Powerful Women. Powerful Books.

I wish that my reading goal for 2018 had been to read books about outstanding women because I would have fulfilled it several times over.  I know, it’s like I’m retconning my reading list goals but I read some really fantastic memoirs last year from authors like Elizabeth Hay and Terese Marie Mailhot. B.C. writer Lindsay Wong gave us the terrifically-named memoir The Woo-Woo : how I survived ice hockey, drug raids, demons and my crazy Chinese family while Michelle Obama beat U.S. publishing records this year with her warm autobiography Becoming.

Being welcomed into the lives of these outstanding women felt like a break from the everyday grind. It seemed like they were becoming new friends with each page I finished whether they were telling stories of caring for parents, children or relaying their own coming-of-age journey.  There was something to be learned from every one of these books and I think it’s possible that I might return to them again in the future, something that I love to do with books that become such good companions.

At first glance you might not consider the women in my non-fiction favourites of 2018 to be among your first choice for a companion as they include characters who use deception and, when the situation required, incredible violence to succeed.  But when I looked back at the list of novels that I adored this year I found that I had read quite a few featuring women who used their strength, determination, and wit to make their way in difficult situations – these really are perfect choices for a new friend even if they come in book form.

heresyHistorical fiction often focuses on women who need to be rescued and so many contemporary novels have a tendency to make women into victims or heroic figures – women who can ‘do it all’ and wear a snappy business suit at the same time.  The author of Heresy, Melissa Lenhardt, recently pointed out that it is no longer enough for novels to portray women as superheroes. They must also be permitted to demonstrate their need for revenge, greed, and bloodlust – just as male characters have been doing for decades.

I thought her latest novel, Heresy, about a group of female outlaws living in the American West in the 1870s seemed to spring to life the minute I began reading it.  I could almost hear the piano soundtrack while I read the first pages.  This was one of those rare books that had a story that wins me over even though I didn’t really like the concept.  She tells the story of a group of women from multiple perspectives, different time periods, and even includes a transcript of a podcast from a 2018 but this didn’t spoil the thrill of learning about the lives of Hattie La Cour and Margaret “Garet” Parker.  I loved these two women and their loyalty to each other as soon as I met them.

Hattie and Garet are the driving force behind the Parker Gang who begin robbing banks and stagecoaches after their ranch is stolen from them by their dishonest neighbour (who also tries to force Garet to marry him).  The story of either of these women would be enough to fill any epic Western but combine their crime spree with shootouts, a few bar fights, the possibility of being caught by Pinkerton detectives (one eventually joins their gang) and this is a book that would satisfy any reader.  It certainly prevented me from getting any meaningful work done while I had the book at home.  I haven’t stopped talking about it or thinking about the way that these women controlled their destiny at a time when this was not an easy choice.

a1-tqf9zzvlIn The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco the main character, Almas Rosales, is another kind of outlaw and, coincidentally, also a Pinkerton detective.  Or, was she a Pinkerton detective?  I don’t want to spoil things by revealing too much about the role Alma is meant to play in this novel but at one point it is suggested that she has been discharged from the agency for ‘bad behaviour’.  This poor behaviour serves her well because in the world of 1880s opium smuggling the skills needed to succeed include being able to use weapons, fight in dingy warehouses, wear any number of disguises and out-think criminals.

Alma Rosales is one of the most compelling characters that I have read in years and, although this novel is written as an adventure with high stakes, it was also absolutely fascinating to learn about the Washington port town.  I cheered for Alma in every gunfight, during every horrifying walk down a dark alley, and each time she made the decision to scrap with a despicable thug.  She is trying to solve a mystery– to discover the leak in the opium smuggling ring – but is also slowly being caught up in a romance with the powerful woman who heads the local operation and cleverly use this attraction to her advantage.  Alma’s choices make this a thrilling story that is worthy of a stay-up-until midnight read.  You will not regret it.

I read some other fabulous books featuring first-rate female characters this year including Madeline Miller’s Circe (you can read my review) and the amazing YA sensation by Tomi Adeyemi Children of Blood and Bone.  Sarah Bird chose the first woman to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers as the main character in her novel Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen and Imogen Hermes The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock was a voyage into 1870s London through the eyes of a beautiful courtesan named Angelica Neal.  She wasn’t the only person in that novel to think that creature would make her fortune but the story will capture your heart – I can’t wait to see what this author does next.

Looking ahead to the rest of this reading year I think I will continue on this streak of enjoying books featuring female characters in all their complexities – not just being rescued or becoming victims of crime.  I’ve just placed a hold on a debut novel by Lauren Wilkinson called American Spy.  It’s the story of an FBI operative who had been caught in the dull bureaucracy of 1987 until she is chosen to be part of a CIA covert operation.  The summary of this novel is fascinating but my favourite line was about how she and her sister dreamed of being secret agents when they grew up – that sounds like my kind of book.  I can’t wait to read about more mayhem, deceit, and a few fights in dingy warehouses, with women making the choices about who will be throwing the punches.  2019 is going to be an exciting year.

— Penny M.