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9 Larger-Than-Life Books That Remind Me of Broadway Musicals

July 1 2021
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Remember theater ambiance? Stage lights, detailed sets, actors and actresses often appearing from all corners of the room. Evocative scenes, thrilling moments, hushed audiences. I can’t help but be excited that we’ll be able to experience these kind of evenings again. For now, get ready to return to Broadway with these books that remind me of tones and plots of popular musicals.

The Constant Princess
by Philippa Gregory

The musical Six, which gives the stories of six wives of Henry VIII a modern flare in the form of a pop concert, can easily inspire a deeper dive into these women. THE CONSTANT PRINCESS follows Katherine of Aragon, who is meant to marry Prince Arthur. Instead, his untimely death leaves her with his brother, Henry, after years of proving herself worthy of her role as the next queen. During a tumultuous time, Katherine must protect her people against the Scots, defying her past as a political pawn and embracing her future as an important leader. Full of immersive scenes and interesting history, Gregory’s novel deftly captures the complexities of its characters and the obstacles they face.

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Beartown
by Fredrik Backman

Come From Away captivated me with its strong sense of makeshift community, an anxious group of people gathered together to make the best of a terrible situation while being uncertain of their futures. Based on the true story of a group of people in Newfoundland, Canada, who welcomed stranded passengers from diverted planes forced to land after 9/11, the musical is emotional and powerful in the way it captures the unexpected bonds between people experiencing the same startling event. BEARTOWN begins by encompassing a similar feeling of community, one driven by the uncertain fate of a town. Residents of Beartown know their small town is losing ground to nature, to others who doubt its survival. But there’s hope to be had in an ice rink, if only their hockey team can work together to secure a win. However, instead of a traumatic event drawing them together, like that in Come From Away, the events that follow reveal what happens when people pull away from one another, dealing with accusations that force sides and change futures.

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Beartown
Fredrik Backman

Now an HBO Original Series

“You’ll love this engrossing novel.” —People

Named a Best Book of the Year by LibraryReads, BookBrowse, and Goodreads

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Anxious People, a dazzling and profound novel about a small town with a big dream—and the price required to make it come true.

By the lake in Beartown is an old ice rink, and in that ice rink Kevin, Amat, Benji, and the rest of the town’s junior ice hockey team are about to compete in the national semi-finals—and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Under that heavy burden, the match becomes the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown.

This is a story about a town and a game, but even more about loyalty, commitment, and the responsibilities of friendship; the people we disappoint even though we love them; and the decisions we make every day that come to define us. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.

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Shallow Waters
by Anita Kopacz

Hadestown, a moving portrait of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, reimagines the separation of the two lovers as Eurydice’s own doing, signing her life away to work for Hades in his factory. Orpheus’s move to rescue her opens other workers’ eyes to the restrictions of their demanding situation, rioting against Hades and their lack of freedom. SHALLOW WATERS also tackles new angles in a mythical story; but instead of changing the triggering event, this book adjusts the time period. The Yoruba deity of the sea, Yemaya, is now in mid-1800s America. As she discovers her powers and learns of others’ sacrifices, she encounters the Underground Railroad and all of the pain and fights for survival that accompany it.

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Shallow Waters
Anita Kopacz

In this stirring and lyrical debut novel—perfect for fans of The Water Dancer and the Legacy of Orïsha series—the Yoruba deity of the sea, Yemaya, is brought to vivid life as she discovers the power of Black resilience, love, and feminine strength in antebellum America.

Shallow Waters imagines Yemaya, an Orïsha—a deity in the religion of Africa’s Yoruba people—cast into mid-1800s America. We meet Yemaya as a young woman, still in the care of her mother and not yet fully aware of the spectacular power she possesses to protect herself and those she holds dear.

The journey laid out in Shallow Waters sees Yemaya confront the greatest evils of this era; transcend time and place in search of Obatala, a man who sacrifices his own freedom for the chance at hers; and grow into the powerful woman she was destined to become. We travel alongside Yemaya from her native Africa and on to the “New World,” with vivid pictures of life for those left on the outskirts of power in the nascent Americas.

Yemaya realizes the fighter within, travels the Underground Railroad in search of the mysterious stranger Obatala, and crosses paths with icons of our history on the road to freedom. Shallow Waters is a nourishing work of ritual storytelling from promising debut author Anita Kopacz.

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Brain on Fire
by Susannah Cahalan

Next to Normal was the first musical to convince me to leave my NYC apartment at 4:00 AM to stand in line for rush seats. It shed light on mental health in a time where that lens was a rarity, giving a thought-provoking, heartbreaking glimpse inside a woman’s struggle with bipolar disorder while also dealing with the trauma of losing a son. Susannah tells her own story with that same degree of honesty and immersion, dropping the curtain on frustrating diagnoses (or lack thereof), extensive monitoring by doctors and medications, series of tests and scans, not understanding the chaos going on inside her own body. Chronicling a time of extreme uncertainty, BRAIN ON FIRE is a gripping read often filled with more questions than answers, with an ultimately surprising discovery that reveals critical misunderstandings throughout history and can help others suffering today.

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Brain on Fire
Susannah Cahalan

NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING CHLOË GRACE MORETZ

An award-winning memoir and instant New York Times bestseller that goes far beyond its riveting medical mystery, Brain on Fire is the powerful account of one woman’s struggle to recapture her identity.

When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?

In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen. “A fascinating look at the disease that...could have cost this vibrant, vital young woman her life” (People), Brain on Fire is an unforgettable exploration of memory and identity, faith and love, and a profoundly compelling tale of survival and perseverance that is destined to become a classic.

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The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
by Stuart Turton

I can so vividly remember my friend handing me this book and telling me it was something I had to read. I had recently seen and raved about the musical Groundhog Day, whose cyclic plot provides both ridiculousness and a chance to study characters as they’re pushed to their limits. Add murder to the series of troublesome events that leads someone to repeat the same day until they can figure out a solution, and you’re in for an even more compelling hook. Not to mention the fact that each morning, Aidan wakes up in a different person’s body, trying desperately to learn the identity of Evelyn’s murderer before it’s too late. Talk about an unreliable narrator, with shifts in perspectives and numerous unknowns, and too much ground to cover.

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The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Stuart Turton

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Interior Chinatown
by Charles Yu

I love a good story that’s conscious of itself and its intentions well enough to play around with format, striking a deliberate and even metaphorical tone. Though their narratives are very different, INTERIOR CHINATOWN and Hedwig and the Angry Inch push the boundaries of structure in similar ways, creating unique experiences that will truly stick with you. Both are aware they have an audience; both are using theater or acting as a device to illustrate deeper points, explore stereotypes and preconceptions, and discuss groups who have been siloed and misunderstood. In INTERIOR CHINATOWN, the narrator reveals himself as Generic Asian Man, doomed to be typecast in the only role Hollywood thinks he can play. With the goal of playing Kung Fu Guy in his sights, Willis takes readers through a world that blurs film sets and realities, tropes and buried dreams.

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Interior Chinatown
Charles Yu

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Watching You
by Lisa Jewell

I’m always in the mood for a thriller, whether it be onstage or on the page. In WATCHING YOU, certain characters’ actions and conversations are just creepy enough to remind you of an underlying darkness, one that can even be found on the quietest streets in the most idyllic of neighborhoods. Much like Sweeney Todd, the setting doesn’t quite seem to fit the crime, the players cunning and masters of disguise. Emotions run high, secrets boiling beneath decades-old obsessions. Joey can’t stop coming up with ways to chat with the popular headmaster next door; his son can’t help himself from spying on Joey’s and his father’s interactions; Jenna, a neighbor and student at the headmaster’s school, worries there’s something more sinister behind the guy’s captivating exterior. I especially loved the multiple perspectives and seeing how the character’s stories intertwined.

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Watching You
Lisa Jewell

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Never Caught
by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

With Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fresh take and musical style, Hamilton gave Alexander Hamilton’s story a chance to reach new audiences with deeper engagement. Similarly, Erica Armstrong Dunbar exposes the breadth and horrors of slavery in NEVER CAUGHT by focusing on the most powerful man in America: the president of the U.S. Her nonfiction book follows Ona Judge, one of George Washington’s slaves; though the law forbade him from keeping Ona and her fellow slaves for longer than six months, he found creative ways to get around it. So Ona made a daring escape, leading to a massive manhunt led by none other than Washington himself. Harrowing events and shocking moments give an eye-opening view of history sure to start conversations about how we view our past, and the powerful leaders and unsung heroes who helped shape it.

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Never Caught
Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction

A startling and eye-opening look into America’s First Family, Never Caught is the powerful story about a daring woman of “extraordinary grit” (The Philadelphia Inquirer).

When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital. In setting up his household he brought along nine slaves, including Ona Judge. As the President grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t abide: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.

Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, she was denied freedom. So, when the opportunity presented itself one clear and pleasant spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs. At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.

“A crisp and compulsively readable feat of research and storytelling” (USA TODAY), historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar weaves a powerful tale and offers fascinating new scholarship on how one young woman risked everything to gain freedom from the famous founding father.

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Once I Was You
by Maria Hinojosa

Fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda will also be thrilled to see him praise ONCE I WAS YOU, saying, “Maria’s perspective is powerful and vital. Years ago, when In the Heights was just starting off-Broadway, Maria got the word out to our community to support this new musical about our neighborhoods. She has been a champion of our triumphs, a critic of our detractors, and a driving force to right the wrongs our society faces. When Maria speaks, I’m ready to listen and learn.” ONCE I WAS YOU is Maria’s memoir of her time as an award-winning journalist, and her experiences growing up Mexican American in Chicago. Her powerful words and vivid descriptions call attention to the immigration crisis and offer new perspectives on existing systems and beliefs.

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Once I Was You
Maria Hinojosa

NPR’s Best Books of 2020
BookPage’s Best Books of 2020
Real Simple’s Best Books of 2020
Boston.com readers voted one of Best Books of 2020

“Anyone striving to understand and improve this country should read her story.” —Gloria Steinem, author of My Life on the Road

The Emmy Award–winning journalist and anchor of NPR’s Latino USA tells the story of immigration in America through her family’s experiences and decades of reporting, painting an unflinching portrait of a country in crisis in this memoir that is “quite simply beautiful, written in Maria Hinojosa’s honest, passionate voice” (BookPage).

Maria Hinojosa is an award-winning journalist who, for nearly thirty years, has reported on stories and communities in America that often go ignored by the mainstream media—from tales of hope in the South Bronx to the unseen victims of the War on Terror and the first detention camps in the US. Bestselling author Julia Álvarez has called her “one of the most important, respected, and beloved cultural leaders in the Latinx community.”

In Once I Was You, Maria shares her intimate experience growing up Mexican American on the South Side of Chicago. She offers a personal and illuminating account of how the rhetoric around immigration has not only long informed American attitudes toward outsiders, but also sanctioned willful negligence and profiteering at the expense of our country’s most vulnerable populations—charging us with the broken system we have today.

An urgent call to fellow Americans to open their eyes to the immigration crisis and understand that it affects us all, this honest and heartrending memoir paints a vivid portrait of how we got here and what it means to be a survivor, a feminist, a citizen, and a journalist who owns her voice while striving for the truth.

Also available in Spanish as Una vez fui tú.

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MENTIONED IN:

9 Larger-Than-Life Books That Remind Me of Broadway Musicals

By Sarah Woodruff | July 1, 2021

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Photo credit: iStock / zhudifeng

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