14 August 2008

Older Stabenow stories

In an effort to transfer some of the contents of the old ReadingOnTheWeb to the new blog and since I refered to earlier Stabenow books, here are my comment on 5 of Stabenow's books I've written about in the past.

From August 2001: So Sure of Death and Nothing Gold Can Stay

On a cloudy, rainy April weekend, we headed up to Sidetrack, our escape from normal life. We were planning some major maintenance and wanted to do some work in preparation for the "guys with big trucks" who would show up soon.

  • We moved some furniture out of the mini-loft in preparation for the installation of a skylight.
  • We moved over a ton of sidewalk paving blocks and landscaping rocks in preparation for the installation of some drainage tiles.
  • I also worked hard to relax.

My vehicle for sitting down and relaxing was a book from the top of the pile next to the bed: So Sure of Death by Dana Stabenow.

Stabenow is an Alaskan writer whose early books have been diversionary treats. She does a fine job of recreating the Alaskan landscapes for those of us who have never been there. She has a skillful way with comedy, romance, and danger. The plots of the mysteries are not too complex, but the characters and the dialogue are great for entertainment.

The main characters in this book are Alaskan State Trooper Liam Campbell and bush pilot Wyanet Chouinard. The stories in this novel revolve around father-son relationships, an archaeological dig, hazardous waste, and hazardous relationships. A well-told tale. It made me thankful for the cloudy, cool weather at Little Blake Lake.

If you like mysteries and haven't read any by Stabenow yet, give one of hers a try. So Sure of Death is a good sample. Breakup is superb for comedy. Hunter's Moon is memorable for threats and adventure. Any and all of them contain a bit of romance. There must be some in the library near you. Check one out.

While on the topic of Dana Stabenow's books, let me add an approving nod to another.

During the early summer I picked up Nothing Gold Can Stay, another book about Liam Campbell and Wyanet Chouinard.

A plot with greater-than-usual complexity and a larger-than-usual passel of characters distinguishes this book from Stabenow's earlier writing. It's a multi-threaded story that drew me in with vignettes of life in the bush and then kept me reading with fascinating connections between people and events. A decade-old disappearance of a back country hiker, a native teenager who never returned from a fish camp, a bureaucrat with gold fever and his long suffering wife, and a serial killer in the bush are some of the features of this book. It's all as unlikely as real life sometimes. (A news article in the August 6, 2001 Star Tribune about a woman who disappeared in Yosemite National Park and an FBI agent's comments about serial killers eerily parallel part of the novel's plot.)

From October 2003: Nancy came home from the library with a new mystery by Dana Stabenow, Better to Rest.

Stabenow writes about people on the edge of Alaska's wilderness: Alaska state cops, bush pilots, bar keepers, salmon and crab harvesters, and native people. I have enjoyed her books a great deal. She has written funny stories and hair-raising adventures. Some of her mysteries are convoluted and some are merely tales unwinding.

This book is mostly character study. It's not funny. It's not really a mystery. And, as a character study it's superficial.

The book was decent entertainment. I needed a break from more serious stuff when I read it. It's almost a step above romance novels, but I can't be sure. I've only skimmed through one of those. I've read several of Stabenow's books. The others are better. Look in the library for them before you pick up this one.

A couple weeks later, Nancy came home from the library with a new mystery by Dana Stabenow. This one was called A Fine and Bitter Snow.

In spite of my earlier experience, I picked it up. Unlike some of her earlier books, I didn't feel any urgency to finish this one. The first half of the book is background. After I was lulled into quiet reflection about the kind of people who live on the outskirts of what passes for civilization in Alaska's outback, there was a horrific murder. Isn't that how those things happen? The event is unexpected and not foreshadowed. It's not part of normal life. That shock is part of the horror.

Stabenow's characters don't so much find the murderer as they are found by the killer. Spinning out the yarn takes the second half of the book. It's pretty well done, though I thought there were too many details glossed over.

Once again, Stabenow was practicing writing romance fiction in the midst of this book. (At least the romance novel sections didn't overwhelm this book.) She didn't gloss over the details of the sex scenes, but she did gloss over the motivations. (Method actors would have trouble with some of the scenes.)

There are many references to scenes from previous "Kate Shugak novels." If you're new to the series, it might be off putting. Even I, who has read most of these books, had trouble figuring out what some of the references meant. (Then again, I have no great memory for what I decide are non-essentials.)

A Fine and Bitter Snow is better than Better to Rest. But, if you want to sample Stabenow's books, begin with some of the earlier ones. They were better yet.

From August 2004: Nancy checked out Dana Stabenow's newest Kate Shugak mystery from the library and brought it up to Sidetrack on a wonderful July weekend. She stayed up late and woke up early to finish it. That was a good recommendation for me.

I was writing about Nigeria and taking breaks by pulling weeds in the patio, walking up and down the road, and reading some non-fiction. On one of my breaks, I picked up A Grave Denied.

I never know quite what to expect from one of Stabenow's books. She's written mysteries, thrillers, adventure stories, a romance novel, and at least one mystery full of comedy. This one's definitely a mystery. The regular cast of characters from Niniltna, Alaska is there. The hint of romance and sexual tension (and relief) are there as are the reminders that the Alaskan "outback" is a place where people can disappear. (Although I'd think the residents of Niniltna would be as wary of Kate Shugak as those people of Cabot Cove, Maine should be of Jessica Fletcher. (I know, I know: suspend disbelief!)

Kate Shugak was an investigator for the Anchorage DA before burning out and returning to the home she grew up in. Now when the local Alaskan trooper needs help asking questions about the murder of someone who had disappeared in plain sight in the "outback," Kate gets hired. Instead of eliminating suspects as she asks questions, she finds more and more of them. Then someone tries to kill her.

There are secondary stories about family and romance, but the main story is well told. This was one of those books I was really sorry to see the last page of. I still have writing to do tomorrow, and I'll have to go back to the road or the garden or the non-fiction for my breaks. None of them -- well maybe the road through the woods -- will be as good as Stabenow's book. It's been in the Northfield library since November, so it's probably in yours. Go for it.

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