Handpicked Southern titles for your summer reading list

Tom Robbins, Tony Earley and Lydia Netzer lead this year’s picks of novels, short-story collections and memoirs to take to your summer getaway of choice. It’s a great mix of books packed with dirty cops, astrology, unsolved murders, suicide by lions, Bigfoot, orphans and apocalyptic weather.

“Acts of God,” Ellen Gilchrist

With the publication of her first collection of short stories in 1981, "In the Land of Dreamy Dreams," Mississippi native Gilchrist established her reputation as a master of short fiction. Her new collection, which Gilchrist calls "a book of praise and wonder," reintroduces many familiar characters, including Rhoda Manning and Anna Hand, pitting them against some fierce natural disasters — hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fatal illness — that force them to draw on survival skills that go back for generations. Although some stories end with a tacked-on "that's life!" finale, Gilchrist at 79 is as sharp, funny and insightful as ever. Algonquin Books.

“Ruby,” Cynthia Bond

Bond's harrowing and powerful debut resurrects the life of a broken woman who has washed up in her east Texas hometown, the ironically named Liberty. Inducted at an early age into a pedophile cult, Ruby has seen it all, from the inside of a brothel at age 6 to her glory days as a romantic figure in New York City's 1950s literary bohemia. Now an outcast, haunted by demonic visions, Ruby claws her way back from a nearly feral existence with the help of a man who has loved her since childhood. Hogarth.

“Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life,” Tom Robbins

Who knew that Robbins, the Zen trickster of '60s-era West Coast mysticism and psychedelia, hailed from little old Blowing Rock, N.C.? Come to think of it, he's drenched in that tall-tales mountain vibe, and his long-awaited memoir is, too. "This is not an autobiography!" Robbins protests in the preface, citing his lack of ego for such an undertaking. Die-hard fans won't care what it is, as long as Robbins is at the helm, recounting his youth in Virginia, the evolution of "Another Roadside Attraction" (1971), his innumerable romances and his newspaper days with the Richmond Times-Dispatch and as art critic for the Seattle Times. Oh, and that time he almost ran away with the circus, of course. Ecco.

“The Transcriptionist,” Amy Rowland

In Rowland's original and timely debut, Lena, a lonely young woman, transcribes incoming news for a thinly disguised NYC newspaper. Elements of fable and fairytale play into the story: Lena's office is on a forgotten floor of the news building, her only companion is a mysterious character who restores the paper's archive of obits, and she feels herself slowly disappearing into the words she listens to. A news item about a blind woman who committed suicide by walking into the lion cage at the Bronx Zoo sends Lena on a strange quest that involves the future and ethics of news, and asks whether, in our flooded information age, language can continue to have meaning. Algonquin Books.

“A Southern Girl,” John Warley

In the inaugural book on Pat Conroy's new USC Press fiction imprint, Warley employs several voices — a South Carolina couple, an orphanage worker and a mother who abandons her daughter — to tell the story of a Korean baby adopted into a Southern family with deep roots in Charleston's exclusive South of Broad enclave. Though there are definite echoes of Conroy in the setting and characters, Warley holds his own in a heartfelt story about family ties and an outsider who eventually finds a way to belong. Story River Books, University of South Carolina Press

“Flying Shoes,” Lisa Howorth

Back in 1979, Howorth and her husband launched one of the country's best known independent bookstores, Square Books, in Oxford, Miss. Her first novel, based on the murder of her brother in 1966, is not as grim as the subject might suggest. Instead, Howorth creates a fictional world of memorable Southern oddballs who come into play when wife and mother Mary Byrd gets a call from a detective who says there is a new lead in her younger brother's long unsolved murder case. Bloomsbury, June 17

“Cop Town,” Karin Slaughter

Readers got a staggering look at the rampant sexism and racism in the Atlanta Police Department ca. 1975 in a flashback storyline in Slaughter's sixth Will Trent book, "Criminal." Now, in her first stand-alone novel, Slaughter revisits the time when women in the APD were routinely hazed, harassed and given every opportunity to quit. Five-year veteran plainclothes woman Maggie Lawson and partner Kate Murphy are no exception as they battle an avalanche of '70s-era hostility from the good-old-boy guard in this matchless portrait of Atlanta's Finest, Cagney and Lacey style. Delacorte Press, June 24

“Don’t Talk to Strangers,” Amanda Kyle Williams

The third installment in Williams' "Stranger" series finds ex-FBI profiler Keye Street abandoning Atlanta in the midst of a sweltering summer for rural Georgia, where the remains of two young girls have turned up. One body is skeletal, the other more recent — but the second victim disappeared eight months earlier. Though he knows an outsider won't be popular, the sheriff needs Keye's expertise to help find the killer, one of several suspects Williams cleverly keeps in the running as another girl goes missing and Keye senses that someone is watching her every move. Bantam, July 1

“How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky,” Lydia Netzer

Netzer's much heralded debut, "Shine Shine Shine," told the story of an astronaut and his wife, two people whose quirks and flaws fit together like separate parts of the same person. Her second novel takes the notion of soul mates to a whole new level: Irene and George, two astronomers based at the Toledo Institute of Astronomy, are strangely drawn to each other, unaware that their mothers planned their births to coincide and intended them to meet and fall in love — until one changed her mind. St. Martin's Press, July 7

“The Mockingbird Next Door,” Marja Mills

Former Chicago Tribune reporter Mills doesn't so much tell all as peek into the lives of author Harper Lee (aka Nelle Harper, her real name) and her older sister, Alice, who live together in Monroeville, Ala., the setting for "To Kill a Mockingbird." No big secrets and surprises here, but rather a tender, respectful portrait at times so reticent it seems Mills has renounced her journalism degree. The Lees welcomed her into their world, contingent on Mills' promise never to write anything about them without approval. The trade-off: A friendship, documented in Mills' patient, read-between-the-lines accounts of daily routines — morning coffee, drives to scenic outlooks, trips to the duck pond and many meals at favorite restaurants. Penguin Press, July 15

“Mr. Tall: A Novella and Stories,” Tony Earley

Earley is perhaps best known for his heartwarming coming-of-age novel, "Jim the Boy," and its follow-up, "The Blue Star." But his first book was a collection of short stories ("Here We Are in Paradise") and after two decades, Earley returns with a new collection based on the Appalachian folk tales he heard growing up in Rutherfordton, N.C. They're tall, all right: Bigfoot cruises through the backyard; Jack the Giant Killer meets a talking dog; a woman who lives in Jesse James' one-time home finds more than she bargained for in the basement, and a lonely wife concocts a way-taller-than-life neighbor. Little, Brown and Company, Aug. 26

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