Covers for Memorial, Alright, Alright, Alright, and Valentine

2020 was an iconic year for Texas books.

None of us will forget the year 2020, but hopefully a part of these memories will be of books we read for solace and comfort during these strange times. Below are a handful of recommendations—each with a Texas connection—for holiday gifts or for your own to-read list. Two nonfiction books shed the proverbial spotlight on one of the state’s favorite actors, Matthew McConaughey, while other titles introduce fresh perspectives and voices that explore Texas landscapes and identities in new and unexpected ways.

Alright, Alright, Alright by Melissa Maerz

Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused by Melissa Maerz (HarperCollins)

Maerz, a veteran magazine editor and journalist, interviewed nearly 150 people, including the cast, studio producers, and even director Linklater’s old high school friends, for this comprehensive look at Dazed and Confused. She also examined letters, memos, script drafts, and other archival materials from the coming-of-age film, which celebrated its 27th anniversary in September.

Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford

Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford (Grove Press)

Crooked Hallelujah chronicles the interconnected stories of four generations of Cherokee women—Granny, Lulu, her daughter Justine, and Justine’s daughter, Reny—as they attempt to stitch together better lives for themselves. Justine and Reny travel to Texas, traversing Red River country for a new beginning only to be confronted with unpredictable forces of the natural and human form. “Each heartbreaking chapter slowly adds to the reader’s understanding of these women and their increasingly difficult lives,” says a Time magazine review.

The cover of Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey (Crown)

This vibrant, unconventional memoir is chock-full of stories and anecdotes from one of the Lone Star State’s favorite actors. Part adventure, part comedy, part self-help guide, this book promises to entertain readers while offering insightful bits and pieces of wisdom along the way. As a critic from The New York Times wrote: “The book offers a shotgun seat to all the l-i-v-i-n that McConaughey has accumulated, from his upbringing in a tumultuous Texas family to his ascent as the ruggedly serene star.”

Memorial by Bryan Washington

Memorial by Bryan Washington (Riverhead)

In 2019, readers were first introduced to the vivid voice of the Houston native with his debut short story collection, Lot. This fall, Washington returned with his impressive debut novel, which follows the lives of Benson, a Black daycare teacher in Houston, and Mike, a Japanese American chef who travels to Osaka to visit his estranged father. Through these alternating narratives, Washington creates a tender, broken portrait of young men attempting to find their way through romance, work, family, and their own respective identities. Equally popular as his story collection, Memorial has been optioned for television by A24.   

Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han

Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han (Riverhead)

Han’s debut novel animates the struggles of an immigrant family from Tianjin, China, living in the Dallas-area suburb of Plano. Amid internal and external challenges, each member of the Cheng family attempts to find their footing amid the shifting fault lines of their evolving family identity. Kirkus Reviews calls the story “an astutely realized portrait of the collateral damage wrought by the pursuit of the American dream.” Han was born in Tianjin, China, and was raised in various cities in Texas before studying creative writing in the graduate writing program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. 

Only the Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (Gallery Publishing Group)

Born and raised in Texas, Stephen Graham Jones returned this year with this popular horror novel. Blending classic horror with social commentary, this captivating narrative follows four Native American characters whose lives are haunted by an elk hunt from their youth. “Jones is one of the best writers working today regardless of genre, and this gritty, heartbreaking novel might just be his best yet,” writes an NPR critic.

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (William Morrow)

In her seventh novel, Paulette Jiles taps a secondary character, the redheaded Simon Boudlin, from her bestselling novel News of the World (the movie of which will be released on December 25). Simon the Fiddler follows Boudlin’s adventures and missteps throughout South and East Texas during the late 19th century, amid the chaos and turmoil of Reconstruction. As she has proven in her earlier novels, Jiles is a master of historical storytelling and effortlessly brings her characters alive on the page.

Sutherland Springs by Joe Holley

Sutherland Springs: God, Guns, and Hope in a Texas Town by Joe Holley (Hachette)

Veteran Texas journalist Holley delivers a masterful, intimate narrative of the 2017 mass shooting that killed 26 parishioners at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. As a part of this retelling, Holley spent a year with survivors—going to church with them and eating meals with the grieving families—to give a detailed account of the tragedy and advocate for stricter gun control in Texas and around the country.

Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here by Nancy Wayson Dinan

Things You Would Know If You Grew Up Around Here by Nancy Wayson Dinan (Bloomsbury)

Set during the Memorial Day floods of 2015, this debut novel skillfully animates the trails of Boyd, an 18-year-old woman attempting to navigate—and survive—the drought-ravaged terrain of Central Texas. Fans of Emily St. John Mandel and Karen Thompson Walker will be captivated—and perhaps a little horrified—by this surreal narrative set amid a pre-apocalyptic landscape that will be familiar to many Texas readers.

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore (Harper)

Odessa native Wetmore seamlessly moves between the perspectives of seven female characters to tell the story of 14-year-old Gloria Ramírez, who appears on a family’s front porch one morning after being raped. This lyrical, well-crafted narrative unfurls with a candid examination of how the brutality affected the working-class community of Odessa in 1976. Jenna Hager Bush selected Wetmore’s debut for her popular book club on the TODAY Show, and the novel swiftly ascended The New York Times bestseller list.

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