The word “brave” can mean many things, even though in our society we typically associate it with masculine topics like fighting and hitting things and jumping off of tall things. The books I love, though, are almost exclusively written by women (sorry, dudes), and almost exclusively feature female leads. These heroines take on immense challenges with courage and stand tall in the face of danger—whether that danger is to their hearts, their psyches, their families or their bodies.
Here is a list of novels led by immensely brave women.
A “nightwitch” (the name the German army gave these incredibly brave and effective Russian bomber units) Katya is a fierce pilot, and the book tells her story from the time she dreams of flying planes through the end of the war and its devastating aftermath. Through it all, Katya faces endless challenges with unfailing courage—after all, what else could she and her comrades do? I promise that you will cry when you read this book, but you will also throw your fist in the air (I did, more than once), and cheer Katya’s victories.
Maya Warren, a single mother and successful artist, worked three jobs to pay for her college education when her parents refused to support her. As an adult, no job was beneath her when she needed to earn a living to support herself and her daughter, Pearl. At the time of the book’s story, she works in a restaurant and cleans another family’s home. Although she starts as the housekeeper, she becomes something more: the confidante and surrogate mother of the daughters of the house, both of whom struggle to connect with their own parents. In her life, Maya has faced more difficult choices than any one person should have to. She had very few easy breaks. And when the easy ways out presented themselves, she never took them. At the toughest point in this book, when she could have sacrificed others to keep herself safe, she didn’t. A less courageous person would have. But Maya kept the secrets entrusted to her, and allowed others to have the childhoods she never could.
It can be hard to go home again. But for Kate, the heroine of the just-released Trouble Will Follow by Lauren Faulkenberry, going home means not only confronting a mother in declining health, but also a father and brother in denial and a secret betrayal from her past. The worst part? The man she’s in love with has followed her home. He’s about to see all of her ugliest secrets, and there’s nothing she can do about it. But Kate is no pushover. She’s going to figure out a way to get her mother the help she needs, to force her family to come to terms with her mother’s illness, and, whether Kate realizes or not, to face the demons from her past with grace.
For a woman, aging can be one of the scariest certainties we face. So many things around us—television shows, magazines, our own families, even—tell us that our value decreases as our age increases. Maggie, the hero of Pagán’s novel, was forced to confront this fear the day her husband walked out on her. Faced with the challenge of making a new life after burying her identity under that of her husband and (now grown) children for 20 years, Maggie undertakes a task of incredible bravery: making a new life out of nothing. With this book, Pagán has shined a light on the challenge that so many women face after their husbands suffer their mid-life crises. What is it like to pick up the pieces? It’s not easy finding the woman you were before—or the woman you need to be, now.
Livvy Kane and Nicholas Chandler loved each other until the day a family tragedy drove them apart. Hate to Want You is, in many ways, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, a story of two lovers from families in dire conflict, who must negotiate that conflict in order to find a way to make their love possible. But unlike Juliet, Livvy doesn’t take a passive role in this play. Tough and strong, but sensitive and caring, and supremely protective of her family, Livvy will not let Nicholas off the hook until he proves that what divided their families all those years ago is something he is willing, and able, to overcome.
Veronica Speedwell is a lepidopterist—a scientist who studies butterflies—in Victorian-era London. As a hobby, she solves mysteries. A woman of unclear parentage, raised by aunts who were not her aunts, yet well-educated all the same, she eschews the rules of her age that govern the behavior of women. She is a scientist, first and foremost, an adventurer, and a woman who is willing to take lovers—provided she, and he, are abroad. (No need to make messes at home.) Her best friend is a fellow scientist and partner-in-mystery-solving, Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, or Stoker, for whom she may or may not feel tender, and for whom she most definitely would put her life on the line, and has. By the measure of any time period, not just her own, Veronica is courageous as a lion.
Caroline’s heroism is difficult to explain without spoiling Simmons’s outstanding book, a slow-burn domestic thriller that had me on the edge of my seat until the very end. As the avalanche of truth began in the final third of the book, as the horrible facts come together forming the clear picture of events, as I wanted to look away but could not, Caroline’s strength and bravery went up like a flare in the middle of the disaster. Caroline is a fierce mother, a beloved wife, and a caring friend. When you read this book, with all of its tense moments and compressed, even claustrophobic fear, watch Caroline. She is, in the end, the backbone, the center of strength, the Queen on this chessboard. Trust me.