It’s easy to fall into the trap of male-dominated literature filling your bookshelf. But why? One female writer conducted a study and found she was eight times more likely to get published under a male name, which was the main reason Harry Potter’s J.K. Rowling abbreviated her name from “Joanne Kathleen.”
While a great novel is a great novel regardless of gender, we want to call out the absolute must-read books by female writers that will wake you up to a whole new world of impactful, gut-wrenching, heart-pounding storytelling that you may have been unaware of or subconsciously predisposed to graze past.
From the iconoclastic To Kill a Mockingbird to the Goosebumps teen mystery series, add these 19 books by female authors to your reading list this year:
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Most of us were first rocked by The Giver in elementary school, but this dystopian novel feels just as relevant now, especially for men who are at the precipice of deciding a career path or freaking out about the next age milestone. In The Giver, the main character Jonas is nearing his 12th birthday — a time when one’s life’s work is officially decided. He is assigned to take over for The Giver, an old man who holds the memories for their world — which is completely free of negatives like pain, fear, and war. The story reminds us that life must have both good and bad, and to appreciate moments of hurt and sadness because they enrich our experience. Also that freedom of choice is a blessing.
In a quote: “The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
In the opening scene of Jesmyn Ward’s haunting novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, we find 13-year-old Jojo watching his grandfather butcher a hog in such detail you can almost smell the blood. The novel goes on switching narrators from Jojo to his drug-addicted mother and another boy Richie who is trying to understand how he died. Set in a racially charged Mississippi town, Ward’s novel addresses intergenerational trauma, mysticism, and letting go. It’s an intense read that all people should experience.
In a quote: “Getting grown means learning how to work that current: learning when to hold fast, when to drop anchor, when to let it sweep you up.”
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
In this psychological thriller, the young Tom Ripley, a small-time scam artist trying to survive in New York City, is tasked with bringing a shipping magnate’s son, Dickie, back home from his escapades in Italy. Ripley develops an infatuation with Dickie, eventually killing him and taking his identity. That’s all I’ll say, but if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know this novel is pure excitement in all the right ways.
In a quote: “I’m going to enjoy what I’ve got as long as it lasts.”
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
A book that needs no introduction — Frankenstein might be one of the most recognizable and everlasting stories of all time. Victor Frankenstein, a promising young doctor, brings a monster back from the dead. Google what inspired her to write it … at age 18.
In a quote: “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”
Briefing for a Descent Into Hell by Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing is an absolutely wild writer who gives no damns about what other people think and didn’t give a s*** when she won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her novels tend to be hard to enter so I picked Briefing for a Descent Into Hell, a thriller that immediately wraps the reader in a straightjacket. The book follows Professor Charles Watkins of Cambridge University as he is analyzed in a mental hospital after a psychological breakdown. We fall down the rabbit hole of Watkins’ memories and madness as the hospital pumps him with drugs. It’s a book that will make you think twice about your own mind and the line between sanity and insanity.
In a quote: “I can feel myself struggling and fighting as if I were sunk a mile deep in thick dragging water but far above my head in the surface shallows I can see some laced waves where the glittering fishes dance and swim, though, let me rise, let me come up to the surface like a cork or a leaping porpoise into the light. Let me fly like flying fish, a fish of light.”
Out by Natsuo Kirino
Possibly the most important Japanese detective author in circulation, Natsuo Kirino is a complex, gritty, and gruesome writer. Her disturbing noir Out will leave your skin crawling in the absolutely best way. Kirino adapts classic noir techniques and strips away convention with rich storytelling and intricate character studies. Meanwhile the writing itself is brutal and advanced, yet highly bingeable. Don’t be surprised if this book about a Tokyo woman who murders her husband and tries to cover it up turns you into a Kirino fanboy.
In a quote: “She couldn’t live her life as someone’s prisoner the way he had lived his, caught up in a dream of the past, with no way forward and no way back, forced to dig down inside oneself.”
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
When a book of short stories wins both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award in the same year, you better read that freaking book. Such was the case for Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of nine short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, which tracks the friction Indians and Indian Americans feel when transitioning into the “New World” while staying connected to their cultural roots. These stories are filled with humanity and relatability, leaving you smiling and content after closing the book. Plus, we love how simple yet powerful the language and storytelling is. No fluff. For any man who has felt torn between two parts of his identity, read this now.
In a quote: “He learned not to mind the silences.”
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The one and only novel published by young female writer Harper Lee (until the anticipated prequel Go Set a Watchman was released in 2015), To Kill a Mockingbird has been called (and even voted in many surveys) the best novel of all time. Iconic lawyer Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of assaulting a white woman. Setting: the Deep South. Time: the Depression. Result: so much electric charge, sparks fly off the pages. This is a truly riveting story about the battle between good and evil.
In a quote: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Hulu hit it big by adapting this classic dystopian novel into an award-winning television series, but the book (as usual) trumps the screen rendition. Atwood creates a ghastly and captivating tale of the handmaid Offred, who has been forced into a servant caste and tasked with bearing children for elite couples after a totalitarian government takes power in New England. Atwood’s unique writing cadence is like running down a hill unable to stop.
In a quote: “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Fantasy readers may recognize the name Tolkien, but if you’ve never heard Ursula K. Le Guin, get to reading her, nerd. Le Guin is a brilliant science fiction author, draped in awards, and best known for her masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness. Set in the fictional world of Gethen, the story explores gender issues and political structures with exciting themes of loyalty and betrayal that keep the pages turning themselves. It’s a book many people say changed them and changed the world.
In a quote: “One voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies…”
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
One thing is certain about Alice Munro’s stories: You will never anticipate where you’re going and what you’ll feel, but you’ll never be able to live the same as you did before reading them. In her collection, Too Much Happiness, Munro’s subtle art of emotional manipulation shines its brightest with stories that seem calm and ordinary on the surface, then drag you under with force and fury. These stories dissect human strength and weakness, creating little windows into our own souls. Her language is as bare as Hemingway’s, but completely unique. Bite off a story each night and try not to eat the whole thing.
In a quote: “There were differences never to be mended, a word or an act never to be forgiven, a barrier never to be washed away.”
Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
Set against the fictitious town of Middlemarch, author Mary Ann Evans builds a morbid yet oddly modern and dense story about a marriage between two incompatible people that never gets better. During a time when Victorian female authors were pigeonholed into writing romance fantasy, Evans decided to write under the male name, George Eliot, and keep her un-happy ending. Real and really good.
In a quote: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
The Complete Poems of Sappho by Sappho
Ancient lyrical verses strung together in the tone of Greek epics makes Sappho’s poetry both legendary and intoxicating. Sappho was a Greek poet who earned herself the nickname “The Tenth Muse.” Keep in mind, there are many translations of her poems, so pick a translator you like best. It’s all part of the fun of reading ancient literature. These poems cover the gamut from politics to myth, philosophy, and love.
In a quote: “In the crooks of your body, I find my religion.”
A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor
No writer, I mean nobody, can capture the build-up, action, and wake of violence as the likes of Flannery O’Connor. You’ll tremble from her short story collection set to the backdrop of American Gothic, including the classic A Good Man is Hard to Find.
In a quote: “You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it.”
And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou
For anyone who has ever felt beaten down by prejudice, circumstance, people, jobs, or hardship, Maya Angelou’s third book of poetry will fill your blood with lead and makes you indomitable.
In a quote: “You may write me down in history. With your bitter twisted lies. You may tread me in the very dirt. But still like dust I’ll rise.”
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
This is a coming-of-age story of Esperanza Cordero, a Latina girl growing up in inner-city Chicago. All at once hilarious and rough, the novel touches on the power of place in our definition of self, along with the desire to escape the circumstances of our upbringing. Esperanza notes her environmental and cultural surroundings, where neighboring impoverished Puerto Ricans and Chicanos build their lives. In essence: a perspective previously lacking and very much essential.
In a quote: “No, this isn’t my house I say and shake my head as if shaking could undo the year I’ve lived here. I don’t belong. I don’t ever want to come from here.”
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
In Erdrich’s Love Medicine, each chapter shares a new conversational narrative from a small group of Chippewa living on a North Dakota reservation. More than 60 years pass within the pages as we’re told the stories of men, women, and myth that defines the Chippewa experience, culture, and clan. These stories seem to creep into the very marrow of your bones as the descriptive landscape feels as real as looking through a window. The details in Erdrich’s writing will make you shake your head with disbelief and understanding.
In a quote: “Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart’s position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after — lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won’t ever come by such a bargain again.”
Theft by BK Loren
Theft is a thrilling and adventurous book, perfect for those who list Call of the Wild in their top 5. This slim book follows a brother and sister, Zeb and Willa, who reflect on their troubling childhood and the death and loss that has defined their pasts. Zeb lives in the backcountry of Colorado and Willa protects wild wolves in New Mexico. The real reason every man should read Theft is the prose. Every man should experience great prose – language written with a natural flow that heightens the sensation of reading. It’s the kind of writing you taste in your mouth and feel in your chest.
In a quote: “He’d heard sometimes an animal will chew off its own foot to get itself free from a trap. He wanted that fox to do that, to free itself.”
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Hah! You thought we’d forget this seven-book series that was probably the first 100-plus page book you ever read. For so many people, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter wizarding series got them into the joy of reading. (Remember that feeling when you just couldn’t put the new book down!?) HBO recently made all the movies available, so better yet, re-read all the books. They’ll make you laugh and cry as hard as your pre-pubescent self, if not harder.
In a quote: “You’re a wizard, Harry!”
While R.L. Stine gets all the credit for freaking you out as a kid (OK, these books still wig us out) with horror stories about killer ventriloquist dolls and evil scarecrows, Goosebumps, it turns out, was also written and re-written by Stine’s wife, Jane Waldhorn. There are 62 total Goosebumps
In a quote: “Make him stop!” Kris screamed at her sister. “I can’t!” Lindy cried in a trembling voice. Her face became pale, her eyes wide with fear. “I can’t make him stop, Kris! He — he’s speaking for himself!”
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