The Best Southern Books of May 2020

May has arrived, and I’d wager some of us are doing better than we expected during the pandemic, while others are doing far worse. Despite the good intentions of the #BooksAreEssential campaign, the fact is that millions of people no longer have the discretionary income they once used to buy books before losing their jobs, having their hours cut, or facing emergency expenses.

Then again, it’s true that books are essential for keeping independent bookstores in business (and booksellers employed). If you can still afford to support independent bookstores, here are the best new Southern books of May 2020 — either set in the South, written by Southern-based authors, or both!

White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia
By Kiki Petrosino
May 5, 2020

Sarabande Books: “In her fourth full-length book, White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia, Kiki Petrosino turns her gaze to Virginia, where she digs into her genealogical and intellectual roots, while contemplating the knotty legacies of slavery and discrimination in the Upper South. Speaking to history, loss, and injustice with wisdom, innovation, and a scientific determination to find the poetic truth, White Blood plants Petrosino’s name ever more firmly in the contemporary canon.”

The Poison Flood
By Jordan Farmer
May 5, 2020

G.P. Putnam’s Sons: “A captivating, gritty, and tender story of a reclusive musician and the environmental disaster that threatens his small town and changes his life forever.”

Hard Cash Valley
By Brian Panowich
May 5, 2020

Minotaur Books: “Return to McFalls County and Bull Mountain in Hard Cash Valley, where Brian Panowich weaves another masterful tale of Southern Noir.”

Silence on Cold River
By Casey Dunn
May 5, 2020

Pegasus Books: “Three people cross paths in the north Georgia woods one night, setting into motion a race to catch a ruthless and chillingly inventive serial killer.”

The Last Blue
By Isla Morley
May 5, 2020

Pegasus Books: “A luminous narrative inspired by the fascinating real case of ‘the Blue People of Kentucky’ that probes questions of identity, love, and family. In 1937, there are recesses in Appalachia no outsiders have ever explored. Two government-sponsored documentarians from Cincinnati, Ohio — a writer and photographer — are dispatched to penetrate this wilderness and record what they find for President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.”

The Illusion of Leaving
By Jeannette Brown
May 15, 2020

Texas Review Press: “Jamie Wright hates her West Texas hometown of Silver Falls, its small-minded people, the reminder of her childhood there and her failed first marriage—the source of her daddy’s eternal disappointment. Jamie’s in town to plan his funeral, sell the ranch, and never look back. The funeral goes as planned, however, the reading of the will does not go as planned. The night after the funeral, Jamie and two former classmates go for a nostalgic ride to reminisce about high school. When a tornado system blows in, they drive to a nearby storm shelter. There, fueled by vodka, the secrets erupt. The tornado razes part of Silver Falls as well as the ranch. Jamie realizes that she is not immune to the pull of the land, the way its vast barrenness manages to sustain flora and fauna. In the process of helping clean up the tornado damage to Silver Falls, Jamie finally becomes part of the community.”

Boys of Alabama
By Genevieve Hudson
May 19, 2020

Liveright: “In this bewitching debut novel, a sensitive teen, newly arrived in Alabama, falls in love, questions his faith, and navigates a strange power. While his German parents don’t know what to make of a South pining for the past, shy Max thrives in the thick heat. Taken in by the football team, he learns how to catch a spiraling ball, how to point a gun, and how to hide his innermost secrets. Max already expects some of the raucous behavior of his new, American friends—like their insatiable hunger for the fried and cheesy, and their locker room talk about girls. But he doesn’t expect the comradery — or how quickly he would be welcomed into their world of basement beer drinking. In his new canvas pants and thickening muscles, Max feels like he’s ‘playing dress-up.’ That is until he meets Pan, the school “witch,” in Physics class . . . Suddenly, Max feels seen, and the pair embarks on a consuming relationship: Max tells Pan about his supernatural powers, and Pan tells Max about the snake poison initiations of the local church. The boys, however, aren’t sure whose past is darker, and what is more frightening—their true selves, or staying true in Alabama.”

The Prettiest Star
By Carter Sickels
May 19, 2020

Hub City Press: “A stunning novel about the bounds of family and redemption, shines light on an overlooked part of the AIDs epidemic when men returned to their rural communities to die, by Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award-winning author Carter Sickels.”

Things You Would Know if You Grew Up Around Here
By Nancy Wayson Dinan
May 19, 2020

Bloomsbury: “Set during the devastating Memorial Day floods in Texas, a surreal, empathetic novel for readers of Station Eleven and The Age of Miracles.”

New Bad News
By Ryan Ridge
May 19, 2020

Sarabande Books: “In New Bad News, the frenetic and far-out worlds of fading celebrities, failed festival promoters, underemployed adjuncts, and overly aware chatbots collide. A Terminator statue comes to life at the Hollywood Wax Museum; a coyote laps up Colt 45, as a passerby looks on in existential quietude; a detective disappears while investigating a missing midwestern cam girl. Set in Kentucky, Hollywood, and the afterlife, these bright, bold short-shorts and stories construct an uncannily familiar, alternate-reality America.”