The best novels where the sense of place is so strong it becomes a character

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a mystery author from sunny California who moved to New England to be close to my dark roots. Places spark my imagination. As a child, I’d look at a house and wonder, “What would it be like to live there, in that town and that landscape?” On family road trips, my parents fueled my desire for knowledge about different places by reading from the WPA guides to the states. The books I enjoy the most have a strong sense of place. I want my readers to experience my settings as fully as I do. Setting is where a book begins. Characters and story spring from this fertile ground.


I wrote...

Rattlesnake Hill

By Leslie Wheeler,

Book cover of Rattlesnake Hill

What is my book about?

In dreary November, when the tourists have departed with the leaves, a stranger arrives in the sleepy Berkshire hilltown of New Nottingham. Bostonian Kathryn Stinson is determined to solve an old family mystery: the identity of a nameless beauty in a photograph an ancestor carried with him to California over a century ago. But when she starts asking questions, a wall of silence greets her. Unknown to Kathryn, the hills are rife with long-kept secrets. Her suspicious neighbors on Rattlesnake Hill become openly hostile when she seeks to unravel a more recent mystery: the murder of a woman who once occupied the house she’s renting, Before long she’s in grave danger.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Rebecca

Leslie Wheeler Why did I love this book?

Rebecca is a prime example of a book where the sense of place is so strong that it becomes a character. Manderley, based on a real-life Cornwall estate du Maurier was obsessed with, is vividly evoked in all its haunting beauty and underlying horror. The house and grounds also reflect the different characters of the unnamed narrator and Rebecca. The West Wing with its view of the sea is gorgeous but cruel like Rebecca, while the East Wing looking out on a rose garden is plain but nice like the narrator. I love this book, have read it many times, and presented “Reading like a Writer” workshops focusing on it.

By Daphne du Maurier,

Why should I read it?

41 authors picked Rebecca as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

* 'The greatest psychological thriller of all time' ERIN KELLY
* 'One of the most influential novels of the twentieth century' SARAH WATERS
* 'It's the book every writer wishes they'd written' CLARE MACKINTOSH

'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .'

Working as a lady's companion, our heroine's outlook is bleak until, on a trip to the south of France, she meets a handsome widower whose proposal takes her by surprise. She accepts but, whisked from glamorous Monte Carlo to brooding Manderley, the new Mrs de Winter finds Max a changed man. And the memory…


Book cover of Summer

Leslie Wheeler Why did I love this book?

I discovered Summer when I first moved to the Berkshires, and it quickly became my favorite of all Wharton’s novels. From the opening scene in which a playful June breeze whisks the hat off a young man, catching the attention of a local girl, I was captivated by this story of young love played out against a month of languid, sunny days filled with flowers, green grass, and leafy trees. But as summer edges into fall, the love story falters, giving way to a chilling encounter on The Mountain that has shadowed Wharton’s sensuously described landscape all along. 

By Edith Wharton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Summer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bored with her life in a small town, eighteen-year-old Charity Royall enters into a relationship with an older man, only to find herself pregnant and abandoned when he reunites with his fiancée and leaves town.

One of two Edith Wharton novels set in New England, Summer examines the sexual awakening of Charity, her evolving relationship with her guardian, and the choices that will define her adulthood.

HarperPerennial Classics brings great works of literature to life in digital format, upholding the highest standards in ebook production and celebrating reading in all its forms. Look for more titles in the HarperPerennial Classics…


Raven Black

By Ann Cleeves,

Book cover of Raven Black

Leslie Wheeler Why did I love this book?

Worlds apart, islands have always fascinated me. I was enthralled by Raven Black, the first book in a thriller series, set in the Shetland Islands. The Shetlands attract artists with their natural beauty, birders with their abundance of avian life, and people hoping to escape a difficult past and start afresh with their remoteness. Consisting of scattered crofts (farms), moors, peat bogs, and cliffs overlooking the ocean, the islands are accessed by plane and ferry except when foul weather renders them unreachable. Then the isolation can become unbearable. This is apparent in the opening scene: an old half-witted man whose only companion is a caged raven, waits for visitors to welcome in the New Year—visitors who haven’t come in years and when they finally do, they bring trouble. 

Raven Black

By Ann Cleeves,


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Book cover of She Walks These Hills

Leslie Wheeler Why did I love this book?

I was drawn to this book because it’s loaded with atmosphere, and features hill folk like I do, with the difference that McCrumb’s characters inhabit the hills of Tennessee, while mine live in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts. I especially like the way she weaves local lore and legends into the story, and how she reveals how the landscape appears to different characters, ranging from a long-ago woman, kidnapped by Indians who escapes and makes her way homeward, to a modern-day non-hillbilly who struggles to re-create her difficult journey. Then, there’s the way McCrumb adds a dash of the supernatural through a character with psychic powers—all of which have been grist to my fictional mill.

By Sharyn McCrumb,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked She Walks These Hills as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Katie Wyler still crosses Ashe Mountain, and although a few can see her, Deputy Sheriff Martha Ayers doesn't believe in ghosts. Hiram Sorley has escaped after 30 years in prison and he's on his way home to Ashe Mountain. Only Martha seems to understand that Sorley's wife and daughter are in danger.


Book cover of The Barn

Leslie Wheeler Why did I love this book?

I love how Dean takes a creepy cow head on a barn, and builds a compelling mystery around it. The cow head permeates the book, watching, judging, accusing, and shedding tears in the aftermath of a storm—seemingly more alive than wooden. Next to the cow head, snow is the dominant image. It’s a place for fun, as the main character and her close friend create snow angels, but it also carries a warning in the form of a message written in white, and as a blizzard, it knocks out the power in town, making getting around dangerous. Set in New England in the dead of winter, this is a book to read on a dark, frigid night with a hot drink and a blazing fire. 

By Sharon L. Dean,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A barn with a wooden cow’s head peeking out of the loft…
Two girls bicycling on a September day in 1990…
The friend they find dead in the barn…


For the next thirty years, the case of Joseph Wheeler’s murder lies as cold as a New Hampshire winter. Deborah Strong has settled in the town she grew up in, learning to heal after her friend’s murder, and later, the deaths of her husband and child in an automobile accident. When her former best friend Rachel Cummings returns home for the funeral of Joseph’s mother, the precarious peace Deborah has found…


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The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams Author Of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I was first a clinical social worker and then a social work professor with research focus on older adults. Over the past few years, as I have been writing my own memoir about caring for my parents, I’ve been drawn to memoirs and first-person stories of aging, illness, and death. The best memoirs on these topics describe the emotional transformation in the writer as they process their loss of control, loss of their own or a loved one’s health, and their fear, pain, and suffering. In sharing these stories, we help others empathize with what we’ve gone through and help others be better prepared for similar events in their own lives.

Kathryn's book list on Memoirs illness aging death moving vivid prose

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief…

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her English scholar and poet mother and her pianist father. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' father finds himself single and flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with…


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