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A Christmas book with a frontier hero, great literary fiction and more

A Big Sky Christmas

By William W. Johnstone with J. A. Johnstone

Pinnacle

$7.50; 411 pages; Western

You've got your naive wagon train folks, your rich lecher, your bad guys, your Indians, your worse guys,  your cowboys, your oncoming winter and your frontier hero, along with a couple of mountain men and your folksy narrator's voice. Throw in December, and you've got a seasonal Western offering from the prolific Johnstone writing enterprise. A Big Sky Christmas is very much in the tradition of hero yarn. It's 1873 Kansas City. Principled, strong, handsome, aging fast-draw Jamie Ian MacCallister runs into a problem-fraught wagon train headed to Montana. He exacerbated its ill fortune, so he agrees to lead it. Against the Western frontier background, a young, lovelorn ex-train robber joins him as scout, and much head-busting, treachery and shooting ensue. A smart ingénue sweetens the action, and the Johnstones have also added an appealing, unlikely minihero in a young rabbi from Poland.

Road to Nowhere and Other New Stories from the Southwest

Edited by D. Seth Horton and Brett Garcia Myhren

University of New Mexico Press

$21.95; 296 pages; Fiction

Don't let anyone tell you the Southwest can't hold its own in the world of literary fiction. Once again D. Seth Horton—this time with Brett Garcia Myhren—has collected a terrific group of short stories related in one fashion or another to our part of the world. The second in a two-part series, this volume contains stories published between January 2007 and December 2011. Notably, these aren't your old-style Westerns. With barely a cowboy in sight, they're contemporary pieces flavored with our peculiar dry-hot, isolated, stranger-in-a-strange-land, rough-edged-but-soft-hearted Southwest rub. Take Ron Savage's "Baby Mine." A 6-foot-11 Russian girl (daughter of Blind Margo the fortune teller) is to marry an 86-year-old Texas rancher she connects with through an Internet ad. The rancher locks her in her pleasant bedroom with an extended bed, and the Russian girl keeps hearing the sound of a baby crying in the desert. In this quirky immigrant story, outsized Texas offers outsized Katya unexpected opportunities.

Or take Murray Farish's "Lubbock Is Not a Place of the Spirit." This caper-verging-on-crazy-young-guy-massacre opens with "The best thing to do about Clive is kill him and bury him in the desert somewhere." The unreliable narrator seems to do the deed a couple of times before we realize he's just on a sleepless, constipated, star-obsessed, conservative political kick that's quite entertaining.

There are some stories of danger or violence, a couple about misdirected love, and two that seared "poignant" into this reader's psyche: Kirsten Valdez Quade's "Portrait," about a New Mexico woman and a young WPA photographer, and Justin St. Germain's "The Last Day of the Boom." Pair St. Germain's story with his recent memoir, and you'll be reading with an ache in your heart. Although not all these writers live in the Southwest, they've nonetheless represented the region through unique perspectives.

Spider Woman's Daughter

By Anne Hillerman

Harper

$24.99; 320 pages; Mystery

There's still Navajo-enriched mystery to be had in the Four Corners area for those missing Tony Hillerman, who died in 2008. In Spider Woman's Daughter, Hillerman's daughter, Anne, a nonfiction writer, has picked up the mantle. And she hasn't done badly with it, keeping a similar voice and her father's interest in native culture. She also revives his characters, although she shifts the balance of power. As the book opens, retired Navajo Nation police detective Joe Leaphorn, who still dabbles in investigations, is leaving a Monday morning breakfast with cops at the Navajo Inn. Following him out the door to take a call from her husband, Sergeant Jim Chee, Officer Bernadette Manuelito sees someone step from a car and shoot Leaphorn directly in the head. In true Leaphorn fashion, "Bernie" will doggedly work to untangle the mystery behind the attack.

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  • Now on Shelves

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