Get a taste of Southern literature with these 15 sensational novels

A sampling of favorite novels by classic and contemporary Southern authors

Each region of the United States has its own literary flavor. Authors writing regional literature capture that flavor by exploring the landscapes, traditions, and culture of their home states.

Lately, the searing heat of my home state sends me straight to the Southern literature shelf, where I find atmospheric fiction that captures the thick, humid air, the boiling tension of family secrets, and the age-old themes the region has grappled with for decades.

The American South boasts a vibrant literary legacy, having borne authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Jesmyn Ward, and William Faulkner. Yet no single Southern novel—or just one book list—can possibly represent such a large expanse of land or such diverse communities.

With that in mind, know that this is a mere sample of what Southern literature has to offer. The examples of Southern literature I’m sharing today include both contemporary titles and classic ones. These are some of my favorite novels (and one of my husband Will’s favorites) by Southern authors, with stories set in the Deep South, southern Appalachia, and the Southeastern coast. All of these areas contain their own traditions, accents, and folktales—but they collectively offer a representative slice of the regional literature of the American South.

Atmospheric, literary, humorous, and memorable—these novels will transport you to the Southern United States with distinct characters and a strong sense of place.

Whether you’re in the mood for a captivating classic or a contemporary take on the region, I hope you find a satisfying taste of Southern literature on this list.

15 absorbing novels set in the American South

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Jayber Crow

Jayber Crow

Author:
This is one of the books I recommend most often on What Should I Read Next? even though I resisted reading this one for a long time because the title simply didn’t appeal. Readers, please don't make the same mistake, especially if you’re drawn to novels that follow one character over the course of many years. You’ll love spending time with Jayber Crow and the small town community of Port William, Kentucky. This gorgeous novel has an impressive sense of place. It's a book you can see and feel. It's contemplative, beautiful, and sad. I can't stop reading or recommending it, and I always hope it finds the right reader at the right time. More info →
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Evensong

Evensong

Author:
What happens when we get the thing we desire most in life—only to find that it might destroy us? That's the question Margaret faces at the opening of Evensong. This tale, set in the mountains of North Carolina, faithfully examines marriage and vocation and calling through the eyes of Margaret, a thirty-something Episcopal priest, who is forced to finally confront matters when three unexpected and—let's face it—unwelcome guests arrive in her sleepy North Carolina mountain town of High Balsam. This book, first published in 1999, has the fingerprints of the millennium all over it. If you love it, go back and read its predecessor, Father Melancholy's Daughter. More info →
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Someone Else’s Love Story

Someone Else’s Love Story

Joshilyn Jackson lives in Georgia, where she both writes and narrates Southern fiction and domestic thrillers. Perfectly suited for reading on a hot summer day, this story begins when sweet 21-year-old Shandi "fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K” when he steps between a gunman who's high on drugs and her 3-year-old son. When the crisis is over, Shandi hurls herself into a new mission: getting him to love her back. This blonde god-like man she so quickly fell in love with turns out to be a brilliant geneticist, whose genetic makeup contains some “specific duplications and deletions.” What Shandi doesn't realize is that she's stepped into the middle of someone else's love story, not her own—but that story proves to be far more interesting than she ever could have dreamed. More info →
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The Sugar Queen

The Sugar Queen

With sparkly Southern women, screwed-up family relationships, and magical realism, this novel is quintessential Sarah Addison Allen: a little bit quirky, a touch romantic, and totally suited to read in one afternoon. 27-year-old Josey lives in North Carolina, where she’d rather eat sugary treats and read romance novels than practice being a perfect Southern Belle. Her unique magic will make readers swoon: the specific book she needs in her life, at the right moment, mysteriously appears—on her bedside table, on her desk at work, in her handbag. Sweet-but-not-too-syrupy, this delightful bite of Southern fiction will satisfy your craving for a darling, unputdownable read. More info →
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Flight Behavior

Flight Behavior

Kingsolver grew up in Kentucky, and sets this novel in southern Appalachia. When a young woman witnesses something inexplicable in nature, her experience creates tension between religious leaders, scientists, politicians, and climate change experts with different views on what exactly it was that she saw. Suspenseful and page-turning, I thought this finely crafted novel had many wonderful moments and a disappointing ending. (That's not a reason to skip: ambiguous endings make for great book club conversations.) And check out the audiobook, narrated by Kingsolver herself. It's unusual for novelists to read their own work, but Kingsolver's lyrical voice perfectly suits her prose. More info →
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Silver Sparrow

Silver Sparrow

Author:
Set in 1980s Atlanta, Jones’ third novel has one of the best opening lines: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist." One of our favorite authors here at MMD, Jones writes about the link between two African-American half sisters, one legitimate and one secret, only one of whom knows the other exists. That is, until the secret of their father's second marriage starts to force its way into the open. Rather than writing back-and-forth between two perspectives, the reader encounters almost all of one sister's point of view in the first half, followed by the other's. The result is an absorbing coming-of-age narrative wrapped in a complicated family novel. More info →
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Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Looking for a sweeping novel set in southern Florida? Follow Janie Crawford as she experiences love and loss and comes of age in the 1920s. Known as Hurston's best work, this story about expectations, marriage, and surprising romance is richly atmospheric. It’s a classic for a reason, with a main character you'll never forget. In fact, echoes of Janie Crawford can be seen in contemporary literature, like Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. I highly recommend listening to the audiobook version, narrated by Ruby Dee, to fully experience Hurston's talent for writing dialect. More info →
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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

Author:
Flagg serves up heartfelt moments, loads of humor, and mouth-watering barbecue in her iconic Southern women’s fiction. In her 1987 novel-turned-Academy-nominated-script, we meet tomboy Idgie and her friend Ruth who run a diner in Whistle Stop, Alabama in the 1930s. Fast forward 50 years, and Mrs. Threadgoode tells their story to a middle-aged Evelyn (and us) for inspiration and encouragement. Evelyn’s life needs a jump-start as she faces down the second half of her years, making this a great choice for anyone wanting to read about seasoned female protagonists or anyone looking for an endearing cast of characters coming together in a small Southern town. More info →
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The Last Ballad

The Last Ballad

Author:
North Carolina native Wiley Cash writes page-turning Southern literature. This 2017 release is a fictionalized account of the 1929 Loray Mill strike in Gastonia—with a special focus on folk hero and ballad singer Ella Mae Wiggins—and was partly inspired by Appalachian mining town backgrounds of Cash's own grandparents. Though set nearly a hundred years ago, Cash's story sizzles with life. Readers, don’t miss his acknowledgements—and if you’re loving this story, go ahead and place a hold on Cash’s most recent novel: When Ghosts Come Home, one of my 2021 favorites. More info →
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Sing, Unburied, Sing

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Author:
When I think of Southern literary fiction, Jesmyn Ward comes first to mind. Her stunning prose and atmospheric sense of place stand firmly in the Southern Gothic tradition. Set in the present day, this story of three generations of a struggling Mississippi family explores inherited trauma, addiction, incarceration, and unsettling history. It’s heavy content, but Ward imbues even the family's most painful moments with tenderness and beauty. Award-winning, uniquely structured, and absolutely devastating, this haunting novel is sure to be considered a classic for years to come. More info →
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Southernmost

Southernmost

Author:
I've been following fellow Kentucky author Silas House's career ever since a friend raved about his YA debut Eli the Good. His latest work centers on Asher Sharp, a Pentecostal preacher in rural Tennessee. When a flood devastates his community, he offers shelter to two gay men—and his congregation's reaction prompts a crisis of faith, and a public meltdown, the video of which goes viral. In the aftermath he flees to Key West (hence the title) to deal with unfinished business from his past. Readers will find a warm and reflective novel, with House's familiar beautiful prose. More info →
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Nothing to See Here

Nothing to See Here

Author:
This weird and wonderful story focuses on a powerful Southern political family with one tiny problem: when their kids get mad, they spontaneously combust (seriously!). The husband is angling to become Secretary of State, and may even run for president one day—but if the truth gets out, his career is over. And so the family calls on an unlikely candidate to step in as a nanny-of-sorts: an estranged old friend with a troubled past who has no idea what she’s in for. A surprisingly poignant meditation on friendship and motherhood, hopes and dreams, triumph and defeat, and a story about becoming your own person, and forming your own family—whether that’s the one you’re given, or the one you find. This is a short book that packs a punch, with a Southern setting and memorable characters. More info →
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Jubilee

Jubilee

Author:
Many readers don't know of prolific Harlem Renaissance poet Margaret Walker. Born and raised in Alabama, Walker published only one novel in 1966. This lesser known work is both historical fiction and a classic: the sweeping story follows an enslaved woman named Vyry through the antebellum era, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, focusing on her struggles and suffering, the men she loved, the children she bore, and her constant yearning for freedom. Fun fact: Walker modeled her protagonist after her own great-grandmother. I highly recommend reading the 50th anniversary edition, with a special forward from poet Nikki Giovanni. More info →
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Memphis

Memphis

I love a good story-behind-the-story, and this 2022 Summer Reading Guide selection delivers: Stringfellow’s grandfather was a World War II veteran who served as the first Black homicide detective in Memphis—before being lynched by his own all-white police squad. Her grandmother was among the first Black nurses in Memphis. This dual legacy of excellence and injustice permeates the novel as it traces a legacy of violence and matriarchal strength through three generations of Black women living in this historic city from 1937 to 2003. It unflinchingly portrays both its strong communities and grim history of racism and violence, yet it also lovingly and fiercely conveys the resilience, grit, love, and even joy of these women and their community. More info →
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Razorblade Tears

Razorblade Tears

Author:
From Will, who loved it: This gritty crime novel shows the many dichotomies a place (and its people) can hold. Appalachian Virginia versus big city Richmond, Black and white, gay and straight, upstanding citizen or lawless criminal. Ike and Buddy Lee aren't friends but they become partners because they share an unfortunate bond–their sons were murdered. In fact the only thing they have in common prior to this tragedy is a strained relationship with a son they couldn't understand—or perhaps chose not to understand. Part vigilante story, part therapy session for the two fathers. This story is illuminating without being preachy. More info →
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Do you have a favorite novel set in the South? Please share your recommendations for classic or contemporary Southern literature in the comments section!

P.S. I’m partial to books set in my home state; here’s a list of 12 books by Kentucky authors.

P.P.S. I’ve learned a ton about Southern literature by reading nonfiction books on the topic. The most recent I’ve read and enjoyed is Ralph Eubanks’s 2021 book A Place Like Mississippi, which covers a ton of ground in just 268 pages.

P.P.S. I snapped that top photo at Greenville’s M. Judson Booksellers, which has (as you can see) a wonderful and varied selection of Southern lit.

Get a taste of Southern literature with these 15 sensational novels

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  1. Adrienne says:

    What a great list! I’ve read some of these, but have some to add to my TBR list. Fried Green Tomatoes is one of my all-time favorite books and movies. A couple of suggested additions are:
    * Crazy Ladies by Michael Lee West – This is a funny and poignant book about six southern women which spans generations and several decades.
    * Watershed by Mark Barr – This is a recent read set in Appalachia in 1937, and is centered around the construction of a dam as part of the program to prevent flooding and bring electricity to the region. The two main characters are a young housewife and mother, and an engineer working on the project. I thought the book did a great job capturing the atmosphere, emotions, and opinions of the time.

    Happy Reading!

    • Adrienne says:

      Oh, I was also going to add Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells. Another southern classic favorite book and movie!

  2. Elizabeth Barnhill says:

    A genre near and dear to my heart! Here are a few that spring to mind: The Sweet Taste of Muscadines, Mudbound, Shiner, Roses, The Book of Polly, The Secret Life of Bees, The Swan House, Roots, The Iron House, Natchez Burning, Calling Me Home, and Take My Hand.

  3. Emily B. says:

    Have to shout out all things Pat Conroy. Especially ‘South of Broad’ for a deep dive into Charleston, SC and the Water is Wide.

  4. Renea says:

    All of Heather Webber books are fantastic and feature the South and Southern Families. Try Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe, but they are all good!

  5. MJ says:

    I just finished Kaye Gibbons’ Charms for the Easy Life and found it full of Southern flavor (and wonderful, strong female characters!).

  6. Cate McGeowan says:

    Quick shout out for ANY book by Sean Dietrich. Listening to his southern voice as he is reading his books are the absolute best.

  7. tiffany says:

    I absolutely loved Memphis! My husband and I lived there for 4 years during grad school and it definitely has a strong sense of place.

  8. shari zychinski says:

    Country Dark by Chris Offutt is one of the best books I ever read but probably won’t read again. (Like the book equivalent of the film “Life is Beautiful). i probably read it 5 or 6 years ago and it still haunts me.

  9. Deirdre says:

    Not a novel, but I finally picked up a book of Flannery O’Connor short stories early this year, and they have been haunting me ever since.

    The Sugar Queen was NOT for me. I was hoping for something similar to Alice Hoffman’s books, and it fell far short. Her character felt two dimensional. Books appear for her, but she doesn’t seem to actually read them?

    However I did love several of the other books on this list and am adding a few that I haven’t read to my TBR.

    • Renea says:

      Try Garden Spells. Its very much good witch vibes instead of dark vibes like Practical Magic gives off, but Garden Spells I feel is a stronger representation of was Sarah Addison Allen can do with her characters.

  10. Deb R says:

    Thank you for all these suggestions. I’m doing a Southern Lit challenge in 2023 and these are great titles.
    One of my favorite authors is Anne Rivers Siddons.

  11. Marissa says:

    This is a great list. Many I have read and some I added to my holds list at the library. I would suggest The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips and Mama Day by Gloria Naylor. And I wonder if Lauren Groff’s book Florida would qualify as Southern? I will continue to read the comments and mine the suggestions for my TBR. Thanks.

  12. Lorie says:

    Great choices! Pat Conroy was mentioned by someone else, but also check out Ron Rash.
    And, M. Judson is such a great book store! 🙂

    • Jessica says:

      Ron Rash is so good, Serena had such a strong sense of place, I could so easily picture western Carolinas in that book.

  13. Beth says:

    A nonfiction writer but Rick Bragg is exceptional about putting the reader into a southern setting and make them 100% feel it. I love his short story collection My Southern Journey. Even better in audio format!

  14. Kimberly Gill says:

    Anne, I will be forever grateful that you introduced me to Joshilyn Jackson and suggested listening to her books.

    I would like to second the addition of the Natchez Burning series by Greg Iles to this list.

  15. Leslie says:

    I was thinking of the great novels written by the late Dorothea Benton Frank, set in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, near Charleston. Another great author I enjoy is Ann B. Ross, the author of the Miss Julia series. They are set in North Carolina, and are some of my favorite characters to read about. I like books with a bit of humor, and to not to have to be so serious all of the time.

  16. Georgia says:

    As a Mississippian, I’ve been trying to read more Southern Lit recently, so I love this list. Highly recommend Louisiana writer M.O. Walsh’s “My Sunshine Away” and “The Big Door Prize.”

  17. Nancy says:

    Recent favorites –
    IF THE CREEK DON’T RISE by Leah Weiss. Set in the NC mountains, 1970s
    THE GIRLS IN THE STILT HOUSE: A NOVEL by Kelly Mustian. Mississippi, 1920s.

  18. Allyson says:

    Love this list and have read half of them. We have another month of hot & humid in NC.
    Just purchased Razorblade Tear” last week. Glad to hear Will liked it.
    Question: I have both Evensong and Father Melancholy’s Daughter in my TBR. Should I read them in order? Will Evensong stand alone?

  19. Carol DeHaven says:

    I love authors Dorothea Benton Frank, Mary Alice Monroe, Anne Rivers Siddons, Mary Kay Andrew’s, Patti Callahan Henry and Kristy Woodson Harvey. Great Southern Fiction authors!

  20. Paula Moreshead says:

    There are several books from this list that I am interested in reading, but no list of Southern writers is complete in my opinion without mentioning Jan Karon. I have read all of her books at least twice and listened many times on audio. Thanks for all of the suggestions both from the post and the comments!

    • Rhonda says:

      Agree wholeheartedly! I kept waiting for her to mention Jan Karon! The Mitford series has delightful characters, and a Southern small-town vibe that is feel-good reading at its best!
      Also I have been to M Judsons in Greenville many times and love it!

      • Mary Latta Brown says:

        Jan Karon captures the Southern small town so beautifully that you literally feel like you are there and that all the characters are your friends. Her books reveal more humanity with each read and re-read. The audio versions are all read by the same narrator and are an absolute DELIGHT!

  21. Amanda says:

    I would add The Secret Wisdom of the Earth written by Christopher Scotton and based on Appalachian Kentucky! It’s a book that has remained on my all time favorites list.

  22. Mimi says:

    I would add Cold Mountain, an Appalachian Odyssey story, Big Stone Gap and The Tilted World, a story of the 1927 Mississippi flood.

        • Laura says:

          Thank you! Walking Across Egypt is one of my favorite books of all time. Had me laughing out loud in several spots.

          In addition to echoing the addition of Lee Smith and Gail Godwin, I’ll throw in a plug for Walker Percy. I read The Moviegoer in a Southern lit class in college and it never left me. And Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Outstanding.

          Thanks for this list – it’s given me so many additions to my TBR!

          • Kathleen Boyd says:

            Laura, I laughed out loud, too…so much so that my husband would ask me to read him all the funny passages. He heard most of the book!

    • Mary Anne Tomson says:

      So many wonderful Southern authors but the list should definitely include Pat Conroy, especially The Water is Wide and The Prince of Tides. You really MUST read Greg Iles!!

  23. Sandra Mosolgo says:

    Also love Rick Bragg(especially on audio) & Jan Karon
    A Gathering of Old Men-Ernest Gaines
    Out of the Night That Covers Me-Pat Cunningham Devoto
    Whistling Past the Graveyard-Susan Crandall
    My Dog Skip

  24. Sheila Pallotta says:

    Eudora Welty is ifdonic, but I absolutely love Delta Wedding. Big family, big house. Take note, when I convinced my book group to read it, I drew up a family tree to keep track of the generations.

  25. Dorothy says:

    It’s not a novel but it reads like one so the narrative non-fiction Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil could join this list!

  26. Janet says:

    Peachtree Road by Anne Rivers Siddons is a wonderful, multi-generational dive into Atlanta, Buckhead, the southern society that was, and the civil rights movement. But then there’s Cold, Sassy Tree, South of Broad, and The Invention of Wings.

  27. Tami Spence says:

    Absolutely, anything Pat Conroy!! Gap Creek by Robert Morgan, may be my all time favorite book. At the time I read it my grandmother had just died and it enabled me to envision her as a young 17 yr old new bride in rural NC who could do just about anything.

    Thanks Anne for all of your suggestions!! I’m rarely disappointed.

  28. Mary B says:

    I’d like to recommend a short novel by Brad Watson “Miss Jane”. Set in Mississippi in the early 20th century Watson has based Jane on an aunt with similar problems. Jane is born with a congenital birth defect that leaves her isolated except for a few people in her life. But the life she leads is truly inspirational and uplifting. This book was a joy to read, plus it has a great cover!

    • Lanne says:

      Eugenia Price and Janice Holt Giles are 2 authors that came to mind. The location of their stories are a character in these books. I visited St Simon’s Island many years after reading Price’s trilogy that took place there. She described the setting so well it seemed like a place I was familiar with when I visited it for the first time. Another book I’d add to the list is To Kill a Mockingbird. Glad to see some of my favorite authors mentioned: Wendell Berry, Dorothea Benton Frank, Pat Conroy. Have added new titles to my TBR as this is a favorite category of books for me!

  29. Catherine says:

    The Voice at the Back Door by Elizabeth Spencer (1956) is one of the greatest novels I’ve read. It’s set in a small town in Mississippi, where Spencer is from.
    Carson McCullers is another favourite, especially The Member of the Wedding (1946).

  30. Robin says:

    Jayber Crow. One of my all times favorites! Also loved Fried Green Tomatoes. Thanks for quite a few more to my tbr list, Anne, and many more in the comments section.

  31. Suzanne Lambremont says:

    So many of my favorite southern writers are noted here, but I have to mention John Grisham. The first distinctly southern setting of his that came to mind was A Painted House set in rural Arkansas, though most of Grisham’s novels are set in the Deep South, like The Pelican Brief which is about the devastation of the marshlands of the Louisiana gulf coast and the corruption attending. My list includes Jan Karon’s Mitford series about Father Tim and The Lord’s Chapel. It helps that I’m Episcopalian. Earlier writers I want to mention also Walker Percy, Shirley Ann Grau, Ellen Gilchrist, Eudora Welty.

  32. I loved The Last Ballad but Wiley Cash’s first book, A Land More Kind Than Home, is also wonderful. Also Fair And Tender Ladies by Lee Smith is an epistolary novel that I’ve remembered for decades.

  33. Jeanne says:

    I’ve always loved “Ellen Foster” by Kaye Gibbons as well as “Raney” and “Walking Across Egypt” both by Clyde Edgerton, a North Carolina author, as well as anything by Mississippi author John Grisham.

  34. Marilyn says:

    Thank you for this reminder that Southern lit is such a rich genre. So many wonderful suggestions in your list & in everyone’s comments. But good grief – what about To Kill a Mockingbird & Gone With the Wind – they are both excellent teaching tools in their own ways. And just fine writing.

  35. Dee Dee says:

    One of my favorite is “Whisteling Dixie in a Noreaster” by Lisa Patton. Laughed till I cried! Several of my book clubs have read it and loved it. Having liven in Memphis and New England I could completly relate to the characters in this book.

  36. MJ Day says:

    A new Kentucky friend introduced me to Wendell Berry this summer. I chose Jayber Crow as my first book to read and absolutely fell in love with it. So glad there are so many Barry novels to choose from.

  37. Linda says:

    Although I was pleased to see Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior”, I was hoping for her “Prodigal Summer”. One of my favorite Southern authors, William Gay, is a master of the Southern Gothic. I recommend “The Long Home”.

  38. Ann says:

    An older author (the books I have are copyright 1956 and 1957) from Kentucky writing stories set in Kentucky is Janice Holt Giles. Likely the books are out of print, but our library had some copies. The Believers is about the “Shakers” settling near Lexington KY. Also a series (I don’t have all the books in the series) beginning with Hannah Fowler. One she wrote about a river boat captain on the Kentucky River titled Run Me A River. That’s how at one time captains were “certified”, they would describe how they would maneuver a river, all the shallows, snags, etc. I guess I’m showing my age, LOL. Janice Holt Giles was a favorite author of my Mom.

  39. Claudia says:

    Oooh, Ron Rash, Greg Iles, William Gay, John Hart are some of my faves! James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series are hard to beat.

  40. Suzy says:

    I would suggest “Swan” by Frances Mayes. We know her from “Under the Tuscan Sun”, but this is her first fictional novel, and it’s good! Set in Georgia, it drips southern atmosphere like the moss dripping from the live oaks…

  41. D Young says:

    So many good authors/books listed. Also Sharon McCrumb’s Appalachia based books: The Songcatcher, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, The Ballad of Frankie Silver. She paints vivid scenes as she blends past/present mysteries together. Wonderful character development and I wish there were more books featuring these characters.

  42. Terry says:

    I just finished the Audible version of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and read by Sissy Spacek. Spacek is absolutely perfect, I mean, really really perfect. And that story should never leave the bookshelves of southern literature.

  43. Emily says:

    I thought I was going to love Razorblade Tears, but I didn’t finish it. I was unprepared for how violent it was. I think I just picked it up at the wrong time.

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