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Awesome books by women – your suggestions

Apparently I have a habit of running competitions that cause a lot of admin. But this time it’s admin of the good kind, because I now have a list of hundreds of brilliant books by women, as recommended by people in the competition entries. Perhaps reflecting my ‘lovely sexy nerd’ demographic, there are plenty of erotic and sci-fi suggestions on the list. There were also over 400 recommendations in total, with over 270 individual authors suggested and over 330 individual titles. There’s something for everyone: have a look.

[Take me straight to the recommendations]

Back story: a couple of weeks ago I learned of BellJarred’s dating criteria: she asked people on Tinder to only contact her if they had read five books by women. This seemed like an absurdly easy thing to do – surely anyone who reads on a regular basis must have read five books by women? But the responses she got were quite depressing, with people either complaining about her criteria or saying ‘well I’ve read Harry Potter and that’s seven books in total so is that OK?’

So I thought it’d be a nice excuse to get some book recommendations, and I launched a competition – all people had to do was comment with one book written by a woman. I was totally blown away by the number of entries, and I am bloody delighted that so many of you added yours in the comments.

But I was also a bit gutted that one of the immediate responses on Twitter (from men, not all men but certainly only men) was to either nitpick the criteria or point out that the fact that they couldn’t name five books most definitely didn’t make them sexist. One gent told me that he only reads popular science, and that area just happens to be dominated by blokes, so he couldn’t possibly be expected to have read books by women. Another explained that there are plenty of female authors in the romance genre, it’s just that romance isn’t his bag. One guy said that the Harry Potter books ‘should count’ because there are at least five of them: fulfilling the letter, if not the spirit, of BellJarred’s rule.

Here’s the deal: if you haven’t read any books by women, then I’m not saying you hate women, or even that you’re making a deliberate choice. But you live in a society which treats women and men differently – when it comes to publishing, fiction written by a woman is more likely to be packed and marketed to women. Women are less likely to get book contracts to write about pop science. They’re also less likely to become scientists in the first place, because of all the extra hurdles they need to leap over in order to reach the top. Issues like this affect all of us, and they don’t just affect the women whose books you aren’t reading: they affect you – because you’re missing out on brilliant things. Just as I miss out on great writing by women of colour because, again, they are less likely to get book deals/be marketed to me/be recommended by my peers.

We can’t suddenly fix the world in five minutes, but I’m a starry-eyed optimist and I think we can all make small changes to make things better for ourselves. And we can start by expanding our horizons a bit.

With that little waffle over, here’s a round-up of the recommendations, and you can download the full spreadsheet of all the unique recommendations.

Pick five. Read ’em. Win at life.

Most recommended authors

These authors all received 7 or more recommendations:

  • Angela Carter (7)
  • Jeanette Winterson (7)
  • Margaret Atwood (12)
  • Ursula Le Guin (10)

These authors received 4 – 6 recommendations

  • Ali Smith (5)
  • Alison Bechdel (5)
  • Isabel Allende (5)
  • JK Rowling (5)
  • Zadie Smith (4)
  • Virginia Woolf (4)
  • Sue Townsend (4)
  • Dossie Easton (4)
  • Donna Tartt (4)
  • Anne Leckie (4)

Most recommended books by women

These all received 3 or more recommendations:

  • Frankenstein – Mary Shelley (obviously, right?)
  • Fun Home – Alison Bechdel
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clark
  • Possession – A.S. Byatt
  • Room – Emma Donoghue
  • The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
  • The Earthsea Trilogy – Ursula Le Guin
  • The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  • The Harry Potter series – J.K. Rowling
  • The House of Spirits – Isabel Allende
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
  • The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin
  • The World’s Wife – Carol Ann Duffy
  • To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Honourable mentions go to some of the books that I’ve been wanting to read for AGES and haven’t got round to yet, for which this list has given me a kick up the arse:

  • Melissa Gira Grant – Playing the Whore
  • Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Wild Swans – Jung Chang
  • The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton
  • Bad Feminist – Roxane Gay
  • The Drowning of Arthur Braxton – Caroline Smailes
  • The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

More honourable mentions to books that I have also read and went ‘OMG fucking YES this is an amazing one’

  • Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi
  • Wild Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
  • Tampa – Alissa Nutting
  • A Fucked Up Life In Books – Bookcunt

And to the comp winner, chosen at random from all the entries: Sparkly Dust, who recommended The Hidden House of Mothers by Meera Syal.

The competition is closed now, but comments on this post will be open forever and ever, so if you have another book you’d like to recommend, or if you want to add your thoughts on any you’ve read from the list, then please do join in below.

Thanks all for being brilliant, and double thanks to the brilliant @wanktruffle, who went through every single comment on the comp post and put the book recommendations in a coherent order. I promise the next competition I run will be a simple ‘like this to win something’, if only to save on admin.


  • Vida says:

    The thing that got me most about that original post was all the men who couldn’t accept someone had the right to date the kind of people who read books by women (whether not reading books by women makes you sexist or not).

    Me: Seeks vegetarians with gsoh.

    We have the right to only date vegetarians if we fucking want to. Fuck off!

  • Roley says:

    Have you read any Mary Gentle? Ash:A secret history is one of my favourite books. It’s a reality-bending alternate history /fantasy about a female mercenary captain on medieval Europe. I just don’t feel I can do it justice in a short comment, but I love it dearly. I also think you’d enjoy 1610: a sundial in a grave, which is a tale of espionage involving a couple of musketeer – style swashbucklers, an errant samurai and some fairly pervy sex ;-)

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ooh, I haven’t – thanks for adding a recommendation!

      • Roley says:

        Heh. Sorry to have missed the original post. I should probably point out that Ash, in particular, has a Game of Thrones – level of brutality to it. Anyone who finds GoT a bit much might flinch a bit reading it.

    • Snags says:

      So glad someone mentioned Mary Gentle, saved me doing it. ASH is obviously epic alt. history/historic romance/fantasy, but Grunts is quite good pure send-up fun.

      Of special note for here is that she also writes “feelthy books” under the pen name Roxanne Morgan …

    • Ben says:

      Grunts! by Mary Gentle is one of my favourite books. Take a typical Tolkien style fantasy world, then imagine what happens when some orcs find a hoard of 20th century weaponry. A hoard with a curse; you will become what you steal.

      It also has kinky halfling sex.

  • Rose says:

    So happy to see Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell on that list! Probably one of my favourite books. So fantastically otherwordly

  • Luke says:

    Lois McMaster Bujold is also worth mentioning – excellent character driven science-fiction and fantasy, almost all of it told from minority perspectives.

  • Russ says:

    Enid Blyton
    Sue Townsend
    Harper Lee
    Sue Grafton
    JK Rowling
    Kelley Armstrong
    Laurel K Hamilton
    Susanna Clarke
    Anne Rice
    Patricia Cornwell
    Abby Lee
    Belle de Jour
    Caitlin Moran
    Victoria Coren
    And wasn’t the London A-Z compiled by a woman? (Yes, Phyllis Pearsall MBE)
    I passed the test but could-do-better. No excuse for not managing five! The above includes witches, Wizards, werewolves, vampires (non-glittering), gambling, sex and ‘horrible murders. What an excellent way to illustrate the problem though!

  • Oddtwang says:

    Man, wish I’d thought to mention Victoria Corey the first time! Her poker memoir is brilliantly written and severely underrated – unusually in the genre it’s accessible to non-players too, because it’s a memoir rather than a guide :)
    I’d also recommend her earlier book about making a porn film, which is similarly engaging and human.

    • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

      That would be Victoria Coren (or Victoria Coren Mitchell, to give her full name).

      I only know her as a newspaper columnist and the host of the BBC’s ‘Only Connect’, but I imagine she’d be pretty amusing at full book length a well.

  • Excellent, and now I have a list of books to devour. Thank you

  • Retro says:

    Can’t believe you put ‘women of colour’, think about what that actually means, why it’s derogatitary and then never use the term again.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Hi Retro, there’s no way really for me to respond to this without sounding incredibly defensive, so apologies for that in advance. I think you do deserve a response though because although I do often say things unthinkingly, I wouldn’t with something like this. The reason I used that phrase is because it’s the one I’ve seen most frequently used by people on Twitter whose opinions I respect on intersectionality – as far as I understand it’s preferential to many of the phrases that are more common in the UK (i.e. ‘BME/black and minority ethnic’ which puts emphasis on things like ‘minority’ – in itself quite a Western-centric way of looking at things as it assumes white as the defacto majority. Likewise with ‘minority’ as a standalone, or ‘non-white’ which again appears to push ‘white’ as the default). As far as I understand it, women of colour is a term aimed as a political designation, in preference to a reductive biological one. Here’s Bim Adewunmi talking about it in Buzzfeed: and in it she embeds a video where Loretta Ross explains it – there’s a full transcript of the video here:
      I’m not saying ‘I’m right and this is the only thing we should ever say’ – I don’t think it’s up to me to decide which words and phrases are best, or most acceptable, or anything like that – but I do think about why I use any given phrase. I’m not perfect though, and if you think there are other things I need to read around this topic, I am all ears. I don’t think the phrase is derogatory, though, and I’d much rather use it and have the opportunity to highlight the fact that there are other intersecting issues (other than just gender) which affect what we do and don’t access. Like I say, sorry if this sounded defensive.

      • Retro says:

        Thought a response would be akin to other people use it so therefore it must be fine. Plenty more believe it’s not, purely on the basis that pink is a colour, if you segregate to whites and non white however you may term it doesn’t offer an insight, it’s just lazy. Is the world really that small? And how do you define at white woman author? I’m sure you cant tell someone’s skin tone, culture or even sex by their name, and as many people change them who knows anyway JK Rowling is a case in point, and of course she counts, all the books count, fuckin book nazis. But just to illustrate a little more maybe we should start with having ‘male’, and then defining everyone else by ‘other genders’, I’m sure no one would mind, I don’t mean anything by it can’t call them birds anymore or he/she’s… So other genders just saves time, and we all need more of that. I guess this is daily mail political correctness gone mad… You can’t censor everything, things slip out, even when meaning well, and yes it would be horrific to be thought of in that way, made an arse of the statement I wrote and it came across as far too agressive, anger is an energy and I have far too much of it. I just think given the focus of some of the more insightful aspects of your blog that the phrase should be given some thought. Personally I think it’s derogatory for reasons so obvious, if you consider it not to be for reasons that need a detailed explanation then it could be if you need to try too hard then it’s not worth the effort, you could just not use the term. Wasn’t so long ago Scope used to be called the spastics, it deserved a rethink, many things do. Would hope this is not like playing chess with a pigeon, I’m not trying to shit all over the board whilst you mount my castle.

        • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

          Let’s just remember that the whole point of this blogpost was ‘books by women’ so, y’know, if you’ve got an inherent problem with dividing writers by gender or race, you’re probably in the wrong place.

          (I’m not overly fond of the ‘WOC’ terminology either, but like GOTN said above, as a white person it’s not really up to me to tell non-white people how to describe themselves. Besides, all the main alternatives are at least as awkward.)

        • Girl on the net says:

          Oh right, OK. Now I get your issue, and I’m surprised that if you find my blog insightful, you don’t also understand why it’s important to draw attention to the fact that some people are privileged and oppressed to different degrees. Like, I could quite easily pretend that all humans are born equal, but we’re not, and if we want to change that and actually achieve equality then we do have to talk about issues like gender and race. It’s not about segregation – it’s about acknowledging privilege. As SpaceCaptainSmith says, it’s pretty much the point of this whole blog post.

          • Retro says:

            Seems like you both missed the point or either know it already and would prefer not to acknowledge it. Not sure the term insight can be seen as a positive or negative, I read what is written on a Tory leaflet to give me insight into how they think as a party. Your blog gives insight into a person good or bad it’s interesting, you release a lot but hold back too but collectively your musings, rants, high fives, links and articles provide detail into complicated shadows. I don’t like the idea of upsetting people and that all sounds like I’m having a giggle at your expense but it’s not meant in that way, just pontificating on why most of what is here has no more titalation than looking at another person and thinking. Anyway given that you use words everyday why not think about what they actually mean, even if it’s just the dictionary definition. I know it’s hard when you back up your opinions with twitter and buzztwat to come to any sensible conclusion but at least write diatribe that relates to reality, pull my words apart properly with a bit of love and added anger. Woc is not a race, it’s grouping several races and a gender, and writing is a person not a race or gender that’s the whole point of highlighting female authors, anyone can write about anything. A woman can write something, you won’t know if it’s a woman or not, you won’t know anything about her other than whether she is good or bad at her task in hand. That’s all human rights are, the chance to show it’s the person that matters, and realistically in the world where money is king the only person that oppress’ is the person who does or does not buy the book. The education must be there of course, the product must be good from whomever submits it but no company turns away money if it’s there to be made, even if they use tricks to ensure the buyer has no preconceptions, JK Rowling, is neither man not woman, the name could have evolved from most places on the globe, we all now know JK is female but it was deliberate at the time to market the book, not because the publisher was under any dellusions but because the buying public were, and hence the original thesis I don’t understand anyone (it should be anyone) whom hasn’t read five books by female authors, not because you should actively do it, there is no need, there are plenty of excellent books by female authors if you read books and haven’t read five by female authors then it’s surely because your a fuckwit, and actively not reading a book based on gender is fuckwittery at its best. But diverting from the term, woc it’s lazy at best, oppressive at worst for all the reasons everyone already knows, it keeps people in their place and in the context of the piece it suggests that a woc would write a different sort of title, I don’t see how a black women born in south London would write a different book to a white woman born in south London if their only difference was the colour of their skin and the book was a scifi novel set in a galaxy far far away or can women only write about life experiences? As a person regardless of gender or race, it seems prudent to say have a think, nothing I’ve written is going to make anybody look at their skin, bollocks or boobs and feel that because of these standout items that I think of them as anything other than a human being, to suggest that somehow because I think that any book written by any person is only relevant to whom they decide to be when they write is a denial of oppression is bizarre, maybe if you quote something off twitter or buzzknob I’d be able to follow it more readily.

          • Girl on the net says:

            “I don’t see how a black women born in south London would write a different book to a white woman born in south London if their only difference was the colour of their skin”
            The point is that two people could write exactly the same book and be treated differently by the publishing industry because of structural racial bias, or structural gender bias, or both.

  • Chris says:

    Dorothy Dunnett was one of the best writers of historical fiction. The “Lymond” series and “House of Niccolo” series are set in Renaissance Europe (plus Africa and the Levant), whilst my favourite novel ever, “King Hereafter” is a reimagining of the legend of Macbeth, set in 11th century northern Europe. The heroes of her stories are male, but the female characters are formidable andcomplex.

  • Janet says:

    Very pleased to see classy Scottish historical novelist Dorothy Dunnett mentioned in the comments, as I fully expected to see her Lymond Chronicles in the list. Good shout out for Lois McMaster Bujold, too (space opera and fantasy).

  • Jeneregretterien says:

    +++ Jeanette Winterson

    Also Mister Sandman by Barbara Gowdy.

    And for feeling smart, everything by Margo Okazawa-Rey

  • Another thought I had on this topic was that women often aren’t given the same credit for writing well on domestic issues as men, based on something someone once said to me (and I agree) about how David Nicholls’ ‘Us’ was a good book, but probably wouldn’t have been Booker nominated if written by a female author.

    • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

      I recall similar comments being made after Jonathan Franzen achieved success with ‘The Corrections’ – not that it wasn’t a good novel, but that women who write novels about families are dismissed as writing small-scale ‘domestic’ literature, while men who do the same are praised for depicting deep, serious issues through a personal lens.

      I’m trying and failing to think of a counterexample of a successful female ‘domestic’ novelist, which I guess proves the point.

  • rare deeds says:

    Another Scottish historical novelist is Naomi Mitcheson – I would particularly recommend The Corn King & The Spring Queen.

    Staying in Scotland, I would very strongly recommend the short stories of both Elspeth Davie – eg The Spark & Other Stories – & Agnes Owens. I also love Owens’ novel A Working Mother.

    If you are schooled in Scotland, you will have doubtless come to hate Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing – if you’re not, then this, Foreign Parts, & Clara, are all extraordinary novels, awaiting your discovery, whilst Blood, & Where You Find It, are both brilliant short story collections.

    It’s maybe not quite the place, but the poet Kathleen Jamie has written two gorgeous collections of essays, Findings & Sightlines, whose beauty you will experience in your body, if you’re anything like me.

    As for SF, alongside le Guin, I would very strongly recommend James Tiptree Jr (Alice Bradley) – amongst the very best of the very best. There is a wonderful collection – Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.

    Finally, for intense erotic writing, The Image, & The Whip Angels, by Jean de Berg, are, erm, striking. Jean de Berg was the nom de plume of Catherine Robbe-Grillet. You can watch her talking about her partner’s own remarkable movies in the new box set of dvds (she actually “stars” in a couple of the movies). She is a fascinating person, with an extraordinary life.

    I hope you find something here that you’re tempted to follow up. Thank you for embarking on this lovely venture, alongside your usual blogs.

  • Wesley says:

    May we put Margaret Weis on this list? Even with Tracy Hickman as a co-writer, the dragonlance trilogy still count as a woman work, right?

  • Ian says:

    Somehow missed the start of this but would like to recommend two of my favourite SF books (generally, not just ‘by women’.
    The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is a great first contact story where the humans concerned, rather than being geeks and/or teens, are a Catholic mission. Fantastic and heartbreaking. There is a sequel, Children Of God.
    The Gate To Women’s Country by Sheri Tepper is a post-apocalyptic novel with a society with very distinct gender roles, set up to minimise conflict. You may see the ending coming but it doesn’t diminish the impact.

  • Damiane says:

    Can’t believe I forgot to comment on the initial post!

    If you’re looking for gorgeous erotica-with-plot by a woman, I recommend the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey. It’s great about all sorts of sexuality and also has a lot of Game of Thrones-style intrigue (these things are ~600+ pages each and there are now six of them plus another trilogy much later in the same world). Definitely my best introduction to BDSM back in college.

  • Poo says:

    No Hilary Mantel…I’m schocked.

  • Scott says:

    I read “Girl, Interrupted” by Susanna Kaysen last week. Very insightful book on how mentally ill people, and especially mentally ill women, were treated in the 1960s. This week I picked up “Full Frontal Feminism” by Jessica Valenti.

  • I cannot believe in any of the lists or in the comments no one (not one person!) has mentioned Jean M. Auel & The Clan of the Cave Bear series of books. I’m shocked. Or what’s the British term…..gobsmacked? But thanks for the great post & recommendations. I may not leave the house at all this winter.

  • SweetTheSting says:

    Popular science by women? New book “Storm in a Teacup” by Helen Czerski

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