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Our reviewers choose the books of the year

Author Bryce Andrews is a 21st century kind of cowboy, one who's studied environmental science and conservation, and can ride an ATV, rope a heifer, fix a fence and knock back a few beers at the saloon afterward. In his memoir, Badluck Way, he offers a fresh and complex perspective on ranching—one that recognizes the importance of natural rhythms and a rancher's need to protect his or her livelihood. (KW)

Pete Fromm's If Not For This centers on two sweet and innocent river guides, Maddie and Dalton. Gilded young immortals, these two always land on their feet—until Maddie gets multiple sclerosis. I know little about MS, but I found Fromm's portrayal so viscerally believable in this deeply intimate portrait of a heartless illness colliding with a big love. (JD)

Scientist Doug Emlen makes all sorts of fascinating and cheeky comparisons in Animal Weapons, an intriguing bit of pop science that dissects similarities between human and animal weapons on all scales of life. The text is livened by Helena illustrator David Tuss' detailed images of antlered and horned creatures, from fighting ants to freaky anglerfish. (KW)

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Kim Zupan's uncommon knack for vividly describing common things illuminates the setting of central Montana, where The Ploughmen takes place. Some reviewers have compared the book to the works of Cormac McCarthy, and understandably so—the language is similarly rich and themes stark. The story of a sheriff's deputy and a serial killer is a striking, memorable addition to literature of the American West. (KW)

In Tom Connor's Gift, Missoula author David Allan Cates writes the story of a widow who has fled her job and Wisconsin home to hole up in a cabin where she finds an unexpected cache of letters written by an old boyfriend, Tom Connor. The letters ultimately become the pathway by which her grief—palpable, wise and ecstatic in Cates' precise and lyrical prose—might begin to dissipate. (AO)

Fourth of July Creek, the debut novel from former local Smith Henderson, centers on a social worker solely responsible for covering an impossibly large region of northwest Montana in the early 1980s. It crackles with an urgency and depth that presents a rare challenge to the reader: continue turning pages to keep pace with the story, or slow down to fully appreciate passages of elegant prose tackling issues that extend beyond the central plot. (SB)

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In Astoria, Peter Stark, a Missoula-based writer and Outside magazine correspondent, tackles the tale of expeditions sent by John Jacob Astor with ambitious enthusiasm, astounding breadth of knowledge and epic scope. The book covers the history between Lewis and Clark's 1804 trip and the mid-1800s beginning of the Oregon Trail. It all makes for engaging reading—particularly satisfying when the reader is safely curled up on the couch. (KW)

The first 100 pages of James Lee Burke's Wayfaring Stranger read unlike anything else he's written. It starts with a young Texas boy, Weldon Holland, having a chance run-in with Bonnie and Clyde and eventually settling in the postwar South, during America's "Golden Age," as Weldon and a fellow veteran set up an oil pipeline company. From there, the book picks up some of Burke's usual components—good versus pure evil, shadowy moguls pulling strings to keep down hard-working common folk—but it still appears to hold something more personal than, say, the regular Dave Robicheaux novel. (SB)

Our society makes it dangerous for women to be adventurous, to go out of bounds of home and family. It's a theme that crops up throughout Dakota, former reporter Gwen Florio's follow-up murder mystery to her debut, Montana. The fun of Dakota is following along as the protagonist, Lola, extricates herself from trouble, with plenty of help from other strong, self-actualized women. (KW)

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At its heart, The Carry Home is the deeply intimate story of the death of author Gary Ferguson's first wife, Jane, in a canoeing accident in Canada in 2005. It is also about friendship and community, and how people band together in the face of terrible circumstances to lift one another up. (CLT)

What makes Laura Pritchett's Stars Go Blue absolutely devastating is how very mundane and true-to-life its tragedy is. Abuse, grief, estrangement, dementia—these things happen every day. But this book is still beautiful, and I'm glad I read it, because we do find some redemption and catharsis at the end—and some satisfying, dramatic revenge. (KW)

Reviews by Kate Whittle, Skylar Browning, Jo Deurbrouck, Azita Osanloo and Chris La Tray.

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