From acclaimed works of fiction and poetry to unforgettable memoirs and eye-opening non-fiction, these are our readers' favourite books to mark International Women's Day.
From acclaimed works of fiction and poetry to unforgettable memoirs and eye-opening non-fiction, these are our readers' favourite books to mark International Women's Day.
Left out of the literary canon for so long that even masters like George Eliot and Jane Austen were forced to adopt male pseudonyms or obscure their names, the last few centuries have finally made the necessary space for women authors to write – and then re-write – a new one.
As International Women's Day approaches, we asked our readers to tell us about wonderful books by women they love reading, discussing and recommending to others. The result is a brilliantly broad-ranging list of classics and modern masterpieces anyone with a love of great fiction – or non-fictions, memoirs, poetry and more – will enjoy.
We said: In this award-winning memoir, Yrsa Daley-Ward – poet, model and activist – shares the moving and heartbreaking story of how a childhood spent in the north-west of England became an adulthood in which she discovered the power and fear of sexuality.
You said: A beautiful, yet often sorrowful, tale of awakening, The Terrible is an enchanting discovery that will grip you from the opening lines. Yrsa’s poetic lilt is simply captivating.
Richard S, Facebook
We said: This cerebral bestseller charts a group of eccentric misfits at an elite university who step outside the boundaries of morality, and then have to deal with the consequences. A gripping read from the Pulitzer Prize-winner.
You said: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is always my recommendation, and my favourite book. I first read it when I was 16 and have read it every year since (it was a new book when I startedm so I’ve had 26 years of rereading!) to mark the beginning of autumn.
We said: Anne Tyler’s bittersweet story follows Michael and Pauline, a young couple who marry in haste and live to regret their decision. Over the decades we watch as their mismatched and complicated marriage unspool across 60 turbulent years.
You said: The prose is beautiful and Anne skilfully evokes the minutiae of a marriage with all its trivial misunderstandings. It's a brutally real, achingly sad story of a marriage. Pauline is one of my all-time favourite characters.
Louise W, Facebook
We said: Jane Eyre may describe herself as "poor, obscure, plain and little", but her strength in spirit and self-worth has made her one of literature’s most beloved female characters.
You said: Read at an impressionable age; a feisty protagonist with a love for reading on a curtain-concealed window seat. Unforgettable.
Deb R, Twitter
We said: Arguably the most famous of Jane Austen’s novels – and described by the author as her "own darling child" – Pride and Prejudice is the love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, one of the most iconic couples in literature.
You said: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, because that title explains everything about British politics today.
Annabel M, Twitter
We said: Elif Shafak’s intimate memoir on motherhood chronicles the struggle to overcome her postpartum depression – an illness that affects millions of new mothers every year – and how the process of writing about her experience helped her find her voice again.
You said: I love all of her books, but this one on motherhood is really special.
Anne S, Facebook
We said: It is the summer of 1934 and 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain begins a diary about life with her eccentric and penniless family in a decaying castle. When wealthy Americans become their new landlords, Cassandra and her sister Rose find their worlds upended.
You said: It portrays so succinctly how it feels to be young and a daydreamer and falling in love for the first time, with a beautiful English etherealness to it. It feels like a Florence and the Machine mixed with Jane Austen.
We said: Written when the author was only 17, The Outsiders tells the story of two gangs in a small Oklahoma town, providing a powerful account of street life through the eyes of Ponyboy Curtis. A novel that paved the way for YA fiction today.
You said: S.E. Hinton for writing the emotional, thought-provoking book The Outsiders involving loveable characters with endearing relationships that tackles issues at the very core of adolescence. One of the few books that has literally shaped the way I live my life. 'Stay Gold'.
Evangeline P, Twitter
We said: This is the story of Johannah, who attempts to escape her working-class roots in Wolverhampton for the bright lights of London. As she embarks on a career as a music journalist she chronicles her struggles to define herself and her sexuality. Like all of Caitlin Moran’s writing, How to Build a Girl is insightful, heartwarming and very entertaining.
You said: Hilarious and so real! For all the 80s teenage girls who were overweight and didn’t quite fit in – thank goodness we didn’t!
Tracy W, Twitter
We said: Anne Shirley, a skinny girl with striking red hair, was hardly the strapping lad the Cuthberts had in mind to help with the work at Green Gables, but they fall for her sense of spirit and charming ways anyway – as have generations of readers of all ages, around the globe.
You said: I found my kindred spirit in Anne from Anne of Green Gables by Lucy M. Montgomery. How could one not love someone who can articulate that "The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland"?
We said: The Handmaid’s Tale has sold over eight million copies worldwide since it was first published in 1985, and its story of Handmaids who must breed on behalf of their Commanders makes for a chilling read which still reverberates in a world where men make decisions about women’s bodies.
You said: Massively and spookily ahead of her time... I'm so excited for The Testaments!
Lyns B, Facebook
We said: Longlisted for the Booker Prize, Rachel Joyce’s debut novel captured the hearts of readers everywhere with her story of Harold, an ordinary man making an extraordinary journey to visit his friend one last time.
You said: The book describes so beautifully the journey of a very ordinary man driven to break out of the mundane one day by the power of memories. Harold's character – and that of his dismayed wife who is confronted with a side to her husband she never knew – are so real you feel they could be your friends, neighbours, auntie and uncle. A lovely book about the secret lives inside every single one of us.
Rachel J, Facebook
We said: Actress and screenwriter Ruth Jones’ debut novel is a witty and perceptive story of relationships laid bare when past lovers Kate and Callum meet by chance – 17 years after their failed romance. Although both appear to be happily married, they are faced with a choice: to walk away from each other or to find out what could have been.
You said: Such a great debut novel, I can't wait for the next one...
Jackie P, Facebook
We said: Described as a crime story turned inside out, The Driver's Seat keeps readers on the edge of theirs. We find out in chapter three that Lise, who has travelled to Rome for the ultimate summer holiday, is going to be murdered. The rest of the novel, in what Spark calls a 'whydunnit,' gradually reveals the events that led to Lise’s demise.
You said: The Driver’s Seat by the incomparable Muriel Spark. Profound, funny, terrifying.
We said: One of the most talked-about books of 2018, Michelle Obama’s powerful memoir has been praised for its warmth, wit and honesty – just like the First Lady herself.
You said: It is a book that teaches us to own up to our stories and not be afraid of our voices. While doing this, the book also reminds us to give a lending hand to those who need us. The world not as it is, but as it should be.
Sam D, Twitter
We said: This epic historical fantasy series has picked up even more fans in recent years after being adapted for television. It follows the story of Claire Randall, a nurse from 1946 who, in the midst of a romantic Highlands holiday, is transported back to the 18th Century. Thrown into a world of clans and Jacobean war, she eventually falls for a young warrior called Jamie Fraser. And so their adventure begins.
You said: The Outlander series, because it's intelligent, heartbreaking, enthralling, funny – heaven for a history nut like me.
We said: Described by the author herself as "easily the best of my books", To The Lighthouse is a novel with little regard for the rules. With no consistent narrator, little dialogue and almost no plot, it reads more as a breathtaking and lyrical meditation on womanhood, relationships, nature and the folly of perception.
You said: Because of its sheer brilliance and ability to make you think about the thought process, something we’re forgetting how to do.
Annabel M, Twitter
We said: Set over the course of a single summer’s day, Breathing Lessons follows a couple's road trip to attend a friend’s funeral. As they travel, making a few detours along the way, their marriage is slowly laid bare. Breathing Lessons is a poignant character study for which Anne Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize.
You said: I love the humour in the boring details, and the pain of long term relationship misunderstandings...
Nicole W, Twitter
From fictional diaries to a look at how to be a woman in the world today, these books prove that women are funny.
We said: Determined to become a falconer since childhood, Helen Macdonald found solace in training a young goshawk while grieving the death of her father. This bestselling memoir won both the Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book of the Year, and inspiring a whole new wave of nature writing.
You said: H is for Hawk encapsulates the sense of loss and lostness after the death of a loved one perfectly and is set in a landscape that I know very well.
Samantha A, Twitter
We said: Angela Thirwell’s illuminating account of artist Ford Madox Brown explores his life from his beginnings in France to the fame he won with paintings such as ‘The Last of England’. Brown was considered by many to be an outsider, not least because the women he loved defied Victorian social expectations. Their combined stories make for a thrilling read full of passion, tragedy and determination.
You said: Into the Frame: The Four Loves of Ford Madox Brown is so well-written and such a heartbreaking story of love, loss, and obsession. Angela kindly signed my copy for me at a talk she gave. It’s a cracking read.
We said: Anne Carson is considered the most imaginative poet of her time by her peers, and this collection of poetry and prose displays her creativity at its best. Here, Carson reinvents figures from Oedipus and Emily Dickinson, as well as discussing war, Edward Hopper paintings and a meditative poem on the death of her mother.
You said: Anne Carson, because her writing is utterly mindblowing, inventive, and beautiful. Check out Men in the Off Hours.
Christos P, Twitter
We said: Yaa Gyasi’s award-winning debut is a harrowing, vivid and generation-hopping story of two sisters separated by slavery in the 17th Century. Homegoing follows their descendents, taking us from the 'Gold Coast' of Africa to the plantations of Mississippi and the dive bars of Harlem in a breathtaking retelling of Black history.
You said: Homegoing should be read by everyone. One of the most beautiful and ambitious books of the past decade.
We said: As early as 1792, Wollstonecraft's definitive book attacked the prevailing view of docile femininity while acting as a call to arms for equal education for girls and boys. It demanded that women be defined as individuals and for an end to prejudice. Wollstonecraft's writing was received with both admiration and outrage.
You said: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft... do I need to say more?
We said: Using George Orwell’s famous essay ‘Why I Write’ as a jumping-off point, Deborah Levy offers her own reflections on life as a writer and the many challenges she faced in finding her voice as a woman who writes. A reflective book full of wit and quiet brilliance.
You said: Deborah Levy’s living memoir Things I Don’t Want to Know is absolutely incredible. I know you said one but it’s too hard to choose!
We said: Described as one of the greatest American novels ever written, Harper Lee’s story of loveable rogues Scout and Jem addresses race, inequality and segregation with both levity and compassion.
You said: The most important novel of our time in my opinion and the most important lesson: to take a walk in someone else’s shoes before you judge.
We said: Helen Graham escapes an abusive marriage and arrives at Wildfell Hall with her young son to pursue a career as an artist. For a story set in 1848, such actions were unheard of for ‘respectable’ women and indeed Helen soon falls prey to suspicion.
You said: A writer of realism ahead of her time, writing from first-hand experience about alcoholism and watching someone you care about self-destruct. A fantastic, pertinent novel addressing issues still facing women today.
We said: Dolly Alderton's bestselling autobiography won her a legion of fans for her honest take on life in search of love.
You said: It’s a manifesto that reminds us all that male relationships are a lot of things, but in the long-term, most deep-rooted love affairs are with not only ourselves, but the best friends we surround ourselves with. Her writing is your inner dialogue, your conversations with your best friends, your 'oh I’m not the only one' moments.
We said: Lean In became a cultural phenomenon when it was published and ignited conversations across the globe about women and leadership. Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and draws on her experience of working there in the world in the hope to empower women.
You said: This book taught me so much about what I deserve from a career as a woman. I read it after a string of unsuccessful job interviews and then totally nailed the next one! This is well worth a read for anyone who needs a shot of motivation.
Laura A, Facebook
We said: Kate Atkinson’s Sliding Doors-style novel of ‘what ifs’. Life After Life is a Costa Award-winning story of alternative realities and reinvention.
You said: A brilliantly researched, wonderful presentation of complex family dynamics and a fascinating depiction of the First and Second World Wars and their devastating effect on soldiers, their families, communities and the entire country. Unforgettable.
Kasie M, Twitter
We said: A novella that could be classed as not-quite-erotica, Nin’s eloquent prose portrays a realistic look at a sexually liberated woman's experience of infidelity.
You said: Any of Anaïs Nin’s writings but especially A Spy in the House of Love or The Four-Chambered Heart. She is (was) unapologetically woman – her writing is very liberating. On my (Penguin Modern Classics) copy there is a quote from the Guardian that I find very fitting: "Nin was the first of her kind... she wrote for a world that did not yet exist, and so helped to bring it into being."
We said: A depiction of a rebellious adolescence interwoven with a turbulent parent and child dynamic, Annie John illustrates Kincaid’s childhood island home of Antigua with poetic brilliance.
You said: Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John, where she depicts how difficult mother-daughter relationships and female friendships can be.
We said: First published in 1688, Oroonoko blends fact and fiction in what is considered a pioneering example of the novel form, which tells the tragedy of the African slave trade.
You said: Oroonoko by Aphra Behn is an anti-slavery story and one of the earliest English novels, written at a time when women writing for pay was utterly unthinkable. Virginia Woolf said that women everywhere should throw flowers on Aphra's grave because she paved the way for women to write and gain financial independence through their work.
We said: A modern-day The Handmaid’s Tale with added bite, this surreal thriller was one of Barack Obama’s favourite books of 2017.
You said: The Power is one of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read. Twisting patriarchal society on its head, the way it does is fabulous. ⚡️
We said: It was winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Goldsmith’s Prize, the Costa Novel Award, the Saltire Society Literary Book of the Year and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014. Need we say more?
You said: I loved How to be both by Ali Smith. I still enjoy coming-of-age stories, but the way she structured this one is really original and gets you. Also, her narrative is magic!
We said: A remarkable radio signal from deep dark space prompts a world-changing scientific mission to make first contact with an extraterrestrial culture. Written in 1996, this sci-fi novel was set in the near-future of the 21st Century.
You said: Excellently combining social anthropology, philosophy and great storytelling in what might possibly be the best science-fiction novel ever written.
We said: Woolf’s seminal work exposes the prejudices women and women writers battled against for centuries, exposing the effects of poverty and sexual constraint on female creativity.
You said: In her own words: "Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind."
They broke boundaries and challenged conceptions. We asked you for your must-read classics; from iconic bestsellers to lesser-known gems, these are your essential recommends.
After a year when reality has often seemed stranger than fiction, taking time to share a good book with friends is just the tonic we need. This list of modern masterpieces and timeless classics is guaranteed to stimulate a lively discussion. Oh – and they're brilliant reads to boot.
We said: A devastating and multi-layered oral history of one of the world’s most tragic nuclear accidents, documenting the history of fear, anger and uncertainty around the event which later inspired HBO's critically-lauded dramatisation Chernobyl.
You said: It has to be Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich and ultimately all the people she gave a voice to. Uncomfortable truths of this magnitude deserve exposure, and Alexievich does this with great sensitivity and guile. I’m very much looking forward to Last Witnesses.
We said: Stormzy’s favourite book and now a major BBC TV series, Blackman’s seminal work of YA fiction flips racism on its head. An essential modern-day classic.
You said: Malorie Blackman's Noughts & Crosses series. Insanely moving. I first read it when I was young, it opened my eyes to many issues. I believe in many ways it helped shape me.
We said: Considered Jackson’s best work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle offers claustrophobic psychological suspense at its most compelling.
You said: A brilliantly written witchy little novel with one of the most fascinating woman characters I've encountered in literature.
We said: Toni Morrison’s most iconic work. Her Pulitzer-prize winning novel told the hardly documented impact of slavery on women and mothers, causing outrage and inspiration at the time. An essential in the literary canon.
You said: Beloved by Toni Morrison, most notably for her treatment of slavery from a female perspective. What’s to be done with all that pain, when women’s talents of storytelling, creation, and renewal are inextricably intertwined with death? She brilliantly rejected sentimentality, choosing to give an honest portrayal of the depths of women’s darkness and illumination.
We said: Westover’s unique life story – of a girl, raised with no recognised identity in a fundamentalist household in rural America, who harnesses the power of education to transform her life – makes for gripping reading. Educated was an international phenomenon, backed by Obama himself.
You said: Educated by Tara Westover and The Skills by Mishal Husain, two books that have inspired and informed me recently. ❤️
We said: Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize, A.S. Byatt’s work, set in a time of Victorian repression, explores the nature of obsession.
You said: My all-time favourite book: Possession by A.S. Byatt! No one else could make a satirical story about competitive Victorian literature academics so moving and absorbing. Not to mention the brilliant poetry she wrote herself! A feat of true art and a lesson in all kinds of love.
We said: A life-affirming novel spanning multiple generations, White Teeth's clever and excoriating examination of colonialism in a domestic space catapulted the then 24-year-old Smith to international fame. The book was adored by critics and readers alike – even if Smith claims to no longer like her debut.
You said: Zadie Smith!!! White Teeth and The Autograph Man are some of my all-time favourite books. All literature is reactionary in a sense and these were the first books I read that truly spoke to what it is to live in the glittering bitterness of a 21st-century world.
We said: A fantastical YA sci-fi that is part adventure, part love story. Written by the former Children's Laureate, in Chasing the Stars Blackman continues to tackle contemporary issues in a way that resonates with readers of all ages.
You said: All Malorie Blackman is AMAZING. She goes places no one else dares to go and is so inspirational. I love her Noughts and Crosses series and Chasing the Stars is one of my favourite books ever!!!!
We said: One of the BBC's '100 Novels That Shaped Our World', Jean Rhys’s classic was a response to Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a crucial work of postcolonial literature.
You said: She took a classic novel and somehow managed to elegantly inject it with nuance, tragedy and truth in a way no one else could have.
We said: A bestseller upon its publication in 1924, when Kennedy shocked readers with her provocative story which follows the romance between a young teen and an older man.
You said: Margaret Kennedy, a great writer who has practically vanished. She is witty, created amazing characters and her emotional perception is amazing. My favourites are The Constant Nymph, The Fool of the Family, Not in the Calendar, and Ladies of Lyndon.
We said: Carter’s classic dark retellings of well-known fairy tales are both poetic and haunting, and have gone on to inspire a generation of both writers and readers.
You said: A feminist view of classic fairy tales by a very talented writer. Her images are so powerful!
We said: Historical fiction with a slight fantastical twist, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock evokes the class struggles of 18th Century London in a world of wealth, courtesans and high society.
You said: Mind blowing and unputdownable.
We said: Famously adapted for television, Winterson’s 1985 novel is just as beloved. A coming-of-age tale of a young girl growing up in an English Pentecostal community navigating complex family relationships and her own sexuality, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit has become a queer classic.
You said: The perfect easy read about a very poignant subject. Women having the freedom to love who they want.
We said: A gothic story that won the 2019 Costa Book Awards First Novel Prize that details one woman's fight to tell her story. The Confessions of Frannie Langton keeps the reader guessing 'til the very end as it journeys through the heart of Georgian London.
You said: A book that stayed with me far longer than the time it took me to read it.
We said: Jackson’s influence on the horror genre is unparalleled. When first published in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were so horrified they sent her hate mail, yet it went on to become one of the greatest American stories of all time.
You said: She offers an introspective look on society and culture as a whole. It shows how we can go through life quite blindly in the name of tradition, and highlights that we should be more open to change as a society. Just as important and relevant 70 years on!
Charlotte E, Twitter
We said: An enduring classic that touched the hearts and minds of generations of both men and women, Alcott created four of literature’s most well-loved characters when she wrote of the March sisters and how their sisterhood endured hardships during the American Civil War.
You said: I loved Little Women by Louisa May Alcott growing up because it taught me to appreciate all the different positives of each sister. I always wanted to be a confident writer like Jo but kind as Beth, loving as Meg; I even saw myself in Amy. It's one of my faves.
Helena W, Twitter
We said: Stockett depicts an unjust world in 1962 Mississippi where Black maids raise white children, but aren't trusted with the family silver. The Help inspired the Oscar-nominated film and brought home the fractured but deep-rooted realities of systemic racism in the USA.
You said: This gripped me from the first line, made me laugh, made me cry (loads). One of the best books I've ever read. (Soooo much better than the film, by the way.)
Helen Y, Twitter
Books ranked in no particular order. Some answers have been edited for clarity and style.
A month-by-month guide to the titles we loved this year, from novels to non-fiction to books for kids.
The Bechdel test, named after feminist cartoonist Alison Bechdel, has been around since 1985, and measures whether works of fiction actively include women's voices. To pass, a story must include two women having a conversation about something other than a man. While a pass is less common than you might expect, these books have got it covered.