Friday, 20 July 2012

Audiobook Review: Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin

Purchased from Audible. 16hrs 10 mins. Narrator Alex Jennings.

Judging by the size of the paper book I expected the audiobook to be longer. However, it was long enough and near the end I found myself losing the plot - literally. I do find listening to non-fiction to be a challenge, whereas fiction tends to work well by ear.

The content itself is brilliant and I learnt more about Dickens than I expected he knew about himself. Hats of to Claire Tomalin for a superb biography. I have no idea how someone can curate all those snippets of information and turn them into a cohesive and readable text. 

The narrator was good; perhaps a bit sing-songy at times as though he was reading to a group of children, but overall I'd listen to a book narrated by him again.

This gets a 4 stars from me - dropping a star only because it seemed to go on for an hour longer than necessary.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Book Review: Shelter by Harlan Coben

Shelter by Harlan Coban
Purchased from WH Smith as part of The Times' Weekly Deal

I'm a Harlan Coben fan. I've read all his books and enjoyed them - until this one. I purchased the book as it was one of The Times' weekly deals. I didn't bother reading up about it beforehand as I already knew the author.
I was part way through the book, shocked by the poor structure and rather strange behaviour of the characters, when I discovered it was the author's first foray into the Young Adult genre. Suffice to say, I don't recommend any young adults read this. We have examples from JK Rowling and Phillip Pullman how literature can be well written for this genre - it does not mean a lowering of the standards.
The characters we not fully believable in their actions or motivations. The sense of place was weak. The structure barely held together.
Shelter is advertised as the first in a series. I'll not be buying the rest. It's a real shame to have to give a poor rating to a good author, but he has stepped away from what he does well and, for me, his narrative skills have not translated into the young adult genre.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Audio Book Review: The Broken Bridge by Phillip Pullman

The Broken Bridge by Phillip Pullman
Narrated by Miriam Margolis
Purchased from Audible, Unabridged, 7hrs 10 mins

Hmmm, are we allowed to give anything other than an excellent rating to one of our National Authorial Superstars?

This story of an Haitian 16 year old girl living in Wales has some interesting moments and is best for conjuring up a good sense of place. However, there are numerous clich├ęs and the one about "feeling white in a black skin" really got on my nerves after a while.  The ending is remarkable for the fact it relies on a rather forced conversation between two people who explain how it all ends. Really weak in structure.
The story gets 1-2 stars from me.

The narrator, Miriam Margolis gets a glorious 4 stars. I'd choose a book again if she was narrating it.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

In Good Company; how social capital makes organizations work by Cohen & Pusak

In Good Company; how social capital makes organizations work by Cohen & Prusak 
Harvard Business School Press, 2001
Purchased from Amazon

 I had to stop and check out the publishing date of this book. Heavens, it is ten years old, yet seems as fresh as the this morning's dawn. What impressed me was its ability to focus on the social without getting lost in the technology aspects of social. That was my heads up to this book being written before the advent of the "bright and shiny" social networking (as in on-line) era.

The authors focus on the concept of social capital. Their definition of this is "Social capital consists of the stock of active connections among people; the trust, mutual understanding, and shared values and behaviours that bind the members of human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible". The chapter on trust made more sense to me than most of the consultancy-type frameworks that proliferate. They explain how it is the key to social capital and how it is a demonstrable social system behaviour. Networks and communities are a fashionable topic and have been since the onset of debate about communities of practice. These authors focus on the role of social groups, the basics of communities and networks, as well as the value of the networks. I wonder how much we know about our organizational networks and whether we have stopped to value them? I loved the chapter on space and time to connect. In these impatient days of quick fixes, rapid cycles of change, the flurries of new ideas on how to do something, we can all do with a refocus on what it is that is the glue in the system. This glue is of course the social capital. Social capital is a by product of many processes and structures, and most importantly needs attention to time and space. When last did you calculate the return on investment of your lunch half hour away from your desk sitting at a table with some colleagues.

The trouble with this book is I agreed with everything and in the same instant felt the impossibility of it all. Nevertheless there are some thought provoking issues to consider. For example there is no point in exhorting storytelling as a method of engaging staff in change unless we personally experience story telling, walk the talk, take the time to tell stories and more importantly to listen to other people's stories.

The chapter on social talk and storytelling is a must for any leader who is evoking this as a method for change. If you're not convinced so far then the chapter on the challenge of volatility is crucial. Here we learn how social capital can transcend and transform, against all circumstances. In case you think they missed the boat by not considering the technology opportunities the chapter on the challenge of virtuality says it all, without getting lost in the technical details. This is another book that has languished on my bookshelf. Something triggered me to buy it all those years ago. Having read it I felt affirmed and inspired. I'm going to reflect and work on my social capital. And you?

PS there are some great books written by Laurence Prusak - check out his website. There are also videos by him on storytelling and knowledge management.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth 
Hodder & Stoughton, 2010 
Book provided for review 

I didn't realise this was a vampire book until I was well into it. I would not have chosen to buy it because of my prejudice about vampires and literature, however, the concept of the book is redeeming and engaged me. It works well as a "vampire-book-for-grown-ups". Cade is a 160 year old vampire who is morally chained to the Office of the US President and who ultimately is the only person left to solve a crisis. The characters are believable and push the story forward. At times I felt there were too many people as new characters are introduced all through the book. The back story and context is dealt with very well. Most chapters start with a quote from an "official" text which provides information necessary to understand the characters and the plot.

Towards the end (trying not to provide a spoiler...) there is some confusion over whether there are three or four "thingies". It felt like the author originally had three and then edited to change to four, changing the numbers but not specific plot details. It took me three read-backs to work out what was going on. Until then the narrative flowed smoothly.

The vampire protagonist is a great character and I'd happily read another book by the same author with Cade in the lead. Though I'll be expecting the plot to be less convoluted and easier to follow.

Minor note to the author and publisher: the title Blood Oath has been used in other books, in a popular Star Trek episode and in vampire games. Consequently, an Internet search does not bring up details of this book without a bit more digging.

Book Review: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre 
Fourth Estate 2008 
Purchased from Amazon

I can't recall ever before reading a book three times. I may even read it for a fourth time. This is a best-seller and truly deserves its position. It needs to be a compulsory textbook for all scientists, journalists, healthcare professionals, teachers, parents - well, everyone can benefit by digesting its contents.

Ben Goldacre has carved a niche for himself in highlighting the daft and downright dishonest reports that abuse statistics to sell products, pills, methods and interventions. If he writes a sequel, it hope he names it something like "Wise Up, You Idiots!".

Through compelling and sometimes controversial case studies, Goldacre teaches the reader how statistics can be and are manipulated for the benefit of some. Although I am not too bad at handling statistics I finished this book, each time, with a far greater understanding of the analysis, manipulation and presentation of data. For me, the best best aspect of the book is the totally no nonsense approach of the writing. It is perhaps toned down a wee bit compared to his blog

So if you want to know the statistical facts behind the Brain Gym, the Media's MMR Hoax, Dr Gillian McKeith, Homeopathy, Professor Patrick Holford and other juicy topics which form part of our perceived wisdom, then read the book - at least twice.

A well deserved 5* (a rare award)

Audiobook review: The Language of flowers by V. Diffenbach

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbach and narrated by Tara Sands
Published 2011 by Random House
Downloaded from Audible (paid for): 10 hours 53 minutes

An intriguing story using the device of the Victorian meaning of flowers as a method of communicating emotions and progression in the novel. The concept is interesting and novel. The heroine comes from a foster care background and there's a rather intense psychological focus throughout the book, at times gloomy and discouraging. In the end, of sources, things turn out just fine. 
A well deserved 4*.

I forgot to do a preview of the audio narrator before purchasing this book. Unfortunately this narrator seems to have been matched with the character of the book which in some senses no bad thing - youngish teenage.  However, it meant a rather ear splitting, nasal, sharp American female voice which may work for some people, but it really didn't work for me.  I ploughed on mainly because the story itself is sufficiently compelling. 
A generous 3*