This book deserves a very wide audience indeed: not only does author Ben Ramalingam have a gift for coining memorable phrases (and finding memorable q...moreThis book deserves a very wide audience indeed: not only does author Ben Ramalingam have a gift for coining memorable phrases (and finding memorable quotations from other writers), but he has a forensic ability to analyse and articulate why things go wrong in so many organisations. Although "Aid on the Edge of Chaos" focuses on the problems facing aid and development organisations and workers, its lessons are much more widely applicable: if I could I would make this book compulsory reading for every manager, senior or junior, in every organisation and company that has any significant impact on my life. The thrust of the book is that most organisations have structures and thought patterns based on ideas that do not reflect the way the world actually works, and that a more organic, more incremental way of doing things is needed. "The edge of chaos" is not, as one might suppose, where aid is now, but perhaps the place it should be, the place from which new structures will emerge naturally.
Why do I think this book is so important? Because anyone who reads it thoughtfully is bound to learn to recognise the unconscious assumptions that shape so much of our activity, and unfortunately doom it, however well-intentioned, to being ineffective or even harmful. Although the final third of the book does offer a host of examples that may point the way to better ways to do things, a reader who comes away with the idea that these are blueprints for organisational nirvana has utterly failed to understand. In Ramalingam's lexicon, phrases like "best practice" and "silver bullet" are evidence of organisational hubris: being an expert is not about knowing the right answers, but about asking the right questions, listening to the right people. This book will perhaps cause controversy; indeed, I will be disappointed if it does not, because it deserves to be discussed widely rather than ignored; it may not be the final word on the structures appropriate to 21st century aid institutions, but it is certainly a very useful draft manifesto.
A book as topical as this is not destined to remain current for very long, but I do hope it survives until the errors in this edition can be corrected in a second. Mostly they are minor typographical errors, but in a few places there are signs of poor editing: sentences which seem to be missing some vital clause, or references to maps that are not included. I was left with the feeling that some of the material had been taken a little too hurriedly from some article or blog. But these are minor quibbles; if I have any serious reservation about this book, it is that the author's way with words may give rise to a host of new ways of ignoring another person's thinking unjustifiably. Rather as it nowadays all too easy to damn someone's language or actions for being "inappropriate", readers of this book will learn to dismiss an opponent's thinking as "linear" and inferior to their own "non-linear" ideas. Those seeking to avoid deserved blame for incompetence may plead that they were dealing with "organised complexity" or "non-linear dynamics", their actions a necessary exploration of the "fitness landscape". This is not a book that will make the work of those dealing with others in complex situations easier, but it will enable it to be more successful.
Despite these minor criticisms, I'm giving a five star rating for this book: it has a lot to teach all of us about taking a more humble, scientific and experimental attitude in the search for ways to address successfully the problems facing us. It has introduced me to many thinkers of whom I was previously unaware, and has taught me that I have a lot to learn about these matters.(less)
Before giving my reasons for disliking this book so completely, I'd like to recommend potential readers to read "Lady Audley's Secret" instead. If you...moreBefore giving my reasons for disliking this book so completely, I'd like to recommend potential readers to read "Lady Audley's Secret" instead. If you want to read a book about the uncovering of a Victorian family's dark secrets, why not read the real thing first? I'd probably never have given "The Somnambulist" a second glance had it not been chosen by my book group, and I certainly wouldn't have ploughed on to the bitter end of this novel which is crying out to be turned into a spoof period drama. However, at least it was a reminder to me of just how bad books can be. Although the plot is both ludicrous and hackneyed, in the hands of a more gifted writer this might have made a good read, a modern day version of a Victorian sensation novel, but author Essie Fox over-eggs her pudding so much that the result is as unpalatable as the over-salted boiled beef and carrots that heroine Phoebe Turner prepares for her family fairly early on. I have rarely been so conscious of an author's faults as when reading this: nouns are rarely permitted to appear unchaperoned by a tiresome adjective; the author over-dramatises relentlessly; even the weather is constantly called upon to add to the excitement - the heroine cannot take a train journey without a freak storm to block the line with a fallen tree. Fairly regularly I simply disbelieved that anyone would do or say the things the author describes. Often these were minor details that a better editor might have picked up on. These are faults I might have been prepared to overlook, had heroine sounded and acted a little more like a young Victorian lady, but the superficial period detail fails to disguise that were Phoebe to call her mother "mum" rather than "mama", she would sound much more like a spoiled and foolish middle class teenager of today than a strictly brought up young woman of my great-grandmother's generation. She is also oddly given to American turns of phrase like "visit with" instead of "visit", which left me wondering if the author was even British (she is). But the chief and fatal flaw of this book is that Phoebe makes a very dull heroine indeed; we learn nothing of her hopes and fears - she is entirely caught up in events, and she acts and reacts impulsively throughout. To write a good novel using such an unperceptive first-person narrator is a very difficult trick, and probably an impossible one when the author intends us to sympathise so entirely with her heroine. Many readers clearly have enjoyed this book, but to do so, you will have to switch off your critical faculties entirely, and be unusually willing to suspend your disbelief. This is the worst book I have read this year.(less)
As someone whose only knowledge of farming comes from listening to "The Archers" and "Farming Today", I can't comment on how accurate this novel's dep...moreAs someone whose only knowledge of farming comes from listening to "The Archers" and "Farming Today", I can't comment on how accurate this novel's depiction of sheep farming in North Yorkshire really is, but it certainly seemed very plausible to me. I enjoyed the unglamorous but homely feel of the novel - I can't remember reading another book where a fairly incidental character says "Do you mind if I use your bathroom?". Nobody in this novel has a glittering career in the media or IT, is amazingly beautiful or sexy, or rich, or famous (though we do overhear one of the main characters giving a telephone interview to "The Dalesman") . It's all very ordinary and believable, though most of the main characters have their quirks or obsessions. It came as something of a surprise, when I read the blurb about the author on the inside back cover, to discover that she is a longtime former Guardian journalist who lives in London. Almost the only thing I thought was a little unlikely was the hotmail email address one of the characters has managed to get, as most people seem to have to decorate theirs with numbers. This novel follows much of Jane Austen's recipe for success: it's set in a small rural community; most of the characters are from one family; and much of the plot is about courtship and marriage (there is much more, but I don't want to give anything away). We get to read emails and text messages between some of the characters too, though not so many that it becomes annoying. However, I doubt Jane Austen would have approved of some of the language used in the book, and the Hartle family are poor tenant farmers, not landowners or gentry; nor is there much in the way of wit or irony: what humour there is, is broad. But there's bags of compassion and understanding here, and while some of the characters are weak they do move on and learn from their mistakes. Despite the ordinariness, "Homecoming" does not read like a novelisation of a soap opera - even if much of the situation, and many of the plot details are reminiscent of long lost episodes of "Emmerdale Farm", or that other everyday story of countryfolk. Susie Steiner doesn't toss her characters from one drama to another; while there is drama, it unfolds naturally, and the author has plenty of time to describe small events like a darts match or an evening class. This is a good story, and a well-written one too. Recommended. (less)
Unlike most people reviewing this I have never read any of Noel Streatfeild's children's books. I was drawn to the book because the other two Persepho...moreUnlike most people reviewing this I have never read any of Noel Streatfeild's children's books. I was drawn to the book because the other two Persephone Classics I have read have both been wonderful, and I am pleased to say this did not disappoint at all either. The book charts the effect of WWII on the Wiltshire family, which, when we first meet it on a summer holiday in Eastbourne, consists of four happy children (Laurel, Tony, Kim and Tuesday) with a caring and wise industrialist father (Alex), a charming and beautiful but narcissistic mother (Lena), ably assisted by an loving old nanny, and a perceptive young governess (Miss Glover). The outbreak of war breaks up the family as the children are first sent to stay with Alex's parents, and then later to boarding schools. Unfortunately, the cover of the 2009 edition gives away a key turning point in the plot - I wish I could have read the book without knowing it. This is a book for adults: although it is largely about children, it is not suitable for anyone under about fourteen or fifteen. Saplings follows the development of all four children, though we perhaps care most about the two eldest, and Laurel in particular, but we also get to know a range of aunts and uncles. Nobody reading this novel can fail to understand its main lessons: that children need a stable home or base; that adults should not dispose of children without consulting their wishes, or at least explaining to them why they are doing what they are doing. However, "Saplings" is far from being overly didactic: not the least of the pleasures of this superbly insightful novel about children, is that one of the characters is a novelist who is famed for her understanding of children - but who in practice is fairly hopeless with dealing with them. Highly recommended, one of the best books I've read in a long time, and one I shall probably reread sooner rather than later.(less)
I have sometimes been puzzled by how left-leaning people are outraged when privatisation, or the introduction of a market, are proposed as reforms to...moreI have sometimes been puzzled by how left-leaning people are outraged when privatisation, or the introduction of a market, are proposed as reforms to how a public service is delivered. I have never really understood why somebody would care about this, so long as the job gets done better and more efficiently. This book has changed my thinking, and I think its message needs to be debated widely and publicly. The author, Michael Sandel, is an American political philosopher, and a professor at Harvard. He wears his learning very lightly in this book, which is both short and easy to read, but nevertheless extremely thought-provoking. His central contention is that over the last thirty years the West has moved from having a market economy to being a market society, and that this has happened without any proper consideration of the consequences. Sandel argues that the introduction of a market, or other forms of commercialisation, has moral implications that need to be debated: if the debate does not take place than moral choices will in effect have been made unconsciously. Throughout the book Sandel gives a host of examples of small changes to how things are done, which cumulatively make for a world where there is far less public space, and where rich and poor, or the elite and hoi polloi, are more isolated from one another. Perhaps too many of these examples are drawn from American society for the book to be quite as relevant as it might be to the UK, (though the net is cast widely - with examples from China, Scandinavia and the UK), but at times I was chilled at the thought that some of the more recent developments in the US might soon be coming here too. Sandel does not argue that the introduction of a market, or of financial incentives, is always wrong, just that one should not assume that there are no moral implications to doing so. In some cases the benefit of introducing a market may outweigh the costs. However, there will be few readers if any, who are not disturbed by some of the things that have been done in the name of reducing the cost of government. Although I am being slightly generous in giving this book five stars on Amazon (it is a little too American for this British reader), I think every decision maker working in the public sector and government to read this book. Whether it exposes a dangerous unconscious assumption, or helps someone to articulate their opposition to change more coherently, or to better anticipate unintended consequences of a change they are proposing, this book will usefully inform the reader's thinking. (less)
If there is one measure of time that human beings trust completely it is the steady motion of the earth on its axis and around the sun, but what would...moreIf there is one measure of time that human beings trust completely it is the steady motion of the earth on its axis and around the sun, but what would happen if the earth's rotation gradually began to slow down, and days got longer and longer? It's a question I had never asked myself, but once suggested it seemed fascinating and I really wanted to read this book. Unfortunately, it was a big disappointment, and in giving it two stars I'm being generous: it is just about OK for teen science fiction, but as a novel for grownups it is a failure. It's not even easy to see this book being turned into a multimillion dollar blockbuster movie - it is too pre-apocalyptic for it to require much in the way of special effects; at a pinch it might make a good budget TV series for children. The book is narrated by eleven year old Julia, a fairly typical American child living in a suburb near the coast of California, who is at least as bothered by the fact that she doesn't need a bra yet, as by the slow death of all the plants and birds around her. The beaching and death of a school of whales disorientated by changes to the earth's magnetic field is an opportunity for her to spend time with the boy she fancies but has been too shy to get to know before. The focus is resolutely suburban school-girl. I've frequently read articles bemoaning how American films are now aimed squarely at the teenage market, and how not many films for grownups get made any more. If this book is anything to go by, the same is happening to American novels. Even as science fiction it is poor: a novel like this should have internal logic, from one change everything else should follow, but in this book the scientists have no explanation, and nothing makes much sense. For example, the slowing of the earth is apparently accompanied by gravity getting stronger and late in the book this is ascribed to increased centrifugal force. It seems clear that this book has been written by someone with almost no scientific knowledge, and no appetite for research. Tides become more extreme, but there's no attempt to explain how or why this happens, or how the motion of the moon around the earth (or the earth around the sun) is affected. Events in this book happen both too slowly and too fast.: on the very first day of the slowing the length of the day increases by 56 minutes. Personally, I'd have found it much more interesting if "The Slowing" had proceeded far more gradually - even 56 seconds a day would soon mount up. As it is, within a few chapters the days have increased to 48 hours or so, and the natural world is dying wholesale. Yet somehow or other Julia's mother has managed to lay in enough tinned fruit, tuna and jars of peanut butter for suburban life to carry on as normal for a few more years. Perhaps this book is satirical: the US president soon decrees that days should carry on being 24 hours long in order not to destabilise the markets, so people have to get used to sometimes going to bed in daylight, or going to work in the dark. They buy sunlamps, and when the grass dies buy artificial grass, and wait for scientists to come up with a solution that never comes. They even buy sunlamps to help food-plants to grow as normal. Tough luck on parts of the world where there isn't plenty of electricity, but who cares about that, or about the fact that there soon won't be enough fuel to generate the required power? This will seem a familiar story to those of us who believe that our current way of life is not sustainable. However, the world of politics and big business is too remote for any satirical message to be very obvious - though I did like the passing mention of how one store uses the fear of what is to come to get people to buy more canned goods. The author has some fun with "real timers" - people who attempt to adjust to the changing length of days and nights by living life more slowly, but this isn't explored properly, and the author seems to want to have her cake and eat it in her attitudes to people who pursue alternative lifestyles. A family of Jews goes "off clock" so as to keep the Sabbath properly, but we never get to see more than the surface details of social changes which would certainly be matter for intense debate: the book is too short, and written from the wrong perspective, to be more than a smorgasbord of doomed suburbia. (less)
I've never read an Anne Tyler book before, but found the blurb inside the front cover of her new novel intriguing. The opinions on the back lead one t...moreI've never read an Anne Tyler book before, but found the blurb inside the front cover of her new novel intriguing. The opinions on the back lead one to expect something funny, profound and moving. I'm sorry to say that I found "The Beginner's Goodbye" no more than OK, and am left wondering whether the quotes on the back come from reviews of this book or some of the author's earlier works. This very short novel - a little less than 200 pages - is set in Baltimore and tells the story of narrator Aaron Woolcott's grief for his wife Dorothy, who dies when a tree falls onto their home and crushes her. If I liked the book as much as the critics seem to want me to, I suppose I would say that it is a gentle but poignant comedy. The manner of Dorothy's death is one of the few extraordinary events in the book; most of the time both the characters and the plot are fairly believable, and the comedy, such as it is, arises quite naturally. The book may help readers to think about how one should deal with people mourning a loved one; Aaron is quite a prickly customer, and many of the minor characters come unstuck when they try to help Aaron adjust to his new situation. So why didn't I positively like the book? In the first place both the blurb and the first few pages mislead the reader into expecting something vaguely supernatural (the first sentence in particular), but after some early teasing we have to wait until the novel is around half way through for Dorothy's first post mortem reappearance. I might perhaps have enjoyed the first half more if I hadn't been waiting for this reappearance to happen. And, after waiting for so long, it eventually came as something of an anti-climax, whereas if I hadn't been led to expect it I might have been more disturbed by the event, as well as paying more attention to what I had expected at first to be no more than a brief back-story. Such pleasures as are to be had from this novel probably require quite careful reading, appreciating small details, and the nuances of everyday interactions and conversations between the characters; probably the most significant moment of Aaron's "moving on" occurs when he re-evaluates his way of dealing with other people, and the value of one particular person, after eating some home-made chocolate chip cookies. Some readers (perhaps mostly female ones?) will probably really appreciate the delicacy and subtlety of such moments, but I'm afraid they left me underwhelmed. This isn't a bad book, but it is a book about a marriage, and what comes before and after (courtship and bereavement). If you read "The Beginner's Goodbye" expecting supernatural or paranormal fireworks you will probably be disappointed.(less)
This was the first Charles Dickens novel I ever read - about forty years ago - and I've left it until now to reread it. This is the nearest Dickens ge...moreThis was the first Charles Dickens novel I ever read - about forty years ago - and I've left it until now to reread it. This is the nearest Dickens gets to writing a Bildungsroman (a novel about the education and development of a single central character), and like many other novels in that genre, it is the chapters about childhood that are the most enjoyable, and most memorable. The chapter describing David's first holiday with Mr Peggoty has stayed with me ever since I first read it. David Copperfield contains several of the best known Dickens characters: Betsy Trotwood, Uriah Heep, and Mr Micawber to name a few. Nevertheless, unlike for many other readers, this isn't going to be my favourite Dickens novel. Unfortunately, I found the older David Copperfield somewhat uninteresting, and found Dora, his first wife, silly (though at times she shows surprising self-awareness of her limitations and the reasons for them in some of her discussions with her husband). Too many characters are conveniently disposed of at the end for the novel to be as satisfying as some of his other books. Neither the childish Dora, nor the angelic Agnes, are a patch on any of Jane Austen's heroines (or Esther from Bleak House, Little Dorrit, or Lizzie Hexam from Our Mutual Friend) , and with "Little Emily" to play the role of fallen woman as well David Copperfield shows off some of Dickens's faults as much as his strengths. The Everyman edition I'm reviewing is a hardback with, I hope, all of Phiz's illustrations. Unfortunately the benefit of having the illustrations is somewhat diluted by many of them appearing as much as thirty pages before or after the relevant episode in the book. There are also two introductions, one modern, and one by G K Chesterton from the original Everyman edition. (less)
I've always enjoyed books and films where there is a character that only one person can see: Harvey - where James Stewart's best friend is an invisibl...moreI've always enjoyed books and films where there is a character that only one person can see: Harvey - where James Stewart's best friend is an invisible six foot tall rabbit; or Calvin and Hobbes - a six year old boy whose best friend is his stuffed tiger; John Wyndham's last novel "Chocky", about a boy who communicates telepathically with an alien. For such a story to succeed, it must be interesting and exciting enough for the reader or watcher to more than half believe in the reality of the invisible/imaginary character. "Memoirs of an imaginary friend", the story of Budo and his eight year old human friend Max, is a wonderful addition to the genre, and a very exciting tale too - with quite a few fairly big surprises in its 450 or so pages. It is also very gripping. I read almost half the book - the final 200 pages or so - in a single stretch. Perhaps I enjoyed the book so much because I was expecting a whimsical childhood story with far less excitement than I actually got. So I'd advise potential readers not to find out too much about the story in advance. If you're intrigued by the blurb on the back you are unlikely to be disappointed by the content of the book. This review will not reveal any plot details.
"You've never read a book like this before" is the tagline from Jodi Picoult on the front cover, and it is spot on. Some readers my cavil at the plot, or at the somewhat childish language used throughout: the story is narrated by Budo in the present tense, and is told mostly in short sentences in words of one or two syllables, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Although Budo is remarkably advanced for a five year old imaginary friend, and can spend time apart from Max, he is very far from being perfect or all-wise, so the reader does get a certain amount of fun at his expense, in particular because Budo has watched a lot of television (he watches it at night with Max's parents when Max goes to bed), and has trouble reconciling real life with the TV version. I also enjoyed the fact that Budo is quite constrained: while he has a few unusual powers, he can only do the things that Max imagined he could do. Incidentally, although this book is largely about a young boy, and doesn't use difficult language, it is a novel for adults, or perhaps young ones: there is a certain amount of "strong" language and as Budi says on the back cover, Max is in danger.
This isn't a weighty literary novel, but it is a highly original, engaging, and amusing one. I've been an Amazon Vine reviewer for about a year as I write this, and this is only the second truly memorable novel I've been introduced to through Amazon Vine, and I'd recommend it to friends without hesitation.(less)
This is an odd book: perhaps squeezed uncomfortably into the genre labelled "heart-warming and life-affirming romantic comedy", it is a tale of love b...moreThis is an odd book: perhaps squeezed uncomfortably into the genre labelled "heart-warming and life-affirming romantic comedy", it is a tale of love between retired army major Ernest Pettigrew and the widowed keeper of the village shop, Mrs Jasmina Ali. As in all good English villages there are plenty of nosy neighbours who have not not moved with the times, and who are not quite polite enough not to say nothing about this scandalous development. Major Pettigrew's formerly quiet life is also under threat from his not very likeable son, Roger, and Roger's pushy American girl-friend, and also from sister-in-law Marjorie, who has been left a widow by the death of Major Pettigrew's younger brother Bertie as the novel opens. Mrs Ali also has her share of problem relatives, though it would spoil the plot to say more. A few pages into Chapter 1 the author describes how Mrs Ali drives like a man, "aggressively changing gear into the turns, accelerating away, swinging the tiny Honda over the hills with relish". Helen Simonson writes in a similarly energetic way, but her gear changes are not always smooth - there are chapters which appear to have been written after the author has spent too long in the company of P.G. Wodehouse or Tom Sharpe, where the comedy becomes too broad to be funny, and the characters whose flaws are being satirised too one-dimensional for the satire to be effective. These chapters are out of kilter with a believable story of two people from different backgrounds being drawn together by a love of the same books and their similar experiences of bereavement. Perhaps too the author has spent too long in the US for her portrayal of England not to be drawn more from old films, sitcoms, and novels than from real life. That may also account for the rather too numerous and jarring Americanisms, which ought not to be so plentiful in a novel very much about Englishness. Quite a few characters who at first seem little more than stereotypes come to life, but there were too many who did not, and too many who just disappeared from the story after one or two scenes. But, despite these faults the book is very enjoyable, perhaps because Major Pettigrew himself is such a decent old buffer, and one who is not blind either to his own or to others' faults. He has a nice line in wit so dry his victims are not always aware he is being witty. If the author decides to write more books about Edgecombe St Mary there are several characters I'd be hoping to meet again. (less)
I expect I am not alone in having bought this book because I was attracted by the idea of a murder mystery set in Pemberley. I'd fondly imagined that...moreI expect I am not alone in having bought this book because I was attracted by the idea of a murder mystery set in Pemberley. I'd fondly imagined that Elizabeth Darcy (née Bennett) would be a witty and perceptive detective, and that P. D. James would successfully channel Jane Austen's muse. I was to be disappointed on both counts. The plot is dull but complex, the writing is mostly dull (and no more than occasionally a pale shadow of Jane Austen's) , worst of all, Elizabeth herself is dull and passive. It's hard to escape the conclusion that this novel has been written to order, from a publisher's concept, to give an author whose powers are failing a more comfortable retirement. It is certainly very far from being the labour of love of a gifted writer, who knows Pride and Prejudice intimately, that one might have hoped for. Walk-on roles for characters from some of Jane Austen's other novels, while they may raise a smile, only serve to emphasise how poor the characterisation actually is. If one started with a hackneyed Victorian melodrama about a poor servant girl undone by a heartless aristocrat, and attempted to transplant it half a century back in time without worrying too much about period detail, changed some character names, and interpolated a few passages linking back to well-loved Jane Austen novels you would end up with something very close to this book. Don't buy it, or bother to read it.(less)