12 of the best and brightest Southern books for summer 2017

Debut novels, memoirs among the anticipated releases.
The AJC bookshelf

The AJC bookshelf

When browsing bookstores this summer, you might need sunglasses.

The impending wave of new titles shows an almost comical fixation on illumination. Blame it on the success of Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” or a collective backlash to the dark times we’re living in, but this virtual charge of the light brigade shines forth in everything from memoir (“This Gladdening Light,” “The Bright Hour”) to thrillers (“Shadow of the Lions,” “The Night the Lights Went Out”) and literary fiction (“The Hidden Light of Northern Fires”).

Book lovers craving warm-weather reading, light or otherwise, will find authors covering a dazzling spectrum of subjects — shark attacks, gay conversion camps, war heroes, breast cancer, sex dolls.

Here are a few of the summer’s best and brightest new Southern books.


‘Extraordinary Adventures’ by Daniel Wallace

If the recent Theatrical Outfit production of Wallace's "Big Fish" left you feeling all warm and swimmy, the North Carolina novelist's latest promises more of the same offbeat giddiness. Single and awkward Edsel Bronfman receives a call that jump-starts his brokedown life. He's "won" a free weekend trip to view time-shares in Destin, Fla. The catch? He has less than three months to find a companion for the getaway or the invitation is void. Antics ensue, some racy, others more endearing, but definitely none ordinary. (St. Martin's Press, May)

‘How to Survive a Summer’ by Nick White

“In the summer of 1999, when I was 15 years old, I spent almost four weeks at a camp that was supposed to cure me of my homosexuality,” Will Dillard confesses at the start of this striking debut novel. The anxious grad student is forced to confront long-buried memories of backwater Mississippi upon seeing a trailer for a new slasher flick inspired by the camp and its fanatical founders. (Blue Rider Press, June)

‘Made for Love’ by Alissa Nutting

In her previous novel, “Tampa,” former Floridian Nutting crafted a bold and satirical tale of sexual obsession. Her latest veers more toward the comic camp, exploring raunchy proclivities and unbelievable deviances in a trailer park of the near future. Fleeing an overbearing husband, Hazel reluctantly holes up with her 76-year-old dad and his lifelike, but artificial, companion. While Nutting’s nutty world may not appeal to everyone, this cautionary tale delivers timely commentary on surveillance and technology’s dark potentials. (Ecco, July)

“Atlanta Noir” Edited by Tayari Jones

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‘Atlanta Noir’ edited by Tayari Jones

Jones, author of "Leaving Atlanta," returns to the South via Akashic's ever-growing city anthology series. The collection features stories from an impressive roster of talent including Jim GrimsleySheri Joseph, Gillian Royes, Anthony Grooms and David James Poissant. The 14 selections each take place in different Atlanta neighborhoods. "My hope was to find the writers who could show the city in all of its dizzy complexity," Jones writes. "There is more going on at the local Waffle House than just scattering, smothering and chunking. This is a major international city, but it's still the Bible Belt." (Akashic, August)

‘Shadow of the Lions’ by Christopher Swann

Suspense, mystery and the risks of homecoming figure prominently in Swann’s absorbing debut, a literary thriller and coming-of-age story set at an elite Virginia boarding school. Struggling novelist Matthias Glass lands an instructor position at his alma mater — the campus where his closest friend vanished 10 years earlier. Swann teaches English at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta. (Algonquin Books, August)

“The Hidden Light of Northern Fires” by Daren Wang

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‘The Hidden Light of Northern Fires’ by Daren Wang

Wang, co-founder of the AJC Decatur Book Festival and longtime radio producer, can add yet another category to his C.V. with the publication of this alluring first novel. The book was inspired by the curious history of Wang's hometown near Buffalo, New York, the only secessionist town north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Set in the early days of the Civil War, the novel pits fierce abolitionist Mary Willis against her neighbors and kinfolk as she helps a fugitive slave escape to Canada. (Thomas Dunne, August)


‘The Song and the Silence’ by Yvette Johnson

Not to be confused with Jesmyn Ward’s much-anticipated “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” another tense family portrait with a similar locale, this book’s subtitle is a mouthful: “A Story about Family, Race, and What Was Revealed in a Small Town in the Mississippi Delta While Searching for Booker Wright.” In 1966, the author’s grandfather appeared on a news special that exposed the humiliations endured by black residents of Greenwood, Miss. Johnson, who grew up in California far removed from her roots, returns to the Delta searching for stories about a long-lost relative and answers to his murder. (Atria, May)

‘Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee’ by Wayne Flynt

Flynt vowed never to return to his native Alabama after the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, but reading Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" changed that. Decades later, the history professor began a correspondence with the reclusive author that lasted for more than 20 years. Flynt writes in the introduction of this charming collection, "These letters record the progress of my relationship with Nelle Harper Lee, but they can only hint at the reasons we became such special friends and correspondents." (Harper, May)

‘Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero’ by Cate Lineberry

Had Lineberry’s well-crafted history been published last year, there’s a chance it might’ve been lost in the deluge of slave narratives, nudging its almost-forgotten Civil War hero closer to oblivion. The author of “The Secret Rescue” constructs an immersive account of how an enslaved 23-year-old sailor commandeered a Confederate transport vessel and delivered it to the Union fleet near Charleston Harbor, winning freedom for himself, fellow crew members and his family. (St. Martin’s Press, June)

‘This Gladdening Light: An Ecology of Fatherhood and Faith’ by Christopher Martin

Martin, an award-winning poet who lives in northwest Georgia, describes his effervescent debut as “part-essay collection, part memoir, part notebook” — as well as “chronicles, psalms, jeremiads and visions.” In language stout and musical, the author ruminates on fatherhood and faith while lost on the Appalachian Trail, running up Kennesaw Mountain, playing tourist at Walden Pond and gardening in his own backyard. “That the world is fallen is a belief I am shedding,” he writes in the first essay, “but to do so in light of daily exposures to violence … is a difficult thing indeed.” (Mercer University Press, June)

‘The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying’ by Nina Riggs

There are many things worse than death, says Riggs, including “old grudges, a lack of self-awareness, severe constipation” and “no sense of humor.” Her wry and tender memoir demonstrates that the North Carolina poet retained her dry wit even after learning at age 38 that she had incurable breast cancer. “The Bright Hour” assembles and streamlines posts written for her cancer blog, “Suspicious Country” — touching meditations on everything from Montaigne to motherhood. Riggs died in February, not long after finishing the book’s manuscript. (Simon & Schuster, June)

“Rabbit the Autobiography of Ms. Pat” by Patricia Williams

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‘Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat’ by Patricia Williams and Jeannine Amber

Williams can joke about it now, but her childhood in some of Atlanta’s roughest ghettos was no laughing matter. Nicknamed “Rabbit,” the comedian grew up with a boozy mom and five siblings in a bootleg house where folks drank, gambled and fought all night. This outrageous and affectionate autobiography details her improbable escape from the ’hood via the standup circuit. “I’ve hustled and schemed, been shot twice, beaten with a roller skate, locked behind bars with a bunch of junkies and hookers, and nearly got my head blown off …,” she recalls. “Somehow, I survived.” (Dey Street, August)


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