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Whether you’re participating in our 2023 Read Around the USA Challenge, or simply found your way to our website researching books set in America’s Heartland, you’ve come to the right place!
Below you’ll find a list of highly-rated books featuring some of the states in the middle of the country. This month includes Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and Nebraska. A search for “where is the heartland of America” will return many different results. Definitions focus on a range of factors from geography and agriculture to share values. Some people use “heartland” synonymously with “the Midwest.” However, the more common definition includes a wider area, stretching north to south through the middle of the country. The states featured this month are located right in the center of the Heartland – the middle of the middle.
If you are looking for a book set in another state in the Heartland, we’ll be covering those states on other lists. Books set in North and South Dakota will be included on October’s list. Books set in Ohio will be on November’s list. Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Michigan books will be included on December’s list. Books set in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi will be on the July list. And Alabama and Tennessee books can be found here.
What Kind of Books Are Included On This List?
Our curated recommendations strike a good balance between historical fiction, contemporary novels, and non-fiction books about the middle of the country. The list is broken down by state. You’ll also find a brief description of each state’s characteristics before the corresponding books.
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Books That Take Place in the Middle of America’s Heartland
A Guide to Midwestern Conversation
by Taylor Kay Phillips
Setting: Across the Midwest, including IOWA, KANSAS, MISSOURI, & NEBRASKA
This short, illustrated guide will make you laugh out loud as you learn about the colloquialisms and sentiments of the Heartland. For example, if a Midwesterner says, "I didn't really care for it," that actually means they hated it beyond belief.
The author was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, right in the heart of the Midwest, giving an authentic feel to this non-fiction guide that strikes the humourous balance of being both heartwarming and self-deprecating.
The Book Girls Say... This book covers a total of 12 midwestern states, only four of which are part of this month's Read Around the USA challenge prompt. But since the author is from Missouri, we thought it would be a really fun, laugh-out-loud addition to the book list.
Taylor Kay Phillips is a writer, actor, and comedian who currently works for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. To quote John Oliver: "Taylor is as funny as she is Midwestern. And she is thundrously midwestern. You will enjoy this book!”
Books Set in Iowa
The first inhabitants of Iowa were Native Americans, including the Ioway and Sioux tribes, who lived in the area for thousands of years. In the 1800s, Iowa was part of the Louisiana Purchase, and it became a state in 1846.
The state’s early economy was based on agriculture, and today it remains the leading producer of corn and soybeans. It is also a significant producer of hogs, cattle, and eggs. Manufacturing, including food processing, is another major industry in the state.
For more than half a century, Iowa has been in the national political spotlight due to its early presidential caucuses. Since 1972, this has given the Hawkeye State disproportionate influence in the presidential nominating process. A strong showing in Iowa can boost a candidate in the polls, and the momentum helps them raise money.
The Iowa State Fair, which dates back to 1854, is the largest event in the state each year and one of the most popular state fairs in the country. Held annually in Des Moines, it features a variety of agricultural exhibits, livestock shows, and entertainment. Because the fair is held in the fall, six months before the caucuses, it’s also a very popular place for presidential candidates to campaign.
Among the popular tourist destinations in Iowa are the Bridges of Madison County, made famous by the 1992 book of the same title, and later the 1995 movie adaptation. While the book didn’t make our list (it hasn’t aged particularly well, in our opinion), we’d love to drive the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway, which runs through John Wayne’s hometown of Winterset.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
by Bill Bryson
Setting: Des Moines, IOWA, 1950s
Bill Bryson is famous for his humorous travel writing, but in this nostalgic and hilarious memoir, he reflects on growing up in middle-America in the 1950s, squarely in the baby boomer generation. Using his childhood imaginary superhero persona to tell his story, he recounts growing up in Des Moines during a simpler time.
The Book Girls' Say... If you've never read a Bill Bryson book before, then we'll just warn you that you'll get both a great book and an ab workout from laughing so hard, especially when listening to the audio version with Bryson's deadpan narration.
This book is also featured on our list of Must-Listen Audiobook Memoirs.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐
90% Would Recommend to a Friend
A Thousand Acres
by Jane Smiley
Setting: Rural IOWA, 1970s
This 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning literary novel is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with the setting moved to the Great Plains in the 1970s. The story follows the lives of three sisters, Ginny, Rose, and Caroline, as they navigate the complexities of their relationships with their father, Larry, and each other.
When Larry decides to divide his thousand-acre farm among his daughters, it seems like a generous and fair gesture. But as the sisters begin to make decisions about the land and their futures, long-buried resentments and secrets come to light, threatening to tear the family apart.
As he ages, Larry’s drinking escalates, and his daughters are left to deal with him on top of responsibilities to the land, their cutthroat lenders, and their difficult husbands.
The Book Girls Say… This modern, feminist retelling of King Lear is said to be dark and dramatic, with some departures from its inspiration. It’s also fast-moving and draws you in quickly despite being a character-driven and lyrical look at midwestern farm life.
The Sunshine Girls
by Molly Fader
Setting: IOWA, 1967 and 2019
This dual-timeline novel opens in 2019 at the funeral for BettyKay in a small town in Iowa. BettyKay’s daughters are shocked when Hollywood movie star Kitty Devereaux walks in and places something into their mother’s casket. Over the course of the weekend, BettyKay’s daughters discover a whole other side to their mother as Kitty shares stories of their lifelong friendship, which all began in 1967 at a St. Luke’s Nursing School in the fictional town of Greensboro, Iowa.
BettyKay grew up on a farm in the Midwest and risked everything to attend nursing school against her parent’s wishes. Her assigned roommate, Kitty came to Iowa to escape her past in Atlanta, but already had her sights set on Hollywood. The two, having little in common, became unlikely friends. Another new student, Jenny, completed their trio. Jenny had aspirations of becoming a doctor, but she knew that the combination of being a woman and being Black meant that the odds were stacked against her in the late 60s.
The bond these three women formed at their Iowa nursing school would carry them through the years as their lives led them in different directions - from the jungles of Vietnam to the movie sets of Hollywood.
The Book Girls Say… Author Molly Fader chose to set The Sunshine Girls in Iowa because her mother attended nursing school in Iowa in the late 1960s. She explains that many of her mother’s stories are in the book, including details about nursing school life and working in hospitals in Iowa during that time.
The Overnight Guest
by Heather Gudenkauf
Setting: Des Moines and Rural IOWA
Wylie is a true crime writer who retreated to an isolated farmhouse to write her new book. She doesn't mind being snowed in because the cozy fire and silence feel perfect. However, she doesn't realize a storm is also brewing inside the farmhouse.
Decades earlier, two people were murdered, and a girl disappeared from the same house. As the storm rages on, Wylie is haunted by the secrets of the house, and the secrets of her past. When she discovers a small child outside in the snow, it becomes clear that the farmhouse isn't as isolated as she thought.
The Book Girls Say… While the cover of this book has strong winter vibes, the storyline alternates between a hot summer and a freezing winter. So if you’ve had enough of winter and are looking forward to books with warmer settings this month, this book could still fit the bill.
Author Heather Gudenkauf lives in Dubuque, Iowa, with her husband and children, and she sets nearly all of her novels in her home state of Iowa. The Overnight Guest was a Goodreads nominee for best Mystery/Thriller of 2022.
Another of her suspense novels that we recommend is Little Mercies, which is set in Cedar City, Iowa, and centers around a children’s advocate who, in a moment of distraction on a hot summer day, discovers just how easy it is for a parent to make a terrible mistake that changes everything. Little Mercies is available with Kindle Unlimited as of 4/8/23.
Stars Over Clear Lake
by Loretta Ellsworth
Setting: Clear Lake, IOWA, 1943 & 2007
This split-timeline historical romance was inspired by a real-life ballroom. Lorraine spent her youth in the 1940s swept away by big bands in the Surf Ballroom. Now, it’s 2017, and she is returning to the ballroom for the first time in decades after the death of her husband.
As she steps back into the building, she’s transported back to the biggest decision of her youth. Torn between two men, did she make the right decision when choosing between personal conviction (a German from a local POW camp) and social expectations (her perfect high school boyfriend)? As she makes peace with her youth, ghosts from the past make it hard for her to know what is real.
The Book Girls Say… While the star-crossed romance is a major theme, the book is a lot deeper than a simple love story. You’ll get a look into one of the POW camps set up in Iowa during the war, and see how the prisoners interacted with local society. Additionally, there are strong themes of the rights and expectations of young women in the 1940s.
If you enjoy the music of the 1940s, you may love the references to specific singers throughout the novel.
The author of this novel grew up in Mason City, Iowa, and attended college at the University of Northern Iowa. Her parents met at the Surf Ballroom.
by WJ Kinsella
Setting: Iowa City, IOWA, 1979
Baseball fans and magical realism readers may love this one! In 1979, Ray began hearing a voice at his farm outside Iowa City. “If you built it, he will come.” Ray becomes convinced that the voice is talking about Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox, who were banned from the game for life.
He’s also convinced that they will show up if he plows up his cornfield, turning it into a baseball diamond. Everyone except his wife and daughter think he’s gone mad. With the field complete, the voice changes to say, “Ease his pain.” To Ray, the voice is talking about JD Salinger, and Ray believes he must find the reclusive author (1000 miles away) and take him to a baseball game.
Part of the book takes place on the road trip with Salinger, but you’ll also get a good look at Iowa life and landmarks in Iowa City.
The Book Girls Say… This novel was the basis for the beloved 1989 hit movie, Field of Dreams. Some say this is one of the rare cases where plot changes between the book and movie made sense. Schedule time to watch it again for your own comparisons after reading!
The audiobook of Shoeless Joe is free with an Audible Plus membership as of 4/18/23.
Books About Kansas
While Middle America is a colloquial term often used to describe the group of states in the center of the country, Kansas is, quite literally, the middle of America. According to the United States Geological Survey, the geographic center of the lower 48 states is just outside of Lebanon, Kansas.
If you’ve never visited Kansas, then what you envision likely comes from the books you read as a kid. Thanks to the adventures of the Ingalls family living in their Little House on the Prairie, you can probably envision the vast, flat agricultural landscape. And Dorothy getting swept away from her Kansas home and dropped into the Emerald City, where she meets The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, probably left you weary of the powerful tornados that can ravage the Great Plains. But, of course, there’s much more to the Sunflower State than that.
As Dorothy said, “there’s no place like home,” and there’s no place quite like Kansas - from the expansive tallgrass prairies to the rolling Flint Hills, and from the small town charm to the aviation and aerospace industries of Witchita. And, of course, we’d be remiss not to mention the BBQ!
Kansas is home to Indigenous peoples of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kansa, Osage, Pawnee, Kiowa, Wichita, and Comanche tribes, among others. In the early 1800s, the westward expansion of the US reached Kansas, and in 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act created the Kansas Territory. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery soldiers began fighting for control of this land, leading to a violent period of conflict known as Bleeding Kansas. In 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state, and it played a significant role in the Civil War, providing soldiers and supplies to the Union army.
The Scent of Rain and Lightning
by Nancy Pickard
Setting: Rose, KANSAS
Jody Linder was just a baby when her father was murdered, and her mother disappeared. Twenty-three years later, the man convicted of the murder is being released from prison and granted a new trial thanks to the work of his son, Collin.
As she tries to come to terms with the new trial for the man she has always believed was the killer, Jody begins to uncover a web of secrets and lies that threaten to upend everything she thought she knew about her family and the town she grew up in. As Jody delves deeper into the mystery surrounding the loss of her parents, she must confront long-buried traumas and the people she thought she knew.
Pickard's writing is both suspenseful and evocative, painting a vivid picture of life in a small town where everyone knows everyone else's business.
The Book Girls Say… This lyrical mystery was nominated for the Macavity Award Nominee for Best Mystery Novel and the Agatha Award Nominee for Best Novel.
In Cold Blood
by Truman Capote
Setting: Holcomb, KANSAS, 1959- early 1960s
This true crime classic is a gripping and chilling account of a real-life crime that occurred in 1959 in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas. The story begins with the brutal murder of the Clutter family, a wealthy and respected farming family. The four members of the family, Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their two children, Nancy and Kenyon, were found tied up and shot in their home.
The book also covers the investigation, trial, and eventual execution of the killers. Through his portrayal of the Clutter family and their killers, Capote paints a vivid picture of a society in which violence and desperation can arise from the most unexpected places.
The Book Girls Say… Capote spent six years researching and writing In Cold Blood, conducting extensive interviews with the people involved in the case and visiting the town of Holcomb multiple times. His storytelling combines journalistic reporting with literary techniques to create a riveting and haunting narrative. Capote called In True Blood a “non-fiction novel.”
by Mary Doria Russell
Setting: Dodge City, KANSAS, 1870s - 1880s
This historical fiction novel follows the life of John Henry "Doc" Holliday, a dentist and gambler who became a legend of the American West. Set in the 1870s and 1880s, the book explores the complex character of Holliday, a man who is often portrayed as a cold-blooded killer. However, he was also known to be compassionate and intelligent.
Russell's writing is engaging and vivid, capturing the sights, sounds, and smells of the Wild West with great detail. The book takes readers on a journey through Holliday's life, from his early years as a dentist in Atlanta to his travels to Dodge City and Tombstone, AZ where he becomes embroiled in the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Along the way, readers meet a cast of equally fascinating characters, from Wyatt Earp and his brothers to Holliday's lover, the spirited Kate Harony. Russell weaves a rich tapestry of historical detail into the novel, drawing on extensive research to bring the era to life.
The Book Girls Say… This book was a Goodreads nominee for best historical fiction 2011.
The Persian Pickle Club
by Sandra Dallas
Setting: KANSAS, 1930s
The Persian Pickle Club brings you into the lives of gossipy quilters in a Kansas farming town. In a town where crops are suffering from the ongoing Dust Bowl drought, and the job market is just as dry, a young farmer's wife finds her weekly respite in the quilting club.
But when a new club member stirs up a big secret, the women must unite in a new way to protect each other.
The Book Girls Say… This book is also featured on our list of Dust Bowl Books, which takes a look at the impacts of this tumultuous time in American history and its impacts on states like Kansas.
The Persian Pickle Club takes a lighter approach to this topic, but if you’re looking for a deeper book about the impacts of the Dust Bowl on Kansas, consider The Stars of Alabama, by Sean Dietrich, which is set in both Kansas and Mobile, Alabama.
HEADS UP: This novel includes several casual racist references (including n-word) reflective of the prejudiced views of the era.
The Good Lord Bird
by James McBride
Setting: KANSAS TERRITORY, 1850s
The Good Lord Bird is a unique work of historical fiction that offers a fresh and sometimes humorous perspective on the abolitionist movement and the notorious John Brown. The novel tells the story of Brown and Henry Shackleford, a young slave who is nicknamed "Onion" by Brown after he is mistaken for a girl.
Onion joins Brown's ragtag army, which is preparing to raid the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1859. Along the way, Onion witnesses the horrors of slavery and the violence of Brown's abolition campaign firsthand. Despite its serious subject matter, the Good Lord Bird is also a coming-of-age story that follows Onion's journey of self-discovery.
The Book Girls Say… Readers note that the audiobook narrator is fabulous, so be sure to listen if you have a chance! There is also a Showtime TV adaption of the book, starring Ethan Hawke & Joshua Caleb Johnson.
by Laurie Gelman
Setting: Overland Park, KANSAS
Class Mom is a light and entertaining novel about the life of a 40-something mom in a large suburb southwest of Kansas City. She also has two daughters in college, as well as a son in kindergarten.
If you've ever done a little eye-rolling when dealing with other parents at your child's school, this is the book for you. Former rockstar groupie Jen is bamboozled into being the class mom for her daughter's kindergarten class. Her emails recruiting other parent volunteers are full of the things you wish you could say, but hopefully wouldn't.
The Book Girls Say… This fun, irreverent book will make you laugh out loud as long as you don't take it too seriously. If you're not a fan of snark, sarcasm, or adult language, skip it. It's total satire and not a deep novel, but sometimes, that's just what we need! And if you enjoy the book, you’re in luck because it’s the first in a series of four books that follow the main character up through the years as her son goes through elementary school and on to middle school.
If you’ve ever watched Live with Kelly & Ryan (or Regis/Michael) in the mornings, the author of this book is Gelman’s wife, Laurie!
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐
90% Would Recommend to a Friend
Books About Kentucky
When most of us think of Kentucky, horse racing is the first thing that comes to mind, with bourbon perhaps being a close second. Both of these are major economic drivers in the Bluegrass State, contributing billions of dollars to the economy each year.
The Kentucky Derby, held annually on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, is one of the most famous horse races in the world. The Kentucky Derby was first run in 1875 and has been held every year since, except for 1918 and 1945, when it was canceled due to World War I and World War II, respectively. Since 1950, this race has been part of the Triple Crown series (although the Crown was retroactively awarded to horses going back to 1919).
Horses also played an important role in Kentucky’s history long before the first Derby.
Many Native American tribes once called Kentucky home, including the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, and the Shawnee. Europeans migrated to Kentucky in the mid-to late-1700s across the Appalachian Mountains and through the Cumberland Gap. These early settlers, including most famously Daniel Boone, arrived on horseback and with pack horses because the Gap was too narrow for wagons. Soon after that, they began establishing Kentucky’s first racetracks. As the Europeans encroached on the land of the Indigenous people, horse thefts were common between the groups.
In 1792, Kentucky became the 15th state and the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains. When the Civil War began in 1861, Kentucky - the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln - officially declared its neutrality, although some 35,000 Kentuckians ultimately served as Confederate soldiers, and 125,000 served as Union soldiers. Race horses were also in high demand during the war, and many farms were raided for horses to carry out war duties.
Sixty years later, during the Great Depression, horses took on a new role as part of the Pack Horse Librarian project. The program hired women to deliver books and magazines to rural communities in Eastern Kentucky on horseback.
by Geraldine Brooks
Setting: KENTUCKY, 1850; New York City, 1954; Washington DC, 2019
Through the true story of a racehorse named Lexington, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks manages to weave a tale of spirit and injustice over 150 years of American history.
The book has three timelines. In 1850, you’ll meet an enslaved horse groomer, Jarrett, in Kentucky, who has a special bond with Lexington. There is also a young artist who paints images of the horse. When the Civil War erupts, the artist fights for the union and runs into the young groom and stallion again far from the track.
In 1954, a gallery owner on Martha’s Vineyard takes a special interest in a 19th-century equestrian old painting, even though the artist and provenance are unknown.
In 2019, a Smithsonian scientist from Australia and a Nigerian-American art historian unexpectedly connect through a common interest in the painting as they look for clues to the origin.
The Book Girls Say… Readers report that this story goes well beyond horse racing and art. The page-turning storytelling has detailed descriptions and depth that will stick with you long after you finish the book.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
by Kim Michele Richardson
Setting: KENTUCKY, 1936
The impoverished residents of Troublesome Creek struggle for nearly everything, but thanks to Roosevelt's Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project, they don't lack access to books.
Book woman Cussy Mary Carter is not only Troublesome Creek's traveling librarian, she's also the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry. But not everyone approves of Cussy's family or the government Library Project. Cussy wants to bring the joy of books to the hill folks, but she has to confront prejudice and suspicion as old as the Appalachians.
The Book Girls Say... The sequel, The Book Woman's Daughter, is set in Kentucky two decades later, in the 1950s. JoJo Moyes also has a book titled The Giver of Stars, about an English woman who marries and moves to Kentucky, where she takes a job as a Packhorse Librarian.
Author Kim Michele Richardson was born and raised in Kentucky. She lived her first decade in a rural orphanage and spent her teen years in poverty, often enduring homelessness. She wrote about these experiences in her memoir, The Unbreakable Child (and donates all of her earnings from that book to the underserved). This memoir is available with Kindle Unlimited as of 4/18/23. Kim Michele Richardson also has several other novels set in Kentucky.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐½
100% Would Recommend to a Friend
That Distant Land: The Collected Stories
by Wendell Berry
Setting: Rural KENTUCKY
"That Distant Land" is a collection of 23 short stories exploring the lives of various characters living in a small community in rural Kentucky. The stories are set during the 20th century and offer glimpses into the everyday struggles, joys, and sorrows of the people who live there.
The collection combines three of Wendell’s prior story collections ("The Wild Birds," "Fidelity," and "Watch With Me") and also includes four never-before-collected stories as well as a map of the setting. The stories in each section are interconnected, with recurring characters and themes.
Among the characters in these stories is Hannah Coulter, who is the title character in one of Wendell Berry’s full-length novels. The novel titled Hannah Coulter is set much later, when she is 80 years old and reflecting back on her life. If you enjoy the stories in That Distant Land, Hannah Coulter would make an excellent follow-up read.
The Book Girls Say… Author Wendell Berry is a renowned poet, author, essayist, and farmer. The New York Times called Berry the “prophet of rural America.” He was born in Henry County, Kentucky, in 1934, and he has lived on a farm near his birthplace for over 40 years. He received his BA and MA from The University of Kentucky and Lexington. His writings are very character-driven, emphasizing the lives and experiences of the individuals rather than on a complex or twisting plot.
by Barbara Kingsolver
Setting: Appalachia region of KENTUCKY
Set in southern Appalachia, Prodigal Summer has been called a Hymn to the wilderness. Set over one summer, three stories intertwine into one nature-focused tale.
Deanna Wolfe is a wildlife biologist on a mission to save a family of coyotes.
Lusa Maluf Landowski is a young widowed scientist obsessed with insects.
Nannie Land Rawley is a 70-year-old apple grower.
Separately, they all have challenges with the land and with relationships. Before fall, you'll see their very different stories merge into one.
The Book Girls Say… This book takes place in the town of Egg Fork in Zebulon County, both fictional places described as being in Southern Appalachia near the Kentucky-Virigina border. While Goodreads lists the book's setting as Kentucky, some reviewers assume Virginia. In either event, this book will provide a good look at life in the forested mountains and on the struggling small farms of southern Appalachia.
If you are looking for another literary fiction novel set in Kentucky, consider Ann Patchett’s 1992 debut novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, which centers around a home for unwed mothers in Habit, Kentucky.
Author Barbara Kingsolver was raised in eastern Kentucky between the opulent horse farms and the impoverished coal fields. She left for college and lived all around the world before later returning to the Appalachian region, where she lives on a farm.
The Birds of Opulence
by Crystal Wilkinson
Setting: KENTUCKY, 1960s-1990s
This novel centers around four generations of Black women in the fictional town of Opulence, Kentucky. Everyone in the rural town knows everyone else's secrets,
Minnie Mae is the matriarch of the Goode-Brown family, a family plagued by inherited mental illness, trauma, and moral judgment.
As the members of the youngest generation watch their mothers and grandmothers pass away, they fear going mad and must fight to survive.
The Book Girls Say... This historical fiction novel is both tragic and hopeful. Reviewers praise the lyrical quality of the writing and the vibrant descriptions that allow you to experience life through each character's eyes over thirty years.
Be aware that this book deals with mental illness, self-harm, and rape.
While Opulence is a fictional town, the author was raised on her grandparent’s farm in Indian Creek, Kentucky. Her work is an homage to her Appalachian roots.
When in Rome
by Sarah Adams
Setting: Rome, KENTUCKY
Amelia, aka Rae Rose, is a pop star feeling totally burnt out by years of maintaining her image for all of her adoring fans. She desperately needs a break and would love to escape to Rome, as Audrey Hepburn does in her favorite film. But since she can’t discreetly get to Rome, Italy, she hops in the car and heads to the tiny town of Rome, Kentucky.
Noah runs his grandmother’s pie shop in Rome and isn’t impressed when Amelia appears on his front lawn in her broken-down car. He’s the town grump, doesn’t have Wifi or a cell phone, and prioritizes privacy. But when the local B&B turns Amelia away because they don’t have any vacancies, he reluctantly agrees to let Amelia stay in his guest room.
The Book Girls Say… This romantic comedy is a loose retelling of the Audrey Hepburn movie Roman Holiday, so it is a fun treat for fans of the classic film. It’s also a sweet closed-door book (no graphic sex scenes per reviewers).
Sarah Adams has also written a second book set in Rome, Kentucky, titled Practice Makes Perfect, which will be published on May 2, 2023.
Books Set in Missouri
Long before the arrival of Europeans in Missouri, the land was inhabited by Native American tribes, including the Kickapoo, Shawnee, and Osage, among others. Due to its location on the border between the Union and Confederacy, Missouri was a hotbed of political tension in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and its strategic location along the Mississippi River made it the site of numerous Civil War battles.
Missouri was home to Mark Twain, who wrote the classics The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which are both set in pre-Civil War Missouri.
In the early 1860s, Kansas City also served as an essential hub for the Pony Express. This mail delivery service was only in operation for 18 months, but Kansas City was the starting point for all mail deliveries heading westward.
Missouri’s two largest cities are located 250 miles apart on opposite sides of the state. Kansas City, the larger of the two cities, overlaps the western border of Kansas and Missouri, while St. Louis is located on the eastern border, near Illinois. Today the two cities each have a unique character. St. Louis was founded nearly 90 years before Kansas City, so the city features a mix of classic and modern buildings, as well as the iconic Gateway Arch. Kansas City is known for its laid-back midwestern vibe and vibrant jazz music scene.
The Ozarks Mountains - which are actually a heavily forested series of plateaus - cover much of the southern half of Missouri. While the Ozarks have been the subject of negative stereotypes over the years, this area boasts outstanding natural beauty and a rich cultural heritage, including bluegrass music, gospel music, quilting, basket weaving, and pottery.
by Wade Rouse
Setting: MISSOURI Ozarks, 1970-present
In this moving memoir, author Wade Rouse, who writes fiction under the pen name Viola Shipman, shares the story of his complicated relationship with his father and his southwestern Missouri hometown. Growing up as a queer kid in a conservative Ozarks community, Wade and his father, Ted, had little in common. Wade was never the athlete his father hoped for, but his desire to connect with his father and gain his approval led Wade to learn the vocabulary of baseball and to watch the game with his dad season after season.
As an adult, he and his father rarely saw eye-to-eye, but it was always baseball that brought them back together. When his father’s health takes a turn for the worse, Wade returns home to southwest Missouri to spend one final season with his father. Inning by inning, they move closer toward forgiveness, reconciliation, and closure.
The Book Girls Say… Over the past year, Wade Rouse / Viola Shipman has become one of Angela and Melissa’s favorite authors.
This memoir is filled with the same heart and soul that comes through so clearly in his fiction writing. He shares the story of his life growing up in the Ozarks, and then returning again later in life, in a way that masterfully balances both its challenges and his deep love for the place and its people. Rouse has also published other memoirs, including one titled America’s Boy, that dives even deeper into his childhood.
by Gillian Flynn
Setting: North Carthage, MISSOURI
From the outside, Nick and Amy seemed to have a picture-perfect marriage. But on their fifth anniversary, Amy goes missing from their rented McMansion in the fictional town of North Carthage, along Missouri’s Mississippi River. Nick quickly becomes the prime suspect. Under the microscope of the resulting police investigation and media frenzy, it becomes apparent that their happy marriage might not have been so happy after all and that Nick - the town’s golden boy - might not be so squeaky clean.
Even as Amy’s fiercely doting parents put more pressure on him, Nick stands by his innocence. But if he didn’t do it, then where is his wife? And what’s in that gift box hidden in the back of Amy’s bedroom closet? Gone Girl combines sharp-edged wit and chilling prose to make reading this book feel like an addiction.
The Book Girls Say… Although Angela isn’t usually drawn to domestic thrillers, she couldn’t put this book down! One of her friends described it as “dark and morally ambiguous,” and that’s the perfect summary for this psychological suspense novel. Be aware, however, that this book includes some coarse language, violence, and sexual content.
Although Angela usually loves audiobooks, she wasn’t a fan of the female narrator of Gone Girl at the beginning - or maybe it was just influenced by her feelings about the female protagonist. But once she got further into the story, she enjoyed listing to it. If you’re considering the audiobook, we’d recommend listening to the sample on Amazon before committing to this format.
Author Gillian Flynn was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, and has set many of her mystery/thrillers in her home state, including Sharp Objects. The setting of Gone Girl is the fictional town of North Carthage, but Flynn has said it's based loosely on Cape Girardeau, which was also the filming location for the movie adaptation.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐
90% Would Recommend to a Friend
Earth's the Right Place for Love
by Elizabeth Berg
Setting: Mason, MISSOURI, 1947
Sixteen-year-old Arthur is thrilled when he becomes friends with Nola, the most alluring girl in school. Unfortunately, Nola is more romantically interested in Arthur’s older brother, Frank. However, Frank has his eye on someone else.
Outside of dreaming of the perfect girl, the boys stay busy avoiding their father, who drinks too much after returning from war. And the drinking always leads to their father fighting with Frank. When a tragedy strikes, Arthur struggles with his grief and turns to nature to help him understand how the world will go on.
Once he’s begun to understand grief, will he be able to get Nola to realize that they should be more than friends?
The Book Girls Say… Readers say that while this book does have sad moments and grief as a theme, it’s also an incredibly sweet story and will make your eyes tear up with joy from the kindness and compassion shown by the characters.
If you’ve read and enjoyed The Story of Arthur Truluv, you’ll want to pick up this prequel, which was just released in 2023. It takes us back to Arthur’s teen years in Mason to show us how he became who he was as an older man.
The Story of Arthur Truluv is on our list of Main Characters in Their 80s in the Lifetime Challenge, and received an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars from our readers in 2022.
by Daniel Woodrell
Setting: Ozark Mountains, MISSOURI, early 2000s
Sixteen-year-old Ree has grown up in the poverty of the Ozarks, with a family known for living outside the law. Currently, her father has skipped bail, and her house is on the line. It’s the only thing they have, and Ree can’t bear the thought of losing it.
Ree’s mom seems to be living a second childhood, and her young brothers depend on her to save the day. She knows her father wouldn’t have intentionally risked the house, so what happened? As she begins asking questions of their extended family, she sees how much they’re willing to protect themselves at any cost.
The Book Girls Say… This short, 193-page thriller is said to convey the spirit of the Ozarks and reflect generational poverty and distrust of government often seen in the region. The book was also turned into a 2010 movie of the same name starring Jennifer Lawrence.
For another thriller set in the Ozarks, The Weight of Blood by Laura McHughin is another award-winning option that is said to be extremely accurate in descriptions of the area.
The Deep End
by Julie Mulhern
Setting: Kansas City, MISSOURI, 1974
It’s 1974, and Ellison is a WASP-y mom living an elite life in Kansas City. She’s not an average stay-at-home mom, though. She makes more as an artist than her husband does as a banker. He’s a stereotypical 1970s man, and not thrilled with being in financial 2nd place, so he begins an affair to soothe his ego.
Ellison finds out and plans a divorce…but not until their daughter is out of school. In the meantime, imagine Ellison’s surprise when she swims into the mistresses dead body at the country club pool!
When Ellison becomes a suspect, she knows she needs to find the real killer herself.
The Book Girls Say… This is the first book in the cozy Country Club Murders series. In April 2023, the sixteenth book in the series, titled Fire and Rain, was released and has positive early reviews.
The Broken Heart of America
by Walter Johnson
Setting: St. Louis, MISSOURI
This non-fiction book provides an in-depth look at the history of racial dynamics in the city of St. Louis, spanning from 1764 all the way up through the 2014 uprising in Ferguson. From Indian removal and slavery, through segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, to the ongoing struggles, this book addresses events that even many people born and raised in St. Louis may not know.
While this book uses the author’s hometown of St. Louis as his case study, it also paints a portrait of two-and-half-centuries of race relations in the United States.
The Book Girls Say… This book is on the long side, at 528 pages, and reviewers say it’s not an easy read. But if you’re interested in really diving into the topic, and you're willing to endure the heartbreaking realities, it’s said to be an extraordinarily well-researched and well-written book that does also have hopeful moments.
If you are instead interested in learning about the history of St. Louis through the story of one of its most famous residents, consider reading the recent biography titled Chuck Berry: An American Life. Berry was born and raised in St. Louis, and maintained a home there throughout his life. The stories of his experiences in segregated St. Louis mirror the city’s complex history.
Books Set in Nebraska
As the song goes, “Omaha, somewhere in middle America.” While Nebraska often gets lumped together with other midwestern, agricultural states, there is plenty that makes this state unique.
Long before the arrival of the first Europeans, Nebraska was home to numerous Native American tribes, including the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux. In 1803, the US purchased a large amount of land west of the Mississippi River from France, including the area now known as Nebraska. In 1866, Congress passed a statehood bill for Nebraska, but President Andrew Johnson vetoed it. In February of 1867, Congress overrode Johnson’s veto. Nebraska became the 37th state in the Union, and the only state ever admitted over a presidential veto.
Nebraska is often referred to as the Cornhusker State, which is also the mascot of the University of Nebraska, located in Lincoln. During home football games, Memorial Stadium at UNL (capacity 85,000) has the third-largest population in Nebraska. The state is also home to the College World Series, the NCAA baseball tournament that has been held in Omaha each June since 1950.
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, which spans over 130 acres, is consistently ranked one of the best in the world. The zoo is home to the Lied Jungle (North America’s largest indoor rainforest), the Desert Dome (one of the world’s largest indoor deserts), and Kingdoms of the Night (the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit and indoor swamp). The conservation work conducted by the zoo also has a global impact. Other popular tourist attractions in Nebraska range from Chimney Rock (a towering rock formation designated as a National Historic Site) to Carhenge (an artist-created replica of Stonehenge built with cars instead of stones).
As All My Fathers Were
by James A Misko
Setting: Along NEBRASKA'S Platte River
Richard and Seth Barrett are very different, but together they are dedicated to running their family’s ranch on Nebraska’s Platte River. However, their mother recently passed away, and her will has some contingencies. To inherit the ranch, the sixty-something brothers must travel hundreds of miles along the Platte River by horse and canoe - just as their maternal grandfather did three generations before.
Their mother hopes that sending them on this odyssey will help them better understand and appreciate the ranch, while also allowing them to observe the harm that modern industrial farming is causing to the land, air, and water with which they’ll be entrusted.
To further complicate matters, a 90-year-old bachelor farmer wants to join the “boys” to teach them a few lessons. Then, add in a corrupt sheriff, a lawyer, and a greedy neighboring landowner. Will all these obstructions prevent the brothers from completing their trek on time?
The Book Girls Say… Reviewers say that author Jame Misko is skilled at creating relatable characters with complex relationships. In this atmospheric novel, Nebraska’s Platte River also becomes a character that some have compared to Lonesome Dove meets Cold Mountain.
The Bones of Paradise
by Jonis Agee
Setting: NEBRASKA Sandhills, 1900
Ten years after the battle at Wounded Knee, J. B. Bennett, a white rancher, finds Star, a young Native American woman, murdered in a remote meadow on his land. Almost immediately, he becomes the next victim.
J.B.’s father, estranged wife, and two sons come together to try and figure out what happened, but they aren’t a happy, functional family. Star’s sister also arrives and struggles to accept her sister's death after her people have already lost so much.
Greek literature fans may identify some subtle nods to the Odyssey within this Western historical mystery.
The Book Girls Say… This one is said to be a challenging read at times because of the horrendous ways the Lakota were treated. The other characters are also often unlikeable. However, the descriptive writing is sure to transport you directly to the Sandhills region of north-central Nebraska, and you'll learn a lot about life for the Lakota in this era.
If you prefer classics set around this time, Willa Cather was a Nebraska novelist who wrote about the lives of pioneers and settlers in the Great Plains region of the United States. One of her most famous works, "O Pioneers!", is a story about the Swedish-American Bergson family and their struggles to make a living in the harsh landscape of turn-of-the-century Nebraska.
Eleanor & Park
by Rainbow Rowell
Setting: Omaha, NEBRASKA, 1980s
The boy is in a black t-shirt, hiding behind headphones and his book, trying to be invisible. The girl is new to town, with crazy red hair and mismatched clothes that make her stand out. Boy meets girl. Through late-night conversations and lots of mix-tapes, they fall in love the way you only can the first time.
The Book Girls Say... This highly-rated YA novel will transport you back in time to what it was like to be a teenager falling in love for the first time.
Author Rainbow Rowell was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, and graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). She lives and writes in Omaha and has set most of her novels in her hometown. If you’ve already read Eleanor & Park, consider Fangirl, a coming-of-age novel about twins who begin to drift apart and deal with challenge issues when they go off to college at UNL.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐
90% Would Recommend to a Friend
The Meaning of Names
by Karen Gettert Shoemaker
Setting: Stuart, NEBRASKA, 1918-1919
By 1918, the farming community of Stuart, Nebraska, had already lost many to the Great War. Unfortunately, the losses had hardened the hearts of much of the community and allowed hatred to brew.
Gerda Vogel is an American of German descent, and amidst war and the Spanish Flu Pandemic, her family is also experiencing rising anti-German sentiments. Her neighbors demand that the local university stop teaching German, and job listings specify “no krauts need apply.” Tensions build as Gerda works to keep her family safe.
The Book Girls Say… This book shows a heartbreaking side to American life during WWI that isn’t often covered in historical fiction.
The Magician's Assistant
by Ann Patchett
Setting: NEBRASKA and Los Angeles, California
This novel tells the story of Sabine, the assistant and widow of a famous magician, Parsifal. After Parsifal dies, Sabine discovers that he had heirs in Nebraska. Allegedly this family was lost in a tragic accident, but it turns out they are very much alive. Seeking closure and understanding, she travels to Nebraska to meet Parsifal's family and learn more about his past.
As Sabine spends time with Parsifal's family, she begins to unravel the secrets of his life and comes to terms with her own grief and sense of loss. She befriends Parsifal's mother and sister, and they bond over shared experiences and the memory of Parsifal.
The Book Girls Say… Before you pick up this book, be aware that it is not broken down into chapters. Some readers find that this makes the story feel a bit choppy because there are no natural pauses where it makes sense to sit the book down for the day. Additionally, this book is not written in a standard style. One reader described it as like eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation.
When an author (even one as well respected as Ann Patchett) writes about a state that is not their own, we always like to read reviews from locals to ensure that they feel their state was represented accurately and without stereotypes. We were pleased to see this comment from a Nebraska reviewer: “Patchett’s version of small-town Nebraska feels like the one I grew up in, complete with complex characters, some of whom are perfectly happy to be where they are, and others who yearn to be somewhere else.” She goes on to say, “The Magician’s Assistant is a lovingly-drawn picture of a flawed family that doesn’t lean on stereotypes.”
The Love Wager
by Lynn Painter
Setting: Omaha, NEBRASKA, Present-Day
Hallie is determined to become more of an adult after hitting rock bottom the morning after a one-night stand with a guy named Jack. She’s on the right track to her new life with a new apartment, haircut, and wardrobe. But when she logs into a dating app looking for an equally responsible new love, she only sees Jack.
They quickly agree that they aren’t right for each other but team up to help each other find love. They even schedule dates at the same locations so they can ditch bad dates for tacos together if necessary…and life throws them many opportunities for tacos.
Then, out of desperation, they agree to fake date each other for a wedding weekend. The more they act as a couple, the more natural it feels.
The Book Girls Say… If you need a lighter read this month, look no further than this spicy rom-com.
While this 2023 release is the 2nd book in the Mr. Wrong Number series, it can be read as a stand-alone. There is some character overlap, but the main characters are different in each book.
You are welcome to choose any book you’d like to read for the challenge. But, we hope this list of books has given you a good starting point.
Members of our email list and Facebook group, Read with the Book Girls, can log ratings for their monthly challenge reads. The logs provide us with data for the “BGG Reader Ratings” that are added to descriptions for future years. We’d love you to contribute your rating after you’ve finished your read this month. You can find the links to the logs in your Friday emails each week throughout the month of the challenge.
Join the Read Around the USA Challenge
Book Recommendations for Other Regions of the USA
We’re publishing a book list for a new group of states each month throughout 2023. You’ll find a schedule of upcoming regions in this post.
- Books Set in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware
- Books Set in Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and Nebraska
- Books Set in the U.S. Territories
- Books Set in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and Tennessee
- Books Set in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming
- Books Set in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont
Can you send me a printable list with the book titles but not descriptions?
This was a big request last year that we weren’t able to add to our plates in 2022. New for 2023, readers who support Book Girls Guide through our Buy Me a Coffee membership site will receive special monthly printable journal pages as a thank you bonus. The voluntary members (we call them our BFFs) help cover the cost of running the challenges so we can keep them free for everyone.
We’re so excited to be able to offer this fun perk this year!
We pre-filled the journal pages with every book title for each state. The printable also includes space for you to mark your interest level, make notes about whether you’ve requested the book from the library (or any other notes you’d like), and then fill in your rating. Blank lines are included in case you have other books on your TBR (to be read) list that meet the prompt. We’d love you to sign up here!
That said, you’ll always find the most updated version of our recommendations with descriptions each month at no cost on our website. We do update the list and descriptions regularly based on reader feedback. But, we know some of you wanted to print the list to take to the library or bookstore, and we hope this helps.
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