The best books about young women in big trouble

Who am I?

I grew up in small-town America, very far from where I was born (London), with a strong desire to travel and explore. I also developed a thirst for history—the older the better! At eighteen, I went to work on European digs before studying Archaeology in the UK and teaching in Southern Africa. Across these adventures I both experienced and witnessed the victimization of young women—an even more common ordeal in the past. So now I write historical fiction about resourceful, brave women who strive to be the active, powerful centres of their own stories. I hope you find the books on my list as inspiring as I do!

I wrote...

The Errant Hours

By Kate Innes, James Wade (illustrator),

Book cover of The Errant Hours

What is my book about?

My first medieval novel and Book One of The Arrowsmith Trilogy is the story of Illesa, a young woman more or less alone in Plantagenet Britain, as she struggles to save the life of her brother, and then her own in the face of poverty, violence, and corruption. Both a fast-paced tale of courage and a slow-burn romance, this novel interweaves real historical treasures, legends, and facts in an exuberant literary adventure. 

Set in the Welsh Marches where I live, the action is underpinned by extensive historical research. The Errant Hours is a Historical Novel Society Editor’s Choice.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Smilla's Sense of Snow

By Peter Høeg,

Book cover of Smilla's Sense of Snow

Why this book?

I have reread this novel several times since I discovered it in the 1990s, and it continues to surprise and thrill me. Smilla Jasperson is the most original heroine I’ve ever come across. Rude, tortured, brilliant, philosophical, strong, vulnerable—she is half Greenlandic Inuit/half Danish, and her heart has been broken by the loss of both mother and country. At the start of the novel it is broken again when a young, neglected boy, she’d finally allowed herself to love, dies. The authorities claim it’s accidental but Smilla immediately knows, because she understands snow, that he has been killed. The plot follows her investigation and extraction of justice—in all its raw violence. Smilla verges on the superheroic, but somehow Peter Høeg made me believe in her completely. 

Code Name Verity

By Elizabeth Wein,

Book cover of Code Name Verity

Why this book?

I was recently drawn to this book because of its unusual central characters—two young women, Julie and Maddie, from very different backgrounds, who become friends during WW2. Both women are doing crucial work, not being the object of desire for a man, not competing with one another. I read it in one sitting. The ingenious structure starts with a ‘confession’ by SOE recruit Julie, written under torture by the Nazis in France, which reveals the depth of her friendship with Maddie, a pilot, supposedly just transporting planes for the RAF, who ends up hiding in occupied France trying to free her friend from the most appalling fate. I found it clever, moving, and unputdownable. Code Name Verity is marketed as YA but was quite graphic enough for this adult!

Yuki Means Happiness

By Alison Jean Lester,

Book cover of Yuki Means Happiness

Why this book?

I know nearly nothing about the Far East—so was delighted to experience a taste of Japan through this compassionate, original novel told from the point of view of young American nurse, Diana, as she takes the job of nanny to the toddler Yuki, after divorce has forced Yuki’s mother from the family home. Immersed in a different culture, Diana feels confusion, fascination, and a growing love for Yuki. The tension builds as she begins to understand the real danger the child is in. Diana faces psychological peril as she tries to break the chain of damage for Yuki—and herself. As a mother of three, I often can’t bear child jeopardy in a plot, but the author’s intelligent writing is compelling and sensitive, not gratuitous. 

The Siege

By Helen Dunmore,

Book cover of The Siege

Why this book?

When I teach creative writing, I often use this excellent historical novel set in the USSR during WW2 as an example. There are scenes from this book seared into my memory—they are so powerful, visceral, and moving.. Helen Dunmore is able to put the reader in the centre of the most harrowing circumstances, where people are starving, freezing, and dying in the thousands, and yet allow us to care about the individual and feel uplifted by their struggle. In Leningrad, Anna has already lost her mother, who died giving birth to her baby brother, Kolya. During the brutal siege of 1941-44, Anna must somehow keep her young brother alive without losing her humanity. A story of one ordinary woman pushed to extraordinary braveryrepresenting so many.


By William Boyd,

Book cover of Restless

Why this book?

This highly original spy thriller gripped me from the first page. It jumps between the 1970s and WW2, with locations in Britain, America, Paris, and Belgium. Ruth Gilmartin’s mother Sally, to all intents and purposes a sweet old lady living in a small English village, decides to reveal that she is in fact Eva Delectorskya, a Russian recruited by the British Secret Service, and she wants her daughter, a single mother teaching EFL, to help her find and take revenge on the double agent who sold her out decades before. The writing is tight and elegant, leaving lots of room for the big issues of motherhood, trust, treachery, and standing up to power.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in World War 2, family secrets, and the Siege of Leningrad?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about World War 2, family secrets, and the Siege of Leningrad.

World War 2 Explore 975 books about World War 2
Family Secrets Explore 83 books about family secrets
The Siege Of Leningrad Explore 9 books about the Siege of Leningrad

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, The World at Night, and True Grit if you like this list.