Cover Stories

2023 Back to School Reading List for Grown-Ups

SFR presents fiction and nonfiction book recommendations with a regional appeal

As we put on the brakes for school zones on some of our favorite shortcuts each morning and afternoon, back-to-school vibes proliferate the city. Put the Alice Cooper to bed, kids—school’s back for fall, and it’s taking names. The heat wave has passed, it seems, for now; the kids have fresh new backpacks and notebooks and books—why shouldn’t you have some of your own?

In the new edition of our annual Back-to-School Reading List for Grown-ups, SFR staffers offer fiction and nonfiction recommendations from this year and late 2022, and hope others discover something to love. Find a murder mystery from Santa Fe-based novelist James Reich (and info on an SFR event tonight with the author). Get lost in the sprawling, teeming Southwestern short story collection from the enigmatic Robin McClean. Dive into the horror of dreams with Jessica Johns. Take a road trip with aliens in Connie Willis’ new novel. And, see the flipside of all that Oppenheimer hullabaloo. Plus, slide into the sick pow-pow of that gnar life with Steven Kolter and touch the power of the deceptively fragile snail with graphic novelist Maureen Burdock.

There’s more where that came from, too, and now that you might have a little extra time on your hands after the school bell rings, escaping into the pages of a good book feels more doable. Read on, dear grown-ups.


The Moth for the Star

By James Reich

7.13 Books, September 2023

In the poem from which writer James Reich’s sixth novel extracts its title—which appears as an epigraph in its second section— Percy Bysshe Shelley writes:

The desire of the moth for the star,

Of the night for the morrow,

The devotion to something afar

From the sphere of our sorrow?

Knowledge of the poem, which the brooding English Romantic and provocative Shelley wrote before dying in advance of his 30th birthday in 1822, isn’t necessary, but does help set the mood—moods, really—for Reich’s gritty and poetic metaphysical mystery. The novel opens amid an existential crisis circa 1930s New York, as Charles Varnas mines his memories, sifting through vivid and occasionally grotesque images as he tries to recall the murder he may have committed in Cairo five years earlier.

“It had been Charles Varnas’ twenty-fifth birthday, and his second visit to Egypt. Now, he was a murderer. Yet, he could not recall his victim in any detail, only the presence of a profound danger ebbing into the desert, to be borne away like someone drowning in the undulating sand.”

His black hair now dyed blond, Varnas meets up with Campbell, his androgynous lover, with whom he drinks gin, smokes cigarettes, has sex in elevators and converses in haunted riddles. Those riddles persist as the novel continues to shift in time and space, both elements handled with lyricism and expert narrative authority. As questions mount—Did Varnas actually commit murder? What does Campbell actually know of his supposed crime?—so does the novel’s psychological tension. Reich makes heady work of his main characters’ psyches, but not at the expense of environment, which he constructs with often super-sensory precision. Consider a scene in which Campbell remembers a moment the couple spent in Venice, traveling on a gondola, in which she summons visions of Thomas Mann’s Venice, with its “puckered and diseased flesh and the matted brown weed of sunken prayers.”

Similarly, Reich balances the novel’s philosophical investigations with its plot, driving the reader toward its resolution and heartbreaking confession, which underscores the nebulous and nefarious quote from Jung that serves as epigraph for the novel itself:

“Every attentive person knows their Hell, but not all know their devil.”

The Santa Fe-based author, who is also a published essayist, journalist and ecopsychologist, will read from his book at a special event sponsored by SFR at 6 pm, Aug. 23 at Violet Crown Cinema, which will also feature a Q&A with this writer (who has plenty of questions about this evocative novel) and a book signing. (Julia Goldberg)

Get ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Tough, Tell ‘Em Nothing

By Robin McLean

And Other Stories, October 2022

As denizens of the Southwest, we’re all fairly saturated with stories of rugged Americana—gunslingers and frontier justice, trusty steeds, outlaws, sheriffs and lone wolves. Robin McLean’s story collection, Get ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Tough, Tell ‘Em Nothing, is similarly saturated—but in ways readers might not expect.

McLean builds her stories on the bedrock of the tropes, myths and sentiments that fed colonial America: A couple homesteads in Alaska; an aunt and her nephew road trip through landmark historical sites like Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone and Monticello; an archaeologist works on a dig in good old New Mexico. But McLean’s treatment of these stories has her own stamp. The homesteading couple grapples unwillingly with the tension between history and constructed history as a mysterious illness grips Iris, the wife, her body seeming to reject her current reality in favor of an alternate one in which her Jewish ancestors had never been forced to leave Prague. The aunt is a jealous sister who has kidnapped her nephew, and their years-long tour of the US and Canada becomes fraught with disillusionment about the mythos of the settler landmarks they visit. The archaeologist working in New Mexico gets cock-blocked by a pterodactyl.

The world of Get ‘Em Young carries disorienting currents of myth. As soon as readers start to get comfortable in one narrative (OK, that’s what this story’s about!) McLean pulls them into a subversive riptide. She draws her characters to edges and extremes, and her laconic storytelling gives readers few clues about where she’s leading them as they travel through her rough, unsettling landscapes. She debunks the myth of human dominance over nature, of the invincibility of bootstrapping pioneers. McLean’s CV says she now lives and teaches in the “high desert West,” and has a background as unlikely as her story scenarios: pushcart hot dog salesperson, lawyer and mediator, potter, sculptor and haunted corn maze manager—a breadth of experience evidenced by her selections. Get ‘Em Young is her second story collection, following Reptile House in 2015. It was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and was longlisted for the 2022 Republic of Consciousness Prize.

Overall, Get ‘Em Young is a book for those who dwell—literally or figuratively—on the edges. In the places perceived as barren wastelands (cough, cough, Oppenheimer). McLean’s honed, darkly funny and searching eye reveals that they are, in fact, teeming. (Annabella Farmer)

Bad Cree

By Jessica Johns

Doubleday, January 2023

When you wake up from a nightmare, you don’t expect to take something from the dream back to your bed. It’s happened to Mackenzie three times now—branches ripped from a tree the first two times, and the third? The bleeding, decapitated head of a crow.

In Jessica Johns’ debut novel Bad Cree, a young Cree woman’s dreams keep returning her to one memory as the one-year anniversary of her sister Sabrina’s untimely death approaches. But the dreams continue to haunt her waking life as well, a murder of crows following her every step—and she knows she has to return home to her family.

When she returns to her rural home in Northern Alberta, she finds resilience with her grieving family. However, their reunion only intensifies her dreams, making them more dangerous. With the help of her family, Mackenzie needs to figure out what her dreams are trying to tell her, and why.

Johns, herself a Cree author who hails from Northern Alberta, Canada, presents a well-constructed horror novel steeped in Cree folklore and adds to the niche of Native voices that have begun cropping up in the horror genre: Stephen Graham Jones, Devon A. Mihesuah and Waubgeshig Rice, to name a few.

While it’s not a blood-and-guts-heavy brand of horror, Johns is in her element when writing a slow-burning sense of dread that envelops you the further you read. The mystery surrounding Sabrina’s death holds up the bones of the story, with Mackenzie’s dreams providing the primary source of terror.

Johns told Quill & Quire in an interview at the time of the book’s release that her inspiration for Bad Cree was a direct response to her creative writing teacher at the University of British Columbia telling his class to “never write about their dreams” in novels. She clearly disagreed, forming her central conceit around the idea. Johns’ writing style captivates with phrases that are blunt enough to convey to the average 20-something’s brain but without reading ironic in its approach to Mackenzie’s horrific situation.

The book’s characters are its strongest point, with Johns weaving intricate family dynamics throughout her protagonist’s memories and embracing magical realism as the fitting vehicle for a haunting story exploring the a family’s grief and intergenerational trauma from settler-colonialism. (Mo Charnot)

The Road to Roswell

By Connie Willis

Del Rey, June 2023

In an April 2021 New Yorker magazine story, staff writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus traced the trajectory of spaceships from punchline to serious government business. Roswell, New Mexico appears in the third paragraph of that story, naturally, where—as the story goes—an alien spaceship crashed in 1947: “Conspiracy theorists believed that vaguely anthropomorphic bodies had been recovered there, and that the crash debris had been entrusted to private military contractors, who raced to unlock alien hardware before the Russians could.”

Flash forward to just last month when a former Air Force intelligence officer testified before Congress the government has been reverse-engineering unidentified flying objects and has possessed proof of extraterrestrial life since the 1930s (claims the Pentagon vociferously denies) and a group of US senators (including US Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM) proposed legislation requiring the government to make its UFO records public.

Science-fiction Hall of Fame member and multiple Nebula and Hugo award-winning author Connie Willis enters this real-world UFO landscape with her newest novel, The Road to Roswell, which is as much a road-trip, rom-com Western as it is an exploration of alien conspiracies. In this case, the truth is not so much out there as in protagonist Francie’s car. She’s arrived in Roswell to attend her college roommate Serena’s wedding to a UFO “nut job,” which will be UFO themed and, Francie hopes, canceled by her friend once she comes to her senses. Before that can happen, Francie must travel to Roswell from Albuquerque, no small feat given that the wedding coincides with the (real) UFO Festival. Willis writes:

“Main Street was jammed with people setting up kiosks and banners reading GET YOUR ALIEN TATTOOS HERE, SPACE BURGERS, and E.T. SUNRISES—EXTRA TEQUILA, and setting out racks of alien repellent, UFO key chains, bumper stickers, magnets, mouse pads, coffee mugs, cookie jars, Beanie Babies, baseball caps, NEW MEXICO—LAND OF ABDUCTIONS and WHAT HAPPENS IN ROSWELL GETS SHIPPED TO AREA 51 T-shirts, and vile-looking fluorescent green snow cones and cotton candy.”

If this sounds fun, it is. But no sooner has Francie cynically surveyed Roswell, an alien shaped like a tumbleweed abducts her and she becomes part of a small gang of fellow abductees who ultimately decide to help the alien and teach him how to communicate with humans. Along the way, Willis unpacks a slew of Western tropes and gently probes (pun intended) the underlying fears that drive people to view the unknown as enemies rather than fellow travelers. (JG)

Into The Light

By Mark Oshiro

March 2023, Tor Teen

Readers feel a certain tension followed by a sense of urgency when first entering the world of queer Latinx author Mark Oshiro’s Into The Light.

The novel tells the story of Manny, an unhoused, gay 17-year-old who has spent the past year alone traveling around different parts of the Southwest after escaping from his past. A second side to the tale reveals Manny’s life as Eli Sullivan, an adopted child sent to cult-like religious organization Christ’s Dominion’s Reconciliation camp to be “saved” by the Deacon, the head figure of the church.

While Manny initially never wants to return to the life he left behind, he gains interest after seeing a news story about a body being found at the last place he saw his sister Elena, with whom he moved from foster placement to foster placement growing up. With the help of the Varelas, a family spending their life on the road for similar motives, Manny embarks on the journey to Idyllwild, California, to confront his fears. Plus, there’s a small queer romance subplot and an unexpected surprise at the end.

Queer people battling religious trauma, beware! Oshiro delivers a bit of a gut punch at times. Through a choppy, yet succinct writing style and frequent leaps between time, he paints a beautifully haunting picture of the American foster care system at the crossroads with Christian nationalism while also adding commentary to conversations on homelessness and race.

At its highest, Into The Light is a sweeping body of work that leads readers to every piece of the puzzle in an engaging way. Combine that with a few uncomfortable yet enlightening moments, and the author delivers a memorable reading experience. Apart from the Southwest setting, New Mexico receives several direct nods from Oshiro in the form of a man named Cesar. Manny meets him at a rest stop in Las Cruces and learns rules on how to survive from him.

Publishers classified the book as young adult, but with such raw descriptions and complex themes filling over 400 pages, it’s a good read for those of any adult age as well. Mystery lovers will appreciate how the author slowly unravels information, leaving readers to assemble the story in a puzzle-like fashion. (Evan Chandler)


Nuclear Nuevo México: Colonialism and the Effects of the Nuclear Industrial Complex on Nuevomexicanos

By Myrriah Gómez

November 2022, University of Arizona Press

All New Mexicans are familiar with descansos—the roadside crosses or family-made markers that line daily commute paths with reminders of loved ones tragically or violently lost. But as Myrriah Gomez reveals in her exhaustively researched and deeply upsetting Nuclear Nuevo México: Colonialism and the Effects of the Nuclear Industrial Complex on Nuevomexicanos, markers of the collective grief which New Mexicans inherit from the nuclear industry our state birthed remain mostly out sight.

If we layfolk could drive behind the barbed wire and multiple gates offsetting Los Alamos National Laboratory’s S-Site from the general public, we’d find a lab-made memorial listing the names of four nuevomexicano men and the date Oct. 14, 1959. The locals lost their lives that morning when explosive scrap metal they were preparing for a lab-ordered burn detonated—instantly covering that same barbed wire with pieces of flesh from bodies that were never returned to their families in the Española Valley.

Unlike LANL’s famous Demon Core incidents, which killed two white, non-New Mexican scientists in 1945 and 1946, stories like that of the S-Site burning ground never made it to the pages of high school New Mexico History textbooks (let alone into the three-hour runtime of Christopher Nolan’s recent Oppenheimer).

Gomez offers a place-specific antidote to such lacunas—tackling in order the forced removal of New Mexicans from the Pajarito Plateau to make way for Site Y, Española Valley labor and fatalities in early days of the lab, the exclusion of nuevomexicanos from the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and the formation of (and local resistance to) Southeastern New Mexico’s so-called “nuclear corridor.” And as an academic text, Nuclear Nuevo México presents a formidable and data-rich response to the hunger for alternative histories emerging in the wake of Nolan’s exclusively scientist-focused flick.

But the book is at its best and most potent in the introduction and conclusion, where Gomez wraps her research in a deeply personal context. Dropping her formal style and reverting to first person, she invites us into the funeral service for her own cousin, exposed to radiation from his work at the lab and dead of multiple-organ failure before his 42nd birthday. With all the sensitivity and specificity of lived experience, she guides readers through the Gordian maze of emotions that comes from being financially dependent on the same institutions which poison you. And she closes her brief but dense text by directly including her New Mexican readers, asserting:

“I want the world to know that we exist, that we continue to be among the communities targeted by the nuclear industrial complex, and that we refuse to be its victims.” (Siena Sofia Bergt)

Brave the Wild River

By Melissa L Sevigny

Norton, May 2023

Two botanists who cataloged plant life along the Colorado River in 1938 had no way of knowing their work would be some of the first and last scientific research of its kind before the US government embarked on its foolhardy mission to harness the river with a series of dams. But they had some inkling the plans to dam the canyons would change the area’s ecology forever.

Prolonged drought and historic low water levels have renewed national attention on the Colorado, creating a fitting time for Brave the Wild River, which documents the work of Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter and provides them overdue recognition.

While Clover and Jotter received publicity when they embarked on their excursion, newspapers, radio and magazines at the time fixated more on the women’s gender than their botanical mission. Sexism in science didn’t stop them, author Melissa Sevigny writes, as “both women woke before dawn each day, cooked breakfast, stowed their bedrolls, and sometimes even collected and pressed a few plants before any of the men opened their eyes.” (And that’s after staying up to press plants by flashlight the night before.)

Using original source material such as personal journals and letters, Sevigny employs Jotter and Clover as narrators for the larger story of the Colorado River in the last century and also unpacks their tenacity on the trip in wooden boats that lasted 43 days and covered 600 miles.

On a whitewater route that witnessed the demise of many explorers before them, they not only survived, but found two previously unclassified species of cacti and helped refine ecological theories about how groups of plants respond to their environments. “Here is a case,” they wrote, “where drought vies with flood waters in exterminating plants struggling for existence in a trying situation.”

Botanists who today are mapping the plant life as water levels drop at Glen Canyon Dam return to the women, as their papers served as “benchmarks in botanical research along the Colorado River.” Their work is included in a popular book still carried by river guides.

The author seldom leaves Clover and Jotter’s side as she takes an enchanted, descriptive approach to the natural world and offers insightful analysis on the evolution of the river from Indigenous seasonal territory to a constructed “vast desert empire” of concrete, steel and stone. (Julie Ann Grimm)

Queen of Snails

By Maureen Burdock

Graphic Mundi, November 2022

Though it would be reductive to compare graphic artist Maureen Burdock’s late-2022 illustrated memoir to the likes of Craig Thompson’s 2003 opus Blankets or even Art Spiegelman’s enduring Maus, Burdock presents her life story in Queen of Snails with a moving vulnerability among the best in the format. In fact, Burdock, who today lives in Santa Fe, does her forebears proud while imparting a lesson or two of her own.

She begins by opening that perilous can of worms known as the past. In its broadest strokes, Snails tells the tale of culture shock and fortitude, from a 7-year-old Burdock’s mother unceremoniously ripping her from her homeland of Germany following a failed marriage to the author’s experiences with subpar American schools, would-be kidnappers, eating disorders, shaky housing situations, taekwondo lessons, museum obsession and, ultimately, perhaps unexpectedly, self-acceptance. Love, Burdock posits, might sprout and flourish from just about anywhere, even the most seemingly hostile environs—and it is so beautifully freeing to finally understand the ways in which we’re all just works in progress.

Burdock artfully segues from bucolic Germanic origins—solo park trips at an age unthinkable in America; a forest to explore; a loving grandmother with the best backhendl recipe ever; and the deceptively stalwart snails in the garden—to the strange worlds of Nazi sympathizing family members with possible ties to the Hitler Youth, the dizzying highs of big city Chicago and the terrifying lows of remote rural American life.

She leaves no stone unturned in a sojourn through her memories both good and bad, and though readers get to know the author, or at least the events that have shaped her motivations, it feels more like she gets to know herself. This is aspirational, or certainly inspirational, a lesson in how and why people erect walls around their hearts, but also in how to demolish them.

The timing might never be right, but if readers aim to discover the bits and pieces that make up identity, if they’re hoping to discover how to fit into the world while making room for love, riding shotgun throughout Burdock’s bizarre, tear-jerking, heartwarming experiences serves as a wise place to start. Someplace between her range of realist and surrealist illustrations, we might feel a little less like we are alone. Maybe we can summon the bravery of the snail: Move slowly but purposefully, bear your fragile parts regardless of the world’s hurts, carry home with you wherever you go. (Alex De Vore)

Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad

By Steven Kolter

Harper Wave, February 2023

Steven Kolter doesn’t like to talk shop on the chair lift. He’d rather hear about the best run of the day or where to find the deep powder. He will avoid chatting about flow science, neurochemicals, cognitive states or any of the other topics on which he trains corporate leaders and or advises athletes.

Yet, in-between heartstopping chutes and soaring, spinning tricks, rides on the chairlift do help him put his peak-performance aging strategies to the test.

Need a pep talk about getting older? Look no further. “Fragility,” he writes in Gnar Country, “is often a choice. If we train for old age like professional athletes, then we can offset significant physical decline and unlock serious help improvements.”

Four of Kolter’s 14 earlier books have hit The New York Times best-seller list, including The Art of Impossible in 2021, and he was wrapping up another one during the time when he embarked on the task that would become the subject matter of Gnar Country. His very early writing career included work for Freeze, which he describes as “the nation’s first extreme skiing magazine,” laying the groundwork for colorful language that makes the sport come alive in this new work.

Short journal entries help make Gnar a page turner. The structure follows not just the arc of his learning, but other familiar milestones, such as the crippling COVID-19 shutdowns in the spring of 2020, followed by summer wildfires that kept him from June turns on Mt. Hood.

“My seething rage at the shuttered ski resorts was growing dangerously worse,” he writes. “I was angry at the world. I was angry at God. What would make this okay? That was the question I kept asking myself.”

Kolter settles on learning how to park ski at the age of 53 as his answer to that question. And not merely a casual attempt at a couple jumps and spins, but a near maniac-level of dedication: to be steazy in the sick gnar.

Readers can escape sultry afternoons with Kolter’s descriptions of dozens of icy chutes, powdery bowls, face-splitting winds (and even a nod to Ski Santa Fe) without ever desiring to give it a try, but they might find his life and career coaching slipping into their approaches to some other hurdle.

“Flow follows focus,” he writes. “The state can only arise when all our attention is locked on the task at hand. And we pay the most attention to a task when its challenge level is slightly greater than the skills we bring to it.” (JAG)

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