Of the hundreds of review copies that land in our mailbox every year, only a few dozen books will end up getting the Observer treatment. The criteria for review are intentionally a little fuzzy, but in general, we look for new releases that are either by Texas authors or on Texas subjects; relevant to our beats, such as immigration, politics, environment and social justice; by authors whose life experiences are diverse or underrepresented; and, above all else, just damn good reads.
In 2017, our staff and freelance reviewers delved into literary fiction, true crime, food, sports, science fiction, natural history, theater and a lot more. Here are 10 of our favorites.
American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee
An engrossing account of the human and environmental drama around the wolves of Yellowstone National Park, Nate Blakeslee’s first book is unputdownable (and would be perfect for curling up with on the rare occasion when temperatures in Texas dip below freezing). From the review by Andrew Roush:
History and science are both key to understanding the state of the wolf in America today, and Blakeslee deftly weaves both into his account. … American Wolf is reminiscent of John McPhee’s science-centric, personality-driven, abundantly readable nature journalism. It’s informative and grand, moving back and forth from quiet game trails and tiny county courthouses to Washington, D.C.
Bloodlines by Melissa del Bosque
We are, admittedly, biased, as Melissa is an Observer staff reporter and her new book is based on a riveting story she reported for the magazine in 2013. But Bloodlines really does have it all: a thrilling premise at the intersection of drug cartels, the FBI and the cutthroat world of quarter horse racing; fast-paced, unadorned prose; and characters you’ll root for. From the excerpt in our August issue:
He snapped more photos… click, click, click. Suddenly, José turned and seemed to be staring straight at him. Lawson involuntarily sucked in his breath. The worst he could do was panic and bolt from the amphitheater. Quickly he feigned interest in the catalog he’d grabbed at the entrance. He was already beating himself up for blowing the surveillance. … He thumbed through the pages for a few minutes, then looked up again. Graham was consulting with José over something in the auction catalog and José appeared entirely engrossed in whatever they were discussing. Lawson hoped he hadn’t been made. He’d phone Graham as soon as he got the chance. Having had enough excitement for the afternoon, he quickly packed up his camera, a feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach, and headed for the exit.
Texas Blood by Roger D. Hodge
Who doesn’t love a multigenerational family saga, especially one set in the rocky canyons and rugged ranches of South Texas? Roger D. Hodge returns to his native Del Rio not just to recount his family’s seven generations in the region, but also to expound on colonization and conquest in the borderlands. From the review by Steven G. Kellman:
Texas Blood concludes with a climb into Seminole Canyon, west of Comstock, to ponder the hundreds of prehistoric pictographs left by a vanished culture. The bleak, inhospitable setting inspires thoughts of human transience. Indigenous communities disappeared after thousands of years; their successors have been here for mere centuries. “Compared with the long tenure of the Indians,” Hodge writes, “the European presence here has been as brief as a cloud of dust.” This rambling yet bounteous book compounds the blood and dust that make us human.
All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands by Stephanie Elizondo Griest
Accomplished travel writer Stephanie Elizondo Griest has an eye for the local characters who help make a place what it is. All the Agents and Saints is divided between the Texas-Mexico border and the New York-Canada border, putting two borderlands in conversation in a new and colorful way. From the review by Brad Tyer:
“Everything is interesting to me,” Elizondo Griest tells herself, and her readers, passingly, so she forgets the curious remark until she finds herself chatting awkwardly around a hot grill with a drug-dealing Mohawk Indian.
Everything is interesting to me. In another context, from another writer, that might read as braggadocious, but it’s framed so offhandedly that it’s clear Elizondo Griest isn’t laying claim to any particular profundity. It’s just a described fact, and like so much of All the Agents and Saints, it has the ring of observed and considered truth.
Thursday Night Lights by Michael Hurd
During segregation, black high school football teams weren’t welcome in the University Interscholastic League, so they created their own organization. Sports journalist Michael Hurd highlights triumphs and edge-of-your-seat games, as well as the innumerable barriers black players and coaches faced. From the review by Jessica Luther:
One of the most memorable and tragic stories is that of quarterback Eldridge Dickey, who played high school ball in Houston. Dickey’s résumé was “as brilliant as any, and more so than most,” Hurd writes. In college, Dickey “racked up 6,523 yards passing and 67 touchdowns” and “led his team to an undefeated black-college national championship season.” He was the first pick of the Oakland Raiders in the 1968 draft. “After the preseason,” though, “Dickey never played quarterback again,” instead forced to be a wide receiver and kick returner. Hurd says this was normal for black quarterbacks, that everyone knew “it was a dead-end gig with no future beyond high school or college.”
The Potlikker Papers by John T. Edge
John T. Edge’s food history of the South shows how politics, race and class are baked into every dish. This colorful tome celebrates the activists, immigrants, chefs, hustlers and everyday people whose contributions to the culinary world have been cast aside. From the interview:
“Houston is my favorite city in America to eat in right now. If you look at the demographic destiny of the South and of the country, we’re gonna be a majority-minority nation by about 2060. … If New Orleans was the Creole port city of the 19th century, Houston looks a lot like a 21st-century port city. Look at the Vietnamese crawfish cafes. In this moment of conversations about cultural appropriation, they subvert the whole thing. Vietnamese folks are appropriating Cajun food, which is kind of beautiful.”
No Apparent Distress by Rachel Pearson
As a medical student in Galveston, Rachel Pearson’s most memorable learning experiences came not in class, but at the small, student-run charity clinic where she volunteered. There, she saw the human impact of the United States’ broken health care system daily, as she did her best to care for patients who were uninsured, homeless, undocumented or otherwise left behind. From the excerpt in our May issue:
Susan counseled Jacob on hope. “I learned that there are a lot of different things you can hope for,” Jacob said, when hoping to live no longer feels like an option. You can hope for a death that feels like part of life, that is more pain-free and gentle than you ever expected. You can hope for forgiveness, or reconciliation — with family, with God. You can hope for a good life in the time you have. Gently, in the clinic room at St. Vincent’s, Susan taught Jacob how to talk about these kinds of hope with Mr. Klein.
Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli
The award-winning Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli based this book on her experience as a volunteer interpreter in federal immigration court in New York City. She builds a powerful narrative around the litany of questions put to young asylum-seekers: Why did you come? What will happen if you are sent back? From the review by Michael Agresta:
In Sidewalks, Luiselli wrote of the notion that, “literature could be like a great house, a territory without frontiers that offers shelter to those of us who don’t know how to inhabit any particular place.” These days, frontiers are reasserting their prominence. Perhaps in response, Luiselli has shifted her register dramatically with Tell Me How It Ends, capturing the mood of the era: warily observational, tragic, with a sense of walls closing in.
The Second Coming of the KKK by Linda Gordon
At its height, the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan had more than a million dues-paying members. Historian Linda Gordon isn’t shy about connecting the dots between the KKK of the 1920s and the resurgence of hate groups today. From the review by Todd Moye:
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Fed up with world affairs, Americans rejected internationalism and closed their doors to immigrants. As they got used to new communications technologies, they found themselves susceptible to believing the outright lies that national media networks fed them and they gleefully consumed. Demagogues whipped up white people’s race resentments and status anxieties and rode them to electoral victories.
Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Latin@ Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Matthew David Goodwin
The first-ever anthology of Latino science fiction and fantasy includes 24 wide-ranging stories and poems that engage with power, dystopian politics and authoritarianism. From the review by Roberto Ontiveros:
Ernest Hogan’s “Flying under the Texas Radar with Paco and Los Freetails” is a comic gem. The story envisions a Lone Star state of mind wherein a dissident rocker in a band named after the Mexican bats is exiled from the planet for not being Texan enough. The narrator, a “Jewish Tejano” living on Mars, details a future in which Texas has become a corporation run by a billionaire politician/entrepreneur named Billy-Bob Paolozzi. Cultural criticism and sarcasm are verboten and words are not so much banned as made palatable. Some Spanish, for instance, is acceptable, but not without the proper Texas twang.