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the 50 coolest books by women

Image by Willi Heidelback

Image by Willi Heidelback

I recently stumbled across Shortlist’s 50 coolest books ever. The site doesn’t explicitly define ‘cool’ but from the titles listed, I’m going to say the ‘cool’ books are those seen as smart, literary and a little bit edgy. They’re the books you tuck under your arm and read conspicuously in hipster cafes. They are books to be seen with.

As far as arbitrary internet lists go, the list isn’t a bad one—some of my favourite books made the cut—except that 47 of the 50 books are by male authors. The other three are The Secret Historyby Donna Tartt and The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged—both by Ayn Rand. I know it’s just a stupid list that some low-level content producer probably cobbled together in a panic on deadline, but only three books by female authors in a list of 50?! How lame. But sadly, not surprising. According to the most recent Stella Count the majority of books reviewed in Australian newspapers are still those by male authors.

However, women are equally capable of writing so-called ‘cool’ books, and to prove just how easy it would be to make an entire list that only included works by female authors, here are 50 such books that I felt extremely cool reading. Also, unlike the first list, I didn’t cheat—these are 50 books by 50 different authors.

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1. The END OF MR Y BY SCARLETT THOMAS

When Ariel, a young academic, chances upon an extremely rare book by her favourite author, she can’t believe her luck, but the book, The End of Mr. Y, is not an ordinary novel. Equal parts mystery, adventure and cultural theory, The End of Mr Y is the thinking girl’s beach read.

 

ripley2.THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY BY PATRICIA HIGHSMITH

Tom Ripley is a con man with expensive taste and a talent for mimicry, and he’ll stop at nothing—not even murder—to attain the life he desires. Picking just one Highsmith to include on this list was tricky, but if you’re new to her work The Talented Mr Ripley is an excellent starting point.

 

the little friend3. THE LITTLE FRIEND BY DONNA TARTT

Sandwiched between her international bestselling debut, The Secret History and Pulitzer Prize winner The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s second novel is often overlooked, but equally compelling and features my favourite of all Tartt’s characters, precocious twelve-year-old narrator Harriet Cleve Dufresnes who is on a mission to catch her brother’s killer.

Pessl_Night-Film4. NIGHT FILM BY MARISHA PESSL

A detective novel of sorts, Night Film is a labyrinthine Gothic asking: should one ‘dare disturb the universe’? The fragmented narrative, told through blogs, photographs, web forum posts, police reports, tattoos, interviews, film scripts and psychiatrist’s notes, is dark, suspenseful and genuinely creepy. Also, you can assess a free app with bonus clues. *See also: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

5. FROM ROCKAWAY BY JILL EISENSTADT

In the late 1980s the cool kids were all hanging out at Bennington College and writing what would become bestselling novels about other cool kids also attending rural libera arts colleges. Two of these ‘Bennington Bratpackers’—Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt—made it onto Shortlist’s ‘cool’ list, but classmate Jill Eisenstadt didn’t make the cut. Her debut novel From Rockawayis tricky to get hold of, but if preppy excess is your thing, it’s worth the hunt. Bonus points if you can get your hands on a copy with the original oh-so-eighties cover art.

light gets in6. HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN BY M J HYLAND

A Sydney teenager from a working class family goes on exchange to America and is billeted out to a waspy family. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll ensue. But what makes How the Light Gets In a stand out is sixteen-year-old protagonist Lou. Precocious and calculating, yet still stumbling to find her way, she is a most complex enfant terrible.

oryx7. ORYX AND CRAKE BY MARGARET ATWOOD

Short-listed for both the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction, Oryx and Crake is a dark and witty vision of a post-apocalyptic world, which is further played out in The Year of the Flood and MaddAdam. The trilogy is rumoured to have been picked up by HBO—be one of the cool kids and read the books first.

8. Tender Morsels BY MARGO LANAGAN

Australian writer Margo Lanagan has carved out a unique and often frightening space for herself in the fantasy realm. In Tender Morsels is a dark and deeply unsettling read—just as fairytales were originally intended.

 

toyshop9. THE MAGIC TOYSHOP BY ANGELA CARTER

When fifteen-year-old Melanie is sent to live with distant relatives in London, she finds herself in a house full of secrets and strange happenings. The Magic Toyshop is the book that put Carter on the map and turns on strange and unsettling flights of fancy.

 

 

ntkg10. NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL BY LENA DUNHAM

One of the most talked about books of 2014, Dunham’s debut book has received a lot of (unfair) criticism, and as those familiar with Dunham’s other work might expect, her collection of personal essays is painfully self-aware and a tad precocious (twenty-eight and already enough ‘life-experiences’ to fill a book?). However, I found Dunham’s essays to be smart, funny, genuinely heartfelt and honest.

the end of alice11. THE END OF ALICE BY A M HOMES

Not for the faint-hearted, The End of Alice documents the disturbing correspondence between a convicted paedophile and his budding young protégé as he guides her in seducing a young teenage boy. If you like your fiction dark, this is about as black as it gets with narrator, Chappy, making Humbert Humbert appear a Disney prince by comparison.

tampa12. TAMPA BY ALISSA NUTTING

Psychopaths make for interesting narrators, but most of them are men—think Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me) and the aforementioned Chappy (The End of Alice). In her controversial novel, Tampa, Alissa Nutting shows that women can be monsters, too, and if they happen to fit into the popular (patriarchal) ideal of being young, thin and beautiful, they can get away with almost anything.

theinterestings13. THE INTERESTINGS BY MEG WOLITZER

When a group of teenagers meet at a creative arts summer camp in the 1970s, they are convinced they are all headed for greatness. But the next thirty years are full of events, major and minor, that none of them could predict. Named as one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2013, The Interestings is a novel about finding your tribe—whoever they might be.

prozac14. PROZAC NATION BY ELIZABETH WURTZEL

Nation reveals her struggle with depression during her time at Harvard University and her early days as a writer. Since its publication in 1994 it’s become something of a cult classic.

 

 

prep15. PREP BY CURTIS SITTENFELD

When fourteen-year-old Lee wins a scholarship to Ault, a prestigious US boarding school, she imagines her life will be just like the brochure: laughing with her friends as they run with lacrosse sticks across pristine sports fields and hushed, studious discussions in ivied courtyards. The reality is infinitely more nuanced. For fans of campus fiction, Prep is the ultimate boarding school novel.

Rebecca16. REBECCA BY DAPHNE DU MAURIER

Winter, but as the new bride settles in to her role as mistress of Manderley, she is haunted by reminders of the first Mrs de Winter. Dismissed by some as a romantic thriller, but regarded by others as a (for the time) controversial questioning of feminine identity, Rebecca has earned its place as a popular classic.

witch17. THE WITCHING HOUR BY ANNE RICE

I’ve written for Lip about my dislike for some of Rice’s recent efforts, but I wrote from the position of a disappointed fan. She transformed the once-loathed vampire of Gothic fiction into a rock star and in The Witching Hour, first of the Mayfair Witches novels, she introduces readers to a family saga fraught with secrets and magic—a true masterwork of urban fantasy.

on beauty18. ON BEAUTY BY ZADIE SMITH

I might have included any of Smith’s works here—she is the epitome of cool. On Beauty follows the increasingly intertwined lives of two families in the US and UK. Like the author herself, it’s nuanced and intelligent, shot through with humour and beauty.

 

good man19. A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND AND OTHER STORIES BY FLANNERY O’CONNOR

O’Connor is the queen of creepy and one of the pioneers of Southern Gothic. Her stories seep slowly under your skin and make it crawl.

 

 

notes on a scandal20. NOTES ON A SCANDAL BY ZOË HELLER

When confirmed spinster Barbara Covett meets fellow teacher Sheba Hart, she’s convinced she’s found a kindred spirit, but rather than taking a special interest in Barbara, Sheba turns her attention to one of her students. Notes on a Scandal is an insidious story of desire and obsession, and in the 2006 film adaptation Brabara was played by none other than Dame Judy Dench.

21. THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS BY ELIZABETH GILBERT

I was initially sceptical about The Signature of All Things—anything by the author of Eat, Pray, Love held the appeal of wet socks on a cold day. But I’m so glad I overcame my initial qualms. The story of botanist Alma Wittaker is broad in scope and depth—a broad-reaching adventure with a unique heroine at its helm.

girl interrupted22.GIRL INTERRUPTED BY SUSANNA KAYSEN

Kaysen’s memoir from her time in a psychiatric institution in the 1960s is a cult favourite and essential reading for teenage wannabe writers who feel the world doesn’t quite ‘get’ them.

 

rehearsal23. THE REHEARSAL BY ELEANOR CATTON

Before Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Luminaries, came The Rehearsal. Published when Catton was still in her early twenties, The Rehearsal is a well-crafted story about a scandal, a play and rehearsals for a college drama production and for life.

 

girl half formed24. A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING BY EIMEAR MCBRIDE

Experimental fiction is always a bit of a gamble, but when it comes to the stammering, stuttering half-formed thoughts of McBride’s unnamed narrator as she struggles to find her place in the world, the risk is worth the reward.

 

flamethrowers25. THE FLAMETHROWERS BY RACHEL KUSHNER

Art, love, fast cars and motorbikes—it doesn’t get any cooler.

 

 

 

loud earth26. THE LOUD EARTH BY ELISABETH MURRAY

This tight novella about a hermit woman with a dark past and her life with her new lover is an evocative, chilling portrait of the monstrous feminine and Elizabeth Murray is a young author to watch.

 

summer book27. THE SUMMER BOOK BY TOVE JANSSON

This European classic tells a summer holiday in vignettes as a little girl and her grandmother play out their adventures on a small island in the Gulf of Finland. By turns funny, nostalgic and philosophical, it’s a book to be seen with at the beach.

 

shipping news28. THE SHIPPING NEWS BY ANNIE PROULX

Most people have seen Brokeback Mountain, but the cool kids have read the short story, and Proulx’s other stories and novels as well. My personal favourite is The Shipping News in which a man returns to his ancestral home in Newfoundland in the hopes of building a new life for himself and his two young daughters.

god of small29. THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS BY ARUNDHATI ROY

Winner of the 1997 Man Booker Prize, The God of Small Things is the story of fraternal twins growing up in India in 1969 and asks poignant questions about “who should be loved, and how. And how much.”

 

30. THE GHOST’S CHILD BY SONYA HARTNETT

Hartnett is known for her distinct and unsettling prose, but The Ghost’s Child, which tells the story of adventurous Maddy and her encounter with Feather, a strange boy she meets on a beach, is a burst of whimsy—a beautiful fable about the power of love that deftly avoids the saccharine and cliche.

 

written on the body31. WRITTEN ON THE BODY BY JEANETTE WINTERSON

Written on the Body is the story of an intimate affair told in body parts. Reading it at eighteen, I felt I’d stumbled on something secret, sensual… and empowering.

 

 

frankenstein32. FRANKENSTEIN BY MARY SHELLEY

It’s easy to forget that one of the earliest works of science fiction (a genre largely dominated by male authors) was written by a woman. The cautionary tale of what happens when scientists play god remains as poignant today as at the time of its publication almost two-hundred years ago.

 

bold as love33. BOLD AS LOVE BY GWYNETH JONES

At a music festival in the near future a group of rock stars begin a revolution. ‘Nuff said.

 

 

kevin34. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN BY LIONEL SHRIVER

One of the more unsettling novels of recent years We Need to Talk About Kevin plays out a mother’s worst nightmare. Bonus points if your copy predates the film.

 

 

strange35. JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL BY SUSANNA CLARKE

Imagine if magic were real and magicians had a hand in the outcome of the Napoleonic War. It would make for a pretty cool story, right? Advance notice: the mini-series is coming and your window for being one of the cool kids who read the book first is closing.

duncker36. HALLUCINATING FOUCAULT BY PATRICIA DUNCKER

The story of a controversial, reclusive writer and an enamoured reader who sets out to find him, Halucinating Foucault oozes European cool.

 

 

no one belongs here more than you37. NO ONE BELONGS HERE MORE THAN YOU BY MIRANDA JULY

This quirky collection of short stories in July’s signature offbeat style will resonate with hipsters and die-hard book nerds alike.

 

 

virgins38. THE VIRGINS BY PAMELA ERENS

As the title suggests, The Virgins is a novel about discovering sex—confusing, complicated, first-time sex and the equally muddled emotions that accompany it.

 

 

oleander39. WHITE OLEANDER BY JANET FITCH

When I saw White Oleander belonged to Oprah’s Book Club, I wrote it off as sappy, but the story of Astrid as she moves from foster home to foster home while negotiating a complex relationship with her gaoled mother is anything but.

 

wide sargasso sea40. WIDE SARGASSO SEA BY JEAN RHYS

In Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë gives readers Rochester’s account of his first marriage, but in Wide Sargasso Sea Bertha Mason tells her side of the story.

 

 

spirits41. THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS BY ISABEL ALLENDE

This sprawling family saga sparks with magic realism in a realm where the living and the dead live under the same roof and the past and the present overlap.

 

 

wuthering heights42. WUTHERING HEIGHTS BY EMILY BRONTË

Among my book-loving friends Wuthering Heights has a tendency to polarise. But I stand as staunch defender of this dark, destructive narrative of obsession.

 

 

fingersmith43. FINGERSMITH BY SARAH WATERS

A twisting tale of misinformation, misdirection and mistaken identity in 19th century England, Fingersmith is a masterwork of suspense.

 

 

just a girl44. JUST_A_GIRL BY KIRSTEN KRAUTH

Fourteen-year-old Layla is undergoing a sexual awakening in the digital age, but she’s not the only one reaching out; her mother and the man on the train with the suitcase are also seeking connections. just_a_girl is an Australian debut with a bold voice.

 

dalloway45. MRS DALLOWAY BY VIRGINIA WOOLF

A pioneer of the stream-of-consciousness narrative, Mrs Dalloway is a window into the mind of a woman in crisis and an early account of mental illness—a novel that was well ahead of its time.

 

46. ALL THE BIRDS SINGING BY EVIE WYLD

A formidable list of awards and prize nominations (including winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Award) is reason enough to make this unsettling tale of redemption a book to be seen with.

 

room47. ROOM BY EMMA DONOGHUE

Inspired by the case of Austrian Josef Fritzl, who held his daughter captive and fathered her seven children, Room is a terrifying account of captivity narrated by a young boy who has lived his whole life with his mother in a hidden room.

 

yellow48. THE YELLOW WALLPAPER BY CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN

Back when postnatal depression was still called ‘hysteria’ a new mother is taken to a secluded country house by her doctor husband and locked in a former nursery where she is driven mad by the sight of a woman creeping behind the yellow wallpaper.

 

picnic49. PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK BY JOAN LINDSAY

This classic Australian Gothic story of a girl who disappeared on a school picnic has transformed a rare volcanic rock formation into a world-famous site of mystery and intrigue.

 

 

mockingbird50. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD BY HARPER LEE

While dealing specifically with racial discrimination in the American South, To Kill a Mockingbird is as relevant to Australian readers today as it was to early US readers upon its publication in 1960. Also, it features one of the most charismatic narrators in modern fiction.

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