Books to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 2021

"Virago" refers to a heroic war-like woman, as well as encompassing dragons, furies, she-devils, sirens and spitfires. The publishing power house, founded in June 1973, is still going strong. What better time to read Angela Carter’s Book of Wayward Girls and Wicked Women, a bestselling collection of subversive tales by Jane Bowles, Colette, Bessie Head, Jamaica Kincaid and Katherine Mansfield among others. Virago’s latest release is Stella Duffy’s Lullaby Beach, a compelling novel about family secrets and the legacy of trauma, set against the changing fortunes of an English seaside town.


Monique Roffey’s novel The Mermaid of Black Conch: A Love Story (Peepal Tree) won the 2020 Costa Book of the Year Award. Set on the Caribbean island of Black Conch, at the start of the rainy season, a fisherman attracts a sea-dweller. Aycayia, a beautiful young woman cursed by jealous wives to live as a mermaid, has been swimming the Caribbean Sea for centuries.  Roffey explores themes of unconditional love, friendship, family and loss in her tale of a mermaid drawn from the sea, returned to land, to heal and live again, as a real woman in modern times.


The undisputed queen of country music, an iconic artist and astute business woman, Dolly Parton’s rise to fame was not an easy one: Born into poverty in east Tennessee, she left for Nashville at 18 with her belongings in three paper bags. She navigated a male-dominated world that underestimated her at every turn, and never lost her connection to her working-class roots. In She Come by it Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived her Songs (Pushkin Press) Sarah Smarsh draws on her own experience of growing up in rural Kansas to craft a resonant portrait of Parton’s cultural importance for the ordinary women who populate her songs including struggling mothers, pregnant teenagers and diner waitresses.


In August 2018 a fifteen-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, decided not to go to school. Her actions sparked a global movement for action against the climate crisis, inspiring millions of pupils to go on strike for our planet, forcing governments to listen, and earning her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference (Penguin) is a collection of Thunberg’s speeches that remind us why we need to fight to protect the living planet, no matter how powerless we feel.


If you haven’t already read Michelle Obama’s riveting memoir Becoming (Penguin), it’s now available in paperback. As the first African-American to serve as First Lady of the United States of America, she established herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world. Obama chronicles the experiences that have shaped her - from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive - and from balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent in the White House.


For fans of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister (Pan) tells Mary’s story. Mary is the middle sister and the plainest of the five Bennet girls. Prim, pious and bookish, Mary watches her sisters marry and leave home while she seems destined to remain single and live out her days at Longbourn. Hadlow paints a sympathetic portrait of Mary and offers her the possibility of finding happiness, on her own terms.


Let’s not forget those girls worldwide who have lost their homes, community or families. Malala’s We Are Displaced (Little, Brown) is part memoir, part communal storytelling. Her experiences visiting refugee camps made her reconsider her own displacement - as a young child in Pakistan and as an international activist who can travel anywhere in the world except to the home she loved. Malala shares the personal stories of some of the courageous girls she has met and reminds us that everyone deserves universal human rights and a safe home.


A longer version was published by Camden New Journal