Off-Beat Valentine’s Day Reads Guaranteed Not to Bore You With Clichés
February 12, 2021
by Maria Cichosz
Are you sick of cliché greeting cards and empty capitalist gestures? Flowers and chocolates not doing it for you? Here’s a Valentine’s Day reading list featuring some fantastically unconventional indie books that challenge and expand our definition of “love.” Dark, moving, critical, and big-hearted, these reads are anything but standard-issue romance narratives. They’ll make you fall in love all over again, and just might break your heart, too.
On the surface, Guy seems like a catch: he is handsome, successful, and rich. He’s also the archetype of everything the #MeToo era has denounced: a misogynistic, racist, homophobic narcissist who rates women’s looks on a scale of one to ten and makes a game out of deceiving and then ghosting his vulnerable victims. With vibes straight out of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, Guy is a compelling character study dissecting the psyche of the womanizing bro to get at something much darker about the human condition. For anyone cynical about love and heteronormative power dynamics, this is sure to be a compelling, addictive, cringe-inducing, can’t-look-away-from-this-car-crash read.
The struggle of head versus heart is on full display in Charlene Elsby’s surreal, cerebral romp through the process of falling in love. Affect follows the musings of an analytical philosophy student swept off her feet by Logan, a man she can’t stop thinking about any less than she can stop intellectualizing her experience through philosophy. Those looking for a love story off the beaten path won’t be disappointed by this meditation about the absurdity of love in the face of inevitable death and the strange process of one’s self becoming entangled with an “other.”
Mooncalves by Victoria Hetherington (Now or Never Publishing)
Wherever there is love there is bound to be power warping its bonds. Victoria Hetherington’s astonishing debut novel, Mooncalves, follows the implosion of “Walden,” a cult in Sainte-Pétronille, Quebec, led by the charismatic and unhinged Joseph Reiser who gathers young female devotees around himself in preparation for the coming technological Merge. In this neo-Gothic world, relationships are twisted, dark, and often abusive, but they are also real and unapologetically human—the perfect antidote to any Hallmark card. This is the dark sci-fi Valentine you didn’t know you needed.
Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian), Hazel Jane Plante (Metonymy Press)
Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) anatomizes a queer trans woman’s unrequited love for her straight trans friend who died by alternating alphabetized entries about a fictional television show, Little Blue, with personal memories. It is an original compendium of love and loss, taking the reader through a quirky and moving taxonomy of grief to create a dense palimpsest of connections celebrating the life of a friend dearly missed. This book is painful, but it’s fun, too, riddled with pop culture trivia real and imagined—you’ll fall in love with the world of Little Blue (and the characters who stan it).
We’re most comfortable talking about romantic love, but what about the gargantuan labour of love that comes with motherhood and being all things to all people? Sarah Vanart’s remarkable book of poetry meditates on the demands of being the big heart among the mundanities of family life, finding wry tenderness in pear peels, clamouring children, and dog walks, all the while overspilling into the wild desire of personal ambition mothers are not supposed to feel. Written during stolen moments between diaper changes and appointments, I Am the Big Heart is an ode to the enormous unconditional love that makes possible the silent work of caring for others.
Hard To Do by Kelli María Korducki (Coach House Books)
In this refreshing critical view of romantic partnerships and the tricky politics of getting out of them, Kelli María Korducki delivers a powerful reminder that long-term relationships are a product of capitalism, and a relatively recent one at that. Tracing how evolving socioeconomic conditions have transformed domestic partnerships between men and women, Hard To Do argues that you never need a “good” reason to end a relationship, and that for women, asserting agency remains a radical, perhaps even revolutionary act. This one’s for all the independent women out there who know that the will to build your own life is a profound act of self-love.
Love After the End, edited by Joshua Whitehead (Arsenal Pulp Press)
The speculative fiction gathered in Love After the End is a collective love letter to the future from a place of resistance, precarity, and hope. Penned by 2SQ (Two-Spirit and queer) Indigenous writers and edited by Joshua Whitehead, these stories transcend the despair, cynicism, and anxiety of a world shaped by settler colonialism by creating a vision for a better possible world. They are sad and beautiful, frightening yet hopeful, harnessing the power of storytelling to tend to the wounds of the present while looking toward communal healing. Here love is a utopian force that transcends time and space, and a reason to keep on living.
The Fifth by MP Boisvert, translated by Monica Meneghetti (Caitlin Press)
The more the merrier! This one’s for all you polyamorous folks unafraid to spread the love. Centering the daily lives of Alice, Gayle, Camille, Simon, and Eloy—"the Family”—The Fifth is a refreshing Quebecois story about polyamory that doesn’t devolve into jealousy, possessiveness, or infidelity. Instead, it portrays a loving, if sometimes messy non-traditional relationship and offers a meditation on the depth of chosen family, open minds, and open hearts.
For the timeless romantic, Accretion is a poetic retelling the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi’s tale of Layla and Majnun, once described by Lord Byron as “the Romeo and Juliet of the East.” Irfan Ali’s contemporary version of the story is set in Toronto and features an immigrant family’s faith struggle and hip-hop soundtrack. The focus is less on Layla and more on Majnun, whose name is the Arabic epithet for "possessed”—haunted by an accelerating internal darkness. This undeniably fresh rendering of ancient poetic traditions lyrically tracks a slow but sure progression toward love and hope for one’s self, family, and faith.
Maria Cichosz is a novelist and scholar of literature, theory, drug cultures, and the history of ideas. She holds a PhD in Modern Thought & Literature from Stanford University, where she is currently a Humanities & Sciences Dean’s Fellow. Maria’s fiction and scholarship have appeared in Critique, The Puritan, CRAFT, and on the CBC Literary Awards shortlist, among other places. You can check out her first novel, Cam & Beau, at
camandbeau.ca. Photo credit: Ash Nayler
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