Three on a Theme: “Love”

I’m really not a Valentine’s Day person, yet this is the fifth year in a row that I’ve put together a themed post featuring books that have “Love” or a similar word in the title in the run-up to mid-February. (Here are the 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 posts. I’m also at work on a set of three “Heart” titles to post about on the 14th.) All three of the below books reflect, in their own ways, on how love perplexes and sustains us at different points in our lives.


The Emma Press Anthology of Love, ed. Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright (2018)

I read my first book from the publisher (Tiny Moons by Nina Mingya Powles) last summer and loved it, so when this one popped up in the Waterstones sale in January I snapped it up. Your average love poetry volume would trot out all the standards from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Carol Ann Duffy, whereas this features recent work from lesser-known contemporary poets. Of the 56 poets, I’d heard of just two before: Stephen Sexton, because I reviewed his collection, If All the World and Love Were Young, last year; and Rachel Long, because I was simultaneously reading her Costa Award-shortlisted debut, My Darling from the Lions.

What I most appreciated about the book is that it’s free of cliché. You can be assured there will be no ‘Roses are red, violets are blue’ simplicity of theme or style. It must be nigh on impossible to write about romantic and erotic love without resorting to the same old symbols, but here there is a fresh, head-turning metaphor every few pages. Rachel Plummer describes her first crush, on a video game character, in “Luigi.” Love is conveyed through endless cups of tea or practical skills that favor postapocalyptic survival; desire is sparked by the downy hair on a woman’s back or the deliberate way a lover pulls on a pair of tights. Anything might be a prelude to seduction: baking, preparing lab specimens, or taking a taster at the off-license.

There are no real duds here, but a couple of my overall favorites were “Note from Edinburgh” by Stav Poleg and “Not the Wallpaper Game” by Jody Porter (“her throat was a landmine grown over with roses / and her arms were the antidote to the sufferings of war”). I’m running low on poetry, so I’ve gone ahead and ordered three more original anthologies direct from The Emma Press (poems on the sea, illness, and aunts!). After all, it’s #ReadIndies month and I’m delighted to support this small publisher based in Birmingham.

Favorite lines:

I have a friend who always believed

love was like being touched

by a livewire or swimming

on her back in a lightning storm.

I want to tell her it’s homesickness,

how longing pulls us in funny ways.

(from “Falooda” by Cynthia Miller)


It’s today already

and we have only the rest of our lives.

Long may we dabble our feet in the clear Italian lakes.

Long may we mosey through the graveyards of the world.

(from “Romantic” by Stephen Sexton)


Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud (2020)

I saw the author read from this in November as part of a virtual Faber Live Fiction Showcase. My interest was then redoubled by the book winning the Costa First Novel Award. All three narrators – Betty, her son Solo, and their lodger Mr Chetan – are absolutely delightful, and I loved the Trini slang and the mix of cultures (for example, there is a Hindu temple where locals of Indian extraction go to practice devotion to the Goddess). Early on, I was reminded most, in voice and content, of Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo.

But the lightness of Part One, which ends with a comically ill-fated tryst, soon fades. When Solo moves to New York City to make his own way in the world, he discovers that life is cruel and not everyone is good at heart. Indeed, my only hesitation in recommending this book is that it gets so very, very dark; the blurb and everything I had heard did not prepare me. If easily triggered, you need to know that there are many upsetting elements here, including alcoholism, domestic violence, self-harm, attempted suicide, sadomasochism, and gruesome murder. Usually, I would not list such plot elements for fear of spoilers, but it seems important to note that what seems for its first 100 pages to be such a fun, rollicking story becomes more of a somber commentary on injustices experienced by both those who leave Trinidad and those who stay behind.

A beautiful moment of reconciliation closes the story, but man, getting to that point is tough. The title speaks of love, yet this novel is a real heartbreaker. What that means, though, is that it makes you feel something. Not every author can manage that. So Persaud is a powerful talent and I would certainly recommend her debut, just with the above caveats.



Love’s Work: A Reckoning with Life by Gillian Rose (1995)

The English philosopher’s memoir-in-essays got on my radar when it was mentioned in two other nonfiction works I read in quick succession (one of my Book Serendipity incidents of late 2019): Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth and My Year Off by Robert McCrum. I had in mind that it was a cancer memoir, and while receiving a terminal diagnosis of ovarian cancer in her early forties is indeed an element, it is a wide-ranging short book that includes pen portraits of remarkable friends – an elderly woman, a man with AIDS – she met in New York City, musings on her Jewish family history and the place that religious heritage holds in her life, and memories of the contrast between the excitement of starting at Oxford and the dismay at her mother’s marriage to her stepfather (from whom she got her surname, having changed it by deed poll at age 16 from her father’s “Stone”) falling apart.

The mishmash of topics and occasional academic jargon (e.g., “These monitory anecdotes indicate, however, the anxiety of modernity” and “Relativism of authority does not establish the authority of relativism: it opens reason to new claimants”) meant I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’d expected to.

Words about love:

“However satisfying writing is—that mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control—it is a very poor substitute indeed for the joy and the agony of loving.”

“There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy. … each party … is absolute power as well as absolute vulnerability. … I am highly qualified in unhappy love affairs. My earliest unhappy love affair was with Roy Rogers.”

“To grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds. Acknowledgement of conditionality is the only unconditionality of human love.”

If you read just one … Make it The Emma Press Anthology of Love. (But, if you’re feeling strong, add on Love After Love, too.)

Have you read any books about love lately?

21 responses

  1. I completely agree with all you’ve said about Love after Love. It will be right up there as one of my books of the year, I’m sure. And The Anthology of Love definitely sounds worth exploring.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you ‘loved’ it, too!


  2. The Emma Press antho sounds brilliant. I’ve never been keen on poetry anthologies for precisely the reason you articulate (triteness), but I LOVE that the two poets you did recognize were contemporary and all but unknown to me! Better check it out…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Most anthologies I would only dip in and out of, but this was well worth reading straight through.


  3. Given the comparison to A Little Life, I’ll give Love After Love a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some similar themes, and the overall bleakness (though this is a little more hopeful).


  4. Love After Love sounds great, it’s not really been on my radar before.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found it an unexpectedly tough read from about the midpoint on, but the vibrant voices were enough to keep me going. Eric (Lonesome Reader) was on the Costa judging panel that chose it.


  5. That Emma Press anthology is very tempting… I would have assumed that it was full of silly love poems. See how valuable book bloggers are? 🙂
    I don’t think you have to be a Valentine’s Day fan to find the topic of love interesting to read about. You’ve inspired me to try to do up one of my own posts about it if I can find the extra time before the 14th!
    P.S. I never would have thought of pulling on a pair of tights as seductive! Or maybe it’s just me who falls all over the place as I do it. Lol

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There’s never any shortage of “love” titles, so this is a fun one to put together every February. I’ll look forward to seeing your post 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hooray for Emma Press – I have their Once Upon a Time In Birmingham: Women Who Dared to Dream, which features one of my friends! And thank you for the warning about Love After Love- what a shame, as I really wanted to read it but that sounds way Too Much for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you know of Emma Press. I felt sure you would.

      Yes, it was almost too much for me even. I had in mind what I thought the book would be like … and it wasn’t that.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. One that comes to mind is Elizabeth Arthur’s memoir about the death of her husband-so beautifully written. Such simple language, so many complex feelings. I find these kinds of books even harder to read than climate change narratives. I love your seasonal reading posts: very inspiring.


    1. Elizabeth Alexander. Sheesh. Not the first time I’ve made that mistake.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Indeed, a favourite of mine. I have a soft spot for bereavement memoirs, though.


  8. […] *I’m really not a Valentine’s Day person, yet this is the sixth year in a row that I’ve put together a themed post featuring books that have “Love” or a similar word in the title in the run-up to mid-February (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021). […]


  9. […] Different as their settings are, I’d liken this to An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud – two novels that had me aching for their vibrant characters’ poor decisions […]


  10. […] “Love” or a similar word in the title in the run-up to mid-February (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and […]


  11. […] this was my seventh Emma Press book, and my fourth of their anthologies, of which I’d recommend The Emma Press Anthology of Love. This one was a bit more uneven for me, but I can see it holding appeal for new parents who are of […]


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