Of the dozens of books I’ve read recently, I singled out a collection of nine fiction and nonfiction works that stand apart from the rest. Filled with complex characters and bold stories, these remarkable books will stay with you long after you finish reading.
You may not have heard of many of these, but I urge you to give them a try. You won’t be disappointed. And, of course, books make the best gifts, so please consider giving one or two of them to the booklovers on your holiday list.
Johnny D. Boggs
Anyone familiar with Johnny Boggs and his work knows that extensive research and authenticity are his calling cards. Few have written about the American West as well as he has—and none better.
A Thousand Texas Longhorns is the story of two men who were once enemies but are brought together by desperation. Down on their luck after the Civil War, they grab the opportunity to get rich by driving Texas Longhorn cattle up north. They leave behind loved ones, difficult pasts, and a lifetime of regret to hit it big. The obstacles are enormous.
Like all of Boggs’s work, this book is steeped in location—the Old West—gritty, grimy, violent, and uncivilized. He captures the odors, the slang, the scenery, and the topography so well that you think you are right beside the characters.
Boggs uses history as a character—a brutal, unforgiving one. As the two men travel north, they face drought, the US Army, warring Sioux, illness, and treachery. The author puts on full display how the West was won with a satisfying, uplifting conclusion.
This is his best book yet on the Old West. Don’t miss the journey.
Fans of the legendary Tony Hillerman agree that he was one of a kind. He wrote about Navajo culture, custom, and beliefs in such a thorough manner that even the Navajos were impressed. His Leaphorn and Chee series is required reading for anyone who loves Native Americans and the Southwest.
Readers of his daughter Anne will discover that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Anne has continued her father’s work and has done it masterfully, steeping her stories in Indian lore. Readers learn as much about the Navajos as they do about the characters who have entertained us for decades.
Anne’s characters Bernadette and Louisa add to the flavor, and in this book, the author also brings back detective Joe Leaphorn, now retired from the Tribal Police, and his cohort Jim Chee. The four of them work together to solve a series of burglaries, which takes a more serious turn when a body is discovered.
There’s no question Anne learned from her father, but she has her own magic to spin. The Tale Teller is a page-turner of a mystery, which I highly recommend.
Michael McGarrity draws from his careers in both social work and criminal justice to take his novels to the next level. His latest, Head Wounds, is one of his best. Everyone who loves his Kevin Kerney series will love this book too. The new star is his son, Clayton Istee, an Apache who is now sheriff.
Like all my favorite Southwest authors, McGarrity covers the New Mexico scenery in a way that makes me miss it. His novels have complex plots, lots of moving parts, and a full range of unforgettable characters. We begin with a double murder and learn that the victims robbed an Indian casino of two hundred thousand dollars.
Kevin Kerney is in this book, but he’s retired now. Though it’s clear that McGarrity wants to move on to the next generation of law enforcement in New Mexico, his new characters are just as satisfying as the old ones.
McGarrity is one of my top authors because of his background in psychology. Many Western writers do a great job of telling what happened, but McGarrity gets inside the minds of all his characters, adding a wonderful dimension.
Having read dozens of self-help books through the years, I was skeptical about a book written by a psychotherapist who intermingles her stories with those of her patients and becomes a patient herself.
Well, I was pleasantly surprised. This book is so readable, amazingly insightful, and full of wisdom. Lori Gottlieb is a gifted storyteller, a well-respected therapist, and a vulnerable woman willing to bare her soul to the reader. This book is funny and sad but also uplifting. Gottlieb's father taught her that love wins. She shares that with her patients, who become better people because of her.
Gottlieb takes us deep into her own life, revealing a cancer diagnosis, failed relationships, and the time she spent as a patient to another psychotherapist. She passes on what she has learned through stories about herself and her patients.
This is an honest, eye-opening work that explores the depths of human emotions. You will love Gottlieb’s patients and root for them. You will see yourself in them. And most of all, you’ll see how frail humans are, particularly when things go wrong in their lives. I am sure to read this remarkable book again.
In his books, Erik Larson skillfully combines two stories or more into one, weaving in vivid, factual information that flows so well you don’t realize how much you actually learned. His research is meticulous, but the story never gets bogged down by it. This is a very difficult thing to achieve, and Larson does it better than anyone.
Devil in the White City takes us into the evil mindset of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, a serial killer who lived in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair. We move between stories, beginning with the extraordinary planning that went into the fair, how hard it was to pull off, and how close it came to failing. The fair brings the reader into contact with all that went on in the 1880s and ’90s, along with several inventions prepared just for the event. From the Wild Bill West Show to the Ferris wheel to the extraordinary structure build to house the exhibits, Larson takes the reader on a fascinating journey.
Then Larson returns to H. H. Holmes, a hideous man. I won’t tell you what happens to him. You need to read it for yourself. And then you’ll want to pick up Larson’s many other fine books and read them from cover to cover.
I've been a fan of Jeff Guinn’s work ever since I read The Last Gunfight. Having grown up in Arizona and New Mexico, I always thought I understood the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and why it happened. It turns out I had everything wrong, or at least incomplete, until I read Guinn’s exhaustive, well-researched account. He dug deep into the fabric of the town of Tombstone and all of the crazy characters who populated it.
Similarly, Jonestown explained what for me had been unexplainable. How in the world did a preacher convince over 900 people to commit suicide? Nothing about Jim Jones or his followers made sense. No matter how many newspaper articles I read, I couldn’t figure out how Jones managed to cause such a massive slaughter.
As Guinn always does, he takes you to the beginning. Who was Jim Jones? What was his path to Guyana and Jonestown? How did he create such powerful allegiances? The story will never make sense unless you know how Jones was raised and how he came to have a Hitlerian hold on his parishioners.
As this amazing book unfolds, we feel Jones’s power, his raw ambition, his naked self-interest, and his ability to manipulate people. We see Jones from the inside, his marriage, his children, his early church in Indianapolis. We also see Jones as a human, a man who broke racial barriers, espoused equality, and set excellent early examples. Guinn shows us how this good man went wrong, how he handled his celebrity, and how power corrupted him.
On my reading list are the rest of Guinn’s books. I have much to learn—and to enjoy—and he has much to tell.
For the life of me, I can’t understand the criticism of this beautifully told and accurate view of the hardships of immigration into the United States.
Jeanine Cummins wrote a page-turning thriller with plenty of accurate anecdotes about the horrors of trying to cross the US border while staying away from robbers and murderers on the Mexican side.
The story begins with a drug lord intent on massacring an entire family for revenge. A mother and one of her sons barely escape as the other 14 family members are brutally murdered.
On the journey from Acapulco, we meet other desperate immigrants, robbers, cartel murderers, and police authorities trying to stop them. With nonstop action and a deep backstory, this book will keep you on the edge of your seat until the final moment.
American Dirt touched my heart. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Chris Enss has practically invented her own genre: women who history ignored and their true impact on the Old West.
All of Enss’s books are noteworthy for being wildly entertaining and very well researched, and every woman in Wicked Women will shock you. Because women had virtually no rights, they had to be tougher, more resourceful, and smarter than the men who exploited them. Luckily for them, many of them were.
Enss introduces us to soiled doves, madams, murders, highway robbers, and women who were every bit as tough as the men they loved. With an eye for detail and a penchant for bringing these infamous women to light, Enss writes masterful books that will make any reader see the West in a whole new way.
Once you zip through this book, you’ll find many more enjoyable tales written by Enss.
Joe R. Lansdale
Joe Lansdale is a prolific and highly successful author of dozens of books, but they never repeat and never lose their poignancy. In Paradise Sky, we see the legend of Nat Love, aka “Deadwood Dick,” in 1870s Texas.
In this gritty, humorous tale, we follow Nat as he moves from disaster to disaster, wondering if he’ll survive. He always does, but just barely. Lansdale has a way of adding humor to even the smallest events and providing insights into the motives of desperate men living in desperate times.
Lansdale is an old-fashioned storyteller who keeps you on the edge of your seat. Paradise Sky is my favorite Lansdale book. I love Nat Love and all the crazy characters he encounters along the way— Old West characters, bigger than life, and usually even more unscrupulous than you thought.
Any reader who finishes one Lansdale book will finish them all.