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Southwest Books of the Year 2017: 'The best of the best'

Southwest Books of the Year 2017: 'The best of the best'

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If you’ve been hankering for the latest and greatest in Southwest reading, your wait is over. Southwest Books of the Year is back with the finest regional books of 2017, hot off the press and ready for you to sample. Look for them in your local library soon.

As they have for more than 40 years, the Southwest Books of the Year panel of reviewers—subject specialists and voracious consumers of Southwest literature—are delighted to offer up their favorite titles of the year, complete with thumbnail reviews to whet your appetite. Books selected by two or more panelists become Top Picks, the Southwest Books of the Year designation for the best of the best.

“Books are like meals,” observes panelist Bill Broyles, because no matter how satisfying a volume may be, “…we’ll need another in a few hours.” You’ll find hours of non-stop reading pleasure here. Indulge yourself.


Bill Broyles, author, retired teacher and research associate at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center; Bruce Dinges, recently-retired director of publications for the Arizona Historical Society; Vicki Ann Duraine, adult services librarian for PCPL; Christine Wald-Hopkins, longtime high school and college English teacher, book reviewer, and occasional essayist; and Helene Woodhams, Literary Arts Librarian for Pima County Public Library, and Coordinator of Southwest Books of the Year. Ann Dickinson, retired librarian and children’s book selector for PCPL, reviews Southwest books for children and youth.

Southwest Books

of the Year

Best Reading 2017 is published by Pima County Public Library in partnership with the Friends of the Pima County Public Library and the Arizona Historical Society. This is the 41st annual edition. The publication was begun by the Arizona Daily Star and continued by the Library in 2000.

Southwest Books of the Year is made possible by a gift from the Friends of the Pima County Public Library and with funds granted by the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records Agency under the Library Services and Technology Act, which is administered by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Southwest Books of the Year considers titles published during the current year that are set in the Southwest (in the case of fiction) or focus on a Southwestern subject or personality. This year eight great titles—both fiction and nonfiction—rose to the top of the more than 150 titles that were considered. Here they are, with reviews from the panelists who recommended them.

“The Blinds”

By Adam Sternbergh. ECCO

Caesura, a tiny, West Texas town called “The Blinds,” by its four dozen inhabitants, is the ultimate relocation resort. Its residents are killers who, seeking a second chance, have bargained to have their memories wiped clean but who still carry the phantom itch of shame. Upon arrival they pick a new name, one from a list of movie stars, the other from a list of vice-presidents, and are given the three rules: no visitors, no contact and, if you choose to leave, no return. But when the suicide of reclusive Errol Colfax (formerly nicknamed “Costco” for his tendency to kill in bulk) is followed by two more killings, outsiders arrive, armed and looking for answers. This is more than an official investigation: it’s a reckoning that escalates into a showdown in which, though the mind is gone, the muscle memory remains. Killers with a conscience are pitted against psychopathic, calculating mercenaries in this crisply-written and fast-paced read.

—Vicki Ann Duraine

Also selected by Bruce Dinges

“Critical Assembly: Poems of the Manhattan Project”

By John Canaday. University of New Mexico Press

In a volume that is as audacious and mesmerizing as the events that inspired it, Canaday distills 30 years of research and reflection into more than 160 poems expressing the thoughts and feelings of scientists, soldiers, and civilians involved in developing and detonating the first atomic bomb. In distinctive voices, nearly four dozen characters grapple with the trivialities of daily life as well as the philosophical dilemma of expanding the boundaries of scientific research to produce the world’s most destructive weapon. Short biographies of the historic characters, a bibliography, and a thoughtful afterword complete this impressive work. Robert Oppenheimer may have been onto something when he turned to the Bhagavad Gita to express his emotions after the successful detonation at New Mexico’s trinity site. In his poetic tour de force, Canaday has shaped his own epic treatment of the 20th century’s planet- altering moment.

—Bruce Dinges

Also selected by Vicki Ann Duraine and Christine Wald-Hopkins

“A Photographer’s Life: A Journey from Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photojournalist to Celebrated Nature Photographer”

By Jack Dykinga. Rocky Nook, Inc.

“I was born again in my 71st year,” writes Tucson photographer Jack Dykinga in this memoir in images. It was a health, not a road-to-Damascus experience, but the resolute efforts of a medical team to save his life prompted Dykinga to reflect on others’ impact on his professional life. He chronicles his career from dyslexic high school kid winning a snapshot award through staff photographer at the four major Chicago newspapers—during which time he captured a Pulitzer; through his tenure as head of photography of the Arizona Daily Star, freelancing as a nature photographer for Arizona Highways and National Geographic, to teaching and leading photography expeditions. Celebrating bosses and collaborators, describing evolving equipment and photographic techniques, and presenting and explaining stunning images, in addition to narrating a remarkable life, this book also reflects the history of modern photography.

—Christine Wald-Hopkins

Also selected by Bruce Dinges and Bill Broyles

“Some Rise by Sin”

By Philip Caputo. Henry Holt

In a small town in northern Sonora, a motorcycle-riding Franciscan priest and a female doctor grapple with the practical and moral ambiguities of a lawless world that blurs the lines between friend and foe, government and outlaw. Father Timothy Riordan seeks to redeem himself after violating the sanctity of the confessional to inform on a murderous drug cartel, while Dr. Lisette Moreno is compelled to choose between ministering to her impoverished patients or a comfortable life with her artist lover. Caputo succeeds in capturing both the desperate uncertainties of border life and the complex ethical issues at play in modern-day Mexico.

—Bruce Dinges

Also selected by Vicki Ann Duraine, Christine Wald-Hopkins, and Helene Woodhams


By Bryn Chancellor. HarperCollins

Twenty years after a teenager’s disappearance, the discovery of bones in a gulch outside the northern Arizona town of Sycamore (a fictionalized conflation of Clarkdale and Cottonwood) sends ripples of memory through the small community. As the events leading to the disappearance gradually unfold from the alternating perspectives of the missing girl, her friends, family, and acquaintances, readers discover the past’s haunting grip on the present and the indelible scars of guilt and loss. A compelling debut novel.

—Bruce Dinges

Also selected by Vicki Ann Duraine and Christine Wald-Hopkins

“The Talker”

By Mary Sojourner. Torrey House Press

The bio of fiction writer, journalist, and sometime NPR commentator Mary Sojourner says she “believes in ... Healing through writing.” In this collection of short fiction, it feels as if she’s writing to heal characters, as well. Sketchy, stretched, beaten up or beaten down, wrestling with personal demons—drugs, booze, gambling, bad partner-choices—they seem one final reckless move away from really doing themselves in when Sojourner conjures up a little magical grace. Featuring aging hippies, security guards, restaurant staff (plus one books and articles writer, buried mid-collection) who drive old pickups or travel by train, Sojourner’s stories bring to life high desert blue collar America. But the one element that consistently doesn’t need healing? Nature: A star-studded desert sky. Elegant blue heron. Shimmering aspen grove on Hart Prairie. Whiff of creosote in the rain. Juniper smoke.

—Christine Wald-Hopkins

Also selected by Helene Woodhams

“Tortillas, Tiswin, and T-Bones: A Food History of the Southwest”

By Gregory McNamee. University of New Mexico Press

It would be hard to find a food history of the Southwest more informative and entertaining than this lively volume. Tucsonan Greg McNamee, who has written extensively on southwestern subjects, now turns his attention to the food we eat and how it got to our table, a journey that began thousands of years ago in Mesoamerica. With keen insight and a raconteur’s gift for surprising anecdotes, McNamee artfully weaves together the strands of history, science, culture and migration that combined to result in our daily bread – and tacos, and barbecue and sushi. His knowledge of foodways is edifying, but it’s the details in this fine book that are a pure delight: who knew, for instance, that the stately saguaro is a distant cousin of spinach? Or that the legendary Kit Carson’s dying wish was for just one more bowl of chili? We are what we eat – and in the diverse and culturally-rich Southwest, that’s a good thing.

—Helene Woodhams

Also selected by Bill Broyles

“Where Dinosaurs Roamed: Lost Worlds of Utah’s Grand Staircase”

By Christa Sadler. Glen Canyon Natural History Association

If you are looking for one book for the whole family, look no further than Christa Sadler’s “Where Dinosaurs Roamed.” It has something for everyone and science for all. Dinosaurs, fossils, geology, paleontology: each illustrated with maps and clear explanations of interest to readers of any level. It can be read around the kitchen table, perused in an easy chair, or carried as a guide to the Four Corners area, especially Glen Canyon and Escalante-Grand Staircase. Each page is a delight with color drawings, splendid photographs, and maps, all enlivened by essays linking the geography, biology, and climate, as well as stories about scientists behind the discoveries. The many fossil photos and panoramas of dinosaurs showcase how paleontologists imagine they looked and lived. With rich comparisons to modern species, such as crocodiles and turtles, your imagination will run wild! “Where Dinosaurs Roamed” punctuates why we need Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument.

—Bill Broyles

Also selected by Helene Woodhams

Southwest Books of the Year

Books for Kids

“All Around Us”

By Xelena Gonzalez; illustrations by Adriana M. Garcia. Cinco Puntos Press

A tender story of a young girl and her grandpa, exploring the cycles of life and nature while they plant flowers and pull vegetables in the yard. Grandpa shows his granddaughter the circles all around them — the sun, a clock, their bicycle wheels—as they bike through the neighborhood. “What we take from the Earth, we return,” he tells her, and they water the apple tree that was planted when she was born. A perfect read-aloud for children ages three-seven, their families, and future gardeners.

“Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel”

By Kimberly Willis Holt. Henry Holt and Co.

Stevie’s life is turned upside-down when her parents are killed in a car accident. The 13-year-old must leave her home in New Mexico and move in with her grandpa, who runs a seedy old motel in Texas. Understanding Grandpa is challenging, but as Stevie works through her grief and makes new friends their relationship grows, much like the garden she plants under the motel sign. Holt, who won the National Book Award for Young People for “When Zachary Beaver Came to Town,” offers a resilient heroine and a book that will inspire readers ages 12 and up.

“Evangelina Takes Flight”

By Diana J. Noble. Piñata Books

Thirteen-year-old Evangelina, who lives in Rancho Encantado in Northern Mexico, is looking forward to having a quinceañera celebration as splendid as her older sister’s. But the year is 1911 and the Mexican Revolution is about to change her life. Fleeing the violence of Pancho Villa, her family moves to Texas, only to encounter new difficulties. The tiny, segregated town in which they find themselves is not welcoming to Mexicans. Evangelina is humiliated at school, and the town is calling a meeting to discuss what to do with the Mexican immigrants. Life is so very different than it was on the ranch! Can Evangelina find a way to make a new life for herself? This heart wrenching and yet hopeful story of a Mexican family’s struggles in the U.S. is compelling historical fiction for young adult readers, ages 12 and up.

“Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus”

By Dusti Bowling. Sterling Children’s Books

Aven was born without arms, but this has never stopped the plucky teen. A great soccer player, she has learned how to do almost anything using her feet and legs, with the support of her adoptive parents. New trials await her, though, when her parents move to Arizona to run a Wild West theme park. Luckily, she meets a boy with his own physical challenge (Tourette’s Syndrome) who becomes a friend on her journey of self-discovery and an ally who can help her investigate the theme park’s mysterious past. Ages 10 and up.

Lexie the Word Wrangler”

By Rebecca Van Slyke; illustrations by Jessie Hartland. Nancy Paulsen Books

Lexie is a clever young cowgirl who wrangles words instead of cattle. A range war threatens to break out one day when a mischievous word rustler arrives on the scene and starts mixing up Lexie’s words: Bandana becomes banana, stars become rats, and Lexie is not pleased. She rides off through a gooey dessert (that used to be a desert) to cut him off at the pass—but can she convince him to stop his shenanigans? A clever wordplay story with a cowboy theme to share with kids ages three through seven.

“Race the Night”

By Kirsten Hubbard. Disney-Hyperion

Five children held inside an old ranch house in the desert are told that they are “the whole world now,” by their frightening and controlling teacher. The rest of the world has ended, their teacher tells them, and they need to be tested and trained to lead a new world. Can it be true that the rest of the world has vanished? Twelve-year-old Eider has seen signs that raise some doubts for her, but it’s dangerous to doubt. This very suspenseful children’s story will appeal to middle grade readers or young teens. It is a companion book to Hubbard’s popular “Watch the Sky.”

“Retribution Rails”

By Erin Bowman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Reece Murphy has been forced against his will to join the Rose Riders, a murderous gang that robs trains; the only way to get free is to find the gunslinger responsible for trapping him in this predicament. His best hope of locating the outlaw is with the help of Charlotte Vaughn, a would-be Nellie Bly he meets on a train; she has heard rumors about the gunslinger’s whereabouts. Chapters in this fast-paced Western alternate between Reece and Charlotte as their lives intertwine and separate along the rails in rugged, ruthless Arizona. This is a companion book to “Vengeance Road,” for ages 14 and older.

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