Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Letters from Skye, by Jessica Brockmole

Letters from Skye is an epistolary novel set in Scotland during both the first and second world wars. During the earlier time period a young married poet is corresponding with an even younger American college student who admires her poetry. They fall in love but are separated when he enlists early in the war in France, as has her husband. Thirty years later, Elspeth's daughter Margaret is trying to unravel the mystery of her parents, although her mother refuses to tell her anything. When Elspeth disappears during the height of the London Blitz, Margaret panics and begins to track down distant relatives to learn the truth.

I enjoy epistolary novels, although I always get to the point of thinking that no one actually writes letters in the descriptive way necessary to tell a story like this. I found the characters and the plot compelling, although the choices the characters made (for "honor") don't always ring true. In general, I found Letters from Skye to be a well-written, easy to read, slightly overdramatic, but entirely enjoyable work. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys light historical fiction or epistolary novels.

Jessica Brockmole. Letters from Skye. New York: Ballantine Books, 2013. 287 pages. ISBN 9780345542601.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith

This is Smith's third book in a series of detective stories set during the Soviet period in Russia. The first in the series, Child 44, was a strong first novel: very suspenseful, interesting characters and setting. I didn't read the second in the series: The Secret Speech, and Smith's fourth book is the stand-alone The Farm. I don't usually read series out of order but I received Agent 6 at BEA and decided to go ahead with it, finding that it's not necessary to read them in order to understand the backstory. This was a good story that spans decades and continents. It addresses communism in the U.S. as well as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It has good pacing and memorable characters. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys suspenseful detective stories.

Tom Rob Smith. Agent 6. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2012. 467 pages. ISBN 9780446550765.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict, by Kelly Kittel

Author Kittel lost her young son in a terrible accident in which he was run over by her niece who was backing a car up in their driveway. A year later she loses a baby to miscarriage. This memoir tells her heartbreaking story as she deals with family members who are uncaring and cruel.

This was the third book that I read for the Independent Publishers of New England Award Jury. Of the three that I reviewed for them it's the only one that was not self-published, and that's apparent in the professional look and feel of the book. It was well-edited, and the cover and front matter are very well-done. It's not something that I would normally pick up to read, but I found it impossible to put down.

Kelly Kittel. Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict. Berkeley, CA: She Writes Press, 2014. 369 pages. ISBN 9781938314780.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Navy SEAL Art of War, by Rob Roy

After 22 years as a Navy SEAL, author Rob Roy formed a company that provides training in leadership skills to corporate executives and young professionals. The training is based on the methods that the Navy uses to train new SEALs. Mr. Roy tells us in the introduction to The Navy SEAL Art of War that he has long been a fan of Sun Tzu's Art of War, and has subsequently decided to share his philosophy on leadership in a similar manner. In 57 short chapters, Mr. Roy conveys what he thinks makes a good leader. While this is an easy book to read, and I don't have any quibbles about the leadership traits that Mr. Roy espouses (e.g., work as a team, be humble, communicate clearly, and so on), the book has three main weaknesses.

The first is that Mr. Roy describes many of the traits and abilities of a Navy SEAL, but doesn't make the connection to the corporate or work world. For example, in the chapter "Festina Lente: Make Haste Slowly" he describes a war simulation exercise in which he participated and had the most kills of any of the players. He claims "While SEALs are usually faster, smarter, and more adaptable than their adversaries, we're also more elegant in how we operate. That elegance translates into lethal accuracy when it matters most." (p. 29). He goes on to describe a quarterback who maintains calm under pressure, and another simulation in which he "killed" 30 targets in 34 seconds. He wraps up by telling the reader that leaders need to remain calm under pressure and "carry yourself with elegance." (p. 31). While his anecdotes are interesting, his lesson appears to be "SEALs remain calm and elegant under pressure, and you should too." I'm not sure how helpful that will be to most readers.

Another weakness of The Navy SEAL Art of War is that most women will not see themselves reflected in its page. Many of the anecdotes that Mr. Roy uses to illustrate his principles involve war operations. Most of the non-war-related anecdotes come from Mr. Roy's company SOT-G (Special Operations Training Group) and its special training programs. He described one 10-day program in which the participants had to swim 2 miles, do a number of exercises in small groups such as squats while holding large logs, and participate in simulation war exercises. I have no doubt that this kind of training and exercise can be life-changing for the men who participate, but when I look at the photos on his website, out of dozens of pictures of groups of men exercising together I only saw one woman among them. Throughout his book Mr. Roy consistently referred to leaders as men; I only saw the pronoun "she" used once. In addition to the complete disregard of women as leaders, Mr. Roy's program would leave out anyone with a disability or any kind of weakness. In the end, while I appreciate that physical adversity can be character-building, I don't think it's a critical requirement to build and lead teams in the workplace.

Finally, while I acknowledge that Mr. Roy modelled The Navy SEAL Art of War after Sun Tzu's Art of War, and he specifically mentioned that he admired Sun Tzu's pithiness, I think he may have taken the brevity too far. I don't have an issue with short chapters in general (with 57 chapters in 199 pages, they're all pretty short), I do think he could have put a little effort into some of the chapters which are basically just a short list of bullet points. There are eight such chapters. For example, "Performance Expectations" (p. 167) consists of this list:
  • Give at least 100 percent, 100 percent of the time.
  • If your leaders are failing the team, remove them quickly and replace them with someone who can get the job done.
  • Get it right every single time ... there is no tolerance for error.
  • In the SEALs, if someone screws up in our line of work, people may die.
This is the kind of list that you can find anywhere, with the exception of the last point, which is pointless in this context. How does that statement help someone learning how to be a better leader in the work world? One of these chapters "Commit to Commitment" consists of only three sentences: "There's nothing that frustrates me more than someone who fails to give 100 percent effort, 100 percent of the time. If you're going to show up, show up. If you're not going to show up, don't show up." (p. 153). Aside from the fact that this statement is repeated 14 pages later, I don't think it's worthy of its own chapter in a book on leadership. Since many of these bullet-point chapters appear in the last quarter of the book, I wonder if Mr. Roy was simply running out of steam.

Overall, I would describe The Navy SEAL Art of War as leadership-lite: an example of empty-calorie management literature that can be popular with readers. It reminds me a lot of Take Command: Lessons in Leadership by Jake Wood, a management book based on Mr. Wood's experience as a Marine sniper in Iraq and Afghanistan, reviewed on this blog here.

Rob Roy, with Chris Lawson. The Navy SEAL Art of War: Leadership Lessons from the World's Most Elite Fighting Force. New York: Crown Business, 2015. 203 pages. ISBN 9780804137751.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Cranky Typographer's Book of Major Annoyances, by R.W. Bacon

Using humor and amusing examples, author R.W. Bacon provides an introduction to graphic design, page layout, and typography in The Cranky Typographer's Book of Major Annoyances. He explains in his introduction "Read This Stuff First: The Cranky Typographer's Ground Rules" that the reason he's cranky is because he's upset about the decline in his craft over the years due to the ability of anyone with a computer to make an attempt at graphic design. He tells us that it's clear that the many manuals with helpful advice for the "do-it-yourselfers" out there have not been successful, so he's going to try the cranky approach.

Chapter 2 of The Cranky Typographer's Book of Major Annoyances provides his short list of what he terms major annoyances and his suggestions for improvement. The annoyances include errors in typography, body text, display type, spacing, style, design, layout, and more. Subsequent chapters are devoted to each of these blunders and explore them and their remedies in much more depth. Bacon provides examples of both good and bad design, and uses two characters throughout them: "Sharp Sally" and "Sloppy Joe."

The Cranky Typographer's Book of Major Annoyances contains a lot of useful information. Anyone interested in typography, style, and graphic design will find much to ponder in these pages. But if I had to use one word to describe this book, I would use "dense." The pages are stuffed full of dense prose, examples are crowded together, and every page is overly busy. It's ironic in a book about graphic design, but the book is not well-designed. The cover is extremely busy, with too many words. Perhaps that's the author's intent, to demonstrate the things that annoy him, but it doesn't serve his purpose well. The header of each page contains both the author's name and the title of the book, whereas in most book designs, the author's name is in the header of one page and the title of the book is in the header of the opposite page. There are horizontal lines framing every page, increasing the busy look. The examples are jam-packed with information, including captions at the top and the bottom of each example as well as text balloons pointing out specific things.

The Cranky Typographer's Book of Major Annoyances was published by Variety Arts Press, which, according to its web site has been "since 1983 the publisher of books by the journalist/editor, historian, museum professional, and performing artist Reginald W. Bacon." This is further proof that no matter how talented a writer may be, all books benefit from the oversight of a professional editor who is not the author.

R.W. Bacon. The Cranky Typographer's Book of Major Annoyances and the Most Masterful Mitigations: Helpful Graphics Tips for Do-It-Yourself Designers. Newburyport, Massachusetts: Variety Arts Press, 2014. 240 pages. ISBN 9780981794570.