This year Valentine’s Day is going to be a little different. I keep hearing it everywhere, especially on adverts trying to sell us goodies for a ‘stay at home’ Valentine’s Day. I have a strange relationship with holidays that expect us to do certain things (I refer to New Years Eve as ‘enforced jollity’) and Valentine’s Day is no different. At the very least I like my loved one to have a card on the day, somewhere I can write how much I love my partner in my own words. Other than that I’d rather we bought each other something we love – a book will be much more appreciated than a cliched gift, or we try and get something that’s more about our relationship and the in-jokes we have. He’s always called me ‘Wonder Woman’ because of what I manage despite my MS, so I have some lovely Wonder Woman Converse trainers and he has a Lego Wonder Woman who sits on his bedside table. Often we wait for a cheaper week to buy flowers and I really don’t do red roses. This year will be stranger than most because it’s the week we’re moving house. This year he has a framed print for the new house – two bumble bees, with tiny suitcases moving into their new home. I’m getting flowers when we’ve moved in so I can really enjoy them.
This year, what’s on my mind is that many people might be spending the day alone. When social media is full of people showing their cards and flowers, how hard must it be for those living alone or those recently separated or bereaved. I think the message of Valentine’s Day-to love each other- needs broadening to include other relationships. Love between friends, family, even the bond we have with our pets, all are very important to appreciate and not just because we’re in lockdown. We should appreciate this love all of the time. It might be nice this year to drop a card in the postbox to an elderly grandparent, a friend whose shielding or an Aunty whose just been divorced – they all need it. My life has been quite motivated by love and I was surprised to find my reading is too. I checked my Goodreads for last year, and I was so surprised to see how many were categorised as romance. Today though, in line with my thinking about Valentine’s Day – I thought I’d feature some books that are a bit unusual and are less of a conventional romance.
This book is the latest from a favourite writer of mine, Elizabeth Haynes. It’s probably the most conventional romance in my list, but it’s not just about two people. A love story between Rachel, who has run away from life, and Fraser who is hiding from his past. Yet, for me, the biggest character -that both people fall in love with-is the rugged landscape of the Isle of Must. At first Rachel wonders if she’s made a huge mistake, the island is bleak and rough. However, as the spring comes, it spreads its magic. Rachel falls in love with the island’s beauty; body and soul. I love that although this is a love story, it’s so much more than that. It’s a woman’s awakening into what her soul needs and who she really is at this point in her life. Fraser is an embodiment of the landscape, rugged and forbidding, until he too starts to reconcile with himself. Simply beautiful.
I absolutely loved this beautiful novel and I was totally wrong footed by it as well, because this is one book that really pushes the philosophy that there are many different types of love. Dannie has a very strict five year plan and goes after what she wants. With this focus she is now in the perfect apartment in the right part of Manhattan. She has secured the job she always wanted, and is engaged to the perfect man. So she’s shocked by a dream she has, that in five years time she is with a different man, in a loft apartment in a more ‘up and coming’ area. She’s also wearing a different engagement ring. She shakes off the dream, but it’s there in the back of her mind. Then, four and a half years later, she goes for a meal with her best friend Bella. Bella is Dannie’s polar opposite, but despite this they’ve been friends for a long time. Bella would never have a life plan. In fact Dannie has sometimes worried that she’s a bit flakey. She’s a bohemian, go with the flow, sort of girl and has been resolutely single for years. Now she’s bringing someone important to meet Dannie, but to Dannie’s horror Bella’s dinner guest is the man from her dream. How can she avoid the destiny that seems to have been planned out for her? I adored this book. It’s a beautiful love story, but was far from the one I was expecting as I read. It made me think about soul mates and how that doesn’t necessarily mean our romantic partner. Love comes from many different places and isn’t necessarily what or who we expect. Heart rending and beautiful.
Don Tillman has decided it’s time for him to find a wife, and being a professor of genetics he decides to take a scientific approach. Surely if he comes up with a questionnaire, designed to eliminate women with the qualities he dislikes, he should find the one? However, one thing he knows for sure. It will definitely not be Rosie. Don believes Rosie is an applicant for his questionnaire, but she would fail on several counts. She smokes and drinks, is a vegetarian and can’t be punctual. Thankfully she’s there to ask for his help in finding her real father. To say Don is a bit socially challenged would be an understatement and this really is a laugh out loud funny book. Watching him struggle through meeting women is brilliant. He hasn’t realised that love has a language all of its own.
I do enjoy a bit of magic realism and that’s exactly what we get here from the incredible storyteller Patrick Ness. George Duncan is an honest, decent and good man. He lives by himself and could be said to have a lonely life. One night, he is disturbed by a noise outside and wakes up. When he looks outside there is a large crane in his garden, shot through the wing by an arrow. George is very moved by the bird’s plight and goes outside to help. When the bird flies away he feels a loss, not knowing that his life is about to be transformed. The next day, while working in his shop, he meets a customer he’s never seen before; mysterious, but kind woman, called Kumiko. A tentative friendship begins, then blossoms as Kumiko takes George on a journey through art and storytelling. They fall in love and together create beautiful pieces of art, stretching George’s ordinary life into something rare and fantastical. However, there’s a part of Kumiko he feels he hasn’t reached and he wonders whether this enigmatic woman has secrets. His need to know the the occasional secret side of her, may be his undoing. Can we love someone, knowing they are never just one set thing? Ness creates a beautiful fable here, but also a deep meditation on life itself.
“Love who you love while you have them. That’s all you can do. Let them go when you must. If you know how to love, you’ll never run out’.
Daniel has ‘the memory’, an ability to recall past lives and loves. It is both a blessing and a curse. Daniel has spent many lifetimes falling in love with Sophia across continents, dynasties and centuries. Each time they find each other, despite different names and appearances, and Daniel remembers every lifetime. Yet it is a love that’s always too short. For every time they come together, they are painfully torn apart again. In the present day, under the guise of Lucy. Sophia is awakening to the lover’s shared past, but just as she understands their strong attraction and familiarity they may be torn apart again. How can they confront what always pulls them apart and finally change their ending?
Douglas Kennedy has a real aptitude for writing about relationships and I’ve been a fan since his debut A Special Relationship. Here we meet Harry Ricks, down on his luck and running away from life. His career is in pieces after his boss slept with Harry’s wife then conspired to ruin him. He has a poor relationship with his daughter, who despises him. He takes a rash decision and flies off to Paris, where he books into a hotel and burns through any savings. He’s close to destitution when he gets a job as a night security guard. He’s guarding warehouses for a bunch of gangsters, but turns a blind eye to what happens inside. Just as life seems at its worst he meets Margit and is immediately enchanted by her. She’s a handsome woman rather than pretty, but incredible sensual and oozes sexual energy. She challenges his morals and the guilt he feels. Margit becomes his muse. He starts writing his novel in earnest – 1000 words a day – and he feels his masculinity being restored. She controls when he sees her, which only makes him want her all the more. People who have been looming over Harry’s life start to have nasty ‘accidents’. However, as with all seemingly perfectly arrangements, perhaps Margit isn’t all she seems to be. Atmospheric, addictive and an exceptional twist at the end.
Emma Donohue’s latest novel is an incredible piece of historical fiction, but is also a love story. Set in Ireland, just after WW1, Nurse Julia Powers works in a maternity unit. On the day in question she has been placed in charge of an isolation ward where expectant mums have ‘Spanish’ Flu. Julia is usually assisting a senior nurse, but today staff are so stretched that she’s in charge, with only volunteer helper Bridie Sweeney. Bridie says she’s had the flu and would be only too happy to help. What follows is a difficult, visceral and heart rending depiction of child birth in Ireland 100 years ago. So many bleak elements make up this story from the details of difficult births, to women from the Magdalene laundries, and exhausted women on their twelfth birth. This isn’t an easy read. Yet there is love: between the women supporting each other, the overwhelming love of a mother for a child (even where the child’s conception has been violent and traumatic) but there’s also romantic love too. The women work together and grow together, their feelings developing throughout the day towards a gloriously tender moment. These book shows us the consequences of love and the sacrifices women are prepared to make in love’s name.
Set in New York, this is a story of people losing and finding each other. Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer is trying to find a cure for her mother’s loneliness. Believing she might discover it in an old book her mother is lovingly translating, she sets out in search of its author. Across New York an old man called Leo Gursky is trying to survive a little bit longer. He spends his days dreaming of the love lost that sixty years ago in Poland inspired him to write a book. And although he doesn’t know it yet, that book also survived: crossing oceans and generations, and changing lives. . . We have a brilliant depiction of old age in Leo, and his recollections of his boyhood in Poland are wonderful. There are several narrative strands woven together by the author, all based around the book ‘The History of Love’ but it is Leo’s story of his childhood love from the years before the Nazis came that stayed with me. Written beautifully, in such poetic prose, this is as much about the power of stories as it is about the power of love. It seems that it’s those who have lost so much in love, who value it most highly.
This novel is probably my most conventional choice and one of my favourites from last year. It quite literally broke me when I finished it in the middle of the night. Jennifer Jones’ life began when her little sister, Kerry, was born. So when her sister dies in a tragic accident, nothing seems to make sense any more. Despite the support of her husband, Ed, and their wonderful children, Jen can’t comprehend why she is still here, while bright, spirited Kerry is not.When Jen starts to lose herself in her memories of her sister, she doesn’t realise that the closer she feels to Kerry, the further she gets from her family. This is a wonderful depiction of married love, but also of familial love. Jennifer is torn between her love for her sister, her love for Ed and a mother’s love for her children. The way Ed supports Jen, and believes her when she says she can see Kerry, is a wonderful depiction of love and loyalty. I was so lost in this novel that I cried at the end.
Finally I want to give special mention to a book that spoke to me personally when I most needed it. It prompted me to do something that helped me through grief, when I lost the person I most loved in the world. I lost my husband in 2007, after a long illness, and I was utterly lost. Due to my caring role, I’d had no time for me or my own interests for a couple of years. I’d given up work and struggled to see friends. Jez couldn’t eat, drink, or even breathe without someone there 24/7. So after his funeral, I woke up one morning with all this time to fill and nothing to fill it with. I had lots of support but at the end of the day, when the door closed at night I was so alone. It wasn’t just me and Jez, but all the carers, Marie Curie nurses, and hospice staff who were with us all through the day – and four nights a week. I decided after a couple of months to get a dog and I found my cockapoo Rafferty a few weeks later. I collected him on New Years Eve and it was just in time. Suddenly that night I fell into a black pit of despair. I couldn’t bear entering a year where Jez didn’t exist. As the night wore on I felt so black that I had I not had my little bundle of fur next to me I might have taken drastic action. I started to write a memoir a couple of years later and that was when mum gave me this book.
This is powerful memoir which mixes honest, personal revelation with literature, history, and inspirational self-help, Bel Mooney tells the story of her rescue dog, Bonnie, who in turn rescued Bel when her world fell apart with the all-too public break-up of her 35-year marriage. It really is a story of survival, and also one of love. This is an account of six years in Bel’s life, from when she first acquired Bonnie from a rescue home, through Bel’s years of personal heartbreak and disappointment, and on to the happiness which she has now found in a new marriage and a new life, with the Maltese at her side all the way. This is a book about transformation and change, about picking yourself up and attacking life in the way that a small dog will go for the postman’s trousers – and about celebrating life, much as your canine companion will always celebrate your return, even from the shortest trip. This is engaging, entertaining, full of personal anecdotes and deeply It takes you on an inspirational walk with one very small but very remarkable dog – a dog who represents all that is best about dogs, and about we humans too. I know that the love I have for my dog is one of the strongest feelings I’ve had. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching my partner and my stepdaughters fall in love with him over the last couple of years. He’s now a family dog and he’s bonded us in a way that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I hope whatever loving relationships you choose to celebrate tomorrow, you have a lovely day. Valentine’s Day isn’t just for romantic love and we need all the celebrations we can get.