The Book Thief

Here is a small fact: you are going to die.

1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.

Some important information: this novel is narrated by Death. It’s a small story about a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, A Jewish fist fighter and quite a lot of thievery.

Another thing you should know: Death will visit the book thief three times.

I can’t really get into why, because it’s a massive spoiler, but The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is without question one of the most traumatic experiences I have put myself through by choice in recent history.

If you have read it, I have only one question for you. And it is this: what the fuck?

For everyone else, The Book Thief is one of those very famous international best seller types that you think you should read, but put off for ages because it’s long and it’s about Nazi Germany, so you know it’s going to be traumatic (but how traumatic you truly cannot imagine. Okay, I did only finish it yesterday, so I’m still in the first phase of my response but what. The. Fuck.), but eventually someone in your life pushes you (in this instance my housemate) and you finally pick it up, because It’s Time.

And you know what, trauma aside, it is an incredible book. Told by Death, in combination with the Nazi Germany of it all, means there is a constant sense of impermanence, of the looming end of it all that we all do our best to ignore day-to-day. That sense of something looming grows in time with the hate and aggression life under Hitler brings to the community. From Jewish-owned shops destroyed before closing down completely – and their keepers vanished – to the lady in the corner shop who will only sell you food after you first Heil Hitler, the bubbling fanaticism and anti-Semitism form a sinister undertone to Liesel’s every day – but as a nine-year-old it’s not something she thinks about a ton. Mostly, she’s concerned with where she and her best friend Rudy are going to go steal some extra food because her foster mother has been cooking nothing but pea soup for months.

But a normal childhood isn’t a luxury children in Nazi Germany get to experience, and there is something uniquely harrowing about the ways Liesel and Rudy lose their innocence as the war wages on, gradually wending its way toward their homes on Himmel Street. From Liesel, hiding the secret of the hidden Jew in the basement to Rudy, fighting the war with the Nazi Youth but actually fighting the war against the Nazi Youth, both children have a strong sense of justice instilled in them that the misery of their circumstances never quite manages to beat out. Their actions aren’t exactly powerful – reading to a huddled group inside a bomb shelter, standing up for your friend the Nazi Youth would call weak – but small as they are, in the depths of the despair of the situation, they mean everything.

The Book Thief is really a book about changing the world in small ways: saving the life of one Jewish man, even if only for a time; protecting one kid from the fists of the Nazi Youth bullies; leaving the window open so a young girl can sneak inside and steal your books; giving a dying man a teddy bear. It’s about one small street in Nazi Germany and how its inhabitants survived the hatred – and how they didn’t. People can change each other’s lives in ways large and small, and you see all of them throughout the scope of this expansive novel. When one person loses hope for a while another person picks it up and runs with it until they can do so again, and so on and so forth, until Death comes to visit.

All The Light We Cannot See

TW: rape

For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth.

In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

I’m going to be honest up front, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is not a book for the faint of heart. It’s long, it’s brutal and it will hit you hard.

It’s a story uniquely told, with Doerr using concurrent timelines and perspectives with a deftness I haven’t experienced in a long time. The narrative moves between Werner and Marie-Laure in August 1944, a little over a year before the end of the Second World War, and their lives in the years leading up to that day – which, it isn’t a spoiler to say, is something of a fateful one. While the format has of course been done before, the way Doerr masterfully handled the many – many – different strands of this story kept me on absolute tenterhooks, even when I couldn’t be sure where it was all going.

In many ways, Marie-Laure and Werner are two sides of the same coin. They both grow up curious, clever children dealing with some adverse circumstances – Werner, being in an orphanage and destined for the mines where his father lost his life, and Marie-Laure with the loss of her sight when she is six years old. But Werner lives in Germany during the rise of Nazism, and his talent with radios soon means he’s swept into the brutality, abuse and horrors of training with the Nazi Youth, and subsequently serving in the German army.

But does hating the horrors in which you are a participant make you a good person?

Of course it doesn’t.

While Werner does what he must to survive with the Hitler Youth, Marie-Laure and her great-uncle Etienne, a mentally ill veteran of the First World War, dive head first into the resistance movement. From their little French town of Saint Malo they send and receive covert messages for the resistance that would see them killed by the Nazis should they ever be discovered.

In addition to his use of time and perspective, Doerr also weaves magical elements into the novel in a way that felt seamless. The entire story is haunted by a cursed diamond known as the Sea of Flames, placed in the care of Marie-Laure’s father by the museum he works at when the war breaks out. The stone makes its owner impossible to kill – but at a cost. The holder is safe, but around them their loved ones drop like flies.

At least that’s how the legend goes.

It doesn’t help that the damned rock is being chased by a dying Nazi general, determined to track the thing down before his rapidly spreading cancer finally kills him. I suppose it’s hardly surprising a Nazi wouldn’t mind the caveats that come with possession of the cursed diamond.

The story moves constantly between these flights of whimsy – a cursed diamond, the to-scale model cities Marie-Laure’s father builds for her to help her navigate without her sight – and the grim realities of Nazi life. The shocking acts of violence perpetrated by German soldiers are detailed with a blunt detachedness that demonstrate Werner’s attempts at disassociation from the war crimes he is complicit in perpetrating, regardless of whether or not he pulled the trigger.

I think What All The Light We Cannot See does better than I’ve ever read before is narration of the everyday of a country at war. The peculiar mundanity in the descriptions of violence, paired with the endless boredom (because you can be bored even as you are terrified) Marie-Laure experiences, confined in her great-uncle’s house so she doesn’t cross paths with any German soldiers, show the absolutely relentlessness of it.

It’s not hard to see why people break.

As the story progresses and I finally found myself hurtling toward 1944, all the disparate elements of the novel came together in a horrifying, utterly absorbing crescendo.

There are moments while reading that you do start to wonder where it’s all going. At 530 pages, it’s a pretty hefty read, and there are times where it seems as if the plot is meandering.

It’s not. Keep reading. If there’s one thing I knew by the end of this book it’s that Anthony Doerr knows exactly what he’s doing.

How to be a Craftivist

If we want a world that is beautiful, kind and fair, shouldn’t our activism be beautiful, kind and fair?

Award-winning campaigner and founder of the Craftivist Collective Sarah Corbett shows how to respond to injustice not with apathy or aggression, but with gentle, effective protest.

This is a manifesto – for a more respectful and contemplative activism; for conversation and collaboration where too often there is division and conflict; for using craft to engage, empower and encourage us all to be the change we wish to see in the world.

Quiet action can sometimes speak as powerfully as the loudest voice. With thoughtful principles, practical examples and honest stories from her own experience as a once burnt-out activist, Corbett shows how activism through craft can produce long-lasting positive change.

I read How to be a Craftivist by Sarah Corbett for a book club I’m part of, and I have to say my feelings were mixed. Part call to action, part campaign strategy and part activism memoir, the book details how Corbett launched her craftivist movement and the hard won successes of her creative campaigns.

There was a lot about her movement that I liked. For a lot of people, joining a march or – god forbid – canvassing feels difficult if not impossible (I know there can be some privilege wrapped up in this. I’m getting to it). As such, Corbett coming forward with a version of activism that holds out a hand to shy types to whom walking up to a stranger with a petition would feel like actual death felt inviting without being accusatory.

Her campaigns are so creative – with emphasis on using sustainable and ethically sourced materials (rather than, say, feminist slogan tees made by women making less than minimum wage in unsafe factories…). From creating small scrolls to slip in the pockets of garments at fast fashion stores asking #whomademyclothes to messages carefully stitched onto handkerchiefs and sent to local politicians, Corbett breaks down her campaigns stage by stage, inviting the reader to get involved at every turn. She describes how she goes about building relationships with those on the opposing side of the argument, and it is certainly interesting to see how she manages to engage with some powerful people using craftivism, getting them to interact with her work in a way they haven’t with activism before. Through her work she inspires people to communicate with her on an issue rather than go on the defence – something that often feels impossible to achieve.

She also makes a huge point of solidarity over sympathy; so, creating campaigns that centre the people affected by the issue with understanding that they know what the solutions to their problems are. People aren’t waiting for you to walk in and save them, they’re looking for support.

All that said, I have to admit I had a really hard time with her consistent use of the term ‘gentle’ to describe her method of protest. While I know I am coming at this with a certain amount of internalised gender-related garbage, the way her work emphasised being agreeable and non-threatening jarred with me. I wish that Corbett had addressed this, or at least taken an analytical stance on the way that agreeableness has been demanded of women to their massive detriment over time, but she never did.

And then there’s the issue of privilege. Sarah Corbett is a white woman (as am I) so carrying a lot of privilege that I don’t necessarily feel that she addresses particularly well during the book. As it goes on, it starts to feel like she is placing gentle protest in opposition to what she considers aggressive protest, and it was this slowly encroaching binary that I found myself taking issue with more and more. While I think her methods absolutely have value (she has achieved a hell of a lot more than I ever have!), I think that it’s much easier to make a gift for your local politician attached to a very friendly letter, as she recommends, when you’re dealing with a situation you’re not currently affected by. Right? If you’re personally impacted by the ‘hostile environment’ immigration practices or benefits cuts currently screwing over hundreds of thousands of people you’re probably going to feel a lot more like yelling in someone’s face – and I don’t think you would be wrong to do that.

Like I said earlier, craftivism, according to Corbett’s ideals is at least partly about welcoming in people uncomfortable with other forms of activism – I actually fall into this group. I deal with pretty bad social anxiety so the intensity of activism fills me with FEAR. But I also wonder whether we should expect – or even aspire, in this situation – to feel comfortable? Especially if you’re a white woman. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own accountability, and in particular all of the various (many) ways in which I don’t live up to my own ideals, and while a lot of actions Corbett presents in the book are great, there was a degree to which I felt she was offering people a way out of getting their hands dirty.

I guess I’m on the fence. There were times while reading that Corbett totally lost me – she tells this weird story about getting dumped by a Tinder date because he ‘didn’t want to date an activist’ until she told him that she was actually an agreeable nice activist, not an ‘angry’ one. I was waiting for her to be like and the moral of the story is fuck that guy, but instead she ended up dating him after she convinced him of her ‘gentle nature’. But at other times her methods really appealed to me, particularly in terms of her tenacity and her approach to a campaign as a long-term commitment.

Have you read How to be a Craftivist? What do you think?

The Astonishing Colour of After

When Leigh’s mother dies by suicide she leaves only a scribbled note – I want you to remember.

Leigh doesn’t understand its meaning and wishes she could turn to her best friend, Axel – if only she hadn’t kissed him and changed everything between them.

Guided by a mysterious red bird, Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her grandparents for the first time. There, Leigh retreats into art and memories, where colours collide, the rules of reality are broken and the ghosts of the past refuse to rest…

But Leigh is determined to unlock her family’s secrets.

The Astonishing Colour of After

I was lucky enough to win a copy of The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X R Pan in a giveaway run by one of my absolute faves, Marie @ Drizzle and Hurricane Books. Thanks Marie!

And I am so glad because 1. I NEVER win anything so it was very exciting and 2. I absolutely adored this beautiful book, even though by the end it had me sobbing. SOBBING.*

*for the sake of transparency I should note making me cry is very easy. Like, if I’m watching a TV show, even if I don’t even really care about what’s happening, if one of the characters starts crying I will get choked up. Yeah. There might be something a bit wrong with me. That said, this book is very emotional and if you don’t cry… well, I might judge you a little bit for that.

The Astonishing Colour of After is a heart-rending, magical read about grief, love, family, art and identity. Leigh’s world is shattered when her mother dies by suicide. Things between her and her dad are strained – they were before her mother’s death – as they come to terms with their loss, and her relationship with her best friend Axel is in a strange, confused place. They kissed on the day of her mother’s death and ever since she has found herself totally unable to deal with him. With anyone, really.

So Leigh finds herself isolated, grief-stricken and in complete confusion when her mother returns to her in the form of a bird, a streak of scarlet dancing away into the sky whenever Leigh gets close.

This is just the start of the mysterious magic that creeps into Leigh’s life.

Emily X R Pan expertly weaves the story through various different timelines – Leigh in Taiwan, struggling to connect with her mother’s estranged family, the two years leading to her mother’s suicide and her journey into her mother’s family history, which she can access by burning photographs, a necklace or a letter, and be transported into the memory by the flames. As grief and insomnia take their toll on Leigh’s own mental health, as the reader you find yourself constantly questioning what’s actually happening, or what is just in Leigh’s mind as she isolates herself and spirals down under the weight of her pain and trauma.

It’s a novel consumed by grief, but The Astonishing Colour of After is also a mystery. Leigh’s mother was long estranged from her family in Taiwan to the point that she refused to even teach her daughter to speak Mandarin. The reasons for this are slowly revealed as the novel progresses, and watching Leigh navigate her own racial identity without her mother as her guide was a uniquely painful experience to read. Leigh is mixed race, and often called “exotic” by her white peers in America. In Taiwan, she’s dismayed to find that she is exoticised in much the same manner as in the US – people point and whisper, hunxie, a word she soon learns describes someone biracial. This, combined with the language barrier between herself and her grandparents she is meeting for the first time only adds to her sense of isolation and loneliness.

I loved the way that Pan included Chinese mythology in the story – particularly Ghost Month, the seventh month in the lunar calendar, when ghosts roam the earth like “brushstrokes across a canvas”.  I also really appreciated the way that she wrote about suicide. One of my various jobs is with a CIC that deliver suicide awareness and suicide first aid training, and since I’ve become more involved with media representation of suicide I’ve become very concerned with the way it is often over simplified for the sake of a clickable headline. Pan doesn’t do that. She pointedly makes the choice not to assign a reason for Dory’s suicide. She has had some traumatic life experiences, yes, but her depression is an illness, not something that can be blamed on any one person or event.

I was happy to see that Pan also avoided using the phrase “committed suicide”. It’s one of those things that we say without really thinking about it, but it’s actually very stigmatising. “Died by suicide” or even “suicided” are much better terms to use. There’s a pretty good article here for anyone interested in learning more about this.

The Astonishing Colour of After is an unforgettable, emotive novel that handles its subject matter with compassion and understanding. It delves deep into family estrangement and how that pain can echo across generations decades later. It is probably my favourite YA read so far this year.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

The book that sparked a national conversation. Exploring everything from eradicated black history to the inextricable link between class and race, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is the essential handbook for anyone who wants to understand race relations in Britain today.

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge is the book about race and Britain I didn’t know I needed.

So, a weird thing about the British education system – at least, back when I was in it – is that you don’t really learn anything about the history of race in the country. The UK’s colonialist history, the atrocities it has inflicted on other countries, how those wounds continue to be felt today were – and I am embarrassed to admit this, but I’ll be honest about it – things I learned entirely by accident through fiction.

I know how white I sound right now.

And yet even in the last few years, as I’ve learned chunks of a history that even now my country fails to be held accountable for, a lot of what I have learned about black history in particular has been through an American lens. It’s a phenomenon Eddo-Lodge describes in the book, the “heavy focus on Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad and Martin Luther King Jr., the household names of America’s civil rights movement felt important” to her, but far away from her own experiences as a black person in the UK.

Eddo-Lodge then sets up the history of black Britain in brief, from the slave ports dotted all over the country (one of them very near where I live that I had no idea about) to the black and brown soldiers who fought in World War One, promised the end of colonial rule in return for their service (a promise England broke), race riots and the utterly horrifying lynching of Charles Wootton – to which Britain responded by ‘repatriating’ (deporting, basically) 600 black people from the country.

In setting up the history of racism in Britain and its manifestation now, as a reader you can’t help but reflect on what’s changed – but more strikingly, what hasn’t. In 1900, the British government decided that the ‘solution’ to the problem of racist crime in the community was to send black people ‘home’ (to places they had been forcibly removed from by the British who enslaved them). Nowadays we deal with structural racism with a similar ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach – by pretending it doesn’t exist. As Eddo-Lodge says, white people “truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin colour can and should be universal.” And yet as she goes onto explain, with the stark disparities in educational opportunities, higher unemployment rates, harsher police responses (for example, black people are twice as likely to be charged with drug possession despite lower rates of use), disproportionate and inappropriate use of the Mental Health Act and generally worse health outcomes for black people, this narrative of equality we have invented quickly falls apart.

Every section of this book is fascinating and challenging, but none more so than the chapter about feminism – specifically Eddo-Lodge’s points about white feminism. That is, for the uninitiated, feminism that doesn’t take account of race. If you’re a white girl born in the nineties, in other words, the feminism that you were brought up on. Eddo-Lodge writes in detail about her experiences with white feminism, and in particular the way that white women often frame themselves as victims in a conversation about their own privilege (think Taylor Swift/ Nicki Minaj VMAs incident from a few years ago) in such a way that paints black women as ‘angry’ villains, effectively pushing them out of the conversation. As Eddo-Lodge puts it: “The white feminist distaste for intersectionality quickly evolved into a hatred for the idea of white privilege – perhaps because to recognise structural racism would have to mean recognising their own whiteness.”
White feminism perceives intersectionality as a threat to its identity. It’s the same old racism under new guise, and one that is rampant even in what many white people consider to be progressive circles.

Even if non-fiction isn’t your go-to, I think you should read this book. Eddo-Lodge’s work is important, powerful and deeply engaged with the political moment without pandering to the idea that racism is something that just happened in the last couple years – she’s very clear that it’s only white people who hadn’t noticed it before 2016. It’s a work that also serves as a call to action and a reminder, for white readers anyway, that the job of picking apart structural racism is the responsibility of everyone – most especially those who have spent their entire lives benefitting from it.
Reni Eddo-Lodge is a vital writer and Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race should be at the top of every intersectional feminist’s reading list.

In The House In The Dark Woods

In this ingenious horror story set in colonial New England, a woman goes missing. Or not missing – perhaps she has fled, abandoned her family. Or perhaps she’s been kidnapped and set loose to wander in the dense woods of the north. Alone and possibly lost, she meets another woman in the forest. Then everything changes.
On a journey that will take her through a wolf-haunted wood, down a deep well, and onto a living ship made of human bones, our heroine is forced to confront her past and may find that the evil she flees has been inside her all along.
Eerie and disturbing,
In The House In The Dark Woods is a novel of psychological horror and suspense told in Laird Hunt’s acclaimed lyrical prose. It is the story of a bewitching, a betrayal, a master huntress and her quarry. It is a story of anger, of oppression, of revenge and redemption.
It is a story of a haunting, one that forms the bedrock of American mythology, told in a vivid voice you will never forget.

In The House In The Dark Woods

I love following the Belletrist book club – even if I am several months behind at any given time – because almost always it introduces me to a title that never would have been on my radar otherwise. In The House In The Dark Woods, their pick from back in October, is a dark horror-fairy tale, a sinister and magical story about patriarchy, violence and coercion.

“For my own part I kept very quiet, as quiet as I have ever been, for there are things in this world that you think will never come to pass that will rob you of your voice for nothing but the joy of them when suddenly they do.”

Laird Hunt has a lyrical and strange writing style that is beautiful, but, for me anyway, took a little time to get used to. He is prone to very long sentences that follow the narrator’s rambling thoughts. They’re often lovely, but easy to get lost in. Kind of like the woods Goody, the narrator – not her real name, which we never learn – wanders, I guess.

The dark woods are filled with supernatural and formidable women. Captain Jane, self-styled queen of the woods, second only to Granny Someone, an evil force who only consumes; Eliza, a fairy-like presence with a welcoming cottage for weary wood-wanderers – well, friendly at first; and Hope, the mysterious child who always seems to show up at the exact moment you need her the most.

Everything about the narrative is unreliable – from Goody’s Man, who she initially represents as a caring presence she is desperate to find her way home to before soon revealing him as violent and abusive, to the very fabric of the woods, which seen through a magical stone turn horrifying, with even the animals transformed to monsters through its lens.

Most of all In The House In The Dark Woods is a deeply unsettling horror story. It’s hard to go into any analytical detail without spoilers – the curse of reviewing a story with an unreliable narrator – but with carefully constructed half-truths, corner-of-the-eye jumps and the sudden and jarring injection of the grotesque, Hunt winds a tight knot of anxiety in your stomach, even as you wonder what on earth is going on.

If you enjoyed the tragic twist at the end of We Were Liars or the underlying act of horror at the centre of The Walls Around Us then the complex and misleading women that populate In The House In The Dark Woods will likely catch your imagination too.

I’ll Meet You There

If Skylar Evans were a typical Creek View girl, her future would involve a double-wide trailer, a baby, and the graveyard shift at Taco Bell. But after graduation, the only thing separating Skylar from art school is three months of summer… until Skylar’s mother loses her job, and Skylar realises her dreams may be slipping out of reach.

Josh had a different escape route: the Marines. But after losing his leg in Afghanistan, he returned home, a shell of the cocksure boy he used to be.

What brings Skylar and Josh together is working at the Paradise – a quirky motel off California’s Highway 99. Despite their differences, their shared isolation turns into a friendship and, soon, something deeper.

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I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios is a butterflies-inducing, heart-rending summer romance. With complex families, traumatic backstories and more quirky scene setting than you can shake a stick at – my personal favourite being the Paradise, the movie-music-eighties themed motel Josh and Skylar both work at – it is a YA novel straight from the school of Sarah Dessen and I loved it.

Skylar Evans is desperate to leave the shitty town of Creek View. Unfortunately, just as freedom, in the form of leaving for college, finally appears on the horizon, her life starts to fall apart. Her mother loses her job, relapses into alcoholism and starts dating a creep. Forced to pick up two jobs to keep the lights on for both of them, Skylar is clearly losing the fight to get through to her mother and finds herself faced with a painful choice: leave her mother to ruin her life (again) with her horrific new boyfriend, or give up her dreams in the hope she can save her.

Enter Josh. The arrogant, womanising a-hole Skylar went to high school with breezes back into town after a tour of Afghanistan with the Marines. Except the Josh who returns to Creek View is not the same guy he was when he left. The victim of an IED, he’s making the difficult adjustment back to civilian life having lost a leg and a best friend, suffering the duel effects of his injury, grief and continuous struggle with PTSD.

Skylar and Josh’s lives get tangled up through their jobs at the Paradise Motel and, you guessed it, they fall in luuuurve. The push and pull of their budding romance is delicious, with the dual narrative – it’s like 90% Skylar, 10% Josh – adding authenticity to their growing feelings for each other while also allowing the full complexity of Josh’s PTSD storyline to play out.

This book is full of FEELINGS, from Skylar and Josh’s evolving relationship to Josh’s trauma to Skylar’s beyond frustrating dynamic with her mother, and it is a testament to Demetrios’s writing that I really felt all of it. Whether it was Josh wrestling with what his prosthesis meant for his sex life or tentatively inviting Skylar to dance in the rain it was equal parts devastating and elating reading.

What refreshes me most about books like this is the willingness to dwell is what is Not Okay. The centre of this story is, of course, the romance, but surrounding it are a series of complicated and messed up situations that aren’t necessarily solvable. One of the most difficult and heart breaking lessons of growing up – and I think, probably, life – is coming to peace with the fact that there are some situations that won’t ever be okay, at least not in the form you had always imagined. For Josh, it means coming face to face with the horrors of his war experiences and the devastating losses he has suffered and come out believing he deserves the chance to move forward. For Skylar, it is the very different but utterly awful realisation that sometimes you have to choose yourself or, to paraphrase Mary Oliver, save the only life you can save, even if that means letting go of the only family she has left.

I’ll Meet You There is gorgeously romantic, unapologetically messy, packed with feeling and the perfect read for your literary Valentine’s Day celebrations.