Indy reviewers recall the year's best books

Recovering a Lost River is not only well-researched and chock-full of historical information and scientific fact, it's also a rollicking good read, the narrative equivalent of a raft trip through Hell's Canyon in high water. In a world run down by innumerable stories of environmental degradation, Steven Hawley tells tales of resurrection, about people who have had the temerity to remove dams to serve the gods of freshwater, anadromous fish. (JG)

Montana-raised writer Melanie Rae Thon offers a brutally lucid new collection with In This Light. Thon's storylines are never linear. It's as though they to take place behind a window of frosted glass, like Flannery O'Connor without the Catholic undertones. Characters exist on the fringes of consciousness. Horrible things are always about to happen to the innocent and corrupt alike. (MP)

Josh Wagner's memoir isn't literal. It centers on a teen virgin's pregnancy, yet by the end of Smashing Laptops: A Nomad's Romance with Missoula the story has taken you through so many of The Zoo's strange-but-true corners and stretched so thin your limits on whimsy that you might find yourself making room for just one more immaculate conception. (ML)

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Unlike many other detective novels, the sprouting threads of Feast Day of Fools actually bolster instead of splinter it. James Lee Burke concentrates on the inner lives of his characters, focusing primarily on the reasons why grifters become virtuous and the godly turn dangerous. In this world, events—fortuitous and otherwise—don't just happen, they're caused by carefully delineated characters. (AO)

Going home is a part of almost every childhood memoir. It might be the return to a family dwelling. It might be an emotional return, a revisiting of the people and events that shaped a life for better and worse. Ruth McLaughlin's haunting new memoir, Bound Like Grass, is both. It smolders with energy. A 1950s childhood in rural Montana might seem narrow, but Grass's insights are universal. (AO)

Recipient of a 2010 Bakeless Prize, Beautiful Unbroken is alternately despairing, funny, gross and hopeful. Mary Jane Nealon recalls traveling the country as an oncology nurse. She describes the patients she tended, grand friendships and the whirlwind of love affairs. It's a riveting autioboigraphy of living among the dying. (MP)

Did I mention how funny this book is? Well, it's very funny, and could be read on that basis alone. Skewering her associates and detailing the overt chauvinism of academia in the 1970s (she was commonly referred to as "that woman with the Ph.D."), Mary Clearman Blew's entertaining vignettes are both sour and surreal. This Is Not the Ivy League is best when situated around the Hi-Line university and its all-consuming conflict, where "faculty offices buzzed with plots, rumors, counterplots, all at the deepest level of seriousness." Every characterization, instead of being mere caricature, is nuanced, hilarious and ultimately tragic. (MP)

In Montana native Kim Barker's unorthodox, autobiographical coverage of insurgency and destruction, there's no such thing as a slow news day. The Taliban Shuffle has a landscape like M*A*S*H's and reads like Joseph Heller. Unflinching in its brutal recap of American soldiers plodding through a "forgotten war," the book is tethered by wryness and wit. Comedy offers the purging necessary for survival in an emotionally draining climate. (MP)

Extremophilia is a wide-ranging, wide-eyed assortment of reportage, anecdote and memoir with prose so clean you could eat off it. These are tall tales about forestry, motorcycles and literature that all happen to be true. Fred Haefele's writing is reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson's but with an ecological bent. (MP)

In An Entirely Synthetic Fish, Anders Halverson adds a light, personal touch that spins his story smoothly through what could have been an unnavigable knot of bureaucratic resource management, equal parts well-intentioned and misguided. It's an indictment of a naïve and inertial fisheries policy that's led to pointless expenditure, outbreaks of whirling disease and hybridization with Montana's westslope cutthroat trout. It's sympathetic, with the benefit of hindsight. (BT)

Verlaine Stoner McDonald has taken a bursting corner of forgotten Americana and made it unforgettable. The Red Corner is a definitive account of the rise and fall of prairie socialism; a compulsively balanced tale of scheming, bootleggers, charismatic provocateurs, newspaper wars, Wild West violence, farming and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. One lingering criticism: it ends about 100 pages too soon. (MP)

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