Did you love Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus? Did you immediately watch the Apple TV show premiere, and are you majorly anticipating the finale this week? Did you beg all your friends to read it and watch it? If your friends and family have yet to read it, did you already wrap it up, prepared to gift it to them this holiday season? If you answered yes to even one of these questions, check out these ten books next! They feature strong women defying norms and transitioning careers, and other lovable characters finding themselves and taking on the world!
Sometimes people don’t end up where they want to be, but they do end up where they need to be. That is very true of Emmy Lake in DEAR MRS. BIRD. I adore this incredibly charming read as Pearce beautifully captures the strength of women serving at home during World War II. Emmy Lake is doing her part for the war effort in 1940 London as she volunteers with the Auxiliary Fire Service as a telephone operator. But what Emmy really wants is a chance to be a war correspondent. When a job opens at the London Evening Chronicle, Emmy feels her dream is finally becoming a reality—only to realize that, after landing the job, she is to be a typist for the no-nonsense advice columnist Henrietta Bird. The rules are clear, and Mrs. Bird does not respond to any sort of “unpleasantness” in her column. But the more letters Emmy reads, the more she resonates with the struggles of these young women. She’s not willing to let their questions go unanswered, and she secretly begins to respond.
This beautiful and stirring historical novel is based on the true story of Maggie Lena Walker, a leading force in Virginia's Black Wall Street. Growing up, Maggie assisted her mother with a laundry service, where she realized just how different life was for Black customers versus her mother’s wealthy white customers. Ambitious and determined, Maggie seeks not only to obtain that life for herself but also to raise up the community around her to provide banks and stores, and even a newspaper where Black people are treated with respect. From schoolteacher to secretary-treasurer of the Independent Order of St. Luke, Maggie makes her dream a reality with contemporaries like W. E. B. DuBois and Mary McLeod. Watson brings Maggie’s contributions to Richmond to the forefront as her character leaps off the page. Like Elizabeth in LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY, Maggie will not let injustices stand as she inspires those around her to help change the world.
In the vein of The Engineer’s Wife and Carolina Built, an inspiring novel based on the remarkable true story of Virginia’s Black Wall Street and the indomitable Maggie Lena Walker, the daughter of a formerly enslaved woman who became the first Black woman to establish and preside over a bank in the United States.
Maggie Lena Walker was ambitious and unafraid. Her childhood in 19th-century Virginia helping her mother with her laundry service opened her eyes to the overwhelming discrepancy between the Black residents and her mother’s affluent white clients. She vowed to not only secure the same kind of home and finery for herself, but she would also help others in her community achieve the same.
With her single-minded determination, Maggie buckled down and went from schoolteacher to secretary-treasurer of the Independent Order of St. Luke, founder of a newspaper, a bank, and a department store where Black customers were treated with respect. With the help of influential friends like W.E.B. DuBois and Mary McLeod, she revolutionized Richmond in ways that are still felt today. Now, her rich, full story is revealed in this stirring and intimate novel.
Did you enjoy learning about a fun new career in LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY? Or perhaps Elizabeth’s own unique career shift? Or maybe you just love beautiful books about strong women, friendship, and grief? In any case, THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN is a page-turning must-read. Mi-ja and Young-sook form an incredible friendship when they join the all-female diving collective on the Korean island of Jeju. But they couldn’t be more different. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator and Young-sook will one day inherit the responsibility of leading the divers. As the years roll by, from Japanese colonialism and two wars to the introduction of modern technology, their friendship will be tested time and again until they are pushed apart. Lisa See will open your eyes to a unique and incredible history filled with tragedy and accomplishments.
THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“A mesmerizing new historical novel” (O, The Oprah Magazine) from Lisa See, the bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and devastating family secrets on a small Korean island.
Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility—but also danger.
Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook find it impossible to ignore their differences. The Island of Sea Women takes place over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.
“This vivid…thoughtful and empathetic” novel (The New York Times Book Review) illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge and the men take care of the children. “A wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women” (Publishers Weekly), The Island of Sea Women is a “beautiful story…about the endurance of friendship when it’s pushed to its limits, and you…will love it” (Cosmopolitan).
Throughout history, women have been forced into roles or boxes. In LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY, Elizabeth pushes back against societal norms to find her place. Things may be more complicated for an orphan, May, in sixteenth-century England as she too pushes back against what society has forced her to become in a desperate search for truth. After stealing a loaf of bread, fourteen-year-old May isn’t executed or thrown in prison; instead, she is shackled, branded, and given the title of Sin Eater: a woman responsible for listening to confessions and eating food symbolic of sins to cleanse the souls of the dying. Scared and ostracized, May seeks out the only other Sin Eater she’s ever met, who takes her in as an apprentice. But when a deer heart appears in the coffin of a royal governess, the elder Sin Eater refuses to consume it, for no corresponding sin was confessed. Upon her refusal, she is arrested, tortured, and executed, leaving May all alone to navigate a horrible and cruel world. But May is not willing to live her life in complete silence and compliance. Someone placed a deer heart in that coffin, and she is determined to find out who and why, to avoid the same fate. This book is dark and gothic and grounded in true history! Though very little is known about Sin Eaters, Campsi does a wonderful job building out the role of women who were expected to carry the sins of everyone around them.
“For fans of The Handmaid’s Tale...a debut novel with a dark setting and an unforgettable heroine...is a riveting depiction of hard-won female empowerment” (The Washington Post).
The Sin Eater walks among us, unseen, unheard
Sins of our flesh become sins of Hers
Following Her to the grave, unseen, unheard
The Sin Eater Walks Among Us.
For the crime of stealing bread, fourteen-year-old May receives a life sentence: she must become a Sin Eater—a shunned woman, brutally marked, whose fate is to hear the final confessions of the dying, eat ritual foods symbolizing their sins as a funeral rite, and thereby shoulder their transgressions to grant their souls access to heaven.
Orphaned and friendless, apprenticed to an older Sin Eater who cannot speak to her, May must make her way in a dangerous and cruel world she barely understands. When a deer heart appears on the coffin of a royal governess who did not confess to the dreadful sin it represents, the older Sin Eater refuses to eat it. She is taken to prison, tortured, and killed. To avenge her death, May must find out who placed the deer heart on the coffin and why.
“Very much reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale…it transcends its historical roots to give us a modern heroine” (Kirkus Reviews). “A novel as strange as it is captivating” (BuzzFeed), The Sin Eater “is a treat for fans of feminist speculative fiction” (Publishers Weekly) and “exactly what historical fiction lovers have unknowingly craved” (New York Journal of Books).
THE HELPLINE features a smart, mathematic-minded, driven protagonist who finds her voice (sounds similar, maybe?) among a wonderful and hilarious group of senior citizens. If you are looking for something light and funny with great heartfelt moments, then here is your next read! Germaine is great with numbers and not so great with people, but there just aren’t as many opportunities for a senior mathematician as she’d hoped. Out of options, Germaine takes a job working at the Senior Citizens Hotline. At first she is disappointed, but then the mayor comes to her with a secret side project to get rid of a few troublesome residents from the home to stop a feud with the neighboring golf course. At first, Germaine absolutely wants to help the mayor and Don, the attractive owner of said golf course. But the more she digs in on her secret project, the more she learns about these supposed troublemakers—and the more complicated things get.
An eccentric woman who is great with numbers—but not so great with people—realizes it’s up to her to pull a community together in this charming, big-hearted, “fun read, full of unique characters” (Associated Press)—perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Rosie Project.
Germaine Johnson doesn’t need friends. She has her work and her Sudoku puzzles. Until, that is, an incident at her insurance company leaves her jobless—and it turns out that there are very few openings these days for senior mathematicians with zero people skills.
Desperate, Germaine manages to secure a position at City Hall answering calls on the Senior Citizens Helpline. But it turns out that the mayor has something else in mind for Germaine: a secret project involving the troublemakers at the senior citizens center and their feud with the neighboring golf club—which happens to be run by the dashing yet disgraced national Sudoku champion, Don Thomas.
Don and the mayor want the senior center closed down and at first, Germaine is dedicated to helping them out—it makes sense mathematically, after all. But when Germaine actually gets to know the group of elderly rebels at the senior center, they open her eyes to a life outside of boxes and numbers and for the first time ever, Germaine realizes she may have miscalculated.
Filled with a unique and (occasionally) cranky cast of characters you can’t help but love, The Helpline is “delightful feel-good fun” (Toni Jordan, author of Addition) that is bound to capture your heart.
Another story that tackles love and science . . . albeit a little differently and maybe even more light-heartedly. THE ROSIE PROJECT is just as engaging, with a wonderful cast of delightful characters. There is no denying that Don is a brilliant geneticist, but what he’s not is good at following social cues or conversations. That being said, now 40, he is looking for a partner whom he can understand. Believing that he is not wired for romance, he takes his science background and develops what he calls The Wife Project. Through data and statistics, Don knows he will find someone punctual and logical to share his life with. Until he meets Rosie, who is everything Don is not looking for. Rosie isn’t looking for Don either, but she does believe he can help her with a project of her own as she searches for her biological father. Thus The Wife Project becomes The Father Project, and Don must reconcile his scientific approach to life with the spontaneous force of nature that is Rosie Jarman. A fun and charming read that is sure to sweep you away.
The protagonist of Graeme Simsion’s romantic comedy THE ROSIE PROJECT is the most refreshingly unique, honest, and hilarious character I have read in a long time. I don’t generally read romantic comedies, but this one stole my heart right from the first paragraph.
If you are looking for another historical fiction read with incredible female stories, then you need to read CROSSING THE HORIZON. When the world thinks of history and female pilots, they instantly think of Amelia Earhart. But before her, in 1927, there was Elsie Mackay, Mabel Boll, and Ruth Elder. These three women dared to take to the skies to compete against one another and Mother Nature in order to be the first female pilot to fly across the Atlantic. Elsie is the daughter of an Earl and the first Englishwoman to get a pilot’s license. Mabel is a high-society member and former cigar girl on a quest to make history. And Ruth is a former beauty queen who uses the money from her pageants to pay for flying lessons. They all have something to prove and a story to tell as they fly towards fame. Daring, adventurous, and extremely well-researched, CROSSING THE HORIZON will whisk you back in time and take you to new heights. But flight doesn’t come without risk in this story. While it doesn’t incorporate the math/science approach of LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY, it does explore three very different women all looking to find their place in history.
Another fantastic story about women paving the way! In the nineteenth century, women were not allowed to study medicine in England and were not respected in many other places. Despite this, Nora Beady is determined to become a surgeon. As the only female student at a prestigious medical university in Bologna, she is surrounded by men who are rude, use every misstep as proof that she does not belong, and dismiss any intelligence or skill she has. But Nora’s whole world and education change when she finds an ally in Dr. Morenco, the only female doctor on staff. Together they develop new techniques for cesarean sections in hopes of saving the lives of countless mothers and babies. Still, the surgery is incredibly dangerous. Not only do the surgeons dismiss their work—so do the husbands of the pregnant women who need them. They don’t trust women in medicine and would rather refuse care for their wives. Everything changes when Nora receives a patient who will, with complete certainty, die without this surgery. All her grueling research and education will be put to the test. If she succeeds, she could change the face of medicine. But if she fails, her career and more than one life, are at stake. Blake excellently mixes the medical world and history with her strong female characters.
Told from the perspective of a group of suburban women who all married young in the 1950s and are now either widowed or divorced—with adult daughters of their own—this is a strong historical-fiction feminist story about the choices women feel they must make, their reflections on the lives they have led, and where they hope to lead themselves from here on out. These women share their anger, pride, and disappointment at their relationships, the things they’d sacrificed, and the freedom they now feel without their husbands. Walbert creates a beautiful character study for each of them as they take charge of their lives. They will no longer sit by, whether it’s standing in protest of slaughtering the country club geese or daring to call up former lovers. If you enjoyed LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY, then you will find something to connect to in the journey of these women.
Kate Walbert masterfully conveys the dreams and reality of a group of women who were once country-club housewives, and are now divorced, independent, and breaking the rules. This brilliant, thought-provoking novel opens a window into the world of a generation of women caught in a cultural limbo.
As much as I adore historical fiction, sometimes I want a thrilling nonfiction read . . . and you can’t get more thrilling than a true story about astronauts! When I was a little girl, I absolutely wanted to be an astronaut and travel to space. I would have loved to have had a book like this then, but I do love that we have it now. Grush provides an educational and entertaining read about America’s first female astronauts. NASA’s astronaut program began strictly as a boys’ club, only bringing in men who had been trained as military test pilots. But by the end of the 1970s, NASA amended its mistake and opened the candidate pool regardless of race or gender. Sally Ride, Judy Resnik, Anna Fisher, Kathy Sullivan, Shannon Lucid, and Rhea Seddon became the first six women selected for the space program. Faced with surviving the rigorous training programs and the sexist media backlash around them, these women made their mark on history. Real, powerful, and at times tragic, but all-around an exceptional read. Grush’s writing allows THE SIX to read like a novel whether you already know some of the stories of these women’s lives or not.
In the bestselling tradition of Hidden Figures and Code Girls, the remarkable true story of America’s first women astronauts—six extraordinary women, each making history going to orbit aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle.
When NASA sent astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s the agency excluded women from the corps, arguing that only military test pilots—a group then made up exclusively of men—had the right stuff. It was an era in which women were steered away from jobs in science and deemed unqualified for space flight. Eventually, though, NASA recognized its blunder and opened the application process to a wider array of hopefuls, regardless of race or gender. From a candidate pool of 8,000 six elite women were selected in 1978—Sally Ride, Judy Resnik, Anna Fisher, Kathy Sullivan, Shannon Lucid, and Rhea Seddon.
In The Six, acclaimed journalist Loren Grush shows these brilliant and courageous women enduring claustrophobic—and sometimes deeply sexist—media attention, undergoing rigorous survival training, and preparing for years to take multi-million-dollar payloads into orbit. Together, the Six helped build the tools that made the space program run. One of the group, Judy Resnik, sacrificed her life when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded at 46,000 feet. Everyone knows of Sally Ride’s history-making first space ride, but each of the Six would make their mark.
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