Jennifer Ryan’s The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, an uplifting novel of women on the WWII home front

“There’s something bolstering about singing together.” Jennifer Ryan’s charming debut interweaves many women’s voices to create a strong chorus that rings out with heart and the celebration of life.

The story spans barely five months in 1940, but it’s an eventful time for Chilbury, a small Kentish village seven miles from England’s coast. With most men off at war, the vicar disbands the choir, but as with so many other home front duties, Chilbury’s women take up the reins. Their female-only singing ensemble, daring for its time, is successful in more ways than one.

Their stories are told through their writings, and each woman’s account echoes her personality. There’s Mrs. Tilling, a timid widow and nurse worried about her only son in France; Venetia Winthrop of Chilbury Manor, a sophisticated flirt; Kitty, her attention-hungry younger sister; and Edwina Paltry, a conniving midwife. Kitty’s diary entries are fun, since they burst with enthusiasm and teenage melodrama as she dreams about her sister’s longtime suitor and reacts to her changing world.

In letters to her London-based friend, Venetia reveals how her affair with a mysterious artist turns into something more, to her astonishment. Mrs. Tilling’s growing courage to stand up for herself and others will have readers cheering, as will her growing closeness to the burly colonel billeted with her. Edwina’s involvement in a greedy baby-swapping scheme gets soap-opera silly, but her audaciousness never fails to entertain. The fifth and softest voice is that of Sylvie, a Czech Jewish evacuee.

As the village intrigues play out and the Nazi threat reaches England, shattering buildings and lives, shadowy men skulk about in the woods, and the women draw strength from their togetherness. Fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the TV series Home Fires should put this uplifting, absorbing novel high on their reading lists.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is published by Crown this Tuesday, February 14th in hardcover and .  The UK publisher is The Borough Press.  This review first appeared in February’s Historical Novels Review.

Historical fiction award winners from ALA Midwinter 2017

Earlier this evening, a number of literary awards were announced at ALA Midwinter in Atlanta.  I wasn’t in attendance this time, but details on the winners and shortlisted titles are posted at the ALA website (and committee members have been announcing the news on Facebook and Twitter).

Here are the historical novels that received the honors.  Links go to the ALA press releases.

2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction:  The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, which imagines an enslaved woman’s flight towards freedom.  I reviewed this novel here last year; it also won the 2016 Goodreads Choice Award for historical fiction.

2017 Reading List, which selects the best in genre fiction for adult readers (descriptions are mine):

In the Historical Fiction category, the winner was Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night, a historical thriller about the rivalry between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison in 1888.

On the Historical Fiction short list:
– Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a family saga about slavery and freedom, set in Ghana and America over the last few centuries.
– News of the World by Paulette Jiles, a western set in the post-Civil War period.
– The Risen: A Novel of Spartacus by David Anthony Durham, about the slave revolt led by Spartacus against ancient Rome.
– To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey, a novel of adventure and love set in 1885, during the exploration of Alaska.

In the Mystery category, the winner was Thomas Mullen’s Darktown, a police procedural featuring two African-American policemen in 1948 Atlanta fighting racism as they investigate a black woman’s murder.

And in the Romance category, the winner was Beverly Jenkins’ Forbidden, a love story set in the post-Civil War West between a strong-minded African-American woman and a man passing as White.

On the 2017 ALA Notable Books list are several historical novels:

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao, stories set during the partition of India in 1947

Novels on the Notable Books list are literary fiction, while the Reading List covers genre fiction. Since novels in the historical fiction genre can also be literary, there is some overlap.

More award announcements may be forthcoming, and if so, I’ll add them to this post. Congratulations to the winners and shortlisted authors!

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, an engrossing historical saga of Korean life in 20th-century Japan

Pachinko is a novel that exemplifies the word “epic.” Following the members of a close-knit family from a rural fishing village on a Korean island to various locales in Japan and elsewhere, it spans nearly 90 years and almost 500 pages. I would have been happy if it were longer.

It’s a big story, rich in character and activity. These aspects, plus the clean, straightforward writing style, make for a brisk, absorbing read. It opens in 1910 with the circumstances that lead to the birth of the principal heroine, Sunja, who grows into a sturdily built, handsome young woman.

When a liaison with a wealthy fish broker leaves her pregnant, and Sunja learns he can’t marry her, one of the guests recuperating at her mother’s boardinghouse makes a surprising offer. Due to his frailty, Baek Isak never expected to wed anyone, but his Christian beliefs (he’s a Presbyterian minister from Pyongyang) and generosity of spirit leads him to ask for Sunja’s hand. When the couple relocates to Osaka and moves into Isak’s brother’s home in the Korean ghetto, Sunja views firsthand the plight of immigrants living in a country that doesn’t welcome them.

The novel was revelatory for me, as it introduced me to an aspect of history about which I’d known little. Between 1910 and 1945, Korea was a colony of Japan. Through the experiences of Sunja, her husband, in-laws, and descendants, we get to see the ramifications of this part of history. As one Korean man remarks in the novel, “For people like us, home doesn’t exist.” In Japan, Koreans are negatively stereotyped as belonging to a “cunning and wily tribe” and “natural troublemakers.” They can’t rent decent housing or obtain the best jobs. On the other hand, any Koreans who adapt to Japanese ways would be looked upon suspiciously back home. The members of the Baek family must always be on their best behavior, since they represent their country of origin.

Over the years, through constant toil, their fortunes rise. The meaning of the title (which refers to Japanese pinball gambling, a hugely popular activity there) isn’t obvious in the beginning but becomes clear in the novel’s later sections.

Pachinko tells a universal immigrant story, but it also offers enough specificity to provide a full picture of the geography and customs of 20th-century Korea and Japan. The novel’s scope lets readers see how the family acclimatizes themselves to an increasingly modernized Japan while keeping their own identity as Koreans. Because of the discrimination they face, it’s impossible for them to fully assimilate.

Two more elements of note. Writing instructors and readers often decry the use of “head hopping,” that is, the switching of viewpoints within a scene. Lee shows why this so-called rule was made to be broken. She uses this technique on occasion, but it’s performed subtly and has the effect of enhancing the scene’s emotional impact. Also, while Sunja often hears the adage that suffering is a woman’s plight, she and her equally industrious sister-in-law, Kyunghee, are the engines that ensure their family thrives and survives. The family’s men, while (mostly) decent and hardworking, aren’t always as fortunate. This emphasis felt curious to me; I couldn’t tell if it was meant to be symbolic of a larger theme or not.

If you don’t know anything about this historical era or part of the world, no need to worry. Lee will bring you into her characters’ world so completely so that they’ll feel like family. An engrossing historical saga, Pachinko’s themes are also significantly relevant to the world we live in today.

Pachinko will be published next week by Grand Central in hardcover and ($27 or $13.99, 496pp). Thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley access.

Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese, a novel of art and family set in fin-de-siècle and WWII Vienna

For those who moved in high society in fin-de-siècle Vienna, the city sat at the pinnacle of elegance and culture. Provocative political ideas were discussed in private salons and coffeehouses along the Ringstrasse, while painter Gustav Klimt and designers like the Flöge sisters pushed boundaries in art and design.

By four decades later, the Viennese atmosphere was far darker. Amid a rising tide of anti-Semitism, Jews were beaten in the streets, forced out of their homes, and had their property seized by the Nazis, who took care to ensure their heinous methods of theft appeared unimpeachably legal.

In her engrossing tale of art, family, loss, and female empowerment, Laurie Lico Albanese’s Stolen Beauty presents a shifting view of this famous European city. The characters are historical, and the novel also describes a real-life account of long-awaited justice – one that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the 2015 film Woman in Gold.

I borrowed the DVD of the latter after finishing the book, and they’re quite different, since they focus on different aspects of the history (the past vs. the present). Also, as much as I enjoyed the movie, Helen Mirren’s acting in particular, the book tells a deeper, more fulfilling story.

Alternating as narrators are Adele Bloch-Bauer, who was depicted in multiple works by Gustav Klimt, and her niece Maria Altmann. Their separate stories are fleshed out so well that each could be complete in itself, but the intertwining makes the themes resonate more strongly. Their situations and circumstances strike a marked contrast, but the women are equally brave and determined. Rather than pointing this out in obvious fashion, the author lets readers see this for themselves.

Both women are the youngest daughters in different generations of the same prominent Jewish family. Although neither is religious, this doesn’t matter as far as how society envisions them. While Adele can’t achieve her dream of attending university due to her gender, she makes connections and a name for herself in the avant-garde art world and nourishes her intellect in other ways. Similarly, Maria goes after what she wants, including the husband of her choosing. After being forced to flee the city of her birth for her own survival, Maria, years later, fights to regain the Klimt paintings that the Nazis stole from her family.

Naturally, both women’s stories are intricately intertwined with that of Klimt’s artistic renderings of Adele. Albanese details the circumstances behind their creation, as well as the paintings’ afterlives. Adele’s relationship with Klimt is vividly imagined as an intimate affair that proves beneficial to both; for her, it’s part of her ongoing journey of self-discovery.

Like the gilded image of Adele on canvas, the novel is painted with abundant detail and, in the earlier sections in particular, descriptions that sparkle. For Adele, visiting Vienna’s elegant Central Café with her fiancé for the first time, “the gold-embossed wallpaper made the room glow like a treasure box,” while her new friend Berta Zuckerkandl describes the conversations between writers there: “Sometimes they read aloud to one another, and bits of poetry land on my table like beautiful birds.”

Per the afterword, Stolen Beauty took the author years to research. Read it for insight not only into art and European history, but also the private lives and motivations of two women who stood up for what they believed in.

Stolen Beauty will be published tomorrow in hardcover and by Atria ($26 / $12.99, 320pp). Thanks to the publisher for providing me access via Edelweiss.

This post forms part of the novel’s blog tour.  As part of the tour, the publisher is offering the opportunity to win one of three signed copies of Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese.  The contest is open until February 14th.  To enter, visit the contest site at Rafflecopter.

More historical fiction prize winners – the Langum Prize and the Costa Awards

It’s the season for literary prize announcements.  The shortlist for the 2016 Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction was posted last month, while the winner and finalist were announced this week.

Michele Moore’s debut novel The Cigar Factory (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2016) is the winner of the 2016 Langum Prize.

Per the organizer’s comments: “This marvelous debut traces the lives of two working class families in Charleston during the years 1917-1946. The families are similar in many ways: devout and practicing Roman Catholics, headed by matriarchs who work in the local cigar factory, both struggling mightily for survival in severely limited circumstances. Yet they are dissimilar in ways crucial for Charleston in these years: one family is black and the other white… The author describes the difficult lives of these two families, both joys and sorrows, with great sensitivity and beauty.”

See also the book’s Facebook page for more details. Of interest to book groups: the author is available for discussions via Skype and can be contacted via the novel’s website.

More details are posted at the Langum Trust.


Also, the Costa Award, a long-running British literary prize open to UK and Irish authors, announced their 2016 Book of the Year on January 31st. The winner happens to be a historical novel: Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End (published in the US by Viking in January).

Days Without End tells the story of young Irishman Thomas McNulty, who crosses the Atlantic in the 1850s, fights in the Civil War, and has an intimate relationship with a fellow soldier.

For background, read The Guardian‘s interview with the author, in which he reveals how his son “instructed [him] in the magic of gay life.”

Another historical novel on the Costa category winner list was Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, set in 1740s New York (First Novel Award). Golden Hill will be published in the US by Scribner this June.

Book review: The Confessions of Young Nero, by Margaret George

Does he fiddle while Rome burns? No, although he loves performing music. What about the extravagances, dissipation, and political murders? Let’s just say there are extenuating circumstances.  Once again demonstrating mastery of the epic fictional autobiography, George chronicles the rise of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, Emperor Caligula’s nephew, from sensitive boy to imperial heir to, finally, near-omnipotent ruler as Emperor Nero.

It’s a coming-of-age story like no other, and George’s Nero details the rapid shifts in circumstance that transform his character – not without many twinges of guilt along the way, He fears becoming like his mother, the ambitious, amoral Agrippina, but must play her game to survive.

An athlete and admirer of Greek culture, Nero is a consummate showman, and his entertaining narrative exemplifies this. With conviction and flair, George looks past two millennia of bad press about Nero to reveal an intelligent man of justice and religious tolerance who takes refuge in artistic expression.  This is the first of two novels charting his dangerous, outrageous life in first-century Rome; the second is eagerly awaited.

I read The Confessions of Young Nero last October, and the review above was submitted to Booklist for publication in February 1st issue. The novel, Margaret George’s seventh historical epic, will be published by Berkley in hardcover ($28, 528pp) and ($12.99) on March 7th.  The UK publisher, Macmillan, will publish on March 9th.

Her six previous historical novels are as follows.  Which is/are your favorite(s)?

The Autobiography of Henry VIII, 1986
Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, 1992
The Memoirs of Cleopatra, 1997
Mary, Called Magdalene, 2002
Helen of Troy, 2006
Elizabeth I: A Novel, 2012

For more information, see the author’s website.

Book review, with notes: Kate Alcott’s The Hollywood Daughter

Alcott (A Touch of Stardust, 2015) returns to mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles with her novel about a young woman’s emotional and cultural awakening.

Jessica “Jesse” Malloy, who narrates in a vibrant voice, feels awkward growing up as the daughter of a fun-loving Selznick Studio publicist and a reserved Catholic woman who resists Hollywood’s sinful influences. Jesse has always hero-worshipped Ingrid Bergman, and when the beautiful Swedish actress stars in The Bells of St. Mary’s, which is filmed at Jesse’s convent school, Catholics’ admiration for her seems boundless. However, when Bergman’s affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini is discovered, the situation horrifies Hollywood’s morality police and shatters Jesse’s illusions.

Alcott uses a fast-paced, efficient writing style and creates a believable portrait of a teenager navigating high school, potential romances, and her complicated world during the McCarthy years. The portions set in 1959, as Jesse returns home after a long absence, provide emotional closure. Jesse’s parents, teachers, and Bergman herself are all sketched with subtlety. Another honest look at the real stories behind Hollywood’s glamorous veneer.

The Hollywood Daughter is published today in hardcover and by Doubleday. This review was submitted for publication in Booklist‘s January 1st issue.

Some other notes:

This novel will work well as a YA crossover title. In fact, I can’t recall reading another adult-level historical novel that placed so much emphasis on its heroine’s school experiences, which include Jesse’s relationships with her teachers (who fortunately aren’t stereotyped) and her participation on a debate team. I think it could have been categorized as YA if not for the sections at the beginning and end. Sarah Hunter at Booklist  recommended the book for YA readers and appended a note to that effect at the end of the review. If anyone else has read it, I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.

For a perspective on how the novel’s themes relate to contemporary times, see Kate Manning’s review in the Washington Post, which was published yesterday.

A storyteller at work: Brian Doyle’s The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World

In 1880, after following his lady-love, Fanny Osbourne, halfway across the globe, Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson lives in San Francisco, waiting for her impending divorce from her unfaithful husband and hoping the money he earns from his scribblings will support a wife and family.

John Carson, his landlady’s husband, is a longtime maritime man, and as they warm themselves by the fire and amble along the hilly streets, Carson recounts episodes from his adventurous life––a subject the historical Stevenson had planned to write about, but never did.

With abundant wit and mellifluous prose, expressed using generously long sentences, Doyle transports readers to diverse lands, including the Borneo jungle, Sydney, war-torn America, and a haunted Irish village. He also perceptively imagines the young Stevenson, a man soaking up new friendships and life lessons while sharpening his talents.

It’s a wondrous sort of paradox that a fiction nested inside another fiction can convey many poignant truths. Doyle’s irresistible novel, which practically begs to be read aloud, is a triumphant ode to the power of storytelling.

The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World is published tomorrow by Thomas Dunne, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, in hardcover and .  I wrote this review for Booklist, and the final version appeared in the 2/1 issue.

Some other notes:

– This review assignment arrived last October, at which point I hadn’t heard anything about the book. I don’t always have the best luck with novels about explorers or adventurers, so it was a pleasant surprise. There’s a lot of story and wisdom included in this comparatively short novel (it’s 240pp long).

– Unfortunately, I don’t find the cover art all that inspiring; maybe the paperback will be an improvement.

– This novel would be a good fit for admirers of Stevenson’s own works, as well as anyone who enjoyed Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky, which covers his relationship with his wife, Fanny Osbourne.

Mastering the Headline Hot Button

Seven Successful Headline Templates
For Almost Anything

For some writers, creating compelling copy comes naturally. For others, the copy writing process has all of the allure of a Monday morning root canal. However, the importance of drafting effective headlines applies to everything from English Composition 101 to the online web content for your business site’s front page.

 Read: “It’s really important.”

We are all so used to seeing those “how to” and bullet lists that we have become as desensitized to the effects as a teenager yawning over “Insidious Chapter 3.” In today’s market, writing compelling headlines that engage a sophisticated audience calls for moving beyond the staid templates of the past.

So let’s bypass those generic blueprints that you’ve read a thousand times over, and add a new spin on the old headline formula. Here are some quick, easy, and free headlines templates that can help you refurbish your worn out headlines.

Seven Different Ways to Hit the Headline Hot Button

  1. Anyone Else Want {Blank}?

Tweaking this definitive social proof strategy with the call for “Anyone else want…” automatically infers a buy-in consensus that has predetermined the value of the {blank}. Though this idea may seem clichéd for some area of Internet marketing, it works with the accuracy of Swiss movement in the right arena. Moreover, it is also underscored with a subtle “limited time offer” that goes absolutely unwritten, yet absolutely present enough to move that itchy “trigger/click finger.”

Anyone Else Want a Hollywood Smile?

Anyone Else Want A Seven-Hour Work Week?

Anyone Else Want To Mastermind The Next “Uber” Idea?


  1. Insider Stealth Tips of {Blank} Revealed

This one is particularly effective in an industry where a little extra knowledge goes a long way. Marketing such as “Beauty” and “Fashion” are arenas where the smallest edge pays off in viral shares. Sharing insider knowledge presupposes an audience looking for information that will allow them to expand their knowledge in the field. Translate that into benefits for your readers, and they’ll keep coming back for more.


Insider Stealth Tips For Writing The Killer Dissertation 

Insider Stealth Tips To Rocket Your To  On Amazon 

Insider Stealth Tips For Writing The Perfect College Essay 

  1. This Time-Tested Method Helps {Blank} to {Blank}

Simple, yet effective: distinguish the target audience and connect the benefit they seek with the service that you provide.


This Time-Tested Method Helps Student Write Better Essays

This Time-Tested Method Helps Anyone Publish On Amazon

This Time-Tested Method Helps You Create Great Web Content


  1. Free Yourself of {Blank} Once and For All

This classic formula is known as “the painkiller.” Identifying a common, rather uncomfortable issue or condition and offering an antidote that promises an immediate  (and eternal) release from the ongoing burden is especially effective when addressing universal conditions and issues.


Free Yourself of Essay Procrastination Once and For All

Free Yourself of ABD Once and For All & Write Your Dissertation

Free Yourself of Belly Fat Once and For All


  1. The Quickest & Most Effective Way to {Blank}

We try to stay away from universal statements, but in this case it applies: Everyone has at least one nagging problem that ranks too low on the priority list to address immediately, and yet high enough to maintain its place as an ongoing “anchor” in the middle of the “To Do” List.  People hate these as much as they love finding quick and easy solutions that allow them to cross these problems off with a swift swipe of a Sharpie!


The Quickest & Most Effective Way to Shop For Back To School

The Quickest & Most Effective Way to Whiten Your Smile

The Quickest & Most Effective Way to Write A Killer Thesis


  1. You Can Finally {Blank}{Blank} Without {Blank}

A classic approach that offers readers a viable means to “have [their] cake and eat it, too” headline. This headline template begs for compelling video, a quick “call to action” button, or pictures that underscore the benefit.


You Can Finally Get Cable Without Paying A Fortune

You Can Finally Enjoy A Vacation Without Breaking The Bank

You Can Finally Make Healthy Meals Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen


  1. {Action} like {The Exemplar}

Once you have identified your target audience, couch your benefit in a well-known, measureable way—using, for your example, the pinnacle of performance. This technique promises ranking in areas where competition rules; the lure of an edge that will skyrocket a participant to the top creates great headline material for your copy.


Party Like Gatsby

Write Like Hemingway

Rock A Swimsuit Like A Supermodel


The Bottom Line on Headlines

In the end, headline templates just provide a starting place for creating meaningful “titles” to help you connect with your audience. And connection is the key word here. To draft great headline for your copy, you have to know your audience intimately in order to help them understand the true benefit of your work, your service, your product, or your idea.


Anyone Else Want To Publish On Amazon?

Amazon Pays Kindle Direct Self-publishing Authors


Amazon’s revamping of payment to authors now reflects a platform structured on payment based upon the number of pages read.

The changes affect authors enrolled in the Direct Publishing platform. This self-publishing site has been widely popular for indie authors. The straightforward platform allows authors to edit their book, set the list prices, and delegate the rights to their work that is available through Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library programs.

At present, Amazon operates with a payment method where payouts are based on a fund, which is set by the company every month.

Under the new Amazon payment plan, indie authors receive a share of the fund in proportion to the pages read by their customers for the first time.

A statement from Amazon through the KDP page delineates the new approach:

Beginning July 1, 2015, we switched from paying Kindle Unlimited (KU) and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) royalties based on qualified borrows, to paying based on the number of pages read. We made this switch in response to great feedback we received from authors who asked us to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read. Under the new payment method, you’ll be paid for each page individual customers read of your book, the first time they read it.

Under the new payment method, the amount an author earns will be determined by their share of total pages read instead of their share of total qualified borrows.

Curated from Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing: Get help with self-publishing your book to Amazon’s Kindle Store


Amazon Prices

Reuters reported the finalization of the victory by publisher Hachette Book Group over Amazon in its battle for the ability to set its own prices for e-books. However, even as Hachette and Amazon announced a negotiated peace, author James Patterson asserted, “Books and publishing need to be preserved if not protected in this country.” As a best-selling Hachette novelist, Mr. Patterson said that the recent deal helps protect the industry.

The increasingly contentious conflict played out in many forums, casting Amazon as a publication bully and prompting many authors to call for investigation of the company on antitrust grounds.

The battle concluded with the companies reaching an agreement for e-book and print book sales. Though Amazon may have settled for less than the deal than it originally wanted, it still controls nearly half the book trade.

Amazon’s “Pay-per-page” serves as a helpful response to author feedback, stimulated by authors who requested the change. With the launch of Kindle Unlimited, Amazon KDP login tracks how authors are reimbursed for a full “borrow” when the reader perused more than 10% of the “loaned” book. Authors who wrote lengthier novels were being undercut while shorter books received the most benefit and collected a charge each time a reader broke the 10% mark in a book. While technology changes and grows, affecting the publishing world will be a plethora of changes to come.

The art of writing is timeless, and the fuel of the to publish is as strong as ever in the wake of Amazon’s restructuring.