5 Great Books Set in New Orleans That We Love

5 Great Books Set in New Orleans That We Love

Monday, 19 February, 2024

The sultry sounds of New Orleans urge you to let loose, have a drink, dance in the street, and eat up local food — and life — with gusto.

The French Quarter is a like-nowhere-else combination of wrought-iron balconies above and a jazz-filled street below, heaving with performers, revelers, visitors, locals, witches, and pirates. You can eat a little something sweet (bonjour, beignets) or get spicy with jambalaya and the city’s legendary muffuletta sandwich.

Whether you call it NOLA, the Big Easy, or the Crescent City, New Orleans also invites you to slow down in the languorous heat, have a chat on a stoop, take a stroll in the soft evening air, and let your mind drift along to a slower beat.

Here are five books set in New Orleans that took us there on the page: a fantasy novel with voodoo zombies and enchanted graffiti, an over-the-top cookbook that captures the spirit of the city, an exploration of Katrina’s impact on nine different lives, a historical murder mystery with tons of atmosphere, and a gorgeous novel that weaves a family saga with sci-fi.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast New Orleans: Pass a Good Time.


The Ballad of Perilous Graves - Alex Jennings

Real-life New Orleans is a magical place where the veil between this world and the next is as transparent as gossamer. The New Orleans of this unputdownable novel is even more fantastical than that.

The author, Alex Jennings, isn’t from New Orleans, but, as the saying goes, he got there as soon as he could — because a spirit visited him in a dream and told him to make it his home. He spent ten years applying his imagination to this novel.

Jennings’ New Orleans has voodoo zombies, piano-playing spirits, giant talking nutria, flying streetcars, schools of magic named after jazz musicians, haints, trees that grow Mardi Gras beads, and enchanted graffiti. There are entire neighborhoods populated by the dead or ideas that the city wants to keep alive.

The story centers on three lovable characters: Perry Graves — a failed magician and the Perilous of the title — his little sister Brendy, who is 3’6” of solid attitude, and Peaches, the cute girl who lives in the haunted house a few doors down, possesses super-strength, and disappears for weeks at a time, looking for her long-lost father.

Our heroes get involved in an epic, world-saving quest. This book layers high fantasy and YA-ish characters with adult concerns. It’s sprinkled with pop culture references and liberal use of f-bombs, and, somehow, it all really works. {more}

Perry loved The Phantom Tollbooth. Daddy Deke had read it to him and to Brendy years ago. The rise and fall of Daddy Deke’s voice, the way he performed the characters rather than simply reporting what the book said, had fired Perry’s imagination, made him dream of far-off places and people, of taking up a quest of his own—even if such things weren’t possible in real life, certainly not for shy, bookish boys like Perry.

Perry still remembered what Daddy Deke had told them the day he finished reading the final chapter. ‘Let me tell y’all sumn for free: Nola is a pure wonder of a city. You are truly blessed to call it home — but there’s other places out there. Make sure to get out and see ‘em when you can. The city will always be here when ya get back.’ — Alex Jennings


The Axeman’s Jazz - Ray Celestin

The Axeman's Jazz
> Ray Celestin

Step into 1919 New Orleans, where the weather is hot, the jazz is cool, and the good citizens of this difficult, enchanting city are being stalked by a serial killer known as the Axeman.

Although this book is fiction, the story of the Axeman is not. For more than a year, the city was terrorized by a mysterious figure who entered homes in the dead of night, then attacked people in their beds. All told, a dozen people ran afoul of the Axeman. Half of them died, and the other half lived to tell the tale, but no one could accurately describe him.

In real life, the identity of the Axeman is still unknown. In this book, author Ray Celestin uses a handful of well-drawn characters to investigate the murders and present his own fictional theory of the Axeman’s identity.

Jazz-age New Orleans was literally a hotbed of sexism, racism, and corruption. It was also a fantastic place to blend cultures and enjoy the best food and music in the world. As our three would-be heroes interview suspects and follow clues, they’re in and out of jazz shows, bordellos, opium dens, and mafia hideouts. They traipse into the bayou, through a mouldering plantation house, and deep into the dark underbelly of a roiling, raucous city to nab a madman. {more}

Luca hadn’t been expecting his return to New Orleans to be an easy experience. He knew the city was no paradise; it was violent and unforgiving, awash with criminals and immigrant communities that treated one another with hostility and suspicion. But it was also a city with a beguiling energy to it, a bright and opulent charm. For all its segregation and spite, its shabby streets and faded glory, it was easy to become bewitched by the city of New Orleans. — Ray Celestin


Turkey and the Wolf: Flavor Trippin’ in New Orleans - Mason Hereford & J.J. Goode

Turkey and the Wolf
> Mason Hereford

On the hunt for a traditional jambalaya recipe? This is not the cookbook for you. But if you want to taste the spirit of New Orleans with a melting pot of influences, a sense of community, and food that makes you whoop with happiness, this colorful cookbook is a great place to start.

Mason Hereford is the founder, owner, and sometime chef of the restaurant by the same name in New Orleans. He has a brash sense of humor and clearly loves bringing people together to make and eat food. He also loves New Orleans like a native. All of that is evident on the pages of this book. There are glorious technicolor photographs of the food, the restaurant, and the people who make it happen.

There are riffs on classic Southern dishes and New Orleans staples, like collard greens and grits, breakfast biscuits, fried chicken, and deviled eggs. There are also original recipes with names that will make you smile, like ‘Chicken Potpies That Fit In Your Pocket’ and ‘Corner-Store Pork Rind Tacos.’

This book also includes the recipe for the sandwich that made Turkey and the Wolf famous: a bologna sandwich for the ages composed of white bread slabs, bologna, American cheese, mayo, sweet-hot mustard, shredded lettuce, and lots of butter. Before it’s grilled, you add the magic ingredient — salt-and-vinegar potato chips.

It’s all decidedly too much and absolutely perfect. {more}

This book contains recipes that you can reasonably make at home or, in the case of one recipe that requires a pig’s head and good sixteen hours of your time, that you should strongly consider making at home even if it almost takes you down. — Mason Hereford


Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans - Dan Baum

Nine Lives
> Dan Baum

Prepare to meet nine unforgettable, real-life characters in this haunting biography of New Orleans and the people who call it home. Bookended by two deadly storms — 1960’s Hurricane Betsy and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina — this story is moving and absorbing on an intimate level.

Author Dan Baum was a staff writer for The New Yorker, assigned to write the story of Katrina in New Orleans. He arrived two days after the levees broke and learned about the post-storm mess the city was in. But he also came to realize that the people of New Orleans are not like people anywhere else. They love their city with an unmatched ferocity. Despite deep poverty, a high murder rate, terrible schools, an ailing economy, and corrupt, brutal cops, New Orleanians — regardless of their age, race, or wealth — were ‘extremely satisfied with their lives.’

To understand the why and how, Baum moved to New Orleans and invested hundreds of hours interviewing and observing its people. And in this book, he tells the story of nine of those lives.

There are devastating tales of the impossible choices people were forced to make — and there are conversations about whether they should evacuate or leave for good? And because, as readers, we know their histories, our understanding of their conflicting emotions is deep.

This is powerful, readable reportage that will make you wish every city has a book like this one — a way into knowing its streets and its inhabitants this deeply. {more}

Life in New Orleans is all about making the present — this moment, right now — as pleasant as possible. So New Orleanians, by and large, aren’t tortured by the frenzy to achieve, acquire, and manage the unmanageable future. Their days are built around the things that other Americans have pushed out of their lives by incessant work: art, music, elaborate cooking, and — most of all — plenty of relaxed time with family and friends. Their jobs are really just the things they do to earn a little money; they’re not the organizing principle of life. While this isn’t a worldview particularly conducive to getting things done, getting things done isn’t the most important thing in New Orleans. Living life is. Once you’ve tasted that, and especially if it’s how you grew up, life everywhere else feels thin indeed. — Dan Baum


The Lost Book of Adana Moreau: A Novel - Michael Zapata

This luminous novel weaves sci-fi and historical fiction to transform a gripping adventure story into something elegant, layered, and lingering. At its core, it’s the story of two lifelong friends determined to return a book manuscript to the deceased author’s son.

But before we meet those two, the story takes us back to 1916 in the Dominican Republic, where we meet a headstrong little girl named Adana Moreau. She’ll eventually grow up to be a headstrong woman, a mother, and the author of a blockbuster science fiction novel called Lost City. But when she falls ill while writing its sequel, she’ll burn the only manuscript of her second book, and that will be that.

Until 2005, in Chicago, when Saul, grieving the recent death of his grandfather, will discover a manuscript for the book that would have been A Model Earth by Adana Moreau — the book that was purportedly burned. Saul then falls down the rabbit hole of the mysteries surrounding the author and her work; he and his best friend Javier make it their mission to return the manuscript to the author’s elderly son Maxwell who lives in New Orleans. There’s just one major problem: Hurricane Katrina has recently wreaked havoc on the city, and it’s nearly impossible to find anyone.

If you love novels in which characters set out on a maybe-irresponsible or seemingly impossible quest to do something that means everything to them, this is the book for you. The earnestness and commitment with which Saul undertakes this task are as relatable as it is foolhardy.

This book is an affecting examination of what home means to us and how stories help us navigate the world. It explores grief and loneliness and plays around with the idea of parallel worlds that shimmer with love and possibility. {more}

They passed Crystal Spring, Bogue Chitto, and Amite City. The sun was white and volatile, like camphor. At one in the afternoon, they passed Ponchatoula. Then the highway began to climb before turning into a series of long bridges that shot straight through a half submerged, half wild landscape full of waterways and dark green islets and swamps with colossus cypress trees broken like toothpicks and shacks in various stages of ruin. On the half-sunken tin roof of one shack, an egret stood motionless, its spear-like beak aimed at something below the still surface of the water, its hesitance and vulnerability constituting a state of grace. To the south, power lines ran through the swamplands and parallel to a rail line, where it was possible to make out the silver flash of an Amtrak train. At some point, they merged onto I-10 and joined the flatbed trucks and work vans and emergency vehicles all heading east, toward the swaying, rippling city of New Orleans, like a procession of sad caravans. — Michael Zapata

Top image courtesy of Fotoluminate LLC/Shutterstock.

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It's said there are good times and good stories. New Orleans promises both. From the everyday magic of beignets and jazz and voodoo to the once-a-year razzle-dazzle of Mardi Gras, The Big Easy is a serious party.
This poem by Sheryl St. Germain will transport you to a quiet New Orleans, a languorous city where you can rest your bones on a porch swing, listen to the night sounds, and relish details that make it feel like home.
Forget everything you know about piling meat between slices of bread. New Orleans has a thing or two to teach you about making a sandwich — and some of the tastiest sandwiches are coming out of Turkey and the Wolf.

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