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'The Bookseller’ is impressive first novel

Denver author brings world of 1960s to life


Writer Cynthia Swanson has juggled several worlds during the seven years when she was completing her first novel, “The Bookseller,” which was published March 3. The Denver author has written and published short stories, married and become mother to three children, and worked as a designer in the mid-century modern style.

All the pieces fit into the atmosphere she creates as she draws a reader into a complex tale of one woman — Kitty/Katharyn — living two lives in 1960s Denver.

Kitty is a single late-30s bookseller in a store called Sisters, which she owns with her longtime friend Frieda. She can pretty much do as she pleases — go out after work, read all night, only being sure her cat Aslan (named after the lion in “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”) had his food and occasional dish of milk. She lives in a Denver duplex near the store and walks or bikes everywhere, enjoying an urban lifestyle.

But when she goes to sleep, sometimes she becomes Katharyn (her given name) and lives in very nice mid-century modern suburban home in south Denver, with an adoring husband Lars, an architect and blond triplets — one of whom is autistic.

Swanson spent many hours at Denver Public Library reading and researching details of daily life in 1960s Denver. Colors and furniture in the suburban home are on target, as are details of lifestyle, foods, cosmetics, clothing and accessories.

When she’s in bookstore mode, the day’s best-sellers are on the shelf, and recommended to customers — in adult and children’s titles. (“Ship of Fools” by Katherine Anne Porter, “The King’s Persons” by local author Joanne Greenberg, “Fail-Safe” by Burdick and Wheeler, “One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” by the beloved Dr. Seuss.) As Denver’s streetcar lines are dismantled, book customers turned to suburban shopping center stores and Sisters languishes.

The pair considers moving to new, shiny University Hills — which has since gone through another phase, as tastes changed again.

Swanson says she writes every day and has another book underway, a darker story set in the northern New York town where she grew up. When her children, now school-aged 10-year-old twins and a 7-year-old daughter, were younger, she would go to Stella’s Coffee House from 6 to 8 a.m. to work while her very supportive husband took care of the little people before he went to work.

Swanson said she had a cousin who was co-owner of a small bookstore in Wisconsin that gave her a start on a story idea. (She consulted with Joyce Meskis of Tattered Cover, where she appeared on March 3, and with this reporter, a former bookseller, for ideas on how earlier small stores were operated.)

She had a relative who had autistic traits, so she was somewhat familiar with the subject, then did research on it. Sadly, a 1960s psychology self-help book advised that autism was caused by poor mothering, which led to feelings of guilt for Katharyn as she tried to care for Michael, while the other two — a boy and a girl — thrived.

“The Bookseller” keeps a reader engaged until the final chapter, wondering if there will be any sort of resolution for our heroine. History lovers will enjoy this newly published novelist’s skillful attention to detail.

Meet Cynthia Swanson at 7 p.m. March 20 at The Book Bar, 4280 Tennyson St., Denver; 6 p.m. April 9 at the Bookworm in the Eagle County town of Edwards; and 6 p.m. May 9 at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, 1515 Race St., Denver.

She will travel to several other stores in the U.S. in the course of spring and summer family travel. (As a first-time author, her publisher, Harper, doesn’t invest in the coast-to-coast tours they give for established best-selling authors, although they help with publicity. But scoring a top publisher for a first book is a major accomplishment. We congratulate her and will watch for that next title.)


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