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  • C. P. Lesley

Books We Loved, Dec. 2021

Updated: Mar 12, 2022

Two holiday romances and a lovely exploration of a marriage that is in some ways distinct and in others faced with the same issues that affect any close pairing—this month’s offerings are perfect for those long, chilly winter evenings as we celebrate the Winter Solstice in all its forms.

(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2020)

The Twelve Dates of Christmas by Jenny Bayliss is a charming romp through the English countryside during the holiday season. Having been unlucky in love for most of her life, thirty-something Kate is resigned to a life of being married to her career as a fabric artist and helping her friend Matt with his village café. But when she finds herself roped into signing up for the Twelve Dates of Christmas, setting her up with twelve dates with twelve different men in the weeks leading up to the holiday, she figures it can’t be any less satisfying than her love life has been so far and hey, she might even meet someone decent!

The story follows the chick-lit formula, and the ending is evident from the beginning, but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of Kate’s disastrous dates and the humor in the village’s residents knowing all about it (and having no qualms about talking to her about it). And the cozy, festive setting is delightful all on its own, making me wish I’d made it over to the UK again this year. Busy December is the perfect time to indulge in a cheery, lighthearted story, and this Christmassy confection pairs beautifully with a mug of hot chocolate and a plate of cookies.—CJH

Jean Meltzer, The Matzah Ball (MIRA Books, 2021)

This is a really fun Hanukkah romance, in classic romance-novel style. Rachel and Jacob meet-cute in their summer camp in their very early teens. Although sparks fly, some pranks that seem to go sideways derail their romance, and leave the pair with some entrenched trust issues. A couple of decades later, Rachel is confronted with having to work with Jacob to get the background she needs to save her publishing contract.

Rachel has a couple of big secrets. First, she suffers from the “worst-named disease ever,” Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which is both devastating and often derided as a “psychological” problem despite its very, very real physical nature. Second, and more fun, Rachel is obsessed with Christmas! This wouldn’t be a problem, except that she is a practicing Jew from a very observant family. Jacob has some secrets of his own, though nothing on a par with Rachel’s. It’s clear to everyone that the two belong together—everyone but them.

The twist that makes this book special is that it’s about fun-loving, quirky, observant Jewish people. Real-life Jews having fun! Added bonus: chronic disease. And I say that without an ounce of snark: a real-life person with chronic disease suffering, having fun, not having a miracle cure if she’d only believe, just … being.

So the book is groundbreaking while being, really truly, a romance novel. And it’s loaded with delicious Hanukkah food. I was hungry throughout the book, and ended up making both rugelach and “latkes eight ways” after reading it.—CHL

Jinny Webber, Bedtrick (Cuidono Press, 2021)

Alexander Cooke is a gifted actor with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company where Shakespeare serves as playwright. Sander, as Alexander is known to family and friends, specializes in female roles, which in Elizabethan times could be played only by males—usually pre-pubescent boys. But a select group of confidants knows that Sander was born Kate Collins, a village girl who fled her home to avoid an unwanted marriage and found her place among the traveling actors of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

When Sander’s brother—Johnny, another member of the acting company—gets his lover pregnant and refuses to marry her, Sander steps in to protect the mother-to-be, Frances, and her unborn child. Although it is illegal for two women to marry in sixteenth-century London, Sander persuades a priest to perform the ceremony. Frances’s position as a seamstress with her own shop is secured, but the story of Sander and Frances is just beginning. Like all married couples, they must find a way to live together, even as England suffers from unrest and uncertainty caused by the aging queen’s reluctance to name her successor. Filled with quotations from Shakespeare and an insider’s view of his plays, this is a charming story of love triumphing in the midst of intolerance.

Interview with the author available after Dec. 20, 2021, at New Books in Historical Fiction.—CPL

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