COMMENDABLE DISCRETION: A DETECTIVE NOVEL OF THE OLD WEST (2021)
By J. Hoolihan Clayton, Dog Soldier Press, 358 pages, $15.95
President Ulysses S. Grant sends Charles Wolfe Collins on a mission to identify the White men who are fighting alongside the Indians at the Battle of Little Bighorn in this work of historical fiction by Taos resident Juliana Clayton (Cree). In prose that is both economical and finely detailed, Clayton transports the reader back in time, to a world of gruff military men, cigar smoke, and the golden autumns of the American West. But the story isn’t typical of Westerns, nor of the ubiquitous Southwestern mystery novels in which White people write about Native Americans. This is researched history presented with a broad perspective. Collins, an Irish immigrant, sees echoes of British colonization in the American government’s inhumane treatment of Indigenous peoples. He sets off into the untamed Montana Territory with an Indian guide — a woman who won’t reveal her motives for helping him, nor tell him her real name.
EERIE NEW MEXICO (2020)
By Ray John de Aragón, The History Press, 160 pages, $21.99
Ghost sightings and other paranormal spirit activity were commonplace when Ray John de Aragón was growing up in Las Vegas, New Mexico. His mother warned him often about duendes, or “little goblins that can appear late at night,” and to be careful around arroyos at night, lest he be swept away by La Llorona, the “wailing woman” who is perpetually looking for her drowned children. In Eerie New Mexico, his numerous remembrances set the stage for other New Mexico folktales, ghost stories, and otherworldly visitations, which he traces to their historical roots and cultural interpretations, and tracks how the stories have changed over time. In this illustrated, first-person work, Aragón sometimes interrupts himself to address readers, whom he believes to have limited knowledge of New Mexico. These refreshingly abrupt passages are a welcome plea — in the midst of a history text — for the ignorant to learn about and accept the role that New Mexican Hispanics have had in creating the popular understanding of Latin American culture in North America. He also chastises the general public for conflating Mexico and New Mexico, taking the understandable stance that such confusion is both insulting and ridiculous.
DESTINY STRIKES TWICE: JAMES L. BREESE AVIATOR AND INVENTOR (2020)
By Larry Kilham, self-published, 138 pages, $14.95
James L. Breese (1885-1959) was the flight engineer on the first airplane to make it across the Atlantic, in 1919. Ten years later, Breese moved to Santa Fe, where, according to a biography written by his grandson, “he built an oil burner business with a portfolio of over 130 patents.” Breese was a prep school kid from Long Island, New York, a contemporary of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, who grew up during the Age of Invention, Kilham writes. Kilham has a charming narrative voice, but he lets Breese tell the story of the trans-Atlantic flight through diary entries from those fateful days, as well as letters from other family members, to supplement parts of his grandfather’s story. Breese built a home along the Santa Fe River, on Upper Canyon Road, that included workshop space and stables for horses. He and his family enjoyed Santa Fe in the 1930s, tromping through the woods between Upper Canyon and Cerro Gordo roads, getting to know their neighbors. Little bits of local history are brought back to life, such as the friendship between Breese and the painter Randall Davey (1887-1964), who lived up the road.
HOLDING ON TO HOPE (2020)
By Catalina Claussen, Progressive Rising Phoenix Press, 204 pages, $13.95
Set in a small town along the southern border of the United States, this young adult novel explores the friendships between teenagers Ana, Imani, and Rose. The narrative alternates from girl to girl in short, voice-driven chapters that reveal their inner lives, as well as the pressures they face at home and at school. Claussen has such a fine facility for dialogue, pacing, and interior monologue that the story would likely be engrossing no matter what it was about, but the highly topical plot involves immigration, ethnic and national identities, racism, family loyalty, and LGBTQ pride. There’s some mystery and intrigue to the story, and the characters come alive on the page as they grapple with the nonstop stream of stresses that teenagers face. There are fashion choices, crushes, celebrity gossip, and the surreal absurdity of trying to understand polynomials in math class while praying to God that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) doesn’t deport your family — or your math teacher.
RITES & WRONGS (2021)
By Holly Harrison, Golden Word Books, 300 pages, $14.95
Rites & Wrongs opens at the beginning of Holy Week, amid Santa Fe’s infamous spring winds — the dry, juniper-filled swirls of air that clog your head and make your nose bleed. The characters rising to action in this mystery include a born-and-raised New Mexican law enforcement officer, Pascal Ruiz, who is sick of the wind and totally on edge. He’s investigating the disappearance of an artsy type from elsewhere, Bobby Pilot — Ruiz’s cousin’s boyfriend — who was looking into the Penitentes, a secretive Catholic cult known for its reenactments of Jesus’ crucifixion. Harrison’s tale has all the necessary hallmarks of a genre mystery novel, but her prose is dense with a level of spot-on detail and psychological nuance that is uncommon for even some of the most well-known Southwestern-set mystery fare. She tackles cultural issues directly, and she doesn’t romanticize or mythologize the landscape or its people. Those familiar with the Santa Fe area will delight in seeing a long list of popular landmarks and traditions reflected in literature, including Abiquíu Lake, Santa Fe Opera, San Felipe Pueblo and the abandoned Tonque Pueblo, and the annual Easter pilgrimage to Chimayó.
— Jennifer Levin
THE ART OF MURDER (2020) by Peggy Van Hulsteyn, Outskirts Press, 334 pages, $26.95
Journalist Micaela Moskowitz returns to her hometown of Santa Fe to solve her sister’s murder.
ATOP THE WINDMILL: I COULD SEE FOREVER (2020) by Maria Dolores Gonzales, Lithexcel, 160 pages, $22
A fourth-generation Norteña recounts her rural childhood in this episodic memoir.
BEYOND THE RIO GILA (April 21, 2021) by Scott G. Hibbard, Five Star Publishing, 373 pages, $25.95
Historical fiction about the U.S. military’s longest march, which traversed New Mexico in 1846.
BLACK MESA BLUES (2020) by John Knoll, Spartan Press, 94 pages, $13
Short stories about sex, death, and anger, set in Northern New Mexico.
THE DOGS OF PINYON GLEN (2020) by Kat Sawyer, illustrated by Brandon McKinney, self-published, 152 pages, $15
Children’s book of rhyming verse about fun-loving dogs.
MISSISSIPPI MILKWATER (2020) by Sybil Pittman Estess, Alamo Bay Press, 178 pages, $18.95
A memoir by a Santa Fe resident about growing up in rural Mississippi, before the civil rights movement.
SACRED INK (2020) by David Snyder, Water Street Press, 254 pages, $15.99
A junkie tattoo artist joins Los Penitentes, a Catholic brotherhood known for acts of penance.
SAIGON TO PLEIKU: A COUNTERINTELLIGENCE AGENT IN VIETNAM’S CENTRAL HIGHLANDS, 1962-1963 (2020) by David Grant Noble, McFarland, 204 pages, $29.95
A memoir by a Santa Fe resident about his path from Army intelligence officer to political dissenter.
SANTA FE LOVE SONG (2021) by Amy Bess Cohen, self-published, 189 pages, $15
Historical fiction about a man torn between two loves on opposite sides of the United States.
UNDER THE RED TIN ROOF (2020) by Josephine Zamora Padilla, self-published, 127 pages, $14.95
A memoir and historical documentation about the author’s family.