International Women’s Day has rolled around once again, and we at GeekMom have put together another list of empowering and inspirational books for you to get stuck into. These books feature a mixture of both real and fictional women doing great things throughout history. There are tales of militant suffragettes, radical teenage activists, spacefaring tribeswomen, and many more for you to fall in love with and be inspired by. Today, we hope you will be encouraged to strike out, stand tall, and be bold.
Death in Ten Minutes: Kitty Marion: Activist. Arsonist. Suffragette. by Fern Riddell, Chosen by Sophie
Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell is a factual account of the life of Kitty Marion, a German immigrant and radical suffragette turned birth control activist who lived and campaigned in England and America during the early 1900s. Kitty began her career as a music hall star where she witnessed first hand the abuse of women at the hands of male agents who controlled access to work, an experience which led her to the suffragette movement. Over the course of many years, Kitty spent time in and out of jail due to her participation in a prolonged campaign of arson attacks and bombings across the UK and here she endured 232 force-feedings—the most of any suffragette known. Kitty was forced to leave the country due to anti-German sentiment during WWI and moved to New York where she met Margaret Sanger and became involved with the birth control movement which advocated for women’s right to discuss and access safe contraception.
As well as following Kitty’s life, this book also discusses the social and political context of the times she lived in, including lesser-known anti-female legislation such as the Contagious Diseases Acts and the perhaps surprisingly frank discussions women were having about sex amongst themselves. Perhaps more importantly, the book dives into the reasons most of us have never heard of Kitty Marion. Her story was swept away by those wishing to clean up the legacy of the suffragette movement because the sort of radical activism which occurred (including the use of pipe bombs and acid attacks) were not considered to fit the reputable image the group wanted to leave behind.
Death in Ten Minutes is not always easy reading. The actions of the suffragettes are often reminiscent of modern day terrorist activity, but this serves to remind us of the adage that “one [wo]man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” and to question to what extent the ends justify the means. If you want a book about an outstanding woman history has forgotten, and one that doesn’t sanitize the women’s suffrage movement, this is the book for you.
Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Penelope Bagieu (Translated by Montana Kane), Chosen by Ann-Marie
To celebrate International Women’s Day requires a sincere appreciation for the many battles we have overcome, both independently and collectively. Some battles are common, and that in itself needs addressing. Some battles are unique and surprising, often hidden away in the pages of history.
That’s why I love the book Brazen by Penelope Bagieu (translated by Montana Kane). It is a collection of graphic short stories featuring many different women over history. Brazen is both informative and entertaining. Not every woman in this book is famous; there is probably an even share of Know/Didn’t Know, depending on where your previous interests lie. And not every story has a happy ending. However, Bagieu has presented each and every tale with equal respect, dedication, and love.
Extra note needs to be made on the diversity of women included: we have a range of nationalities, race, genders, sexual preferences, ages, and social class. It is truly a book about all women. ALL WOMEN. And that puts it top of my reading list for International Women’s Day every year.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, Chosen by Melissa
Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver takes the folk tale of Rumpelstiltskin and turns it around and inside out to become the story of four women who each use their skills and abilities to save their world. Often, a premium is placed on women acting outside traditional roles, which is an important thing to see, for sure, but can read dismissively of those who do act traditionally.
In this book, the female characters embody roles across the spectrum, and all are shown as valuable. Miryem finds it within herself to take her father’s moneylending business and turn it into such a success that she draws the attention of the King of the Staryk (the icy fae who live in the next world over.) Her mother, Panova Mandelstam, keeps a happy and loving home, and expands her care to Wanda when she begins to work for Miryem to pay her father’s debt. And finally, there is Irina, the long-ignored daughter of a duke, who finds herself married to the young, witch-born tsar and steps into her new life with determination and conviction that outweighs her fear.
Each woman contributes their strengths to save the world—Miryem’s business acumen, Irina’s political savvy, Wanda’s determination and devotion, and Panova Mandelstam’s loving, spiritual homekeeping. No one is all good or all evil (with the exception of the actual demon they’re fighting) and everyone is necessary to the successful outcome. It’s not often that the women of a fantasy novel are allowed to embody so many different personalities and its one of the reasons this was one of my favorite reads of the past year.
On the Come Up by Angie Thompson, Chosen by K
Sophomore books, as second books are known in writing circles, are really hard. Angie Thomas’s On the Come Up rises to the challenge and more. This book features Bri, a sixteen year old girl whose family is poor, the kind of poor where once your mom finally gives in and drops out of school so she can get food stamps and you finally have food in the house, the electric gets shut off, and all the food spoils in the fridge that doesn’t work. Bri’s mom and brother are both working as hard as they can to get their family to a stable place, and that means they want Bri in school and working to do the same.
Bri wants stability too, but as far as she can see, the only thing she’s any good at is hip-hop. She loves to rap, thinking and writing rhymes as fast as she can. Her father was about to be a hip-hop star, too, before he was shot and killed for running with the wrong gang. Bri gets her shot after she absolutely kills it in the neighborhood rap battle—but she finds that rapping the way people want her to is getting her more trouble than she wants.
I pre-ordered this book basically the moment it was announced, and eagerly awaited its release, and I was disappointed by absolutely nothing in the book. It’s not a direct sequel to The Hate U Give, but it does take place in the same neighborhood, and Bri references “when that boy was killed” a few times.
Narrowing down “What Kay loved about this book” is hard; the list is long, and this review will be short. In essence, what struck me the most was the way Bri’s transformation was gradual and on every page. She realized what fame would bring her as she got “Garden-famous,” or well known within the neighborhood. What she wants most is to do her part to get her family out of the cycle of poverty, but as she hears little kids echoing her words about being strapped and being lawless, she has to reconsider how to do that. The progression of the book is gorgeous, and the ending is neither saccharine nor hopeless. A gorgeous, fantastic book that is an absolute must-read.
Shattered Realms Series by Cinda Williams Chima, Chosen by Nivi
I will always add in Cinda Williams Chima’s books into every list and was trying to hold back for once. But instead, here I am re-reading the Shattered Realms series because the fourth book (Deathcaster) just came out and it’s so full of characters and an intricate plot that I love re-reading the series each year.
Here we have a queendom that was challenged in the previous series (her Seven Realms series) and now the next generation, raised in a world where war has been continuing for 25 years now, is taking over. There is magic, war, alliances, dragons, wizards, and a constant battle of good versus evil.
The novels weave through so many points of view that you can’t help but look at a situation from multiple perspectives, which I think is wonderful and the books are full of strong female characters who know their own minds and don’t tolerate bull. Finally, you get these great passages and great lines like this one from Shadowcaster: “Let’s pretend we already had this conversation, and at the end, I stood with what I had,” Jenna said. “I know what I want. Now, can you do it? Otherwise, I’ll move along.”
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, Chosen by Melissa
Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars is an alternate history of space exploration, one that begins with a horrific, post-World War II meteorite strike that alters the Earth’s climate and forces the world to unite to find a way into space.
Dr. Elma York, a mathematician and a former pilot with the WASPs, and her husband survive the strike (which is one of the strongest opening acts I can remember reading, and one where Elma’s strengths are key to surviving) and become a part of the world space program. In the alternate-1950s world, Elma is employed as a calculator, one of the women who perform (by hand) the math necessary for space travel, but she yearns to become an astronaut.
The book follows her on her path as the space program progresses and she struggles (along with other, diverse women pilots) to break through the conventional wisdom about why women in space is a bad idea. Each step is a hard-fought win, and even when a breakthrough seemingly appears, there’s always another step that has to be negotiated. Elma is smart and strong, but not super-human or perfect—she suffers from doubts and anxieties that she has to overcome in order to be able to continue—and her story is an excellent read for IWD.
The Ziva Payvan Collection: Dakiti by EJ Fisch, Chosen by Angela
I really enjoy the whole Ziva Payvan series but the first book, in particular, Dakiti, is a joy to read. The first novel written by author EJ Fisch, I felt as though I could see her writing style evolve and improve throughout the whole book. With that said, not many books are such that I can’t put it down at all. I’ve gotten very good about sticking to the “I’m going to bed at the end of this chapter” promise I make myself. I couldn’t keep that promise with this series.
Ziva Payvan is not just a strong female lead. She’s probably one of the strongest written characters I’ve ever read. She is not perfect, but her flaws are part of her character and don’t result in reader eye-rolling. She is super relatable and allowed to be angry and imperfect.
The book is a fast-paced sci-fi action thriller mystery… thing that defies labels. Secrets and hidden agendas are rampant throughout a society where the protagonists work as government agents. EJ Fisch manages to keep you guessing throughout, and while I don’t always reach for sci-fi as my super top favorite, if you have any interest at all in secret agents or James Bond, you’ll probably love this book.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, Chosen by K
I have been an absolute sucker for post-apocalyptic fiction since I read The Stand at the age of twelve or so. There’s a lot of fiction in that category that centers around white people and white experiences. It’s real (and enjoyable!) work to find science fiction and speculative fiction that centers non-white experiences, so when I first heard about a book telling the story of a Native monster hunter in a post-apocalyptic world, I was slapping the pre-order button on Amazon as hard as I could.
Trail of Lightning is about Maggie, a Dinétah (what white people call Navajo) monster hunter in the world where the waters have risen and taken almost all of what used to be the United States. The book is threaded through with Diné mythology in a way that a non-Dinétah writer could never manage, simply because they haven’t lived it.
The book is getting passed around as a “you should read this book written by a person of color,” and while de-whitening your reading list is always a good idea, this Supernatural-meets-Waterworld deserves to be read simply because it’s fantastic. Maggie carries deep emotional damage from her past, but she carries that burden because it is what must be done. She’s like a less whiny Anita Blake or a more interesting Sookie Stackhouse. She kicks ass and takes names, then moves on to the next monster.
This book has romance, major and minor villains, tricksters and monsters. Just read it. It’s incredible. The sequel, Storm of Locusts is out in April; I already have that one preordered too.
So Here I Am: Speeches by Great Women to Empower and Inspire by Anna Russell, Chosen by Sophie
So Here I Am by Anna Russell is a roundup of over 50 famous speeches given by women, beginning with Queen Elizabeth I’s rousing proclamation to her armies in the face on the approaching Spanish Armada in 1588 and coming right up-to-date with Maya Lin’s 2018 SVA Commencement Address. There are some speeches you may be familiar with such as Emma Watson’s #HeForShe Campaign launch at the United Nations, and Michelle Obama’s speech to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and many more you may well be unaware of like Angela Merkel’s 2009 speech to the US Congress or Victoria Woodhall’s 1871 speech on the Principals of Social Freedom.
Each entry in this book is accompanied by a short biography of the woman who gave the speech and original artwork by Camila Pinheiro. These biographies help to place the speeches in the context of their time and give the history of why they came to be made and recorded into the history books.
My one disappointment with the book is that the speeches are not given in their entirety and are only printed as short extracts that frequently take up only half a page each. While printing the speeches in full would, naturally, have meant either an unwieldy large book or fewer entries, I would have much preferred to have read them completely in multiple volumes than only being shown a snippet of what these women had to say.
This book is proof that despite the odds, women have never been afraid to speak out.
An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole, Chosen by Melissa
Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League series is a trilogy of historical romances set during the US Civil War. Each of them features strong women who are worth getting to know, but I’m going to focus on the first of the books, An Extraordinary Union.
This is the story of Elle, a freewoman who returns to the Confederacy in order to spy for the Union Army in Richmond. While undercover (as an enslaved, mute servant) at the home of a senator of the Confederate States, she meets another spy, Malcolm, a Scots immigrant posing as an officer in the Confederate Army.
While romances live and die on the forces that keep their protagonists apart, very, very few of them have stakes as high as this one. Elle is fiercely devoted to bringing about the downfall of the Confederacy and not even Malcolm’s own part in making that happen is enough to sway her from her mission. She is strong and principled and no matter what she does eventually accept his love for her (and hers for him), she cannot let that overshadow her vitally important work. Too many people’s lives hang in the balance and it’s impossible to ignore that. And that’s to Ms. Cole’s credit: she does not flinch in portraying the historical time in which she’s set her story. Even more to her credit, in Elle, she’s created a character who is strong enough to take all that on and keep fighting until the end and find the requisite happily ever after. (Be aware that this is not a fade-to-black romance.)
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, Chosen by Rebecca
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor was a standout for me and my entire fantasy/sci-fi book club. It is a novella that paints a world as deftly as any book three times its length. Nigerian-American female author Nnedi Okorafor won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Binti, making those prizes just a little more diverse and showing equality in gender that is otherwise lacking in the fantasy/sci-fi field. Not only is the author a woman of color, but her main character is as well. The story continues in two more novellas.
Binti is the name of the main character who is the first of her people to be accepted to and attend Oomza University, the foremost learning center in the galaxy. The university has had other humans before (about 3% of its population) but never from the Himba tribe in Africa where women cover otjizi (a mix of clay and oil) over their skin and braids. This aspect of her physicality is an important part of the plot, and I loved it.
All three books, Binti, Home, and The Night Masquerade, deal with the meaning of home, fitting in, and knowing who you are. The setting is Earth hundreds of years in the future, after a horrible war between the Khoush (a power-hungry group of humans) and Meduse (an aggressive jellyfish-like race of alien). Although the Himba tribe had nothing to do with the war, its effects threaten Binti, all the students at the university, and eventually the planet Earth. The trilogy follows Binti as she goes from Earth to the university and back again, but is radically changed in many ways that keep her from feeling at home anywhere. I highly recommend the entire series.
Becoming by Michelle Obama, Chosen by Nivi
Regardless of your political leanings, there is something so approachable about Michelle Obama’s Becoming. The voice is so very real, and reading it, I felt transported into her childhood in Chicago. I applauded her hard work. Groaned with frustration at the barriers she faced. I was moved by her struggles. Each anecdote was a meaningful building block to a solid understanding of what makes her tick.
The middle section, about her meeting and marrying the future president, was touching and sweet. And even knowing the inevitable outcome, and the loneliness she would encounter, I rooted for her along the way. I felt her struggles to get pregnant, felt the frustration and loneliness, totally understood her fears as a mother, and thus got the sense that she understood mine. The writing was raw and utterly approachable.
The final third of the book does delve into the presidency, and near the end, it is obvious that she has not yet achieved the emotional distance to certain events to treat them with the same objectivity that she has applied to events earlier in the book, but that does nothing to diminish the overall effect of the book.
Michelle Obama is more than a former first lady. She is more than a wife and a mother. She has faced the choices that many people face—how to balance work, marriage, and parenting—and while we don’t all have the luxury of working from home and having secret service agents who can carpool our kids around, we can still see that these luxuries don’t obviate the struggles to care for our children.
Generally speaking, Becoming is well-written and easy to read. It feels like she’s sitting with you, sharing her life story. I imagine that listening to the audiobook, read by her, would even further that impression.
A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole, Chosen by K
Alyssa Cole is one of the biggest names in modern romance, and her newest series, Reluctant Royals, began with A Princess in Theory. You know all those spam emails everyone gets that tell them that they’re actually related to some royal family in an African country? What if they were true?
Naledi Smith is trying to balance grad school and multiple jobs, so she doesn’t have time for these emails. Which means that Prince Thabiso needs to come to New York to try and find his betrothed. He uses a case of mistaken identity to get closer to Ledi, and romantic hijinks ensue.
This book does everything a great romance novel should do. It tugs at your heart, makes you root for the couple, puts troubles in front of them and pushes for them to solve things together. Romance as a genre gets a bum rap for being an anti-feminist genre that focuses on male pleasure. While not all romance is feminist and empowering, Alyssa Cole’s writing is, and deeply so. Ledi is a Black woman. She’s a scientist. She’s a foster kid. Any one of those things is rare (too rare!) to see in romance; all three together is incredible.
When Kay saw Alyssa Cole at a reading in mid-2018, she joked that she wrote this book before Meghan Markle became famous. At the time, I was excited to read it, but of all the romance tropes out there, I’d never been particularly fond of Cinderella stories. This one, however, ticks all the important boxes for me: it’s sexy, it’s funny, it’s engaging, it’s wish fulfillment—and, in the end, Ledi saves herself. Prince Thabiso is right there helping, but he doesn’t save her all on his own.
I picked this book to recommend, but the entire series is great, and Alyssa Cole’s backlist is, in general, incredible. Highly recommended.
Wild Card by Jamie Wyman, Chosen by Angela
What would you do if your soul was owned by Eris, the Greek Goddess of Discord, and was up as a chip in a poker game between a bunch of the trickster gods from various pantheons? We have the chance to find out what Catherine Sharp does. The geeky, feisty redhead lives in Las Vegas and works during the day as a computer tech, but her off time is not her own. Girl power is strong with the Etudes in C# series, and while love is a theme, it doesn’t undermine the strength of your soon-to-be-favorite tech support character.
The first in an as-yet-unfinished series, Wild Card is at times dark and sinister, and at others full of hilarity and bad puns. It’s a roller coaster of emotions that are easy to empathize with. It’s definitely geared more toward adults, though, with one scene that may be difficult for some survivors of sexual assault to read. I found it cathartic but needed some time to process what I had read.
As you frolic through the streets of Las Vegas with Cat and follow her through the trials she is set on in the hopes of recovering her soul, you are treated to revelations and plot twists and the emotional journey of a woman who struggles with her own identity and abilities. Cat is not free of anxiety or fear, and yet she finds herself running through casinos with mythical creatures chasing her.
Wild Card is well deserving of a place on your bookshelf or in your Kindle, particularly if you enjoy mythology, Las Vegas, or redheaded geek girls who hum to the computers they’re fixing.
Want more? Don’t forget our 2018 International Women’s Day book roundup as well.
GeekMom received some books listed here for review purposes.