Good Minds Suggest—Deborah Harkness's Favorite Books with Brainy Heroines

July, 2014
Deborah Harkness Who better to mold a brainy heroine of paranormal fantasy novels than a devoted academic herself? Professor Deborah Harkness teaches history at the University of Southern California, although you may know her better as the author of the wildly popular All Souls Trilogy, which includes A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and the final installment out this month, The Book of Life. Harkness's intellectual passion is the history of science—encompassing the history of magic and alchemy. At the heart of her madcap epic is a similarly erudite historian, Diana Bishop, a researcher (and witch, whose magical powers have been suppressed) who uncovers a powerful manuscript at Oxford's Bodleian Library and falls in love with an aristocratic 1,500-year-old vampire (who is, appropriately, also a bookworm with a penchant for genetics). Harkness shares five books featuring women who can out-reason or out-research any adversary.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King (Goodreads Author)
"When 15-year-old Mary Russell stumbles across a man brooding over his beehives, she has no idea that he is Sherlock Holmes—or that he will soon take on the smart-as-a-whip young woman as his apprentice. We follow as Russell develops her talents and intellect over the first four years of her acquaintance with Holmes, goes on to read theology and chemistry at Oxford University, and solves a convoluted mystery. A blend of mystery, period piece, and page-turner with lots of unexpected twists and turns, this is the first in a delightful series."


Possession by A.S. Byatt
"While Byatt is known for her brainy heroines and heroes (see also Angels and Insects), this is my favorite of her novels. It moves from modern times to the Victorian era as scholar Maud Bailey and her rival, Roland Michell, try to piece together the relationship between two 19th-century poets. Byatt seamlessly weaves together literary evidence and intellectual detective work in this compelling tale."


Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (Goodreads Author)
"For her final year of high school, Blue van Meer's father enrolls her in a private school ruled by a clique called the Bluebloods and a popular film studies teacher. When the teacher's corpse is discovered, Blue's efforts to determine whether her death was a suicide—or a murder—embroil her in town-and-gown political intrigue. Stuffed with literary allusions and organized around the conceit of a class syllabus, this debut novel was praised by critics and readers alike for its style and cleverness."


On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad (Goodreads Author)
"Adele Pietra is the daughter of a Connecticut quarryman who is being groomed for marriage while her brother, Charlie, is the family's pride and joy because he is headed to Yale. When her brother and father die in an accident, Adele decides to take her brother's place at the fabled university. It's the 1930s, and women aren't allowed in the all-male Ivy League, so Adele must dress like—and pass as—a boy. A wonderful story that deals with issues of gender, ethnicity, social class, and race."


Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
"Though this is officially categorized as a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, the real hero of the piece is Harriet Vane, the brilliant graduate of an Oxford woman's college who is called in by the dons to help avert a potential scandal. Those who aren't familiar with Sayers's deft handling of both plot points and the psychological aspects of a mystery are in for a treat. Even devoted fans of Sayers will find the evocative Oxford settings, handling of 1930s social attitudes toward women and education, and dry wit as fresh on a tenth read as it was on the first."



Vote for your own favorites on Listopia: Books with Nerdy, Geeky, or Genius Heroes and Heroines



Comments Showing 1-24 of 24 (24 new)

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message 1: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Niziol Wonderful list - thank you! A couple of my favorites are on here and I'm adding others to my to-read list. Cheers!


message 2: by Ann (new)

Ann I always love Deb's suggestions! Thanks again, keep reading.


message 3: by Jackie (new)

Jackie love love love Gaudy Night, pleased to see it on the list!


message 4: by Rosie (new)

Rosie Genova (I'm with you, Jackie.) Harriet Vane is my hero!


message 5: by Jackie (new)

Jackie Rosie wrote: "(I'm with you, Jackie.) Harriet Vane is my hero!"

Agree Rosie, I love all the Harriet Vane/Peter Wimsey stories


message 6: by Karen (new)

Karen Tripson Possession is one of my all time favorites. I will try the others based on that.


message 7: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Ward Gaudy Nights was a hair pulling experience. I had not read any Lord Peter books so it was tough to figure out what he and Harriet were all about. In the best tradition of mysteries before the coming of radio soaps.


message 8: by Donna (new)

Donna amato-salvacion thanks for the list. I can read one while I wait for the 15th to arrive LOL


message 9: by Dinca (new)

Dinca Interesting list! I'm very much looking forward to "The Book of Life". I hope you keep writing.


message 10: by Diana (new)

Diana Maryon Gaudy Night is set in a fictionalised, or perhaps more accurately caricatured, Somerville College. This was Dorothy L. Sayers' Oxford college, as it is mine. The book did not greatly endear D.S.L. to the dons in her day, in spite of her vigorous disclaimers!

In my book O Love How Deep Somerville becomes St. Mary's, a reference to the great pioneering lady Mary Somerville who was the Foundress.

It has been plausibly suggested that not Harriet Vane but Wimsey is the author herself: masculine, untrammelled by her sex, leisured, cultured and wealthy. Sadly D.S.L. did not enjoy an equal marriage in real life. C.S. Lewis her personal friend somewhere speaks of her "personal tragedy", something that she felt bound to conceal from her parents as long as they lived. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers. Vol. 1, 1899-1936: The Making of a Detective Novelist is the first of five volumes of her letters. You can get to all five volumes by searching for Sayers Letters.

It was a tragic aspect of her academic life that before meritocracy and the British post-War grant system came in, enabling such women both to get to and stay in Oxbridge, as my generation did, so many were inevitably "mute inglorious Milton(s)" and flowers "born to blush unseen / And waste their sweetness on the desert air".


Madeleine (Top Shelf Text) Thank you for this list! I am a huge fan of the All Souls Trilogy already, and looking forward to picking up On Borrowed Wings and Gaudy Night! Eagerly awaiting the 15th!


message 12: by Kate (new)

Kate Barbara wrote: "Gaudy Nights was a hair pulling experience. I had not read any Lord Peter books so it was tough to figure out what he and Harriet were all about. In the best tradition of mysteries before the com..."

The BBC did an excellent adaptation of this as part of the BBC Radio Collection. It's not easy to find but worth tracking down!


message 13: by Diana (new)


message 14: by Diana (new)

Diana Nicol I tried to like "Possession" but just couldn't.


message 15: by Chris (last edited Jul 11, 2014 08:26PM) (new)

Chris Burt Some of my 8yo daughter's (and mine) recent brainy heroines include Gilda Joyce, Suddenly Supernatural, 68 Rooms, the Spellbinder series, The Sisters Grimm, The Books of Ember (we like juvenile paranormal/fantasy fiction series!)


message 16: by Jackie (new)

Jackie Kate wrote: "Barbara wrote: "Gaudy Nights was a hair pulling experience. I had not read any Lord Peter books so it was tough to figure out what he and Harriet were all about. In the best tradition of mysterie..."

The BBC also made a wonderful TV version of 'Gaudy Night' in the 1980's with Edward Petherbridge in the Peter Wimsey role. It is unfortunately v. hard to find a DVD version of this.


message 17: by Leslie (new)

Leslie Jenison Oh, wonderful! I love getting reading recommendations from an author I admire and some of these are unfamiliar to me. Just in time for some reading on the plane, and this will "hold" me until Book of Life arrives!


message 18: by Roser (new)

Roser Comes Possessions by Jane Auster is the book That I,m ready now


message 19: by Karen (new)

Karen Tripson Lucky Seattleites have the good Gaudy Night dvd at the Seattle Public Library.


message 20: by Jackie (new)

Jackie Karen wrote: "Lucky Seattleites have the good Gaudy Night dvd at the Seattle Public Library."

oh, lucky you, enjoy!


message 21: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Thanks for the heads up about #3 in the series. I love this newsletter and have discovered some new authors to love.


message 22: by Julia (new)

Julia I am having some surgery and will be reading intensively for , possibly, six weeks, so I love your suggestions. I loved the Susan Howatch series about th Anglican priests and would love to have another good read like that. Any ideas?


message 23: by Tigerlille (new)

Tigerlille Deborah's list reminds me that some of my favorite books ever have been set in Oxford or Cambridge. I'd like to nominate another author to the Brainy Heroines list: Barbara Pym. Gentle genius satire, brilliant novelist, lots of ties to academia and anthropology.


message 24: by Nathan (last edited Jul 23, 2014 05:57AM) (new)

Nathan Flavia de Luce from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie


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