The Best Books of 2016 by Southern Authors
Here in the South, we love our stories. We love to sit on the porch and trade tall tales, to rehash family lore over the dinner table until it becomes legend, to curl up with books about our history, our land and our future. The heroes and heroines of our fiction inspire us to live life more legendary, and the true stories make us proud and ready to take on the difficulties in our own lives. As we look back on 2016, we’re proud to report that storytelling in the South is alive and well—from novels to non-fiction, from art books to children’s picture books, from long, dramatic epics to hilarious short stories, here are our favorite Southern books published in 2016.
Fallen Land by Taylor Brown
Buy It: $17.67; amazon.com
At the end of the Civil War, Ava is alone. Her family has been lost to the conflict, and she’s at the mercy of unmerciful and angry men who want to take everything she has left. Her unlikely savior is Callum, a horse thief who chooses to rescue Ava even though it puts him in danger, and the two roam the war-torn South that’s been ransacked, devastated and burned.
A Wife of Noble Character by Yvonne Georgina Puig
Buy It: $17.70; amazon.com
Vivienne Cally and her friends spend hot Texas summers darting between lake houses, church, boutiques and parties. Vivienne is the one with the important family name and seemingly effortless charm—she’s also the one who’s going broke and trying to hide it from her friends. But as hard as she tries to keep her mask on, Preston, an architect who drops in and out of her social circle, might just have what it takes to look past the disguise and see the real Vivienne underneath.
Dimestore by Lee Smith
Buy It: $14.85; amazon.com
We’ve treasured Lee Smith books like The Last Girls for decades, and Dimestore is a new gem for our collections. This time, she’s given us a window into her own childhood; as a girl, she worked in her father’s dimestore. Her window into the past is clear and distinct, and the nostalgia she conjures is perfectly sentimental without being sappy. We also get to see Smith grow as a writer, beginning as a girl in love with stories and ending up the writer who’s brought us so many beautiful books.
Prayers the Devil Answers by Sharyn McCrumb
Buy It: $17.67; amazon.com
Ellie Robbins wasn’t trying to be a trailblazer. She didn’t want a position of power. She wanted a happy life with her husband. But when he dies, leaving her his position as sheriff in a Tennessee town already hit hard by the Depression, Ellie decides to stand up and fight instead of giving up. As she fights injustice and battles her own demons to defend the powerless, Ellie becomes a new heroine who meets the challenges of her life with gumption and wisdom.
Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks
Buy It: $19.22; amazon.com
Irenie wants to leave her husband, but in 1930s North Carolina, that’s impossible. Instead, she sneaks out of bed at night and goes for long walks by herself—but this odd behavior convinces her husband, a strict pastor, that she’s possessed by Satan. He’s so convinced that she’s possessed that he’ll do anything to stop her, and that includes hurting her, her friends, or anyone else in the community unlucky enough to earn guilt by association.
Chasing the North Star by Robert Morgan
Buy It: $16.21; amazon.com
When Jonah Williams escapes the plantation where he’s been kept as a slave, he has almost nothing—no supplies, no support, and no idea where he’s going. The only thing he can hold onto is the star that he hopes will help him find a way to freedom. Jonah’s ability to hide and scramble away from the people who hunt him and want to bring him back to the plantation is challenged when he realizes Angel, another escaped slave, is trailing him and expects to follow along to freedom.
Miss Jane by Brad Watson
Buy It: $18.49; amazon.com
Miss Jane is one of our favorite new Southern heroines. She’s innocent without being naïve, brave without being overbearing, and gentle without being boring. Born with a birth defect that forever puts her at a distance from her family and friends and that requires her to always be detached from other people, Jane finds ways to make connections anyway, and her bond with nature is pure and unbroken.
The After Party by Anton DiScalafani
Buy It: $17.68; amazon.com
Cece and Joan are inseparable, and that’s just fine with Cece—even though Joan overshadows her at almost every turn. Their group of 1950s socialites takes Houston by storm, partying in gorgeous dresses at their favorite hotel by night and lounging poolside by day. But when Joan disappears without a word, Cece is left to try to piece together answers, wondering how a friend she’d always considered a sister could leave her without explanation or closure.
Glory Over Everything by Kathleen Grissom
Buy It: $17.87; amazon.com
In this sequel to her smash-hit novel The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom brings us back into the life of Jamie Pyke, the son of a slave and a landowner. Passing for white, Jamie made his way to Philadelphia, where he built a comfortable life. But all that could crumble when he returns to the South, determined to keep a promise and prove his loyalty. A wonderful follow up to The Kitchen House, Glory Over Everything also works as a stand-alone book.
Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell
Buy It: $17.18; amazon.com
When two little girls are taken to a cabin in the woods and kept from their families for weeks, the case becomes a media event. For the girls who were taken, it’s much more than that. Once they’re rescued, the bond the girls made, the only thing keeping them grounded, is severed, and their real memories get mixed up by the conjecture and assumptions of other people. As adults, the girls both take work on a project that’s eerily close to their own story—it may be a chance for them to reconnect and help heal the wounds from their pasts.
Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother's Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South by Beth Macy
Buy It: $19.99; amazon.com
The story of George and Willie Muse is true, but it reads like fiction—the African American albino twins were kidnapped from their mother in Truevine, Virginia and toured as oddities and curiosities in America and even England while their mother fought for almost 30 years to get them back. Author Beth Macy sidesteps the trap of being too sappy or painting unbelievably distinct heroes and villains, instead weaving a complex narrative about race and poverty that’s realistic and compelling.
The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by H.W. Brands
Buy It: $22.53; amazon.com
We’ve just lived through a difficult election season with polarizing personalities, and it’s easy to forget that our country has been swept up in epic personality clashes before; H.W. Brands retells the contentious debate about nuclear warfare during the Korean War by examining two men who personified the issues for American as the time. President Harry Truman was disliked while General Douglas MacArthur was beloved, and the battle between the two was dramatic, political and personal.
El Paso by Winston Groom
Buy It: $21.09; amazon.com
Winston Groom returns to fiction with El Paso, his first departure from reality since Forrest Gump. Like that novel, this new book mixes imaginative characters with true-life events and historical figures in a story that spans decades. But instead of camping in Alabama and Louisiana, this time Groom sets his story in the American Southwest, and his characters battle Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. It’s a sweeping story full of lively, well-painted characters—and it’s an incredibly fun ride.
The Jealous Kind by James Lee Burke
Buy It: $18.29; amazon.com
Dark and nostalgic, The Jealous Kind brings us to Houston at the beginning of the 1950s. The Korean War is raging, and back home in Texas, classes are becoming more distinct and dangerous as rich oil families clash against the poorer laborers. Aaron Holland Broussard comes up against these tensions when he accidentally stumbles into a fight that gives him purpose, angst and an epic first love.
A Brush with Nature: Abstract Naturalism and the Painting of Life by Alex Beard
Buy It: $95; amazon.com
Artist and conservationist Alex Beard is known for his children’s books, but this lush coffee table book full of gorgeous paintings is all grown up. The flora and fauna of the South come to life on his pages, and the rich colors of Beard’s paintings are vivid, bold and beautiful.
American Housewife by Helen Ellis
Buy It: $16.32; amazon.com
This always quirky, sometimes strange, and compulsively readable book of short stories feels like spending a long afternoon with a best friend, a sister, or the funniest woman at book club. Author Helen Ellis has fun with the expectations placed on womanhood—especially Southern womanhood—but her sometimes-cynicism isn’t bitter or melodramatic. Instead, it’s relatable, compelling and laugh-out-loud funny.
The Guineveres by Sarah Domet
Buy It: $18.93; amazon.com
The nuns at The Sisters of the Supreme Adoration have a few challenges on their hands—and they’re all named Guinevere. Win, Ginny, Gwen and Vere test the bonds of religion as they grow into women and into a tight friendship. What secrets and stories do the girls hold? Will they wait patiently to grow up and leave the nuns, or will they fight against the restrictions of the church and run away to freedom and danger? This coming-of-age story clearly outlines both religion’s glorious moments and its sometimes tragic consequences.
Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8? by Ethan Brown
Buy It: $17.37; amazon.com
Lovers of True Crime and Southern Gothic will be entranced by the intrigue, investigations and institutional corruption in Murder in the Bayou. Between 2005 and 2009, eight women were murdered in Louisiana’s Jefferson Davis parish. Police blamed a serial killer, but after studying the investigations, author Ethan Brown believes the truth is more insidious—that the women had different killers, all tied to the black markets of drugs and sex that have proven so difficult to prosecute and weed out. Brown does an incredible job of humanizing the victims and exposing corruption.
Another Brooklyn by Jacquelyn Woodson
Buy It: $13.92; amazon.com
Four black girls in the 1970s grow up together in a neighborhood in Brooklyn. They’re devoted to each other until life starts picking them apart, fracturing their bond as they grow into women facing the dreams and dangers of growing up. The story is about Brooklyn, but author Jacquelyn Woodson was raised in South Carolina, and you can hear the rhythm of the South in her words; Woodson is a poet, and that ear for verse moves her story along beautifully.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Buy It: $16.79; amazon.com
In Commonwealth, a stolen kiss starts two families on a path that will change their lives. A marriage is ripped apart by the act of adultery, and the children mixed up in their parents’ mischief form new bonds with each other based on the fallout. This epic American story traces family lives over generations until they’re rocked by another scandal that spills their secrets onto a public stage. Ann Patchett’s magical storytelling has impressed us again and again, and Commonwealth is no different; the summers in Virginia, the humor and the poignant family moments are at once very Southern, very American, and very human.
The Nix by Nathan Hill
Buy It: $16.77; amazon.com
Samuel Andresen-Anderson is a struggling author whose mother left when he was a child. She abandoned him then, but when she shows up in the national news because of a strange attack on a politician, the media is hungry for information about her—and that could be Anderson’s big break. As he investigates his own mother to mine the details of her life and possibly publish a book about her, he uncovers secrets, new discoveries, and a history he never imagined—a history that challenges him to try to save his mother instead of exploiting her.
Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton
Buy It: $15.59; amazon.com
Throughout her career as a blogger and author, Glennon Doyle Melton has advocated fierce love even when it comes hard. She teaches that pain can lead to better things, and as a former alcohol and bulimic, she knows of which she speaks. Love Warrior traces her family’s path to healing—but that resolution unexpectedly comes through divorce. Her decision to be open and honest about her brokenness instead of covering up her life’s messiness in order to sell more “self help” books is what makes this story so beautiful, compelling and inspiring.
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
Buy It: $17.37; amazon.com
When Michael Lewis sets his sites on a topic—whether it’s football in The Blindside or finance in The Big Short or baseball in Moneyball—it gets our attention (and the attention of Hollywood, usually). That’s because Lewis takes big, complicated concepts and makes them relatable by distilling them down to fascinating character studies. In The Undoing Project, those characters are Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, social scientists and friends whose unorthodox theories have shaped modern understanding of perception and realty and won the pair a Nobel Prize.
On Living by Kerry Egan
Buy It: $14.97; amazon.com
Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain, but instead of preaching to the dying, she’s chosen to listen and learn. She brings those lessons to her readers in On Living—lessons about making peace with our lives, examining what we find meaningful, rediscovering dormant dreams, addressing our regrets and learning to really love the people around us. These themes come from the dying, but far from being morbid, this book is about finding a better way to live life and reexamining our lives before they’re near an end.
An Undisturbed Peace by Mary Glickman
Buy It: $12.76; amazon.com
Abe is a dreamer. He’s come from the old country to the United States to work for his uncle and make his fortune, but he’s distracted by the love of a mysterious Native American woman he meets one day in the woods. Determined to win her love—even though it seems clear she’s not interested in giving it—Abe makes passionate promises and silly mistakes. But as he matures, his crush deepens into a life-changing friendship and an opportunity to bear witness to unspeakable tragedy that affects not only his lover, but all the Cherokee people of post-Civil War North Carolina.
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
Buy It: $17.64; amazon.com
In The Throwback Special, a group of men get together to play football, but they know exactly who’ll win and who’ll lose, because they’re not so much playing a game as staging a reenactment—they’re trying to recreate the fateful 1985 play when Joe Theismann broke his leg while playing the Giants. In this funny meditation on marriage, parenthood, aging and friendship, football acts as an emotional connection and as a metaphor, giving the men an excuse to act out both their dreams and their disappointments.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Buy It: $16.56; amazon.com
Epic and addictive, Homegoing is the story of two sisters and the generations of family who come after them, all interwoven and connected both by geography and by their differences. One sister is married to an African slaver; the other is sold into slavery. Their story is one of privilege and powerlessness, of circumstance and choices, of family and brokenness. This is a story many kinds of bravery and cowardice; about power grabs and missed opportunities; about strange, dark twists of fate.
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
Buy It: $17.68; amazon.com
Two brothers are hit by one of many small bombs that detonate around the world; one dies, but the other survives, and through his scars (both physical and emotional), we trace the effects of terrorism on families, on countries, and on the psyches of both those who are wounded by the violence and of those who make it happen. Difficult and dark, this book is an important and empathetic look at some of the most serious problems in our world today.
Life Without a Recipe: A Memoir of Food and Family by Diana Abu-Jaber
Buy It: $18.32; amazon.com
Diana Abu-Jaber was raised between two strong heritage traditions—she had a German grandmother named Grace on one side and an Arab grandfather named Bud on the other. Both had strong opinions about her life, and neither one of them kept silent about them. In order to forge her own path, Abu-Jaber had both triumphs and failures; she ultimately learned from those choices, from herself, and from the generations who came before her. This memoir is full of family, love, and incredibly good food.
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
Buy It: $11.46; amazon.com
A little girl named Raymie believes winning the Little Miss Central Florida Tire crown will bring her runaway father back home, so she struggles to do everything in her power, including learning to twirl a baton, to win. Her fellow baton twirling students, Beverly Tapinski and Louisiana Elefante soon drop their competitive attitudes and begin to help each other, forming a tentative friendship. Because it’s a children’s book, Raymie Nightingale is told in simple words, but the themes run deep.
The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
Buy It: $11.16; amazon.com
Horoscopes are taken seriously in Maya’s father’s kingdom, and hers promises only death and destruction. Because of her grim prophesy, Maya assumes she’s safe from being married off, but she soon learns she’s wrong when she’s married to Amar and taken to his kingdom. He shows her respect and desire and compassion, but should she trust him? A lush and vivid story steeped in Indian folklore and mythology, The Star-touched Queen is a wonderful new fantasy story that blends mystery, magic and love.
The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham
Buy It: $15.87; amazon.com
In this meditation on the forests and fields of the rural South, author J. Drew Lanham finds connections to family and identity that we often miss in nature because we don’t engage with it much in the modern world. Lanham is a professor of ecology, and that interest in science and biology shows, but the real beauty of the book is in his very personal connection to nature. From red clay to gold tobacco, this is the memoir of a man drawn to the colors of the South—and the picture he paints with them is moving and beautiful.
The Book of Isaias: A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America by Daniel Connolly
Buy It: $18.75; amazon.com
Isaias Ramos is one of the most promising students in Memphis. Many kids at his school can’t read well, but he’s thrived, becoming the hope of many. But Ramos isn’t sure if he’ll go to college; his Hispanic parents can’t fill out the forms they need to sign, and the price of college, both monetarily and otherwise, may be too high. Author Daniel Connolly’s true story about the realities of many American immigrant families raises important themes but explores them in an easy-to-read voice that’s conversational, not overbearing.
A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life by Pat Conroy
Buy It: $18.78; amazon.com
We were so sad to say goodbye to legendary southern storyteller Pat Conroy this year, and A Lowcountry Heart is the best epigraph we can think of—a collection of speeches, letters and articles from the master himself, plus reminiscences from his friends and family. We’re sad to have lost Conroy, impressed by his writing, and overall so thankful for this last conversation with our old friend.
A Question of Mercy by Elizabeth Cox
Buy It: $25.37; amazon.com
Jess continually makes bad choices for good reasons. She lost her mother when she was young, and her family felt fractured ever since. She loves her half-brother, Adam, even though she despises his mother, but even that bond is broken when Adam, mentally disabled and mistreated, is found dead. Jess is suspected, and when she goes on the run from police, many believe that she’s guilty. Scared and unsure what to do next, Jess seeks out a rumored safe haven she hopes will hide her away from society.
Underground Airlines by Ben Winters
Buy It: $14.54; amazon.com
Underground Airlines teaches us about our own history by exploring an imagined one—the central question of this novel is, “What would happen if everything in our world were exactly the same, but the Civil War had never happened?” In author Ben Winters’ alternate reality, slavery still exists in four states. The mystery he pieces together through the pages follows Victor, a man who’s hunting runaway slaves and but ultimately has to confront truths within himself as he works to infiltrate the abolitionist group Underground Airlines
The Risen by Ron Rash
Buy It: $17.37; amazon.com
Two brothers, one responsible and one with a wild streak, both fall for a beautiful redheaded stranger who shows up suddenly in their North Carolina town. The woman, Ligeia, stirs things up and initiates a rift between the brothers that only grows more pronounced as time passes. When she disappears out of the blue, the distance between them is solidified—until one day when both men are grown, and the brother who can’t let the past go finally delves into the truth of what happened during the Appalachian summer of their youth.
Darktown by Thomas Mullen
Buy It: $17.23; amazon.com
This tightly plotted police procedural is set in the middle of the last century, but it’s incredibly relevant for the world we live in today as well. It’s 1948, and the Atlanta Police Department has been forced to hire black officers. The situation begins uncomfortably, and it only gets rougher when a black woman disappears, and two of the new officers think some of the veteran cops may be to blame. This incredible page-turner balances historical accuracy with a great, well-paced story full of twists and turns that come together perfectly.
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
Buy It: $10.90; amazon.com
Gut-wrenching and hilarious, The Serpent King is the story of a teen whose friends give him solace against extreme religion. Dill’s father is a preacher, and his church embraces snake handling as a sacrament. Author Jeff Zentner is also a musician, and an ear for verse comes through in the writing here, making this a coming-of-age story with a rhythm of its own. Thick with Bible Belt allusions, The Serpent King is about religion and friendship, about music and love, and about poverty in the South.
Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley
Buy It: $10.58; amazon.com
Lisa is a highly ambitious high school student who takes the idea of a college essay to the extreme: Determined to get into her choice of university psychology programs, she purposely befriends agoraphobic Solomon, a teen who’s been shut away in his home for three years. Lisa (and her boyfriend, who she drags along for the ride) soon discover that Solomon is more than essay fodder, and more than his illness, too. He’s smart, has a loving family, and is a huge geek for Star Trek. The friendship that forms between the three of them transforms all their lives.
A Thousand Miles from Nowhere by John Gregory Brown
Buy It: $17.10; amazon.com
Many residents of New Orleans lost everything in Katrina, but Henry Garrett really lost everything before that. By the time we meet Henry, his marriage, his inheritance and his job are all in the rearview. When he stops in a hotel to get his head together, life gets even more confusing as he meets a cast of characters who challenge his melancholy. Beautiful prose and characters you can root for make A Thousand Miles from Nowhere a worthwhile story that evaluates the value of art and of love
The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 by James D. Hornfischer
Buy It: $24.33; amazon.com
Published at the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, The Fleet at Flood Tide examines the huge impact the U.S. battle with the Japanese had not just on World War II, but on all modern warfare. Author James D. Hornfischer balances specifics of technological naval advances with narratives from both the American and Japanese sides of the conflict to create a historian’s ideal story that stretches all the way from Pearl Harbor to the attack on Japan’s perimeter and on to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Infinite by Nicholas Mainieri
Buy It: $9.40; amazon.com
Two teenagers find their place with each other in the heart of New Orleans. Jonah is struggling and plans to join the army; Luz is a track star, but as an undocumented immigrant is unsure of her future. The fragile plans they do have, as well as their shared feelings, blow up when Luz’s father abruptly sends her back to Mexico. In a quest to find her, Jonah heads for the border, finding purpose and proving that love quite literally has no borders.
The Romantics by Leah Konen
Buy It: $11.14; amazon.om
Gael Brennan is having a tough year: First his parents got a divorce, and then he had his heart broken. But even though Gael doesn’t know it, he the very best romantic ally, and it’s none other than Love—personified, and determined to help him heal his broken heart. But Love’s plans are foiled by a familiar foe when Rebound brings a different girl into Gael’s life; a girl who’s fun in the moment but will never bring him true love. Author Leah Konen’s quirky mashup of Cupid-like characters and a coming-of-age love story is a quirky and fun read.
Mississippi Blood by Greg Iles
Buy It: $28.99; amazon.com
We’ve been addicted to Greg Iles’ Natchez, Mississippi trilogy since the beginning, so we gobbled up the conclusion of the series, Mississippi blood. Penn Cage has lost everything by this point in the series; he wants to save a father who’s shutting him out, he’s worried about the Klan, and he can’t trust anyone he usually relies on. In this dramatic conclusion to a stunning piece of work, Iles works suspense until the last second, making us question whether we’d be able to keep fighting if all the precious things in our lives were taken away
A Small Porch: Sabbath Poems by Wendell Berry
Buy It: $17; amazon.com
Poet Wendell Berry writes beautiful meditations on life and spirituality, earth and relationship and community. He’s a master of both fiction and non-fiction, and his verses are simultaneously humble and glorious. This second book of Sabbath Poems (the first was This Day) is thoughtful and reflective, just like Berry himself.