The 30 Best Texas Books of The Decade, from Amarillo to Utopia

As you scramble for a holiday gift or ponder what you’d like to peruse by the fire, we’ve got 10 years of Texas books to suggest.

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As you scramble for a holiday gift or ponder what you’d like to peruse by the fire, we’ve got 10 years of Texas books to suggest.

sunny sone

The twists and turns of these 30 Texas novels, nonfiction narratives, and other works published between January 2010 and December 2019 reveal undercurrents that run deep through our Lone Star State—a whole decade’s worth. All of these authors have significant Texas ties: They were born here, raised here, write here now, or had significant parts of their lives shaped by the state’s traditions and history.

To deliver this inclusive roundup, we sought help from the Lone Star State’s literati. Our informal survey turned up celebrated gems—and some surprises. You’ll find multiple entries from big cities like Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, and El Paso. But outstanding Texas authors also inhabit little towns like Utopia, tucked deep in the Texas Hill Country, and Groves, in Southeast Texas. Three of the darkest Texas narratives here made other lists of the nation’s best true crime stories: Bloodlines, Midnight in Mexico, and The Midnight Assassin.

Feel free to use this as your boilerplate request to Santa, or as an investment strategy to support icons of Lone Star State literature. 

Here’s our list, organized by cities closely tied to authors. Read all 30 and let us know what else you’d like to add.

These nominations were compiled and edited for length and clarity by Lise Olsen.  

AMARILLO

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders Random House Fiction; 368 pages 2017
Random House
Fiction; 368 pages
2017
Buy the book here.

Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders

The life of Abraham Lincoln may seem like an improbable way into exploring the psyche of a grieving father. But through a world of spirits both demonic and benevolent, the debut novel (yes, really) from Amarillo native Saunders gives new depth to the 16th president—not as a politician, but as a man trying to keep it together in the face of tragedy.

Nominated by Abby Johnston, executive editor

 
 

AUSTIN

Simon & Schuster
Fiction; 192 pages
2015
Buy the book here.

Barefoot Dogs: Stories
by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

These interwoven stories by Ruiz-Camacho, a Dobie Paisano Fellow who lives in Austin, capture what our review called the “flawed but fascinating humanity of the extended Arteaga family: five children and seven grandchildren of kidnapped family patriarch José Victoriano.”

Nominated by Rose Cahalan, managing editor 

 
 

HarperCollins
True crime; 400 pages
2017
Buy the book here.

Bloodlines: The True Story of a Drug Cartel, the FBI, and the Battle for a Horse-Racing Dynasty
by Melissa del Bosque

A fascinating and fast-paced tale of how a Texan blew the whistle on a pair of brothers who laundered millions through horse racing. Del Bosque’s vivid, meticulous book, born from border reporting she did at the Observer, was recently selected by the New York Times’ as one of Texas’ best true crime tales.

Nominated by Lise Olsen, senior reporter and editor

 
 

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne Scribner History; 384 pages 2010
Scribner
History; 384 pages
2010
Buy the book here.

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
by S.C. Gwynne

The deeply researched and compelling epic tale of Quanah Parker, the Comanche’s last brilliant chief, is intertwined with that of his mother, a pioneer girl who built her life with the tribe after being taken captive and marrying its leader. Gwynne later went on to write about Stonewall Jackson.

Nominated by Lise Olsen 

 
 

<em>God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State</em> by Lawrence Wright Knopf Nonfiction; 368 pages 2018 <em><a href="https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780525435907">Buy the book here.</a></em>
Knopf
Nonfiction; 368 pages
2018
Buy the book here.

God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State
by Lawrence Wright

Including a book explaining Texas on a list of the best Texas books of the decade might feel a little meta, but Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wright deserves it. God Save Texas takes on a formidable task: attempting to explain why, despite its flaws, Texas is great. Wright, who now lives in Austin, originally hails from Dallas.

Nominated by Abby Johnston and Lise Olsen

 
 

Macmillan
Young adult fiction; 336 pages
2018
Buy the book here.

I’m Not Missing: A Novel
by Carrie Fountain

This YA novel from Fountain, primarily known as a poet, explores a young woman’s life after the disappearance of her best friend. “This captivated me,” Observer poetry editor Naomi Shihab Nye wrote. “Poets take refuge in novels on long trips and long plane flights. I held this close to my body and read it with voracious interest!”

Nominated by Naomi Shihab Nye, poetry editor

 
 

See How Small by Scott Blackwood Little, Brown Fiction; 240 pages 2015
Little, Brown
Fiction; 240 pages
2015
Buy the book here.

See How Small
by Scott Blackwood

A riveting novel about the aftermath of the slayings of three teenage girls, See How Small is written in surreal, incantatory paragraphs. The story is based on the infamous 1991 yogurt shop murders in Austin.

Nominated by Mary Helen Specht, contributing writer and author of Migratory Animals

 
 

<em>The Son</em> by Philipp Meyer Ecco Fiction; 592 pages 2013 <em><a href="https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780062120403">Buy the book here.</a></em>
Ecco
Fiction; 592 pages
2013
Buy the book here.

The Son
by Philipp Meyer

Meyer drank buffalo blood as part of his research for this sweeping Texas epic, which follows one family for six generations. It’s recommended for fans of Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner, as well as anyone looking to get lost in an absorbing, expansive novel. Meyer is an alum of the University of Texas’ Michener Center and later adapted his book for TV.

Nominated by Rose Cahalan 

 
 

The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook Little, Brown Fiction; 288 pages 2018
Little, Brown
Fiction; 288 pages
2018
Buy the book here.

The Which Way Tree
by Elizabeth Crook

Our review called this book a “foray into the labyrinths of family and history in Texas” and “an absorbing coming-of-age adventure set in post-Civil War chaos, a time when not all that many people came to all that much of an age.” And, as with I’m Not Missing, Naomi Shihab Ney highly recommends it as a great read for long flights.

Nominated by Naomi Shihab Nye

 
 

BROWNSVILLE

<EM>The Boy Kings of Texas: A Memoir</em> by Domingo Martinez Memoir; 456 pages 2012
Memoir; 456 pages
2012
Buy the book here.

The Boy Kings of Texas: A Memoir
by Domingo Martinez

Martinez left Texas long ago, but his books draw deeply from his painful youth in the barrio in Brownsville, as well as his later struggles as an adult. He was coronated as a literary king when his first memoir was named a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award.

Nominated by Lilly Gonzalez, executive director of the San Antonio Book Festival

 
 

DALLAS

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce Doubleday Fiction; 224 pages 2014
Doubleday
Fiction; 224 pages
2014
Buy the book here.

Love Me Back
by Merritt Tierce

Tierce’s quirky debut novel has been described alternatively as “restaurant fiction’ and “mom fiction.” She breaks out of Texas stereotypes while still representing important experiences from our state—and her narrative voice is both edgy and dark. Tierce now works as a writer for Netflix in Los Angeles, but formerly ran a nonprofit in Dallas.

Nominated by Mary Helen Specht

 
 

Holt
True crime; 336 pages
2016
Buy the book here.

The Midnight Assassin: The Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer
by Skip Hollandsworth

A master of truly strange Texas tales, Hollandsworth turns his attention to a 140-year-old unsolved mystery. His book brings back to life the victims of a serial ax murderer dubbed the “servant girl annihilator,” reopening the whodunnit debate in an extremely cold case. Like others on this list, Hollandsworth claims ties to more than one Texas city—he spent part of his childhood in Wichita Falls.

Nominated by Lise Olsen

 
 

EL PASO

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz Simon & Schuster Young adult fiction; 368 pages 2012
Simon & Schuster
Young adult fiction; 368 pages
2012
Buy the book here.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Nominator Lilly Gonzalez dubbed this coming-of-age novel set in El Paso a “painful triumph.” Saenz, born in New Mexico, is both a former priest and a graduate of the University of Texas El Paso’s bilingual creative writing program.

Nominated by Lilly Gonzalez

 
 

Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Madness by Alfredo Corchado Penguin Memoir/true crime; 304 pages 2013
Penguin
Memoir/true crime; 304 pages
2013
Buy the book here.

Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Madness
by Alfredo Corchado

Named one of the true best crime books ever by Time, this memoir delves deeply into a particularly violent chapter in Mexico history that Corchado experienced firsthand—both as a Mexican-born U.S. citizen and as a Texas journalist who returned to cover Mexico as a foreign correspondent for the Dallas Morning News. Corchado spent much of his life in El Paso, where his parents run a café named after him.

Nominated by Lise Olsen 

 
 

FRIENDSWOOD

Friendswood: A Novel by Rene Steinke Riverhead Fiction; 368 pages 2014
Riverhead
Fiction; 368 pages
2014
Buy the book here.

Friendswood: A Novel
by Rene Steinke

This novel is an illuminating journey inside the lives of the families who inhabit the Houston suburb of Friendswood. Everything seems normal on the surface, but the community is forever haunted and contaminated by a Superfund site. Steinke, who lives in New York but grew up in Friendswood, paints a deeply poetic and disturbing fictional portrait of her hometown.

Nominated by Lise Olsen

 
 

GALVESTON

No Apparent Distress: A Doctor's Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine by Rachel Pearson Norton Memoir; 272 pages 2017
Norton
Memoir; 272 pages
2017
Buy the book here.

No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine
by Rachel Pearson

In lyrical prose, Pearson recounts her time working at a charity clinic for poor and uninsured patients in Galveston. Many of the people she cared for were abandoned by a local hospital in the chaos after Hurricane Ike. This searing indictment of the broken health care system is grounded in personal stories.

Nominated by Rose Cahalan

 
 

GROVES

Tropic of Squalor: Poems by Mary Karr HarperCollins Poetry; 96 pages 2018
HarperCollins
Poetry; 96 pages
2018
Buy the book here.

Tropic of Squalor: Poems
by Mary Karr

Karr teaches writing at Syracuse University these days, but her roots are deep in East Texas. Her offbeat creative nonfiction is all about alcohol, insanity, and family secrets. But this 2018 poetry collection uses humor, shock, and good old-fashioned honesty to write about … the divine! And Karr doesn’t judge. Of course, her memoirs are must-reads too.

Nominated by Maggie Galehouse, editor of Pulse Magazine and former book editor at the Houston Chronicle

 
 

HOUSTON

Bluebird, Bluebird: A Highway 59 Mystery #1 by Attica Locke Mulholland Mystery; 320 pages 2017
Mulholland
Mystery; 320 pages
2017
Buy the book here.

Bluebird, Bluebird: A Highway 59 Mystery #1
by Attica Locke

The debut of Locke’s Highway 59 series, which features an African American detective in East Texas, was hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as “a tale of racism, hatred, and, surprisingly, love.” The sequel, Heaven, My Home, released in 2019, unearths even more compelling Texas secrets. Now a screenwriter and producer in Los Angeles, Locke is originally from Houston.

Nominated by Rose Cahalan

 
 

The Boy Who Loved Too Much: A True Story of Pathological Friendliness by Jennifer Latson Flatiron Nonfiction; 304 pages 2015
Flatiron
Nonfiction; 304 pages
2015
Buy the book here.

The Boy Who Loved Too Much: A True Story of Pathological Friendliness
by Jennifer Latson

A compelling narrative portrait, The Boy Who Loved Too Much follows the life of a mother raising a son with Williams syndrome, a genetic condition that prompts uncontrollable displays of love and emotion. Latson spent years observing this pair and places her readers deeply into their lives and struggles.

Nominated by Lise Olsen

 
 

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan Doubleday Fiction; 546 pages 2013
Doubleday
Fiction; 546 pages
2013
Buy the book here.

Crazy Rich Asians
by Kevin Kwan

It’s a little-known fact that Kwan, whose wildly popular satirical novel is set in Singapore, attended high school in the Clear Lake suburb of Houston. His prose is fresh and delicious, like bubbling champagne overflowing  a glass.

Nominated by Maggie Galehouse

 
 

Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington Riverhead Fiction; 240 pages 2019
Riverhead
Fiction; 240 pages
2019
Buy the book here.

Lot: Stories
by Bryan Washington

“Lot described parts of Houston I know but have never seen in books, and people I’ve seen but never met,” wrote Gwendolyn Zepeda, editor of Houston Noir. “It was heartbreaking and filled me with hope.” Many agreed: Lot was nominated for this list by four people in our circle of critics.

Nominated by Gwen Zepeda, author and editor, and three others

 
 

Oleander Girl: A Novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Free Press Fiction; 320 pages 2013
Free Press
Fiction; 320 pages
2013
Buy the book here.

Oleander Girl: A Novel
by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Divakaruni spins a complex cross-cultural romance and mystery. This tale plunges the reader into the life of an Indian woman on the verge of an arranged marriage who learns a secret that forces her to detour to America. Originally from India herself, Divakaruni is a professor at the University of Houston’s creative writing program and has published more than a dozen novels.

Nominated by Lise Olsen

 
 

Reinhardt's Garden by Mark Haber Coffee House Press Fiction; 168 pages 2019
Coffee House Press
Fiction; 168 pages
2019
Buy the book here.

Reinhardt’s Garden
by Mark Haber

The debut novel by Haber, who runs Houston’s beloved independent Brazos Bookstore, is written as a single paragraph in a stream-of-consciousness style—a mimicry of the main character’s relentless obsession. It’s an absurdist delight, a grand adventure of passion and lunacy, a brilliant book about melancholy that is anything but doleful.

Nominated by Laura Calaway, board member of Houston literary arts nonprofit Inprint

 
 

heart
Crown
$27; 304 pages
Buy the book here.

Ticker: The Quest to Create An Artificial Heart
by Mimi Swartz

This is the inside story of Dr. “Bud” Frazier and other offbeat medical geniuses at the Texas Medical Center who raced to develop the first manmade heart. Swartz explains technology and surgical techniques with verve, and shares intimate stories about these doctors and their desperate patients. Shortly before Ticker was published, Frazier was the subject of an investigation alleging he’d committed ethical and legal violations.

Nominated by Lise Olsen

 
 

LUBBOCK

Vintage
Fiction; 224 pages
2019
Buy the book here.

Black Light
by Kimberley King Parsons

Parsons’ debut collection of short stories is crafted with a light touch and a profound kindness. Our reviewer called it “a weird, wonderful fever dream of a book.” Parsons’ characters are vulnerable and sharp-witted, flawed and funny. A smart read with a full heart and, often, a Texas setting.

Nominated by Laura Calaway

 
 

NACOGDOCHES

Paradise Sky by Joe R. Lansdale Little, Brown Mystery/Western; 416 pages 2015
Little, Brown
Mystery/Western; 416 pages
2015
Buy the book here.

Paradise Sky
by Joe R. Lansdale

One of Lansdale’s greatest achievements, Paradise Sky is a revisionist Western reimagining the life of Nat (sometimes Nate) Love, a real-life African-American cowboy and gunfighter. Paradise Sky invites comparison to the likes of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Manor and E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times. Lansdale is a prolific author who’s occasionally written for the Observer.

Nominated by W. K. Stratton, author and treasurer of the Texas Institute of Letters

 
 

SAN ANTONIO

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) Flatiron Memoir; 352 pages 2015
Flatiron
Memoir; 352 pages
2015
Buy the book here.

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things
by Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess)

This memoir mines the life of Lawson, “the Bloggess”—her marriage, her child, her love of taxidermy, and her struggles with depression and anxiety. Lawson ropes you into her world and makes you adore her.

Nominated by Maggie Galehouse

 
 

TEXARKANA/HOUSTON

Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas by Michael Hurd University of Texas Press Nonfiction; 304 pages 2017
University of Texas Press
Nonfiction; 304 pages
2017
Buy the book here.

Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas
by Michael Hurd

Thursday Night Lights concerns the passion, drama, and remarkable accomplishments of African American high school football players and coaches in segregated Texas. Hurd was born in Texarkana and grew up in Houston. A former journalist, he directs the Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture at Prairie View A&M University

Nominated by W.K. Stratton

 
 

UVALDE

The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas by Monica Muñoz Martinez Harvard University Press History; 400 pages 2018
Harvard University Press
History; 400 pages
2018
Buy the book here.

The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas
by Monica Muñoz Martinez

A groundbreaking work that lays bare the horrific reign of terror inflicted on innocent Tejanos, mostly in the Valley, by the Texas Rangers and affiliated mobs during the 1910s. Untold hundreds died in the carnage. Martinez, a native of the borderlands, continues to uncover more details on these dark chapters in Texas history as a professor at Brown University.

Nominated by W. K. Stratton

 
 

UTOPIA

News of the World by Paulette Jiles HarperCollins Western; 212 pages 2016
HarperCollins
Western; 212 pages
2016
Buy the book here.

News of the World
by Paulette Jiles

A classic Western that recalls True Grit, this adventure story follows an old man and a little girl on their journey across Texas in 1870. The plot is simple enough—the girl has just been rescued from her Kiowa kidnappers, and the man is meant to return her to her family—but the real delight is in Jiles’ bare-bones, propulsive writing style. Jiles, born in Missouri, has lived in both Utopia and San Antonio

Nominated by Rose Cahalan

Special thanks to Laura Calaway, board member at Inprint; Maggie Galehouse, editor of Pulse Magazine; Lilly Gonzalez, executive director of the San Antonio Book Festival; W. K. Stratton, author and treasurer of the Texas Institute of Letters; and Gwendolyn Zepeda, Houston author and former poet laureate of Houston. More nominations came from Texas Observer staffers Rose Cahalan and Abby Johnston, poetry editor Naomi Shihab Nye, and contributor Mary Helen Specht. 

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Lise Olsen is a Houston-based senior writer and editor, working mom, and yogini. Reach her at [email protected] or by phone or Signal at 281-454-1933.


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