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MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne)

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Moving Tigers
Moving Tigers
Price: £6.33

3.0 out of 5 stars It's a worry, 23 April 2015
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This review is from: Moving Tigers (Kindle Edition)
Jeannie Cooper and her boyfriend Andy have left their comfortable Melbourne suburb to do a stint of voluntary work in Nepal. The placement starts with a bit of tourism, and then the volunteers are farmed out to small towns to teach English.

Jeannie doesn't seem to know what she is doing in Nepal. She has no great affinity for the place; she is creeped out by everyone she meets; she lives for her next drink; and she doesn't even seem to like Andy much so it can't have been the prospect of spending more time with him. Like her fellow volunteers, Jeannie has no experience of teaching; has had no training; and just makes it up as she goes along.

Moving Tigers feels like it has a message to carry. The mismatch between third world needs and first world offerings is laid out clearly. The Western volunteers make tokenistic, symbolic gestures - trying to get a bed and blanket for the porter; asking for dal baht instead of eggs for breakfast - whilst unwittingly insulting the hospitality of the Nepalese managers. There are excellent depictions of ancient traditions; sacred monuments; atmospheric guest houses all being under-appreciated by the hordes of visitors who see it all as wallpaper for their 'life experience'.

But, the story itself feels somewhat skimpy and under-done. Jeannie is apparently terrified after refusing to give money to a beggar. She sees demons around her, lurking in the shadows and in her dreams. This feels like it was tacked on, perhaps to make a straight travel story seem more exciting. It doesn't work. The terror is never adequately evoked, and certainly not explained. Jeannie would have encountered many beggars, most of whom would have been brushed aside. There is no reason why this one in particular should have caused such a reaction. Whilst an explanation does emerge, it doesn't satisfy.

The narrative, too, seems too plain. It is constructed as Jeannie's diary, but the entries are both too lengthy for a genuine diary (including lengthy conversations, etc.) but the language is just too plain to carry the story.

The title - Moving Tigers - is apparently a game played in Nepal. But there is not enough in the story to make the linkage to the volunteers. Sure, the blurb on the back of the book does its best to make the link but there is nothing in the story to suggest a metaphor of goats and tigers.

Overall, this is a short read that does have some interesting ideas and some political messages (laid on quite thick). These do redeem the novel to an extent, but at best it is middling.

Oh, and the Kindle version has a short story added to the end - Made In China - about a woman who designs jeans outsourcing the production to China. Her chickens come home to roost. This is worth reading, but is pretty similar in both narrative and political vein to Moving Tigers.

Solving the Strategy Delusion: Mobilizing People and Realizing Distinctive Strategies
Solving the Strategy Delusion: Mobilizing People and Realizing Distinctive Strategies
Price: £19.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Throw off your mental chains, 19 April 2015
Solving the Strategy Delusion is a short but very readable text. The authors adopt a conversational style, illustrating their points with various recent and well known examples. But for all the readability, it is also a masterpiece of concision; it packs an awful lot of thinking into a pretty small package.

The central thesis is that strategy fails for various reasons - principally being developed by a small and internal group at a one off group, conflates strategy with strategic plan, is not well understood or communicated even within the Boardroom, let alone to wider staff, and tends to be under-resourced in its implementation. These are not new concepts - they owe a debt to Heifetz and Kotter - but the way they are articulated and made accessible is new. There are also good insights in relating the theory to practice, drawing frequently on recent performance of Fortune 500 companies.

The sections that spoke particularly strongly too me were:

(a) the need to develop strategy from an outside perspective - and I have tried out the illustration of the North View with colleagues and it works very well and
(b) the need to develop a purpose, mission and collective story - which is too often seen as something to be retro-fitted to explain what has been done rather than developed up front as a statement of intent

The authors conclude (and in fact assert up front) that 20th century corporate practices are not fit for purpose in the 21st century; they are not flexible enough or fast enough. I was a convert to the cause already, but feel emboldened by this text.

I am grateful to Marc Stigter for giving me a copy of this book.

The Vegetarian: A Novel
The Vegetarian: A Novel
Price: £8.79

3.0 out of 5 stars Strange Fruit, 15 April 2015
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The Vegetarian is a strange novel. It starts out in a low key mannet – Korean housewife Yeong-Hye has decided to stop eating meat and this causes some distress to her meat-loving husband. Being set in a society in which marriages are often made by arrangement rather than through love; and in which women are expected to obey their husbands, it poses some interesting cultural questions. Just how far should the will of the individual prevail against the strong social expectations of family? And how about if we throw in the husband’s employer’s expectations too?

But a third of the way through, the narrative perspective changes. The reader realises that the first section was narrated in fairly chatty fashion by Yeong-Hye’s husband. The second section is altogether darker, narrated by Mr Cheung, Yeong-Hye’s brother in law. Mr Cheung is an aspiring conceptual artist who has a fascination with flowers and birthmarks. He selects Yeong-Hye to feature in a video artwork.

And the third section is narrated by Yeong-Hye’s sister. By this point things are very weird indeed. Yeong-Hye’s idiosyncrasy is no longer just a matter of personal indulgence; it is clear that she wishes to become a tree. This ambition is harming her and those around her. It is hard to understand just what the author was trying to do. Was Yeong-Hye’s condition some deep allegory or was it just an exercise in demonstrating that every reader has a line beyond which personal expression should not be allowed to cross? The questions of conformity raised in the first section still pertain, but now the answers are different.

The Vegetarian is a short novel that is initially engaging, but for this reader at least it became significantly less engaging once the line had been crossed and we could no longer see Yeong-Hye as a harmless individual. As it becomes less engaging, it also becomes less easy to follow; more fractured. It is an interesting work, but not sure the gain quite outweighs the pain.

Station Eleven
Station Eleven
Price: £3.59

5.0 out of 5 stars The Deer Hunter, 14 April 2015
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This review is from: Station Eleven (Kindle Edition)
The cover of Station Eleven seems to target itself quite clearly at a young female market. That’s a pity; this novel is good enough to pitch to a wider audience.

It’s one of those novels that has multiple narrators/points of view, zipping back and forth between the present day and the near future. This creates a rich and varied patchwork of a story; the story never gets stale because it always moves on when the reader still wants more.

It is tempting to say that the book is the story of Kirsten, a young girl in the opening chapters who kind of ties everything together. Or perhaps to say that it is a story about the legacy of Arthur Leander, a famous Canadian actor who dies on a Toronto stage in the opening scenes. Or to say that it is the story of a travelling symphony orchestra; or the story of an apocalypse. It is all of these things, but each of these descriptions falls short of conveying the full extent of the story and its various strands. It’s like a literary version of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction – stories within stories. And told very well indeed.

Way above the plot line, there is a clear depiction of just how fragile our modern world could be; how little it would take for components of our complex systems to fail, bringing down the whole show with it. But unlike other post-apocalyptic novels, Station Eleven is not unremittingly bleak; from the ashes we see the emergent signs of a new society. Of course there is an element of raiding abandoned homes for supplies, but there is also a tendency towards self-sufficiency and even the occasional glimpse of luxury.

There are contrasts with a better life that people once led, but actually those lives are shown to be pretty hollow.

In particular, there is a scene where Arthur (before he died, obviously) is walking through a hotel lobby to the lift, aware that all eyes are on him. He is aware of the need to portray a ma who is time-poor; for whom everyday chores are just too mundane. Yet when he gets to his hotel room, he breathes a sigh of relief, is immediately bored and in the absence of a real job, has very little other than everyday chores to fill his time.

We see people in the old world travelling helter skelter in cars, ships, planes – all quite effortlessly. In future world, travel even between neighbouring cities represents an epic adventure. Yet in both worlds, travel has no great purpose.

The book is not perfect. There is a heavy reliance on coincidence and the onset of the apocalypse (disease) seems a bit too sudden and a bit too comprehensive. But for the most part, the ideas are well thought through; the characters are three dimensional and the reader cares about their fates – even when we already know them.

by Phil Klay
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How dare they buy our products and still they don't respect us?, 14 April 2015
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This review is from: Redeployment (Paperback)
Redeployment sells itself on the cover as being the real deal. I think that’s a fair enough assessment.

This is a collection of short narratives – some running to a dozen pages or more; others just a page or two. Each tells a story of American involvement in Iraq from a different perspective. Understandably, most are voices from the military, although there is the occasional voice from the civilian involvement.

Phil Klay avoids the temptation to create heroes or play politics. Naturally some of the narratives involve doing heroic things, but these are outweighed by the stories of medics, body collection, office jockeys and logistics. The narratives feel authentic and don’t waste time with background information or explanations. One (mercifully short) story is told almost entirely in indecipherable acronyms.

Despite the variety of narratives and voices, the striking point is that the participants’ motivations are almost always personal, and often venal. There is no hint of creating a stronger community; of ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction; of promoting democracy; or protecting the Kurds. Even when coming under direct fire, the motivation is purely on protecting colleagues, winning medals or impressing girlfriends.

Some of the narrators are more likeable than others; and a couple are completely repellent. But they are never less than totally engaging. Despite the commonality between the narratives, they never feel repetitive; never feel too longwinded; yet always feel complete. The language seems spot on and it can be difficult to believe these are not direct transcripts of interviews given to camera.

The result is a multi-faceted picture of the US engagement; of the challenges faced by those involved in the operations; and the struggles they face in readapting to a normal life when they return home. Of course, one can always point to missing perspectives but for all that, it is worth celebrating the many perspectives that are included. It is the most complete fictional portrayal I have found of the current US engagement in Iraq and, Richard House’s The Kills apart, the most credible.

Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag
Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag
by Kang Chol-Hwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

4.0 out of 5 stars Yin and Yang, 30 Mar. 2015
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Kang Chol-Hwan is a Korean whose grandparents had lived in Japan and returned to North Korea to help rebuild the Communist nation following the Korean war. With relatives still in Japan sending money and goods, the family lived in considerable comfort in Pyongyang, even if they did have to sacrifice some of their possessions to the party. Chol’s grandfather was in charge of distribution of food and consumer goods, giving him access to pretty much whatever he wanted and making him a good person to know.


… when Chol was 9, his grandfather disappeared. The family was then required to leave Pyongyang and move to Yodok, a secure village surrounded by mountains and barbed wire. In the book, Chol describes this as a concentration camp – which it is in part. But it is also part prison, part collective farm, part re-education centre. It is something that does not have a direct equivalent in the West.

Chol narrated his story of before Yodok, during Yodok and after Yodok. Whilst some of the detail is shocking, the book is written in a positive, upbeat fashion. Chol is seen to be a lively spirit who never gives up – right from the beginning when he insists on taking an aquarium of tropical fish with him to Yodok.

Comparisons will be drawn with Barbara Demick’s much lauded collection of narratives: Nothing To Envy. The Aquariums of Pyongyang is the superior product. Whereas Nothing To Envy was presented entirely through the lens of American values, portraying North Korea as a soulless place where people lived in constant fear and authority was unshakable, Kang Chol-Hwan’s narrative portrays a more credible, human society. Chol shows us that bribery and corruption were rife; that there was fun to be had in downtown Pyongyang; that some teachers were kind whilst others were severe; that some officials tried to be helpful; and that many in the population had pride and belief in their system. We are given an insight into the lives of high ranking bureaucrats; into petty crime; we are shown street gangs; drunken brawls; porous borders. The reader is left with an impression of a government that might have been in control of political thought and expression, but whose control of the population in other aspects of life was severely limited. As well as the public face of strict order, there seemed to be quite a lot of chaos and making stuff up as it went along.

Overall, the book is short, unsentimental, and led by Korean beliefs and values. It feels authentic.

If there is a weak spot, it is the bookending with an introduction and ending that feel almost as though they were written by a different hand, offering a very brief historical context and some references to President George W Bush, Christianity and the reuinification. But buried in this material there is the observation that, coming from North to South Korea, it appeared that “everyone seemed free to do just as they wished. No system organised their movements and activities… this sort of society just couldn’t last; it could never face a crisis. I later realised that this only seemed like disorder. A pervading logic governed people’s interactions”. To me, this says that there are two systems – one demonstrably more successful than the other right now – but that the North Korean system does have a logic and an ideology to it that can make sense to its people. It is not all about evil dictatorship; even in the prison camps there is a structure to society and rules to which people can adapt and play sometimes for advantage and sometimes for disadvantage. In the order of North Korea, there is spontaneity; in the spontaneity of South Korea there is order. It’s like Yin and Yang.

The Country of Ice Cream Star
The Country of Ice Cream Star
Price: £4.35

2.0 out of 5 stars Egulac, 29 Mar. 2015
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Ice Cream Star is a 15 year old girl, living an outlaw life in post-Apocalyptic Massachusetts. She lives in a tribal world divided mostly, it seems, on ethnic grounds. Whilst Ice Cream and her band of outlaws scavenge the leftovers from the old world (the world of the Sleepers), other tribes seem to have a better life.

One of the first things to have been lost, it seems, is the power of language. Ice Cream narrates in the patois of her tribe, a mostly monosyllabic language owing a debt to her tribe’s African American heritage, and perhaps a dose of French Creole. Hence, good becomes bone; pretty becomes bell; and bad becomes mally. It takes a bit of getting used to bit it is not rocket science. Other tribes have different idiom and one, the Marianos – residents of the former New York City of Hispanic heritage – speak in our own language. We, as bright readers, can understand both dialects whilst Ice Cream struggles. She makes up for this, however, with unexplained competence in “rooish”.

Ice Cream’s world is at war; it has been for ever although it is never quite clear why. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a battle for scarce resources or strategic territory. It just seems to be war for its own sake,

Oh, and Ice Cream’s world is dominated by a disease, the posies, that kills everyone once they reach the age of 18-20. Much of this very long novel is a quest for the cure.

The novel comes with a heap of good reviews and has been long-listed for the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction. The language, certainly, is inventive. Howeverm it is written almost entirely in some kind of iambic meter that has a hypnotising effect, leading to long tracts being read on autopilot without any meaning being taken in. It is difficult to conceive of Ice Cream’s narrative being genuine conversation. Moreover, every break in the iambic meter jars.

The language feels sort of ancient – a cross between Shakespeare and more recent pastiche. The monosyllables make it hard to convey character and convincing emotion; we know that Ice Cream is brave and stubborn but there seems to be little more to her – and almost nothing to any other character. They are just cardboard cut-outs. There is no motivation or rationale behind any the plot. It just seems to be an exercise in meeting one tribe after another; visiting one ruined city after another. It reminds me of The War Of The Ghosts, a bizarre Native American tale that was used by a psychologist for memory recall.

The 630 long pages drag and drag without any sense of getting anywhere. The ending is supposed to be momentous, but the reader (or this reader at least) had long since stopped caring or believing.

As a shorter work this might have had something, but for a work of this length, it takes more than an interesting pretext and an idiosyncratic voice to carry it.

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea
Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea
by Barbara Demick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Real lives but not necessarily typical lives, 23 Mar. 2015
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Nothing to Envy is ostensibly a description of everyday life in North Korea, told by those who have lived through it.

Alas, the model is flawed. The book is compiled by an American visitor to South Korea. She has been heavily influenced by her own values and those of the society in which she has been living. Moreover, her interviewees, being those who have risked their lives to flee North Korea, are perhaps not typical of the North Korean population. They have an axe to grind against their old society and a wish to justify their decisions to emigrate. Thus, we have a book that compares everything to American society (as big as Pennsylvania; mountains like Vermont, etc.) and people who lament their inability to set up private businesses and live their lives with the partner of their dreams.

Apart from our gallant émigrés, all the North Koreans are shown to be simultaneously brain dead slaves to the system who will grass their friends and neighbours to the authorities; and starving, oppressed people who live in fear of the snitches.

There are similar contradictions with the society as a whole. There is no private market; money is just a token for buying little extras; officials are immovable and people are starving; yet on the other hand, there are private market stalls with licences, money gets shipped in from Japanese relatives, officials are open to bribery and there is plenty of food if you have money to pay for it. We are told that everyone is born with a glass ceiling over their heads beyond whish they may not aspire; these ceilings can be lowered if people transgress, but can never be raised. People are discouraged from forming relationships, yet little baby North Koreans don’t seem to be in short supply. People cannot travel even into or out of town without permits, yet the trains are full to overflowing; people go out into the forests to forage for food; and traipse half way across the country to wade across the (inexplicably unguarded) shallow river that forms the border with China.

All of these things might have some truth, but packaging it up to create a neat, homogenous picture of North Korea leaves these contradictions unexplained and seemingly unnoticed. It doesn’t really convince the reader that it captures what North Korean life is actually like. However often it is repeated – and some parts of this book do feel repetitive.

Nothing to Envy feels a bit like a take on Anna Funder’s Stasiland. But whilst Anna Funder was clearly pushing an agenda in Stasiland, she allowed different voices to have their say; she allowed glimpses of better times as well as the bad. She created a three dimensional picture of life in East Germany. But Nothing to Envy is (perhaps necessarily) much more limited in its scope. Barbara Demick may have provided the reader with (six) real lives from North Korea, but hasn’t persuaded the reader that they are typical real lives from North Korea. Demick is hindered by the fact that the regime is still in place, making it difficult to get the views of supporters of the regime. There are occasional nods to a better time when the North Korean economy was blessed b y gifts from Russia and China; there are also occasional acknowledgements that pre-war Korea had been deeply conservative, traditional and poor. Thus, not all the perceived failings of the present day were fairly the fault of the incumbent government.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to support the North Korean government, nor to suggest that life there is peachy. I do, though, think that research on the subject needs to be fair and objective if it is to be of any value. I think it is going to take more than a handful of disaffected former residents of Chongjin and a writer bringing a big dose of Western ethnocentrism.

A Man Made Entirely of Bats
A Man Made Entirely of Bats
Price: £3.20

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dinner dinner dinner dinner ..., 12 Mar. 2015
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Flash fiction can be very clever. Just a page or three setting out a story with a structured beginning, middle and an end, usually doing something slightly quirky or unexpected.

Having been drawn to this book by the cover, I opened it and read a rather good half pager starring Wonder Woman, spending most of her time wondering things as she flew about the place trying to avert disasters. It was well done, drawing on our existing pre-conceptions of Wonder Woman (which are so entrenched they didn’t need to be articulated) and letting them conflict nicely with the portrayal of a bored, fey woman.

So, I put the book down and bought the Kindle version – much cheaper!

And it is a short collection of mostly superhero themed flash fiction – 24 pieces to be precise. Most of them raise a smile; few will be remembered for long. They have basic images – religious leaders playing poker in the Bellagio; a Ross Geller Man walking around looking like Ross Geller; a man who reluctantly accepts the mantle of King of the World. All this Americana with a distinctly Australian sub-text.

The problem I have, though, is how to read flash fiction. Sitting down, reading from cover to cover, the book might take a couple of hours. But the rapid fire of scene setting - comic reveal - closure gets very wearing, very quickly. A couple of pieces at a time might work; three at a pinch but more than that and there’s a feeling of reading just for completeness’ sake. But reading only a couple of pieces is only going to take five or ten minutes, then what? Perhaps flash fiction would be happier published as singles in current affairs magazines or on websites. But as a bound collection they don’t really work, especially when the subject matter is so samey.

Actually, Patrick Lenton has done remarkably well to create 24 works that are not straight repeats of one another; he has got 24 distinct ideas and each one is well done. One can hardly blame him, as a writer, for bundling his work into a format that is likely to be commercially appealing to a publisher. It does, though, create a product that is less than the sum of its parts, giving out its ideas too cheaply and in a form that means most of them will not get the attention they deserve.

Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions
Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions
by John Kotter
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.69

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Think like a hero, 6 Mar. 2015
In 1995, John Kotter had an idea. He identified eight reasons why transformational change within organisations can fail. These were then inverted to create eight steps to implement transformational change. They are:

* Establish a Sense of Urgency
* Create the Guiding Coalition
* Develop a Vision and Strategy
* Communicate the Change Vision
* Empower Employees for Broad-Based Action
* Generate Short-Term Wins
* Consolidate Gains and Producing More Change
* Anchor New Approaches in the Culture

These eight steps were grounded in real life examples and, in my own experience, are very sensible steps. I am a Kotter fan.

But for the past 20 years, John Kotter has been dining out on this single idea. I have seen his original model published twice in the Harvard Business Review; Kotter has expanded the idea into a best-selling book (Leading Change, 1996); and has set up the Kotter International to sell the concept to businesses which have, presumably, not read the HBR articles or bought his book.

Ten years after having the big idea, Kotter wrote a fable to illustrate the eight steps with the help of some penguins. It's a cutesy story written in large letters padded out with lots of white space (like snow) and cutesy pictures of penguins. There are humorous asides to the reader, offering a reminder that this is all about business theory and that penguins don't really carry briefcases and attend business meetings.

It is well done, and Kotter offers a good portrayal of the various forms of opposition and resistance that can build up, and how best to overcome it. Kotter seems unsure that readers will spot the brilliance of the fable, so he spells it out at the end in words of one syllable. He then explains that organisations seeking to undergo transformational change should buy copies of the book and distribute them widely amongst those who will be leading the change. He suggests that discussing the penguins around the table will help to diffuse potentially confrontational situations, and take the personality issues out of play.

Perhaps the penguins can be more than a pretty illustration of the eight steps. Perhaps they can, in and of themselves, become tools to be deployed to facilitate change. I have my doubts and cannot quite envisage commencing a change project by handing out a pile of penguin books and asking senior managers to read them. I suspect they would be more comfortable with reprints of the original Harvard Business Review article - but maybe my lack of imagination is what is stopping me from being a hero penguin.

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