The 20 Best Books about Colorado | Westword

The Twenty Best Books About Colorado

From Stephen King to Jack Kerouac and Willa Cather and more, here are the best books set in the Centennial State.
The Stand
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This state has inspired plenty of writers.

Ready to start a new chapter? Here are the twenty best books about Colorado:
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Random House
James Michener
Does James Michener play a little fast and loose with the facts in this doorstop-sized classic? Sure — it's historical fiction, not a textbook. But the sprawling epic portrays some of Colorado’s most dramatic history (the Sand Creek Massacre, for example) while telling the story of the fictional titular city in Weld County from the late 1700s all the way through the 1970s. And if the sheer length of the novel seems a little daunting, a gorgeously over-dramatic and star-studded mini-series of it was made in 1978. Both the book and the mini-series are worth experiencing, for very different reasons.

The Stand
Stephen King

One could argue until (ahem) the end of the world about which Colorado-connected book by Uncle Stevie is best: The Shining would be the clear choice of Estes Park and the Stanley Hotel, and number-one fans of Misery will undoubtedly protest. But The Stand is Stephen King’s magnum opus — or one of them, at least — and much of it is set right here in Colorado…even if it’s a little nerve-racking to talk about the Project Blue pandemic these days.

On the Road
Jack Kerouac

If you haven’t read Jack Kerouac’s seminal work since you were a kid, you owe it to yourself to give it another shot. Like the Beat Generation that it helped define, the book is barely restrained chaos, but at the same time, it's poetic and affecting and memorable. (So much so that we keep writing about it.) The book may not take place altogether in Colorado, but its roots are here, courtesy of Neal Cassady, Five Points, My Brother’s Bar, and the wandering spirit common at a mile high.

Kent Haruf

Kent Haruf’s eastern-plains town of Holt, Colorado, may be solely fictional, but it manages to capture the spirit of an entire landscape not in (or in the shadows of) the mountains for which the state is usually known. Told from multiple perspectives, the book reveals much about the small-town life and population of the prairie lands that begin to the east of Denver and just keep going throughout the Midwest.

Sabrina & Corina
Kali Fajardo-Anstine

A 2019 finalist for the National Book Award, Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s collection of short fiction tells the stories of women in Denver, Latina culture, family and culture and place. Fajardo-Anstine is a local whose family has deep roots in the Mile High City — and this book is proof of that connection, that understanding, that fierce love.

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The Dog Stars
The Dog Stars
Peter Heller

Peter Heller has written a handful of novels, most of which have some Colorado connection — but none so direct as The Dog Stars, his debut, a post-apocalyptic story set in our state following a (yikes) worldwide viral disaster. It’s an enthralling and suspense-filled yarn that Playboy praised as “one of the most powerful reads in years.”

Dalton Trumbo

Later-to-be-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo wrote Eclipse in 1935 about the Colorado town of Shale City, based on Grand Junction, where he was raised. The thinly veiled satire of life there wasn’t all that well received locally at the time, but the years have been kind to Trumbo, re-creating him into a favorite son of sorts. This book is a great place to start understanding why — and to get a good sense of one of the twentieth century’s most interesting writers.
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Flatiron Books
White Horse
Erika Wurth
The stratospheric rise of Wurth's supernatural thriller about the now-closed bar on West Alameda is as much a page-turner as it is a love letter to Denver itself. From Lakeside Amusement Park to the old Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek North to Beau Jo's Pizza in Idaho Springs, it's a cornucopia of local goodness — and a reminder that there's a Denver that some remember as a thing of the past. It's a novel about loneliness and loss, about ghosts and discovery, about magical things and places that just feel like magic. It's about here, and the people who live here, no matter their cultural heritage or history: Coloradans all.
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St. Martin's Press
Sandra Dallas

Sandra Dallas’s career is long and storied, and for good reason. From her nonfiction to her 1991 debut novel, Buster Midnight’s Cafe, to her most recent novel, Westering Women, Dallas has delighted readers who love historical situations and vibrant characterization. Her 2007 novel, Tallgrass, set at Amache, the Japanese internment camp in Colorado, is both fascinating and of supreme importance, especially in today’s world, where the “othering” of our fellow human beings is tragically once again front and center.

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Running Meter Press
The Asphalt Warrior
Gary Reilly

This is the book that started the ignition on the late Gary Reilly’s multi-book series about Denver cab driver Brendan “Murph” Murphy. His goals are simple: to make just enough cash driving his cab to support his modest lifestyle, and to never get involved in the drama of his customers. He’s not great at the first, and terrible at the second — and that’s just the start of the promise, and the charm, of this very Denver series of stories.
University of Oklahoma Press
A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains
Isabella Bird

One of the seminal travel memoirs about Colorado — and the first authored by a woman — is A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, detailing British explorer Isabella Bird's 1873 trip to the Rocky Mountains. It's delivered in epistolary form, a compilation of letters that Bird wrote to her sister about her travels through Estes Park and elsewhere in and around what was then the Colorado Territory. The instant success of the book led to Bird becoming the first woman to be a member of the Royal Geographical Society, in 1892.
Vintage Books
Angle of Repose
Wallace Stegner

While Leadville is only one of several locations that this sprawling Pulitzer-winning novel covers, the trip across the history of the West is more than worth the time. The novel follows a wheelchair-bound historian and academic Lyman Ward, who has lost connection with his son and living family and decides to write about his frontier-era grandparents. Such remains the reputation of Stegner's novel, which the Modern Library ranked at 82 on its 1998 list of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century.
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Daisy Dog Books
East of Denver
Gregory Hill

Westword has talked with the inimitable Eastern-plains writer Gregory Hill a couple times, both before and after East of Denver won an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2011, and the Colorado Book Award for Fiction in 2013. It's a darkly comic piece of literature that tells the stories of those who call the Eastern Plains home — and all the beautiful weirdness that characterizes that land. The book is the first in what Hill has come to call his Strattford County Trilogy; check out more on his website.
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Riverhead/Harper Perennial/Scribner
The Gifted School
Bruce Holsinger

Set in the fictional but way-too-familiar suburban paradise of Crystal, Colorado, Holsinger's 2019 novel The Gifted School embraces the outrageous absurdity of parents who want — no, demand — their offspring to go to the local titular gifted school by virtue of their privilege, not their intelligence or accomplishments. The narrative focus is spread around six characters, four mothers and two of their children, who go on to exemplify the social fabric that lets communities like this survive and even thrive. It's an entertaining social satire — and maybe a message to parents to get a grip.

The Hour I First Believed
Wally Lamb

The Hour I First Believed is a fascinating response to Colorado's Columbine tragedy by Wally Lamb, famous for She's Come Undone. The novel follows a married couple of teachers who both land jobs at the Littleton High School, which would become famous for all the wrong reasons. Colorado only figures into the instigating element of this book, one of several that attempted to come to terms with one of the first and most infamous school shootings in America. What's the personal fallout to such massive horror? Here's one story of many.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore
 Matthew Sullivan
Tattered Cover Bookstore has played a large role in Denver's recent literary history, from the strong reputation of hosting writers of national importance to its more recent overexpansion woes, necessary closures and financial moves to survive. But one of the great things to come out of it was Matthew Sullivan's 2017 novel, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, a great mystery set in a bookshop that bears a purposeful and striking similarity to Denver's pre-eminent bookseller. This makes perfect sense, as Sullivan worked at Tattered Cover for years, and based this book on some of his experiences.
Misery, Stephen King
Stephen King is primarily known as a Maine writer, and rightly so — it's where he makes a home still to this day, and many of his books are set there. But coming in a strong second is Colorado, where King lived for a while when he was just getting his start. We've talked about The Shining and The Stand, but let's not forget good ol' Annie Wilkes living up in the mountains and is the biggest fan of her favorite author...who'll live to regret that following. As good as the movie was (and is!), Coloradans owe it to themselves to read the book—and then be super careful driving on those mountain roads.
Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf
Kent Haruf is one of Colorado's seminal voices. After his passing in 2014, he left a legacy of stories set in the fictional town of Holt, out on the eastern plains. His most famous book is probably Plainsong, which was also our first visit to Holt. But this book, the last before his death, is a lovely and quiet goodbye to the series, to the state and to life itself as age creeps up on us all. A beautiful coda to a perfectly Colorado saga.

The Song of the Lark
Willa Cather

Willa Cather's third novel is set in the fictional mountain town of Moonstone, Colorado, telling the story of a talented vocal artist who comes of age against the backdrop of the burgeoning American West. The main character eventually leaves Colorado for Chicago, where she finds success; it's a quintessential "great American novel" with very deep Colorado roots.
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Flatiron Books
Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation
Erika Krouse

We spoke with Erika Krouse when Tell Me Everything won the 2023 Colorado Book Award for Non-Fiction; it's both a memoir and an exploration of the CU Boulder Recruiting Scandal that rocked Colorado in the early 2000s, with its reports of sexual assault including gang-rape — and more importantly, the utter failure of football coach Gary Barnett to address it effectively, ethically or really at all. It's a harrowing and important read, and a reminder that we have to recall the terrible things, and hold people accountable, so we don't let those things happen again here in Colorado — or anywhere.
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