Book Review: Bless Me, Ultima by RudolfoAnaya

The narrator, Antonio, is an intelligent, spiritually-inclined boy, the youngest of a large family in rural New Mexico. The villages and the land around them are drawn with depth and beauty. That’s the strongest aspect of this book: the spirit of the place. Trees, river, lake, sky, and soil are alive.

The tensions between farming and the restless life, between Christianity and earth-based spirituality, between compassion and cruelty, dark magic and healing magic, make up the drama of the book. Though the protagonist is a child, this is in no way a children’s book. Tony witnesses adults at their violent worst several times, as well as at their courageous best. The scenes of healing and of curses are extraordinary. Anaya’s portrait of the culture he grew up in is masterful.

Tony’s spiritual maturation is true to the ways of childhood, as he searches for answers to questions about the nature of God, of justice, and of mysterious things. The friendships of childhood, and the cruelties and sheer awfulness of some children, are real and vivid. A number of the characters are one-dimensional—Tony’s mother, his sisters, and most of the girls at school—but this is how they’re seen through the eyes of a young boy. Ultima, the curandera, is idealized, the essence of her kind of spirituality, and the tavern-owner Tenorio is the opposite, the dark force. In between is Tony’s friend Cico, who introduces him to a mystical divinity in nature. Cico is just another boy, but he’s one who knows a sacred secret.

The dream sequences are long though beautifully written. The children’s Christmas play runs on a bit, too, with no real contribution to the story—I think the author must have found it funnier than I did. All in all, though, the story is intense and compelling except for those sections, and made me feel even more deeply connected with this place I live, this place I love, New Mexico.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Murder at the Petroglyphs by Patricia Smith Wood

Once again, Patricia Smith Wood has crafted an intricate puzzle of a mystery. In short, tight chapters, she reveals the discovery of a death, and the process of solving how a body came to be where it was—but this is no simple question of who done it. The twists and surprises keep coming. Wood’s books always give my brain a good workout trying to follow the clues. The relationships among her cast of professional and amateur sleuths makes the involvement of amateurs more plausible than in the average amateur sleuth mystery. Another reason to get involved is this: Harrie McKinsey has prophetic dreams, and in one of them she sees the dead body at Petroglyphs National Monument.

There are so many facets to the mystery, so many contributing investigators—FBI, CIA, and Albuquerque Police Department, as well as Harrie and her friends and colleagues at her editing service—Wood did well not to have major subplots. It’s unusual in what is technically a cozy mystery, but it was the right choice. Most cozies have romantic subplots, but the central characters here are in established relationships. Most cozies are comic. Though many of the characters in this book display a natural and engaging sense of humor, it isn’t a comic mystery. It’s cozy in the sense of limiting onstage violence and having amateur participation, with much mystery-solving taking place over dinner or coffee.

I enjoyed the various Albuquerque settings, from restaurants to major parks like the Petroglyphs to local secrets like the Hidden Park, and even an airfield used by drone enthusiasts.

Many scenes take place at Southwest Editing Services, Harrie’s business. I was surprised at the importance of paper copies as well as electronic copies of manuscripts in a professional editing service. I’d thought paper was a thing of the past, but apparently not. I learned something.

I would have liked a stronger thread connecting the opening and the ending. The title, the cover, the first chapter, and park ranger Nick Ellis’s deep connection to the spirits of the ancient ones made me expect more continuity on this theme. In fact, I initially expected a different kind of story altogether. Harrie doesn’t come across as having a mystical connection to the land and its history, so the sudden transfer of what has been Nick’s spiritual experience to her felt as if an editor said to bring that theme back. Harrie is already psychic about her life and family, and having her new dream come from the spirits struck me as out of character. A couple of backstory chapters and a few chunks of expository dialogue also felt like afterthoughts or requests for additions, rather than integral parts of the otherwise tightly woven plot.

The wrap-up of the mystery plot was one-hundred-percent unexpected, even though I figured out the borders of the puzzle. The explanation scene is realistic and well-structured. (I’m always grateful when a book doesn’t have one of these clichéd confessions from a killer holding protagonist at gunpoint.) Wood has real skill with crowd scenes. She can juggle six or eight people in a scene and never let the reader forget any of them.

Complexity is what she does best. If you like a mystery that puts your mind to work, you’ll enjoy this one.

Book Review: New Mexico Ghost Stories by Antonio Garcez

The land of enchantment is full of ghosts. Some of them scare you; some are just showing up for work. This book starts off with Santa Fe, where apparently some of the scariest ghosts in the state reside. A few are bland, but many of them are hair-raising and bone-chilling. Other parts of the state have some dark and terrifying ghosts as well, but not in such concentration.

Hospitals are, as one might expect, often haunted, as are private homes. However businesses, especially restaurants, have a disproportionate share of ghosts. A frequent pattern in haunting emerges. The former proprietor or employee of a business, or the former resident of place that’s now a business, stays around and does innocuous but strange things. I’m sure these events are startling and even frightening when experienced individually, but after a while, I began to wonder why deceased women tend to haunt in white dresses and red dresses. And why female business owners in particular are most inclined to keep showing up for work after they die.

There are a few gentle, loving ghosts who come back to visit family, and even the ghost of a monkey who died on his way to be in a circus.

The author occasionally spends too much time, in my opinion, on background stories that aren’t ghost stories, but for readers unfamiliar with New Mexico, this is probably valuable material. His writing style can be clunky in places, and he overuses exclamation marks, but it’s a minor flaw in an otherwise rich and intriguing book. He collected the stories one by one through interviews with people who experienced each ghost, and his accounts of these meetings give depth to the tales.

*****

Yes, I know this is not remotely holiday-themed, but I finished the book and wanted to review it. I wish all my readers the best of the holiday season, in whatever way you celebrate it.