Fiction Unbound celebrates three years of fanning the flames of romance through our third annual Valentine’s Day gift recommendation roundup. These tales are sure to break hearts, revile, and possibly fix your grammar. What’s more romantic? You can revisit last year’s completely atrocious recommendations for extra advice if nothing below quite calls the name of your beloved.
CH Lips proposes “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell
The Pitch: In this title story of the collection, Clyde and his wife of 30 years, Magreb, both vampires, meet every night to eat lemons in a grove on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Magreb has disabused Clyde of every vampire myth he’d been living by—he has a reflection and a heartbeat, and the blood he’s been drinking “does nothing.” He loves her and so gives up blood-sucking and his other vampire ways but for both of them, the blood-lust continues to lurk like a “comfortable despair.” Searching for vegetarian options, they discover lemons temporarily numb their thirst. Clyde has settled into life in the lemon grove watching the cruise-ship tourists drink lemonade and ride the funicular up the cliffs when Magreb tells him the lemons are no longer working.
It’s So Romantic, Except: This story points out why a vampire will never triumph on The Bachlorette. First: the bloody drinking problem. Second: there’s no “death do us part” option behind door number three. But really, it’s the bloody drinking problem.
But They’ll Love It Because: Russell’s prose is bloody fantastic. And because vampires are sexy. (I mean even Gary Oldman is sexy—those steampunk glasses, that little soul patch!) But mostly because it tells the truth about addiction—that it is endured, never vanquished, and that, if life hands you the lemon addiction, sometimes even lemonade can’t fix it.
Odds of Break-Up: High, especially if your Valentine has a fear of funiculars. An alternate option for a night of lemons and vampires is to pull that bottle of limoncello out of the freezer and search your preferred streaming device for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. You’ll be amazed at how sexy Gary Oldman is. And as an extra bonus there are hearts in it.
Price: $16 in paperback at the Boulder Bookstore
Theodore McCombs recommends Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
The Pitch: In the title story of Adjei-Brenyah’s buzzy debut collection, Black Friday shoppers are so overtaken by consumer frenzy they devolve into gibbering zombies; and only one retail clerk knows how to both close a sale and keep all ten fingers. The same giddy despair colors the collection’s other stories, but the highlight is “Through the Flash,” a time loop story darker and far bloodier than Groundhog Day or Russian Doll, one that truly touches the nihilism and insanity of humans facing eternity.
It’s So Romantic, Except: The graphic violence our teenage heroine Knife Queen Ama wreaks in “Through the Flash” is hard to read, but not nearly as disturbing as Adjei-Brenyah’s dark fable of racism-for-profit in “Zimmer Land,” about a theme park where customers can act out vigilante fantasies on black and other minority actors.
But They’ll Love It Because: American racism and consumerism are ripe, timely targets for a George-Saunders-style absurdism, in which knowledge of the system’s obvious madness and cruelty brings its human participants no closer to extracting themselves. Adjei-Brenyah pulls off some rare moments of grace within the lunacy.
Odds of Break-Up: Medium. Readers, especially those who share Adjei-Brenyah’s deep outrage over racist killings, may bounce hard off of the violence, or find certain entries fall quite flat. But it’s impossible not to talk about this collection.
Price: $15 from Indiebound; you don’t really want to buy this one from Amazon, now, do you?
Mark Springer recommends “Les Fleurs” by Thomas Ligotti
The Pitch: For readers unacquainted with the work of Thomas Ligotti, this story about a man who meets his beloved, Daisy, at a florist shop might, on the face of it, seem better suited to a pro-Valentine’s Day list. The unnamed narrator is socially awkward yet sensitive, a romantic soul searching for “a girl of special imagination”—a companion with whom he can share his love of the natural world, and the quirky arcana he studies as part of a philosophical society called “The Brotherhood of Paradise.” He’s an artist, too: by day he illustrates ads for a commercial agency; by night he sculpts imaginary plant-animal hybrids and paints otherworldly landscapes. With Daisy, he wants nothing more than “to show her this resplendent world in full bloom and have her behold it with ensorcelled delight.” It’s the stuff romcoms are made of … until it’s not.
It’s So Romantic, Except: Those imaginary plant-animal sculptures and otherworldly landscapes? They’re not imaginary. And the Brotherhood of Paradise turns out to be a secret society that is deadly serious about keeping its secrets.
But They’ll Love It Because: The literary world needs more portrayals of sensitive, artistic men who aren’t afraid to get in touch with their emotions and pursue their dreams, even if those dreams include sorcery, teleportation, and carnivorous plants.
Odds of Break-Up: High. It’s tragically easy to misjudge the accommodativeness of one’s romantic partner (see: sorcery, teleportation, and carnivorous plants).
Price: $17 for the Penguin Classics omnibus of Ligotti’s early short-story collections, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe.
Danyelle C. Overbo proposes The English Wife by Lauren Willig
The Pitch: Set in New York during the Gilded Age, this story begins with the death of a seemingly ideal couple. Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil were rich, happy, and have beautiful 3-year-old twins. So, when Bayard is found dead with a knife in his chest and his beloved wife has gone missing, presumed drowned, on the eve of their extravagant yearly ball, everyone naturally wonders what happened. Bayard’s sister, Janie, is determined to find out.
It’s So Romantic, Except: This story begins with the tragedy but ping-pongs back and forth between Janie’s quest for answers and the real story of Annabelle and Bayard’s whirlwind romance.
But They’ll Love It Because: Nothing between the beautiful couple was as it seemed, but as Janie investigates her brother’s tragic end, is it possible that she’ll find her own romance? Maybe in the form of that dashing reporter who is helping her dig into those family secrets?
Odds of Break-Up: Not too high, especially if you both love a good mystery … and handsome reporters.
Price: $14-$25 range, but we always recommend a small bookstore.
CS Peterson suggests “To Stab with a Rose, To Love with a Knife” by Natalie Theodoridou
The Pitch: Theodoridou’s short story in the current issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is the perfect expression of exulansis as defined in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:
In this story, a broken hearted refugee looks back to the time before the war, while he tries to make sense of life, and love, in an alien land. It is a dark sip of nostalgia and trauma. A Valentine’s gift, wrapped up in ill-fated cross-cultural expressions of love and rejection. Intense imagery abounds, both stunning and disturbing.
It’s So Romantic, Except: “Love cuts like a knife” is not a simile in the country of Olvira.
But They’ll Love It Because: Poignant despair, longing, the burdens of the heart carried by a stranger in a strange land--what could be more romantic?
Odds of Break-Up: Fairly high. It’s just so sad and painful. Whether you decide to offer your love roses, chocolates, or knives, be sure to include a box of tissues.
Price: Available online for free, but please consider subscribing to BCS and supporting this excellent source of secondary worlds fantasy works, written with literary flair!
Amanda Baldeneaux proposes The Seas by Samantha Hunt
The Pitch: Hunt’s narrator believes she is a mermaid. Why wouldn’t she? Her father told her so and then walked into the sea. The teenage narrator waits for her father’s return as she chambermaids seaside hotels, helps her grandfather author his dictionary, and moons over a war veteran-fisherman with severe PTSD, Jude. Despite the girl’s attentions, Jude refuses more than friendship. She thinks if she can only get both him and herself away from the sea, she could save them from the sea’s claim on their destinies.
It’s So Romantic, Except: In the opening chapter, Jude has dissolved into a puddle in the front seat of a truck. That’s going to make for a difficult happily-ever-after, or at least a soggy one.
But They’ll Love It Because: The book is part fairy tale, part poem, part novel. The chapters are more like vignettes that follow the narrator through her dead-end life in the small, impoverished fishing town. Reality collides with the narrator’s belief that she’s a mermaid when her mother points at the stretch marks over the band of her underwear and pats them to verify the girl’s true origin story. Truth is slippery, though, and when the narrator begins to see evidence of her presumed-dead father in the house—wet footprints; dark, dripping figures—she knows he’s trying to call her, and possibly Jude, home to the sea.
Odds of Break-Up: High; this is a love story you wouldn’t wish on your enemies. Or maybe you would, if you’re kind of evil. You do you.
Price: $19.95 in its new, beautifully designed hardcover edition reprinted by Tin House Books. Mine is priceless, though, since I met Samantha Hunt and she signed mine and drew little waves and fish on the title page; NBD, we’re besties now.
Bonus: Gemma Webster & The Unbound Writers Propose Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer
The Pitch: Dreyer’s English is the best grammar book since Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Everybody says so. Even the Duchess herself has endorsed it.
It’s So Romantic, Except: Semicolons.
But They’ll Love It Because: If you happen to be a writer, then your date better learn to love a good splash about in the warm waters of the English language. It’s just like a day at the spa.
Odds of Break-Up: High if your date is not the kind of person who enjoys a peek behind the curtain at the mechanics of a good love letter.