We asked 10 authors to recommend two books in their respective genres. Here’s what they said.
There’s something special about opening a gift and finding a book — thick or thin, fiction or nonfiction, heavy or lighthearted — that just seems perfectly tailored to our interests. Gift cards to bookstores are terrific, but connecting with someone through a specific volume that speaks to us in a very personal way can be rewarding on both ends.
With that in mind, SunLit decided to lean on the marvelous range of our state’s celebrated authors for some ideas that just might dovetail perfectly with someone you know.
We asked 10 Colorado writers – all finalists or winners of the prestigious Colorado Book Award – to recommend two books in their genre that might make a treasured holiday gift. They responded with an amazing array of suggestions, some recent releases, some that have been around for awhile but may have escaped notice.
The bonus is that we’ve also included links to these Colorado authors’ award-worthy works, which may align perfectly with someone on your gift list.
Biography | Creative Nonfiction | General Fiction | General nonfiction | Historical Fiction | History | literary fiction | Mystery | Thriller | Science Fiction / Fantasy
Dave Philipps, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter based in Colorado Springs, took the CBA for biographies with “Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy Seals.” Here’s what he says about his biography recommendations:
“Uncertain Ground” by Phil Klay (2022)
This collection of essays by a Marine veteran and National Book Award winner grapples with the motivations, beliefs, guilt, and collective trauma of a generation of men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan but are often seen at home only as two-dimensional “Thank you for your service” veterans. Phil goes a long way toward creating a richer picture of the people who lived these wars and the issues they grappled with.
“The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West” by John Branch (2018)
John is a sports writer for The New York Times and long ago did the same job for The Gazette in Colorado Springs. He is one of the best narrative storytellers in the news business and here turns his eye on the world of rodeo, showing through rich narrative how a long-time ranching family used success in the modern rodeo circuit to support the family ranch.
Susan Tweit, a plant biologist, speaker and teacher when she isn’t writing, won a CBA for her book “Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying.” Here’s what she has to say about two recommendations in the creative nonfiction genre:
“Finding the Mother Tree” by Suzanne Simard (2021)
Reading Simard’s melding of memoir and science discovery will transport you into the world beneath the skin of the earth, a world where fungal threads snake miles through dark soil, connecting plants (particularly trees) in webs of knowledge, nutrients, and communication. Simard’s story is part rollicking adventure, part lucid and fascinating science, part critique of conventional forestry, and wholly passionate and engaging. If you loved Richard Power’s novel Overstory, Finding the Mother Tree will introduce you to the real, visionary woman behind his fiction.
“The Secret Knowledge of Water” by Craig Childs (2004)
This exploration of deserts through understanding their scarce water is not Colorado author Craig Childs’ first book, nor his most recent, but it remains my favorite for its honesty, lyricism, and a fascinating combination mysticism and literal groundedness. Childs is an extraordinary writer with a passion for desert places and their peoples, a sponge-like mind that absorbs and digests science into stories, and a keen eye for the absurd—in himself as well as others. To understand the magic of the North American deserts and those who inhabit them, human and moreso, start with this book.
Blake Sanz, who teaches writing at the University of Denver, won the CBA for general fiction with “The Boundaries of Their Dwelling,” a collection of emotional journeys between Mexico and the American South. Here are his comments on a couple of suggestions from the genre:
“Missionaries” by Phil Klay (2020)
Klay is a former Marine whose 2014 debut book of short stories, “Redeployment,” depicts lives in and around U.S. involvement in the Middle East. In “Missionaries,” his first novel, Klay explores violence and war in Colombia over the last few decades, which includes U.S. involvement in that country’s affairs. We follow the lives of four people associated with that war: an American journalist, a foot soldier for a paramilitary organization, a lieutenant colonel in the Colombian army, and an American Special Forces liaison. As Klay braids these stories together, what emerges is a rich and complicated portrait of life on the ground in Colombia, and of American involvement in foreign affairs.
“The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu” by Tom Lin (2021)
In this debut novel, Lin astounds with his depiction of a Chinese-born assassin in the American West in the 19th century. In subverting the genre of the Western, this book follows Ming Tsu as, with the help of a magical troupe of circus performers, he travels west from Salt Lake to Reno, hunting down those who played a part in taking his wife from him, beating him nearly to death, and conscripting him to work on the railroad. Based largely on the gruesome history of exploited Chinese labor in the American West of the 19th century, and incorporating magical realist elements, this cinematically rendered journey is as compelling as anything you’ll read this year.
Laura Pritchett is familiar to readers for her fiction — “The Blue Hour” ranks among her multiple CBAs — but she knows her way around great nonfiction, too, as a teacher in the MFA in nature writing at Western Colorado University. She shared her thoughts on a couple favorite nonfiction books:
“Pushed: Miners, a Merchant, and (Maybe) a Massacre” by Ana Maria Spagna (2023)
Who doesn’t like a more clear-eyed look into history? The author takes us on a surprising twist-filled journey as she explores different versions of a legend of a massacre on the Columbia River in 1875.
“The Guidebook to Relative Strangers” by Camille Dungy (2018)
This Colorado author is perhaps nationally known for her poetry — which is gorgeous — but I also love her beautiful memoir of motherhood, race, and the love of a life well-lived. I can’t wait for her new nonfiction title, “Soil: A Black Mother’s Garden” to be released this spring.
E.J. Levy, an associate professor in the MFA program at Colorado State University, won a CBA for historical fiction with “The Cape Doctor.” She has a couple of recommendations and thoughts on books from that genre:
“Euphoria” by Lily King (2014)
Inspired by the remarkable life of Margaret Mead, and set between the world wars, this novel of a love triangle among three ambitious, brilliant anthropologists in New Guinea is one of the best historical novels I’ve read: a puzzle-box and a page turner. Rich in ideas and romance, it’s a great gift for any reader. I defy you not to weep at the end.
“Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko (1977)
While not a historical novel in the conventional sense, “Ceremony” is an American masterpiece set in western New Mexico in the aftermath of WWII, which centers on the lives of two young Laguna soldiers returned from war to find a drought (both literal and spiritual) plaguing the land. Transforming the “war novel” and blending Anglo and Indigenous story forms, the book itself is a transformative ceremony and hands down one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It speaks to the all-too-timely question of how to battle evil without being undone by it. Please read this one and give it to those you love.
Martin Smith, a former senior editor for the Los Angeles Times Magazine who now lives in the Colorado mountains, won the CBA for history with “Going to Trinidad: A Doctor, a Colorado Town, and Stories From an Unlikely Gender Crossroads.” Here’s what he says about some other historical nonfiction he’d suggest:
“Ho Chi Minh: A Life,” by William J. Duiker (2000)
The novel I’m currently writing is about secrets buried for five decades by the crew of a napalm boat that patrolled Vietnam’s Mekong Delta between 1968 and 1970. As part of my research, I began to understand Ho Chi Minh as a fascinating historical figure who for many decades wanted nothing more than to ally with the U.S. government. Rebuffed and ignored, the Vietnamese leader sought allies elsewhere. The rest is history, and it’s chronicled in exquisite detail in this readable 700-page epic by a meticulous researcher.
“Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation,” by Dan Fagin (2013)
While confiding in me about his slow-moving but ultimately terminal illness, a friend mentioned that he was so fated because he was among many locals poisoned by industrial chemicals while growing up in coastal New Jersey in the 1970s. He also said the full story behind his life’s tragic turn was chronicled in a well-known book that won a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. I ordered it immediately.
Fagin is an extraordinary storyteller, and he details a decades-long drama that culminated in 2001 with one of the largest legal settlements in the annals of toxic dumping. As the Pulitzer judges wrote, Fagin’s book “deftly combines investigative reporting and historical research to probe a New Jersey seashore town’s cluster of childhood cancers linked to water and air pollution.”
Claire Boyles, a writer, teacher and former sustainable farmer who lives in Loveland, was a CBA finalist in this genre for her collection “Site Fidelity.” Here are her comments on a couple literary fiction books she recommends:
“The Seed Keeper” by Diane Wilson (2021)
After decades of struggle on her husband’s family farm, Rosalie Iron Wing returns to the home she was taken from as a child in search of healing and reconnection. Wilson’s beautiful, unflinching exploration of intergenerational loss centers the strength and forethought of Rosalie’s Dakhóta ancestors, women who understood the necessity of food sovereignty and the regenerative potential of a precious cache of seeds.
“Nobody Gets Out Alive” by Leigh Newman (2022)
Longlisted for the National Book Award in fiction, Newman’s short story collection, set in urban and rural Alaska, is at once heartbreaking and hilarious. A dog at large disrupts an aging widow’s open house. Fathers and daughters toe the unsteady edge of disaster on a backcountry hunting trip. As a whole, the stories are a compassionate and wise examination of family, friendship, and the limits of self-reliance in an unforgiving landscape.
Jodi Bowersox, based in Colorado Springs, won a Colorado Book Award for her novel “Red Rabbit on the Run.” Here’s what she says about two great mysteries:
“Blood on the Tracks” by Barbara Nickless (2016).
There’s a reason that Barb Nickless is a best-selling author. She has a writing style that is a delight to read and she can create a great mystery as well. Sydney Parnell and the ghosts of her past makes for fascinating reading. “Blood on the Tracks” is the first of a four-book set.
“The Secret Life of Anna Blanc” by Jennifer Kincheloe (2015).
And now for something completely different. Kincheloe’s Anna Blanc is one of the most outrageously fun characters ever created. She is a constant surprise and laugh-out-loud funny. And Kincheloe creates a great mystery to solve as well. “The Secret Life of Anna Blanc” is the first book in this hilarious trilogy.
Carter Wilson, who lives in an Erie house that may or may not be haunted, most recently won a CBA for “The Dead Husband.” He knows thrillers – he’s had eight of his published – and has this to say about his two picks:
“Never Coming Home” by Hannah Mary McKinnon (2022)
This thriller induces waves of anxiety in the best possible way. Have you ever wanted to murder your spouse? Lucas Forrester will show you how, outlining every meticulously crafted step. But even the best-laid plans contain vulnerabilities, and we feel every second of Lucas’s heart-pounding stress as his crime—and his world—begins to unravel. McKinnon is masterful in capturing Lucas’s voice, balancing humor and horror on a razor’s edge, forcing him to be sympathetic and despicable at the same time.
“The Lies I Tell” by Julie Clark (2022)
I’ve gotten to know Julie a bit over the past year and am always happy to get a chance to read her work. Her latest, “The Lies I Tell,” falls somewhere in the suspense-thriller range and tells the story of con-artist Meg — who goes to great lengths to scam her victims — and Kat, the woman seeking to finally stop her. An ostensibly straightforward setup that soon becomes very twisty in the best possible ways. There is a lot of gray in this book — Julie doesn’t believe in pure villains or heroes — and the moral ambiguity on display adds tremendous depth to the characters.
Eric Maikranz, won the CBA in his genre for “The Reincarnationist Papers.” Here are his thoughts on a couple of sci-fi/fantasy recs:
“Altered Carbon” by Richard K. Morgan (2002)
This wonderful title was recommended to me by two different entertainment professionals and I didn’t need a third reminder. I liked this book but I loved Morgan’s philosophical takes (and consequences) of practical immortality via backups and stacks and inequity in our society. Netflix adapted it a few years ago, but it was not as good as the book (it never is).
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” by Walter Tevis (1963)
I re-read this in 2022 after I watched the Showtime adaptation. I originally read this back in the ’80s after I watched the mind-blowing David Bowie ‘ 70s version and it got me hooked on Tevis, who has had an amazingly high percentage of his novels adapted to the screen (“Queen’s Gambit,” “The Color of Money,” “The Hustler”). I enjoyed all of his books, but “The Man Who Fell to Earth” still holds up for examples of otherness, alienation and persecution.
Where to find books in Colorado
• Prospector: Search the combined catalogs of 23 Colorado libraries
• Libby: E-books and audio books
• NewPages Guide: List of Colorado independent bookstores
• Bookshop.org: Searchable database of bookstores nationwide
• BookBar: Denver
• Poor Richard’s Books: Colorado Springs
• Old Firehouse Books: Fort Collins
• Out West Books: Grand Junction
• Explore Booksellers: Aspen
Kevin Simpson, Colorado Lifestyle & General Assignment Writer/Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Danika Worthington, Presentation Editor | email@example.com