Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, right? Well, maybe in days gone by, but there’s very little “easy livin’” in the Summer of ’22. Those who are lucky enough to get some time off work often spend several days just trying to decompress and struggle to turn down the noise and tune out the cacophony of discontent.
We are the first humans in history to be bombarded by a 24/seven, 365 days a year cycle of information coming at us from all directions, leaning in from all directions—confusing, confounding, aggravating, bombastic, titillating, funny, heart-tugging, and tragic. Trying to just “get lost” in thought is nearly impossible without a decompression chamber.
Want to know a secret? You can find the greatest escape in human history through the written words on the pages of a great book.
The author creates characters, situations, plots, backstory, and he or she adds descriptions, historical and location context, poetic narrative and thoughtful prose to ignite the engine of each reader’s own imagination. Then it’s off on an adventure.
Galveston Island has no shortage of fodder for great tales and no shortage of talented writers who can open a mind, redirect thought, beyond the headlines, and take a step back in time beyond the watery graves of men lost at sea and beyond the lives of relatively ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations.
We’ve selected 10 great summer reads that focus on and around Galveston Island, each with its own distinct flavor and all guaranteed to carry your thoughts away on a soft summer breeze.
THE HISTORY OF THE HOTEL GALVEZ
In The History of the Hotel Galvez, author Kathleen Maca does a deep dive into the mid-19th Century, an extraordinary time in the island’s famed past and most celebrated residents, including Polish-born immigrant Hershell "Harris" Kempner, the head of one of Galveston's founding families, and who planted cotton seeds and watched them grow into an empire that would flourish long after his death.
“My favorite summer reads are ones that can give a different perspective of a location I’m visiting, or insight into its past,” said Maca, a Galveston Monthly contributor and author of Galveston's Broadway Cemeteries and Ghosts of Galveston.
Though it took three years of research, her deep dive into the historic site and people allows the reader to simply sweep into the past. The result is a 170-page inspirational story about one of the most charming hotels on the Gulf Coast.
The book contains more than 100 photos, covering the time periods from when it was merely a construction site to present day. Throughout its history, the Hotel Galvez has been a favorite of politicians and luminaries, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1937); Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1949); Vice President Richard Nixon (1955); and Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (1959).
The list of celebrated entertainers included Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Jack Benny, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Jimmy Stewart.
Maca’s research included an interview with Bobby Lee Hilton, who worked at the hotel during the “Free State of Galveston” era. Hilton often gave tours of the hotel and was considered not only a living repository of knowledge about the hotel and the island, but a beloved BOI (born on the island) treasure. Hilton died on October 7, 2019, at the age of 86.
“Actually, being able to visit places you’re reading about can be fascinating, and help you feel like you’re stepping into the story, waiting for the characters to walk around the corner.”
For Maca, who prefers to unplug from technology and turn the actual paper stock pages of a book, a place like Galveston Island checks all the boxes in terms of ingredients for a great story and a great read.
Maca, who is “knee-deep in fascinating research” about Galveston’s Tremont House, said her work is an homage to the beauty of the island and the ingenuity and tenacity of the people who answer the call of Galveston.
“One of the fascinating things about Galveston is what a layered past it has, with truly something that would interest everyone, if they just take time to find out about it.”
The History of the Hotel Galvez is available at Galveston Bookshop, 317 23rd Street, Tina’s on the Strand, 2326 Strand, The Admiralty, 2221 Strand, other local shops, and Amazon.com.
A MURDER OF PRINCIPAL AND BAD BLOOD SISTERS
In each of her whodunnits, award-winning Galveston based author, Saralyn Richard manages to create authentic characters and a narrative that proves to be the perfect recipe for a captivating sleuth story.
In A Murder of Principal, the setting is a predominantly black Midwestern high school in 1993, where the school’s new principal is determined to shake things up and make education something to want, but those plans run aground because of long-seeded hot button topics, including racism, sexism, workplace harassment, and all the dirty dealings of what can happen on a grownup playground where adults have not learned to play well with others.
In Bad Blood Sisters, Richard’s heroine, Quinn McFarlan, faces more than her share of trauma and emotional triggers—her own, including an upcoming transplant surgery for her brother, as well as the baggage of mourners who frequent her family’s mortuary business.
But when the bludgeoned body of her best friend, who she calls a “blood” sister through their shared youthful oath, McFarland must face her haunted past, her friendship gone awry, and the very blood oath she’d sworn to keep secret. Her desire to cooperate and bring the killer to justice is no easy task: revealing all she knows could land her on the slab next to her bludgeoned friend.
Richard said she tries to weave stories that would enthrall her readers, and when the plot spills out through her fingers and her characters take form, she goes along for the ride—with the idea that the yet-to-be twists and turns that will come to her will sweep up the imagination of others. Having a great book in hand is one of the first things she packs in her carry-on luggage, and she wants to make sure when her readers open that book, the time flies by.
“Being on vacation is more than physically traveling to a destination. I need to ‘top off’ my relaxation with a mental break, as well. Reading a certain kind of book transports me completely out of my daily cares, away from responsibility or obligation. I’m free to explore another life, another setting,” Richard said.
“If the book’s protagonist has a worse problem than any of mine, even better. I can experience her danger and adventure from my beach chair with no risk to myself, beyond possible sunburn. After I see her through to the end, I feel refreshed and satisfied to return to my own adventures.”
Richard’s latest book, Crystal Blue Murder, is the third in the Detective Parrott mystery series. It will be released in September 2022.
A Murder of Principal and Bad Blood Sisters are available at Galveston Bookshop, 317 23rd Street, saralynrichard.com and online at any major retailer.
THE LAMBDA FACTOR
More than two years into a real-life pandemic, The Lambda Factor, a medical thriller by Dr. Dimple Patel Desai who formerly lived in Galveston is hauntingly familiar.
The story opens as a Category 5 hurricane is projected to make landfall and an evacuation of Galveston Island is well underway. A dedicated staff has been chosen to remain behind for the duration of the storm as part of skeleton crew tending those patients who are too ill to be moved.
Galveston is no stranger to hurricanes, but when an accident at the lab causes a researcher to fall gravely ill with an unidentified fever, the stakes become higher. The Center for Disease Control is contacted and, in turn, alerts the National Guard to a possible outbreak of Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever, for which there is no effective vaccine and no cure.
As the hurricane draws ever closer, the hospital staff, among them the female protagonist Dr. Danica Diza based loosely on the book’s author, struggle to maintain a semblance of calm and compassion as fears for their safety mount.
News of a possible outbreak leaks to the public, and a unilateral decision is made from the chain of command to quarantine the island by destroying bridge access to the island before the storm hits, leaving the hospital staff and patients with only minimal back-up power, limited supplies, and no defenses.
Desai, a board-certified family medicine physician, received her medical training at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, and it was on the university’s campus that the hypothesis for her debut novel was conceived. Even the book’s title is an homage to the author’s medical expertise.
“In epidemiology, the force of infection is labeled as the lambda symbol (), which is the rate at which susceptible individuals acquire an infection disease. It is used to state how virulent a pathogen is,” Desaid said.
The Lambda Factor by Dr. Dimple Patel Desai is available at Walmart, Target, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com.
CODE OF SILENCE
Ten years before the #MeToo movement gained traction, Galveston resident Cathy McBroom accused a federal judge of sexual harassment; the only woman to do so since 1991, when Anita Hill accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. If not for the dogged determination of Houston Chronicle investigative reporter and author Lise Olsen, McBroom’s cries for justice may have been silenced.
For more than a decade, Olsen scrutinized and documented the accusations of abuse, corruption, and sexual misconduct in the Galveston office of U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent (Southern District of Texas). Olsen’s comprehensive reporting skills brought to light the culture of secrecy at the federal courthouse.
Thanks to solid journalism and two brave whistleblowers—McBroom, Kent’s case manager; and fellow Galvestonian Donna Wilkerson, his secretary—the disgraced federal judge was indicted in 2008 on federal charges of abusive sexual contact and attempted aggravated sexual abuse of a female employee. In 2009, he became the only federal judge in history to be impeached for sex crimes and eventually was sentenced to prison.
Olsen chronicled her decade-long investigative reporting in her book Code of Silence, a fast-paced narrative in which she lays bare the debilitating affect McBroom and others suffered at the hands a man charged with upholding federal law.
Code of Silence is available at Barnes & Noble and online at any major retailer.
EARLY GALVESTON ARTISTS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS: RECOVERING A LEGACY
Local photographer and author Pat Jakobi explores many of the men and women who turned their lenses on Galveston Island in her lush book Early Galveston Artists and Photographers: Recovering a Legacy.
The book chronicles the Progressive Movement of the early-1900s, which coupled with Galveston’s efforts to recover from the 1900 storm, inspired artist and society leader Maria Cage Kimball to suggest that the empty walls of homes and schools should be filled with art so that people could be trained to see the true and beautiful. A young supervisor of drawing in the city schools, Frances C. Kirk, took that idea to heart and banded local artists together into what became the Galveston Art League, which exists to this day.
Jakobi’s journey through Galveston’s photographic history revealed some unheralded talent including that of Lucius W. Harper, an African-American painter and photographer who worked in Galveston most of his life (1867-1920).
Her final result is a 144-page paperback which includes 56 images, 32 of which are color images in a center insert.
The book begins with 19th century naturalist John James Audubon’s description of Galveston as a “rough village,” and follows through to the Great Fire of 1885 which burned hundreds of homes across 40 city blocks, to the catastrophic 1900 Storm that raked the island, through World War I and the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, to World War II.
Early Galveston Artists and Photographers: Recovering a Legacy is available at Galveston Art League Gallery, 2117-A Postoffice, Galveston Bookshop, 317 23rd Street, and CVS pharmacies. It is also available online at Galveston Historical Foundation, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online book merchants, Arcadia Publishing, Target, and Walmart. It's also available at the Rosenberg Library.
SEA STORIES GALVESTON & BEYOND
Approximately 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water, and the oceans hold more than 96 percent of all that water. Home to countless forms of marine life, the seas also serve a monumental service to humanity—and behind that service are men and women who work long hours, in often hazardous conditions, and with little reward.
More than a million people work in the maritime industry, ships deliver most of our products, wars are fought on the seas, and vacations spring to life aboard all-inclusive cruise ships, yet most of us know very little about the people or process.
In Sea Stories: Galveston & Beyond, authors Alvin L. Sallee and Michael J. Leahy Jr. offer insight into different groups of seafarers—those who travel by cruise ship and those whose work behind the scenes who make creature comforts possible.
Leahy, general manager of a shipyard at Pier 41 in Galveston, began sailing on offshore supply boats in 1971. He joined his first deep sea ship in the Merchant Marines the following year.
He continued sailing on ocean going tankers and freighters until 1995, when he took a permanent port engineer position managing Ready Reserve Force ships. Subsequently, he served as port engineer, superintendent engineer, technical superintendent, and vessel manager.
In the book, Leahy provides a seagull's view into life aboard a ship and tackles misconceptions that the public has about maritime law, including The Jones Act, a federal law that regulates maritime commerce in the United States.
In addition to advancing national security by helping maintain a domestic shipbuilding industry, wherein ships are built, owned, and operated by United States citizens or permanent residents, it also helps to sustain 650,000 American jobs, resulting in more than $150 billion in economic benefits each year.
Sea Stories: Galveston & Beyond is available at Galveston Bookshop, 317 23rd Street, the Galveston Naval Museum, 100 Seawolf Parkway, and Amazon.com.
TORPEDOES ON THE BEACH!
Author Louis James Frey’s Torpedoes on the Beach! is a charming and often-poignant time capsule told through the voice of Otis Kramer (aka Frey), whose experiences from 1941-47 paint an accurate portrait of what life was like on Galveston Island during World War II.
The author has chosen to use pseudonyms in the telling of his young life in the Oleander City, but, make no mistake: It’s all real, and it’s all a great romp through a simpler, less jarring time, albeit during the height of World War II.
The memoir explores a time when people flocked to the island to enjoy the then-new Galveston Pleasure Pier and the Great American Racing Derby—a more “grown up” version of a carousel. The famed Balinese Room was the “it” place to be, both to indulge in illegal gambling in the back room and to rub elbows with the likes of A-listers like Frank Sinatra, The Marx Brothers, Sophie Tucker, and Howard Hughes. During this time the island also played an important role in the largest and deadliest war in history.
When the United States entered World War II, the island’s air base served as a final briefing location for B-17 pilots before leaving for the Pacific, and the historic Hotel Galvez was commandeered by the United States Coast Guard and used as barracks. Unbeknownst to most island residents, including young Otis Kramer, German U-boats lurked in the waters, patrolling the southeast Texas Coast.
The author said he wanted to put his first-hand account of those war days to paper because he didn’t want such a unique piece of Gulf coast history to vanish just yet.
Torpedoes on the Beach! is available at Galveston Bookshop, 317 23rd Street, the 1892 Bishop's Palace gift shop, 1402 Broadway, and Amazon.com.
Galveston has endured a lot of pain in its storied past. From pirates and world war to cataclysmic natural disasters and blazing infernos, the island and its residents have seen it all.
James F. Anderson’s book, Galveston Burning, explores the lessons that Galveston has learned from its fiery past in order to safeguard its future. The book includes chapters about the history of Galveston and its fire department, historic structures lost or damaged by fire, and stories about fires in the commercial, residential, wharf, and warehouse districts.
Many of these disasters were often caused by the too-close construction of wood-framed structures heated by flammable materials, such as burning wood, coal, and kerosene, which, if ignited, could spread blocks within minutes.
Through extensive research and personal interviews, Anderson has created the most comprehensive resource on the history of fires impacting Galveston and the fire department.
Galveston Burning is available at Galveston Bookshop, 317 23rd Street, and Amazon.com.
LAST DANCE ON THE STARLIGHT PIER
Award-winning author Sarah Bird’s eleventh novel, Last Dance on the Moonlight Pier, is set in the secret world of the Depression-Era dance marathons, endurance contests in which couples danced virtually non-stop for hundreds of hours, competing for prize money in one of the most difficult economic times in our nation’s history.
The marathons of Bird’s imagination take place at the Starlight Pier, which is loosely based on Galveston’s (original) Pleasure Pier and the setting of a family-run empire of vice that was Galveston in the ’30s, not unlike that of the famed Maceo brothers. As a playground getaway for the downtrodden, weary, poor and struggling of the island and surrounding areas, the pier affords people a chance to find distraction from their troubles dancing their cares away like Fred and Ginger on steroids, and often corny vaudeville entertainment.
The author’s heroine, Evie Grace Devlin, is based on her own mother, a Methodist farm girl who was adopted by Catholic nuns who found a place for her in a Catholic nursing school. But unlike her mother, who saw dance marathons of the time from a more innocent point of view, Evie Grace is caught in the underbelly of the beast.
Last Dance on the Starlight Pier is available at Galveston Bookshop, 317 23rd Street, and Amazon.com.