59 Brilliant + Accessible Novels by Women

Well, I love a good book list challenge.

Danyl from Dimpost has written a list of 50-odd must-read novels to recommend to people. The difference with his list is that he omits anything too long or ‘hard’ that might turn out to put people off:

A few weeks ago I was arguing about lists of essential or ‘must-read’ books with Wallace Chapman, and it got me thinking. When I was in my late teens and early twenties I sought out lists of ‘Greatest Novels of All Time’, and tried to work my way through them. I read some great books (although many of them are no longer listed on lists of Great Novels, because literary fashions change and many things that were Great in the 1990s are no longer Great). But I mostly failed to read lots of difficult books, like Satre’s Nausea and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow which are still considered great but which I also think, with the benefit of hindsight, were completely ridiculous books to recommend to general readers interested in expanding their literary horizons.

… I’ve read the first volume [of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time] and thought it was sometimes brilliant but mostly intensely boring, and when I disclose this to fellow Proust readers they almost always sigh with relief and agree. It is, I think, the least helpful book you could possibly recommend to someone.

[Read Danyl’s list of accessible must-read books here.]

I’m a sucker for a book list, so I clicked through and read his list. We have slightly divergent taste in books, but I’ve read a fair number of his entries.

But it was immediately clear to me that this was a list full of Pākehā/white male authors. Danyl acknowledged the lack of ethnic diversity in the post, but didn’t mention that the list was 5:1 written by men.

He’s called it a provisional list, though, so when I pointed that out, he said he’d be interested in seeing a list of matching books by women that would fit the criteria.

Again, I love a good book challenge. So here I am at 2am (feverish baby, feverish mama) picturing my bookshelves, an ocean away in Wellington, and picking out a reading list for Danyl and anyone else who wants to broaden their reading.

I arrange my bookshelves differently every time I move house. When we were first married, and got fabulous new bookshelves as a gift from M’s university friends, I filled them up by gender of author, almost exactly 50/50, as it turned out.

I found that very pleasing. Men and women are about 50/50 in the population, right? Much of what I’ve learned about the world has come via fiction, and it would be a shame to miss out on seeing things through the eyes of both women and men.

Pamela Clark has written a fantastic list of 35 practical ways men can support women and feminism, and reading women authors is part of the scene:

3. Consume cultural products produced by women.

In whatever your interests are — French cinema, astrophysics, baseball, birdwatching — ensure that women’s voices and women’s cultural products are represented in what you are consuming. If they are not, make an effort to seek them out.

I can help with the seeking out bit! Here’s my list of accessible, shortish, excellent novels by women, just from what’s on my bookshelf.

(Oh, and you might also like this list of TV shows with strong female leads.)

I’ve got my own preferences and biases, of course, so I’ll also recommend a few other links at the bottom for following up things I haven’t necessarily read myself. In particular, I’ve hardly read a thing offline since I had my daughter, so I’m a little out of date.

While writing the list, it struck me that I could think of very few novels from Africa or the Indian sub-continent that were short, so it may be that the stories women and men from those places tell are by nature told over more pages. Then I realised that the short novels on my bookshelves were far more likely to be written by men. So I have been a bit looser than Danyl on length, lest it skew the list, but I’ve still omitted wonderful books that require a bit of hard work for many readers.

My main criterion is not how fast you can read it but how hard it is to put down. Millions of children and adults have cheerfully devoured 700-page Harry Potter books, so I don’t think size is the main issue. This is a list of brilliant books that are not ‘difficult’. Enjoy. And please add to the list in the comments below.


I love a good book list! Here's a goodie: 59 brilliant books by women that aren't 'difficult' :)

59 (or so) Brilliant + Accessible Books by Women

Carol Shields: Unless

Emma Donoghue: Room

Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible

Jane Smiley: A Thousand Acres

Toni Morrison: Beloved

Mildred D Taylor: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Patricia Grace: Tu

Sia Figiel: Where We Once Belonged

Tessa Duder: Alex

Margaret Mahy: The Changeover

Elizabeth Knox: The Vintner’s Luck

Fiona Farrell: Book Book

Kate de Goldi: The 10pm Question

Fiona Kidman: Ricochet Baby

Andrea Levy: The Long Song

Tahmina Anam: The Golden Age

Mary Ann Shaffer: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Marilynne Robinson: Gilead

Curtis Sittenfeld: American Wife

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice

Edith Wharton: The Buccaneers

Elizabeth Gaskell: Wives and Daughters

Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm

Muriel Spark: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

AS Byatt: Possession

Geraldine Brooks: Year of Wonders

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto

Kate Atkinson: Case Histories

Annie Proulx: The Shipping News

Valerie Martin: Property

Nicole Krauss: The History of Love

Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies

Alice Walker: The Color Purple

Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Jane Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Louise Erdrich: Tracks

Attica Locke: Black Water Rising

Helen Garner: The Spare Room

Melina Marchetta: Looking for Alibrandi

Mardi McConnochie: Coldwater

Anne Brontë: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Margo Lanagan: Tender Morsels

Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale

Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea

Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things

Daphne du Maurier: The King’s General

Georgette Heyer: Venetia

Janet Frame: To the Is-Land

Catherine Chidgey: In a Fishbone Church

Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle

Michelle Cooper: A Brief History of Montmaray

Kate Duignan: Breakwater

Lian Hearn: Across the Nightingale Floor

Elizabeth Strout: Abide with Me

Margaret Craven: I Heard the Owl Call My Name

Elizabeth Berg: The Pull of the Moon

Anne Tyler: Ladder of Years

UPDATES (books I do indeed recommend but accidentally omitted and have been reminded of since publication)

Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife

Rachel Joyce: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry


Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing, cover detail, via Lilit Marcus.

Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing, cover detail, via Lilit Marcus.


8 More Lists to Diversify Your Reading

50 Books by Women of Colour

A Year of Reading the World

25 Books by Women to Help Diversify Your Bookshelves

5 Indigenous Australian Female Writers Who Should be on School Reading Lists

Crime Fiction by Women of Colour

The Year of Reading Arab Women

14 Aboriginal Canadian Women Writers to Read this Summer

Reading the European Union

So what do your bookshelves or e-reader indexes look like? Is it time to diversify? In what direction?

This is part of an occasional series of book lists. Some others are:

Ten books, four words each

Ten books, four words each: most influential

Ten books, four words each: childhood faves

I tell you, I’m everywhere these days. Follow me on Facebook for daily links, resources and Sacraparentalish tidbits, on Pinterest for link-plantations and on Twitter for ranting.

I love a good book list! Here's a goodie: 59 brilliant books by women that aren't 'difficult' :)

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19 comments on “59 Brilliant + Accessible Novels by Women”

  1. Heather Reply

    I hadn’t realised Arundhati Roy or Lian Hearn were women! Cool 🙂 I loved ‘Across the Nightingale Floor’ and gave it to my sister-in-law this Christmas. ‘Room’ is probably one of my all-time favourite books, and I’ve very much enjoyed a number of others on your list, too 🙂

    Can I add some more of my own?

    The Bone People – Keri Hulme (really helped me to understand some things about why people might abuse others, too)
    Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    Caleb’s Crossing – Geraldine Brooks (a really good portrayal of someone actually trying to follow God – something I find quite rare in literature)
    The night of the Mi’raj – Zoë Ferraris
    Does my head look big in this? – Randa Abdel-Fattah
    The elegance of the hedgehog – Muriel Barbery
    House of Joy – Sarah-Kate Lynch
    Burnt shadows – Kamila Shamsie
    My Invented Country – Isabelle Allende
    Ascendant Sun – Catherine Asaro

    and, not quite sure if it counts as a novel, as it’s a fictionalised account of her families history, but “Red river” by Lalita Tademy is astonishingly powerful.
    Heather recently posted…Home-made creme eggsMy Profile

    • thaliakr Reply

      Brilliant additions!

      I too, love Keri Hulme, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie and Isabel Allende, but decided that they didn’t quite fit the ‘accessible’ label- but that is very much a matter of debate, I’m sure, and I’m glad to have them listed. I’ve only read Americanah, so maybe Purple Hibiscus is a bit more so?

      Thanks for the recommendations!

      • Heather Reply

        Yes, fair enough re. Isabel Allende and Keri Hulme. Re. Purple Hibiscus, I haven’t read Americanah, so I can’t compare, but I think Purple Hibiscus would count as accessible. I gave it to my niece when she was 15, if that’s any indication… It’s quite violent in places, but also hugely full of life with a hopeful-ish ending, and I didn’t think it was hard to read.
        Heather recently posted…Home-made creme eggsMy Profile

  2. Lulastic Reply

    I am so excited about this list!!! I wish I could come over to your house and read all your books!

    Totally making it my aim to read more female authors than male this year.

    Three I’ve also read and loved over the last few months-
    Anne Elright: The Green Road
    Linda Olssen: The Kindness of your nature
    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americana

    also – no Zadie Smith on your bookshelves? x x x
    Lulastic recently posted…Co sleeping with toddler: The good and the badMy Profile

  3. thaliakr Reply

    Hi Lucy!

    Yes, plenty of Zadie Smith – just thought that the books were a bit big and dense for this kind of list. But certainly recommended!

    Keep adding 🙂

  4. MarMerSea Reply

    Oh, yum. Thank you. I do not know if you are up for any further toil on this fabulous-looking list, but if you were, I wondered if you might consider adding a little wee sentence for each book as to why you love it so? As I’d be keen to know why you picked the books I know already, some of which I ardently agree with and some of which I could not stomach! 🙂 thanks a lot for the great post; can’t wait for some more discoveries.

  5. thaliakr Reply

    Yeah, I did consider doing reviews or links, but decided to go minimalist and let Google do the work 🙂 But I’m happy to do some further filtering on request 🙂 What might you be most interested in? What have you read and loved?

    And yes, I love Donna Tartt too, but I tried not to include things that were 700 pages 🙂 Certainly recommended though!

    I often chose the shortest book from an author – like, for Margaret Atwood, I went with the Handmaid’s Tale. But I’d say The Secret History is definitely the place to start with Donna Tartt – it’s just that it’s big and also about learning ancient Greek! (And murder…)

  6. Deborah Russell Reply

    North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I think it’s even better than Wives and Daughters.

    I’ve just been reading Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo and Lymond series, and they’re fabulous. But not accessible – very dense, and confusing at times.

    Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

    Great list, thank you.

    • thaliakr Reply

      I love North and South too! I was just picking what I thought was the most accessible Gaskell, but I don’t claim to have a very good handle on what that means! 🙂

  7. Alex Reply

    [copying and pasting from FB as requested, with a couple of minor edits!]
    Off the top of my head, the two books I have enjoyed most at book club this past year have been “We are all completely beside ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler and “The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce. There must be others…
    “Still Alice” by Lisa Genova was a powerful and un-put-downable read, but I read a lot of it through a thick curtain of tears, so I’m not sure how easy that makes it!
    One of the best authors I’ve discovered over the past couple of years is Elif Shafak. I have read and loved “The Bastard of Istanbul”, “Honour” and “40 Rules of Love”. I would heartily recommend all of them, though I am not sure how completely they meet the criterion of accessibility… certainly, others at our book club found the style and structure of “Honour” a little challenging, although most were glad to have read it.
    I’m intrigued by your inclusion of “Possession” as an easy/accessible read – I read and loved it as a teenager, but am not sure I could find my way through it now. The other one that jumped out from your list was “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie” society: I read it, but found it a bit underwhelming, bordering on saccharine, and have given it away to a charity shop (in a new fit of non-attachment to unfavoured books) – perhaps that was just me being overly cynical!
    I’ll come back to this!

    • thaliakr Reply

      Great recs!

      Yeah I thought Possession was right at the edge – and Guernsey at the other edge! But I know lots of people who have loved both while not being in their respective zones normally, if you know what I mean, so I thought I’d do it – I have read everything AS Byatt has written, but I wouldn’t recommend anything else to a general reader smile emoticon

  8. Francesca Reply

    Did you sneak into my house and look at my bookcase?! Dodie Smith, A.S. Byatt, Andrea Levy…
    Ursula LeGuin, even if you don’t like Sci-Fi ‘Lavinia’ is beautiful
    Madeline Miller ‘The Song of Achilles’
    Hilary Mantel ‘Beyond Black’ is more accessible than Wolf Hall

    • Francesca Reply

      Oh, and can I add Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring? I can’t believe I forgot Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie!

  9. Harriet Reply

    Such a great list! I especially like that you have some of my favourite NZ books in there.
    After a look at my shelves I’d add (and apologies if some of these fall foul of the page count rule):
    Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces
    Iris Murdoch: The Sea, The Sea
    Siri Hustvedt: What I Loved
    Lorrie Moore: A Gate at the Stairs
    Charlotte Grimshaw: Singularity (short stories, but they’re linked in a novelistic sort of way…)
    Kate Grenville: The Secret River
    Paula Morris: Queen of Beauty
    Kelly Ana Morris: Bloom
    Laurence Fearnley: Room
    Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones
    Sarah Hall: The Carhullan Army
    Kate Chopin: The Awakening
    Ali Smith: The Accidental

  10. EJ Reply

    Willa Catha: My Antonia
    Nadine Gordimer: The Conservationist
    Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar
    Maya Angelou: I know why the caged bird sings
    Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye
    Jeanette Winterson: Oranges are not the only fruit

  11. Annabel H M Reply

    Your list is almost entirely a list of books I love – I’m adding the few titles I haven’t read to my Good Reads list so I can cross them off too 😀

    I agree with the suggestion above to add Plath’s “The Bell Jar” to this list. I put off reading it for years, assuming it was inaccessible as it’s written by a poet (*scowls at “The Waves” by Virginia Woolf*) but it is a really great read.

    Although you’ve argued against them, I want to vote for “House of Spirits” by Isabelle Allende and “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie too. They’re both just love stories, in the best possible way!

    Another more accessible suggestion would be Jennifer Egan’s “Look At Me” (or maybe “The Keep” – but not “A Visit from the Goon Squad”). I find her writing so enthralling…

    • thaliakr Reply

      Great recommendations! And I’m very happy to have Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Isabelle Allende in the conversation. I think they’re wonderful.

      Thanks for the rec of The Bell Jar – I’ve had it in that same box!

      I remember assuming as a child that Pride and Prejudice must be some worthy essay-like composition and I couldn’t believe I would be interested in it. (To be fair, I had tried to read War and Peace and not made it through the initial ballroom scene as an eight year old 🙂 )

  12. Sydney Reply

    I have been looking for some new novels and am excited to try some of these. I have to add The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. ..it continues to be one of my most beloved novels even after many many rereadings.
    Thank you for the list!

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