Happy November! This is my favorite time of year — the weather has finally realized it’s autumn, Oscar bait movies are hitting the theaters, and the general merriment and chaos of the holiday season is in the air. While I have several contemporary reads coming up on my library holds list, I mostly read historical fiction in October. Four of these books were NetGalley ARCs, but two of them have since been published and are receiving some well-deserved praise!
Although the ratings of this lineup suggest the books were fairly average, the majority of them had special elements that really stood out to me and kept me invested.
One Day in December, by Josie Silver (★★★★☆)
In her early twenties near the Christmas holidays, Laurie spots a man waiting on the street below from the top deck of a London bus. They make eye contact and have an inexplicably strong connection. Laurie and her best friend Sarah spend the next year searching London for the mystery man. She finds him the following Christmas when Sarah introduces him as Jack, her boyfriend. The rest of the book follows Laurie and Jack over the next several years, becoming close friends while avoiding the fact that they once shared that special moment.
While many blurbs compared this to Love Actually, its chronology actually reminded me more of David Nicholls’ One Day. The book jumps through time quickly, which initially makes it difficult to believe the friendship between Laurie and Jack. That feeling eventually faded, especially as these two and their significant others are really the only characters that are fleshed out. I’m a sucker for the plot of following friends over time, but each book in this sub-genre usually falls a little short for me (The Interestings is my ultimate book within this category, and it’s tough to live up to). While One Day in December fell victim to that pattern, what drew me in was its writing’s very beautiful observations. While not descriptive or particularly vivid, it has lovely stream-of-consciousness points about life. It’s a cute, fluffy read for the Christmas season! Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC before its publication.
Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Callahan (★★★☆☆)
This was actually a 3.5-star read for me. Based on a true story, Becoming Mrs. Lewis takes place from the perspective of Joy Davidman, a New York writer caught in a rut in both her work and her marriage. Her creative slump leads to her reaching out to the writer C.S. Lewis, who is a professor at Oxford in addition to writing the Chronicles of Narnia series and other theological works. Joy and Lewis, who she comes to know as Jack, develop a friendship via their letters, and when she finally visits England to work on her writing and meet him after years of correspondence, she finds that she cannot go back to her ordinary life after being introduced to Oxford and Jack’s intellectual existence.
I knew that C.S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed in response to his wife’s death, but before reading Becoming Mrs. Lewis, I hadn’t realized how closely linked the couple’s careers were. The story itself is sometimes a little dull, feeling like the formulaic historical fiction that just zooms through time. Callahan’s absolutely delicious, relevant writing saved the book for me. The couple’s romantic relationship was far from traditional, beginning with what Joy interprets as unrequited love on her part. I rarely see such a strong, relatable portrayal of this, and I also related to Joy’s insecurities and her frustrations in her relationship with Jack, who was so charming and lovable. Anglophiles and aspiring writers definitely need to check this one out! Thanks again to NetGalley for sending me an ARC.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris (★★★☆☆)
Also based on a true story, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is about Slovakian Jew Lale, who becomes the tattooist for new concentration camp prisoners soon after he is transported to Auschwitz. There, he falls in love at first sight with fellow prisoner Gita, whose prison number tattoo he has to refresh. The book follows the development of their relationship as Lale’s love for Gita and his search for signs of humanity in the camp sustain him during the war.
If you skim through response to this book online, it’s overwhelmingly positive, which is probably why the book fell extremely flat for me. Although Morris worked with the real Lale before his death to record the story, she originally intended to adapt the material into a screenplay rather than a novel. This definitely showed — the book was very dialogue heavy and it told more than it showed. Some of the characters’ word choices also felt way too modern for Europeans in the 1940s to say. I could be totally wrong about this, but certain dialogue was very jarring to find in this kind of book. I didn’t feel like I knew any characters very well, and compared to other Holocaust books, this one actually seemed to downplay the horrors of concentration camps. Overall, too much of this book just stuck out to me as odd or out of place.
The Wartime Sisters, by Lynda Cohen Loigman (★★★☆☆) – Out Jan. 22, 2019
I read this via a NetGalley ARC from St. Martin’s Press. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s, Jewish sisters Millie and Ruth have always had a tense bond. Big sister Ruth has always felt like she had to be the responsible, serious one, while pretty and popular Millie often got away with silliness and sensitivity. During World War II, Ruth lives at Massachusetts’ Springfield Armory with her scientist husband, and Millie, now seemingly a war widow, arrives with her son to see Ruth for the first time in five years. The book explores their relationship as secrets from the past and wartime changes begin to surface.
The writing in this book is solid and has its moments of real beauty, and the unique setting of a real-life armory definitely sets the story apart from other World War II stories. However, while Millie and Ruth both came across as relatable in different ways, they didn’t leave lasting impressions on me. The two secondary characters the book also focused on interested me more, which isn’t that great when the title implies you should care most about the sisters. Anyone who’s a fan of World War II fiction will still probably enjoy this book, and it has the perfect ingredients for what typically works in this category.
Rise Up! Broadway and American Society from ‘Angels in America’ to ‘Hamilton,’ by Chris Jones (★★★☆☆) – Out Nov. 15, 2018
This is another NetGalley ARC, and it leans more toward a 3.5-star read for me. In Rise Up!, Jones provides a deep insight on the shifting of Broadway theater to reflect massive changes in American society, beginning in the ’90s with plays capturing the rising plight of AIDS and culminating with the cultural phenomena of Hamilton. The chapters in between study the impact of shows such as Rent and American Idiot and soon segue into the way the Obama administration particularly affected a nationwide perception of theater culture. The book is well researched, and even hardcore Broadway fans may come across a fact or two that they didn’t know before.
As a theater fan, I was familiar with the majority of the shows discussed, but it was a little harder to connect with the chapters about the shows I didn’t know too well. On the other hand, the second half of the book flowed very well and kept me invested, and it definitely felt like the author had a personal preference for the post-2001 era of shows he discussed. The book also lacked the exclusive interviews with creative teams and cast members that I was anticipating at its start, and I feel like the finished product totally would’ve benefited from having more quotes that weren’t from articles or reviews. Still, I’d definitely recommend Rise Up! for any theater lovers!