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Book Review
 

Killed at the Whim of a Hat

Colin Cotterill’s latest book has the intriguing title Killed at the Whim of a Hat (ISBN 978-1-84916-552-5, Quercus Books, 2011).

This is a detective novel, with a twist, and begins with the finding of a buried VW Kombi wagon, with two skeletons in the front seats. One is wearing a hat.

Apparently unconnected, a monk is found dead, having been subject of multiple stab wounds, and photographed, with a camera left containing the evidence.

The reader is taken through all this by a young female journalist Jimm Juree, who spends her time ferreting for information, while using the laxity of the police to give her more opportunities.

The book is definitely set in Thailand, and Cotterill shows that he has a complete understanding of the complex Thai culture, redolent with ‘influential figures’ who drive black Mercedes-Benz cars and think themselves above the law, because of the money they have or positions of power they hold or have held. And then there is the Chinese family matriarch, which one is advised to stay on the right side of - or not, at your own risk. Yes, these are such frequent situations in the non-transparent networkings of the Thai society, but very rarely better described within the context of life in the Land of Smiles.

The plot springs along at a brisk pace, as the heroine Jimm, aided by her grandfather attempt to pin down and identify the killer (or killers) and whether male or female. A besotted Buddhist nun ranks high in the suspect list - or is it purely circumstantial? You will be kept guessing right to the end, as good detective novels should be.

It is always a delight to read books written by writers with flair and imagination. Stodgy prose is certainly not Cotterill’s style. His description of an elderly woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, “I came to realize that this was my mother traveling backwards on a mechanical walkway, passing through time, past huge placards advertising moments from her life.” Describing a hospital, “The outpatients area was ablaze with color: the dull yellow of hepatitis, the scarlets and crimsons of recent motorcycle accidents, the mauve of football injuries, the pale greens of food-poisoning and the various shades of pink from pregnancy right through the color chart to the weak pallor of anemia.”

Kudos for the Chiang Mai Mail where a subject states, “The Chiang Mai Mail taught you ethics.” Perhaps we should have checked to see if Jimm Juree worked for the northern capital’s English language newspaper.

At B. 585 this is a well worthwhile read. You will be entertained, educated and your sleuthing instincts primed. I enjoyed this book very much.

By the way, if you are wondering about the rather quaint title, with its fractured English, author Cotterill assures the reader that these were the words spoken by American past president George W Bush, famous for his Malapropisms, quoting from George Dubbya’s speech in Washington in 2004, “…free societies will be allies against these hateful few who have no conscience, who kill at the whim of a hat.”


Siamese Memoirs - The Life and Times of Pimsai Svasti

For those who were not in Thailand in 1977, the name Pimsai Svasti may not ring any bells, but for those who followed Thai history, she will be remembered as the woman of noble birth who was murdered by her gardeners.

Siamese Memoirs (ISBN 978-974-225-713-2, Amulet Production, 2011) is the story of Pimsai Svasti as told by herself and her son Ping Amranand.
The book begins with the table of the Kings of the Chakri dynasty. This is followed by a (partial) family tree of the descendants of King Mongkut (Rama IV), showing that her grandfather Prince Svasti was one of the sons of King Mongkut. Indeed inheriting ‘royal’ blood.

By page 16 I was being educated. The surname “Svasti” actually came from the Sanskrit word “Svastika” and the family emblem is the swastika, but inverted, compared to that taken by Adolf Hitler. The symbol actually dating back thousands of years to the Indus Valley civilizations.

Pimsai was one of the foremost English language writers, having spent many years in England as part of the retinue of King Prajadhipok, who ruled up till in 1933 until his abdication and self-imposed exile in the UK.

She begins with “I was born in a haunted house” a classical ploy to attract the attention of the reader. And she does.

There are some very sage concepts expressed in this book. King Prajadhipok discussing the push for democracy, that ended with his abdication. “(It has become) increasingly apparent that democracy is a two-edged sword. Unless the majority of the populace are well informed, the democratic process itself can be used as a tool by politicians with less than ideal morals to manipulate themselves into power by hoodwinking segments of society.” I read this book during the voting period, and the message was even more clear.

The book is studded with photographs, mainly of Pimsai and her sisters, but of much greater value are the discussions of Thai life and how they used to live.

At the end of the book are the acknowledgements, and Ping Amranand states that it became a celebration of his mother’s effervescent life, and as a final tribute he appends the recipe for his mother’s punch, which starts with three large bottles of Mekong. That is a punch with punch!

At an RRP of B. 585, this is a very inexpensive look at the old Siamese royal court and even more, of the times when she lived. The book is very touching and one feels honored to be able to catch a glimpse of a lifestyle none of us ever had, and will never have the opportunity to do so in the future. The alternating chapters between Pimsai and those written by her son are very well handled and the different color stock to indicate which writer is an excellent idea (grey for Pimsai and white for Ping). I have not read a more moving book this year, and I do suggest that if you are a scholar of Thai history, this book should be on your shelf, and not on Bookazine’s.


100 Countries - 5,000 Ideas

Another of the books from the National Geographic stables and is marketed as a trip advisor - Where to go, When to go, What to see, What to do (ISBN 978-1-4262-0758-7, National Geographic, USA, 2011).

The Foreword by travel writer Rudy Maxa points out that while the internet can find you places, it can become a laborious way to find the where, when, what of an unknown location. He mentions the sagacity of having a ‘trusted friend’, and suggests that this book should be thought of as just that.

The book is so comprehensive and loaded with facts that the reader should spend some time in the second chapter called, “How to use this book.” There are charts at the front and back of the book designed to assist you in finding the right trip for your interests and lifestyle and give you the best times to travel, as well as health and passport/visa information.

Suggestions narrow the possible destinations for the reader and the next step is to read up the 100 countries section. Having found your holiday Utopia, you can then consult the charts for the times to go, how much living costs and study the detailed maps to see where else you might like to visit in that country.

There is one section dealing with ‘themed’ destinations. This covers Desert Landscapes, Caribbean or Mediterranean Cruises, Traveling with Children, Marine Wildlife, Cultural Travel, Adventure, Ecological touring, All Inclusive holidays, Spa vacations or Unforgettable Nights (do you want to spend a night in an igloo, for example).

The main destinations are all well covered, but for the adventurous it is well worth reading about destinations you would not have immediately thought of, such as Botswana, French Guiana, Montenegro (you could always drop in for afternoon tea with one rather well known Thai resident), or Uzbekistan.

The vast amount of information does not end there. There is a 20 page appendix which will tell you the right trip for your interests, the right trip for your lifestyle (you don’t travel the same way when you are 60 as you did when you were a 20 something backpacker), the relative costs (over $5,000 for a cruise to the Antarctic regions, or a mere $1,300 for a 10 day cruise around Croatia). There is even a two page spreadsheet giving you the best time to travel in tropical climates. In case you had forgotten, the best times in Thailand are November through to March, but avoid Jamaica from May to November because of the hurricanes and April to June in Amazonia because of the rains.

At B. 850 this is a very well researched resource. It has far more than you would imagine and should be on every traveler’s library shelf. I found very little at which to take umbrage, and I felt that Thailand was dealt very fairly, with suggestions on Cities and Monuments, Coasts, Landscapes and Excursions in the break-out box to the side. With one hundred countries covered, you would be unlucky not to find your next exploration trip in there somewhere. A very much recommended publication.


The 4-Hour Work Week

As someone working ridiculous hours, seeing a book in Bookazine which proposes a four hour working week, was to be seen as manna from heaven - if it was really possible. Timothy Ferriss, in his book The 4-Hour Work Week (ISBN 978-0-0919-2911-4, Vermilion Imprint, Ebury Publishing, 2011) proclaims on the cover, “Escape the 9-5, live anywhere and join the New Rich.” You got me, young Tim!

Each chapter is introduced with quotes from the famous, and I liked the one from Oscar Wilde, “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.” I could relate to that, having been told by successive bank managers that I have lived beyond my means. I may be in debt, but at least I have imagination.

Many points that author Ferriss brings up are actually very valid, and I have to admit that I have always confused “Being Effective vs Being Efficient.” He states that, “Being efficient without regard to effectiveness is the default mode of the universe.”

Ferriss brings up Pareto’s 80/20 Law which can be looked upon as 80 percent of the outputs result from 20 percent of the inputs. He also advocates ways to cut down on your necessity to check emails and even how to avoid answering the telephone.

Much of his recommendations require you to outsource your work, leaving you with more time, which you should use effectively. This of course is more easily said (or written) than done, especially if you are a 9-5 wages employee. Ferriss had a mail order business he had started, which was very successful, so consequently could outsource much of his managerial duties. He admits that this does take away from the bottom line, but the additional time that this gives is enough to start enjoying one’s leisure life. He gives examples of his Virtual Assistants (VA) who are in Bangalore, but who are meticulous in their research. And just how much time he has freed up, and his VA only costs $40 per hour, but he only needs an hour of the VA’s time, so that represents $40 a week to free up eight hours. And yes, he does mention the outsourcing company and how to contact it.

Towards the middle of the book there are various answers to the FAQ’s you will have regarding VA’s before you even formulate them. Ferriss is very much the pro-active person.

His advice on just how to handle this ethereal body, called the VA, is very salient, and there are even prices quoted and how many hours must one take per week. The $7 an hour VA is not so cheap when you find you have to contract to use the VA for 20 hours per week.

At B. 495, this book is a cheap investment in your future. Ferriss even gives examples of how to start up and the pitfalls to avoid. By the end of the book I was ready to branch out with an idea of my own. It may not work, but it will be fun and I like the thought of having my own VA.


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Killed at the Whim of a Hat

Siamese Memoirs - The Life and Times of Pimsai Svasti

100 Countries - 5,000 Ideas

The 4-Hour Work Week