The best books set in the midwest

2 authors have picked their favorite books about midwest and why they recommend each book.

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Anomaly Flats

By Clayton Smith,

Book cover of Anomaly Flats

Tired of spaceships and A.I.? Then how about a humorous take on sci-fi horror? If Twin Peaks were a comedy…and also a book…it would’ve been Anomaly Flats. Weird, disturbing events abound in this quaint Midwestern town where an ancient evil lurks behind the canned goods at the local Walmart, and–since they weren’t trying to kill me personally–many of them were hilarious. Or at least the way the characters reacted to them were hilarious. And in the end, isn’t that close enough?


Who am I?

In my teenage years, it was sci-fi (and later fantasy) comedies that made me fall in love with reading. There was just something about exploring worlds where anything could happen mixed with the joy of laughter that kept drawing me back in. Naturally, in the many...many...years that followed, I've read countless novels from a wide variety of genres, but sci-fi comedy will always hold a special place in my heart.


I wrote...

The Taste of Cashews

By Will Hartzell-Baird,

Book cover of The Taste of Cashews

What is my book about?

Wesley Harden was an ordinary history teacher, until he was accused of leading a rebellion that doesn’t exist and stealing a weapon that no one understands. Now, if he wants to survive, he’ll have to outrun a devious bounty hunter, a tyrannical Empire, and a local dictator who, on the whole, would rather have been an accountant.

But along the way, Wes just might learn that some things are more important than surviving. And, while he’s at it, he might even prevent a cashew-flavored apocalypse.

The Cannibal Galaxy

By Cynthia Ozick,

Book cover of The Cannibal Galaxy

Cynthia Ozick's 1983 novel is set in a Midwestern academy founded by a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied France who wants to offer students a “dual curriculum” combining traditional Jewish religious instruction with the secular liberal arts. Eventually, this principal comes into conflict with a brilliant philosopher who insists that he not judge her under-achieving daughter too quickly when she becomes a student at the school. Ozick’s richly descriptive prose recreates the horrors of 1940s Europe and the placidity of the midcentury American Midwest as she surveys the dangers of American assimilation and anti-intellectualism with all the rigor we'd expect of a novelist who doubles as one of our best essayists. As a teacher myself, I recognize the anxieties of pedagogy Ozick portrays—how do we know when and if we’re doing justice to our students?—and I would recommend it to anyone who teaches at any level. 


Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by philosophical ideas, the more radical and counterintuitive the better. But as someone who’s never excelled at abstract thought, I’ve found these ideas’ expression in argumentative nonfiction both dry and unpersuasive, lacking the human context that would alone test the strength of propositions about spirituality, justice, love, education, and more. The novel of ideas brings concepts to life in the particular personalities and concrete experiences of fictional characters—a much more vivid and convincing way to explore the world of thought. Many readers will be familiar with the genre’s classics (Voltaire, Dostoevsky, Mann, Camus), so I’d like to recommend more recent instances I find personally or artistically inspiring.


I wrote...

The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House

By John Pistelli,

Book cover of The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House

What is my book about?

I wrote The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House between March and April 2020. I wanted to capture not the factual history of those early pandemic days, but to record the period’s apocalyptic atmosphere—fears of impending doom amid the eerie quietude; the chaos of contradictory information and ideology in a society suddenly transported online; and above all how it felt for normal life to be suspended in an existential crisis, with all our values and priorities suddenly up for debate.

My story of one quarantined apartment building whose tenants face off over art, politics, and philosophy—a struggle that builds to terrible revelations, climactic violence, and redemptive love—is about how social crisis reveals the conflicting truths at the bloody heart of our individual and social lives.

Tortilla Flat

By John Steinbeck,

Book cover of Tortilla Flat

First off, I love the classics, and Steinbeck was a master. I recommend this book because it makes an appearance in my book. Tortilla was an inspiration. I loved the way Steinbeck casually described the average goings-on, for an average day, with average people. Sometimes novels don’t need to be bursting with conflict. And Steinbeck was a setting pro, I saw his little town and felt it. Vignettes were relatable individually and as one whole tale. Tragedy, comedy, and humor were all there, and totally accessible in one of Steinbeck’s less serious endeavors.


Who am I?

I was a teen in the midwest in the 1990s, so my debut novel, To the Top of Greenfield Street, really hits home. There’s something so potent about where I grew up, and who I met at that formative age, that doesn’t leave me, no matter how hard I try. Professionally or non, I’ve always written, drawn, and acted on stage, and the theater background ensured every conflict in my book was soaked with in-the-moment urgency and discovery. Most of all, I wanted honesty to come through. Thoughts and decisions were as real as possible, and characters breathed with laughter and tears along the way.


I wrote...

To the Top of Greenfield Street

By Ryan Standley,

Book cover of To the Top of Greenfield Street

What is my book about?

After tragedy strikes, Eric (15) starts over in a small town and excels at his first job, but once he lands his first kiss, he’s attacked by a jealous friend. Eric endures, adapts, and finds that peace on Greenfield Street never lasts long.

The debut novel won the 2021 American Fiction Award and was described by Shelf Unbound Magazine as “Hope that makes you believe in yourself.” Publishers Weekly declared it “A vulnerable narrative that will resonate.”

The End of Vandalism

By Tom Drury,

Book cover of The End of Vandalism

Tom Drury has been called “the greatest writer you’ve never heard of” and when you discover his work, you’ll feel a thrill similar to the joy of knowing the gems hiding in plain sight throughout the Midwest (Get it? Plain sight?). The End of Vandalism, Drury’s first novel (you could read any of them- they’re all great, but start with this one as the same characters reappear in future books), takes place in a fictional Iowa town and follows the lives of three of its residents, who are involved in a love triangle. Drury writes real, beautiful, complicated, and thoroughly Midwestern characters. Although Grouse County is fictional, it could just as easily be a real place. And if you find you need more Iowa, read Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella (this is my sneaky way of recommending more than 5 books).


Who am I?

As a lifetime Midwesterner, I've found that, just as the richness and beauty of our beloved "flyover states" can be overlooked by the rest of the country, there is a powerful collection of Midwestern novels that don't get the attention they deserve. I once read a passage by a New York writer that described a character as being from “some non-descript Midwestern town.” The Midwest is only non-descript if you’re too lazy to describe it. I kind of like that I can keep the Midwest like a secret. But I’ll share these novels with you. Best enjoyed on the coast of a freshwater lake or in your favorite worn-out easy chair.


I wrote...

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks

By Annie Spence,

Book cover of Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks

What is my book about?

In Dear Fahrenheit 451, librarian Annie Spence has crafted love letters and breakup notes to the iconic and eclectic books she has encountered over the years. From breaking up with The Giving Tree (a dysfunctional relationship book if ever there was one) to her love letter to The Time Traveler’s Wife (a novel less about time travel and more about the life of a marriage, with all of its ups and downs), Spence will make you think of old favorites in a new way. Filled with suggested reading lists, Spence’s take on classic and contemporary books is very much like the best of literature―sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes surprisingly poignant, and filled with universal truths.

A Boy of Good Breeding

By Miriam Toews,

Book cover of A Boy of Good Breeding

Toews is a Canadian writer, not Midwestern, but I’m from Michigan and we tend to lump Canada in with us whenever possible. My list, my rules. The book takes place in the adorable town of Algren with heroine Knute and her daughter Summer Feelin’ as well as a cast of other quirky lovable small-town characters. Toews has the ability to write sweet and funny small-town stories without pandering to stereotypical character tropes. Whenever I think of this book, I think of the peaceful feeling it gave me one summer, reading on my porch steps or leaned over my grocery cart in line for checkout, whenever I had two free minutes to read. Toews later fiction is quite a bit darker and she does that well too, but I always love to sink into her earlier works when I want something feel-good.


Who am I?

As a lifetime Midwesterner, I've found that, just as the richness and beauty of our beloved "flyover states" can be overlooked by the rest of the country, there is a powerful collection of Midwestern novels that don't get the attention they deserve. I once read a passage by a New York writer that described a character as being from “some non-descript Midwestern town.” The Midwest is only non-descript if you’re too lazy to describe it. I kind of like that I can keep the Midwest like a secret. But I’ll share these novels with you. Best enjoyed on the coast of a freshwater lake or in your favorite worn-out easy chair.


I wrote...

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks

By Annie Spence,

Book cover of Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks

What is my book about?

In Dear Fahrenheit 451, librarian Annie Spence has crafted love letters and breakup notes to the iconic and eclectic books she has encountered over the years. From breaking up with The Giving Tree (a dysfunctional relationship book if ever there was one) to her love letter to The Time Traveler’s Wife (a novel less about time travel and more about the life of a marriage, with all of its ups and downs), Spence will make you think of old favorites in a new way. Filled with suggested reading lists, Spence’s take on classic and contemporary books is very much like the best of literature―sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes surprisingly poignant, and filled with universal truths.

The Great Gatsby

By F. Scott Fitzgerald,

Book cover of The Great Gatsby

This book does not fall strictly into the crime genre, but the climax of the story hinges on a hit and run car accident. There is adultery in the novel but the central theme is one of unrequited love, which is the main tragedy of the novel. The personal story of the characters is set against the backdrop of America in the 1920s, the ‘Jazz Age’, and the book gives a snapshot of the era, in a veiled but excoriating exposé of the Great American Dream. In the real world, another tragedy played out, with the novel a commercial flop when it was published. F. Scott Fitzgerald died believing he was a failure. Only after his death was the book recognised as a masterpiece.  


Who am I?

An avid reader when young, I made the transition from reading to writing relatively late in life. It happened unexpectedly, but once I started writing I found it impossible to stop and have had twenty-eight novels published so far. Fortunately I found a publisher within weeks of completing my first novel, which was shortlisted for several major awards. Currently I am writing the 20th novel in my Geraldine Steel detective series, which has sold over a million copies in the UK alone. As well as writing detective novels, I also support up and coming crime writers as chair of judges for the Crime Writers Association’s Debut Dagger Award.


I wrote...

Fake Alibi

By Leigh Russell,

Book cover of Fake Alibi

What is my book about?

A woman is strangled and her son, Eddy, is arrested. When his alibi falls apart, the police are satisfied he is guilty. Only Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel doubts whether Eddy is cunning enough to kill his mother and cover his tracks so successfully. The situation becomes more complicated when the girl Eddy identified as his girlfriend denies having met him. Shortly after she suspects she is being stalked, her dead body is discovered outside Eddy's house.

As the body count grows, Geraldine finds herself under almost unbearable pressure. She needs to track down the killer before he strikes again.

Struck

By Rachel Langley,

Book cover of Struck

This story was interesting in the way that the author had two main characters who were twins with widely different roles. With one taking the role of the chosen one and the other being in a place to save her, this was an intense rollercoaster ride from beginning to end. Not to mention the worldbuilding, traveling through lightning, was a very unique idea that amped up the suspense. 


Who am I?

I’m a writer of all genres that’s found a lot of love, particularly in fantasy and thrillers. My love for epic fantasies first began when I was young, and like all young readers, was introduced to Harry Potter and the Magic Tree House series. The idea of being whisked away to a magical world captivated me, and so, I started to create my own stories to keep that magic alive. 


I wrote...

The Council

By Kayla Krantz,

Book cover of The Council

What is my book about?

The Council is the governing Coven over the Land of Five, a region entirely inhabited—and split apart—by witches with varying powers. Lilith Lace, a witch thought to be born powerless, happily resides in Ignis, the Coven of Fire, until she suddenly develops telekinesis, an ability only seen in some witches born in Mentis, the Coven of the Mind. She's terrified of it, unsure who she can trust. Her best friends, Helena and Clio, are hot and cold about what she can do, leaving Lilith even more unsure about her future.

At her Arcane Ceremony, the truth comes out. When the Council learns what she can do, she’s taken under their wing and is finally told the truth—everything she’s learned about the Land of Five, herself included, have been nothing but lies.

The Show Girl

By Nicola Harrison,

Book cover of The Show Girl

The Show Girl is a delicious and entertaining exploration of the life of a 1920s Ziegfield girl with authentic period details and Harrison’s trademark ability to plunge the reader deep into the experiences of her characters. I loved being along for the ride as Olive navigated her relationships and friendships, followed her dreams, and pursued the glamorous life—with all its attendant ups and downs—of a show girl. The Show Girl is a fast-paced and engaging read that will leave readers giving a standing ovation to Olive and to all women who choose to live life on their own terms.

Who am I?

I love being entertained while I read, but I equally love to learn something. That has led me to fall in love with the historical fiction genre, and is what also led me to write We Came Here to Shine and The Subway Girls. Part of being able to write good historical fiction is to learn from the masters in the genre. I am drawn to historical fiction that features ambitious women who were notable in their time for going against the strictures and conventions forced upon them, and I have chosen all of these books for you because they feature women like that. I hope you enjoy!


I wrote...

We Came Here to Shine

By Susie Orman Schnall,

Book cover of We Came Here to Shine

What is my book about?

Set at the iconic 1939 New York World’s Fair, We Came Here to Shine features two bold women in a story of ambition, friendship, and persistence with a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the extraordinary New York World's Fair.

Gorgeous Vivi is the star of the Aquacade synchronized swimming spectacular and plucky Max is a journalist for the fair's daily paper. Both are striving to make their way in a world where men try to control their actions and where secrets are closely kept. But when Vivi and Max become friends and their personal and professional prospects are put in jeopardy, they team up to help each other succeed and to realize their dreams during the most meaningful summer of their lives.

Song of Solomon

By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of Song of Solomon

You don’t have to choose what you like most about reading when you read Morrison because she has it all. Stirring plots, elegant language, realistic and gorgeously full characters. Song of Solomon, set in a fictional Michigan town, begins with a death but tells the story of the life of Macon Dead III, from the 1930s to the 1960s. It’s been called “The Great American Novel” and it is. It’s hard sometimes for a writer or an avid reader to get the feeling of getting lost in a book because, being so familiar with the structure of a novel and some of the tropes, there’s so much that can take you "out of it." But I got lost in Song of Solomon. I just dove right in and didn’t come up for air until I was finished and I’m so grateful for that feeling.


Who am I?

As a lifetime Midwesterner, I've found that, just as the richness and beauty of our beloved "flyover states" can be overlooked by the rest of the country, there is a powerful collection of Midwestern novels that don't get the attention they deserve. I once read a passage by a New York writer that described a character as being from “some non-descript Midwestern town.” The Midwest is only non-descript if you’re too lazy to describe it. I kind of like that I can keep the Midwest like a secret. But I’ll share these novels with you. Best enjoyed on the coast of a freshwater lake or in your favorite worn-out easy chair.


I wrote...

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks

By Annie Spence,

Book cover of Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks

What is my book about?

In Dear Fahrenheit 451, librarian Annie Spence has crafted love letters and breakup notes to the iconic and eclectic books she has encountered over the years. From breaking up with The Giving Tree (a dysfunctional relationship book if ever there was one) to her love letter to The Time Traveler’s Wife (a novel less about time travel and more about the life of a marriage, with all of its ups and downs), Spence will make you think of old favorites in a new way. Filled with suggested reading lists, Spence’s take on classic and contemporary books is very much like the best of literature―sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes surprisingly poignant, and filled with universal truths.

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree

By Ann Weisgarber,

Book cover of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree

This powerful, unflinching book brought me closer to the homesteading experience in South Dakota than I ever thought possible. Rachel’s struggles as a Black homesteader in 1917 and her fierce devotion to her family echoed with me long after I finished the book, and it was particularly meaningful to read about the complicated racial dynamics of that place and time. Rachel is an unforgettable character, and Weisgarber’s descriptive passages are magnificent.


Who am I?

History and historical fiction are my abiding passions, and as a child of the Missouri Ozarks, I’ve always been drawn to depictions of Midwestern and rural life in particular. I have studied 19th-century utopian communities for many years and have always been fascinated by the powerful appeal of such communities, and the internal dynamics that always seem to arise within them. My novel series follows the rise and decline of one such community, using it as a microcosm for American culture in general. What might seem like a byway of American history is to me a powerful source of insight.


I wrote...

Slant of Light: A Novel of Utopian Dreams and Civil War (The Daybreak Series)

By Steve Wiegenstein,

Book cover of Slant of Light: A Novel of Utopian Dreams and Civil War (The Daybreak Series)

What is my book about?

On the brink of the Civil War, a group of settlers led by James Turner, a charming, impulsive writer, and lecturer, and Charlotte, his down-to-earth bride, create a social experiment deep in the Missouri Ozarks. Inspired by utopian dreams of building a new society, Turner is given a tract of land to found the community of Daybreak: but not everyone involved in the project is a willing partner. Charlotte, confronted with the hardships of rural life, must mature quickly to deal with the challenges of building the community while facing her husband's betrayals. As the war draws ever closer, the utopians find neutrality is not an option. Ultimately, each member of Daybreak must take a stand--both in their political and personal lives.

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