The last year of this decade has been a particularly strong one for Texas literature, from Stephen Harrigan’s history-redefining look at the state to the debut works of Houston-bred authors Bryan Washington and Jia Tolentino being recognized on the New York Times list of one hundred notable books. As we’ve done for the past two years, Texas Monthly asked some of our favorite Texas authors to share their favorite books they read in 2019. With recommendations that range from poetry to mystery to romance to historical fiction, there’s something for every kind of book lover to get into.
by Mark Haber
Every time I try to talk about fellow Texas bookseller Mark Haber’s debut novel, Reinhardt’s Garden, I always find myself saying different, rambling things about it. Written in one long paragraph, this feels more like a long, frantic piano piece, or like cutting through the jungle with a machete, and I recommend it to fearless readers everywhere.
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by Barbara Bourland
The narrator of this immersive literary mystery is a nameless abstract painter so haunted by the untimely death of her idol, artist Carey Logan, that she insinuates herself into the dead woman’s inner circle under false pretenses. More of a Künstlerroman with gothic flourishes than a true mystery, Fake Like Me is packed with fascinating descriptions of the cost, labor, and process of making art, never once letting you forget the bodies—living and dead—at the center of the easily satirized art world. An oddly compelling read that, like the best art, feels like more than the sum of its parts.
by Ann Patchett
The Dutch House is not only one of my favorite books of the year, it may be one of my favorite books of all time. It’s high family drama, with notes of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, as Patchett perfectly captures a house with a personality all its own, around which a family orbits, a house that inspires awe, that stirs greed, and ultimately drives a family apart. At least it tries . . . but in the end the book’s heart is one of the most honest and pitch-perfect portrayals of a sibling relationship that I’ve ever read. The bond between Danny and Maeve Conroy may be the one thing more powerful than the Dutch House.
by Carolina De Robertis
In 2019, I devoured Carolina De Robertis’s breathtaking novel Cantoras. The title has a double meaning. In Spanish, “cantoras” translates to “women who sing,” but the word was also code for “lesbian” during the brutal military junta of Uruguay in the seventies and eighties. During this time of great repression, being queer could result in imprisonment, being disappeared, or death, and yet the five women who come together in De Robertis’s novel find freedom in the community they’ve built. Cantoras powerfully demonstrates that women will continue to persist as they’ve always done.
by Lilliam Rivera
My suggestion is Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera. It’s a YA book. And I have only recently—since, I think, a couple of years ago—started reading YA books. But Rivera, who also wrote The Education of Margot Sanchez, one of my favorite books of 2017, writes in a way that allows me to experience a bunch of big ideas in a handful of different ways, which is something I always enjoy as a reader. Dealing in Dreams is a smart book and a funny book and a touching book. But most importantly: it’s the kind of book that allows you an escape into a world you’d have otherwise never been allowed to visit.
by Oliver Baez Bendorf
Advantages of Being Evergreen is a stirring book of poetry that begs to be read and reread. As a queer nonbinary femme person, I was moved by how expertly Oliver conceived the bridge between the natural world and the experiences of queer/trans people. Reflecting on the 2016 election, the Pulse Orlando shooting, and the Ghost Ship fire, he urgently insists that readers reflect on our country’s transforming personal and political landscapes. Nature itself is queer, Bendorf reveals in a collection that visually and sonically mimics the epic cross-country journey that inspired it. Casting spells with his structurally fresh poems and evolving rhetoric, Bendorf is a poet who excavates his own intersectionality with the precise eye of a critic. My suggestion: if you’re going on a road trip anytime soon, take this book with you!
Recommended by Faylita Hicks, author of HoodWitch
by Matt Mendez
In Barely Missing Everything, teens JD and Juan, and Juan’s mother, Fabi, each grapple with the paths ahead of them and the impossible decisions they’re forced to make in a world that gives them few options or room for error. Set in El Paso, it’s a story that’s unflinchingly honest and at times gut-wrenchingly so, about the ways brown Latinx youth and their families are harmed systemically by racism, police brutality, toxic masculinity, and a lack of access to health care and educational resources. What I loved most about Mendez’s storytelling is the tender understanding with which he writes each character. The teens are at times silly, shy, insecure, full of hopes and dreams, and afraid, and yes, like all people, they make mistakes. Mendez sees them as they are: complex, soft, and fallible at a time when teens of color are rarely given the luxury to simply exist imperfectly. This is a story written with love and hope as both shield and sword.
Recommended by Natalia Sylvester, author of Everyone Knows You Go Home
by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
In a post-apocalyptic, god-infested Lagos, Nigeria, David Mogo (who has a little god in his blood himself) makes a living relocating the godlings who wreak havoc on people’s daily lives. He’s good at his job, but unfortunately for him, life as a freelance god hunter means payments don’t always come on time, when they come at all, and he’s struggling to keep the four walls of his home standing. However, David’s got a plan: to go into business with the one person his grandfather has forbidden him to work with. It’s a straightforward job, after all, capturing a high god for a renowned wizard. Grandfather doesn’t even have to know. But David’s get-rich-quick scheme becomes a fight for his life and the lives of his loved ones when he inadvertently unleashes inhuman powers into a city already at its knees. David Mogo, Godhunter takes you on an action-packed adventure full of Yoruba orishas that have been given new and interesting takes. I loved the code switching throughout the story. There’s no hand-holding in this book and it just throws you into a captivating version of Lagos, but if you’re looking for an immersive read with rich details and amazing world-building and out-of-this-world fight scenes, this one’s for you.
In a year with as many beautiful books as 2019, it feels pretty sacrilegious to choose a favorite: but Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous altered how I see words on the page, and language—and what it’s capable of—full stop. The novel is plenty of things: a coming-of-age narrative, a coming-to-America narrative, a queer love story that refuses to make concessions; but one of its most astounding feats is the overarching sense of possibility it retains throughout. In Vuong’s hands, words, and story, feel boundless. It’ll stick with me for the rest of my life.
by Helen Hoang
This book gave me what I expected from a cheesy romance purchased to read on a plane: (1) improbably neat happy endings and (2) sex scenes I had to ensure my seatmate wasn’t reading over my shoulder. Helen Hoang also gave me an autistic protagonist—something I’d never encountered in a romance novel. Her handling of the characters and their struggles was incredibly sensitive and empathetic (which is only natural, because the author has autism herself). I admit the story made me cry more than once. Yet it delivered exactly what genre fiction should: a temporary, thoroughly enjoyable escape from real-world stress. Here’s hoping they make it into a movie.
Recommended by Gwendolyn Zepeda, editor of Houston Noir
by Jaime Fountaine
A book I read this year that really blew me back was the debut novella Manhunt by Jaime Fountaine. The subject matter ticks a lot of my boxes: it’s a first-person narrative about feral suburban kids running amok, an absent mother, creepy men, the navigation of brutal neighborhood social circles, class discrepancies, and a young girl attempting to harness her budding sexuality. In stark, precise language, Fountaine builds exquisite tension and danger at every turn—I kept holding my breath as I was reading. There’s so much enviable style and urgency to the prose (and I also feel I should mention how taken I am with the expertly matched cover, one of my favorites in years). Manhunt announces a remarkable talent, and I can’t wait to read more from Fountaine.
by Ruben Degollado
“If I’m going to tell you the story of how I lost two people who were closer than blood to me, I have to begin here in Dennett, Texas, during the summer between the sophomore and junior years of my life. This story begins as it ends, with me, Cirilo Izquerido, waiting for what all of us spend our whole lives waiting for: to not be alone anymore.” So begins Ruben Degollado’s debut YA novel, which is at once sharp and sweet, contemplative and full of nonstop action. Throw takes place in the South Texas region known as the Rio Grande Valley, which is where I consider myself from if I need to point to a spot on the map. Degollado’s voice and story embraced me right away—the familiar tone and pitch, all the voices of people in my adolescence, all the awareness of border and class and race, the way that the physical and the emotional and the spiritual and the dreamed moved in and out of the realities of the living and the dead. A wonderful read!
Additional reporting by Emily McCullar.