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Book Review

Starting from Scrap

This week’s book was written by a financial entrepreneur, a Stephen H. Greer, and entitled Starting from Scrap (ISBN978-158080166-9, Burford Books, 2010).

The book is well written, and quite amusing in parts, but is certainly a ‘warts and all’ description of someone wanting to make it in the business world, without any real training, but able to fly by the seat of his pants.

As a teenager he was expelled from boarding school for breaking all the rules, and it was only after this that he realized he needed a high school certificate before he could go to university and progress from there.

With his father pulling as many strings as was necessary, he did eventually get into Penn State University and from there into the business world.

He began in a chemical company with an office in Germany, but soon found that the entrepreneurial spirit needed to stretch its wings, and without any real plan he went to Hong Kong, as Asia was opening up in 1993. His ticket to Hong Kong was cadged from his father’s frequent flyer miles, and he flew into Asia first class. “I’m not backpacking. I’m going to do business and I should have that attitude.”

Full of bravado and bluff he opened up a company, which was going to be the vehicle he needed to do business and survive.

Stumbling across the fact that steel mills in Asia needed scrap stainless steel to feed the mills, he slid himself in between the scrap suppliers and the purchasing mills. He had no scrap yards himself, only a glib tongue which managed to get him lines of credit to pay off suppliers, while reaping good profits from the purchasers.

All the way through the book are bon mots of advice printed in italics. These included “Always use time lines in negotiations,” (to proceed quickly with the deal); “You don’t get rich trading scrap or crap. You get rich trading equity,” (as he leveraged his company towards the big time, using other successful companies to propel himself upwards).

He is quite forthright and his description of himself is that of the classic Type A, achieving at any cost. Setting up scrap yards through China, Thailand, Malaysia and Mexico he jetted between them all putting out as many fires as he produced opportunities.

At B. 785 on the Bookazine shelves, it is not inexpensive, but for someone looking for information on the ‘real’ side of being an entrepreneur, this is a good book. Like many of his ilk, he began very young and bluffed his way through to the position where he could sell the company he had founded for millions of dollars after 12 years. However, the cost personally is probably more than anyone, other than the driven Type A, would be prepared to pay.

Part of his deal was he had to stay on as CEO for three years, and even though he was now financially secure, he needed the stimulus of relative insecurity to keep him going, which he has found in a private equity firm, but this time not starting from scratch.

Kingdom of Make-Believe

The Kingdom of Make-Believe has a cover that makes it leap off the shelf, particularly for male readers. However, any book by Dean Barrett is always worth investigating further. Barrett, a prolific writer of at least a dozen books, has a strong following in literary circles, in being able to write in different genres, yet make them all books well worth reading. Descriptive items, such as describing a woman bathing a child, author Barrett writes, “… threw water over the head and shoulders of a small, naked child. In the sunlight, the water’s iridescence sparkled like a many-faceted gem.” A gem of descriptive prose.

This latest from Dean Barrett is called Kingdom of Make-Believe (ISBN 0-9661899-0-6, Village East Books, Florida, 2010) and is a thriller set in Thailand, about which, Denis Gray, AP’s Chief of Bureau wrote, “The novel could only be written by one who has experienced the Kingdom - and felt the pangs of seeing its magic mirrors crack and shatter.”

The principal character Brian Mason returns to Bangkok after an absence of many years. The Oriental was the only hotel on the river that he remembered, but that has changed with the plethora of hotels and condominiums on both sides of the Chao Phaya these days.

He has returned after a request which he thought was from the widow of his brother, who was killed in Vietnam, during the VN offensive. However, this was a woman he had once loved as well. An interesting triangle, and an intriguing factor very early in the book.

Barrett shows his understanding of Thai life today, as well as reminiscing over yesteryear. Anyone who has lived here, and not in a hotel, will relate to, “There is always something to do. If the water isn’t out, the electricity is weak. Yesterday the phones went dead.”

Barrett is also able to see through the superficiality of Bangkok and the bar scene. “The Horny Tiger changed in atmosphere from a bewitching, seductive and infamous lounge into a very ordinary room smelling of garlic, Thai beer, nicotine and sweat.” The Kingdom of Make-Believe indeed.

The individuals in the story begin to have much more in common, as the plot unfolds, but yet manages to keep the reader guessing. This is no easy ‘who-dunnit’, but prompts you into trying to work out firstly the ‘who’ and secondly the ‘dunnit’.

Short chapters keep the pace flowing, and even though the action is predominantly centered on Patpong Road, you do not get bored at all. This is a thriller, and an action thriller at that.

And if it were not enough to have some sort of extra-marital battleground, author Barrett also manages to throw in 100 mules transporting heroin from the Shan States to Hong Kong! Now throw in the CIA and the DEA and Vietnam vets and you really do have a story with twists and turns.

At only B. 460 this is a great read. I got my copy at Bookazine Royal Garden Plaza, and thoroughly enjoyed it, so much so that I wanted it to continue. You will also. Get this book.

The Black Gentlemen of Trong Suan

The Black Gentlemen of Trong Suan is an intriguing title for this self-published book written by John McMahon, about whom the book gives the reader no clues. Again intriguing.

It begins with the diary entries of a retired British manager, and a bachelor. On a previous trip he meets the girl of his dreams. Young, university trained and one that our expat is sure he will happily live with forever after.

In his diary he wonders at the other expats he meets who seem to hate the Thais, start drinking at 8 a.m. and generally despise the native life and customs. He is the opposite, revelling in the unspoiled jungle and the sea where he shows his complete metamorphosis by skinny dipping.

However, that idyllic metamorphosis does not last, and he assumes a new persona where he drinks at 8 a.m. and learns to hate the native population and joins the loose group of mainly British expats that meets every two weeks. These settlers call themselves the Black Gentlemen, feeling that they are similar to the black population in the British Isles - aliens and outnumbered.

As the degradation of the expat continues unabated, the reader is left thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I”. In some ways quite terrifying in the accuracy of his thumbnail sketches.

This diary ends one quarter of the way through the book, and it then becomes more of a narrative, still with the Black Gentlemen and their adopted home as the central characters.

Into this outpost of expat misfits comes the mysterious newcomer called Crispas, a young man skilled in physical pursuits, handy with spanners and with a beautiful girlfriend in tow. He does not fit the mold of the Black Gentlemen.

The plot is wonderfully detailed. Author McMahon obviously understanding and recording all the subtle nuances of village life, as well as those of the expat society. You will find that you can relate to all these Black Gentlemen, even if the reader does not necessarily sympathize with them. However, the proof reader was not as eagle-eyed, with several literals in the book, “insuring” and “ensuring” being confused.

The back cover proclaims, “A diary changes hands at a dog fight in Burma enticing a young man to the south of Thailand in order to mimic the life of the diarist who retired to Trong Suan in the romance novel fashion with his young fiancée only to be beaten, robbed, debased and sent off like a leprous pervert. The young man who comes into possession of the diary having talent, strength, money and charisma comes to the town and disrupts the delicate balance between the ex patriots and local population causing in the end an orgy of violence and death among over flowing drink, greed-mad looting and charred dog skewers at his own wedding party.”

I enjoyed this book, and the difference between this and others set in rural Thailand is enormous. This may be fiction, but it is no flattering tale. In some ways it reminds me of Dan Dorothy’s Mango Rains with its brutal reality.

A Secret History of the Bangkok Hilton

The publishers Maverick House, though based in Ireland, have had a very fruitful cooperation with authors in Thailand. These have included the Mail’s executive editor, Dan Dorothy (Mango Rains), Colin Martin (Welcome to Hell) and the Mail’s special correspondent Dr. Iain Corness (Farang and Farang The Sequel).

This week’s review is of another Maverick House cooperation with Chavoret Jaruboon (The Last Executioner) and Pornchai Sereemongkonpol (Ladyboys) to produce A Secret History of the Bangkok Hilton (ISBN 978-1-905379-71-2, Maverick House, 2010).

The Bangkok Hilton is not part of the international Hilton hotel chain, but is the maximum security jail in Bangkok for criminals who have been sentenced to more than 30 years incarceration. Chavoret Jaruboon has a more than working knowledge of the jail, being the executioner there for many years before retiring. Pornchai Sereemongkonpol has helped Chavoret, with English not being a language prerequisite for an executioner.

It is an interesting book to read as it gives you an insight into the Thai attitudes towards jails, inmates and guards. Chavoret goes right back in the history of the Thai penal system to the 13th century, where the brutality is very similar to that employed in Europe in those days. He then follows this through till the building of the Bang Kwan prison and its use today.

He spends some time philosophizing as to the spiritual rights and wrongs of execution, and one is left feeling that for some crimes, perhaps there is no option. However, the method of execution has changed from beheading, to being cut down by sub-machine gun, to the lethal injection system used today.

The age-old query is put forward as to whether or not he may have executed innocent men. He sidesteps this very nicely, pointing out that it is the penal/legal system that institutes the death penalty, not the executioner.

And he does go into some detail of people who were wrongly accused and pronounced as guilty. Many of these came from over-zealous policing, with time lines for delivering a culprit being pronounced by politicians. The “war on drugs” of a few years ago rates a totally scathing mention. There is also the scenario of ‘influential figures’ skewing the justice system. He interviews a number of innocents who have ended up spending many years behind the bars of the Bangkok Hilton. Most are broken people, though one or two fought on to the end and received some small financial compensation from the very unwilling authorities.

Chavoret writes of the different ethnic groups in the jail, expressing the opinion that the farangs get a much easier life (relatively) than the other aliens such as the Burmese, Laotians and Cambodians.

At B. 485, it is an inexpensive read, and one that can perhaps open your eyes a little. The inmates are not all tarred with the same brush, with some very interesting ethnic differences, and the entire Thai legal system is shown to be as non-transparent as it is imagined by those outside looking on. Chavoret, of course, was on the inside looking out. You will not envy him.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Starting from Scrap

Kingdom of Make-Believe

The Black Gentlemen of Trong Suan

A Secret History of the Bangkok Hilton