It’s been 20 years since Arthur Golden published his brilliant debut, Memoirs of a Geisha. Written as a breathtaking confessional from one of Japan’s most famous geishas, his novel went on to become not only a runaway bestseller, but an instant literary classic. If you’ve spent the last two decades looking for other strong heroines who overcome unbelievable circumstances or beautiful, sweeping love stories in diverse settings around the world, these books like Memoirs of a Geisha are perfect for you. Publishers’ descriptions included below.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa See takes us on a journey back to a captivating era of Chinese history and delves into one of the most mysterious of human relationships: female friendship.
In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, an “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she has written a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men. As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on the fan and compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together they endure the agony of footbinding and reflect upon their arranged marriages, their loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace in their friendship, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their relationship suddenly threatens to tear apart.
Sayonara by James A. Michener
From a great master of historical fiction comes a brilliant tale of love amid war. James A. Michener combines powerful storytelling with deep sensitivity in this novel of a U.S. Army man who, against all odds, falls for a fascinating Japanese woman. Stationed in the exotic Far East, Major Lloyd Gruver considers himself lucky. The son of a general, dating the daughter of another powerful military family, he can look forward to a bright future. And he just can’t understand guys like Private Joe Kelly, who throw away their lives in the States by marrying local girls. But then Lloyd meets Hana-ogi. After that, nothing matters anymore . . . nothing but her.
The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby
In the eleventh century Murasaki Shikibu wrote the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, the most popular work in the history of Japanese literature. In The Tale of Murasaki, Liza Dalby has created a breathtaking fictionalized narrative of the life of this timeless poet — a lonely girl who becomes such a compelling storyteller that she is invited to regale the empress with her tales. The Tale of Murasaki is the story of an enchanting time and an exotic place. Whether writing about mystical rice fields in the rainy mountains or the politics and intrigue of the royal court, Dalby breathes astonishing life into ancient Japan.
The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel
There is no easy path for a woman aspiring to power.
A concubine at the palace learns quickly that there are many ways to capture the Emperor’s attention. Many paint their faces white and style their hair attractively, hoping to lure in the One Above All with their beauty. Some present him with fantastic gifts, such as jade pendants and scrolls of calligraphy, while others rely on their knowledge of seduction to draw his interest. Young Mei knows nothing of these womanly arts, yet she will give the Emperor a gift he can never forget.
Mei’s intelligence and curiosity, the same traits that make her an outcast among the other concubines, impress the Emperor. But just as she is in a position to seduce the most powerful man in China, divided loyalties split the palace in two, culminating in a perilous battle that Mei can only hope to survive.
In the breakthrough first volume in the Empress of Bright Moon duology, Weina Dai Randel paints a vibrant portrait of ancient China — where love, ambition, and loyalty can spell life or death — and the woman who came to rule it all.
Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
Extravagant, inventive, emotionally sweeping, Corelli’s Mandolin is the story of a timeless place that one day wakes up to find itself in the jaws of history. The place is the Greek island of Cephallonia, where gods once dabbled in the affairs of men and the local saint periodically rises from his sarcophagus to cure the mad. Then the tide of World War II rolls onto the island’s shores in the form of the conquering Italian army.
Caught in the occupation are Pelagia, a willful, beautiful young woman, and the two suitors vying for her love: Mandras, a gentle fisherman turned ruthless guerilla, and the charming, mandolin-playing Captain Corelli, a reluctant officer of the Italian garrison on the island. Rich with loyalties and betrayals, and set against a landscape where the factual blends seamlessly with the fantastic, Corelli’s Mandolin is a passionate novel as rich in ideas as it is genuinely moving.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
In their youth, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall passionately in love. When Fermina eventually chooses to marry a wealthy, well-born doctor, Florentino is devastated, but he is a romantic. As he rises in his business career he whiles away the years in 622 affairs–yet he reserves his heart for Fermina. Her husband dies at last, and Florentino purposefully attends the funeral. Fifty years, nine months, and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again.
The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory
From #1 New York Times bestselling author and “queen of royal fiction” (USA TODAY) Philippa Gregory comes the remarkable story of Katherine of Aragon, Princess of Spain, daughter of two great monarchs, and eventual Queen of England when she marries the infamous King Henry VIII.
Daughter of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, Katherine has been fated her whole life to marry Prince Arthur of England. When they meet and are married, the match becomes as passionate as it is politically expedient. The young lovers revel in each other’s company and plan the England they will make together. But tragically, aged only fifteen, Arthur falls ill and extracts from his sixteen-year-old bride a deathbed promise to marry his brother, Henry; become Queen; and fulfill their dreams and her destiny.
Widowed and alone in the avaricious world of the Tudor court, Katherine has to sidestep her father-in-law’s desire for her and convince him, and an incredulous Europe, that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated, that there is no obstacle to marriage with Henry. For seven years, she endures the treachery of spies, the humiliation of poverty, and intense loneliness and despair while she waits for the inevitable moment when she will step into the role she has prepared for all her life. Then, like her warrior mother, Katherine must take to the battlefield and save England when its old enemies the Scots come over the border and there is no one to stand against them but the new Queen.
The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd
In 1903, a young Scotswoman named Mary Mackenzie sets sail for China to marry her betrothed, a military attaché in Peking. But soon after her arrival, Mary falls into an adulterous affair with a young Japanese nobleman, scandalizing the British community. Casting her out of the European community, her compatriots tear her away from her small daughter. A woman abandoned and alone, Mary learns to survive over forty tumultuous years in Asia, including two world wars and the cataclysmic Tokyo earthquake of 1923.
Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
Meet New York Times bestselling author Isabel Allende’s most enchanting creation, Eva Luna: a lover, a writer, a revolutionary, and above all a storyteller — available for the first time in ebook.
Eva Luna is the daughter of a professor’s assistant and a snake-bitten gardener—born poor, orphaned at an early age, and working as a servant. Eva is a naturally gifted and imaginative storyteller who meets people from all stations and walks of life. Though she has no wealth, she trades her stories like currency with people who are kind to her. In this novel, she shares the story of her own life and introduces readers to a diverse and eccentric cast of characters including the Lebanese émigré who befriends her and takes her in; her unfortunate godmother, whose brain is addled by rum and who believes in all the Catholic saints and a few of her own invention; a street urchin who grows into a petty criminal and, later, a leader in the guerrilla struggle; a celebrated transsexual entertainer who instructs her in the ways of the adult world; and a young refugee whose flight from postwar Europe will prove crucial to Eva’s fate.
As Eva tells her story, Isabel Allende conjures up a whole complex South American nation—the rich, the poor, the simple, and the sophisticated—in a novel replete with character and incident, with drama and comedy and history, with battles and passions, rebellions and reunions, a novel that celebrates the power of imagination to create a better world.
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
Tracy Chevalier transports readers to a bygone time and place in this richly-imagined portrait of the young woman who inspired one of Vermeer’s most celebrated paintings.
History and fiction merge seamlessly in this luminous novel about artistic vision and sensual awakening. Girl with a Pearl Earring tells the story of sixteen-year-old Griet, whose life is transformed by her brief encounter with genius . . . even as she herself is immortalized in canvas and oil.
The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman
From acclaimed author Ellen Marie Wiseman comes a vivid, daring novel about the devastating power of family secrets—beginning in the poignant, lurid world of a Depression-era traveling circus and coming full circle in the transformative 1950s.
On a summer evening in 1931, Lilly Blackwood glimpses circus lights from the grimy window of her attic bedroom. Lilly isn’t allowed to explore the meadows around Blackwood Manor. She’s never even ventured beyond her narrow room. Momma insists it’s for Lilly’s own protection, that people would be afraid if they saw her. But on this unforgettable night, Lilly is taken outside for the first time—and sold to the circus sideshow.
More than two decades later, nineteen-year-old Julia Blackwood has inherited her parents’ estate and horse farm. For Julia, home was an unhappy place full of strict rules and forbidden rooms, and she hopes that returning might erase those painful memories. Instead, she becomes immersed in a mystery involving a hidden attic room and photos of circus scenes featuring a striking young girl.
At first, The Barlow Brothers’ Circus is just another prison for Lilly. But in this rag-tag, sometimes brutal world, Lilly discovers strength, friendship, and a rare affinity for animals. Soon, thanks to elephants Pepper and JoJo and their handler, Cole, Lilly is no longer a sideshow spectacle but the circus’s biggest attraction. . .until tragedy and cruelty collide. It will fall to Julia to learn the truth about Lilly’s fate and her family’s shocking betrayal, and find a way to make Blackwood Manor into a place of healing at last.
Moving between Julia and Lilly’s stories, Ellen Marie Wiseman portrays two extraordinary, very different women in a novel that, while tender and heartbreaking, offers moments of joy and indomitable hope.
The Lioness of Morocco by Julia Drosten
Independent-minded Sibylla Spencer feels trapped in nineteenth-century London, where her strong will and progressive views have rendered her unmarriageable. Still single at twenty-three, she is treated like a child and feels stifled in her controlling father’s house.
When Benjamin Hopkins, an ambitious employee of her father’s trading company, shows an interest in her, she realizes marriage is her only chance to escape. As Benjamin’s rising career whisks them both away to exotic Morocco, Sibylla is at last a citizen of the world, reveling in her newfound freedom by striking her first business deals, befriending locals…and falling in love for the first time with a charismatic and handsome Frenchman.
But Benjamin’s lust for money and influence draws him into dark dealings, pulling him ever further from Sibylla and their two young sons. When he’s arrested on horrible charges, the fate of Sibylla’s family rests on her shoulders, as she must decide whether she’ll leave him to his fate or help him fight for his life.
The Diplomat’s Daughter by Karin Tanabe
For fans of All the Light We Cannot See and Orphan Train, the author of the “thought-provoking” (Library Journal, starred review) and “must-read” (PopSugar) novel The Gilded Years crafts a captivating tale of three young people divided by the horrors of World War II and their journey back to one another.
During the turbulent months following the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, twenty-one-year-old Emi Kato, the daughter of a Japanese diplomat, is locked behind barbed wire in a Texas internment camp. She feels hopeless until she meets handsome young Christian Lange, whose German-born parents were wrongfully arrested for un-American activities. Together, they live as prisoners with thousands of other German and Japanese families, but discover that love can bloom in even the bleakest circumstances.
When Emi and her mother are abruptly sent back to Japan, Christian enlists in the United States Army, with his sights set on the Pacific front—and, he hopes, a reunion with Emi—unaware that her first love, Leo Hartmann, the son of wealthy of Austrian parents and now a Jewish refugee in Shanghai, may still have her heart.
Fearful of bombings in Tokyo, Emi’s parents send her to a remote resort town in the mountains, where many in the foreign community have fled. Cut off from her family, struggling with growing depression and hunger, Emi repeatedly risks her life to help keep her community safe—all while wondering if the two men she loves are still alive.
As Christian Lange struggles to adapt to life as a soldier, his unit pushes its way from the South Pacific to Okinawa, where one of the bloodiest battles of World War II awaits them. Meanwhile, in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, as Leo fights to survive the squalor of the Jewish ghetto, a surprise confrontation with a Nazi officer threatens his life. For each man, Emi Kato is never far from their minds.
Flung together by war, passion, and extraordinary acts of selflessness, the paths of these three remarkable young people will collide as the fighting on the Pacific front crescendos. With her “elegant and extremely gratifying” (USA TODAY) storytelling, Karin Tanabe paints a stunning portrait of a turning point in history.
The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke
Facing challenges in an increasingly colonial world, Chye Hoon, a rebellious young girl, must learn to embrace her mixed Malayan-Chinese identity as a Nyonya—and her destiny as a cook, rather than following her first dream of attending school like her brother.
Amidst the smells of chillies and garlic frying, Chye Hoon begins to appreciate the richness of her traditions, eventually marrying Wong Peng Choon, a Chinese man. Together, they have ten children. At last, she can pass on the stories she has heard—magical tales of men from the sea—and her warrior’s courage, along with her wonderful kueh (cakes).
But the cultural shift towards the West has begun. Chye Hoon finds herself afraid of losing the heritage she so prizes as her children move more and more into the modernising Western world.
The Girl with No Name by Diney Costeloe
A heart-wrenching story from the bestselling author of The Throwaway Children.
Thirteen-year-old Lisa has escaped from Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport. She arrives in London unable to speak a word of English, her few belongings crammed into a small suitcase. Among them is one precious photograph of the family she has left behind.
Lonely and homesick, Lisa is adopted by a childless couple. But when the Blitz blows her new home apart, she wakes up in hospital with no memory of who she is or where she came from. The authorities give her a new name and despatch her to a children’s home.
With the war raging around her, what will become of Lisa now?
The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly
The Tea Rose is a towering old-fashioned story, imbued with a modern sensibility, of a family’s destruction, of murder and revenge, of love lost and won again, and of one determined woman’s quest to survive and triumph.
East London, 1888-a city apart. A place of shadow and light where thieves, whores, and dreamers mingle, where children play in the cobbled streets by day and a killer stalks at night, where bright hopes meet the darkest truths.
Here, by the whispering waters of the Thames, a bright and defiant young woman dares to dream of a life beyond tumbledown wharves, gaslit alleys, and the grim and crumbling dwellings of the poor.
Fiona Finnegan, a worker in a tea factory, hopes to own a shop one day, together with her lifelong love, Joe Bristow, a costermonger’s son. With nothing but their faith in each other to spur them on, Fiona and Joe struggle, save, and sacrifice to achieve their dreams.
But Fiona’s dreams are shattered when the actions of a dark and brutal man take from her nearly everything-and everyone-she holds dear. Fearing her own death at the dark man’s hands, she is forced to flee London for New York. There, her indomitable spirit-and the ghosts of her past-propel her rise from a modest west side shopfront to the top of Manhattan’s tea trade.
Authentic and moving, Jennifer Donnelly’s The Tea Rose is an unforgettable novel.
Which of these books have you read? Tell us in the comments!
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