There’s no shortage of local writing talent in southern Wisconsin. And while most summer reading lists you see this time of year focus temporally, we prefer a geographical lens, one that might surface a gem from a local author’s backlist. With that, we present this summer curriculum of locally-sourced novels (and one short story anthology), representing some of the best literary talent the Milwaukee/Madison area has to offer. We suggest reading poolside, beer garden-side or Bradford Beach-side.
Girl in the Rearview Mirror by Kelsey Rae Dimberg
Plot twists abound in Milwaukee resident Kelsey Rae Dimberg’s debut novel, published just this month. Finn escapes the Midwest for Arizona, accepting a gig nannying for the granddaughter of a campaigning senator. Losing herself willingly within her employer’s family dynamic, Finn soon finds herself tangled in a web of deceit and political intrigue — and she’s got skeletons in her own closet.
American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar
A coming-of-age novel that takes place in 1980s Milwaukee, local playwright Ayad Akhtar’s debut novel follows 10-year-old Hayat as his family stretches him between American secular culture and Muslim spirituality. After his mother’s friend Mina moves from Pakistan to Milwaukee to live with his family, introducing Hayat to a new side of his faith, he is forced to confront his incongruous ideas about love, lust, betrayal and religion.
What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan
Madison author Lucy Tan’s debut novel accompanies the expatriate Zhen family from the U.S. back to China, where they settle in luxurious — and unfamiliar — Shanghai. Lina embarks upon a meaningless life of leisure as a taitai, a housewife who outsources her housework to tight-lipped housekeeper Sunny. When Lina’s prized ivory bracelet goes missing, household tensions come to a head. Told in alternating points of view, What We Were Promised examines the Zhen family’s fragility as a microcosm of a modern-day China in flux.
Dream House by Valerie Laken
Laken, a UW-Milwaukee professor, explores the notion of home and community in recession-shattered Michigan. Kate and Stuart purchase what they think is just a fixer-upper home in gentrifying Ann Arbor and begin renovations. As the house comes alive, their marriage falters — culminating in the revelation that their dream house was once the site of a violent murder. The novel’s fabric is like watching an HGTV marathon through the lens of a sharp cultural critic, sustained by the momentum of a twisty plot.
Tying the Scot by Jennifer Trethewey
The founder and former co-artistic director of Renaissance Theaterworks has experienced a Renaissance of her own: Trethewey now spends her time penning romance novels with shirtless Scots on the cover. The first in her “Highlanders of Balforss” series, Tying the Scot checks many summer romance prerequisites off the list: there’s an enemies-to-lovers plotline, a breathtaking Highlander backdrop, some kilts, and even a Duke. And if you’re hooked after just one, run out and grab the second installment.
Milwaukee Noir edited by: Tim Hennessy
This short story anthology is the latest edition in Akashic Books’s “Noir” series, each curated around a particular city’s darker side. Featuring original stories from fourteen local writers (including two from this list), Milwaukee Noir mines our city’s growing pains for drama and social commentary. If you suffer from Vitamin-D overexposure this summer, spend some time with Milwaukee’s seedy underbelly, one story at a time.
Let Him Go by Larry Watson
A suspenseful character study set in the 1950s American West, Let Him Go features local author (and retired Marquette University professor) Larry Watson’s signature spare prose to conjure a simmering threat of violence. Driven by grief following the death of her son, Margaret and her husband George set off to retrieve their grandson from their son’s widow, who has remarried and relocated across the Dakota badlands. A movie starring Diane Lane and Kevin Costner is currently in production.
Paris by the Book by Liam Callanan
Part mystery, part meditation on presence and absence, fiction and reality, Paris by the Book (by UW-Milwaukee professor Liam Callanan) indulges readers on the hunt for both clues and beautiful sentences. When Leah’s novelist husband disappears, she travels to Paris to track him down, buying a failing bookstore on a whim and literally setting up shop on the banks of the Seine. Bonus: local readers will recognize Milwaukee’s East Side in early scenes and flashbacks.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
What if you knew the exact date of your death? The premise of Madison author Chloe Benjamin’s latest novel is explored through the lives of four siblings who receive such a prophecy as children after visiting a neighborhood fortune teller. In four discrete sections, readers follow the diverging trajectories of each sibling as the book attempts to untangle the difference between fate and free will.
Almost Crimson by Dasha Kelly
Spoken word poet, former Pfister Narrator-in-Residence and current Milwaukee resident Dasha Kelly writes of codependency and mental illness in her most recent novel, published in 2015. Protagonist Cece narrates her fraught childhood, playing grownup in a household with a chronically depressed mother. As she comes of age and begins to strike out on her own, Cece struggles to stretch the family ties that hold her back, without breaking them.