The best books by women that sweep you to another time and place whether you’re male or female

The Books I Picked & Why

Pride and Prejudice

By Jane Austen

Book cover of Pride and Prejudice

Why this book?

One of my favorite annual reads, this novel achieves so much at once: with wit and insight, it takes me into the limited world of English country life, exposing gender, economic, social, and marital politics while it breaks my heart and makes me laugh. What a sly woman Austen was: the first, quiet, feminist! Each time I read it, find something new to admire. As near as I can tell, this book also defined what went into every romance written since, from the mutual dislike to the shocking secret to the grand finale when dislike has turned into love—especially when a nice manor house is thrown in for good measure.

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The Dispossessed

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Book cover of The Dispossessed

Why this book?

I have loved and reread this award-winning book for decades. And it’s only one of many I love by Le Guin. I appreciate its combination of futuristic fantasy and social relevance, written colorfully and sympathetically. This one feels especially topical to me because nowadays most of our Earth’s wealth has been siphoned into the hands of the super-wealthy. Not only wealthy but self-absorbed, just like the characters in this novel. Everyone else is dispossessed. So, what’s an entire little marginalized planet to do? She has some interesting ideas, which I loved for their daring and originality. 

I also treasure the fact that I interviewed her for one of my nonfiction books about women writers and that she invited me to call her Ursula!

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Crocodile on the Sandbank

By Elizabeth Peters

Book cover of Crocodile on the Sandbank

Why this book?

Pith helmets off to this enchanting mystery-adventure-socially satirical series! This book is the first of a long-running family story that I never tire of rereading. Through character Amelia Peabody’s sometimes outrageously funny ‘memoirs,’ I learned more about Egyptology, archeology, and British social structure than I ever learned in university. And I still laugh as sapphirine eyes flash, buttons pop off, and the very independent late nineteenth-century heroine finds herself in all sorts of pickles that lead inexorably to pyramids, bats, and love. I find her and her family irresistible and, in the long run, a touching testimony to what matters to me in life. 

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The King Must Die

By Mary Renault

Book cover of The King Must Die

Why this book?

I first read this novel when I was twelve. It probably went right over my head, but it captured everything I loved about Greek myths while humanizing the hero, Theseus. I might have gotten a bit of a sex education, too, but I was too naïve to notice. I also like the fact that a woman could write a story from a man’s point of view and that she could make him believable and even tragic. This book was a great homage to ancient Greece in all its flamboyance and skullduggery.

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The Secret River

By Kate Grenville

Book cover of The Secret River

Why this book?

This book was my introduction to Australian literature. I loved its eloquent evocation of a world totally new and mysterious to its characters. Although I was vaguely familiar with Australia’s penal colony past and with the destruction wrought on Aboriginal lives and culture, this book brought it home. I deeply appreciated the way it took me into the minds of men and women, most of them well-meaning but ignorant, and showed me how they missed the point of where they were and how to thrive there. The tragedy of that ignorance resonates with me, since I see it all around the world. 

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