Books make great gifts for the holidays. It helps, of course, to find books that address your particular recipient’s passions and obsessions — and while you’re at it, why not throw in a few titles by local authors? Here are ten suggestions of work by Colorado writers working in different genres, from sci-fi to self-help; some of the books are old, some new, and all worthwhile.
1. Black Wings Has My Angel, Elliot Chaze
For the noir lover in your circle, try Black Wings Has My Angel, recently reissued by the New York Review of Books after being out of print for half a century. A former Associated Press reporter in Colorado, Elliot Chaze sets this astonishing, greatly neglected heist story in the Denver of the early 1950s, with side trips to Cripple Creek, New Orleans, and points further southeast. The dialogue, the brisk pacing, the sexual obsession and grim fatalism are very much in the vein of James M. Cain, but Chaze has his own special way of giving you the heebie-jeebies.
2. The Detachment, Gary Reilly
Veterans who enjoy fact-based military fiction should take to Gary Reilly’s The Detachment (Running Meter Press), the second installment of his Vietnam-era novels featuring Private Palmer. Published posthumously last winter, the book is reminiscent of James Jones’s work – a look at the tedium and gut-checking that plagues an MP who, while not part of the frontline troops, still feels keenly the absurdity and madness of an unwinnable war. We’ve written about Reilly’s semi-comic “Asphalt Warrior” series of novels about a Denver cabbie, but the Vietnam work is of a different order: sober, poignant and harrowingly detailed.
3. Mongrels, Stephen Graham Jones
Got a horror reader on your list? Mongrels (William Morrow), a werewolf coming-of-age novel by prolific University of Colorado Boulder professor Stephen Graham Jones, moves past genre conventions to a deeper, more nuanced exploration of the angst and terrifying transformations of adolescence. It’s kind of like a dark mutation of Catcher in the Rye – with snarling, bloody fur and snapping teeth.
4. The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi
Colorado has a long tradition of distinguished sci-fi, from long-established classics by Ed Bryant and Connie Willis to the more recent work of Carrie Vaughn and Rob Ziegler. But no one plumbs the dystopic in mind-bending ways more compellingly than Paonia’s Paolo Bacigalupi, who’s moved seamlessly from cerebral sci-fi (The Windup Girl) to entertaining young-adult titles to his latest, the 2015 thriller The Water Knife (Knopf), a fast-paced mayhem ride through a drought-plagued future Southwest in which shadowy corporations control water rights and destinies. It’s twisted, noirish and downright gritty, leaving you thirsty for more.
5. The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast, Joe Nigg
Turning to nonfiction, the myth-obsessed post-graduate in your midst will probably appreciate Joe Nigg’s The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast (University of Chicago Press), an epic survey of the many versions of this much-reincarnated bird, from the tales of ancient Rome through medieval times to the world of Harry Potter. Although primarily intended for a scholarly audience, Nigg’s book is an impressive piece of research that happens to be as accessible as it is comprehensive.
6. Behind the Lines, Jeffrey B. Miller
For less fanciful, boots-on-the-ground history, it’s hard to beat Jeffrey B. Miller’s Behind the Lines (Millbrown Press), the first volume in a planned trilogy about the multinational relief effort to prevent the starvation of millions trapped behind enemy lines in Belgium during World War I. This self-published work is no amateur affair, but rather a labor of love by a writer immersed in his subject; Miller, the author of a history of Stapleton International Airport, transforms what could have been an arid study into a dramatic and at times inspiring narrative.
7. Beautiful Lady, Geri Westphal
Breast cancer survivors may find strength and insight in Geri Westphal’s just-issued Beautiful Lady (Xulon Press), a series of meditations and observations on the author’s own cancer odyssey, from diagnosis to surgery to recovery. Westphal’s chapters are short, and her focus is on the emotional journey and getting readers to examine their own anger, fear and need for reassurance. The book has a Christian orientation and may not be for everyone, but Westphal’s recognition that a calamitous illness is also an opportunity to take stock and center on what matters in life could prove a welcome message to the right person at the right time.
8. The Poison Tree: A True Story of Family Violence and Revenge, Alan Prendergast
And finally, a shameless, self-serving plug. True-crime buffs might be interested to know that my book The Poison Tree: A True Story of Family Violence and Revenge is now available in various e-book formats from Open Road Media. It’s the inside story of one of the most infamous homicide cases in Wyoming history, an account of child abuse and parricide in the suburbs. And after being out of print for years, it’s now on Amazon. Will wonders never cease?
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