In storytelling, we are in the middle of what I call the ‘age of the “strong woman” character’. If asked, probably everyone has a slightly different idea of what exactly we mean when we say, ‘strong woman.’ I like to think about strong women has any story where a woman main character has desires that transcend the stereotypical roles of women falling in love, keeping house, and raising babies. Many of the below novels are occupied with those familiar roles, but they explore them in extravagant, nail-biting ways that give new life to what are often old narratives about women in the domestic sphere, to breathe life and character into routines that used to be the backdrops for men’s desires. For extra glitz, there are also extra-ordinary stories—a movie star who may have killed her husband, and teenage girls who shoot lightening from their fingers. In all these novels, the reader is invited to stare with part fascination, part horror, a helpless cheer squad as these women surge through their stories.
In my new novel, Jane of Battery Park, nurse with a dark past tries to define life on her own terms by re-starting a romance with a has-been heartthrob. Breaking free from a past life is equal parts simple and complex, especially when that past life involves family members involved in a terrorist organization that puts celebrities on trial for their sins. The main character has managed to do the physical escaping, setting up a new life in LA, but figuring out who she is and being free of that old life in her mind is complicated, especially when it is always possible that past life will show up in LA, demanding she give up her freedom and repent.
They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall
In this Agatha Christie-inspired catastrophe, a divorced seller of secondhand designer goods believes she has signed up for a reality show on a ritzy tropical island. But when fellow ‘contestants’ discover they have two things in common—their lawyer and their dark proclivities—the vacation vibe fades into horror. People start dying, and our valium-popping, not so pristine heroine, must stay sober long enough to face the ghosts of her past and be the last contestant standing.
Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins
This is perhaps the epitome of the woman out of control story. The narrator main character is unreliable, not just to readers, but to herself. There is alcohol and blackouts and a lot of darkness that she tries to push back by getting involved in the disappearance of a woman whose life she has been watching from a train. In this novel, and many others, it really sucks to be a woman in love.
The Other Me by Sarah Zachrich Jeng
A struggling artist walks through a bathroom door on her birthday and enters another life where she settled down with a high school classmate instead of going to art school. This book is a slow burn that often feels like it is pretending to be a different kind of book. Every chapter something different happened than what I expected, and then the last quarter is just a mind blowing, ride of ‘could this really happen?’ ‘Why didn’t she?’ ‘But wait, what?’ And I can’t really say more about any of that without spoiling it. The main character is trapped and disoriented for most of the novel. Her big choices come at the end. This book is about consent and how far some men will go to take it away from women.
The Family Tree by Steph Mullin and Nicole Mabry
A woman takes a DNA test and discovers not only that she was adopted but that someone in her newfound family is a serial killer. Driven by the need to understand where she comes from, she disregards all cautionary advice from her friends and the FBI as she digs into her family history to uncover the killer. It is one of those books where you grip the edges willing the character to slow down and make better decisions, even while knowing you would probably do exactly the same thing.
I Know Who You Are by Alice Feeney
A movie star’s stalker drives her into extreme paranoia just as she discovers her husband has gone missing. She is suspect number one and the secrets she is hiding from her past life make her look even more suspicious to police. This book goes places in terms of love, marriage, and betrayal that few books dare to go. It’s about the stories we tell other people about our lives and the stories we tell ourselves as a means to survive the darkness.
A Deadly Fortune by Stacie Murphy
A young psychic in Gilded Age NYC suffers a head injury and wakes with uncontrollable new abilities, eventually finding herself trapped in an insane asylum. All she wants is her freedom, but to win it, she’ll have to use her new abilities to catch a killer. The book is all about breaking free and taking charge—both literally and figuratively. The main character never wanted these new powers, but learning to accept and control them is the key to escaping from the asylum and living a life she’s chosen.
I Don’t Forgive You by Aggie Blum Thompson
The most extreme misfit of a suburban housewife finds her efforts to fit into her new neighborhood undermined when she’s framed for murder. In this fast-paced – horrors you always imagined in affluent suburbs – story, the red herrings come fast and heavy and lead to an ever deepening web of intrigue that unravel both the woman’s past and present. She appears to be unraveling herself as her drinking escalates and her relationships fracture. But it is hard to know how much of the self-destruction is the woman and how much is the plot against her.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
The lives of both men and women are thrown upside down when teenage girls develop the power to send electrical charges out of their bodies. Masquerading as a historical narrative written by a man in a far future Earth where women have been dominant for thousands of years, this novel is an expansive thought experiment in what the world might look like if women suddenly had physical power over men and the ability to remake the world as they see fit. The biggest problem is that all they know about using power, they’ve learned from men.