Alternative Valentine’s Reads

Casting off the shackles of romantic love, celebrations of unconventional desires, independence, or nonconformity: here’s a list of novels and memoirs that make good foils for the more sickly-sweet visions of valentine’s day, maybe for someone you love or maybe just for you and the cat to savour.

When Women Kill, by Alia Trabucco Zeran

(translated by Sophie Hughes)

Ok sure we’re going deliberately as far away from Valentine’s Day as possible for this first pick — couldn’t resist! Female murderers are irresistably fascinating, and this Chilean curio deals with the central theme of its title in a brilliantly creative way, turning the tropes of ‘true crime’ into something rather more profound than merely glamorising the four women it profiles. Detailing their shocking crimes and the repercussions with commentary on the research process itself, Zeran’s methods are exhaustive but eminently readable. A delightful twist on the usual killer commentary! There truly cannot be anything less “Valentine’s Day” than this.

Diary of a Void, by Emi Yagi

(translated by David Boyd & Lucy North)

Tired of working long hours in a male-dominated office where she is expected to make coffees and clear away the cups after meetings, Ms Shibata decides on impulse to lie to her colleagues and tell them she is pregnant, and spends the novel sinking deeper and deeper into the lie until we’re left wondering how far she can take it – it’s an exquisite trajectory. You can read this novel as part of a wider and deeply satisfying seam of modern Japanese literature that interrogates the role of women in wider society, but on a purely narrative level the delights are ample: turns of phrase recur and redefine themselves as the book progresses, male behaviour becomes increasingly ungainly and pathetic as the faux-pregnancy becomes more obvious. Hidden beneath the snippy facade there are salient ruminations on the societal pressure placed on women’s bodies, and almost melancholy musings on the futility of opposing the patriarchy.

Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner

An early feminist classic. As the generations go by, “Aunt Lolly” lives in the shadow of each successive Willowes patriarch, slowly subsumed into the confines of familial duty and a stuffy, frigid post-Victorian moral sensibility which she tacitly rejects. Approaching middle age, she suddenly decides (to the horror of her relatives) to move to the Chilterns for a life of solitude, freedom and… witchcraft! A perfect, witty modernist novel and a thorough rejection of society’s expectations of women

100 Boyfriends, by Brontez Purnell

Punk, slutty, literary and devastating. Short stories and vignettes come together to form a kaleidoscopic portrait of one night stands, adultery and self-sabotage. This is a filthy, messy, unforgettable love song to queer bodies from a truly singular creative force.

The Living Mountain, by Nan Shepherd

Throw off the shackles of so-called “romantic love” and instead appreciate the purest, most intimate of all loves: the love between a woman and the mountains of Scotland. A seminal work of nature writing and poetic celebration of the sublime, solitary beauty of the Cairngorms.

Mrs Caliban, by Rachel Ingalls

That’s right: a novella about an unsatisfied suburban housewife and her curious, sexy affair with a frogman (yep!!) on the run from his scientist captors. A weird yet profound exploration of freedom, femininity and sexuality.

Witch, by Rebecca Tamás

The only author who’s cast a penis hex on customers in our shop… so far! For fans of visceral witchy, feminist poetry and reading about the occult by candlelight.

Bear, by Marian Engel

This is a wild folktale about a disenchanted librarian, a remote summer escape, and, yes, a bear. Escapist, intellectual, sexy, and with just the right amount of archiving content.

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband And He Hanged Himself, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Addictively mean short stories that were banned in the author’s native Russia – wickedly witty and wince-inducingly cruel in parts, the title of this collection is fair preparation for what’s in store.

I Love Dick, Chris Kraus

This is entirely uncategorizable: part memoir, part epistolary novel, part philosophy. Kraus, an unsuccessful and self described plain artist, meets an academic called Dick, with whom she promptly becomes infatuated and convinces her husband to join her in crafting love letters to him. It sounds even less wild than it is!

The Cost of Living, Deborah Levy

Levy is, without a doubt, one of our all time favourite writers, and this is perhaps one of our all time favourite books full stop. The Cost of Living is simply the book on what it means to be a woman making art and the quest for financial, artistic and bodily independence. All three installments of Levy’s “Living Autobiography” are well worth a read, but The Cost of Living is a particularly universal installment, filled with poignant questions and simple pleasures.

The Appointment, Katharina Volckmer

Caustic and sharply hilarious, this merciless and perfectly formed novelette is one brilliant monologue, the results of a woman’s single appointment with her doctor – expect blazing ruminations on shame, sex and squirrel tails.

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