Smarter, Faster, Better

duhigg jacketSmarter, Faster, Better: the Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

The author of The Power of Habit struggles with work-life balance and being productive, and found that being busy isn’t the same as being productive. He covers a lot of topics here, most of them illustrated by fascinating true stories: winning at poker, a look inside the writing and re-writing of the movie Frozen, how an airplane accident happened and another one was narrowly avoided, and how an automotive plant became productive and improved quality control partly by empowering their workers. Duhigg talks about motivation, different types of goals, focus, decision-making, how to have better meetings, and much more. The writing is interesting and the stories are terrific. I don’t know that reading this book will make me smarter, faster, or better, but it’s a good place to look for ideas to become more focused and productive.


Flight of Dreams

flight of dreams jacketFlight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon

A novel about the last voyage of the airship Hindenburg can have only one ending: disaster. I still found this novel compelling reading. 97 crew and passengers were aboard for a reportedly uneventful three-day voyage from Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey. The author uses real people for her characters, along with their actual fates, but does a remarkable job filling in the blanks and giving them personalities, relationships, motivations, and suspicions. Emilie, the first female airship stewardess, has a big secret, although it’s no secret that navigator Max is attracted to her. Cabin boy Werner, 13, is helping support his family and working extremely hard. Emilie helps care for the three children of a family headed to Mexico. There are rumors of a bomb threat, and a mysterious American is seeking revenge for his brother’s death in World War I. A journalist traveling with her older husband longs to return to the baby boy they were forced to leave behind in Germany. The airship has swastikas on the hull, and photos of Hitler throughout; the United States wouldn’t export helium to Germany, so the airship is filled with flammable hydrogen instead. There is little privacy, but there is a bar and, unexpectedly, a smoking room on board. I would have liked photos and diagrams of the Hindenburg as I read, but found them easily online. The plotting is intricate, and the contrast between the luxurious shipboard life of the passengers and that of the hardworking crew is well-drawn. The suspense keeps building, with chapter headings counting down the days, hours, and minutes until the explosion. What might have caused the fire? Who will survive, and how? Well-developed characters, plenty of period detail, and lots of suspense and drama should make this novel popular with fans of historical novels.


A Man Called Ove

ove jacketA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Ove, a newly retired railway worker in Sweden, can fix many things, but not his heart. He is grumpy yet loveable, and doesn’t see the point in living without his wife Sonja or his job. Gradually Ove finds out that he is needed: first to back up a trailer, then to fix a radiator and a ceiling fan, to rescue a cat, drive neighbors to the hospital, and even to give driving lessons. His new neighbors, Parvaneh and Patrick, along with their two young daughters, help Ove break out of his shell. Gradually the reader sees that there’s more to Ove than complaining about rule-breakers and government bureaucrats, and learns about his childhood and his unlikely marriage to always late Sonja, as well as regular feuds with neighbor Rune, who prefers Volvos to Saabs. It took me quite a while to warm up to this book of mixed sadness, warmth, and humor, but I’m very glad I kept reading until I did. A movie, hugely popular in Sweden, may be coming to this country soon, and Ove is sure to gain more fans when it does. Readalikes include The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

The Widow

widow jacketThe Widow by Fiona Barton

It’s rather a relief for Jean Taylor to be a widow. Maybe the reporters and detectives will leave her alone at last. Jean’s husband Glen was a suspect in the much-publicized disappearance of little Bella Elliott from her front yard. Bella has never been found, although her mother Dawn believes she’s still alive. Glen drove a delivery van, and may have been in Bella’s neighborhood that day. Jean, a hairdresser in London,  always stood by him, even after detectives reveal some of his dark secrets. Dogged PI Bob Sparkes can’t stop looking for leads in Bella’s case, and resourceful reporter Kate Waters manages to get the first interview with Jean. Read this compelling, fast-paced novel of psychological suspense to find out what happened to Bella, if Glen was guilty of her kidnapping, and what Jean knew or suspected and when. But the reader must decide if Jean’s story is reliable, as she has her own secrets. No graphic violence here, just plenty of chills. Readalikes include Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, The Expats by Chris Pavone, and The Last Child by John Hart.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

arthur jacketThe Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

A sweet, whimsical novel about 69-year-old widower Arthur Pepper, who lives near York, England. In the year since his wife Miriam died, he has survived only by clinging to routine, and his children are distant. Clearing out Miriam’s clothes, Arthur finds a charm bracelet, and impulsively calls the phone number on a bejeweled elephant charm. This starts him on a series of adventures to find out more about his wife, and to restart his own life. A real charmer, this is a good readalike for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.


A Bed of Scorpions

scorpions jacketA Bed of Scorpions by Judith Flanders

A clever, satisfying mystery, the second to feature London book editor Samantha Clair. When Aidan, an old flame, asks Sam to lunch, she is shocked to learn that the gallery owner’s partner Frank has been found dead. Sam, along with her new boyfriend, DI Jake Field, begins investigating. Sam’s knowledge of the publishing world turns out to be both helpful and dangerous. The plotting is smart, the dialogue witty, and Sam can be very funny, especially when she kicks a snob at a dinner party or reacts after a bike accident. Sam’s older neighbor, her assistant Miranda, and her mother Helena, a solicitor, are all good company and do their bit to help Sam and Jake solve the mystery. I’m always happy to find a good new mystery author to recommend. My review of the first book, A Murder of Magpies, is here. There is a third book, but it’s just out in Great Britain, and will probably appear in the U.S. next spring.


Stars Over Sunset Boulevard

stars over sunset jacketStars Over Sunset Boulevard by Susan Meissner

Violet, fresh from Louisiana, rents a room in Audrey Duvall’s inherited Hollywood bungalow. The women are secretaries at Selznick Studios during the filming of Gone with the Wind in 1938. Audrey’s friend Bert works in the wardrobe department, and there’s a subplot about one of Scarlett’s hats. Audrey and Violet both have sad secrets in their past. Violet likes her job, and is not ambitious, but Audrey is determined to make it big as an actress. There’s a sort of love triangle, and eventually a secret baby, not unlike Adriana Trigiani’s All the Stars in the Heavens, but this is by far the better book. I could have done with fewer secrets as Audrey and Violet mature, but this is an enjoyable and well-researched look behind the scenes of Hollywood’s Golden Age.



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