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Book Review: by Lang Reid

Escape: The Past

A couple of years ago I reviewed David McMillan’s book Escape, his story of his escape from the notorious Bangkok Hilton prison.  Flushed with the success of that very readable yarn, he has now come up with a prequel called Escape: the Past (ISBN 978-981-4358-27-9, Monsoon Books, 2011).

Where the first book was written about his time in the Bangkok prison and his ultimate escape, this new book is an account of his life leading up to his being caught for drug smuggling.  And it was drug smuggling in a big way.  “I’d always preferred to be the suave French smuggler in ‘The French Connection’ eating a grand meal in a warm restaurant than poor cop Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) stuck in the rain chewing on soggy pizza.”  (I think he speaks for all of us!)

Author McMillan makes no excuses for himself, or for others who are habitual law breakers, describing them as “work shy double crossers itching for a fast buck.”  He also described them as “… people on their way down who demanded company on their journey to the bottom.”  However, he does offer the fact that he had had numerous ‘stepfathers’ so “the idea of respecting and obeying men meant very little to me.”

There is no doubt in my mind as to the excellent standard of prose shown by author McMillan, describing the Irish settlers in Australia “…third generation Irish whose middle skin still carries the welt of convict-ship chains and wheals from the King’s weighted lash and from whose blood the colony’s foundation took cement.”  Strong stuff!

As per his previous book, McMillan shows his latest to be an easily read publication.  The chapters did not seem to be quite in chronological order and in a couple there are repeated passages, indicating that parts of the book had been published before.  Nevertheless, I found it to be quite fascinating (as I did for the UK’s Howard Marks Mr. Nice) so perhaps I have had dark ambitions in the past which draws me to the flawed characters in these biographies.

In one chapter he resorts to describing his life in the third person, a literary device, which quite frankly was not needed, nor appreciated by me while reviewing the book, as it broke the thread running through it all.

The see-saw existence between untold riches, two houses, three cars, five star hotels and all the trappings to then descend into sleeping on the dirt floor of an abandoned factory does not faze the drug runners.  They just bounce back and do it all again.  David McMillan certainly has the rubber ball character, though does become somewhat introspective towards the end, wondering in print if it were really all worth it.

And if you have ever wondered what it is like coming down from drugs McMillan describes it as follows, “The talons of some cold-blooded pterodactyl twisting my stomach.  Opiates of course.  When only the worst will do.”

The review copy came directly from Monsoon Books, and I believe the RRP in Asia Books/Bookazine to be B. 495.  A great yarn at that price.

Laundry Man

Another crime thriller this week for review.  Jake Needham’s earlier manuscript Tea Money has been expanded and is now under the title Laundry Man and has been published this year (2012) and is available at Bookazine Royal Garden Plaza.  (ISBN 978-981-4361-27-9, Marshall Cavendish.)

This is one of his Jack Shepherd series, featuring the ex-US based legal exponent, with the back cover describing him as - “A lawyer among people who laugh at the law, a friend in a land where today’s allies are tomorrow’s fugitives, Jack shepherd battles a global tide of corruption, extortion and murder that threatens to engulf both him and the new life he has worked so hard to build.”  And of course, corruption fighters (at least in name) are the flavor of the year globally.

Shepherd finds himself drawn deep inside the machinations of old friends, one of whom was supposed to be dead, but isn’t.  Hired as a financial consultant, you are taken into Hong Kong boardrooms and registered offices of dodgy banks and other financial enterprises.

All the usual acronyms such as the (reputedly) good guys, the FBI, CIA, ASIS, NSC, IRS and DEA turn up in the plot, though not necessarily main players or in that order, interspersed with Russian mobs, Burmese drug producers and Chinese generals and politicians on the take.  And many more - you will not be disappointed by the cast of hundreds, and probably thousands under cover.  There is also the ABC which runs through the plot (and you will have to read this book to find the meaning of the acronym).

As the pace increases and Jack Shepherd’s life becomes even more convoluted, author Needham throws in some black humor to release the tensions every so often.  An aged female pilot called Ike was to fly him to Phuket and Shepherd thinks it is in a glider.  “Grandma Moses here was about to take me flying in an airplane with no engine.  You’re Ike? I asked.  No son, I’m the fuckin’ Easter Bunny,” was the reply.

Good writers have an “eye” even better than good photographers.  Needham describes an office receptionist in Hong Kong as “A young Chinese girl slumped over the desk.  She had badly permed hair, skin blotched with acne scars and a dimple in her chin deep enough to hide Easter eggs.”  You can see her immediately.

Characterizations are well handled too, with the Australian vernacular of one character so correct, I could almost hear the nasal twang, “…the rest of the time it pays off like a busted pokie machine.”

The book has many characters who all seem to come together at the end of an extremely exciting thriller, which keeps you guessing right till the end, the very end, and even then you have questions.

At B. 530 for 352 pages, this is a book you don’t want to finish to spoil your fun and enjoyment.  Jake Needham could have made it 704 pages and I would still be avidly reading.  Whether you are a fan of Needham’s Jack Shepherd series, or just someone who enjoys a cracking good yarn, this book is for you.

Fairy Tales for Little Children

Children do tend to get ignored by publishers and retail outlets.  Look at the shelf space dedicated to pulp fiction and then try and find the little corner with a few children’s books.  It is obvious where the retailer makes his or her living.

It also seems to be that the old fairy tales we were raised upon, are still the favorites today.  Just as there has been a dearth of original music since the Beatles, there appears to be a dearth of new children’s stories.

Fairy Tales for Little Children (ISBN 978-0-7460-9822-6, Usborne publishers, 2008) caught my eye in the Royal Garden Bookazine, for its size, if nothing else.  It is a large book, and contains five fairy tales in its 133 pages.  Three are retold stories from the Brothers Grimm (I have always thought they should have changed their name to appeal more to the young age group).  Four have been retold by Susanna Davidson and one by Emma Helborough.  The illustrations were mainly by Mike Gordon with the others by Anna Luraschi and Gorgien Overwater.  Despite different illustrators, the styles are quite similar, so the children will go on the storyline to choose their preferred bed time stories.

The stories are set up to be read by adults to children, though slightly older children may try to read them too.

The five stories are Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The 12 Dancing Princesses and The Frog Prince.  Remember them?  I am sure you do.

At B. 630, it is not an inexpensive bed time story, but the binding looks to be sturdy enough and each page is printed on good heavy paper stock and each one also in color.  It should last a few years of nocturnal reading.

For children from the age of two years, magic castles, magicians with magic cloaks to make them invisible; frogs, wolves, pigs and bears that can talk all inhabit a child’s wonderland, where the child is unaware of the awful truths that reality brings.

Psychologists will also tell you that fathers reading bed time stories to children help in the bonding process, and each story is long enough to watch the little eyes closed, and short enough that father can keep his eyes open!

Recommended for those who have young children, or grandparents who look after grandchildren.

Seven Years in Asia - a Wanderer’s Tale

Another book from an ex-pat writer domiciled in Thailand came across the reviewer’s desk at the end of 2011.  Robert Baldwin, a well traveled chap, has put together his memoirs/anecdotes into one self-published book with the simple title of Seven Years in Asia.

I have to point out, that as a reviewer I have an obligation to the reader, rather than to the author.  With self-published books (sometimes called ‘vanity publishing’) a reviewer first thinks, “Why was this book not picked up by a publisher?  What will be the availability of this book?  Will readers be able to buy it through main-stream bookshops?” Rightly or wrongly then, self-published books start off on the wrong foot.  Having said that, perhaps it explains why it took a little time before Seven Years in Asia made it to review.

But to the reviewer’s table it did indeed make it, and I must say from the outset, that I am glad it made it.  It is a most enjoyable book; however, like many self-published books, there is a dearth of information about the author.  He only admits to being pointed towards journalism when he was younger, but did not take it up.

Several Asian countries are involved in his wanders, beginning with India.  The wanderings cover many years, but the stories are kept in geographic sequence, rather than a conventional timeline.

After a few pages of his Indian experiences, it became obvious that author Baldwin did indeed have the ability to spin a yarn or two, in a most readable way.  In fact, as the reader finishes one enjoyable story, you automatically begin the next.  Infectious writing.  Or infectious reading?

He begins in India, saying, “India remains a country full of the weird and the wonderful, all that discourtesy I experienced is indicative of its contemporary reality which boasts little of Kipling’s adventures…”  Some of the discourtesy he experiences, he actually brings on his own head, being of a feisty nature it seems.  He writes of being asked for money by a beggar.  “I paused, put my own hand out, and raised the middle finger in a loving Christian gesture.”

He describes the ambient noise in India as, “… emitting a babble of sound reminiscent of the speaking in tongues following the Biblical destruction of the Tower of Babel.  This cauldron of olfactory assault, clamor and color combined to epitomize the aromatic, auditory and visual experiences of the mystical sub-continent of India.”

An interesting interlude was his visit to our neighbor Laos during the Hmong New Year where he witnesses the courting rituals carried out at that time - and only at that time.  He wonders, “I don’t know how a guy’s supposed to manage if he gets the hots for somebody at other times of the year.”

He comes to Vietnam and finds that all the local restaurants serve dog.  In fact, only dog.  He goes hungry!  He does the Hanoi to Saigon trip, and wonders … “for the first time, who the bad guys really were.”

An interesting book.  RRP B. 395 available at B2S Central Festival.

The Wisdom of Beer

Christopher G Moore’s latest novel, The Wisdom of Beer (ISBN 978-616-7503-11-0, Heaven Lake Press, 2012) is set in Pattaya, with many of the characters reminiscent of many of the ‘characters’ that abound in our fair city.

Thinly disguised, but it does not need much of a leap of faith to see through Moore’s descriptions.  Take for example, “To Sandler, the Pattaya Volunteer Police Force were an exhibit of living contradictions: elderly farangs dressed in police uniforms, like a science experiment in time travel that had gone terribly wrong.”

Author Moore shows that in the 20 something years he has lived in Thailand, he has seen through the glitzy exterior of life in Pattaya and subscribes to the notion that everything is possible, but everything costs money.  “There was always a price for getting involved in other people’s lives.  The question was always how much it was going to cost, and how soon the payment would be due, and if it all could be paid in installments or whether it would have to be one huge lump- sum balloon payment.”

The plot revolves around a septuagenarian Thai lady and a macaw, the recipe for Chinese Hell Beer, an American beer bar owner, the Russian mafia, the local Chinese godfather and son and the American Marines on the Cobra Gold exercises.  Keeping the plot moving along is a Moscow hooker with ambition.  And there is plenty happening.

An unholy alliance of East and West occurs with both the Thai/Chinese Mafia and the Russian contingent joining forces to break into a warehouse to steal weapons.  The would be felons include a trio of katoeys and nary a fingernail gets chipped, though there are copious tears.

The Wisdom of Beer came highly recommended by accredited authors such as Colin Cotterill and John Burdett, and after reading the book, I can see why.  Christopher Moore is an excellent story teller as well as a writer and keeps your interest going all the way through.  The plot has many twists and turns, and Moore manages to keep more than three balls in the air at one time.

There is almost no-one in Pattaya who escapes Moore’s notice in this book, but he covers his ass in the acknowledgements at the very end of the book writing a full disclaimer exonerating the Volunteer Police Force and, “the Pattaya Police, the Pattaya hospital establishment, the US Navy and Marine personnel, organizers of beauty pageants, hotel owners, bar owners, bar employees, Chinese ancestor worshippers and all species of macaws.”

He also goes on to write that “None of these incidents happened, none of these people exist, and only a trouble maker with a hidden agenda would suggest otherwise.”  Anyone who knows Pattaya will finally put the book down with a large smile on their face, if not a real guffaw.

At B. 495, it is another book bargain.  If you are a fan of Christopher G Moore’s you will love this book.  If you have not read any of his previous 23 novels (though that hard to imagine), you will be a fan after reading this one.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Escape: The Past

Laundry Man

Fairy Tales for Little Children

Seven Years in Asia - a Wanderer’s Tale

The Wisdom of Beer