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Paint the Town Read! Thirty Colorado Writers Share Their Book Lists for Fall

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Jay Vollmar

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Read a good book lately? Colorado is known for many things, including mountains with all their purple majesty. Skiing. A Western sensibility combined with some Midwestern common sense. Marijuana and mushrooms. There's more, of course, but our writers should be near the top of the list.

Denver's literary scene is especially vibrant. The written word is honored here, with fans showing up at bookstores, on campuses, at coffeehouse and bars to meet an author, shake a hand, buy a book. And the writers themselves are not only generous with their time, but they're supportive of each other. And so when we reached out to thirty of Colorado's top authors to find out what they'd read over the summer, they skipped references to their own work (we added their most recent books after their names) in order to tout the work of others — some local, some not, some new discoveries, some living legends, others long gone.

They provided so many quality suggestions — with such a variety of subjects and styles — that this list should keep even the most dedicated reader busy well into 2024, no matter how early and deep the snow falls this year.

Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
I just finished Wonder Valley, by Ivy Pochoda, a book recommended by my next-door neighbor. He especially appreciates dark noir, and this read plunged me into a world of very disturbed characters — teen runaways, junkies, drifters, a cult leader — in an expertly textured narrative that careens between desert compounds and the homeless sprawl of Los Angeles. I’m midway through Reyna Grande’s excellent and immersive Corrido de Amor y Gloria, an historical epic set during the Mexican-American War, known as the war that the U.S. can never remember and Mexico can never forget. The story is artfully told through Ximena Salomé, a Mexican curandera, and John Riley, an officer in the San Patricio Battalion, the Irish volunteers who fought Yankee aggression to preserve Mexican sovereignty. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well for them, and that Mexico lost is the reason we enjoy living in present-day Denver. Book number three is Jim Thompson’s classic, The Killer Inside Me, a first-person account of a man degenerating into a serial killer. Thompson’s pulp style belies his insightful analysis of human behavior and social politics.

Kevin J. Anderson, Dragon Business, Clockwork Destiny
I write mainly science fiction and fantasy, but my pleasure reading is usually mysteries or thrillers. I have three go-to series, "my guys" that I cycle through one at a time. First is Jonathan Maberry's Joe Ledger series, action-adventure/thrillers; right now I'm reading Kill Switch. Just finished Stalin's Ghost, by Martin Cruz Smith in his Arkady Renko series. And I always love Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series. I've been working my way through all the books; just finished with The Burning Room. I got hooked from the TV series, and I really enjoy the books.

Nick Arvin, Mad Boy
I came across Alexander Nemerov's The Forest: A Fable of America in the 1830s through the Instagram feed of the Rocky Mountain Land Library, which is a great source for fascinating, off-the-radar books. The Forest is a series of short, fictional vignettes, offering stories and studies of curious characters, forgotten industries and lost places, all beautifully written and all set in the 1830s throughout the United States. Our sense of American history generally skips straight from the Revolution to the Civil War, and The Forest creates a mosaic of a decade in the in-between period, and offers us a vivid sense of how transformative, marvelous, dark and seemingly strange that time in America was.

Ramona Ausubel, The Last Animal
This summer I tore out the grass in our front yard and replaced it with drought-resistant native plants. While I dug and planted and sweat, I read Katy Simpson Smith's dazzler of a novel, The Weeds. In it, two women in different time periods crawl through the Roman Colosseum cataloguing plants while trying to figure out how they themselves can grow between the cracks of a world that would rather not see them flourish. The novel is mischievous and funny and crazy-smart, but the part that made this my favorite book of the season is the beauty of the sentences themselves, which grow like wild, magical vines.

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Jon Bassoff
Anna Bassoff
Jon Bassoff, Beneath Cruel Waters
I just finished Warren Zane's book Deliver Me From Nowhere, which details the making of Bruce Springsteen's 1982 album, Nebraska. As a writer who has been unapologetically influenced by Springsteen, I raced through the book in a few days. But even if you're not a Springsteen fanatic, there is some fascinating insight into the creative process and the competing forces of commercialism. Here was an artist who was on his way to absolute stardom — he had just released The River and would soon release Born in the USA — and instead of pandering to Top 40 radio and early MTV, decided to release as dark and uncompromising an album as possible, an album where damn near half the songs are about death and murder. The book provides great insight into where Springsteen was emotionally, his influences (Flannery O'Connor, the film Badlands), and how this demo tape ended up becoming a masterpiece.

Dan Beachy-Quick, Of Silence and Song
As summer goes overripe the dog-star nips at Orion’s heels, a little pain that reminds us, too, to look behind at what is leaving: the aster and the goldenrod, the morning dew. Peter Gizzi knows it's true: “So brief, so gone. / This was the legacy of dew: // to learn these origins / as the origin of water.” As summer's abundance slowly fades into autumn’s brittle stick, I know of no better companion to word our common lament for us, with us, than Gizzi’s new Fierce Elegy. For those of us devoted already to his work, we’ll find here the fullest condensation of his powers I know — poems of fearless questioning, muse-bruised, words with “a hunger / for real things,” and the real things that hunger right back. For those who don’t know his work, you’ll discover one of this nation’s foremost practitioners of lyric art, refusing that the poem should do anything less than posit one human life in actual relation with the world entire. His life, your life, mine — such are the fierce demands of love in a world where all one loves also leaves.
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Nicky Beer
courtesy Nicky Beer
Nicky Beer, Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes
Even without the supernatural elements that characterize Victor LaValle’s fiction, Lone Women is a compelling look at women of color in the history of the Western frontier, interrogating and rethinking America’s myths. The narrative evokes the intense loneliness, hardship and danger in an unforgiving landscape where every day can seem like a struggle for survival. LaValle gives us a tenacious but vulnerable heroine in Adelaide Henry, a Black woman fleeing her past for a claim on the wide-open spaces of Montana in the early twentieth century. I’m loath to reveal too much about the particulars of the plot — I think it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible — but I’ll confirm that it’s a thrilling, moving story about family trauma and monstrosity.

R. Alan Brooks, Anguish Garden I & II
My father just gave me It’s Life as I See it: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980 for my birthday, and it'll probably be pretty obvious why I'm interested in it: It's a book about and featuring the work of little-known Black cartoonists. I'd only heard of one of these cartoonists, Jackie Ormes. As a Black comics creator who makes a living with my work despite not being embraced by the publishing industry, it's nourishing to my soul to read about Black cartoonists who came before me and had to do the same thing.

Sandra Dallas, Little Souls
I am halfway through an advance copy of The River We Remember, by William Kent Kruger, which comes out in September. [It's] the story of the murder of a hated rich farmer; an Indian is arrested for the murder but refuses to participate in his defense. Kruger explores the prejudice of a small town in 1958, and a sheriff, with demons of his own, who tries to find justice. There's also a wealth of 1950s culture — hula hoops, Peyton Place, Edsels. I love Kruger's descriptive writing and the sensitive way he builds characters. I love this book!
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Estevan Ruiz
Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Woman of Light and Sabrina & Corina
Hip as hell, Silver Nitrate delivers a cinematic and exhilarating punch. Silvia Moreno-Garcia does it again with this creepy and unforgettable occultist thriller, teeming with the decadence of old horror movies. It’s Mexico City in the ’90s, where beepers, cigarettes and the ghost of an ex-girlfriend come alive as if leaping from the page. I felt cooler just reading it.

Kathy Fish, Wild Life: Collected Works
A few years back, a writer from Montana named Cathy Ulrich participated in one of my flash fiction workshops. I was immediately taken with her unique voice and style and was very honored to later blurb her debut collection, Ghosts of You, published in 2019 by Okay Donkey Press. Her second full-length collection, Small, Burning Things, is out now from the same press and is simply phenomenal. This book brings together fifty of what I feel are Ulrich’s best stories to date. All of flash length, they are intense, powerful, lyrical and wildly original. I’m struck, as always, by this writer’s range and masterful command of language. Some of my favorites: “A Burning Girl," The Magician’s Affair,“ "Transformation, Metamorphosis, Swan,” “Birds We Had Become” and “Things We’ve Found in Our Hair.” The book’s title says it all. Every story collected here burns bright, leaves its mark.

Harrison Candeleria Fletcher, Finding Querencia: Essays From In-Between
I spent the summer spiraling down various rabbit holes of non-traditional nonfiction — everything from lyric essay to prose poetry to image-text hybrids. But I found myself returning again and again to an anthology: Shapes of Native Nonfiction, which, as the title suggests, showcases 27 Native writers who challenge, subvert and reimagine notions of storytelling —in this case, the essay. Each entry was chosen for its innovative exploration of such subjects as identity, belonging, family, place, legacy, wound and joy. Organized under the metaphor of basket weaving, some essays coil. Others weave. All draw our attention to the inseparable relationship between the telling of the experience and the experience itself. Editors Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton explain it this way: “Native writers don’t shy away from experimenting with form to explore the painful and the violent. However, they refuse a voyeuristic obsession with tragedy.” Instead, the writers in this collection, which include Stephen Graham Jones, Natanya Ann Pulley and Chip Livingston, offer “astute and transformative literary interventions that extend beyond either nostalgia or lamentation.” I grew up in New Mexico, a state with 23 tribes. These essays forced me to confront the limits of my understanding of Native experiences. They also opened my eyes to the shape-shifting possibilities of the essay form. Heartbreaking. Profound. Funny. Deeply moving. Shapes was the highlight of my summer.

Wendy J. Fox, What If We Were Somewhere Else
Summer is often a catch-up time for me, so right now I am reading Leah Angstman's book of short stories, Shoot the Horses First, which came out in February. Angstman lives in Colorado, but she writes largely about colonial and Civil War-era America. What I like about this collection is it brings a contemporary perspective to deeply researched historical fiction, pulling the conversations of our current moment — like race, gender, veterans with PTSD, visibility for people who are differently abled — to the center of the narrative. The writing is lush and evocative, and the stories vary from small snapshots to larger, sweeping portraits. The balance of rich historic detail against real emotional resonance is remarkable.

Michael Henry, Mountain Biking the Colorado Trail
I recently finished reading Ada Limón’s most recent poetry collection, The Hurting Kind. (Ada’s our current U.S. Poet Laureate.) Just a lovely book of poems — simple, spare and subtly moving. There’s an honesty to these poems that I appreciate, as well as a careful, tender attention to the small details of living — something I think we all practiced in the early days of COVID, but perhaps have already forgotten. I also loved how she, as she has said about the book, worked consciously against displaying any grand epiphanies in the poems, which is something I find interesting as a poet myself. Letting the moment of the poem just be, and not trying to force-feed the reader a simplistic or overdone “deep thought to take with you” kind of thing. It reminds me of something former Denver Poet Laureate Chris Ransick used to say to us aspiring poets: Don’t squeeze all the juice out of a poem; leave some for the reader.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Winter Counts
One of the best parts about being an author is getting early copies of books from publishers. I recently received Assassins Anonymous, by Rob Hart, which will be published by Putnam in the summer of 2024. It’s fantastic — the story of Mark, a killer-for-hire who’s given up his profession and joined a 12-step group for recovering assassins. The novel is funny, violent and an absolute page-turner. For those who can’t wait until 2024 for a great read, I also recommend Everybody Knows, by Jordan Harper, a dark ride through Hollywood and its lost souls and strivers. It’s the tale of Mae Pruett, a crisis management specialist — known as a “black-bag publicist” — who finds herself drawn into a deadly conspiracy. This fantastic novel could not be more timely. But be warned: Once you start reading the book, you’ll find it impossible to put down.

Gregory Hill, East of Denver
I love experimental fiction. I love stories that show open contempt for the status quo. I love works that leave me uncomfortably thoughtful. In his introduction to Been Down So Long It Looks Up to Me, Thomas Pynchon (a friend and contemporary to [author Richard] Fariña) mentions Oakley Hall’s 1958 novel, Warlock. I found a copy, read it, loved it. Warlock is a rare gem of the sparsely populated world of literary Westerns. Gunmen, bordellos, gambling houses — it’s all in there, masterfully written. Throw in Hall’s withering critique of capitalism and this one goes straight to my classics shelf.

Elisa Gabbert, Normal Distance
I've been reading lots of architecture books this year. So far my favorite is The Built, the Unbuilt and the Unbuildable: In Pursuit of Architectural Meaning, by Robert Harbison. It's one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read — incredibly rich and stylish writing on gardens, ruins, monuments, castles, fantasy cities and spaces, architectural paintings. It’s full of fascinating photos and figures, and I had to keep stopping to google more images. Some choice quotes: “Uselessness is the most sublime of all human constructs.” “How sure of themselves yet how entirely fictional most monuments are.” “Ruins are ideal: the perceiver’s attitudes count so heavily that one is tempted to say ruins are a way of seeing.” “Such tininess is a form of alienation.” It made me wish for another life!

Stephen Graham Jones, My Heart Is a Chainsaw and its upcoming sequel, Don't Fear the Reaper
Just finished Chuck Tingle's Camp Damascus, Victor LaValle's Lone Women and The Nice House on the Lake, by James Tynion and Alvaro Martinez Bueno. Currently reading Christopher Golden's The House of Last Resort and Jeff Lemire's Phantom Road. Reread Daniel Kraus's Whalefall before hosting him at Tattered Cover in August. Highly recommend Tananarive Due's The Reformatory, out in October, and CJ Leede's Maeve Fly, out a bit ago. Looking forward to Stephen King's Holly.
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Erika Krouse
Erika Krouse
Erika Krouse, Tell Me Everything
As I finish writing my short-story collection, I've also been rereading others to see how they work: Jenny Shank's Mixed Company; Jennifer Wortman's This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love; the Denver Noir anthology edited by Cynthia Swanson; and other collections by Lucia Berlin, Amy Hempel, Carmen Maria Machado, Jean Stafford, John Edgar Wideman, Haruki Murakami, Yuko Tsushima. ... It's been the summer of short stories!

Joanna Luloff, Remind Me Again What Happened
My summer reading was all over the place, moving between a surreal novel with talking mushrooms to a restrained but surprising short-story collection full of quiet revelations. Ghost Music, by An Yu is a wonderfully weird novel that focuses on an unhappy housewife who has put aside her love of music to fulfill her husband’s demands and expectations. In her dreams, she is haunted by mushrooms, and in her waking life, mysterious packages of mushrooms start arriving on her doorstep. The novel is full of surreal mysteries, but to me, the greatest suspense involved whether the main character would be able to find her way back to herself. Another book I admired was Maile Malloy’s story collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. On the surface, these two books couldn’t be more different. Malloy’s stories are austerely beautiful and are grounded in realism, but like An Yu’s novel, they are interested in untethered characters estranged from their worlds. These stories refuse to arrive at tidy conclusions, and I found myself wondering about the characters and their possible trajectories long after I closed the book.

R.L. Maizes
, Other People's Pets
In Michelle Brafman’s moving novel Swimming With Ghosts, a summer swim club is the backdrop for a conflict between two women battling childhood demons. The women are linked in more ways than just the pool, and it takes a rare summer land hurricane — a derecho — for the truth to out. Brafman writes beautifully and with exquisite compassion for characters whose impulses are driven by addiction and inherited trauma, characters who try desperately to keep up appearances through social media and otherwise. This fast-paced novel is difficult to put down, and so affecting you won’t want to.
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Adrian Miller
Anthony Camera
Adrian Miller, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time
I'm reading American Table: The Foods, People, and Innovations That Feed Us, by Lisa Kingsley in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution (Harvest Books, 2023). It's a concise, fun, informative and inclusive culinary history of the United States. A definite "must read" for any foodie!

Melinda Moustakis, Homestead
I feel as though I'm catching up on reading after publishing a novel in February. My current book stack includes Writing on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Alaskan Stories, edited by David A. James, which includes fiction and nonfiction and came out this year. Twenty-four writers give a kaleidoscope of perspectives on a landscape that is often only encountered through a few more well-known names. I'm also reading The Tao of Raven: An Alaska Native Memoir, by Ernestine Saankaláxt Hayes, which is her most recent book.

Alan Prendergast
, Gangbuster: One Man's Battle Against Crime, Corruption, and the Klan
Summer reading should include at least one genuine blockbuster everybody’s talking about, and I chose David Grann’s The Wager, an epic feat of archival reporting that convinced me that being an eighteenth-century British sailor, subject to shipwreck, scurvy and other horrors, had to be one of the worst jobs ever. (Highly recommended: the audiobook, narrated by Dion Graham.) Closer to home, I’ve been enjoying Again & Again, a novel by former Westword colleague Juliet Wittman about a group of tough-minded cancer patients, which is more humorous and nuanced than the sort of weeper you might expect. I’ve also been delving into old books that are new to me, including the Library of America’s latest anthology of crime novels, featuring neglected 1960s thrillers such as Dorothy B. Hughes’s sneaky The Expendable Man and Charles Williams’s marvelously intense Dead Calm. Other stumbled-upon treasures are Molly Keane’s recently reissued 1981 novel Good Behaviour, one of the greatest examples of a delusional narrator this side of Donald Trump, and long-out-of-print Into the Badlands, by journalist John Williams, a shambling 1989 bar-hop across America to talk crime fiction with James Crumley, Tony Hillerman, George V. Higgins, Sara Paretsky and other trailblazers.

Mark Stevens, The Fireballer
Underworld, by Don DeLillo, is a baseball novel that's not a baseball novel. A novel with a big sweeping look at the second half of the twentieth century, taking us from J. Edgar Hoover to Little Richard, to Watts Towers and the Cuban Missile Crisis and dozens of other moments and settings. A novel of dread about technology and consumerism and nuclear waste, and yet also a novel about one single famous baseball. Inventive, sprawling, hefty. A doorstop novel with energy to burn. Good thing the Giants won the pennant.

Tiffany Quay Tyson, The Past Is Never
I am especially fond of mysteries set in small Southern towns, so it’s no surprise that I fell for Lo Patrick’s debut novel, The Floating Girls. Set in the marshes of rural Georgia, it follows twelve-year-old Kay Whitaker as she unravels the connections between her family and a father and son who have returned to the area after years away. An unsolved murder and a tangle of family secrets mean there's plenty to satisfy anyone looking for a page-turner, but the real star of this story is the brash young narrator. Some reviews have drawn comparisons to Scout Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is fair, but I’d argue Kay might have more in common with Mattie Ross from True Grit. Kay has the same dogged determination as that young heroine, the same willingness to insert herself into a dangerous situation, and the same stubborn desire for truth and justice at all costs. The mystery is a good one, but it’s the funny and irreverent voice that makes The Floating Girls such a joy to read.

Jenny Wortman, This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love.
A recent favorite of mine is John Cotter’s Losing Music, a memoir detailing the author’s navigation of a mysterious chronic illness that compromises his hearing and day-to-day functioning. Cotter’s depiction of his struggles with his new reality and the absurdities of the American health-care system offers deep generosity of heart, mind and spirit while avoiding easy clichés about illness and health. At once contemplative and propulsive, this book brings together everything I love about reading.

Emily Wortman-Wunder, Not a Thing to Comfort You
Two grieving sisters get pregnant unexpectedly; one chooses abortion and the other waffles her way toward motherhood. This is the premise of Ashley Wurzbacher’s new novel, How to Care for a Human Girl, and while it is about the ways abortion is viewed and fought over in the U.S., it tackles so much more: how to cope with big decisions, what it means to be a woman, and what to do when the life you thought you wanted turns out to be the wrong one. Ultimately, Wurzbacher’s novel makes the compelling argument that even flawed people deserve to make their own choices.
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Erika Wurth
Evan Semón Photography
Erika Wurth, White Horse
I first fell for RF Kuang’s brilliant speculative novel Babel not quite a year ago — and almost immediately read her other (fantasy) book, The Poppy War. So when I saw that she was putting out a literary-realism novel (although it does have a horror edge, yay), Yellowface, I was surprised, but eager to read. This novel is not what people think it is. Yes, it lambasts the book world, in an intensely smart, incisive yet compassionate way. But it’s what I like to call a funhouse mirror book. Anybody who enters the funhouse is going to see a distorted version of themselves — but not everyone is going to realize the truth behind the reflection.

Mary Taylor Young, Bluebird Seasons
I’ve been humming along this summer with a honey of a book: The Music of Bees, by Eileen Garvin, published in 2021. It’s beautifully written and touches on so many rich elements. A collection of characters, all with their own wounds, comes together and forms a “family” around the keeping of bees. Garvin interweaves her tale of human healing through community with the life history of bees, their fascinating social structure, and the threat to pollinators (and therefore people) from pesticides. She takes us on the compelling journey of the various characters, whose inner and outer lives she skillfully crafts for us. I was engaged by her prose and love the metaphor of communal bees and the human need for community.

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