It’s been a rotten year, but a good one for Texas literature. While we missed gathering at the Capitol for the Texas Book Festival this fall, as well as heading to indie bookstores for readings, there was no shortage of wonderful new releases to choose from—and for many of us, the pandemic meant more time at home to curl up with a book. Texas Monthly asked staff members and contributors to share their favorite Texas book they read in 2020. Whether you’re looking to escape into a novel, time-travel with a historical tome, or master Mexican cooking, this list has something to pique your interest.
That Texas Blood by Chris Condon and Jacob Phillips
“Best Comic Books Set in Texas” isn’t a particularly capacious category, but even if it was I suspect my favorite entry in 2020 would still be That Texas Blood (Image Comics), which was published in June. A West Texas noir set in the fictional Ambrose County (inspired by Jeff Davis County, according to author Chris Condon), it coats the Trans-Pecos in the thick layer of gore that the title promises and hints at enough hidden backstories and family secrets to satisfy any Ross Macdonald fan. As alluring as the plot is, what really makes That Texas Blood sing are the small, quotidian touches: a borrowed casserole dish that ends up at the scene of a crime; an argument between a driver and his reluctant passenger about what qualifies as country music; a sheriff with health issues standing in a convenience store deciding whether to buy a packet of dried fruit in hopes that it will somehow balance out the packet of beef jerky in his hand. Condon tells this story with admirable economy, as does Phillips, the illustrator and son of the famed comics artist Sean Phillips, making an impressive debut here. (A graphic novel collecting issues 1–6 will be published January 19.) —Jeff Salamon, deputy editor
Memorial by Bryan Washington
Following Bryan Washington’s acclaimed short story collection, Lot, this debut novel reads as a love letter to the nation’s fourth-largest city, as well as its thriving and wildly diverse food scene. Memorial splits its time between the Houston neighborhood of the same name and Osaka, Japan, while Washington’s characters, Benson and Mike, navigate their relationship, families, and identities in raw, matter-of-fact language, with wonderfully specific details that make you feel like you’re sitting next to them. —Nadia Chaudhury, freelance writer
All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir by Kathy Valentine
Reading All I Ever Wanted, the new memoir by songwriter and former Go-Gos bassist Kathy Valentine, was a balm during a tough year. Valentine writes about her upbringing in 1970s-era Austin with stinging clarity, and the recollections she shares of her time with the Go-Go’s make for an electrifying page-turner. The restorative power of music buoyed Valentine during the most trying moments in her life, and her story provided me with a much-needed dose of optimism—and the hope that we’ll convene together again one day at a show, lighters and sweating cups of beer held high in the air. —Paula Mejia, culture editor
Standoff: Race, Policing, and a Deadly Assault That Gripped a Nation by Jamie Thompson
This is a riveting account of the 2016 shooting at a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas that left five policemen dead. Thompson is a longtime journalist (and friend, I should add) whose reporting has a gripping you-are-there quality as she pivots from protester to surgeon to SWAT team to the Black hostage negotiator who was sent to talk down a troubled gunman. Race and policing is one of the most important topics of our time, and in a moment when so much commentary seeks to inflame, Thompson’s book instead tries to understand. —Sarah Hepola, freelance writer
¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat by Raúl the Third, with colors by Elaine Bay
The second installment in the bilingual ¡Vamos! series, this engaging children’s book tells the story of Little Lobo/Lobito and friends as they order food for some very hungry luchadores (wrestlers). Little Lobo gives the reader a tour of dozens of food trucks and carts parked outside the luchadores’ coliseo. The book, which seamlessly weaves in Spanish vocabulary while celebrating Mexican culture and cuisine, features pages full of intricate detail and dozens of background characters. It’s simply a gorgeous book with a great sense of humor. Reading ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat with my daughter makes us both hungry, and leaves me yearning for public spaces full of people and delicious food. We might not be able to visit a flea market, or a fair, or much of anywhere right now, but this book is a good substitute. —Richard Z. Santos, freelance writer
Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han
Simon Han’s brief, beautiful debut is a tale of Asian immigrants and the challenges of feeling caught between cultures. The novel follows the Chengs, a Chinese family, as they navigate life in Plano. It’s 2003, and beneath the veneer of suburban wealth, the North Texas community is still grappling with an epidemic of heroin and suicide. Han explores themes including discrimination by police and childhood trauma, and the novelist is especially adept at baking suspense into a character-driven narrative. His arresting prose makes it easy to devour the book quickly, but you’ll want to keep reading this one forever. —Tyler Hicks, freelance writer
The End of October by Lawrence Wright
and The Zealot and the Emancipator by H. W. Brands
My two favorite books of 2020 were written by good friends of mine, so discount my recommendations if you must. It helps my case, though, that both books have been critically and commercially vetted, and that each speaks in its own way to the reigning preoccupations of our dreadful year.
Most of the media coverage surrounding Lawrence Wright’s book The End of October had to do with Larry’s prescience in writing a novel about a deadly pandemic that came out just in time to shiver-read during a deadly pandemic. But I read it in manuscript a full year before I ever heard the word “coronavirus,” when I could admire it not for its eerie synchronicity but simply for its gripping storytelling.
The Zealot and the Emancipator, by H. W. Brands, also caught a wave of timeliness, even though it’s about two people—Abraham Lincoln and John Brown—who lived a century and a half before our own era of racial reckoning. But the book speaks directly to the strategic dilemma of whether, when it comes to injustice, it is better to strike hard and fast like Brown or to be patient and guileful like Lincoln. —Stephen Harrigan, writer-at-large
Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
Tell whoever’s in charge of that list of quintessential books that depict Texas in all its glory and infamy that they need to add one more title to the list: Elizabeth Wetmore’s Valentine. Set in Odessa in the 1970s, the novel opens just after a young woman has been assaulted in the oil patch. The townspeople either confront or disallow the crime, revealing themselves to us with heartbreaking clarity. It’s a story of brave and resilient women. It’s a story of folks living along the margins, clinging to whatever faith they have left in this merciless land. It’s a story of Texas. —Oscar Cásares, writer-at-large
The Mexican Home Kitchen: Traditional Home-Style Recipes That Capture the Flavors and Memories of Mexico by Mely Martínez
Frisco blogger Mely Martínez started her website, Mexico in My Kitchen, with a simple goal: collect her recipes all in one place, so her son would have easy access to them when he left home. But she soon found a readership in homesick Mexicans living around the world, each of them looking to re-create the homestyle flavors from the kitchens of their childhoods. In her new cookbook, Martínez shares the keys to these flavors, covering classic dishes from albondigas to tamales to seasonal aguas frescas, as well as basics like from-scratch tortillas and salsas. And unlike the many Mexican cookbooks that focus on elaborate restaurant dishes, there is plenty for beginners here—whether they are new to Mexican cooking in general or just hungry for a taste of home. —Paula Forbes, freelance writer