Reading the north

Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America

Peter Kaufman (University of Iowa Press, $19.95)

The blurb: In 1897 in Walford, Iowa, the general store burned down. The next morning, townspeople discovered a charred corpse in the ashes. Everyone knew the store's owner, Frank Novak, had been sleeping in the store as a safeguard against burglars. But soon, an investigation by ambitious new county attorney M.J. Tobin turned up evidence suggesting that the dead man might be Edward Murray, a hard-drinking local laborer. The search for Novak brings a detective, Red Perrin, to the Yukon during the last great gold rush of the 19th Century.

Excerpt: Now Novak was close and Perrin could feel it. He walked the town again and took up his post at the riverbank, searching for any new boats and inspecting the faces of the men.

Then on Monday, July 12, as he was stalking the waterfront, Perrin spotted a scow that apparently had just arrived. Sitting in the craft was a man in ragged clothing, about five feet, nine inches tall and 180 pounds, with a high forehead and a full beard of reddish-brown whiskers. Based on the photograph he had carried for three months, Perrin believed that this man sitting placidly in front of him was Frank Alfred Novak.

Perrin walked over to the scow.

"Hello, Novak," he said calmly. "I have followed you a long time, but I caught up with you."

The bearded man paused for a moment before he answered: "You are mistaken. My name is J.A. Smith."

Alaska Rock Climbing Guide

Kelsey Gray (Reinventing the Nomad Publishing, $30)

The blurb: Climbing is an inherently dangerous sport in which severe injuries or death may occur. Relying on the information in this book may increase the danger. If you have any doubts as to your ability to safely climb any route in this guide, do not try it. This book is neither a professional climbing instructor nor a substitute for one. It is not an instructional book. Do not use it as one. It contains information that is nothing more than a compilation of opinions about climbing in Alaska.

Excerpt: Party World, Mile 107.3, Seward Highway

Party World has a few decent routes surrounded by plenty of loose blocks. Some bolts have ended up still attached to boulders on the ground. On a sunny day, it can be an enjoyable place to have a picnic and enjoy a few climbs, although the best climbs are at difficult grades. Expect a party on a good day, and this could be a party of drunken teenagers or a climbing group...Boltergeist, which is located by the railroad tracks, is a long, fun boulder problem that has a bolt and no anchor. If you are going to climb it, make sure you stay off the tracks at all times. Gorilla Rock was blown up because climbers couldn't stay off the tracks; let's not make them do it again.

Stebbins Stories

Philip Dunne (Self-published, $20; email

The blurb: Once upon a time, Gladys Pete told me on Facebook that I should write a book about Stebbins. She is not the first person who had suggested that to me. I remember responding politely that it was a good idea, but I also remember vividly that I told myself "no." A few hours later on that very same day, I got an inspiration. I immediately typed out the first chapter of this book. I had been thinking in terms of writing a very realistic novel. No, this would be more like a memoir. Each chapter can stand alone, similar to entries a columnist in a newspaper might write.

Excerpt: A Difficult Demonstration

Sue Leatherberry, an itinerant counselor for the Bering Strait School District, was in Stebbins. She came regularly to present short lessons in healthy behaviors to the classes, but this trip had a little more urgent message... It had come to the community's distraught attention that some kids were sniffing gas...

Sue stood in front of a packed community hall that evening. She spoke about the problem... She had brought a small white mouse. She explained how deadly gasoline fumes are. She apologized in advance for the demonstration she was about to perform... She put the mouse in a glass jar (with a sock soaked in gasoline) for all to see. She explained the mouse would become dizzy, lose balance, fall down, pass out and finally die... I noticed Sue could not bear to watch... This was not entertainment. This was a hard lesson in life (and death).