Arizona is a state rich in history, culture, and natural beauty, and its unique landscape has inspired many famous authors to write about it. From the Sonoran Desert to the Grand Canyon to Tucson. Phoenix, Prescott and beyond, the landscape of the southwestern state has been a muse for many Arizona novels.
In this blog post, I’ve compiled a list of some of the best books set in Arizona, including novels, memoirs, and non-fiction books.
If you’ve been here before, you know part of my travel experience includes reading books set in the places I plan to travel to. While I am there, I continue reading books set in those places. It deepens the experience and gives me an additional perspective. At the bottom of this post, I have included books set in other places we’ve traveled.
Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko
Set against the backdrop of the American Southwest and Central America, this epic novel tells the story of a group of Native Americans who are plotting a revolution against the United States government.
The book explores themes of colonialism, capitalism, and indigenous identity, and it features a large cast of characters who are struggling to survive in a world that has been dominated by white settlers.
The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir by Leslie Marmon Silko
Another book set in Arizona by Silko, this memoir reflects on the author’s connection to the Sonoran Desert and her Native American heritage. The book is a lyrical meditation on the natural world and a personal reflection on the author’s life and experiences.
Leslie Marmon Silko is a Native American writer of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, and one of the key figures in the First Wave of what literary critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance.
Murder, Sonoran Style: An Adventure Calls Mystery Book 1 (Adventure Calls Mystery Series) by Kathy McIntosh
When Gabe Ramsay left his position as a science professor to co-own an eco-touring company in the Sonoran Desert, he hoped for a fresh start. But when he finds the body of a hated developer during a survival test for his five new guides, Gabe becomes embroiled in a deadly mystery. With the help of Madrone, the company’s captivating chef, Gabe delves into the dark secrets and motives of those around him, all while trying to avoid becoming the next victim of a killer who will stop at nothing to cover their tracks.
Murder, Sonoran Style is an award-winning novel that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end. This series is a great combination of adventure, murder, natural history, and fun.
Murder, Cottonwood Style An Adventure Calls Mystery Book 2 (Adventure Calls Mystery Series) by Kathy McIntosh
In Murder, Cottonwood Style, Madrone Hunter, a tour guide and chef, is ready for a week of relaxation in the beautiful town of Cottonwood, Arizona. However, her plans are derailed when she stumbles upon the body of her most difficult client, an elderly woman who was planning to sue Madrone’s employer. Suddenly, Madrone finds herself as the prime suspect in the murder investigation.
As Madrone sets out to clear her name and find the real killer, she delves into the secrets of the townspeople and uncovers a web of betrayal and danger. McIntosh weaves together a fun and funny mystery with delectable descriptions of Madrone’s culinary creations, leaving the reader both satisfied and hungry for more. With a cast of colorful characters and a beautiful setting in the Red Rock country of Arizona, Murder, Cottonwood Style is a page-turner that will keep readers guessing until the very end.
High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never by Barbara Kingsolver
Some essays are set in Tucson where Kingsolver was living. This collection of essays reflects on Kingsolver’s experiences living in the desert and her travels to other places.
The book is a lyrical meditation on the natural world and a personal reflection on the author’s life and experiences.
Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
This is the first book I read by Barbara Kingsolver. It was probably 1993 and I fell in love with her stories and writing style. I’d read anything she writes.
Set in Grace, Arizona, with a few forays to the surrounding Indian reservations and Tucson, Arizona, this novel tells the story of a woman who returns to her hometown to care for her father.
The book explores themes of family, identity, and environmentalism, and it features a cast of characters who are struggling to come to terms with their pasts.
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver (Greer Family #1)
Set in Tucson, this novel tells the story of a young woman who leaves her small town in Kentucky to start a new life in the city. Along the way, her car breaks down in Tucson. The book explores themes of identity, family, and community, and it features a cast of characters who are all connected in unexpected ways.
Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver (Greer Family #2)
This sequel to The Bean Trees follows the same cast of characters as they grapple with the consequences of their actions in the first book.
The book explores themes of family, community, and social justice, and it features a cast of characters who are struggling to do what’s right in a world that is often unjust.
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
Set in the American Southwest, including parts of Arizona, this novel follows a group of environmental activists who go to extreme measures to stop industrial development and protect the natural environment. This novel is a cult classic, and its influence can be seen in modern environmental activism.
Edward Abbey’s work can be a bit problematic today in terms of how he views women and American Indians. As this was a pivotal book for me as a young person, it’s hard for me not to still love it, but if I read it today for the first time, I think I would feel differently.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Also set in the American Southwest, including Arizona, this non-fiction book is a collection of essays about Abbey’s experiences as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah.
Abbey’s love for the desert and his frustration with the impact of human activity on the natural world is evident in this classic work of nature writing.
I admire Abbey’s work for its celebration of nature and its call for environmental activism and I recognize its problematic elements, particularly its racism, sexism, and ableism.
The Blessing Way (Leaphorn and Chee #1) by Tony Hillerman
Set in the Navajo Nation in Arizona, this novel introduces the reader to the world of Joe Leaphorn, a Navajo Tribal Police officer who is investigating a mysterious death. This novel is the first in a long-running series that explores the complexities of Navajo culture and the challenges faced by law enforcement in the American Southwest.
Hilerman wrote 18 Leaphorn and Chee books and his daughter has taken over writing then since his death, so if you like The Blessing Way, there are many more to read in this series.
Laughing Boy: A Navajo Love Story by Oliver La Farge
Set in the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the story of Laughing Boy, a young Navajo man who falls in love with Slim Girl, a young woman from another tribe.
This novel explores the cultural differences and challenges faced by Native American communities in the early 20th century.
Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains by Susan Elderkin
This book is set in a small town in Arizona called Mohave. The story is about the love between two teens, both from troubled families, who find solace in each other.
The book is a moving exploration of how people cope with loss and how love can bring unexpected hope into our lives. The novel is a beautifully written love story that captures the essence of the Arizona desert, its people, and their struggles.
Modern Ranch Living by Mark Jude Poirier
Modern Ranch Living is set in Tucson, Arizona. Rancho Sin Vacas (Ranch Without Cattle) is home to a handful of residents finding that neighborhood life is becoming increasingly bizarre.
Modern Ranch Living is a darkly comedic and unsettling exploration of the void within contemporary American society. It reveals the peculiar lengths people will go to satiate their cravings for pleasure and escape, while also showcasing the occasional moments of compassion they exhibit to alleviate each other’s suffering.
In the Heart of the Canyon by Elisabeth Hyde
The Grand Canyon is the setting for In The Heart of The Canyon. The book tells the story of a group of strangers who come together to go on a rafting trip down the Colorado River.
The novel explores the different reasons why each person has chosen to take the trip, the challenges they face as they navigate the rapids, and the changing dynamics of their group. The book is a compelling exploration of human nature, and it captures the beauty and awe of one of the most magnificent natural wonders in the world.
Sunland by Don Waters
Sunland is a captivating novel that follows Sid Dulaney, a man in his mid-thirties who finds himself in a tough spot financially and has moved back to Tucson to care for his grandmother. To afford her expensive medication, Sid takes on the risky job of smuggling drugs over the border.
What follows is a series of comical misadventures, filled with quirky and endearing characters from his grandmother’s retirement community, Mexican gang threats, a former babysitter who catches his eye, and even a giraffe that pops up unexpectedly. Amidst all the chaos, Sid also has to navigate voicemails from his ex-girlfriend who’s at her wit’s end with him.
The book is engaging and humorous and it is easy to get lost in the world he has created. The novel is filled with memorable characters who embody the unique perspectives of life on the margins in America. Overall, Sunland is an entertaining and humane story that I highly recommend to anyone looking for a great read.
The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea
Set in the Sonoran Desert along the Arizona-Mexico border, this non-fiction book tells the story of a group of migrants who attempt to cross the border illegally and the tragic consequences of their journey.
This book sheds light on the challenges faced by immigrants and the harsh realities of the desert landscape and U.S. immigration policies.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace’s book “Infinite Jest” is not set in Arizona. However, it is important to note that Wallace did spend time living and teaching in Tucson, Arizona while working on his writing. And since most articles about books set in Arizona include it, so am I.
Infinite Jest is a sprawling, ambitious, and challenging novel that explores a wide range of themes including addiction, entertainment, and the nature of consciousness. It is set in a dystopian future America where the government has been replaced by corporations, and a mysterious entertainment cartridge is causing people to become addicted and lose themselves completely.
Young Adult Novels Set in Arizona
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
Set in Tucson, Arizona, this novel tells the story of Aven Green, a girl born without arms who moves to a new town and must learn to navigate a new environment while dealing with her physical differences. In this middle-grade novel, she makes friends with a boy with Tourette syndrome and they solve a mystery at a Western theme park.This heartwarming novel explores themes of friendship, acceptance, and resilience.
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Set in Mica, a small town in Arizona, this book tells the story of a high school student named Leo who falls in love with a girl named Stargirl, who is not like anyone he has ever met before. Stargirl is a free spirit who doesn’t care what other people think of her, and her eccentric behavior is both inspiring and unsettling to Leo and the rest of the town.
The YA book is a coming-of-age story about the struggle to be oneself in a world that values conformity, and it captures the unique spirit of Arizona in a way that is both entertaining and moving. My boys and I listened to this book and all enjoyed it. There is a good moral in here, but you don’t get hit over the head too hard with it.
These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901 by Nancy E. Turner
Set in the Arizona Territory, this novel tells the story of Sarah Agnes Prine, a young woman who moves to the Southwest with her family in the late 1800s. Through her diary entries, readers witness Sarah’s struggle to build a life in a harsh and unforgiving environment, while also falling in love with the dashing Jack Elliot. This novel is a captivating blend of historical fiction and romance.
I have to admit that I didn’t love this book, but the rest of the people in my book club adore it! And they read a lot more YA than I do, so I’d trust them more than me on this one. At the beginning of the book – her diary – the language is grammatically challenging to read, but it improves as she gets older and more educated.
Arizona is a state with a rich history and a diverse landscape, and these books capture the essence of what makes it such a unique and compelling place. Whether you’re interested in historical fiction, mystery, romance, or nature writing, there’s a book on this list for you. So grab a book, sit back, and immerse yourself in the beauty and complexity of Arizona.
What other Arizona books would you add to this list?