This list, arranged in no particular order, is limited to books that were published in 2017 and written by authors who live in Dallas-Fort Worth.
The Sandcastle Empire by Kayla Olson
This dystopian thriller, published in June, focuses on a formerly privileged girl named Eden who escapes a labor camp in 2049. As the first in a two-book deal with HarperTeen, the novel is a standalone for now with the potential to become a young adult series turned movie franchise à la The Hunger Games.
Olson, a University of North Texas graduate who lives in Denton, received an offer for the book in 2015. Soon after, Paramount Pictures and Appian Way, Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, let Olson know they were interested in turning The Sandcastle Empire into a film.
“I never dared to dream that my first book might be optioned for film; it honestly wasn’t on my radar at all,” Olson writes in an email. “I'm so grateful for the instincts my film and literary agents had in sending my book out to just the right people at just the right time — I'm thrilled with where it landed."
The Dime by Kathleen Kent
After three works of historical fiction, Kent pivots to contemporary crime with this snappy police procedural, centered on a Polish lesbian police officer from Brooklyn who moves to Dallas to investigate a Mexican drug cartel.
Based on Kent’s short story “Coincidences Can Kill You” in the 2013 collection Dallas Noir, the narrative expertly shifts among the detective’s struggles in the office, at home and on the street, blending social commentary with heart-stopping action, mystery and suspense.
In an email, Kent confirms that a Fox television pilot for The Dime is in production. If the pilot is approved, the series will begin production in early 2018.
“I’m thrilled to see my heroine, Detective Betty Rhyzyk, come to life on the screen,” Kent writes. “The big question remains, who will be cast to play the ferocious, tall, red-haired crime fighter?”
The Polygamist’s Daughter: A Memoir by Anna LeBaron, with Leslie Wilson
A semifinalist in the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards’ Memoir and Autobiography category, LeBaron’s haunting story testifies to human strength and survival in the face of inconceivable horror.
As one of 50 children fathered by rogue polygamist and murderer Ervil LeBaron, she endured neglect, starvation and sexual grooming before escaping the cult at age 13. Today, LeBaron lives in the DFW area and works as a motivational speaker and life coach.
“Telling my story, along with all the trauma and abuse that we experienced as children, was the culmination of a decades-long journey to healing, wholeheartedness, and freedom,” LeBaron writes in an email. “However, you don't have to be born into a violent, polygamist family to experience trauma and abuse…So many of my readers have gained strength to face their past just from knowing they are not alone on their journey.”
Revenge of the Star Survivors by Michael Merschel
As books editor and assistant arts editor at The Dallas Morning News, Merschel read a lot of books before sitting down to write his own. Published in March, Revenge of the Star Survivors is a charming and self-assured debut, written from the perspective of a geeky kid who struggles to fit in at his new middle school.
Inspired by his favorite TV show, Star Survivors, eighth-grader Clark Sherman imagines that he is an alien who has crash-landed on a strange planet. He has a tough time dealing with his parents (whom he refers to as “my commanders”), as well as school bullies and an overbearing principal. However, Clark eventually finds his allies — including the school’s librarian, the aptly named Ms. Beacon.
The Neon Palm of Madame Melançon by Will Clarke
In a zany style reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, Clarke tells the story of Duke Melançon, an attorney for a Houston-based oil company who returns to his hometown of New Orleans to do damage control after one of the company’s wells explodes in the Gulf of Mexico. In "Nawlins," Duke faces his mother, the infamous fortune teller Madame Melançon, and a passel of other colorful characters who shed light on Duke’s past and inform his future.
Combing magical realism with the real-life problem of man-made climate change, Clarke creates a world that is fun to explore and to read; the pages brim with footnotes, doodles and winking asides.
Dubbed a "hot pop prophet" by Rolling Stone, Clarke lives with his family in Dallas.
Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy
Ramona Blue, a young adult novel with weighty social themes, explores sexual fluidity, identity, displacement and poverty through the experience of a 6-foot-3-inch, blue-haired teenager named Ramona.
Living out of a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer in rural Mississippi with her father, pregnant younger sister and sister’s boyfriend, Ramona works multiple jobs to make ends meet. She also struggles with feeling abandoned by her mother and maybe feeling attracted to her childhood friend Freddie, but Freddie is a boy and Ramona thought she only liked girls.
Murphy, who lives in Fort Worth, is an exciting new voice in contemporary YA fiction. She also has been vocal about how she identifies with Ramona and put a lot of herself into the character, including her bisexuality. The sincerity of this lived experience shines through in passages like this one, narrated by Ramona: “I choose guys. I choose girls. I choose people. But most of all: I choose.”
The Devil’s Country by Harry Hunsicker
The first of Hunsicker’s seven crime novels to primarily take place outside of Dallas, The Devil’s Country also marks the first appearance of protagonist Arlo Baines, a former Texas Ranger whose wife and children were murdered by crooked Dallas police officers involved with local drug dealers.
Hunsicker deftly weaves flashbacks into the main story of Baines' arrival in a small West Texas town just before a woman is killed and her children go missing. The author spins a reliably fast-paced and suspenseful yarn — one with more disturbing themes than in his previous work.
Here, Hunsicker employs a breezy writing style that belies the narrative’s complexity, so that the reader stumbles upon plot twists at the same time the hero does. And Baines, a tortured yet charming Jack Reacher type, is a great avatar, someone whose large boots the reader gets a kick out of filling, even if just for a few hundred pages.
A List of Cages by Robin Roe
Roe’s debut novel, concerning a pair of erstwhile foster brothers who struggle to reconnect when they meet again in high school, benefits from Roe’s many years of experience in working with troubled youths.
As a high school special education teacher and mentor for at-risk teens in Dallas, Roe’s unique insight renders her characters — particularly the brothers at the heart of the story, Adam and Julian — three-dimensional and believable. Although their paths diverged in childhood, resulting in dramatically different outcomes, Adam and Julian navigate powerful personal journeys throughout the book that they help each other fulfill.
By alternating between the two boys’ perspectives, Roe crafts a heartbreaking but ultimately life-affirming narrative about how to help others and how to forgive yourself in order to allow someone else to help you.
The Future of Happiness: 5 Modern Strategies for Balancing Productivity and Well-Being in the Digital Era by Amy Blankson
The paradox of the hyperconnected digital age is that more people have reported feeling alone and isolated than ever before. However, as Blankson writes in her new book, technology doesn’t have to distract from or
diminish our happiness. On the contrary, why not use technology as a tool to better ourselves?
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For those wary of the empty platitudes found in most self-help books, Blankson gets straight to the point and grounds each of her principles in philosophical, sociological and technological context.
The Dallas-based author's background is likewise impressive. After receiving her bachelor's degree from Harvard and MBA from Yale, Blankson co-founded GoodThink, which offers speaking, consulting and training on "the science of happiness” for organizations and individuals. According to the GoodThink website, Blankson is partnering with Google “to determine how to make positive psychology strategies stick.”
Spaceport Earth: The Reinvention of Spaceflight by Joe Pappalardo
Disclosure: Pappalardo is the editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer. He also is an aerospace journalist who has visited every working spaceport in the United States.
Spaceport Earth, published in late November, is a fascinating look at how private companies like SpaceX are revolutionizing the aerospace industry. For anyone interested in spaceflight, this is a highly detailed but also easily digestible book that raises as many essential questions as it answers.