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Reading the north

Arctic Son

Jean Aspen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18.99)

The blurb: In 1992, Jean Aspen and her husband, Tom, took their young son to live in Alaska's Interior wilderness, building a cabin out of logs, hunting for food, and letting the vast, harsh beauty of the Arctic close in around them. While Jean had faced Alaska's wilderness before -- in a life-altering experience she chronicled in "Arctic Daughter" -- this journey would be different. Dogged by sickness and hardships, cut off from the rest of the world, her family faced not only a test of endurance but of its own well-being and survival.

From a daily struggle against the elements to an encounter with a grizzly bear at arm's length, from moments of breathtaking beauty and self-realization to a harrowing, 600-mile river passage back to civilization, "Arctic Son" chronicles fourteen remarkable months in the Arctic. At once a portrait of courage and a heart-pounding adventure story, "Arctic Son" portrays a family's extraordinary journey into America's last frontier.

Excerpt: (The moose's) big ears remained above the surface, scanning the exposed shore like radar as she listened for danger, while about her milled half a dozen ducks. They didn't appear to be feeding but to simply enjoy her company.

My joints were beginning to ache and I was starting to shiver. With a smile at the moose, I rose. She jumped and started across the lake, taking great, splashing strides directly away from me. Within moments, she was gone and the marsh was empty. We think of the moose as "awkward" and "clumsy," and may fail to see the animal through our opinion of it. A giant member of the deer family, moose are perfectly adapted to the moods of this difficult land and amazingly graceful in crossing it. Like timid ghosts, they melt into the forest and disappear before your eyes. I defy anyone to follow a moose over this boggy, pitted ground and not come to respect them.

My clothes were wet and I was cold, but I felt suddenly happy as I turned for home. My life had been brushed by magic. Just as I reached the river, I heard Tom's shot, clear and far away. I held my breath and counted shots. One, two, three. God, I hope he got it! He was using his old .30-30 carbine with open sites. My worst fear is to wound an animal and have it escape.

It was a long walk home and I arrived tired and hungry. Tom was waiting by the canoe, impatient to get back to his moose. I checked the load for pack frames, rope, buckets, skillet, and lunch items before we paddled across the river. Tom led the way about seven hundred yards inland through stands of yelllow poplar. There a modest bull lay, shot through the head and neck. It was a good location, for the ground was dry and fairly level. I was deeply grateful that I had resisted shooting the cow. Better a hundred shots not taken than a single wrong one placed.

"I'm so excited," Luke said, extracting his little, red pocket knife. "I can hardly wait to start skinning."

"Let's take a moment to thank the moose," Tom told him. Kneeling beside the animal he put his arm around his son's shoulders. "This is not like ordering a hamburger. Somebody else had to kill that animal. We had to kill this one."

For a few moments we gathered quietly around the big, dead creature, patting his smooth, brown fur and silently acknowledging his life. "Thank you moose," we each said in turn and smiled shyly at one another, knowing that something great had been given to us and something beautiful had also been taken away.

Anchorage Deception

William S. Brown (Fugitive Press, $17)

The blurb: The story is set against the harsh Alaska backdrop of glaciers and a Wild West sense of justice. Cold, chilling enemies and their machinations propel Trevor Rains to question the government and the Alaska legal system. Trevor returns to Anchorage to help his former employer value a gold mine that is included in a murdered couple's estate. While working on the estate, his best Alaskan friend, a government operative, drags him into the deadly world of motorcycle gangs, murder, corruption, intrigue and blackmail, reaching into the highest reaches of state government.

Excerpt: It was late afternoon when Trevor rolled into Talkeetna. The lodge appeared to be deserted. At the bar several old miners were talking to Goldie.

When Goldie looked up, he waved Trevor over. "Didn't expect to see you so soon, laddie. Can't stay away from those wineburgers, now, can you?"

Trevor grinned and shook his hand, saying, "Throw one on for me and I'll have a beer with it."

Goldie threw a patty on the grill and grabbed a cold beer from the cooler. Trevor watched as he poured some wine on the burger patty and Goldie asked him, "Are you still workin' the mining claim job? Is that what brought you back?"

Trevor grabbed a barstool out of the earshot of the old timers and told him quietly, "Yes, I'm still working on it, although the estate attorney was murdered in Anchorage the other day."

Goldie turned abruptly from the grill and stared at Trevor. "You say murdered? Was that the attorney they found dead in the alley the other day in Anchorage?"

"That's him. Had a wife and kids, too. Made it through Iraq just to die on the streets of Anchorage. Hell of a way to go after all he's been through."

"But the paper said it was robbery."

Trevor shook his head. "No, it wasn't robbery. He was stabbed close to 10 times in the chest with a large knife. A robber wouldn't waste time stabbing someone ten times just to steal a wallet and watch. No, it wasn't a robbery, you can be sure of that."

"Then why would someone do that?"

"We were getting close to finding out something about the mine."

Goldie's eyes squinted and a serious expression crept over his face. He leaned over the bar and whispered, "Laddie, you'd best be careful, you hear me? You might just follow that attorney feller to that serene place in the sky, if you know what I mean."

Trevor nodded and asked him, "Have you seen the two guys in the yellow pickup lately?"

Goldie turned to the grill and scooped up the wineburger and set it down in front of Trevor, then again leaned over and whispered, "Laddie, their truck is parked around the side of the building right now."

Compiled by Kathleen Macknicki, Anchorage Daily News