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Let’s Get Out of Here

The Bitter Southerner’s annual roundup of great new Southern books — and a few upcoming publications we’re excited about. If you’re a lover of Southern literature, it’s time to start building your stack again.


Introduction by Kyle Tibbs Jones
Book Entries by Kyle Tibbs Jones, Alison Law, & Chuck Reece
Header Photo by Matthew Jones


 
 

I loved the Tibbs family’s pop-up camper phase.

Three kids plus a neighbor or two piled into the back of a Jeep Commando, Lynn Anderson blaring on the 8-track as my dad hauled the pop-up to the Smoky Mountains. Every few years, we might drive down to Florida for a few days, but growing up in the foothills of Appalachia, campgrounds in the Smokies were our usual vacation destinations.

I was a dreamy young girl dying to see the world, so every summer, I packed my suitcase full of books. Novels were my transportation from my carpet-making mill town to faraway worlds with interesting people leading fascinating lives. Reading gave me hope for what my life could become. Our family didn’t fly off to exotic places, but thanks to Brontë and Steinbeck and even Sidney Sheldon and Colleen McCullough (yes, I read “The Thorn Birds” more than once), I traveled the world.

Now, happily, I have lived a good many things I once only read about in the books of my youth. Still, I read, because I have neither the time nor money to experience every possible adventure in person — which brings me to this list.

Whether you have a summer vacation planned or not (we hope you do), the books we’ve chosen for this year’s Reading Roundup will take you places. We’ve asked our friend Alison Law, reader, writer, book lover and host of the podcast “Literary Atlanta” to help editor Chuck Reece and me build this year’s list. I also include some handy how-to-fit-more-reading-into-your-life suggestions from The Bitter Southerner’s friends on Twitter, beginning today.

The 21st century is proving fertile for great Southern writing, and there are plenty of books from the last year to get us all out of reality and into new (or old) worlds. Here’s a list of recent favorites as well as upcoming books we can’t wait to get to, and a handy list of incredible independent bookstores across the South, where you can stock up. Who’s ready to get out of here?

Let’s go!


Listen to the latest episode of the "Literary Atlanta" podcast to hear how our list came together.
 

 
 
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“Atticus Finch: the Biography”

by Joseph Crespino

Early online reviewers of Crespino’s biography lamented the historian had not written anything about his subject’s early years. Those reviewers must have forgotten the subject of the biography was a fictional character, born a fully grown widower and father to Scout and Jem in the 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” That temporary memory lapse testifies to the power of Atticus Finch and the place he holds in our American literary imagination. Emory University history professor Crespino, who previously wrote a biography of South Carolina politician Strom Thurmond, gained exclusive access to Harper Lee’s papers and correspondence for this book. He also analyzed the life and writings of Lee’s blueprint for Atticus, her own father, A.C. Lee. Readers interested in understanding the three different portrayals of Atticus Finch — the one found in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Gregory Peck’s Atticus of the cinema, and the “warts and all” version found in Harper Lee’s 2015 book, “Go Set a Watchman,” will delight in this well researched backstory. — AL

 
 

 
 
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“Whiskey & Ribbons”

by Leesa Cross-Smith

Leesa Cross-Smith composes an intricate story of three people soldered together by love and grief. Evangeline’s police officer husband is shot and killed in the line of duty while she is nine months pregnant with their first child. In the aftermath, her brother-in-law Dalton steps in to support Evangeline and the baby whose life serves as a measuring stick for how long her husband has been gone.  This is Cross-Smith’s debut novel, published by Hub City Press, one of the South's premier independent literary publishers. Told in three distinct voices with melodic prose to match the musical background of the characters, “Whiskey & Ribbons” is a toast to family and the emotional during that bridges all of life’s before and afters. — AL

 
 

 
 
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“Turnip Greens & Tortillas”

by Eddie Hernandez & Susan Puckett

As a teenager growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, Eddie Hernandez loved his grandmother’s cooking. She told him she would not be around forever, so he needed to learn how to cook for himself. That advice from his abuela not only ignited a passion for cooking and food, but sparked Hernandez’s entrepreneurial spirit. At age 15, he ran a sandwich stand in Mexico. And after immigrating to the U.S. to explore early careers as a rock musician, firefighter, and small-town mayor, Hernandez returned to cooking. With business partner Mike Klank, Hernandez now owns seven locations of Taqueria del Sol, a fast-casual restaurant concept that combines the chef’s Mexican roots with his take on Southern favorites. His spicy turnip greens are justifiably famous. Susan Puckett, a former food editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, helped Hernandez tell his story and collect the best recipes from Taqueria’s database of more than 2,000 made-to-order dishes. — AL

 
 

 
 
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“The Almost Sisters”

by Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson consistently hooks readers with her laugh-out-loud dialogue and outrageous plotlines. Here, graphic novelist Leia fetches up pregnant after spending the night at a comic book convention an African-American stranger dressed as Batman and a bottle of tequila. When she visits her small hometown of Birchville, Alabama, to check on her grandmother and confess the pregnancy, Leia realizes bigger storms have been brewing in her family. She confronts her white privilege with a black man’s child growing inside her womb and her grandmother’s dementia unloosing decades of secrets. This is the beauty of a Joshilyn Jackson novel. You will find yourself laughing and crying as her vibrant characters wrestle with some of society’s toughest challenges, all the while hurtling through the pages to solve the mysteries nested within. — AL

 
 

 
 
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“An American Marriage”

by Tayari Jones

When deciding on a title for her fourth novel, Tayari Jones at first shirked from her publisher’s suggestion, “An American Marriage.” Jones says she embraces all the adjectives that precede the word “writer” — fiction, African-American, Southern, woman, etc. — that people use to describe her. Still, she needed a little time to determine if her story of a husband and wife separated by wrongful conviction and imprisonment was an “American” story. A conversation with her Spelman College writing professor and mentor Pearl Cleage convinced Jones that this novel was emblematic of other marriages and relationships shaped in our country’s crucible of mass incarceration, a topic Jones spent a year researching thanks to a Harvard fellowship. This dramatic story set in Louisiana and Georgia attracted the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who named “An American Marriage” her first book-club pick of 2018. Jones, who previously said she wrote books to return to her native Atlanta in her imagination, will come home for real this fall to join the faculty of Emory University's creative writing program. — AL

 
 

 
 
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“A Storytelling of Ravens”

by Kyle Lukoff & Natalie Nelson

How I love Natalie Nelson’s illustrations. You’ve probably heard us raving about her before. “The King of the Birds,” her last book, was marvelous. She’s also worked with The Bitter Southerner on various stories and projects, including our Christmas card for 2017. Now, Natalie has teamed up with writer Kyle Lukoff for “A Storytelling of Ravens.” In this children’s book (technically suitable for kids 5 and up, but also going on this adult’s coffee table), Nelson and Lukoff explore “terms of venery,” the idiosyncratic names we have for groups of animals. A sloth of bears, a nuisance of cats, a smack of jellyfish. “The Storytelling of Ravens” Let’s study the animal kingdom and celebrate of the oddities of the English language. This is a vocabulary exercise of the most delightful kind. A bloat of hippos? Who knew! — KTJ

 
 

 
 
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“The Comfort Food Diaries’’

by Emily Nunn

Published in September of last year, Emily Nunn’s book has gotten an ungodly amount of glowing reviews. Now that I’ve read it, I know why. Who hasn’t had a broken heart? And who among us hasn’t soothed ourselves with a little banana pudding or half a pan of box-mix brownies? Nunn spent over a decade as an arts editor at The New Yorker, but she is a Virginia native who now lives in little Todd, North Carolina, in the mountains north of Boone. She definitely struts her Southern Gothic stuff in this memoir. On her road trip to recovery, she is alternately heartbreaking and hilarious. Oh, and there are recipes; did I mention that? With heartache, humor, nostalgia, and so much Southern food, Emily Nunn stole my heart. “The Comfort Food Diaries” is delicious. No guilt in devouring this one. — KTJ

 
 

 
 
 
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“Country Dark”

by Chris Offutt

Chris Offutt made big waves in 1992 with his first book of short stories, “Kentucky Straight.” Its stories, set in his native Eastern Kentucky, instantly drew wide attention in the literary world. But by the time “Country Dark” was published last month, fans of Offutt’s fiction had been waiting for new material for 21 years, since the 1997 publication of the novel “The Good Brother.” They will not be disappointed with “Country Dark.” The book’s tale begins with the 1954 homecoming to Kentucky of a Korean War veteran named Tucker, who saves a girl named Rhonda from a rape attempt by her uncle and then quickly marries her.“Country Dark” covers the next 17 years of their life as Tucker makes a living running moonshine, which lands him in prison, leaving Rhonda to provide for their brood of children. Offutt’s language feels sharper than ever — no doubt honed by his time spent writing teleplays for the likes of HBO’s “True Blood” and Showtime’s “Weeds.” Offutt was writing gritty fiction about Appalachia a generation before current authors like David Joy and Brian Panowich. We love their work, but it’s great to have one of the masters back in the game. — CR

 
 

 
 
 
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“Soul”

by Todd Richards

This book is a stunning and important attempt push the heart of Southern cuisine forward. The author, Chef Todd Richards, lays it out on one of the first pages: “Soul food is the original cuisine of the South, born from an involuntary collision of cultures. It made its way North and around the country with the Great Migration.” But from there, Richards pushes the genre. The recipes we have from those original dishes remain in his arsenal, but he moves them forward, incorporating and elaborating on contributions from many cultures. “Soul” is Todd’s homage to the cuisine of his family and ancestors. It’s also his take on soul food’s evolution. The book is organized by specific foods: Collards, Onions, Berries, Lamb, Seafood, Corn, Tomatoes, Melons, Stone Fruit, Eggs & Poultry, Beans & Rice, and Roots & Essentials. (Make you want to head for the farmer’s market? Me, too.) The real beauty of “Soul” is you feel you’ve spent time in the kitchen with Todd, and that, friends, is a wonderful thing. On the last page, Richards even adds a playlist that includes Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart.” “Soul” comes straight from the heart of the good Chef Richards. I can’t wait to make everything in this book. — KTJ

 
 

 
 
 
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“The Fighter”

by Michael Farris Smith

The main character of Michael Farris Smith’s fourth novel is Jack Boucher. This is how we meet Jack in the first sentence of the book: “When he was two years old the boy was dropped off at the donation door at the Salvation Army second-hand store in Tunica wearing nothing but a diaper.” No surprise, then, when we learn Boucher grows up to make his living in illegal, backwoods cage fights. “The Fighter” finds the character at the tail end of a long career, his body broken in more ways than he can count and his spirit twisted by all he cannot do for the woman, now slipping into dementia, who took him in and raised him. Few scribes alive write about hard people in hard circumstances as compellingly as Smith. Publicity sheets from his publisher frequently contain comparisons of his work to Cormac McCarthy’s. They are not hyperbolic. Smith is that good. — CR

 
 

 
 
 
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“Amal Unbound”

by Aisha Saeed

Amal, the protagonist of this middle-grades book (recommended for readers aged 10 and up), is the eldest of four daughters living in Punjab, Pakistan. She loves going to school and stays behind to shadow her favorite teacher because she aspires to teach one day. When she unwittingly insults a member of her village’s ruling family, Amal becomes an indentured servant to the family and must find small, secretive ways to advance her education and teach others. Pakistani-American author Aisha Saeed grew up in Florida and now lives in Georgia with her husband and three sons. The character of Amal was inspired in part by Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who survived being shot point blank on a bus for speaking out about education for girls. Yousafzai went on to become the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner and to establish the Malala Fund to champion every girl’s right to safe, quality education. Amal represents the many unnamed young people around the world whose acts of resistance don’t make headlines. — AL

 
 

 
 
 
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“The Cooking Gene”

by Michael Twitty

Last year brought us two histories of our region that some might have dismissed as mere “food books,” but John T. Edge’s “The Potlikker Papers” and Michael Twitty’s “The Cooking Gene” stand among the 21st century’s most important histories of the South. Twitty’s book arrived too late to appear on our list in 2017, but it proves to be every bit as important as Edge’s. “The Cooking Gene” had us from the first page, where Twitty posits, “The Old South is a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are, to tell others who they are, and to tell stories about where they’ve been. … It is [also] a place in the mind where we dare not talk about which came first, the African cook or the European mistress, the Native American woman or the white woodsman.” Ultimately, Twitty’s book makes clear, in no uncertain terms and with historic documentation, that “Southern food” — this idea we love almost more than life itself — is the most multicultural thing the South has ever created, and that we did it in spite of ourselves. If you believe the soul of Southern food “belongs” to any individual group, race, or class of people, “The Cooking Gene” will show you exactly how wrong you are. — CR

 
 

 
 
 
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“The Hidden Light of Northern Fires”

by Daren Wang

Scarlett O’Hara can vex the soul of a Southern reader. Because of her, Old South mythology sticks like pine resin to our region’s narrative. Still, her never-go-hungry-again persistence lodges itself in readers’ (and moviegoers’) brains. But imagine, if you will, a different version of Scarlett: another young woman struggling mightily through the Civil War to preserve her family’s farm. But unlike Tara, this family farm is just across the river from Canada in New York state, and unlike Scarlett, Mary Willis helps escaped slaves find freedom to the north. In a way, Daren Wang gave us the anti-Scarlett when he created Willis, the primary character of his debut novel. It hit bookstores in late August of last year, I read it in September, and it lingers with me still. Young Mary is as scrappy as Scarlett, but with far better intentions. “Hidden Light” works almost like an inside-out version of "Gone With the Wind," telling the story of the Civil War from a far different but absolutely parallel perspective. — CR

 
 

 
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Other Must-Reads From the Past Year

Fiction

  • “The Gods of Howl Mountain” by Taylor Brown
  • “Varina” by Charles Frazier
  • “Bluebird, Bluebird” by Attica Locke
  • “Lightning Men” by Thomas Mullen
  • “Dear Martin” by Nic Stone (young adults: suitable for grades 9 and up)
  • “Sing Unburied Sing” by Jesmyn Ward

Nonfiction

  • “My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy” by Katherine Clark
  • “The Gulf: the Making of an American Sea” by Jack E. Davis
  • “Buttermilk Graffiti” by Edward Lee
  • “Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found” by Gilbert King
  • “Masterless Men: Poor Whites & Slavery in the Antebellum South” by Keri Leigh Merritt
  • “The Burning House: Jim Crow and the Making of Modern America” by Anders Walker
  • “Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover's Tour of the Global South” by Virginia Willis

Five Upcoming Southern Novels We Can’t Wait to Read

  • “Southernmost” by Silas House (out June 5)
  • “Treeborne” by Caleb Johnson (out June 5)
  • “The Line That Held Us” by David Joy (out August 14)
  • “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens (out August 14)
  • “Visible Empire” by Hannah Pittard (out June 5)

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Thanks to our friends in the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, an exhaustive list of hardworking indie book merchants, all across the South. See the List