Shelf Control #98: The Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present
Author: Wayne Mergler (editor)
Published: 1996
Length: 816 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

This mammoth, 816-page anthology tells a myriad of stories of Alaska in fiction, journalism, memoirs, folklore, and poetry. From Tlingit and Eskimo legends to the prose by Robert Service, Ernie Pyle, and Jack London to works by young contemporary writers, The Last New Land lays out a literary goldfield waiting to be discovered.

How and when I got it:

I found this book at a library sale a few years back and just had to have it.

Why I want to read it:

First of all, I’m madly in love with Alaska and love reading novels set there — so when I saw this story collection, there was no way I’d pass it up (even though I don’t usually read short stories). The anthology looks fascinating, including Tlingit and Eskimo legends, stories and excerpts about early Alaska history, all the way through to present-day fiction and articles, and even an excerpt from one of my very favorite series, the Kate Shugak novels by Dana Stabenow.

I doubt that I’ll ever sit down and read this book all the way through, but choosing The Last New Land for this week’s Shelf Control is a good reminder to myself to at least pull it off my shelf and dip my toes in!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Take A Peek Book Review: Less Than a Treason (Kate Shugak, #21)

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Kate Shugak is a native Aleut working as a private investigator in Alaska. She’s 5 foot 1 inch tall, carries a scar that runs from ear to ear across her throat and owns a half-wolf, half-husky dog named Mutt. Resourceful, strong-willed, defiant, Kate is tougher than your average heroine – and she needs to be to survive the worst the Alaskan wilds can throw at her.

Two thousand people go missing in Alaska every year. They vanish in the middle of mountain footraces, on fishing boats in the Bering Sea, on small planes in the Bush. Now a geologist known for going walkabout with his rock hammer has disappeared from the Suulutaq Mine in the Park. Was it deliberate? An accident? Foul play? Kate Shugak may be the only person who can find out.

But for the fact that Kate, too, is now among the missing…

My Thoughts:

Kate is back! Kate is back! Kate is back!

Yes, I’m excited. And yes, I loved this book!

If you’ve read my blog at all over the last couple of years, then you may know that I developed a full-on obsession for Dana Stabenow’s amazing Kate Shugak series. Kate is tough, devoted, smart, and resilient, and lives in one of the most beautiful places in the world. In the Kate Shugak series, the author serves up mystery after mystery — but really, what pulls me back for book after book is Kate herself, the “Park rats” who make up the tiny community in Niniltna, the troopers and cops and aunties and pilots who form the backbone of Kate’s world, and the richly entangled storytelling that builds up over the course of the series.

We’re now 21 books in (plus the Liam Campbell series of 4 books, which somewhat intersect with the Kate books and add yet another facet to her world). The series is still going strong. I gobbled up the previous 20 books (and the 4 Liams) in something like 18 months, and then was bereft over having to wait for Kate’s return, especially as #20 ended with a super cruel cliffhanger.

Well, now my girl is back! The mystery in #21 is standard Kate fare (mining, ore rights, missing persons); the real treat is in seeing Kate recovering from a traumatic event and reconnecting with all the various people who love her. All the old favorites are here — Bobby, Dinah, Katya, the aunties, and more — and Kate’s love interest Jim is as devoted (and hot) as ever. There are call-backs to earlier episodes, and some hair-raising action scenes, but mostly Less Than a Treason is a delight simply because we see Kate reclaiming her place in her own life and community.

Ah. I love these books, and I love the characters. This one made me so, so very happy, and I adored the ending too. I can only sit here now and hope and pray that Kate Shugak will live on in many, many, many more books. Do you hear me, Dana Stabenow??? I want more Kate, now and forever, amen.

Reading note 01 – The Kate books are full of super fun pop culture, literary, and musical references, and this one is no exception. Watch out for a selection in my Thursday Quotables post this week.

Reading note 02 – In case it’s not perfectly obvious, the books in this series do not — in my humble opinion — work as stand-alones. There’s simply too much world-building, full of rich and varied characters with unique and often complicatedly interconnected backstories, to be able to jump in with book #21! So take my advice, start at the beginning, and enjoy!

Reaidng note 03 — I’ll never get tired of Dana Stabenow’s gorgeous descriptions of Alaskan wildlife and scenery, even though she makes me mad that I’m not there right at this very moment!

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The details:

Title: Less Than a Treason
Author: Dana Stabenow
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: May 6, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Mystery
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Smell of Other People’s Houses

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Alaska: Growing up here isn’t like growing up anywhere else.

Ruth has a secret that she can’t hide forever. Dora wonders if she can ever truly escape where she comes from, even when good luck suddenly comes her way. Alyce is trying to reconcile her desire to dance with the life she’s always known on her family’s fishing boat. Hank and his brothers decide it’s safer to run away than to stay home—until one of them ends up in terrible danger.

Four very different lives are about to become entangled. This is a book about people who try to save each other—and how sometimes, when they least expect it, they succeed.

This is a beautiful piece of writing, showcasing the lives of a handful of young people as they navigate their way through their triumphs and sorrows in 1970s Alaska. The novel is told through interlocking stories, giving us windows into the various characters’ lives, while offering constantly shifting perspectives on other characters as we see how they see one another. Some of the characters are best friends; others just know each other in a friend-of-a-friend or even more remote sort of way.

Along the way, they deal with missing or abusive parents, misunderstandings, birth families and found families, and the quiet support that can come from the most unexpected of sources.

The backdrop of life in Alaska lends the stories a unique flavor. What’s most important is the human relationships, but the scenes of life in a poor neighborhood in Fairbanks or on a fishing boat or along a remote highway give the plot developments a grounding in real life that’s gritty and evocative.

The language in this book is really lovely, and I thought the way the characters’ stories weave together was remarkably well done, with many surprises along the way.

The Smell of Other People’s Houses is a relatively thin book, but it’s got plenty to enjoy and savor. If you enjoy great, emotionally powerful writing, check it out. I believe this book has been marketed as young adult, but there’s no reason that adult readers wouldn’t love it.

Reading tip: I made the mistake of reading this book during a very busy, hectic week, so I was only able to read it in bits and pieces, and I think I lost a bit of the flow along the way. If you can, I’d suggest setting aside a cozy couple of hours and reading this one straight through.

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The details:

Title: The Smell of Other People’s Houses
Author: Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Publication date: February 23, 2016
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased

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Thursday Quotables: The Smell of Other People’s Houses

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Welcome to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!
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The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
(published 2016)

This lovely novel, consisting of interlocking stories, follows several young people in Alaska whose lives intersect in all sorts of intricate ways. I’m about halfway through, and can’t wait to share my thoughts when I’m done. Here’s one example of the lovely, unusual writing in this book:

It’s too hard trying to keep track of brothers who are full of their own ideas. They’re like helium balloons. At some point you just have to let go of the string and say, “Go on, then — good-bye, safe travels,” which has got to be easier than wondering whether you’re going to hold on too tight and pop the damn thing.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Add your Thursday Quotables post link in the comments section below… and I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week too.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

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Book Review: To the Bright Edge of the World

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Set again in the Alaskan landscape that she bought to stunningly vivid life in THE SNOW CHILD, Eowyn Ivey’s new novel is a breathtaking story of discovery and adventure, set at the end of the nineteenth century, and of a marriage tested by a closely held secret.

Colonel Allen Forrester receives the commission of a lifetime when he is charged to navigate Alaska’s hitherto impassable Wolverine River, with only a small group of men. The Wolverine is the key to opening up Alaska and its huge reserves of gold to the outside world, but previous attempts have ended in tragedy.

For Forrester, the decision to accept this mission is even more difficult, as he is only recently married to Sophie, the wife he had perhaps never expected to find. Sophie is pregnant with their first child, and does not relish the prospect of a year in a military barracks while her husband embarks upon the journey of a lifetime. She has genuine cause to worry about her pregnancy, and it is with deep uncertainty about what their future holds that she and her husband part.

A story shot through with a darker but potent strand of the magic that illuminated THE SNOW CHILD, and with the sweep and insight that characterised Rose Tremain’s The Colour, this new novel from Pulitzer Prize finalist Eowyn Ivey singles her out as a major literary talent.

I’m a bit of an Alaska geek, and one of the ways that comes out is that I’m inordinately excited whenever great new fiction set in Alaska appears on the horizon. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to get my hands on a copy of Eowyn Ivey’s newest book — I think I snagged the very first copy that arrived at my local library!

To the Bright Edge of the World is a novel told in letters and other first-person written documents, with occasional archival pieces such as newspaper clippings, photos, and maps mixed in as well. The main writings in this novel are journal entries by Colonel Allen Forrester and Sophie Forrester.

Allen is leading a small team of men up the dangerous and uncharted Wolverine River, with the goal of finding a passage through to the Yukon River. Previous expeditions have met disaster along the way and have been forced to abandon the attempt. Sophie is dismayed at the prospect of being left behind in the army barracks — she’d originally intended to journey to the starting point of the expedition with Allen, but the unexpected news of her pregnancy forces her to abandon that plan.

Sophie is a bright, energetic young woman who has no interest in or patience for the small, suffocating social circle of officers’ wives that seems to be her expected occupation while Allen is away. Sophie is fascinated by the natural world, and almost accidentally discovers an interest in photography. After a tragedy leaves her at loose ends, she purchases a camera, converts a room in her quarters into a dark room, and sets out to capture her concept of light through the photography of the wild birds in the area, with the elusive hummingbird as her true target.

Meanwhile, Allen’s expedition is beset by challenges and hardships at every turn, from starvation to injury to the delicate task of asking the local tribes for assistance without being seen as enemies. Through it all, Allen and Sophie record their thoughts, hopes, and emotions, as well as their daily activities, in their journals. The picture that emerges is of two highly intelligent people who, despite seeming an odd match, are truly suited to each other in a way that’s rare and beautiful.

The writing in To the Bright Edge of the World is lovely. The author captures the different writing styles and voices of the different characters, giving a unique flavor to the documents each writes. The descriptions of the landscapes and natural wonders is powerful, as are the thoughts and reflections on what it means to love another person, heart and soul.

There is yet another element to the book, which is the sense of the unexplained and magical that lives in the natural world. As Allen’s small team progresses, they encounter things they cannot explain, including an Old Man who also appears to be a raven, who follows them along their path — either to hurt or to help, they can’t be quite sure. Other magical, otherworldly elements come into play, and it’s interesting to note that while Allen records them all in his journals, the official reports of the expedition most certainly do not include these stories and observations.

Meanwhile, the framing device of the novel is a series of letters between an old man, a great-nephew of Colonel Forrester, and the curator of a small Alaskan musuem, as they get to know one another and form an odd friendship as they bond over the treasure trove of documents and artifacts from the family attic — the documents that make up the bulk of the novel.

While I loved the characters, the setting, and the imagery, I do have some minor quibbles. My biggest quibble is the limiting effect of telling a story through documents rather than a direct narrative. While this gives us insight into the characters’ thoughts, it’s by necessity not the most immediate way of depicting the events. Instead of experiencing the most dramatic moments as if we were there, we’re held at arms’ length by reading about the events as the narrators remember and record them. The epistolary approach works in terms of letting us inside the characters’ heads, but it’s a distancing tool when it comes to living and breathing big adventures as they happen.

Likewise, because of the epistolary approach, the supporting characters are known only by the main characters’ observations. I would have liked to know more about what makes certain characters tick, especially the soldiers in Allen’s company and the young native woman who accompanies them, but I felt that we never truly get beyond their outward appearances. (Of course, this is actually rather true to life — how do we get to know anyone, except by what they show us? It’s only in books that we get to know another person’s innermost thoughts.)

I question too the inclusion of the scattered photos, drawings, etc that pop up throughout the book. It felt to me as if they were included rather haphazardly — if the decision was made to augment the story with these types of things, then there should have been more. I actually love seeing the old photos (as if they were truly the products of the fictional characters in the story), but I would have liked a stronger commitment to this approach. Either go for it, or leave them out!

The quibble about the writing style is what keeps this from being a five-star read for me, but overall, I do think the book is a wonderful achievement and hope that it will be widely read and appreciated. Sophie is a remarkable woman, well ahead of her time, and I admired her pioneering spirit and commitment to her dreams, and absolutely love how she and Allen support each other and refuse to be boxed in by the traditional ideas of a proper marriage at that time.

To the Bright Edge of the World is a beautifully written historical novel with well-developed characters and an  unforgettable setting. If you enjoy historical fiction or even just have a hankering for Alaska, check it out.

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The details:

Title: To the Bright Edge of the World
Author: Eowyn Ivey
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: August 2, 2016
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

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