A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O’Keefe

O'Keeffe cover 3

This is not an interstate kind of a story; it’s a back road drive with a raconteur at the wheel. There’s a wonderful pot in a remote place, and it takes a bit of a hike and some excavation to find it. Brush off another layer, and there it is, an intact marvel of original workmanship. The old pots which the narrator, Hubie Schuze, admires were made by hand, not on a wheel, and their shape shows it. Not perfect—and not meant to be. That’s part of their character. This book is not shaped like a standard mystery novel, either. Don’t expect it to be. Just ride the back road. Hubie knows where he’s going (though you may wonder about that at times).

The prologue takes off like a rocket. Then, during the first few chapters, new readers may go through what I’ll call “orientation to Hubie,” getting used to the flow of his entertaining and often educational ramblings on topics historical, artistic, culinary, and unclassifiable. (Established fans of the series already enjoy this as much as solving the mysteries.) If you’re new to the Pot Thief and decide to start here, don’t worry, keep reading. Once Hubie gets out in the desert to illegally “rescue” an ancient pot, the story, his character, the setting and his deep reverence for the artifacts he finds and sells come together into a lively, colorful tale that’s both a clever mystery caper and a sweet, delightfully off-beat love story. There’s a lot of wordplay, for fans of that type of wit. However, the humor I liked most in this book was that which came authentically from characters and situations, and there’s plenty of it. Hubie’s sincere and awkward attempt to put his girlfriend at ease in a delicate situation is hilarious, all the more so because it comes from his heart. A sudden turn of events near the end is so perfectly timed and phrased for comic effect, I think my neighbors heard me laugh when I read it.

The New Mexico landscape and locations—from Albuquerque to Truth or Consequences to the vast emptiness of the White Sands Missile Range—are portrayed well. Hubie’s idiosyncratic meanderings are part of the New Mexico feel of the book. I can easily see him in the mini-park in the median in Truth or Consequences across from Black Cat Books and Rio Bravo Fine Art. I can’t decide if he would get on my nerves or amuse me if I sat with him—probably both—but he fits perfectly. (There seem to be a lot of smart, eccentric, single, middle-aged men in T or C.) Orenduff has created a unique character in Hubie, and his own style of mystery—intelligent, non-violent, and funny, with the murder aspect secondary to other puzzles. The red herrings are effective, the clues are laid well, the solution is surprising, and the end is satisfying.

If you haven’t yet discovered the earlier books in the series and want to start at the beginning, the titles, in order, are:

The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras

The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy

The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier

The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein

The Pot Thief Who Studied D.H. Lawrence

The Pot Thief Who Studied Billy the Kid

The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O’Keefe (release date: Jan. 26, 2016)

 Next week I’ll have an interview with the author, J. Michael Orenduff.

 

IndieBRAG Christmas Blog Hop: A Free Holiday Short Story

ALL-ABOARD-with-medallionB.R.A.G. Medallion authors are taking you on a holiday tour through their blogs. On this stop, enjoy my new short fiction for the season.

Santa Claus Checks in at the Fat Buddha Spa

Mae Martin raced her twin stepdaughters to the pasture fence and almost let them win, making it a three-way tie. The llamas looked up from grazing on the dry winter grass, blinking their long lashes. Taking walks to visit the neighbors’ animals had been a favorite pastime for Mae and girls when she’d lived with them. Now, on her first holiday visit after separating from their father, she was trying to keep everything as normal as possible. As the six-year-old girls clambered onto the fence, Brook shouted. “That’s what I want for Christmas. A llama.”

“Are you sure?” Mae picked up a small purple glove from the weeds and put it in her pocket. The late December day was growing warm and both girls had taken off their gloves and hats. “I thought y’all wanted a tarantula.”

“We do, but Miss Jen is scared of spiders.”

Their father’s new girlfriend didn’t share Mae’s appreciation for crawly critters. “She might think a llama was cuter, but I don’t think anybody can afford one right now. You do know your presents come from family, right? Your daddy said y’all don’t believe in Santa anymore.”

“Yeah. We figured it out.” Stream perched on the top rail, swinging her legs. “We watched this TV show with Grampa Jim and Granma Sally about these people who have reindeer in some place near the North Pole.”

“Lapland?”

“Yeah. And those things are big. There’s no way they can fly.”

“What about magic?”

Brook sat beside her sister. They studied Mae as if they felt sorry for her. Poor mama. She’s not caught up with us yet. “Magic is for little kids who can’t figure things out. We’re gonna be bug scientists when we grow up—”

“Nun-uh.” Stream wriggled and sat straighter. “That’s your job. I’m gonna be a race car driver.”

Mae walked up and placed her hands on their knees. She loved their independence and eccentricity, but they could be tactless about how smart they were—like her ex-mother-law—and she needed to take that attitude down a notch. Gently. “Now what in the world is Santa Claus gonna do if all these kids don’t believe in him?”

Brook frowned, saying he couldn’t do anything if he wasn’t real, but Stream started to laugh. “He’ll pop like a bubble.”

Mae did her best to act serious. “Did you tell your friends there’s no Santa?”

The girls exchanged glances. Brook said, “We got in trouble for it at school. It made some kids cry.”

“It might be hard on ol’ Santa, too. Popping like a bubble. Before you tell any more kids he’s not real, I think I’d better give him a call and see how he’s feeling.” Mae took her cell phone from her jacket pocket and pretended to make a call. She rolled her eyes and sighed as if waiting a long time for an answer.

The girls poked each other and giggled. Stream whispered to her sister, “She can’t call him. She’s making believe.”

Mae raised her eyebrows, giving them the oh yeah? look, and then a triumphant smile as if she’d finally heard a voice. “Well hey, Santa buddy. What’s up? You know Summer Stream and Autumn Brook Ridley don’t believe in you anymore? … Oh. Of course. I can’t surprise you. You know who’s naughty and nice. “

Brook protested, “We weren’t naughty. We told the truth.”

“But did you tell it nice?” Mae turned away, lowering her voice to resume her conversation with Santa. “I hope they didn’t hurt your feelings. They told half the kids in Hertford County, North Carolina—You’re kidding! … So what are you doing now? … Really? Shut up! I live there. I just left for my vacation.” She put her hand over the phone. “You won’t believe it. He’s checked into a spa back in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. So many kids stopped believing in him, he’s taking this Christmas off.”

“What’s a spa?”

“It’s sort of like a motel with extra stuff. The ones where I live have hot springs and massages. People go there to relax and get healthy.” She got back to Santa Claus. “Which one? You at the Charles? La Paloma? … I never heard of that one. The Fat Buddha? … Oh. Reckon I wouldn’t see it.”

She explained to the girls, “He’s at a spa for supernatural beings. Regular folks can’t see it.”

Both girls frowned, and Brook asked, “A spa for what?”

“Supernatural beings. Kinda like ghosts or angels, but not exactly. It’s run by a big fat Buddha. You know who he is?”

The_Laughing_&_Lucky_Buddha!_A_stroke_of_Luck!_(413428647)

Stream nodded. “Granma Sally has his statue on her desk. She says he helps her stay calm when she does taxes.”

“He’s helping Santa, too. And they’re hanging out with another fat supernatural, Ganesh. He’s this Hindu god with an elephant head.”

“An elephant head?” Stream whooped.

Brook asked, “How come they’re all fat?”

Mae repeated the question to Santa and listened while she worked on an answer.

“He says it’s because they’re supernatural. They don’t have to be in shape to be healthy. Ganesh …” She had to stop and think again. Her neighbors in T or C were into yoga and they had a Ganesh poster in their living room. Finding it strange but beautiful, she’d asked Kenny to explain it. “Ganesh is fat but he’s big and strong, too. People call him the remover of obstacles. Like an elephant can pull a fallen tree off a road but a human can’t.”

Ganesh_2Stream looked skeptical. “Do people believe in the elephant-head guy? Like they believe in Santa?”

“Some do, but a lot of people just believe in what they all stand for. Like being generous and happy and enjoying life. Santa says they’re hanging out in the hot spring together and these other guys helped him with something he was worried about. So, you did him a favor, giving him a vacation, but he wants to go back to work next year, and he’ll need kids to believe in him again.”

“We can’t make them.”

“No—but you can keep it to yourselves if some new believers come along. You know why he wants to go back to work?”

Brook asked, “Does he get paid a lot?”

“No—he does it to be kind. And this is what those other fat dudes at the spa told him. He’s been too generous. See, they don’t get as carried away with their roles as he does. They help people by changing their lives, not giving stuff. He’s been giving people way too much expensive stuff, and they’re starting to think Christmas is about getting big, fancy gifts. So next year, he’s gonna cut back. Give stuff that means more and costs less.”

Mae took a deep breath and let it out. She hadn’t known she was going to say that. But as a college student with a part-time job and not much cash, she’d had to buy small gifts this year—child-sized team T-shirts for the College of the Rio Grande Tarantulas and a pair of stuffed toy versions of the mascot. She’d wanted to do more, but the trip east had cost all she could spare, and yet she didn’t want the girls to think she loved them less because she didn’t live with them anymore.

“Like when we make you presents,” Brook said.

“Exactly.” Mae smiled in relief.

“Good,” said Stream, “because we—”

Brook dug a fist into her sister’s arm. “Sh. You can’t tell her.”

“That’s right.” Mae put her phone in her jacket pocket. “Being surprised is part of the fun.”

The girls stared at her pocket. “Mama,” Brook said, “That was rude. You hung up on Santa without saying goodbye.”

“Oops. Look like I’ve been naughty, too. Good thing he’s taking the year off.”Santa_Claus

            *****

This interlude occurs offstage during the third Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, Snake Face.

Snake Face and Shaman’s Blues (book two) received B.R.A.G. Medallions.

Dive into the series at a discount. E-books are on sale for $2.99 on all major online bookstores, paperbacks have been reduced from $17.99 to $13.99, and the series prequel, The Outlaw Women, is free. Sale ends January 10.

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/buy-books-retail-links

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/free-downloads-retail-links

*****

For links to all stops on the blog hop, go to: http://www.bragmedallion.com

 The next stop on the indieBRAG Christmas Blog Hop is today, December 18 with Malcolm Noble

Ten Things I Love about Truth or Consequences

Conversations. I’ve never been in a situation where anyone was at a loss for words. The line in Bullock’s grocery store, Art Hop, the pool, a drum circle by the Rio Grande at night … it doesn’t matter. People will talk to you anywhere. I met all my friends here through random conversations with strangers.

Passion Pie Café. The place has art on the walls, art on the tables, great tea and coffee, vegan date bars, a free book shelf, and plenty of the above-mentioned conversation.

Hot springs. Of course. That used to be the town’s name. A soak can restore mind and body and spirit.

A history of healing. Magnolia Elis was an important part of the town’s life as a healing destination in the middle of the twentieth century. Her capacities as a healer were reputed to be extraordinary. Her building is a historic landmark now, with her name glowing on the roof in blue neon at night.

Critters. Bats come out at dusk to hunt insects near the Rio Grande, swooping and dancing over the river and the wetlands. If I go to the right spot at the right time, they surround me. Sometimes I’ve seen them crossing the stars as I lay in a hot spring at night. If there’s been rain late in the day, tarantulas emerge from their burrow to seek mates. Lizards seem to be everywhere—scurrying from one patch of shade to the next by day, occasionally sticking to walls and windows in the evening. They look bland at first, but on closer inspection I’ve found that some are pearlescent gray with a subtle peachy glow and others have a delicate brown-and-white checkered pattern with hints of orange. There are hummingbirds, butterflies, and also few of the most impressively vile bugs I’ve ever met, such as big black ants that can bite through your socks and a few summers ago we had a bizarre inundation of skunk beetles. I don’t want them to visit again, but they were interesting.

Stars. Okay, everyone in the desert gets excited about stars. Anyone who has ever come from the humid East to the dry West has had the same dazzling discovery: there are a lot stars up there, and they are really bright.

Rain. It’s so special when it rains in the desert. A big black cloud is not threatening but promising.

Turtleback Mountain. The serene turtle draped gracefully on its crest really looks like a turtle. (I can’t see the elephant in Elephant Butte, can’t even tell which of those gray buttes is supposed to be the elephant)  The turtle is always relaxed, as if he has just done yoga and is now in an amphibian’s version of savasana. With the recent rain he’s looking a little like a chia pet as the red-brown rock fuzzes up with patches of green.

Color. Much I love adobe-brown-pink-beige Santa Fe, I like the way T or C mingles that esthetic with wilder décor (and a lot of trailers). There is a candy-cane striped law office on Main Street. Homes range from adobe-normal to pink, purple, yellow, turquoise, and covered with murals. A shop on Broadway has Lakota-style ledger art on its stucco walls. The next one is bright green with orange and blue turtles parading over the door. An old van drives around town wearing the word “whatever” on its collage-covered side.

This isn’t a rich town; in fact quite the opposite—it’s always struggling. And yet it never collapses in on itself. It’s vibrant, full of art and originality.

 Do you know and love T or C? What’s one of your favorite things about it?

Out of the Office!

I love putting that “out-of-office” automated response on my college e-mail account every summer after the three-week June session ends. It means I’m only a writer for July and half of August. I do all my fall class preparation in June, so I feel free: no pressure or to-do lists hanging over me. It’s not that I dislike my job—I enjoy my interactions with students—but I do have a tight schedule during the academic year, keeping up with two off-campus yoga teaching jobs as well my faculty job. I spent a few days in Santa Fe to celebrate my freedom, and now it feels great to settle back into in Truth or Consequences, 100 degree weather and all. When it got down in the eighties in the middle of my first night here, I went out for a soak in the hot spring under a full moon. When I woke up blissfully late, the first thing I did was write, working on the fifth Mae Martin book during breakfast. That’s my idea of the perfect start to a day.

As I always do in the summer I went out in the heat yesterday. The sign on the Bank of the Southwest said 102, but I’ve been told it’s right over a very hot spot in the hot aquifer and is usually wrong by a few degrees. Convinced it might it be only ninety-nine degrees, I walked to the river. The Rio Grande was full and broad, its waters gleaming with reflected blue and green. The bright notes of a red-winged blackbird perched in a shrub on the bank, the sweet scent of the sunbaked plants and the yellow flicker of a butterfly in front of a vista of pink-red dirt stopped me in my tracks—and stopped time. Nothing existed but the moment itself.

As I headed home, a friend driving past on his way from the pool stopped to talk in the way of small towns, cutting off his engine and rolling down his window. There was no traffic for us to interfere with, not in July, and I stood in the middle of the street for a one of those unexpectedly soul-baring conversations which are the cherished hallmark of our friendship. Later, while I was doing yoga in the shade on the back deck, watching a promising flock of dark clouds being herded in by the wind, a white butterfly against the thick blue-gray stilled me again. Stopping is good. To talk, to see, to be. At night, soft rain fell, touching my face with its cool fingers while I soaked in the hot spring. Water from above, water from below. Doubly blessed.

While I’m in T or C, my internet connection is limited to our wonderful local coffee shop, Passion Pie Café, which closes at three, or a feeble little mobile hotspot, which is sometimes so slow I’m reluctant to waste time dealing with it. This is making me cut back on my social media interactions, so I’m out of the office to Facebook and Goodreads, checking in rarely and saying little when I do. This results in more time for writing. I have no idea what impact my partial absence will have on my social networks on those sites, but it’s having a great effect on the next book.

My summers in T or  are always healing and productive. Immersion in the living world, from butterflies to old friends, is as important for my creativity as the freedom to write.

Talk to Strangers

In Truth or Consequences and in Santa Fe, I find it normal to strike up conversations with strangers, and to say hello on the street to people in passing, whether or not we’re acquainted. No one seems to think it odd. I’ve never had a rebuff, nor have I been offended when someone randomly started talking to me.

A few years ago I was sitting in the now-closed and much-missed Little Sprout juice bar in Truth or Consequences when a man in a white terrycloth bathrobe came in and asked me if a certain bumper sticker he found wonderful might be mine. (It said Coexist, with the symbols of various religions forming the letters.) It wasn’t mine, but we talked a while anyway. He was on his way to water aerobics and had seen the bumper sticker, seen me in the window wearing my sun hat against the glare, and decided the Woman in the Hat looked like someone who wanted to spiritually Coexist. We became friends, and until he moved away last year he was my best sunset-walking and philosophical-talking friend in T or C. Another conversation with a stranger in the Sprout led to my meeting my dancing buddy the same year, and we still go dancing together four years later.

Unlike some more frequent fliers, I don’t mind people on planes talking to me. Good book recommendations and good stories have come from these encounters, or just good lines. I remember being on a plane about to leave Albuquerque for a job interview in Northeastern North Carolina, and was talking to my seatmate about my eventual destination. The long-haired young man in front of me turned around when he heard the name of the town and said, “Turn your clock back twenty years.” He was right. I ended up needing that job and moving east for a few years, and the town is now fictionalized as Cauwetska in The Calling.

Another stranger on a plane entertained me when I was unhappy after the breakup of a relationship. I didn’t tell her, but maybe she sensed it and wanted to be cheerful, or else she wanted to say what she had to say to someone she would never see again. Imagine a Texas accent for this. “I’m a dog breeder. And you know, I’m a Christian, and I’m supposed to think certain things are wrong, but I know homosexuality can’t be a sin, it has to be genetic, because I’ve got a lesbian Chihuahua.”

Back in July in Santa Fe, waiting in the shade at the Railyard Plaza while the Bill Hearne Trio set up, I ended up talking to my shade-mates about the Santa Fe Opera while we waited for country music. I have no idea how we got into this conversation but it felt normal. They told me one of the apprentices was going to have to play a lead that night, and sing in Chinese. An ongoing character in my series, Jamie Ellerbee, was once an apprentice with the Santa Fe opera. If I ever write the details of the crisis he had during that period of his life, a pressure like that could be part of it.

In previous academic years I’ve usually seen students in the classroom ten minutes early, heads down, engaged with screens instead of each other. This year for some wonderful and mysterious reason, they’re different. I come in and find them having real live face-to-face conversations, even the freshmen who don’t really know each other yet. I’m glad they aren’t missing out on the pleasure of talking to strangers.

Coyote on Broadway

Broadway, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, that is. I saw the little canine trotting past the Bank of the Southwest after Art Hop on Saturday night.  He seemed in a hurry to get out of town, crossing our main drag and hustling down a side street toward the river. I hear his relatives across the river in the desert sometimes. The other night they were singing on Turtleback Mountain. They’re so musical, especially compared to the dogs who try to answer.  A few years ago I used to hear a donkey who tried to sing back—not very melodious either. Wildness has a sweeter voice.

One thing I love about my town is its closeness to the wild, though I’d rather not join the ranks of people who’ve found rattlesnakes in their yards. I can walk to the Rio Grande in a few blocks, the same route the coyote took, and watch the bats come out over the wetlands at sunset, or go into the desert and look for tarantulas coming out of their burrows after a monsoon rain. I only found one once—a velvety multi-legged shadow half-way out of her hole. When I run in the desert at Elephant Butte I encounter quails and lizards and jackrabbits on the trail, and very seldom any of my own species. I once surprised a mule deer that was sleeping under a juniper. With its size and the speed of its explosive take-off, it gave me an equal start, but probably a lot more pleasure than I gave it.

Santa Fe has a little wildlife, too. Gunnison’s prairie dogs are inclined to live there. The city has a relocation program, catching and releasing them into select wilderness areas, but there’s still a little dog town above the almost waterless Santa Fe River on Paseo.  I like walking past them. They’re smart, and have a complex language. I’ve heard that they recognize people and talk about us. Standing upright at the edge of their holes, paws folded on their little bellies, they stare back at me a long time before they scamper and squeak. Maybe to them I’m the wildlife that’s wandered into their city.