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Our critics' favorite Alaska books of the year

Editor's note: Every week, David A. James and Nancy Lord have reviewed books by Alaska authors or about the 49th state. They have not, they'll be quick to tell you, read every Alaska book published over the last year or so. Consequently, they recoil at the idea of a top 10 list of Alaska books.

What follows instead is a short piece by each author, touching on some of their favorites. It's neither comprehensive nor definitive. But it may prove useful to readers looking for Alaska books as holiday gifts or for suggestions of worthy books they may have missed. And there's no doubt that Nancy and David read more Alaska books than most of us.

David A. James

My personal favorite was "So, How Long Have You Been Native" by Alexis Bunten. The book recounts her experiences working for Sitka-based, Native-owned Tribal Tours. Bunten, herself Alaska Native, spent two summers with the company as part of her doctoral field work in anthropology. Her research focused on "cultural commodification and self-branding in Native American tourism," so she decided to learn the industry from the bottom up. Far from being a dry academic treatise, "Native" is an entirely accessible account of a culture trying to balance self-preservation with selling itself to tourists who have only a few hours to learn about it. The book is funny, observant, lively, thoughtful and entirely human. Bunten is a witty writer who we hope to hear more from.

A close second was "Rhythm of the Wild: A Life Inspired by Denali National Park" by Alaskan author Kim Heacox. It's the story of how the author found Alaska and thus himself in the state's best-known park. While Denali serves as base camp and provides the landscape for much of what he writes here, Heacox's mind wanders widely over politics, environmental crises, personal philosophy and how one can escape the world by diving into the wilderness, only to find that world hot on one's hiking boots. This book does with Denali what Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire" did with Arches National Park, showing how freedom and wilderness are bound together, and how the loss of one is both caused by and leads to the destruction of the other.

Among history books, "Saloons, Prostitutes, and Temperance in Alaska Territory" by Catherine Holder Spude stood out. When most people think Skagway and Alaska history, they think 1898 and then head for Nome. Spude's book explores what followed as the 20th century dawned and a town founded on the exploitation of passing prospectors struggled to become a lasting community. This involved taming its active vice district, which meant confronting some of Skagway's most prominent and theoretically respectable citizens. In Spude's hands, this little-known chapter in Alaska history proves every bit as fascinating as the Gold Rush itself.

Moving to fiction, two authors had impressive debuts this year.

Rosemary McGuire hit the shelves with "The Creatures at the Absolute Bottom of the Sea." Having lived and worked all over Alaska, McGuire shows she's been paying attention. Her stories examine unraveling lives as failure, loss and the constant presence of death consume her characters amidst a beautiful but uncaring landscape. The majesty of Alaska and the minutiae of crumbling hopes play against each other, all of it delivered with taut, well-controlled prose that many established writers should envy.

Fairbanks author Paul Greci has received widespread and deserved national attention for his young-adult novel "Surviving Bear Island." The book's teenage narrator, Tom Parker, becomes stranded on an uninhabited island far out in Prince William Sound after a sea kayaking accident separates him from his father. With winter closing in, Tom has to survive off the island's minimal bounty while encountering bears, enduring mishaps and coming to terms with the death of his mother and the unknown fate of his father. Greci gets inside his protagonist's head, offering a fully believable character who gets put through hell. This is no happy romp in the forest. Like all the best young-adult fiction, "Bear Island" is a book for adults, too.

Among coffee-table books, Camille Seaman's was particularly memorable. Drawn from a decade of photographic work, the collection opens up the earth's polar regions, examining a world that, as the title says, is "Melting Away." Images of ice and water are stark and characterized by deeply varying textures of gray in the water, sky and ice. Wildlife, often enormous, wanders through the pages. The human presence is notable for its bleakness and seeming hopelessness. Just as intriguing is Seaman's own story. The product of three separate ancestries, she went from being a homeless teen on the streets of New York City to becoming one of the polar regions' most skillful photographers, preserving on film what is vanishing in real time. Beauty and sadness fill every picture.

One day before the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, I submitted a review of "Picture Man: The Legacy of Southeast Alaska photographer Shoki Kayamori" by Margaret Thomas. In the days that followed, as hysteria erupted over accepting Syrian war refugees into America, the book's message became especially timely. Thomas follows the life of Kayamori, a Japanese immigrant to America and Alaska in the early twentieth century. Her presentation of how the Japanese were viewed in America at the time is virtually identical to how some Americans view Middle Eastern immigrants today. Claims abounded that the Japanese were innately criminal, of the wrong religion and incapable of assimilating. Openly racist politicians and public figures called for their removal. Crimes were committed against them by self-proclaimed "patriots." We know now that it was wrong then, but some Americans resist learning from past mistakes.

Finally, the graphic novel "Moose," based on the Alaska-made low-budget film "Moose: The Movie," joyfully mocks Alaskans and horror stories with equal vigor. The screenplay by the brothers Chad and Darin Carpenter is pared down to the basic plot and rendered on the page by cartoonist Lucas Elliott. It stands as its own work, not just a movie adaptation, and it's very funny. 2015 was a rough year. We need something like this to make us laugh.

Nancy Lord

It just so happens that my favorites are mostly by men; I promise to remedy my gender balance in 2016!

Kim Heacox, an exquisite writer from Gustavus, opens "Jimmy Bluefeather" with a terrific central character, the 90-something Keb Wisting, who's anticipating his pending death. Keb, who lives in a Southeast Alaska village, surrounded by family and a close but sometimes contentious community, is of Tlingit and Norwegian heritage (with a few other parts thrown in). With a bad eye, creaky knees, ears that miss the winter wren's notes and a sometimes-confused mind, the last canoe carver of his kind had come to see himself as "a pocket of a man" no longer himself. It used to be hard to live and easy to die — but now, for him, it was the other way around. That is, until an accident involving his grandson restarts Keb thinking about what matters. Keb embarks on a final life project — the carving of a cedar canoe. A non-Native who writes about Alaska Native characters and culture takes a risk, and Heacox, who has a long Alaska residency and considerable knowledge of the place in which he lives, is sensitive to that. His narrative is well-grounded in considerable research as well as in respect for cultural beliefs and practices. The making of a dugout canoe is particularly well — and lovingly — detailed here. "Jimmy Bluefeather" recently won the prestigious National Outdoor Book Award for best outdoor literature (fiction) of the year.

The second of Lee Goodman's legal thrillers, "Injustice," follows last year's "Indefensible" and features the same federal prosecutor, Nick Davis, in what we can only hope will be a continuing series. This one takes place in the present time, bringing readers forward four years from the end of the first book. Nick is the same complicated character grappling with issues of right, wrong, moral ambiguity and loyalty. Although the setting is not in Alaska but a mill town somewhere in the northeastern United States, Alaskans will enjoy the storyline about a political corruption case with similarities to the VECO scandal a decade ago. Goodman is a lawyer-writer (or writer-lawyer) who lives outside of Anchorage and writes from an inside understanding of the legal landscape. "Injustice" is a page-turner, full of surprises with only the occasional need to suspend disbelief. For the most part, this story might really have happened. We might know these people, and we might imagine ourselves in similar circumstances. Besides being well-plotted as a murder mystery, the book is a character-driven inquiry into important cultural questions. And the prose does much more than tell a great story; it sings.

In "This is How It Really Sounds," a wide-ranging, beautifully written novel by Juneau's Stuart Archer Cohen, three men share the name Peter Harrington. We first meet "Harry" Harrington, an extreme skier from Alaska. Pete Harrington, meanwhile, lives the life of a washed-up rock musician in Los Angeles. And Peter Harrington, a "bankster" who essentially stole hundreds of millions of dollars from investors, has fled to Shanghai. The story takes us to a variety of exotic locations from World War II to the present in almost-but-not-quite disorienting leaps through time, space and points of view. In middle life, the three men with the same name all face their obsessions with fortune, fame and adrenaline highs. The big, shared question is the age-old one about how to live a meaningful life. Not that there's anything dull about these three; each is fascinatingly troubled in his own way. While "This Is How It Really Sounds" might at first glance seem to fall into a manly thriller or adventure genre, there's nothing predictable here. For a reader with a little patience, Cohen delivers a smart, highly original story, with an ending that will surprise and puzzle in the best of ways.

As author Seth Kantner says in his introduction to "Swallowed By the Great Land," which follows the popular duo "Ordinary Wolves" and "Shopping For Porcupine": "Just living is what these stories are about — life here, and some of the characters living it, above the Arctic Circle and hundreds of miles from the nearest road. ... My ties to the land remain of utmost importance to my identity, as is the case for many people in this region." This book of short essays might best be sampled one at a time, as if the stories are treats of tinnik berries (arctic bearberries that are the subject of one of the essays here). Among the tastiest are those about individuals Kantner has known — and whose knowledge and wisdom he so obviously respects. Readers of this engrossing collection will come to understand why people live in the far north and what's so necessary about the place and the life it supports. In the end, Kantner leaves us not with nostalgia but with a warning as loud as the crack of ice. In his 50 years in the north, he's seen tremendous change, little of it good for the land and its residents, human and otherwise.

Consider this poetry trio: Linda Martin's "I Follow in the Dust She Raises," Jeremy Pataky's "Overwinter" and Eva Saulitis' "Prayer in Wind." They confirm that this was a very good year for poetry in Alaska, by Alaskans. The books by Martin and Pataky, their first, are new volumes in the University of Alaska Press' Alaska Literary Series. Saulitis' is her second book of poetry; she's also the author of an essay collection and a memoir. If there's a connection among the three, it's related to close observation of our world and gratitude for its gifts. At the risk of greatly oversimplifying, it might be said that Martin's poetry pays tribute to family and finding a home in Alaska, Pataky's connects love and loss as well as urban and wild, and Saulitis' is truly a collection of prayer-poems, attending to beauty and mystery.

No book list is complete without something fun for the young people in your life (and yourself). A true and inspiring children's story by Dan O'Neill of Fairbanks, "Stubborn Gal: The True Story of an Undefeated Sled Dog Racer," tells of a rookie racer who enters a 60-mile dogsled race, despite never having run in a race before or having run a big team of dogs. Yes, the "gal" is stubborn, but also independent, persistent and capable (once she's made her share of rookie mistakes). The colorful illustrations by Fairbanks artist Klara Maisch are lovely, lively and true to Alaskan experience. O'Neill is the author of "The Firecracker Boys" and other adult books. (Full disclosure: I read a prepublication copy of this and endorsed it with a quote used on the back cover.)

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic. Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming."

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