Best of fiction and non-fiction

Whew. What a year. As 2018 slips into the rearview mirror, on behalf of Lone Star Literary Life, I would like to say thank you to all of the authors who have written books about our state or set in our state, but I’d like to pay special recognition to my favorite Texas books of 2018.

I read and review dozens of books set in Texas or written about Texas each year. This year’s selections reflect the diversity, tastes, and range of the state and its readers, with settings from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods, from the Gulf Coast to the Chihuahua Desert. The twenty authors include twelve men and eight women, ranging in age from thirty-six to seventy-one, their subjects many and varied, including history, politics, memoir, medicine, weather, art, immigration, families, criminals, victims, grief, bliss, growing up, and growing old.

Here’s my favorite fiction and nonfiction of 2018, with publishers’ descriptions and links to Lone Star Literary Life’s reviews and interviews, in no particular order, though if my arm were twisted, I’d tell you my favorite novel this year is Oliver Loving (Flatiron Books) by Stefan Merrill Block and my favorite nonfiction is Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution (Ecco Books) by Ben Fountain.

Let the argument — ahem, I mean spirited discussion — begin!

 

FICTION

 

Sofia Grant
The Daisy Children: A Novel

William Morrow, Trade paperback, 978-0-0626-9344-1 (also available as an e-book and an audio-book), 432 pgs., $15.99

Inspired by true events, in Sofia Grant’s powerfully moving new novel a young woman peels back the layers of her family’s history, discovering a tragedy in the past that explains so much of the present. This unforgettable story is one of hope, healing, and the discovery of truth.

Sometimes the untold stories of the past are the ones we need to hear...

When Katie Garrett gets the unexpected news that she’s received an inheritance from the grandmother she hardly knew, it couldn’t have come at a better time. She flees Boston—and her increasingly estranged husband—and travels to rural Texas.

There, she’s greeted by her distant cousin Scarlett. Friendly, flamboyant, eternally optimistic, Scarlett couldn’t be more different from sensible Katie. And as they begin the task of sorting through their grandmother’s possessions, they discover letters and photographs that uncover the hidden truths about their shared history, and the long-forgotten tragedy of the New London school explosion of 1937 that binds them.

Author Sofia Grant is interviewed here.

 

Sarah Bird
Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 978-1-2501-9316-2 (also available as an e-book and an audiobook), 416 pgs., $27.99

The compelling, hidden story of Cathy Williams, a former slave and the only woman to ever serve with the legendary Buffalo Soldiers.

“Here’s the first thing you need to know about Miss Cathy Williams: I am the daughter of a daughter of a queen and my mama never let me forget it.”

Though born into bondage on a “miserable tobacco farm” in Little Dixie, Missouri, Cathy Williams was never allowed to consider herself a slave. According to her mother, she was a captive, destined by her noble warrior blood to escape the enemy. Her chance at freedom presents itself with the arrival of Union general Phillip Henry “Smash ‘em Up” Sheridan, the outcast of West Point who takes the rawboned, prideful young woman into service. At war’s end, having tasted freedom, Cathy refuses to return to servitude and makes the monumental decision to disguise herself as a man and join the Army’s legendary Buffalo Soldiers.

Alone now in the ultimate man’s world, Cathy must fight not only for her survival and freedom, but she also vows to never give up on finding her mother, her little sister, and the love of the only man strong enough to win her heart. Inspired by the stunning, true story of Private Williams, this American heroine comes to vivid life in a sweeping and magnificent tale about one woman’s fight for freedom, respect and independence.

Author Sarah Bird is interviewed here.

 

Randy Kennedy
Presidio: A Novel

Touchstone, hardcover, 978-1-5011-5386-0 (also available as an e-book and audio-book), 320 pgs., $26.00

Set in the 1970s in the vast and arid landscape of the Texas panhandle, this darkly comic and stunningly mature literary debut tells the story of a car thief and his brother who set out to recover some stolen money and inadvertently kidnap a Mennonite girl who has her own reasons for being on the run.

Troy Falconer returns home after years of working as a solitary car thief to help his younger brother, Harlan, search for his wife, who has run away with the little money he had. When they steal a station wagon for the journey, the brothers accidentally kidnap Martha Zacharias, a Mennonite girl asleep in the back of the car. Martha turns out to be a stubborn survivor who refuses to be sent home, so together these unlikely road companions attempt to escape across the Mexican border, pursued by the police and Martha’s vengeful father.

The story is told partly through Troy’s journal, in which he chronicles his encounters with con artists, down-and-outers, and roadside philosophers, people looking for fast money, human connection, or a home long since vanished. The journal details a breakdown that has left Troy unable to function in conventional society; he is reduced to haunting motels, stealing from men roughly his size, living with their possessions in order to have none of his own and all but disappearing into their identities.

With a page-turning plot about a kidnapped child, gorgeously written scenes that probe the soul of the American West, and an austere landscape as real as any character, Presidio packs a powerful punch of anomie, dark humor, pathos, and suspense.

Author Randy Kennedy is interviewed here.

 

Mary H. K. Choi
Emergency Contact

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, hardcover, 978-1-5344-0896-8 (also available as an e-book and audio-book), 400 pgs., $17.99

From debut author Mary H.K. Choi comes a compulsively readable novel that shows young love in all its awkward glory—perfect for fans of Eleanor & Park and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

For Penny Lee high school was a total nonevent. Her friends were okay, her grades were fine, and while she somehow managed to land a boyfriend, he doesn’t actually know anything about her. When Penny heads to college in Austin, Texas, to learn how to become a writer, it’s seventy-nine miles and a zillion light years away from everything she can’t wait to leave behind.
Sam’s stuck. Literally, figuratively, emotionally, financially. He works at a café and sleeps there too, on a mattress on the floor of an empty storage room upstairs. He knows that this is the god-awful chapter of his life that will serve as inspiration for when he’s a famous movie director but right this second the seventeen bucks in his checking account and his dying laptop are really testing him.

When Sam and Penny cross paths it’s less meet-cute and more a collision of unbearable awkwardness. Still, they swap numbers and stay in touch—via text—and soon become digitally inseparable, sharing their deepest anxieties and secret dreams without the humiliating weirdness of having to see each other.

Author Mary H. K. Choi is interviewed here.

 

Diane DeSanders
Hap and Hazard and the End of the World: A Novel

Bellevue Literary Press, paperback, 978-1-9426-5836-8 (also available as an e-book, an audio book, and on Audible), 288 pgs., $16.99

For Dick and Jane, Dallas after World War II is a place of promise and prosperity: the first home air conditioners are making summertime bearable and Dick’s position at his father’s business, the Cadillac dealership, is assured. Jane has help with the house and the children, and garden parties and holiday celebrations are spirited social affairs. For the oldest of their three daughters, however, life is full of frustrating mysteries. The stories the adults tell her don’t make sense. Too curious for comfort, she finds her questions only seem to annoy them. Why won’t they tell the truth about Santa? What is that Holy Spirit business, and what is the difference between an angel and a ghost? Why is her mother often so tense and sad? And why does her father keep flying into violent rages?

Hap and Hazard and the End of the World is an intimate, finely crafted novel about the innocence and vulnerability of childhood and the dangers posed by adults who cannot cope with life’s complexities. It is also about the ingenuity born of loneliness and neglect, and the surprising, strange beauty of the world.

Author Diane DeSanders is interviewed here.

 

Julia Heaberlin
Paper Ghosts: A Novel of Suspense

Ballantine Books, hardcover, 978-0-8041-7802-0 (also available as an e-book, an audio book, and on Audible), 368 pgs., $26.00

A Texas map marked with three red dots like drops of blood. A serial killer who claims to have dementia. A mysterious young woman who wants answers. What could go wrong?
Years ago, her sister Rachel vanished. Now she is almost certain the man who took Rachel sits in the passenger seat beside her. He claims to have dementia and no memory of murdering girls across Texas in a string of places where he shot eerie pictures. To find the truth, she proposes a dangerous idea: a ten-day road trip with a possible serial killer to examine cold cases linked to his haunting photographs. Is he a liar or a broken old man? Is he a pathological con artist—or is she? You won’t see the final, terrifying twist spinning your way until the very last mile.

 

Eryk Pruitt
What We Reckon

Polis Books, paperback, 978-1-9438-1864-8, (also available as an e-book), 320 pgs., $15.95

He’s snuck into Lufkin, Texas, in the dead of night with little more than a beat-up Honda, a hollowed-out King James Bible full of cocaine, and enough emotional baggage to sink a steam ship. He’s charming, dedicated, and extremely paranoid.

Summer Ashton, his partner-in-crime. She’s stuck by him through thick and thin, but lately her mind has begun to slip. They’ve told their fair share of lies and she’s having a devil of a time remembering what’s the truth. And recently, she’s been hearing voices. Unfortunately for both of them, she’s the brains of the operation.

Furthermore, they have begun to tire of one another.

For these two career grifters, the sleepy East Texas countryside is but another pitstop on their rampage across the American South.

Will it be their last?

In What We Reckon, Eryk Pruitt explores themes of identity, loyalty, and purpose with psycho-delic, transgressive, chicken-fried twists that read like Trainspotting cut with a couple grams of Helter Skelter.

 

Natalia Sylvester
Everyone Knows You Go Home

Little A, hardcover, 978-1-5420-4637-4, (also available as an e-book, an audio book, and on Audible) 334 pgs., $24.95

The first time Isabel meets her father-in-law, Omar, he’s already dead—an apparition appearing uninvited on her wedding day. Her husband, Martin, still unforgiving for having been abandoned by his father years ago, confesses that he never knew the old man had died. So, Omar asks Isabel for the impossible: persuade Omar’s family—especially his wife, Elda—to let him redeem himself.

Isabel and Martin settle into married life in a Texas border town, and Omar returns each year on the celebratory Day of the Dead. Every year Isabel listens, but to the aggrieved Martin and Elda, Omar’s spirit remains invisible. Through his visits, Isabel gains insight into not just the truth about his disappearance and her husband’s childhood but also the ways grief can eat away at love. When Martin’s teenage nephew crosses the Mexican border and takes refuge in Isabel and Martin’s home, questions about past and future homes, borders, and belonging arise that may finally lead to forgiveness—and alter all their lives forever.

 

Elizabeth Crook
The Which Way Tree: A Novel

Little, Brown and Company, hardcover, 978-0-3164-3495-9, (also available as an e-book and on audio CD), 288 pgs., $26.00

The poignant odyssey of a tenacious young girl who braves the dangers of the Texas frontier to avenge her mother’s death.

Early one morning in the remote hill country of Texas, a panther savagely attacks a family of homesteaders, mauling a young girl named Samantha and killing her mother, whose final act is to save her daughter’s life. Samantha and her half-brother, Benjamin, survive, but she is left traumatized, her face horribly scarred.

Narrated in Benjamin’s beguilingly plainspoken voice, The Which Way Tree is the story of Samantha’s unshakeable resolve to stalk and kill the infamous panther, rumored across the Rio Grande to be a demon, and avenge her mother’s death. In their quest she and Benjamin, now orphaned, enlist a charismatic Tejano outlaw and a haunted, compassionate preacher with an aging but relentless tracking dog. As the members of this unlikely posse hunt the panther, they are in turn pursued by a hapless but sadistic Confederate soldier with troubled family ties to the preacher and a score to settle.

In the tradition of the great pursuit narratives, The Which Way Tree is a breathtaking saga of one steadfast girl’s revenge against an implacable and unknowable beast. Yet with the comedic undertones of Benjamin’s storytelling, it is also a timeless tale full of warmth and humor, and a testament to the enduring love that carries a sister and brother through a perilous adventure with all the dimensions of a legend.

Author Elizabeth Crook is interviewed here.

 

Stefan Merrill Block
Oliver Loving

Flatiron Books, hardcover, 978-1-2501-6973-0, (also available as an e-book, as an audiobook, and on audio CD), 400 pgs., $26.99

A family in crisis, a town torn apart, and the boy who holds the secret has been cocooned in a coma for ten years.

One warm, West Texas November night, a shy boy named Oliver Loving joins his classmates at Bliss County Day School’s annual dance, hoping for a glimpse of the object of his unrequited affections, an enigmatic Junior named Rebekkah Sterling. But as the music plays, a troubled young man sneaks in through the school’s back door. The dire choices this man makes that evening ―and the unspoken story he carries― will tear the town of Bliss, Texas apart.

Nearly ten years later, Oliver Loving still lies wordless and paralyzed at Crockett State Assisted Care Facility, the fate of his mind unclear. Orbiting the still point of Oliver’s hospital bed is a family transformed: Oliver’s mother, Eve, who keeps desperate vigil; Oliver’s brother, Charlie, who has fled for New York City only to discover he cannot escape the gravity of his shattered family; Oliver’s father, Jed, who tries to erase his memories with bourbon. And then there is Rebekkah Sterling, Oliver’s teenage love, who left Texas long ago and still refuses to speak about her own part in that tragic night. When a new medical test promises a key to unlock Oliver’s trapped mind, the town’s unanswered questions resurface with new urgency, as Oliver’s doctors and his family fight for a way for Oliver to finally communicate― and so also to tell the truth of what really happened that fateful night.

A moving meditation on the transformative power of grief and love, a slyly affectionate look at the idiosyncrasies of family, and an emotionally-charged page-turner, Stefan Merrill Block's Oliver Loving is an extraordinarily original novel that ventures into the unknowable and returns with the most fundamental truths.

 

NONFICTION

 

Rick Bass
The Traveling Feast: On the Road and at the Table with My Heroes

Little, Brown and Company, hardcover, 978-0-3163-8123-9 (also available as an ebook and an audiobook), 288 pgs., $28.00

From his bid to become Eudora Welty’s lawn boy to the time George Plimpton offered to punch him in the nose, lineage has always been important to Rick Bass. Now at a turning point–in his mid-fifties, with his long marriage dissolved and his grown daughters out of the house–Bass strikes out on a journey of thanksgiving. His aim: to make a memorable meal for each of his mentors, to express his gratitude for the way they have shaped not only his writing but his life.

The result, an odyssey to some of America’s most iconic writers, is also a record of self-transformation as Bass seeks to recapture the fire that drove him as a young man. Along the way we join in escapades involving smuggled contraband, an exploding grill, a trail of blood through Heathrow airport, an episode of dog-watching with Amy Hempel in Central Park, and a near run-in with plague-ridden prairie dogs on the way to see Lorrie Moore, as well as heartwarming and bittersweet final meals with the late Peter Matthiessen, John Berger, and Denis Johnson.

 

Ben Montgomery
The Man Who Walked Backward: An American Dreamer’s Search for Meaning in the Great Depression

Little, Brown Spark, hardcover, 978-0-3164-3806-3 (also available as an e-book and an audio-book), 304 pgs., $28.00

Like most Americans at the time, Plennie Wingo was hit hard by the effects of the Great Depression. When the bank foreclosed on his small restaurant in Abilene, he found himself suddenly penniless with nowhere left to turn. After months of struggling to feed his family on wages he earned digging ditches in the Texas sun, Plennie decided it was time to do something extraordinary — something to resurrect the spirit of adventure and optimism he felt he’d lost. He decided to walk around the world — backwards.

In The Man Who Walked Backward, Pulitzer Prize finalist Ben Montgomery charts Plennie’s backwards trek across the America that gave rise to Woody Guthrie, John Steinbeck, and the New Deal. With the Dust Bowl and Great Depression as a backdrop, Montgomery follows Plennie across the Atlantic through Germany, Turkey, and beyond, and details the daring physical feats, grueling hardships, comical misadventures, and hostile foreign police he encountered along the way. A remarkable and quirky slice of Americana, The Man Who Walked Backward paints a rich and vibrant portrait of a jaw-dropping period of history.

Author Ben Montgomery is interviewed here.

 

Chris Barton (author), Ekua Holmes (illustrator)
What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan

Beach Lane Books, hardcover, 978-1-4814-6561-8 (also available as an e-book), 48 pgs., $17.99

Congresswoman Barbara Jordan had a big, bold, confident voice—and she knew how to use it! Learn all about her amazing career in this illuminating and inspiring picture book biography of the lawyer, educator, politician, and civil rights leader.

Even as a child growing up in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, Barbara Jordan stood out for her big, bold, booming, crisp, clear, confident voice. It was a voice that made people sit up, stand up, and take notice.

So, what do you do with a voice like that?

Barbara took her voice to places few African American women had been in the 1960s: first law school, then the Texas state senate, then up to the United States congress. Throughout her career, she persevered through adversity to give voice to the voiceless and to fight for civil rights, equality, and justice.
New York Times bestselling author Chris Barton and Caldecott Honoree Ekua Holmes deliver a remarkable picture book biography about a woman whose struggles and mission continue to inspire today.

Author Chris Barton is interviewed here.

 

Ben Fountain
Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution

Ecco Books, hardcover, 978-0-0626-8884-2 (also available as an e-book, audiobook, and large-print paperback), 448 pgs., $27.99

In a sweeping work of reportage set over the course of 2016, New York Times bestselling author Ben Fountain recounts a surreal year of politics and an exploration of the third American existential crisis

Twice before in its history, the United States has been faced with a crisis so severe it was forced to reinvent itself in order to survive: first, the struggle over slavery, culminating in the Civil War, and the second, the Great Depression, which led to President Roosevelt’s New Deal and the establishment of America as a social-democratic state. In a sequence of essays that excavate the past while laying bare the political upheaval of 2016, Ben Fountain argues that the United States may be facing a third existential crisis, one that will require a “burning” of the old order as America attempts to remake itself.

Beautiful Country Burn Again narrates a shocking year in American politics, moving from the early days of the Iowa Caucus to the crystalizing moments of the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and culminating in the aftershocks of the weeks following election night. Along the way, Fountain probes deeply into history, illuminating the forces and watershed moments of the past that mirror and precipitated the present, from the hollowed-out notion of the American Dream, to Richard Nixon’s southern strategy, to our weaponized new conception of American exceptionalism, to the cult of celebrity that gave rise to Donald Trump.

In an urgent and deeply incisive voice, Ben Fountain has fused history and the present day to paint a startling portrait of the state of our nation. Beautiful Country Burn Again is a searing indictment of how we came to this point, and where we may be headed.

Author Ben Fountain is interviewed here.

 

Mimi Swartz
Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart

Crown Publishing Group, hardcover, 978-0-8041-3800-0 (also available as an e-book and audio-book), 336 pgs., $27.00

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. If America could send a man to the moon, shouldn’t the best surgeons in the world be able to build an artificial heart? In Ticker, Texas Monthly executive editor and two time National Magazine Award winner Mimi Swartz shows just how complex and difficult it can be to replicate one of nature’s greatest creations.

Part investigative journalism, part medical mystery, Ticker is a dazzling story of modern innovation, recounting fifty years of false starts, abysmal failures and miraculous triumphs, as experienced by one the world’s foremost heart surgeons, O.H. “Bud” Frazier, who has given his life to saving the un-savable.

His journey takes him from a small town in west Texas to one of the country’s most prestigious medical institutions, The Texas Heart Institute, from the halls of Congress to the animal laboratories where calves are fitted with new heart designs. The roadblocks to success—medical setbacks, technological shortcomings, government regulations—are immense. Still, Bud and his associates persist, finding inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. A field beside the Nile irrigated by an Archimedes screw. A hardware store in Brisbane, Australia. A seedy bar on the wrong side of Houston.

Until post WWII, heart surgery did not exist. Ticker provides a riveting history of the pioneers who gave their all to the courageous process of cutting into the only organ humans cannot live without. Heart surgeons Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley, whose feud dominated the dramatic beginnings of heart surgery. Christian Barnaard, who changed the world overnight by performing the first heart transplant. Inventor Robert Jarvik, whose artificial heart made patient Barney Clark a worldwide symbol of both the brilliant promise of technology and the devastating evils of experimentation run amuck.

Rich in supporting players, Ticker introduces us to Bud’s brilliant colleagues in his quixotic quest to develop an artificial heart: Billy Cohn, the heart surgeon and inventor who devotes his spare time to the pursuit of magic and music; Daniel Timms, the Brisbane biomedical engineer whose design of a lightweight, pulseless heart with but a single moving part offers a new way forward. And, as government money dries up, the unlikeliest of backers, Houston’s furniture king, Mattress Mack.

In a sweeping narrative of one man’s obsession, Swartz raises some of the hardest questions of the human condition. What are the tradeoffs of medical progress?   What is the cost, in suffering and resources, of offering patients a few more months, or years of life? Must science do harm to do good?  Ticker takes us on an unforgettable journey into the power and mystery of the human heart.

Author Mimi Swartz is interviewed here.

 

Brantley Hargrove
The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras

Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 978-1-4767-9609-3, (also available as an e-book, an audio book, and on Audible), 304 pgs., $26.00

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the tornado was one of the last true mysteries of the modern world. It was a monster that ravaged the American heartland a thousand times each year, yet science’s every effort to divine its inner workings had ended in failure. Researchers all but gave up, until the arrival of an outsider.

In a field of PhDs, Tim Samaras didn’t attend a day of college in his life. He chased storms with brilliant tools of his own invention and pushed closer to the tornado than anyone else ever dared. When he achieved what meteorologists had deemed impossible, it was as if he had snatched the fire of the gods. Yet even as he transformed the field, Samaras kept on pushing. As his ambitions grew, so did the risks. And when he finally met his match—in a faceoff against the largest tornado ever recorded—it upended everything he thought he knew.

Brantley Hargrove delivers a masterful tale, chronicling the life of Tim Samaras in all its triumph and tragedy. He takes readers inside the thrill of the chase, the captivating science of tornadoes, and the remarkable character of a man who walked the line between life and death in pursuit of knowledge. Following the tradition of Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm, Hargrove’s debut offers an unforgettable exploration of obsession and the extremes of the natural world.

 

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

Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 978-0-5255-2010-4, (also available as an e-book, on Audible, and as a large-print paperback), 368 pgs., $27.95

With humor and the biting insight of a native, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower explores the history, culture, and politics of Texas, while holding the stereotypes up for rigorous scrutiny.

God Save Texas is a journey through the most controversial state in America. It is a red state in the heart of Trumpland that hasn't elected a Democrat to a statewide office in more than twenty years; but it is also a state in which minorities already form a majority (including the largest number of Muslims). The cities are blue and among the most diverse in the nation. Oil is still king but Texas now leads California in technology exports. The Texas economic model of low taxes and minimal regulation has produced extraordinary growth but also striking income disparities. Texas looks a lot like the America that Donald Trump wants to create. And Wright's profound portrait of the state not only reflects our country back as it is, but as it was and as it might be.

 

William Middleton
Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil

Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 978-0-3754-1543-2, (also available as an e-book), 784 pgs., $40.00

The first and definitive biography of the celebrated collectors Dominique and John de Menil, who became one of the greatest cultural forces of the twentieth century through groundbreaking exhibits of art, artistic scholarship, the creation of innovative galleries and museums, and work with civil rights.

Dominique and John de Menil created an oasis of culture in their Philip Johnson-designed house with everyone from Marlene Dietrich and René Magritte to Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. In Houston, they built the Menil Collection, the Rothko Chapel, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, the Cy Twombly Gallery, and underwrote the Contemporary Arts Museum.

Now, with unprecedented access to family archives, William Middleton has written a sweeping biography of this unique couple. From their ancestors in Normandy and Alsace, to their own early years in France, and their travels in South America before settling in Houston. We see them introduced to the artists in Europe and America whose works they would collect, and we see how, by the 1960s, their collection had grown to include 17,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, rare books, and decorative objects.

And here is, as well, a vivid behind-the-scenes look at the art world of the twentieth century and the enormous influence the de Menils wielded through what they collected and built and through the causes they believed in.

 

Bryan Mealer
The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family’s Search for the American Dream

Flatiron Books, hardcover, 978-1-2500-5891-1, (also available as an e-book), 384 pgs., $27.99

In 1892, Bryan Mealer’s great-grandfather leaves the Georgia mountains and heads west into Texas, looking for wealth and adventure in the raw and open country. But his luck soon runs out. Beset by drought, the family loses their farm just as the dead pastures around them give way to one of the biggest oil booms in American history. They eventually settle in the small town of Big Spring, where fast fortunes are being made from its own reserves of oil. For the next two generations, the Mealers live on the margins of poverty, laboring in the cotton fields and on the drilling rigs that sprout along the flatland, weathering dust and wind, booms and busts, and tragedies that scatter them like tumbleweed. After embracing Pentecostalism during the Great Depression, they rely heavily on their faith to steel them against hardship and despair. But for young Bobby Mealer, the author’s father, religion is only an agent for rebellion.

In the winter of 1981, when the author is seven years old, Bobby receives a call from an old friend with a simple question, “How'd you like to be a millionaire?”

Twenty-six, and with a wife and three kids, Bobby had left his hometown to seek a life removed from the blowing dust and oil fields, and to find spiritual peace. But now Big Spring’s streets are flooded again with roughnecks, money, and sin. Boom chasers pour in from the busted factory towns in the north. Drilling rigs rise like timber along the pastures, and poor men become millionaires overnight.

Grady Cunningham, Bobby's friend, is one of the newly-minted kings of Big Spring. Loud and flamboyant, with a penchant for floor-length fur coats, Grady pulls Bobby and his young wife into his glamorous orbit. While drilling wells for Grady's oil company, they fly around on private jets and embrace the honky-tonk high life of Texas oilmen. But beneath the Rolexes and Rolls Royce cars is a reality as dark as the crude itself. As Bobby soon discovers, his return to Big Spring is a backslider’s journey into a spiritual wilderness, and one that could cost him his life.

A masterwork of memoir and narrative history, The Kings of Big Spring is an indelible portrait of fortune and ruin as big as Texas itself. And in telling the story of four generations of his family, Mealer also tells the story of America came to be.

Author Bryan Mealer is interviewed here.    

 

Francisco Cantú
The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border

Riverhead Books, hardcover, 978-0-7352-1771-3, (also available as an e-book, an audio book, and on Audible), 256 pgs., $26.00

For Francisco Cantú, the border is in the blood: his mother, a park ranger and daughter of a Mexican immigrant, raised him in the scrublands of the Southwest. Driven to understand the hard realities of the landscape he loves, Cantú joins the Border Patrol. He and his partners learn to track other humans under blistering sun and through frigid nights. They haul in the dead and deliver to detention those they find alive. Plagued by a growing awareness of his complicity in a dehumanizing enterprise, he abandons the Patrol for civilian life. But when an immigrant friend travels to Mexico to visit his dying mother and does not return, Cantú discovers that the border has migrated with him, and now he must know the full extent of the violence it wreaks, on both sides of the line.