Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Book Reviews: 'Stone Cold' by C.J. Box

Review: Joe Pickett battles the elements and criminals in C.J. Box thriller set in Wyoming

"Stone Cold" (G.P. Putnam's Sons), by C.J. Box
Many Americans aren't that familiar with Wyoming, except perhaps for Yellowstone National Park. In C.J. Box's thrillers, the Cowboy State is a featured character and you get to know its thickly forested mountains, its windy plains and its frontierlike towns.
In "Stone Cold," the latest installment in the Joe Pickett series (Joe being a game warden who finds trouble as easily as a grizzly finds grubs), Box takes readers to one of the most remote places of his beloved home state: the northeast corner that has been bypassed by the economy as well as many travelers.
Pickett is sent by the governor on an undercover mission to fictional Medicine Wheel County (maybe the author decided not to use the real name of Crook County because almost everyone in the novel there is, well, a crook). Making a repeat appearance in the opening scenes is Pickett's buddy, former special forces operative Nate Romanowski, who is on a mission to kill a bad guy — targeting not a jihadist but a shady American millionaire. Nate seems to have crossed a line, but can he get back onto the right side?
The author paints vivid pictures of the Black Hills, which unknown to a lot of people exist in Wyoming as well as in South Dakota, and you can feel the elements — a snowstorm descending on the mountains, the bitter cold. Landscape and weather are important features of Wyoming (get stuck for hours in a ground blizzard on I-80 and watch an antelope fall dead at your feet from hunger and exhaustion and you'll know what I mean), and Box depicts these well. He's also got a B plot rolling when Pickett's daughter, a student at the University of Wyoming, has to deal with a creepy potential school-shooter in her dorm.
Box weaves some history into this novel, the 14th in the Pickett franchise. We learn that the Sundance Kid got his name from the town of the same name in northeast Wyoming. Before he hooked up with Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, he was arrested in Sundance for stealing a horse, a saddle and a gun.
The area, at least in the novel, is on the skids, mining and logging having played out. So the residents are subsisting mostly on government benefits and are more susceptible to collaborating with a rich guy who shows up buying property and influence, and who might be organizing assassinations of wealthy but dubious characters for big payoffs.
It's an accessible, quick and fun read, though the characters can get long-winded at times with a lot of background information jammed into dialogue. There are precious bits scattered in the story like so many nuggets of Black Hills gold: Nate not wanting to be involved with a woman who is coming on to him, but also not being able to resist her laugh, her smile and her "beguilingly musical" voice. Sounds like a person falling in love, which is hard to capture in any genre.

Review: C.J. Box's latest is short on energy

To mark the release of his newest book, "Stone Cold," Cheyenne author C.J. Box will hold two book-signings on Tuesday.

The first will be at 1 p.m. at the American Heritage Center in Laramie. The center is located on the University of Wyoming campus at 2111 Willett Drive.

Box then will be in Cheyenne at 7 p.m. at the Laramie County Library. The address is 2200 Pioneer Ave.

By D. Reed Eckhardt

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about C.J. Box's latest Joe Pickett book, "Stone Cold," is that he has abandoned his turn to the absurd that has spoiled his last couple of works.

No drones guided by rogue federal officials, firing off explosives in the midst of Wyoming's forests here. No hand-held missiles nearly taking out Pickett's good friend, Nate Romanowski, in a cave.

No, in "Stone Cold" (370 pages, $26, Penguin Group), Box has returned to his roots, building a story around Pickett and his family.

Problem is, "Stone Cold" lacks the energy of the author's best books. It just kind of chugs along -- particularly in its first two-thirds -- before picking up steam on the way to its conclusion. It feels as if the author lost interest in this story before he even started writing it.

And Box also has discarded what has become one of his best calling cards: a hot topic in the news around which to wrap his tale. In the past, such topics have included, among other things, endangered species, wind energy, survivalists, and, yes, out-of-control government officials.

Without that, "Stone Cold" comes off as a common mystery as Pickett is sent on a mission by the governor.

The goal: to find out just what the heck is going on at a massive and very private ranch in the Black Hills in northeastern Wyoming. Rumors swirl about the place, its wealthy owner -- who is alleged to be involved in serious crimes -- its airstrip and its strangers moving in and out.

Along the way, the reader bumps into Romanowski, who is surprisingly wrapped up in a scheme that includes a grisly way of disposing of the bodies. And there is the surprise reappearance of a character -- a Pickett nemesis -- who readers thought had left the series several books ago.

That is what will help to get fans of the Pickett series through "Stone Cold." There is that sense of the familiar as the reader is reintroduced to the Pickett daughters, who have matured over the series' 14 books, as well as Pickett's wife, Marybeth. It is enjoyable to watch the family interact -- sometimes with fireworks -- and see how they work out their lives.

There also is a side story involving Pickett's oldest daughter, Sheridan, now a resident assistant in a dorm at the University of Wyoming. Is a strange young man someone to be worried about, especially when some guns go missing?

This is where Box supplies his surprise -- another hallmark of the Pickett book formula. But this side story seems like it was attached as an afterthought rather than serving as an integral part of the tale. That makes it less engaging when it arises.

"Stone Cold" is not one of Box's best works, but it does serve as a means to keep the Pickett family story moving along.

The author has proven that he can write good -- no, great -- books. Witness his latest standalone, "The Highway." I just wish he had applied similar levels of energy and enthusiasm to this one.

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