James Magnuson - Famous Writers I Have Known


James Magnuson

Famous Writers I have Known

W.W. Norton & Company 2014, 311 pages

 

Imposters. Felix Krull by Thomas Mann springs to mind immediately, as does the movie Catch Me If You Can. And Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, of course!


Fascinating protagonists in any case. No matter what else happens in the story, there is always the danger of being found out, so there is this hidden current of suspense in even the most banal encounters.


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Diego Marani - New Finnish Grammar


Diego Marani

New Finnish Grammar

(translated by Judith Landry)

Dedalus, 187 pages 


Neue Finnische Grammatik, the German title of this novel, caught my eye at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. How could it not?! 


In Finnish to know is tietää, and tie means road, or way. Because for us Finns knowledge is a road, a path leading us out of the woods, into the sunlight, and the person who knew the way in the olden times was the magician, the shaman who drugged himself with magic mushrooms and could see beyond the woods, beyond the real world. It is of course true there is more than one possible path to knowledge, indeed there are many. In the Finnish language the noun is hard to lay hands on, hidden as it is behind the endless declensions of its fifteen cases and only rarely caught unawares in the nominative. (p. 56)

 

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San Francisco Noir


Kem Nunn

Chance

Scribner 2014, 320 pages

 

This one caught my eye at City Lights in San Francisco – maybe it was the picture of the Golden Gate Bridge disappearing into the fog; maybe it was the words on the front cover (“Takes place in the twilit world of noir, where people and things are never what they seem.” – NY Times Book Review). At any rate, I read the back cover, noted that it was set in S.F. and knew that I had to read it.


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Earle Labor - Jack London. An American Life


Earle Labor

Jack London. An American Life

Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2013, 384 pages

 

This biography is just as exciting to read as the stories written by the subject of the book!

Born in San Francisco in 1876, Jack London was always on the lookout for an adventure. Long hours working at a cannery, a short stint as an oyster pirate (after which he was hired by the California Fish Patrol), hiring onto a sealing schooner which sailed to Japan, tramping across the US, including thirty days spent in jail, and an expedition to the Klondike during the Gold Rush (bringing back ‘nothing but scurvy’), for example, all by the age of 25.

Famous during his lifetime and while earning large amounts of money, he also spent lavishly, so was often strapped for cash.

He maintained a strict writing schedule, putting down 1000 words each day no matter where he was: sailing on the Snark to Australia, the South Seas and Hawaii or building a lavish mansion which burned down shortly before he was due to move in.

His relationships with his first wife and two daughters and his second wife and ‘soul-mate’ Charmian Kettridge and various other family members and friends were at times equally dramatic.

An incredibly adventurous life well told by Earle Labor!


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Stephen Fry - The Stars' Tennis Balls

Stephen Fry

The Stars’ Tennis Balls

Arrow Books 2011, 436 pages

 

On the inside of the book there is this quote from Mail on Sunday

‘My goodness what fruity language Fry uses! You can feel his enjoyment, and also the huge force of his desire to please you, as you read this.’

 

He certainly pleased me very much with this extremely entertaining novel!

 

It is 1980 and young and handsome Ned, athletic, popular, and madly in love with Portia, lives in what seems to be a flawless world. His perfect life is, however, annoying to a few of his peers, who decide to play a practical joke on him, which in turn leads to devastating consequences for Ned. As a result, he ends up locked away in a mental institution on an island for the next twenty years.

BUT, he meets an interesting friend there who teaches him many things, and after his death, Ned manages to escape. The book would have been even better had Ned's revenge on everybody been more psychological and less physically violent, but still, it is just the kind of story you cannot put down once you have started reading.

(And yes, this is a contemporary version of The Count of Monte Christo!)


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Tom Rachman - The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

Tom Rachman

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

Sceptre Books 2014, 372 pages

 

When we first meet Tooly Zylberberg, it is 2011 and she is the owner of World’s End, a bookshop near Hay-on-Wye. A message from her former boyfriend, Duncan, puts her on a plane back to the US.


The novel bounces between 1988 when Tooly was ten years old and living in Bangkok with her father, 1999 in NYC where she meets Duncan, and 2011 when she travels back to NYC to figure out why her life had been as it was, and who all of these people really were.


Eccentric and lovable characters (most of them) trying to find their places in this world in rather unorthodox fashions (not all of them commendable…you’ll know what I mean after you’ve finished the novel…) combined with frequent references to literature made this novel an immediate favourite. But don’t just listen to me. Here’s what Humphrey has to say (This is the back cover of the novel!):


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Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn - Half the Sky. How to Change the World


Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl Wudunn

Half the Sky. How to Change the World

Virago Press 2010

 

This book certainly raises awareness about a myriad of atrocities committed against women all over the world.

 

It is not easy to read about how horrific human beings can be to one another, and most of these daily acts of violence merit little space in the daily news.

 

The authors describe the suffering in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and various African countries graphically, writing about women who have endured brutality beyond imagination, but who have managed to fight their way out and up, and so have become role models for others. They also write about workers who have devoted their lives to these causes and about the importance of educating women.


Sex trafficking and forced prostitution are more widespread than I had imagined - the numbers here are staggering. Gender based violence such as honor killings and mass rape are focused on as well.

 

It seems a bit strange to thank somebody for giving one a gift which ends up making one’s blood boil, but this book may just be the exception to that... Danke, Sabine!


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Vendela Vida - Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

I just found this book review in my notes, having written it in January 2008.

Vendela Vida

Let the Northern Lights Erase your Name

Ecco 2007

 

 

I read a short description about this book in the Seattle Times a day before I left for Oregon, where my first stop was at Powell’s Books in Portland, and this was the one new book I ended up buying there. Normally I don’t buy new books at full price from a used bookstore filled with fantastic bargains, but this was the one exception. And all because I knew that the book’s heroine, Clarissa, would travel to Lapland which is one of my favourite places on earth.  I think mostly I was curious to see how an American writer living in California would describe this part of the world. After about twenty minutes into the book, I realized that I may as well make myself comfortable on the sofa with a big cup of coffee because I would be there until the book was finished. This was only a couple of hours, since it’s a very slim volume (226 pages)

 

When Clarissa’s father dies, she finds out that he wasn’t her biological father after all, and in her rage and confusion, she sets off for Finnish and Norwegian Lapland to find her family – her real father, and then her mother who had abandoned the family when Clarissa was a teenager.

 

For me it was a story about a search for a sense of belonging when you feel that you don’t have anybody anymore. She’s very perseverant in her search, and it’s heartbreaking to see her get her hopes up over and over, only to have nothing be as it first seems. The story is ensnaring but the writing is spare, which, is fitting. Lapland is spare too. There is nothing extraneous there. No loud, bright details to distract.

 

At the end I found myself both irritated yet satisfied. Irritated with Clarissa’s decisions at the end of the book, yet satisfied, because this was an aspect of human behaviour that is probably very common and I could understand why she would do what she did. As an egoistical reader, who is looking out for her own reading pleasure and viewing Clarissa’s life as a combination of letters on a page, I wish she would be more adventurous. But that’s ok – sometimes I like it when a book doesn’t do what I want it to because it made me think about it, to see another option.

 

However, somebody should have spell-checked the Finnish words...Rovaniemi was spelled incorrectly each and every time, except on the map at the front of the book! 

 

 

 


Peter Hoeg - Smilla's Sense of Snow


Peter Høeg

Smilla's Sense of Snow

Translated by Tiina Nunnally

Delta 1993, 469 pages


No one who falls into the water in Greenland comes up again. The sea is less than 39°F, and at that temperature all the processes of decomposition stop. That’s why fermentation of the stomach contents does not occur here; in Denmark, however, it gives suicides renewed buoyancy and brings them to the surface, to wash up on shore. 


Smilla’s Sense of Snow by the Danish author Peter Høeg is the type of novel one can read just to hear the sound of the language.

Tiina Nunnally’s English translation is so perfect I can’t imagine the original being any better. I own a paperback copy which is worn out and spotted with coffee stains. The novel is written in the present tense, which is not so usual and makes one feel as though one is living the story right along with the protagonists. Smilla, a Greenlander living in Copenhagen, is one of my favorite characters ever – independent, a loner who has distanced herself from people and from much of life as well, smart and very particular about her clothing. When her six-year old neighbour falls to his death from the top of their apartment building, Smilla sets out to find out what happened. 

 

“He was lying,” I say. “He lied at the end. He knows who Tørk Hviid is.”

We look into each other’s eyes. Something is wrong.

“I hate lies,” I say. “If any lying has to be done, I’ll do it myself.”

“Then you should have told him that. Instead of coming right out and hugging him.”

I can’t believe my ears, but I see that I’ve heard correctly. In his eyes there is the gleam of pure, unadulterated, idiotic jealousy.

“I didn’t hug him,” I say. “I helped him into his coat. For three reasons. First, because it’s a courtesy you ought to show toward a fragile, elderly man. Second, because he presumably risked his position and pension to come here.”

“And the third?”

“Third,” I say, “because it gave me the chance to steal his wallet.” 


Every character in the book is fascinating. Every description conjures up images as easily as though one was watching a movie. 

 

The raspberry tart has a bottom layer of almond custard. It tastes of fruit, burnt almonds, and heavy cream. Combined with the surroundings, it is for me the quintessence of the middle and upper classes in Western civilization. The union of exquisitely sophisticated crowning achievements and a nervous, senselessly extravagant consumption.


Peter Menzel & Faith D'Alusio - Hungry Planet: What the World Eats

German Version
German Version


Peter Menzel & Faith D'Alusio

Hungry Planet. What the World Eats

(Available in German: So Isst der Mensch)

 

Thirty families in 24 countries portrayed with their typical weekly food purchases.


This book has been a favorite ever since I bought it, and even the boys were fascinated by the photos showing what people in various countries eat, from the family who hunts seals in Greenland to the Mexican family consuming 24 liters of Coca Cola each week.


Another book by the same authors entitled What I eat. Around the World in 80 Diets is organized by the number of calories consumed by each person, starting with 800 in Kenya and ending with an enormous number which I won't tell you here. Each person is shown with his or her daily ration and the photos are accompanied by descriptions and anecdotes.


These books are for anybody interested in food and I have hardly met anyone who didn't enjoy leafing through it. Would make great gifts. They also make you think about how your own weekly or daily rations would look if they were all arranged on a table in your home.


Bruce Chatwin - Songlines


Bruce Chatwin

Songlines

Vintage Books 1998, 293 pages

 

In the forward to Salattuja voimia, Johanna Sinisalo refers to passages from Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. These quotes made such a strong impression on me that I immediately set down her book and sent an e-mail to our local bookshop to order this one.

 

Of course I knew the name Bruce Chatwin, but still I had never read anything by him before. I wish I had started much earlier! Songlines, first published in 1987, is a sort of travelogue on his efforts to understand the Australian aboriginals’ manner of charting the country by using so-called songlines. Musings and collections of thoughts on nomadic travel make up part of the book.

I should set down on paper a résumé of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness.

Wonderful reading. Although it did make me even more restless than I already am. I started marking passages in the book with little stickers but gave up when I realized how many there were.

 


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Lisa O'Donnell - The Death of Bees

 

 

Lisa O’Donnell

The Death of Bees

Windmill Books 2013, 295 pages

 

 

Completely engrossed in this book, I was able to ignore everything around me at the airport, on the plane and in the local trains on a short trip to Frankfurt. (Monika at Buchhandlung Slawski raved about this novel so much that I had to buy and read it immediately!)

 

Despite being a horrifying story of neglected children, it is told in a fantastic and sometimes quite humorous manner, making it extremely readable in the cannot-put-it-down sense of the word!

 

Marnie and Nelly are fifteen and twelve years old when their parents die. To avoid being put into state care, they bury the bodies in the backyard of their house in the slums of Glasgow and hope that nobody notices. Lennie, the old man next door does become curious however, but he also has problems of his own to deal with. Narrated alternately by the three main characters.

 

Excerpt from the book (Marnie):

 

Even when I was grateful it wasn’t for the things a normal person would be grateful for:

‘Thanks for not coming home with total strangers and keeping me up all night with Blue Monday’; ‘Thanks for buying eggs and not crack this week’; ‘Thanks for making it to the toilet last night and not shitting all over the sofa’; and last, but not least, ‘Thanks for suffocating yourself, Izzy, and making it easier to move your dead body into a coal bunker.’

 

The German translation is called Bienensterben and it is the Book of the Month at Slawski.

 

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Robert M. Sapolsky - Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers

 

Robert M. Sapolsky

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

418 pages (plus almost 100 pages of notes at the end) 

 

Divided into various chapters explaining the connections between stress and various aspects of mental and physical health, including disease, sleep, depression, aging, pain, and memory.

 

I wasn’t able to keep up with all the scientific terms and do admit to skimming a little here and there and also forgetting many of the details after reading it. This didn’t stress me out though, because his writing style is great, the general subject is interesting and the parallels between baboons and humans are often amazing…

 

Not a how-to-avoid-stress manual!

 

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Chico Buarque - Budapest

 

 

Chico Buarque

Budapest

Bloomsbury 2004, 183 pages 

 

How can one resist a book that begins with this sentence?

 

It should be against the law to mock someone who tries his luck in a foreign language.

 

José is forced to spend a night in Budapest due to a bomb scare on his flight back to Rio and he becomes fascinated with the Hungarian language.

 

I turned up the volume, but it was in Hungarian, rumoured to be the only tongue in the world that the devil respects.

 

While watching the news on TV he tries to decipher what he hears.

 

…and by now my shoulders had tensed, not because of what I saw, but from the strain of trying to catch at least one word. Word? Without the slightest notion of the appearance, the structure, the actual body of the words, I had no way of knowing where each one began or finished. It was impossible to detach one from the next; it would be like trying to cut a river with a knife.

 

Later on when he returns to Hungary and his language teacher/lover laughs at a grammar mistake, he thinks:

 

But before leaving I would make a proclamation in Portuguese, in very obscene Brazilian Portuguese, with oxytone words ending in āo, names of indigenous trees and African dishes that would terrify her, a vernacular that would reduce her Hungarian to zero.

 

The story (and José) goes back and forth between Rio de Janeiro and Budapest, between his somewhat nebulous relationship to his wife and son in Brazil and Kriska in Hungary, a ghostwriter who attends Anonymous Writers’ Congresses and always these wonderful references to languages - learning them, explaining them, living in them.

 

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Anthony McCarten - In the Absence of Heroes

Anthony McCarten

In the Absence of Heroes (Deutsch: Ganz normale Helden)

 

Another recommendation from Monika Külper at Slawski. New Zealand author Anthony McCarten read there last year and it was the most entertaining author reading I have been to (with Jo Nesbø at the Hamburg KrimiFestival in 2011 close behind).

 

Had to read this book in German because it was unavailable in English at the time, and when someone in the audience mentioned this to Mr. McCarten, he answered that the German translations were excellent; in fact, he said, the German versions are probably better than the originals. This is a sequel to Superhero, but it’s not necessary to read that first. In this book, Donald is dead and his family is trying to survive without him. Renata, the mother, starts chatting with someone named God and Donald’s brother Jeff has all but disappeared into an online game called Life of Lore. Following Jim, Jeff’s father, as he tries to get in touch with Jeff anonymously through this computer game provide for some of the most hilarious scenes imaginable.

 

Read the book – in any language!

 

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John Niven - Straight White Male

John Niven

Straight White Male

William Heinemann 2013

 

Kennedy Marr is a wealthy Irish novelist living in LA, one of the most self-centered hedonistic characters one will ever meet.

 

All Kennedy wanted – all he’d ever wanted – was to do exactly as he pleased all the time in an utterly consequence-free environment. Was this so much to ask for?

 

Suddenly confronted with a load of unpaid taxes and not enough cash to pay them, the only solution (besides finishing the novel he hasn’t even started) is to accept a prestigious literature prize in England which has been granted to him. However, this means moving to the same town with his ex-wife and 16-year old daughter for a year while teaching at the university where not all people are happy to see him.

Those looking for a politically-correct book written in a nice tame manner, look elsewhere.

To sum up what I think of this novel, I’ll just quote Kennedy’s answer to a lady asking whether or not he has certain ideas he tries to get across in his books.

 

Ach, you just want to delight the reader really, Kennedy said.

 

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Robin Sloan - Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2012

 

A booklover’s novel, but one which merges old books with new technology, spiced with a bit of cryptography and rounded off with a cast of eccentric and intelligent characters. Of course we want to read this!

 

Visit Robin Sloan’s website and read more about it if you aren’t already on your way to the nearest bookstore.

 

http://www.robinsloan.com/penumbra/

 

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Helen DeWitt - The Last Samurai

Helen DeWitt

The Last Samurai

Chatto & Windus 2000

 

Of my favorite books, this is one of my very favorites!

Sibylla is the genius mother of a genius child, Ludo, who starts learning Greek at age three. Then he moves on to Hebrew, Arabic and Japanese. Despite Sibylla’s intelligence, she has a low-paying job typing up back issues of magazines. The first part of the book is narrated by Sibylla and the second by Ludo as he starts school and then later begins to search for his father using only clues gleaned from his mom.

 

L is up to Odyssey 17. This is so bad for him. Hundreds of people saying wonderful marvellous far too young what a genius. It seems to me that it does not take miraculous intelligence to master the simple fact that ‘Ὀδυσσεύς’ is Odysseus, if you go on to master 5,000 similar facts you have only shown that you are a miracle of obstinacy.

 

It’s not just the story I liked, it’s the entire style of the book, and how the characters are constantly learning new things simply for the love of learning. I like that the Greek alphabet is in there, that Japanese characters are explained as is some peculiarity of Hebrew grammar, even if I speak none of those languages.

It’s an absolutely brilliant novel.

Akira Kurosawa’s movie Seven Samurai is watched incessantly by Sibylla and her son, hence the title.

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Janet Frame - An Angel At My Table

Janet Frame

An Angel at My Table

Virago Press 

 

 

I wish I had discovered this author as a teenager or in my twenties when I didn’t have a single ounce of self-confidence.  But better late than never. This wonderful autobiography which was originally published in three volumes (To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, The Envoy from Mirror-City) describes her life in great detail, growing up in New Zealand, the excruciating shyness which caused her to avoid many situations and sometimes even just walk out of certain ones, the tragedies in her family – two sisters died very young, both by drowning and the years she spent in various psychiatric institutions after having been (falsely) diagnosed with schizophrenia. Luckily she came in contact with people who encouraged her to keep writing, mainly Frank Sargeson, also a writer, who was a mentor to many New Zealand writers. He let her live in a hut on his property in Takapuna where she wrote her first novel Owls Do Cry. He also helped her obtain a writing grant so that she could travel abroad. Janet Frame spent the next seven years living and writing primarily in England, Ibiza and Andorra before returning to New Zealand.

 

Despite her shyness which was almost crippling at times, she clung to her reading and writing, always turning to words, no matter what the situation. She was strong in that sense then, always believing in her own abilities and never giving up on her writing. This is an autobiography one races through. Candidly written with an amazing attention to detail, descriptions of how people walk or hold their bodies, vegetation (there were so many mentions of macrocarpa that I finally looked it up in order to see a photo of it) and throughout the book there is always this sense of her intelligence and love of learning which is never extinguished no matter how difficult things were.

 

Once when the train was forced to a stop before a landslide of clay covering the line, the driver and fireman and a trolley of gangers worked with shovels clearing the line while the passengers sat silently immersed in the green dream, and when the train at last began to move, creaking slowly around the narrow bend after narrow bend where rainwater oozed from every pore of earth and bark and leaf and fern, there was the privilege of knowing, like being favoured with a secret, that this was not the ‘main trunk line’, accepted by use, with refreshment stops and cities along the way, this was a ‘branch line’, with all its mystery, neglect, vague atmosphere of exile which is the nature of branch lines everywhere, even in dreams, thinking, and history.



Yrsa Sigurðardóttir 

One of my favorite crime novelists. Five of her books so far have the lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir solving cases and three are separate tales.


I made the mistake of starting her latest novel (Seelen im Eis in German - has not been translated into English yet as far as I can tell) late at night while at home alone.

It's creepy. Odinn is responsible for his 11-year old daughter ever since his ex-wife accidentally fell out of the window to her death. He also has a new job which involves researching a former home for delinquent boys located in a remote part of Iceland and the story alternates between Odinn's life in the present and what happened at the home more than thirty years ago.


I have read all of her novels and seeing that there was a new release from her, I ordered it without even bothering to read a description of it first.


The first novel in the Thora Gudmundsdottir series is called Last Rituals in English.



Olivier Truc - Forty Days Without Shadow

Olivier Truc

Forty Days Without Shadow / Viimeinen Saamelainen

(original: Le Dernier Lapon)

 

Received this novel in Finnish (Viimeinen Saamelainen) for Christmas from my friend Liisa. It takes place in Kautokeino, Northern Norway, in the heart of winter, just when the sun begins to show itself again after forty days of near darkness. Klemet Nango, a reindeer policeman and his partner, Nina Nansen, investigate the theft of a shamanic drum which has been stolen from a local museum right before it was to be put on display. Shortly afterwards, a local reindeer herder is killed and his ears cut off. Klemet and Nina are sure that the the two incidents are related, but much is being covered up as politicians, nationalists, sami citizens and the visiting French geologist all follow their own interests.

 

Reading this book in the dreary grayness of Northern Germany's not-quite-winter was frustrating. I too wanted desperately to be in Northern Lapland where temperatures can fall to -40°C, winters are dark, population sparse and where distances take on an entirely new meaning.

 

A fascinating and smart read.


Maria Semple - Where'd You Go, Bernadette?


Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

 

What a cool, clever, funny and beautiful story!

 

Bernadette used to be a promising architect in L.A. but has been living more or less as a recluse for the past twenty years in Seattle, using Delhi Virtual Assistants Internt'l to take care of everything she needs. Her husband, Elgie, works at Microsoft and daughter Bee attends a private middle school, where Bernadette is loathed by the other mothers. One day Bernadette disappears without a word, without a trace, shortly before the family is due to travel to Antarctica.


There is really no way to describe the story without spoilers, so just trust me. Buy it, borrow it, whatever - just read it! The dialogue is hilarious.


Oliver Sacks - Hallucinations

Oliver Sacks

Hallucinations


Hallucinations can be caused by migraines, failing eyesight, bereavement, and sensory deprivation among other things. Patient stories, Dr. Sack's own mind-altering experiences and neurological research make the phenomena of hallucinations seem so widespread and normal to the point where I began to wonder what is wrong with me that I have never had one...


Scott Elliott - Temple Grove

 

Scott Elliott

Temple Grove

University of Washington Press, 2013 

 

Received this one from my mom for my birthday. Part of what I loved about this novel was the perfect setting; The Olympic National Park in Washington State, surely one of the most beautiful places in the world with its rugged Pacific coast, Hoh Rainforest and mountains. Add a cast of sympathetic (and some not so) characters, stir in some Makah traditions and tell the story using beautifully crafted sentences - and there you have one of my favorite books from 2013.

 

Text from book jacket:

 

Deep in the heart of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula lies Temple Grove, one of the last stands of ancient Douglas firs not under federal protection from logging. Bill Newton, a gyppo logger desperate for work and a place to hide, has come to Temple Grove for the money to be made from the timber. There to stop him is Paul, a young Makah environmentalist who will break the law to save the trees.

 

A dangerous chase into the wilds of Olympic National Park ensues, revealing a long-hidden secret that inextricably links the two men. Joining the pursuit are FBI agents, who target Paul as an ecoterrorist, and Paul’s mother, Trace, who is determined to protect him. Temple Grove is a gripping tale of suspense that captures in taut, luminous prose the traditions that tie people to this powerful landscape – and the conflicts that run deep among them.