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Leading Ladies: Ten Must-Read Books by Women



In honour of International Women’s Day 2021, I have delved into my ever-expanding collection of books and (after much whittling down) compiled a list of ten novels that I love penned by women. Give it a read, and discover a new favourite author today!


1) Dark Matter – Michelle Paver


My first recommendation is a particularly creepy ghost story from Michelle Paver. The story follows a group of men in the 1930s who go on a year-long Arctic expedition to the uninhabited Gruhuken on the northeast coast of Svalbard. Setting up camp in an isolated, freezing cold part of the world was always going to be dangerous, but it soon becomes apparent that Gruhuken is not as uninhabited as the group initially believed. Paver gradually builds tension, beginning with a few unexplained occurrences and escalating into something truly terrifying. She uses the Arctic setting to her advantage, the sparse, snow-covered landscape becoming as unnerving as any gothic mansion. As someone who reads a lot of horror, I like to think that I am quite hard to scare, yet the genuine creepiness of this book truly gave me the chills!



2) The Wonder – Emma Donoghue


Emma Donoghue's The Wonder is set in the 1800s, and is the story of an English nurse, Lib, who is sent to the Irish Midlands to observe an 11-year-old girl, Anna, who has, according to reports, stopped eating yet is remaining alive and well. Anna’s deeply religious family and community declare her a miracle, and tourists flock to come and see the sensation. Lib, however, is sceptical, and is determined to find out exactly what is going on with her young charge. Donoghue weaves an intriguing mystery and presents a fantastic central character in Lib. You feel her frustration as she tries to get answers and faces obstruction from all sides. The reader is kept guessing as to whether something otherworldly going on, whether Anna is being used in a scam by her family or if Anna herself is up to something. I love a good historical mystery, and this one is a particularly brilliantly crafted piece, and I was as determined as Lib to discover what was happening with Anna. I won’t say any more here, as I would not want to spoil the ending to this one.



3) Property – Valerie Martin


Next up is ‘Property.’ Valerie Martin’s novel is a powerful look at the evils and barbarity of slavery. Set on a sugar plantation in Louisiana in 1828, the story follows Manon Gaudet, the wife of a brutish slave owner. Manon is bitter and self-absorbed and jealous of Sarah, a slave who is both the mistress and victim of Manon’s husband. Both women seethe with rage over their situation, and the tension reaches a boiling point when the slaves revolt. This book examines the mentality of a slave owner, someone who sees human beings as nothing more than property to be used and abused, and the hatred felt by their victims. Manon is an interesting case, she is almost as despicable as her husband in her treatment of the slaves, yet, as a woman, she is also viewed as a commodity (though to a lesser degree than the slaves), and has little autonomy in her own life. This book is a bleak, depressing read, yet utterly absorbing; the horrors made worse by the overall realism of the piece.



4) Alice – Christina Henry


‘Alice’ is a reworking of Lewis Carroll’s works into a dark and twisted narrative full of menace and dark magic. This is not the Wonderland we all grew up with, in Christina Henry’s novel, we first meet Alice when she is locked in an asylum following a traumatic experience years ago. When Alice escapes, she must work her way through the Old City to discover the truth of what happened to her. Throughout the novel, we meet twisted versions of classic characters such as the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat among others. What I particularly love about ‘Alice’ is the way in which a dark fantasy setting is blended with real-world horrors. I do not want to go into too much detail about the plot, as I think that this is one of these books that it is better to go into knowing as little as possible. Simply put, it is a dark fantasy that takes Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories and twists them into something new that is definitely not for children!



5) The Silent Companions – Laura Purcell


At first glance, one might brush ‘The Silent Companions’ off as a cliché – it is a Victorian ghost story set in a dilapidated country house. However, this is a truly creepy, memorable novel that is head and shoulders above many others of this type. It tells the story of Elsie Bainbridge, a pregnant widow who moves into the aforementioned mansion. The local villagers believe that the house is cursed and was inhabited by a witch centuries before. The house is full of ‘companions,’ people constructed of wood, painted to be uncannily lifelike and designed to startle. Elsie finds these unnerving, especially as new ones seem to appear out of thin air, including one that looks eerily like Elsie herself. The companions are genuinely sinister creations, and Elsie is a brilliantly sympathetic lead character, forced to deal with her hostile environment and being a lonely widow, in addition to the supernatural goings-on. This book is a wonderful, compelling read, and I found myself racing to the end to find out how it would end.



6) Affinity – Sarah Waters


With ‘Affinity’ we are sticking with Victorian gothic, yet that is where the comparison to ‘The Silent Companions’ ends. Sarah Waters’ novel follows Margaret Prior, a depressed, unmarried woman from a wealthy family recovering from a suicide attempt who becomes a ‘Lady Visitor’ at the grim Millbank Prison as a way to forget her woes. Whilst there, Margaret becomes fascinated by Selina Dawes, an enigmatic medium who has been imprisoned for murder. The novel follows Margaret’s increasing obsession with Selina, alongside the story of how Selina came to be in prison. There is a suspenseful, supernatural edge to this book as the readers and Margaret attempt to work out whether Selina’s powers are real or not, but, for me, the most powerful aspect of ‘Affinity’ is the overwhelming feeling of despair and loneliness that Waters weaves into the text as Margaret’s desperation to escape her oppressive surroundings increases as the novel heads towards a shocking finale.



7) Heresy – S.J. Parris


‘Heresy’ is the first in a series of historical thrillers by S.J Parris that features Giordano Bruno, a real-life 16th-century monk, poet, scientist, and philosopher who fled the church after being charged for heresy for his belief that the Earth orbits the sun, as the hero. ‘Heresy’ begins with Bruno escaping from a monastery in Italy and ending up in England, where he is recruited by Queen Elizabeth I to investigate a Catholic plot to overthrow her. His investigation is complicated by a series of grisly murders that occur as he tries to uncover the truth. I love historical crime fiction, as in addition to the central mystery, the reader truly gets to look into another world. Parris presents us with a vivid, insightful look at Tudor England, a particularly turbulent time in history, and Giordano Bruno is a brilliant, charismatic lead character who readers will enjoy following as he navigates the various plots and schemes of the supporting cast.



8) The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller


The Song of Achilles’ is Madeline Miller’s retelling of Homer’s ‘The Iliad.’ It tells the story of the Trojan War, focusing particularly on Achilles and Patroclus. For those who know their Greek mythology, they will know the overall story, however, Miller gives it a fresh, unique take, humanising the characters whilst keeping the epic scope of the myths and legends that she draws from. For those unfamiliar with the stories, this is a perfect introduction. ‘The Song of Achilles’ is beautifully written, Achilles and Patroclus are both well-rounded and sympathetic, and you truly feel as though you are being taken on a tour through the Ancient Greek myths. It also has some fantastic smatterings of humour. Be warned though, this is, ultimately a tragedy, so have some tissues on hand!


9) The Witchfinder’s Sister – Beth Underdown


Beth Underdown’s The Witchfinder’s Sister features the real-life, self-proclaimed ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins, a witch hunter who flourished during the English Civil War. The story is told through the eyes of Matthew’s semi-fictional sister, Alice, who is torn between her love for her brother and her horror as he sends numerous women to their deaths on accusations of witchcraft. Alice determines to discover what happened to Matthew to transform into the ruthless witch hunter, delving into the family’s past and ultimately putting her own safety on the line. The real Matthew Hopkins is believed to be responsible for the deaths of over 100 alleged witches between the years of 1644 and 1646. In presenting the story through Alice’s eyes, the focus becomes less on Matthew himself and more on the fear and distrust that his reign of terror caused, creating an excellent historical thriller set during a time where everyone was viewed with suspicion and one wrong move could result in death.



10) Interview with the Vampire – Anne Rice


Finally, we end on a classic that I have loved from the age of 15 – Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. This haunting novel tells the story of Louis, a vampire who recounts his life to a reporter. Throughout his 200 years of vampiric life, Louis searches for the truth as to what he is, encountering other vampires along the way. Rice’s vampires are layered, complex creatures, both horrifying and sympathetic. ‘Interview with the Vampire’ became the first in a collection of novels known as ‘The Vampire Chronicles.’ Personally, I am not a fan of the later novels, however, ‘Interview’ and its two direct sequels ‘The Vampire Lestat’ and ‘Queen of the Damned’ are among some of my all-time favorite books. These three together tell a complete story, so you would not have to commit to reading a long series if you did not choose to. Overall, these three novels tell an intricate, centuries-spanning story that is part historical epic and part gothic horror, and ‘Interview with the Vampire,’ is the macabre masterpiece that begins it all.


Amy Leacy

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