The best non-Faulkner books from the American South

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in North Carolina and Washington, D.C., and have since lived in Arkansas and Virginia. My two novels are historical, set in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Virginia and North Carolina, and are heavily influenced by the great Southern writers. My books feature family dramas, how the land interacts with characters, questions of fate and personal action, and the decisions that change people’s lives. I love Faulkner, but you’ll find him on every list. He influenced every writer who came later, but there are plenty of other heavy hitters to choose from. Here are a few favorites.


I wrote...

The Reservoir: A Novel

By John Milliken Thompson,

Book cover of The Reservoir: A Novel

What is my book about?

In 1885 in Richmond, Virginia a young pregnant woman is found floating in the city reservoir. It appears she has committed suicide, but there are curious clues at the scene that suggest foul play. The case attracts local attention, and an eccentric group of men collaborate to solve the crime. As the identity of the girl, Lillie, is revealed, her dark family history comes to light, and the investigation focuses on her tumultuous affair with Tommie Cluverius.

Tommie, an ambitious young lawyer, is the pride and joy of his family and the polar opposite of his brother Willie, a quiet, humble farmer. Though both men loved Lillie, it’s Tommie’s reckless affair that thrusts his family into the spotlight. Told through accumulating revelations, Tommie’s story finally ends in a riveting courtroom climax.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of All the King's Men

John Milliken Thompson Why did I love this book?

It’s hard to think of a more penetrating look at early 20th-century American life than this 1946 masterpiece. The rise of a populist governor, based loosely on Huey P. Long, is charted with deadly accuracy and poetic beauty. Read this for profound insight into the workings of the human heart, the way history is conceived and told, and the moral dilemmas of family and community. I’ve read it twice and loved it both times.

By Robert Penn Warren,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked All the King's Men as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 16.

What is this book about?

Willie Stark's obsession with political power leads to the ultimate corruption of his gubernatorial administration.


Book cover of Look Homeward, Angel

John Milliken Thompson Why did I love this book?

Another Southern cultural landmark, this North Carolina tour de force comes, like Faulkner, out of a tradition steeped in Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible. Some people think you can appreciate this one only when you’re young. Not true. I read it for the second time in my 40s and got caught up again in the Gant family saga and those wonderful, rolling sentences, exploding like thunder all around.

By Thomas Wolfe,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Look Homeward, Angel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The spectacular, history-making first novel about a young man’s coming of age by literary legend Thomas Wolfe, first published in 1929 and long considered a classic of twentieth century literature.

A legendary author on par with William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Wolfe published Look Homeward, Angel, his first novel, about a young man’s burning desire to leave his small town and tumultuous family in search of a better life, in 1929. It gave the world proof of his genius and launched a powerful legacy.

The novel follows the trajectory of Eugene Gant, a brilliant and restless young man whose…


Book cover of Lie Down in Darkness

John Milliken Thompson Why did I love this book?

I’ve read it twice, and I can only stand back in wonder at how a person could create such a magnificent work of art (his first novel) at age 26. For richness of character development, philosophical weight, and power of language, this is one for the ages. Though the subject matter is heavy, it’s not a difficult read. Yet there are passages where you’ll want to slow down and take in the music of the words.

By William Styron,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lie Down in Darkness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this novel, the South looms dark and ominous in the background with its Biblical rhetoric, its conflict between a tradition of religious fundamentalism and modern scepticism, racial contrasts and the industrialisation of a rural society. But more than a novel of time and place, it is the story of a tormented family submerged in infidelity and driven by a vengeful love that is blocked, hurt and perverted. Peyton Loftis, who frantically needs a husband precisely because she loves her father; the decadent Milton, whose infidelity has made his marriage no more than a stage drama; and Helen, his wife,…


Book cover of The Dog of the South

John Milliken Thompson Why did I love this book?

Has to be one of the funniest novels ever written: a road-trip story with weird characters, small-time conmen, and twisting dialogue that could’ve been assembled by Beckett. It’s impossible to predict where the story’s heading. There’s nothing like it out there, and it’s as different from Portis’s brilliant True Grit as Mark Twain from Cormac McCarthy (both of whom Portis resembles), and probably his best.

By Charles Portis,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Dog of the South as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ray Midge is waiting for his credit card bill to arrive. His wife, Norma, has run off with her ex-husband, taking Ray's cards, shotgun and car. But from the receipts, Ray can track where they've gone. He takes off after them, as does an irritatingly tenacious bail bondsman, both following the romantic couple's spending as far as Mexico. There Ray meets Dr Reo Symes, the seemingly down-on-his-luck and rather eccentric owner of a beaten up and broken down bus, who needs a ride to Belize. The further they drive, in a car held together by coat-hangers and excesses of oil,…


Book cover of The Old Forest and Other Stories

John Milliken Thompson Why did I love this book?

Taylor is one of the authors who made me want to be a writer. He’s a magician of the short story, compressing events and characters from the upper South into luminous stories that can seem more real than life. He wrote longhand in poetic lines, usually drafting about a hundred pages for every ten he kept. The result is a rich reduction of scenes that move us to laughter and tears. Taylor holds the mirror up to life, and you can’t help but be drawn in.

By Peter Taylor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Old Forest and Other Stories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the grand master of the American short story, these fourteen tales of domestic life in the South during the thirties and forties explore that extraordinary world of manners, expectations and unspoken understanding. The reader is drawn as if by magnetic force into a world rendered in breathtaking, painterly detail. These stories are marvelous entertainments, rich with amusement, yet Taylor renders his characters truly and understands them in a profoundly meaningful way.


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Empire in the Sand

By Shane Joseph,

Book cover of Empire in the Sand

Shane Joseph Author Of Empire in the Sand

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been a writer for more than twenty years and have favored pursuing “truth in fiction” rather than “money in formula.” I also spent over thirty years in the corporate world and was exposed to many situations reminiscent of those described in my fiction and in these recommended books. While I support enterprise, “enlightened capitalism” is preferable to the bare-knuckle type we have today, and which seems to resurface whenever regulation weakens. I also find writing novels closer to my lived experience connects me intimately with readers who are looking for socio-political, realist literature.

Shane's book list on exposing corporate, political, and personal corruption

What is my book about?

Avery Mann, a retired pharmaceuticals executive, is in crisis.

His wife dies of cancer, his son’s marriage is on the rocks, his grandson is having a meltdown, and his good friend is a victim of the robocalls scandal that invades the Canadian federal election. Throw in a reckless fling with a former colleague, a fire that destroys his retirement property, and a rumour emerging that the drug he helped bring to market years ago may have been responsible for the death of his wife, and Avery’s life goes into freefall.

Does an octogenarian beekeeper living on Vancouver Island hold the key to Avery’s recovery, a man holding secrets that put lives in jeopardy? Avery races across the country to find out, with crooked bosses, politicians, and assassins on his tail. Joseph spins a cautionary tale of corporate and political greed that is endemic to our times.

Empire in the Sand

By Shane Joseph,

What is this book about?

Avery Mann, a retired pharmaceuticals executive, is in crisis. His wife dies of cancer, his son’s marriage is on the rocks, his grandson is having a meltdown, and his good friend is a victim of the robocalls scandal that invades the Canadian federal election.

Throw in a reckless fling with a former colleague, a fire that destroys his retirement property, and a rumour emerging that the drug he helped bring to market years ago may have been responsible for the death of his wife, and Avery’s life goes into freefall.

Does an octogenarian bee keeper living on Vancouver Island hold…


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Interested in the South, suicide, and North Carolina?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the South, suicide, and North Carolina.

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