The best books about men and women breaking unwritten rules

Why am I passionate about this?

As a teenager, I began to question the myths my parents told about our family, but when saying so caused trouble, I confided my stories to paper instead. That’s how I became a writer. My first love has always been fiction, but I broke into print writing history—about quirky subjects in which I find deep meaning, like the potato’s revolutionary influence on the Western world, or how the invasion and occupation of Belgium in 1914 foretold Nazi Europe. My fascination with subversion shapes my novels too—my quiet, lonely protagonists would never storm the barricades yet appear radical because of how they live, a circumstance I know well.

I wrote...

Lonely Are the Brave

By Larry Zuckerman,

Book cover of Lonely Are the Brave

What is my book about?

In 1919, Rollie Birch returns a war hero to Lumberton, a (fictional) logging town in Washington, grieving his wife’s death. When he quits his father’s construction company to tend his infant daughter full-time, Lumberton is aghast, and gossips snicker that the child isn’t even his. Meanwhile, timber heiress Kay Sorensen dreams of a business career, but her lawyer husband, back from the army, interrogates her about the bank account she opened and soon tells her to quit her job. Kay wonders whether the war changed him. Rollie might know—the men served together—while Rollie thinks Kay might know whether his late wife cheated on him. But Kay and Rollie have disliked each other since high school—and in Lumberton, secrets combust once they’re shared. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Joan

Larry Zuckerman Why did I love this book?

I love stories about iconoclasts, and Joan of Arc fits that description, if anyone ever has.

The hard reality of this retelling draws me in: Joan’s a secular military leader who grew up toughened from her father’s blows rather than a pious young woman who hears voices. That skeptical take may offend some readers, but the history, politics, and personalities come vividly to life and seem real to me.

Chen’s seductive prose makes me wish I could write like her, and her novel lets me feel the tragedy and uplift of a great historical figure.

By Katherine J. Chen,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A stunning feminist reimagining of the life of Joan of Arc - perfect for fans of Cecily, Ariadne and Matrix

'It is as if the author has crept inside a statue and breathed a soul into it, re-creating Joan of Arc as a woman for our time' Hilary Mantel, twice Booker Prize-winning author of The Mirror & the Light

'A glorious, sweeping novel . . . Richly imagined, poignant and inspiring' Jennifer Saint, author of Ariadne

'Chen earns the comparison [to Mantel] thanks to her vivid, visceral and boldly immediate storytelling . . . a hypnotic heroine for our time'…

Book cover of Matrix

Larry Zuckerman Why did I love this book?

A young woman unloved, exiled from court, given a thankless job running an impoverished abbey, and she can succeed only by breaking rules. What’s not to like?

Even better, the rules she breaks give her and the nuns she supervises freedom to thrive.

Groff dramatizes the struggle over the use of power, the difference between human goodness and a leader’s greatness, how civilizations rise and fall, a woman’s place in making history—and I can feel it all, not just see it.

The sheer breadth and depth of this deceptively simple story knock me over, to say nothing of the prose, which spirits me away.

By Lauren Groff,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?


'Gorgeous, sensual, addictive' SARA COLLINS
'Brightly lit' NAOMI ALDERMAN

Born from a long line of female warriors and crusaders, yet too coarse for courtly life, Marie de France is cast from the royal court and sent to Angleterre to take up her new duty as the prioress of an impoverished abbey.

Lauren Groff's modern masterpiece is about the establishment of a female utopia.

'A propulsive, captivating read' BRIT BENNETT
'Fascinating, beguiling, vivid' MARIAN KEYES
'A dazzlingly clever tale' THE TIMES
'A thrillingly vivid,…

Book cover of The Home Maker

Larry Zuckerman Why did I love this book?

Canfield may have been the first to write a novel in which wife and husband swap roles as parental caregiver and breadwinner—in 1924, no less, well before modern feminism.

As a former full-time father, I admire the premise and how she draws it out, not least because she depicts with perfect pitch the social pressures her characters face.

The storytelling may seem dated in spots, but her characters’ lives ring true, and the way they come to recognize that their individual talents run contrary to societal rules—and what they do about that—reminds me of my own experience.

By Dorothy Canfield,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This scarce antiquarian book is a facsimile reprint of the original. Due to its age, it may contain imperfections such as marks, notations, marginalia and flawed pages. Because we believe this work is culturally important, we have made it available as part of our commitment for protecting, preserving, and promoting the world's literature in affordable, high quality, modern editions that are true to the original work.

Book cover of Vera

Larry Zuckerman Why did I love this book?

I have a soft spot for characters who find strength by dint of superhuman effort, and the way this fifteen-year-old takes charge after the 1906 earthquake—haltingly, uncertainly, as is only plausible—makes me wish I’d met her.

Her path is steeper than the San Francisco hills, yet her refusal to ask for pity wins me over. I also admire how Edgarian uses her protagonist’s coming of age to represent San Francisco’s, a parallel delivered with a light touch.

But above all, the novel explores the fraught relation between women and power; and how Vera walks that tightrope makes compelling fiction.

By Carol Edgarian,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

New York Times bestselling author Carol Edgarian delivers “an all-encompassing and enthralling” (Oprah Daily) novel featuring an unforgettable heroine coming of age in the aftermath of catastrophe, and her quest for love and reinvention.

Meet Vera Johnson, fifteen-year-old illegitimate daughter of Rose, notorious proprietor of San Francisco’s most legendary bordello. Vera has grown up straddling two worlds—the madam’s alluring sphere, replete with tickets to the opera, surly henchmen, and scant morality, and the quiet domestic life of the family paid to raise her.

On the morning of the great quake, Vera’s worlds collide. As the city burns and looters vie…

Book cover of Hour of the Witch

Larry Zuckerman Why did I love this book?

Nothing’s more subversive than illicit desire, so Mary appeals to me as a quiet rebel par excellence, particularly when she decides to fight back against her abusive husband.

A sterling example of a literary thriller, unafraid to dwell in emotional moments and use them to turn the screws, this novel reminds me of Hitchcock films for its villain’s relentlessness and the way in which ordinary objects become charged with tension.

I love the psychological complexity of a protagonist who feels shamed, thinks maybe she deserves it, yet somehow senses that there’s another, freer way to live. Mary’s struggle is one I can get behind.

By Chris Bohjalian,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Hour of the Witch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER • From the acclaimed author of The Flight Attendant: “Historical fiction at its best…. The book is a thriller in structure, and a real page-turner, the ending both unexpected and satisfying” (Diana Gabaldon, bestselling author of the Outlander series, The Washington Post).

A young Puritan woman—faithful, resourceful, but afraid of the demons that dog her soul—plots her escape from a violent marriage in this riveting and propulsive novel of historical suspense.

Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is twenty-four-years-old. Her skin is porcelain, her eyes delft blue, and in England she might have had many suitors. But…

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Crossing: A Chinese Family Railroad Novel

By Lisa Redfern,

Book cover of Crossing: A Chinese Family Railroad Novel

Lisa Redfern Author Of Phases of Gage: After the Accident Years

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author DNA genealogy researcher California history storyteller & media maker Cartophile Close-call kefir exploder A philomath with too many books

Lisa's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Crossing is a vividly human re-imagining of the love, sacrifices, and accomplishments that two Chinese brothers - American Immigrants - experience as they travel to California to build the Transcontinental Railroad. 

Crossing: A Chinese Family Railroad Novel

By Lisa Redfern,

What is this book about?

Crossing is a vividly human re-imagining of the love, sacrifices, and history that laid tracks for the North America of today.

Leaving behind ancestral Chinese homelands and their family, brothers Yang and Lee face harrowing challenges as they join countless immigrants seeking a better life in the 1860s.

This story follows their remarkable journey across the ocean to San Francisco, then into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where they'll labor to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Surrounded by California's new marvels, and carrying their cultural traditions in their hearts, Yang and Lee find themselves in precarious situations. Their passions, struggles, dreams, and…

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