The Only Kayak: A Journey Into The Heart Of Alaska is another escapist book that takes us to Alaska, in the wilderness that the author very much wants to keep wild. The best parts of the book are those in which he takes us with him in his kayak to explore bays, glaciers, and mountains whose beauty and wildlife he is skilled at sharing with us. He also describes his work as a National Parks ranger and his friendships, especially with a gifted Japanese wildlife photographer, which gives rise to more beautiful descriptions of the land.
There’s also a fair amount of ranting against cruise ships and commercial fishing, which on the one hand is understandable, as both activities should be regulated much more than they are now, but some of it felt a bit uncomfortable, as if the author wanted to keep all this beauty just for him and a few chosen ones. Surely, there’s a way we can share without wrecking the place?
I have loved other John Straley mysteries (here and here). The Big Both Ways fell short.
It stars a man who saved enough money from a brutal logging job and an anarchist with a dead man in the trunk of her car who escape Seattle for Alaska — with the woman’s young niece and her cockatiel– in a tiny boat. Various adventures ensue, some self-inflicted and others caused by the police and unions who are after them.
As much as I was rooting for the trio, it became less and less likely that they would escape their foes or the ocean. Glad they made it, but just could not believe enough.
Cold Storage, Alaska is, nominally, a crime novel, but the real attraction is the setting, the small and remote town of Cold Storage, Alaska, and especially its denizens, all high in color. Crime arrives with the medic’s brother, a drug dealer freshly liberated from prison, tracked by his crime boss and the local police. A combination bar and church is created, various shenanigans ensue, and lots of unique characters come together, ending in a spectacular explosion. Up until then, it was all highly believable, and charming.
Cecil Younger, the hero of Baby’s First Felony, has a problem. He has a suitcase full of cash that belongs to one of his clients (and whose origin is, to say the least. tainted), and more important, his rebellious teenage daughter is missing and is being held by a drug trafficker who wants him to forget about him in exchange for his daughter’s life. Fortunately his felon clients all turn up to help him catch the fiend, with much collateral damage including a blown-up apartment building and a few deaths. The whole story is written, hilariously, as a trial testimonial. It’s dark and funny and perfect.
I love A Wolf Called Romeo, a story of a friendly wolf on the outskirts of Juneau, who played with dogs he could easily have killed, and enchanted their owners. The writer is a wildlife photographer and he tells the story first as a great love story with a wild animal, but he has much to say about the internal workings of the interweaved wildlife agencies that supervise the Alaskan landscape, the politics of human/wolf interactions, the failings of clueless dog owners, and also how experienced wildlife lovers can forget about the distance we must keep so wild animals can remain wild — and survive. O, and the photographs are stunning!
On the surface, Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-up World, One Long Journey Home is a standard story of growing up between two divorced parents — but one lives in Alaska, where she was born, and takes her on wondrous and dangerous adventures in the wilderness, which gives the book a memorable spiciness. But it’s more than the exotic locale that makes the book a delightful experience. The author does a great job of telling the story from the perspective of the child she was, whether she is listening to her parents’ guests’ tall tales of wilderness mishaps, trying to escape her mother’s budgeting woes, or the joy of shooting guns. And she also captures the essential awkwardness she has always felt when she gets close to others, whether a friend’s parents or her own husband. Used to being on her own, shuffled between two parents who could not get too close to her for too long, she finds close relationships rather disorienting. A great book about families and children.
One cold day in 1992, a container of bath toys went overboard in a freak storm over the Pacific. The toys (ducks and other creatures) floated all the way to Alaska, and perhaps beyond, and the author of Moby-Duck goes looking for them and how they managed to travel so far. Along the way we meet beachcombers and the very entertaining Beachcomber’s Alert! magazine, environmental organizations that compete for funding and dispute each other’s techniques and approaches, a blind oceanographer, and Canadian school children who write charming messages to be loaded into beer bottles, a technique that seems to be the best method we have now to test oceanic drifts.
This is a long and meandering book, and I loved part of it while I found others boring. I loved the tracking of the ducks, the description of the horrifying plastic pollution in Alaska, where some beaches are just covered with tiny pieces of colored plastic, loved the author’s voyage on a container ship and his adventures snorkelling off Hawaii (in the name of science, searching for plastic pollution!) I was bored by the descriptions of the Chinese toy factories and could not see the relevance of the trip through the Arctic, despite the beer bottles and the always whimsical thoughts of the author who says he fears the unknown, but managed to travel to very exotic locations for his research.
Want to get really depressed? Pick up Caribou Island.You get a small island with the expected frigid Alaskan weather, on which a husband and wife attempt to build a cabin after thirty years of raising kids and such. Despite having waited thirty years, they don’t seem to have thought out their plans very well, even basic things such as how the doors will fit into the logs of the cabin, and the construction doesn’t go very well — to match the state of their marriage. Meanwhile their daughter is hoping for her dentist boyfriend to propose but instead he gets busy with a visiting young thing, who in turn breaks the heart of her boyfriend. And so perhaps the happiest couple of the story is the son and his girlfriend, perhaps because they live in a haze of marijuana?
What a nightmare!
The first Nathan Active mystery, White Sky, Black Ice stars the same State Trooper who untangles disappearances and murders in the other books of the series. This one is about suspicious suicides — and at the rate we’re going the little town of Chuckchi will be extinct soon! Another well-crafted mystery, which pits the Inupiat against a cold-hearted multinational, with many twists and a too-good-to-be-true ending that feels very good in the moment.