Over the past few months, three novels by women writers–all set in the greater Southwest–have landed on my reading stack. The three are very different stories, but all feature strong female characters and evocative stories and landscapes. They’re all very much worth a read!
Bittersweet, by Susan Wittig Albert
Bittersweet is Susan Albert’s 23rd China Bayles mystery, a series based in the fictional Texas town of Pecan Springs, at the edge of the Hill Country. The story opens in the fading daylight of a November evening when a single-engine plane with an expired license touches down at an isolated airstrip owned by two brothers who are illegally importing black-market white-tailed deer to turn their family land into a trophy game ranch.
Their actions set this absorbing story into into motion, derailing the quiet Thanksgiving China had planned at her mother and step-dad’s nearby place, and throwing China and her friend Mac, a Texas game warden, into the world of big-game ranching, animal-rights activism and drone surveillance. Along the way, the two women deal with murder and other mayhem, and come to know each other and themselves better.
What makes Albert’s novels stand out in the world of series mysteries is their strong sense of place, tight plotting, and the authentic way her characters interact, learn and grow in each book. Plus the way Albert educates readers about contemporary issues without preaching.
Bittersweet shines as well for Albert’s deft use of multiple points of view—alternating chapters are told by different characters. Each voice contribute to what we know (and don’t know) about the action without interrupting the tension or the flow of the story.
If you haven’t met China Bayles, the hard-charging trial lawyer turned herb-shop-owner and stepmom, Bittersweet is a great place to start. It’s Albert’s best mystery yet.
Teresa of the New World, by Sharman Apt Russell
Sharman Russell is best-known for her creative non-fiction books, including Anatomy of a Rose, a lyrical and eye-opening look at the sex lives of plants, and her most recent, Diary of a Citizen Scientist. Teresa of the New World is a brilliant departure, a classic journey story told through magical realism.
The novel tells the story of the fictional mestizo daughter of Alvár Nuñéz Cabeza de Vaca, the real-life Spanish conquistador who is one of only four survivors of a Spanish expeditionary force of 300 men who landed in Florida in 1528.
Cabeza de Vaca’s eight years as a captive of the Native American tribes, then a trader and healer, and finally, a conquistador returning to Spain come to life through the eyes of his daughter, the little girl who grows up listening to the voices of plants and earth and animals. Early one morning, her charismatic father sets off to walk to New Spain, taking Teresa away from her family and tribe.
That leaving begins the young girl’s wanderings—across the continent and through cultures and diseases that are wreaking havoc on the Native world Teresa was born into. The journey of this mixed-race young girl, abandoned by her father and searching for a home and a place to belong, will absorb and enchant readers.
Return to Abo, by Sharon Niederman
If you’re looking for a novel about interesting women set in a starkly beautiful part of rural New Mexico, Niederman’s first novel won’t disappoint. It’s another journey story: Maggie, who grew up on a hard scrabble ranch in central New Mexico, the girl who made good as a journalist in faraway San Francisco and then lost heart for her work and ultimately, her stellar job, comes home for the funeral of her mother’s ranch foreman, Elias, the father figure of her childhood. Maggie ends up staying to care for her mother (who of course does not want Maggie’s help) and for the ranch itself.
The crackling energy of the characters makes Return to Abo a good read: Maggie’s punk and multiply pierced teenage daughter, who arrives after being kicked out of the prep school her father enrolled her in; Maggie’s lost high-school love, the Mayor of the small town; and the wonderfully eccentric and resilient collection of old ladies who form Maggie’s mother’s bridge group; and the spare and entrancing New Mexico landscape itself.