantastic team, but you do realise you have taken on a full-time job looking after me? Plus, for seven months a year you’re a writer’s widow while you wait for me to finish each book.”’ It is a paragraph that reveals something about their relationship, including its power balance.

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The Secrets Behind My Smile by June Dally-Watkins & Kerryn and Jackie by Susan Mitchell

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April 2003, no. 250

According to Andrew O’Hagan, writing in a recent London Review of Books: ‘If you want to be somebody nowadays, you’d better start by getting in touch with your inner nobody, because nobody likes a somebody who can’t prove they’ve been nobody all along.’ The journey from Nobody-hood to Somebody-hood is central to June Dally-Watkins’s recent autobiography. Indeed, O’Hagan’s pithy insight could almost have been the Sydney socialite and queen of etiquette’s mantra.

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A crime novel worth its chops, Anthony O’Neill’s highly original The Unscratchables is narrated by tough cop Crusher McNash, a fearless bull terrier detective who is determined to solve a chain of gruesome murders in dogland. Enter Cassisus Lap, a sophisticated Siamese with smarts, and together the odd couple bite off more than your average number of plot twists and dead-end alleys. The tale (or should that be tail?) features humorous cameos from Jack Russell Crowe, Tom Manx and Quentin Riossiti, a moggified doppelgänger to Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter.

O’Neill’s vocabulary is witty, inventive and fun to decipher. Words such as ‘jangler’ for telephone, ‘tooter’ for car and ‘thwucker’ for helicopter complete an alternative, but not unfamiliar, reality where cats compete for universal domination at the expense of the underdog.

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