Thursday, June 05, 2003


Lest anyone doubt my assertion that Wyoming is not only the place where the visitor must set his clock back ten years or that it is, in fact, a cargo cult-ish third world nation in many respects, attend the following:

My Own Dear Personal Mother and I are currently driving my father crazy with our cussion, discussion, analysis and complaints about... Myst.

Yes, that same pioneering, annoying CD-ROM game that caused such a sensation in the mid-90s. The one with the exquisite-for-the-time 3-D renderings, maddening hints and clues and back story that must be pieced together through laborious reading of disappearing calligraphy in the books of the library -- that Myst.

MODPM, who occasionally fills in as a sort of assistant assistant librarian's assistant, stumbled across a mostly intact copy of the thing at the Saratoga Branch Library's annual book sale. Price: $1.

MODPM (as I sift through the small pile of science fiction books, most of which look suspiciously familar, as in didn't I donate these for the library's lending collection when I left Saratoga for college in 1988 familiar. Sigh): Kate, have you ever heard of this?

Your Humble Blogger (noting package, stifling screaming flashbacks of howling patrons all but physically assaulting the bank of computers at Cafe Liberty, the East Coast's first cybercafe, ca. about 1995): Yes. Yes I have.

MODPM: Is it any good?

YHB: That depends. From what I recall, you would probably like it.

(screechy violins rage through the soundtrack, straight out of that of, say, Psycho)

MODPM: Well, it's only a dollar. I think some of the manuals are missing, though.

YHB: Only a dollar? Buy it.

Thus, thus was my, was our, fate sealed.

I don't know that any manuals are missing because I don't recall there ever having been much of a manual, apart from the little booklet that tells one how to "zip" or turn on "transitions" mode so she can skip the endless sequences of, e.g., riding the elevator up the tower or walking down the long path to gawk again at the little clock tower on the little island that we still haven't figured out how to reach. Proof that the game designers, and the maniac who placed this item in the book sale, were not complete sadists, this.

And so now MODPM's computer desk is littered with all of the little notes and paraphernalia that littered all of your desks out there in the real world years ago - poorly rendered sketches of the constellations (we're both writers, not draughtsmen or copyists, thank you!), lists of dates and times, cryptic sequences of numbers and musical notes and voltage settings.

Pleasingly, the experience has brought us (even) closer together (though it is predictably further alienating MODPD who still after all these years rolls his eyes and grumbles when we start discussing another late arrival in our lives, Star Trek: Voyager, never before seen in Saratoga until late this spring when our cable company finally gave us a UPN station). We both blinked back tears of joy and mutual admiration earlier this week, for example, after I figured out how to set the power station's voltage to the target figure (creating in the process another cryptic scrap of paper).

Of course, now that My Own Dear Personal Parents are preparing to make their first real journey in Their Own Dear Personal Motor Home, leaving Your Humble Blogger to content herself with WAM conventions and watching the river rise and concocting a business plan out of thin air and listening to another round of (cow?)pie in the sky sewer lagoon planning, I've more or less had to swear an oath to her that I will keep my nose out of the Myst until they return, less I spoil the fun by solving it all by myself.

Yeah, like that's going to happen.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003


By C.J. Box
(New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2003)

Winterkill is, quite simply, the novel I have been waiting for Wyoming mystery novelist C.J. Box to write.

His first two novels, Open Season and Savage Run, established his potential and garnered him critical acclaim and bestseller status – for good reason. Box has pretty much created a whole new sub-genre of murder mystery, with a Wyoming game warden as the detective and plots that turned on the American West's land, resource and environmental issues that seldom get such balanced or sympathetic treatment as Box gives them.

Open Season, in addition to introducing us to game warden and reluctant detective Joe Pickett, explored the implications and unintended complications of the Endangered Species Act as its hero – and his family – became embroiled in a complicated set of plots and plans centering on concealing the survival of a species thought long extinct. Savage Run continued Pickett's story with a tale of environmental extremists, asshole hobby ranchers, and an unhinged stock detective.

Both books are cracking good page-turners, the characters vivid and interesting, the plot lines refreshingly unhackneyed and inventive, the ruggedness and beauty of the Wyoming terrain Pickett patrols well evoked, though at times Box strays into what I can only describe as scenery porn.**

What makes them, and Box's brand-new Winterkill truly memorable, though, is the texture, the background of the conflicts Box so skillfully sets up and executes and intensifies to the point of unbearability – a background handled, for the most part, with fairness and sensitivity, especially in the first two books. Ecoterrorists and Tom Horn wannabes both get their say and both get to be fully human even as they perform inhuman acts (environmental extremist and Saddlestring, Wyo. native Stewie Woods routinely spikes trees knowing he is creating the potential for working men he may have known since childhood to be maimed, even die on the job; stock detective Charlie Tibbs' unhinged and single minded pursuit of Woods and Pickett through the eponymous canyon is like something out of a Hitchcock movie); concerns about unscrupulous timber harvesting practices and about the true nature of "magical and beautiful" wolves get equal play. Some minor characters, most notably Savage Run's Britney Earthshare, do threaten to become caricatures, but even they get sympathetic treatment and are allowed, to a degree, to evolve.

These trends in Box's fiction continue in Winterkill, which introduces yet another seemingly fanciful but all-too-plausible element to the ongoing saga of Joe Pickett and Saddlestring, Wyo. As winter truly sets in, the mountains above Saddlestring are invaded by a caravan of refugees from every "extremist" showdown with the federal government over the last 15 years, survivors of Waco, Ruby Ridge, the Montana Freemen, you name it.

And coincidentally, a ranking Forest Service Bureaucrat has just lost his mind, been caught poaching, and gotten himself murdered almost right under poor Joe's nose!

But is it a coincidence? USFS hotshot Melinda Strickland doesn't think so.

And this is where the novel really gets interesting. While Open Season and Savage Run both feature somewhat sympathetic, or at least well-rounded villains with understandable agendas, with Strickland Box has let his melodramatic instincts run away with him; she might as well be wearing a black hat and twirling a mustache – but Box goes her one better, making her a modern day White Witch straight out of C.S. Lewis, wrapped in blankets in the back of a sledge (OK, a snowcat), an annoying dog cuddled to her breast, viciously driving her dwarf minions (OK, other USFS bureaucrats) through the blinding snow and the towering drifts on her way to exact revenge!!

A scene of note: as plans to "go get" those outlaws on the mountain are laid, Strickland calls a press conference/public forum to justify her plans and her planned actions to anyone who cares to know. The scene rings as true as any I've ever read in modern literature, and is almost painfully funny as Saddlestring residents complain about having no say in forest policy, local rangers tapdance around the issue, audience members share their pained ironic takes in sotto voce and everyone is told, finally, to just shut up because it's going to be Strickland's Way or nothing.

Medicine Bow National Forest's draft management plan, anyone?

Political/resource issues aside, this is also another chapter in the story of the life of Joe Pickett's family, which has already faced its share of tragedy – an unborn son killed when his wife is shot in the first book, the loss of a beloved horse in the second – and in Winterkill must deal with more as the Pickett's foster daughter April (Box also has a wonderful gift for writing child characters) is kidnapped and put directly in harm's way by her deranged mother, holed up on the mountain with the "federal government-hating outlaws."

An intriguing new character is introduced, too, in the person of Nate Romanowski, a falconer and true individualist who undergoes a surprising metamorphosis – not in himself, but in the perceptions of him induced in the reader. It's high time Joe had a sidekick – and what a sidekick – and I would enthusiastically nominate Romanowski for this role. More, please.

And so I wait, along with the rest of Box's growing readership, to see what he's going to come up with next. There are many other intriguing issues in which Joe could find himself entangled. Hint: our favorite saying around southern Wyoming and the town that is one of the three** on which Box based his fictitious Saddlestring: "Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting."

* Probably an occupational hazard: I would expect no less from a guy who still makes his actual living marketing trips to Wyoming to European Tourists. Box is the founder and CEO of Rocky Mountain International. Scenery porn is an indispensable tool of that trade.

** I'm only sure of two of the three: Sheridan, Wyoming and my hometown, Saratoga (mentioned as an aside in Winterkill for its annual ice fishing derby, which Box once ran when he was the chamber of commerce director here. Thanks for the plug, buddy!).

Final note from Your Humble Blogger: I have been absent from these pages for a few days - even weeks - because of my hopeless addiction to eating, drinking and being warm enough, i.e. I've been concentrating on writing for money. I plan to return to blogging now, but could always use help, and here's what you can do if you want: If you are at all interested in this or any of the other books I've mentioned in this review, and want to buy one or more, please, please please do the following:

1. Surf on over to the version of this review that appears on - that appearing at this URL.

2. Click on the image of the book you want to buy (all of the books I mention are individually shown below the text).

3. Buy it from amazon!

4. I get a cut of the sale if you buy it that way.