A New Mexico Mystery Review: Stargazer by Anne Hillerman

The protagonists have kept this series strong for years. Hillerman develops them further with each book. As an elder, Joe Leaphorn is still growing and learning. Bernie Manuelito and Jim Chee navigate the challenges of their police work and their marriage. And the new characters are memorable and deep. The multiple suspects in the crime were all plausible, and I was never sure who was responsible until near the end. The settings are intriguing. The Alamo Navajo Reservation near Socorro, New Mexico is a lesser known section of the Navajo Nation, yet still part of the nation and its culture. Also near Socorro is the Very Large Array, the site of high tech studies of the stars. The victim, a scientist who worked there—the star gazer of the title—is revealed in depth as a person.

Anne Hillerman has knack for creating colorful, utterly real, and very regional people as minor characters, also. Bernie’s attempt to serve a warrant on Melvin Shorty presents one of these gems. And how Shorty behaves in the end is true to the way he and Bernie met as human beings, not just as officer and law breaker.

Hillerman gives realistic complexity to the characters’ lives. Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito are never dealing with just one case. There’s a primary mystery plot, but there are other demands on their professional time as well, including a painfully sad case Bernie stumbles across while attempting to deal with stray cattle. The leads’ private lives are not neglected by the author or the characters. I like having fully functional sleuths. They attend to their relationships and friendships, not just their work.

The author’s prior writing career in nonfiction serves her well. She integrates research  fluidly as needed, resulting in a poetic balance between the science at the Very Large Array and Bernie’s Navajo view of the stars and constellations.

The ending is satisfying. Major issues are wrapped up, yet the reader is left thinking about the characters’ future plans.

No spoilers, but Joe Leaphorn’s encounter with a child who is traveling alone is wonderful. And if you read the author’s notes at the end, that scene gets even better. Hillerman’s notes are as good as the story, as she shares more about the Very Large Array, Navajo cosmology, and her writing process.

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Treasure of Victoria Peak

This true story would make a great movie, featuring a hidden treasure and a huge cast of characters trying to get hold of it despite the claim of the stubborn widow of the original finder, Doc Noss.

Doc, a Cheyenne foot doctor of no known medical credentials, had an office in what was then Hot Springs, now Truth or Consequences. He was reputed to be skilled in treating foot ailments, whether or not he was real doctor. Once he found treasure while out deer hunting, his life changed, and not for the better. He had a lot to worry about—more gold and ancient Spanish artifacts than he could remove from the cavern in Victorio Peak. (The mountain is named after Victorio, the Apache war chief. I’m not sure how or why Koury or perhaps his publisher renamed it Victoria.)

The book chronicles Doc Noss’s adventures, his sudden and dramatic death, court case after court case, subsequent treasure searches, and Ova Noss’s years of fighting to retain her right to the treasure and get permission to dig it up. Once the peak was made part of the White Sands Missile Range, Mrs. Noss had to go up against everyone from the U.S. military and F. Lee Bailey to the woman who claimed to be her late husband’s other widow.

Attorney for Mrs. Noss Phil H. Koury has a penchant for detail. As you might expect, he tells his story with an emphasis on the legal battles, but it’s never dull or confusing, and he has a humorous flair. He recounts the treasure hunt scenes he witnessed with apt observations of character and settings. The process of solving this mystery during a time when communication was slower increases the suspense. I rooted for Mrs. Noss all the way. Since this is a true story, the plot doesn’t necessarily turn the way a work of fiction would, but that makes it no less compelling.

 

Observer

A friend who organizes the T or C Story Lab invited me to be a story teller later this fall. I was honored, but I couldn’t think of an episode in my life that would make a good story. I find listening to others, observing nature, and studying the world more compelling than my personal history. I feel like this cat, perched on an arch overlooking an alley, self-contained and interested. Paying attention, not seeking it.

Another cat in the neighborhood climbs onto parked cars on the street, mewing at the top of her lungs, begging to be petted. I comply with her demands, but I am not that cat. The concept of the Story Lab isn’t to be that cat, either. It’s to share yourself and connect with the community. I love the idea. I’ve appreciated it as a member of the audience. But I still have no story. Yet. Perhaps I’ll jump down and discover one.

Blue Grasshopper

The opening chapter of Work as a Spiritual Practice features a shiny blue grasshopper landing on the head of a statue of the Buddha. I read and reread the book often and finally gave it away when I retired and moved. Since then, I’ve reflected on its lessons, such as awareness of the task itself as meditation, being present to one’s steps and breath even when rushing, and keystroke meditation. But I never saw a blue grasshopper until today.

Silvery blue and coral pink against the gray of a monsoon season sky, it struck me as too beautiful to be real. It also struck me as sign, a reminder to make all my work—writing, yoga teaching, community volunteer work, housework, my to-do list, everything—more of a spiritual practice.

T or sCenery

I do my best to capture the colorful character of my town in my books, describing enough to give a flavor of the setting and to ground the story in a place. For fun, I’m sharing a little more of what makes Truth or Consequences unique. A full tour would take many blog posts. If you enjoy this glimpse, I’ll do another T or sCenery post in the future.

The mural above is in an alley beside the Pink Pelican, a portion of the Pelican Spa. Mae Martin book six, Death Omen, has many scenes set at the Pelican.

New murals pop up all the time, many in unexpected places. This one is an an alley across from the the main Pelican Spa building.The wild fence below is on Riverside Drive, near Niall and Marty’s fictitious house which has an eccentric, art-embellished wall. (The mirror shot is as close as I’ve ever come to a selfie.) The guitars on the fence, and the hats that used to crown it, gave me the idea for the fence and gate at Joe Wayne’s house in Snake Face. (His fence is far tamer than this, though.) One of my neighbors claims this is not the weirdest fence in T or C. He says that his bears that distinction. I’ll have to take its picture and few others for a future post and let you decide.

 

A New Mexico Mystery Author Interview: Kaye George

I’m a huge fan of the People of the Wind series. It’s a pleasure to have Kaye George as my guest today to talk about the latest book in the series, Death in the New Land, which I recently reviewed.

BIO: Kaye George, award-winning novelist and short-story writer, writes cozy and traditional mysteries and a prehistory series, which are both traditionally and self-published: two cozy series, Fat Cat and Vintage Sweets; two traditionals featuring Cressa Carraway and Imogene Duckworthy; and the People of the Wind prehistory Neanderthal mysteries.  Over fifty of her short stories have also appeared, mostly in anthologies and magazines. She reviews for Suspense Magazine and writes a column for Mysterical-E. She lives in Knoxville TN.

AF: What drew you to writing about prehistory? And about Neanderthals in particular?

KG: I became more and more excited about Neanderthals after the genome was first sequenced and so much was being learned about them, almost every week. About that time, I read something in a short story magazine by a guy who writes an ancient Roman character. Someone asked him why he wrote about Romans and he said that he thinks the further back you go, the better. I remember saying this out loud. “I can go WAY further back than that.” The idea was born and I started working on it.

AF: The language you use in the narration of this series is unique. Simple, a bit formal, and lacking certain constructions normal to English such as “taller.” The Hamapa concept is “more tall.” Did the speech patterns come to you intuitively? Did you construct them consciously?

KG: I had many versions of the language, both in narration and in their communication. At the time, I lived in Austin and had an excellent critique group who met in a book store every week. I brought version after version to them and most did not work.

When I started in on this, the thinking was that Neanderthals could not speak. I also knew that their brains were larger than ours. To solve both those problems, I decided to give them telepathy, using that brain. I was reading Temple Grandin and learned that she thinks in pictures rather than words. She also posits that animals think in pictures. Ms. Grandin is autistic and a renowned animal handler. A cattleman was having trouble getting his animals to enter a narrow, dark passage and he appealed to her for help. She immediately saw that the passage was dark, and had confusing light in it. When the animals could see clearly where they were going, they went with no problems at all.

This made me think that my Neanderthals should communicate solely with pictures. You can imagine how cumbersome that was! It didn’t work at all. Then newer theories came out that they probably could talk. Their voice boxes did not last all those thousands of years to be fossilized, which was the basis for the first theory, but the second one is based on the fact that they did actually have all the structures to be able to speak.

One early reader told me she didn’t want to see modern people dressed as Neanderthals in my books. I didn’t either! I had to give them a language at this point. I studied how children first learn to speak, how people who have trouble speaking are helped, and what the universal sounds are among many languages. I gave them a language with sounds in the front of the mouth, which are easiest to pronounce. But I didn’t have them speaking very much because I still like the telepathy idea.

As for the narrative, I wanted it to convey something of another time, a vastly different time. So I made my own grammar rules. No contractions, nor –er and –est comparatives, and a few more. I wanted it to be slightly stilted, but readable. I hope I accomplished that.

AF: What was the hardest part of writing this book? And what was the most fun?

KG: I guess the research is both, the hardest and the most fun. At least the most rewarding anyway. I do find creating my characters and following them through their lives and adventures satisfying also. But the best of all of this is having fans like you who appreciate the series.

AF: Thank you. Your fictional Neanderthal tribe, the Hamapa, migrate to the place that later became New Mexico. What made you choose this location?

KG: I’m not sure. I did calculations using Google maps to see how far they could get in a day, at my best guesstimate anyway. I found a detailed study of the terrain in that area, around Tucumcari Mountain, so I knew I could portray it accurately, as it was those thousands of years ago. I also liked the idea of the mountain, or mesa, itself, because it’s so distinctive looking. I thought that I could describe it accurately (it hasn’t changed much since then, except for what grows there and lives there) and people could figure out where this was. I actually pictured having it on the cover, but my publisher came up with such a good one, that I let that idea go.

AF: Your research is impressive, and I appreciate the way you share tidbits of it at the beginnings of chapters. Is there anything you learned that you wish you’d been able to fit into a book but couldn’t—some favorite fact or discovery you’d like to share?

KG: I’ve mentioned my love for the mega fauna of the last Ice Age. I have a bare mention of giant beavers in a legend told by the Storyteller, and a meeting with a glyptodont in the new land, but I wish I could cram a lot more of these fascinating animals into the plots. It’s hard to make up reasons to stick them in there! What would be fun would be movies of these with the mega fauna portrayed on a big screen. Or a little one, if people are watching at home.

AF: You’ve blended history with fiction, with deviations from the record in some cases and adherence to the facts in others. How did you choose this blend?

KG: My one main deviation, as I’ve said, it locating the tribe in what is now North America, and locating a bunch of other types of people there also. These all did live concurrently on this planet, but many did not meet each other. I liked to think about what would happen if they did, so I wrote that. My other “invention” isn’t a deviation, since the social structure isn’t known, and probably never will be. But the matriarchal society is my idea, kind of as a feminist, and kind of for logical reasons.

In everything else, I try to stick to the facts as we know them. What their art and dwellings were like, how they hunted, how they lived, what they ate and wore, clothing and burial methods. The ancient flute is controversial, but I took the stance that it was an actual instrument and that they made it and used it.

AF: The Hamapa are a female-led society. Can you share your process in creating the roles they assign to females and to males?

KG: I wanted an elder female for the leader, and she had to have a mate, even though she didn’t always keep the same one. When I decided to give them handed-down folklore, I had to have a person designated to learn it and to tell it, so that’s the Storyteller. It made sense that one person would know the most about healing herbs and practices, so she’s the Healer. Her son may one day succeed her, and none of the other roles aside from leader are gender specific. One guy is the best at flint knapping, one at making clothing, several are the best at throwing spears, and one is innately good at tracking people and animals. And, since fire was probably very important to them, one person is assigned to be the Firetender as his full time job. I tried not to have strict division of labor, but for people to naturally find where their talents lie.

AF: I know you have multiple series to keep up with, but this one is my personal favorite. Will there be another People of the Wind book?

KG: I’m ending this one so it can wrap up and end the series. I’m not saying I won’t write another one, but I’m not planning on it now. These are intense and difficult to pull together and, although I love doing them, I’ll take a break and maybe think about it later.

AF: Is there anything you wish I’d asked you but didn’t? Feel free to answer that question now.

KG: I might mention how hard it was to get this published. When you write the only series in a genre, no one knows what to do with it. I queried every agent on the planet and it was well-received, but no contracts. One agent told me she loved it, it’s “better than Jean Auel” (author of the Clan of the Cave Bear books), but that she had no idea how to sell it (to a publisher). I wanted to tell them to look at Harry Potter and maybe try harder, but I didn’t. I finally found a publisher who loves the series and has done everything they can for me and for these books. I couldn’t be happier than I am at Untreed Reads, unless I could sell a million copies. Somehow.

AF: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I appreciate getting an inside look at these books.

*****

To purchase books by Kaye George, click here.

Visit Kaye’s website

 

Monsoon Season

The gray on the horizon isn’t wildfire smoke anymore. It’s rain. Heavy, thick clouds bearing blessings. Everything is new. Everything has changed. Turtleback Mountain wore a double rainbow this week instead of a brown haze, and every wrinkle in its rocky skin was visible when sunset sliced through the clouds, painting the mountain gold.
The sand in the desert is damp, dotted with the footprints of raindrops, marked with flowing rivulets and the slender tracks of snakes. A humble puddle is a miracle. A wet lizard clings to a rock, trying to get warm. I feel a bit sorry for him. He looks grumpy. But I’m joyful. Monsoon season. It’s always a cause for gratitude and awe, and this year even more than ever.

A Poem for the Burning Times

As many of you may know, New Mexico is enduring two enormous wildfires. One of them, the Black Fire in the Gila National Forest, started on May 13, 2022 and has consumed 296, 895 acres so far.  The first rain in many months fell today in brief scattered storms, giving us hope for an early monsoon season. As the storm found me at the tail end of my run, I was overjoyed to be pelted with huge drops and to see the horizon blurred by clouds of moisture instead of clouds of smoke. It was nowhere near enough, but it was a start.

The title of the poem below comes from a phrase in the Forest Service updates on the fire.

 Human Caused, Under Investigation

 In the first days after the start of the fire,

Two friends and I found ghost leaves.

One leaf each.

Perfect, charred-black, carried on the wind to land

In their hands

or at my feet

and then crumble.

The last words of dying trees.

 

Memorial Day weekend, 2022, Elephant Butte Lake State Park, New Mexico.

Smoke rolls along the northwest horizon.

A truck rolls down the road at the top of the hill, two giant American flags flapping.

The flags at the park hang at half staff

For the victims of more mass shootings.

Buffalo. Uvalde.

A bend in the trail leads toward blue sky.

Then it curves back toward the haze.

 

A smoke-red sun glows sick and strange

between the branches of an old desert juniper.

A cloud of tiny wings,

A crowd of western pygmy blues,

the world’s smallest butterfly,

flutters in the arms of the tree

Rising

Like the souls of dead children.

 

 

New Release: Chloride Canyon, Mae Martin Book Eight

Chloride Canyon

 The eighth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

Could a faked haunting in a ghost town stir up a real one?

Mae Martin’s college summer session is off to a rough start. A classmate is out to make her life miserable. Her English professor is avoiding her. And the Paranormal Activities Club plans to investigate her psychic abilities. Her boyfriend, Jamie, is on a song-writing retreat in the ghost town of Chloride, New Mexico, population fourteen humans, twenty-three cats, and—supposedly—zero ghosts. He’s working with a famous friend who doesn’t want Mae, or anyone, to visit. But then Jamie’s neighbor claims her house is haunted, and Mae has to learn who’s behind the frightening events—the living, or the dead.

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

Buy

Reading a Series: In Order or All Over the Place?

Usually, I read series in order. I want to get to know the characters the way the author developed them. It’s like growing close to friends over many years of shared experiences. Starting late in the series doesn’t let me build the same relationships. Once in a while, I’ve borrowed an audiobook from the library that was far along in a series I’d not yet read, and while I enjoyed the books, I often didn’t go back to the beginnings. Some authors write their series so there are virtually no spoilers if you discover the books out of sequence. A few others provide what I feel is such an excess of backstory that I turn off that audiobook and lose interest in how the series began.

Needless to say, this makes me cautious with backstory, trying to give as little as possible. With each new book, I find a new beta reader to join the team, one who hasn’t yet read my other books. That person’s fresh perspective helps me present the small doses of necessary backstory at the moment they’re needed—for new readers, for readers who’ve forgotten elements of earlier books, and for those who are zigzagging around in the series.

I’ve heard from people who started my series somewhere after book one, The Calling. One wanted to start with Shaman’s Blues, because it’s the book in which Mae Martin moves to New Mexico. Another started with Ghost Sickness because of the setting on the Mescalero Apache reservation. Others started with book six, Death Omen, because of its theme—fraud and exploitation in spiritual healing. And they liked the books out of order. I never asked if they went back to book one, though.

I wrote the suite of six short mysteries, Gifts and Thefts, to bridge the year and a half between the end of Shadow Family and the beginning of Chloride Canyon. Because it’s numbered book 7.5, Amazon doesn’t list this book on my series page. They have Gifts and Thefts off by itself as it were a stand-alone book. The other major online bookstores, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Apple, are more flexible about numbering and include book 7.5 on the series page. So, if you are a read-it-in-order person and buy from Amazon, heads up. There’s a book between seven and eight. It’s short, and you can finish it before book eight, Chloride Canyon, comes out at the end of the month.

Do you only read series in order? If you start with a later book, do you go back to the beginning? I’m curious how others relate to series.