Historical Fiction / Romance

9 Whimsical Books Like Water for Elephants

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Water for Elephants is a romantic slice of 1930’s Americana. But woven between the fabric of Gruen’s big top are the gritty realities of circus life. For more stories filled with intrigue, attraction, and mystery, check out these nine novels.  

1. Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

Step into an enchanting circus world that comes alive between the hours of sunrise and sunset. Cloud mazes materialize, gardens of ice erupt, and acrobats fly with no net. Against this fantastical background, Marco and Celia, two young magician-circus protégés, engage in a grueling competition of power. They also fall in love. As the couple uses their talents to create mesmerizing new attractions, they learn there’s a sinister side to the circus. Performers are bound to perform and cannot fail, like automatons. No one seems to age. And the competition has no end, unless of course, Celia or Marco dies. As the competition plays on, Morgenstern keeps you wondering, will Celia and Marco outwit the spirit of the circus, or will they meet an unfortunate end? 

2. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman 

As Warsaw is seized by Nazi Germany, bombs destroy Antonina and Jan Zabinski’s zoo, and they are forced to shutter under Nazi occupation. But even in their darkest hour, the Zabinskis rally for hope. They join the Polish underground resistance, disguise the zoo as a pig farm, and shelter victims of the Holocaust in animal enclosures. Antonina manages to maintain a small habitat of otters, rabbits, lynxes, a badger and, more covertly, secret “guests” escaping from the Warsaw ghetto. The Zabinskis ferry hundreds of Jewish refugees to safety through the zoo. But as their operation grows, danger mounts. If they are caught, everyone will be executed. 

3. West with Giraffes, by Lynda Rutledge Stephenson

On his deathbed, Woodrow Wilson Nickel learns giraffes are endangered, and he decides to write the story of his first giraffe encounter in 1938. Flashback to an era where the effects of the Great Depression still reverberate and Hitler is on the verge of unleashing massive political evils. Americans are desperate for a diversion. Then two giraffes, who scarcely survived passage across hurricane prone waters, arrive at the Atlantic Coast. Seventeen-year-old Woodrow is newly orphaned with no job and no prospects. With little other choice, he is contracted to transport California’s first giraffes to the San Diego Zoo. Every day on the road brings a new obstacle. And every day in Woodrow’s present life at the VA hospital where he is attempting to outwrite his death brings its own conflict. 

4. The Orphan’s Tale, by Pam Jenoff

Astrid is an elderly woman visiting a museum showcasing “200 years of circus magic.” At the exhibit, she discovers a vintage railcar. She has a connection with this segment of the train. Memories of the past rush in.

The narrator shifts to a young Jewish woman named Noa who is struggling to survive the violence and persecution of WWII. As Noa jumps a railcar to escape war-torn Germany, she discovers unchaperoned newborns bound for concentration camps. She scoops up a malnourished infant and seeks refuge on a German circus train. On the train, Noa meets young Astrid from whom she learns the art of trapeze. The girls bond and exchange secrets. But realizing each other’s talent, jealousy percolates, and their secrets threaten to erupt. 

5. The Life She was Given, by Ellen Marie Wiseman

During the 1930’s, 9-year-old Lilly Blackwood is trapped in her attic bedroom. After her birth, and the discovery of her albinism, Lilly’s fanatically religious mother keeps her imprisoned for fear that she embodies divine punishment. From the confines of her room, Lilly spies a traveling circus. She begs her mother to attend, but her mother has other plans. She sells Lilly to a cruel circus master as a sideshow feature.

Flash forward to 1950. Meet Julia Blackwood, a young woman who has recently inherited her deceased parents’ estate. Julia finds pictures of a mysterious young girl as well as her belongings, stowed away in the estate’s attic bedroom. She becomes obsessed with discovering the identity and fate of the girl from the pictures. 

6. The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman 

Coralie Sardie swims miles of frigid ocean water. She eats only fish, and her hands are webbed. Her father is the sinister master of the Coney Island “freak show,” known as The Museum of Extraordinary Things. He wastes no time in casting Corlie as the show’s mermaid. She is made to perform alongside Wolfman and Butterfly Girl and bend to a gawking audience’s voyeuristic desires. 

But one day, she meets Eddie Cohen, a reclusive young photographer. Coralie learns he is grappling with his strict orthodox Jewish father, and he is working for a phony psychic who claims to know the whereabouts of a missing girl. Together, Coralie and Eddie embark on a journey to overcome their haunting pasts. 

7. Weight of Feathers, by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Palomas stun audiences with mesmerizing underwater displays. The Corbeaus fly into the tree canopy to fascinate audiences with daring tight rope routines. Despite their success on the same circuit, the two families hate each other. For 20 years, a searing rivalry has festered between them, inspiring a web of hatred and lies. 

The Corbeaus tell their daughter Lace mythic tales, claiming the Palomas carry “black magic” that will maim with just one touch. But when Cluck Paloma, son of the Paloma patriarch, saves Lace from death, she questions her parents’ teachings. And when the pair flirt with love, even a string of deadly obstacles and poisonous family relationships can’t keep them apart. 

8. The Electric Michelangelo, by Sarah Hall

During the early 20th century, Cy Parks tattoos clients of the Coney Island Boardwalk. Among the sideshows and riveting roller coasters, he falls into a trance as customers’ histories blur with their ink. He considers tattooing an echo of a person’s essence, and he painstakingly crafts each image. 

Then Cy meets Grace, a Coney Island bareback rider and tight rope extraordinaire. Grace wants only to be inked with the recurring image of a watchful, green eye. Through tattooing Grace, he learns of her scarred past, the pain of her immigration. And soon, he discovers it’s more than inky illustrations watching and waiting for Grace. 

9. The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler

Simon finds a diary from nearly 200 years ago, chronicling a traveling circus. The diary contains his family name, and while reading, he can’t help but feel haunted by the memory of his mother’s death. Simon’s mother, a circus mermaid, died swimming in the sound just beyond his house. 

Meanwhile, Simon’s sister Enola travels the map as a carnival tarot reader. But as he delves deeper into the circus diary, he discovers a shocking coincidence causing him worry over Enola’s absence. The women in his family, uncannily good swimmers from a long lineage of circus mermaids, seem to fall victim to a drowning curse described in the diary. The drownings always occur on July 24th, the same as his mother’s death date. Will Simon uncover the origins of his family curse and Enola’s whereabouts in time to save her life, or will the curse prevail?

About Author

Kaci is a writer and teacher working in Dallas, Texas. She lives with her husband, two dogs, and a churlish rabbit.

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