The best books about extraordinary women

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m fascinated by singular women who have found ways to express themselves and to flourish in the face of doubt. My experience of moving country as a child, family breakdown, losing a parent as a teenager, and dropping out has left me intrigued by other women with the drive to survive on their own terms. Of course, the social constraints a woman must overcome will vary according to when she lived, but common characteristics will be bravery and obstinacy. I’ve now written three novels about women who have succeeded against the odds. I hope the books I’ve recommended captivate you as much as they do me.


I wrote...

The Curious Life of Elizabeth Blackwell

By Pamela Holmes,

Book cover of The Curious Life of Elizabeth Blackwell

What is my book about?

A historical saga based on the true story of the early 18th-century woman who endured loss and betrayal – and dared to pursue her dreams.

Though her parents warned Elizabeth that Alexander Blackwell would not make a dependable husband, only after eloping with him did she learn they were right… After their marriage, the couple find lodgings in London. Alexander looks for work while Elizabeth learns engraving. Before long, though, Alexander is incarcerated in the Marshalsea, the notorious debtors’ prison, and Elizabeth must fend for herself. Alone and penniless, she embarks on a quest that earns her a small fortune and against all the odds, she buys her husband’s freedom. But her extraordinary story has only just begun...

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of West

Pamela Holmes Why did I love this book?

American settler Cy Bellman leaves his daughter Bess to search for giant monsters in a Kentucky swamp.

It’s a brilliant story of a man’s obsession. But it’s Bess who fascinates.  While others doubt Bellman’s sanity, Bess believes in him. Young and vulnerable, when danger strikes, she’s as fierce as the wilderness her father faces.

She’s left to grow up in the care of an indifferent aunt. When Bess is touched inappropriately by the librarian, the girl takes evasive action. When the yard hand almost rapes her, she fights back, then with a snap, regains her composure to deal with a shocking death.

Davies uses words economically and poetically: they leave me breathless. Though short, the book’s an epic.

By Carys Davies,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked West as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Named a Best Book of the Year by The Sunday Times (UK) * The Guardian (UK) * The Washington Independent Review of Books * Sydney Morning Herald * The Los Angeles Public Library * The Irish Independent * Real Simple *

Finalist for the Rathbones Folio Prize

“Carys Davies is a deft, audacious visionary.” —Téa Obreht

When widowed mule breeder Cy Bellman reads in the newspaper that colossal ancient bones have been discovered in the salty Kentucky mud, he sets out from his small Pennsylvania farm to see for himself if the rumors are true: that the giant monsters are…


Book cover of Passing

Pamela Holmes Why did I love this book?

Both Irene and Clare are married to successful men. But that aside, these mixed-race friends from childhood deal with the racism of early 20th century New York differently.

While both can ‘pass’ as white, Irene lives within her Harlem community while Clare wants to straddle both worlds. She coerces Irene into facilitating a double life.

I’ve no personal experience of ‘passing’ so learnt a lot about the issues the women grappled with; opportunity verses deception, the quest for self-identify and self-worth in a racist rule-bound society, the need to belong, and how that’s negotiated.

In the shocking final scene, we are left to reach our own conclusion of what it takes to survive. 

By Nella Larsen,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Passing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A classic, brilliant and layered novel that has been at the heart of racial identity discourse in America for almost a century.

Clare Kendry leads a dangerous life. Fair, elegant, and ambitious, she is married to a white man unaware of her African American heritage and has severed all ties to her past. Clare's childhood friend, Irene Redfield, just as light-skinned, has chosen to remain within the African American community, but refuses to acknowledge the racism that continues to constrict her family's happiness. A chance encounter forces both women to confront the lies they have told others - and the…


Book cover of Olive Kitteridge

Pamela Holmes Why did I love this book?

We all have a bit of Olive Kitteridge in us.

The book is about an indomitable retired New England school teacher who has lived by the rules and done what was expected of her until midlife when she starts to wake up. Perhaps it was being taken as a hostage or meeting a woman with anorexia and realising they are both ‘starving’. Olive’s world tilts.

She struggles to make sense of her life, suffers regret, and feels she’s failed. Strout employs different characters to tell stories; in some, Olive plays only a tiny part. But the technique deepens our appreciation that beneath her cool exterior beats a big heart.

Her story is a plea for pursuing the humanity at the centre of us all. 

By Elizabeth Strout,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked Olive Kitteridge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE • The beloved first novel featuring Olive Kitteridge, from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Oprah’s Book Club pick Olive, Again
 
“Fiction lovers, remember this name: Olive Kitteridge. . . . You’ll never forget her.”—USA Today
 
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY The Washington Post Book World • USA Today • San Francisco Chronicle • Chicago Tribune • Seattle Post-Intelligencer • People • Entertainment Weekly • The Christian Science Monitor • The Plain Dealer • The Atlantic • Rocky Mountain News • Library Journal
 
At times stern, at…


Book cover of Remarkable Creatures

Pamela Holmes Why did I love this book?

Mary Anning was a gifted fossil hunter. She found evidence of previously undiscovered giant marine reptiles in the Lyme Regis cliffs. But being uneducated, she was ignored by the scientific male-dominated world of the 19th century.

The novel, based on a true story, describes Mary’s battle to be believed. She developed a supportive relationship with Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class woman who helped her negotiate the challenges she faced.

I found this beautifully paced story inspiring. Despite the era with its fixed ideas of gender and class, Mary had the temerity and dogged self-belief to survive and succeed.

By Tracy Chevalier,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Remarkable Creatures as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling novelist, a stunning historical novel that follows the story of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, two extraordinary 19th century fossil hunters who changed the scientific world forever.

On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, poor and uneducated Mary learns that she has a unique gift: "the eye" to spot ammonites and other fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious community on edge, the townspeople to gossip, and the scientific world alight. After enduring bitter cold, thunderstorms,…


Book cover of Agent Sonya: Moscow's Most Daring Wartime Spy

Pamela Holmes Why did I love this book?

You can’t approve of Ursula Kuczynski, codename ‘Sonya’.

She was a spymaster, bomb-maker, and secret agent for the Soviet Union. Her work helped the Soviets build the atom bomb. But you can’t help being intrigued by this devoted wife and mother-of-three who rode her bicycle across the countryside to gather scientific information and used her children’s teddies to smuggle radio parts.

Ursula’s story, told by Macintyre in forensic, referenced detail, is astonishing. This cool, clever woman fooled everyone. I’m fascinated by the photographs, too; one of her cuddled up with her children in the garden, another of her in Berlin selling communist literature from a book barrow. They added to the feeling of alarm; so much went on in clear view.

By Ben Macintyre,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Agent Sonya as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A TOP TEN SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER

Published in Paperback on 27 May

'His best book yet' The Times

'Macintyre's page-turner is a dazzling portrait of a flawed yet driven individual who risked everything (including her children) for the cause' Sunday Times

DISCOVER THE INCREDIBLE TRUE STORY OF THE SPY WHO ALMOST KILLED HITLER - FROM THE BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF THE SPY AND THE TRAITOR

Ursula Kuczynski Burton was a spymaster, saboteur, bomb-maker and secret agent. Codenamed 'Agent Sonya', her story has never been told - until now.

Born to a German Jewish family, as Ursula grew, so did the Nazis'…


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The Sailor Without a Sweetheart

By Katherine Grant,

Book cover of The Sailor Without a Sweetheart

Katherine Grant Author Of The Viscount Without Virtue

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Novelist History nerd Amateur dancer Reader New Yorker

Katherine's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Enjoy this Persuasion-inspired historical romance!

Six years ago, Amy decided *not* to elope with Captain Nate Preston. Now, he is back in the neighborhood, and he is shocked to discover that Amy is unmarried. Even more surprising, she is clearly battling some unnamed illness. Thrown together by circumstances outside their control, Nate and Amy try to be friends. Soon, it becomes clear that their feelings for each other never died. Has anything changed, or are they destined for heartbreak once more?

The Sailor Without a Sweetheart

By Katherine Grant,

What is this book about?

Is love worth giving a second chance?

Six years ago, Amy Lamplugh decided not to elope with Nate Preston. Ever since, she has been working hard to convince herself she was right to choose her family over Nate.

Now, Nate is back. After an illustrious career as a naval captain, he faces a court martial for disobeying orders while fighting the slave trade. He accepts an invitation to await the trial at a country estate outside of Portsmouth - and discovers he is suddenly neighbors with Amy.

Nate is shocked to find that Amy didn’t end up marrying someone rich…


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