Review: Vicious Circle by C.J. Box

9781784973148In the 17th Joe Pickett novel, C.J. Box wraps up a long-running plot thread involving the nefarious Cates family. While it’s not a standout entry in the long-running series starring the never-far-from trouble Wyoming game warden, it’s a finely-tuned, suspense-filled thriller that will satiate veteran readers, and certainly intrigue newcomers into catching up on the Pickett family’s (mis)adventures.

It all begins when when Dave Farkus — longtime troublemaker and unlikely partner in many of Joe Pickett’s inadvertent escapades — phones Joe from Stockman’s Bar to say he’s overheard a conversation about Joe and his family. He’s cut off before he can provide any concrete information, but the implication is clear: the Pickett clan’s a target. And when Farkus turns up dead — brutally executed by unknown assailants — Joe know something is amiss. He quickly ties it together — presumably at least — when he discovers Dallas Cates, the disgraced rodeo star who ran off with Joe’s daughter April, dumped her out of his truck, and ended up in the prison, has just been released, and is out for vengeance after the deaths of his father and two brothers. But is everything really as open-and-shut as that scenario suggests?

Vicious Circle will resonate most for those who are keenly aware of the two families’ fraught history; readers who’ve been waiting for the final showdown for a couple of books now, knowing it would be vicious and bloody. There isn’t much new here — this is the C.J. Box formula perfected — but the Joe Pickett series is one that hasn’t surpassed its use-by date, and still provides plenty of action and excitement.

ISBN: 9781784973148
Format: Paperback (228mm x 145mm x mm)
Pages: 400
Imprint: Head of Zeus
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publish Date: 21-Mar-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Trophy Hunt by CJ Box

81RC-jkzxoLWhen Joe Pickett and his daughters stumble upon the mutilated carcass of a moose during a fishing trip, the game warden doesn’t realise this is merely the start of a systematic, coordinated attack on the residents of Saddlestring, Wyoming — the question is, by who? Because these cuts are too meticulous — too precise — to have been done by an animal, not even the grizzly on the loose and stalking the surrounding area. Which leaves only some sick, twisted individual, or individuals. Or something otherworldly…?

C.J. Box throws a touch of the X-Files into his fourth Joe Pickett novel, and while he never goes full-throttle — fear not, readers, little green men are not responsible for the desecration — the layer of possibility, of Joe actually contemplating the veracity of the supernatural rumour spreading like wildfire throughout his territory, is deftly handled and well played. The devastating consequences of the climactic events in Winterkill resonate here, and a trace of melancholy emanates within the Pickett family – and rightfully so. Thankfully Box doesn’t labor on continuity, and allows new readers the chance to catch up quickly – the true sign of a master at work.

Trophy Hunt is a smartly structured, solidly executed thriller, executing intertwined plot threads with authority that long-time readers expect. It’s packed with the expected twists and turns, and while I wouldn’t call it vintage Box – its opening chapters meander slightly, and lack that grasp-you-by-the-collar intrigue of the preceding novels – it’s another engaging page-turner that’ll inevitably find you hunting for the next one.

ISBN: 9780425202937
Format: Paperback / softback (173mm x 108mm x 25mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: Penguin USA
Publisher: Penguin Putnam Inc
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Off the Grid by C.J. Box

Off the GridC.J. Box’s long-running Joe Pickett series continues to thrum along nicely with Off the Grid, the sixteenth entry. This time, Box eases off on the Pickett’s familial dramas – they’re there, just marinating in the background, destined to be spotlighted in a future installment – and notches up the action and adrenaline, with Nate Romanowski at its centre.

Romanowski shares the lead with Joe Pickett in Off the Grid, who has become an essential element of the series’ canon. When the novel opens, Nate is living off the grid, recuperating from events in the previous novels, when he is approached by enigmatic government operatives and offered to have his criminal record expunged if he assists in the destruction of a domestic terror cell. Of course, when you’re dealing with mysterious government officials, all is not what it seems – not that Nate has much of a choice. Meanwhile, Joe is running a seemingly incongruent investigation, which unexpectedly intersects with Nate’s mission – and the resulting firefight puts both men, and Joe’s daughter, in serious danger.

The best C.J. Box thrillers utilise the Wyoming backdrop and its environs, and that is the case with Off the Grid. While the gunfights and action set-pieces are certainly thrilling, it’s the quieter moments – like when Joe is left stranded in the desert, surrounded by nothingness – that truly stand out and elevate the novel above its competition. In a genre saturated with urban landscapes, Box’s novels always offer a delightful breath of fresh air.

Off the Grid is a fast-paced, action-packed thriller and another high-point in a series that shows no signs of diminishing. As always, you’ll finish the latest C.J. Box novel and immediately begin the countdown until his next.

ISBN: 9781784973100
Format: Paperback
(228mm x 145mm x mm)
Pages: 384
Imprint: Head of Zeus
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publish Date: 10-Mar-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Badlands by C.J. Box

Badlands coverCalling Badlands a ‘standalone’ is a bit of a misnomer. While it is indeed a break in C.J. Box’s long-running Joe Pickett series, Badlands follows on from The Highway, which itself followed on from Back of Beyond, which all stemmed from Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. There is a continuity to these novels, separate from Pickett’s, and while each can be enjoyed as distinct entities, plot tendrils do follow on, dipping into spoiler-territory, which might tarnish reader’s enjoyment of the earlier works. My advice: jump back and read them all; Badlands will still be here when you’re done. Back of Beyond, in particular, is one of my favourite crime novels.

Badlands stars Cassandra Dewell – – a character we’ve met before – – who has just landed a new job as chief investigator of Bakken County, under the leadership of Sheriff Jon Kirkbride. The Sheriff underlines the difficulty of the task facing Cassie; North Dakota’s sudden oil boom has sparked an escalation in population, and with it, crime; the winter climate is arctic, and unlike anything Cassie has ever faced; and her own colleagues are not to be trusted.

Her first day on the job sees Cassie investigating a fatal car accident. The vehicle was carrying a stash of methamphetamines, with an astronomical price on the street, and it has gone missing. Actually, it was commandeered by a twelve-year-old Kyle Westergaard, a kind-hearted, but mentally-challenged since birth by foetal alcohol syndrome. His decision to take the drugs ignites a conflict between the Sons of Freedom, Bakken County’s regular drug-sellers, and a bunch of Salvadorian upstarts, called MS-13, who go about their business in particularly brutal fashion.

Cassandra Dewell is a fantastic heroine, who epitomises the real-life struggle of law enforcement officers; she demonstrates plenty of attitude and expertise, but is occasionally undermined by her own self-doubt. She is still struggling with events from The Highway, but is determined not to let it show, or impact the investigation. I would welcome her return.

Badlands is a suspenseful, adrenaline-charged procedural. Its unrelenting pace means readers will get through it no time, breathless, and desperate for Box’s next. A Grade-A crime novel.

ISBN: 9781781852859
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320
Imprint: Head of Zeus
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publish Date: 30-Jul-2015
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Endangered by C.J. Box

Endangered CJ BoxThe fifteenth Joe Pickett novel, Endangered, picks up months after Stone Cold, which didn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, but left plenty of loose threads. When we last saw Joe’s eighteen-year-old foster daughter, April, she’d run off with rodeo champion Dallas Cates, who’s family name is synonymous with malevolence in their local community. When we hear of her again, in the opening pages of Endangered, she has been beaten and dumped on the side of the road, barely breathing. The outlook is bleak. Perennial boy scout Joe Pickett is certain Dallas is to blame, and wants revenge; the kind he’d typically rely on Nate Romanowski to deliver. But Joe’s ally is in federal custody, and himself soon the target of a brutal attack. First April, then Nate: all in the space of a week. Are the two events connected? Joe is determined to find out, even as he runs a parallel investigation involving the slaying of sage grouse.

Nate Romanowski has become a crutch in C.J. Box’s long-running series. He’s the Wolverine of Wyoming, in many respects; a ruthlessly efficient killer, willing to do what’s right, even when what’s ‘right’ doesn’t comply with the law. Whenever Joe had a problem, or was unwilling to get his hands dirty, Nate was there, willing and able, and readers loved him for that. In Endangered, Box wisely takes Nate off the table; still a presence, and an essential character in Joe Pickett lore, but disposed of in this episode. His withdrawal allows Liv Brannan, Nate’s girlfriend, to step into the spotlight; as strong-willed as Nate, and tough-as-nails, but without the Special Forces training. She finds herself in a dangerous situation, tied to Joe’s troubles, raw willpower her only ally. She is a welcome addition to the cast.

There is a confidence to Box’s prose. Endangered is an expertly penned thriller, a page-turner punctuated with moments of real emotion. At its heart, this series has always been about family, and that is what has separated the Pickett thrillers from their competition. Inevitably all long-running fiction develops soap opera sensibilities, and readers will have to dampen their incredulity at the Pickett’s unremitting run of bad luck, but these characters have never been anything less than genuine. Their familial bond is refreshing in a genre swarming with protagonists who are alcoholics, or widowers, or nomads, or a combination of all three. Joe Pickett is, and will always be, regardless of whatever wild circumstances he finds himself faced with, a family man. And that family has never been under greater threat.

HarperCollins Australia
9781781852774

Review: Winterkill by CJ Box

Winterkill“My Dad is a game warden for all of the mountains as far as you can see,” writes Joe Pickett’s daughter, Sheridan, for a school assignment. “His job is to make sure hunters are responsible and that they obey the law. It can be a scary job,” she continues, “but he’s good at it.” Indeed, WINTERKILL demonstrates just how good Joe is, and how frightening his job can be.

The arrival of the Nation of the Rocky Mountain Sovereign Citizens in Twelve Sleep County is bad news for Joe. Worse is the murder of District Supervisor Lamar Gardiner, mere moments following his arrest, which brings US Forest Service investigator Melinda Strickland and FBI sharpshooter Dick Munker, a veteran of Waco and Ruby Ridge, to town.  As if that wasn’t enough, the birth mother of Lucy, whom she abandoned years earlier, and the girl the Pickett’s have been in the process of adopting ever since, has demanded her daughter’s return. And who is the enigmatic Nate Romanowski, with his penchant for large-calibre handguns, bows and arrows, and falconry? An ally or enemy, or something in between?

CJ Box’s novels, set in unfamiliar terrain, are always a breath of fresh air. Joe Pickett is an unassuming hero – a friendly, good-natured, family man. In WINTERKILL he is pushed almost to breaking point, and witnessing the seemingly infallible game warden falter is utterly enthralling reading.  The narrative snakes dependably, and the story rockets along, barring the occasional (but absolutely necessary) break to refocus on the other Pickett family members. When Joe is facing impossible odds, and insane scenarios, these intervals are delightful reminders of his underlining normalcy.

While the third Joe Pickett novel leaves plenty of plot threads untied, to be picked up on in later instalments, it serves perfectly as a standalone. Its emotional repercussions will be felt by readers regardless of the length of their relationship with the character.

Review: Stone Cold by C.J. Box

Stone ColdThe fourteenth Joe Pickett novel, STONE COLD, is an adequate installment in the long-running series starring crime fiction’s favorite Wyoming game warden. Long-time readers will enjoy the soap-operatic elements offered here – Box has created a grand supporting cast of characters who disappear and reappear throughout the series, and this entry features one particular unexpected return – and while it’s always a pleasure catching up with the Pickett family, it’s the core plot that lets STONE COLD down.

Following on directly from the events of 2013’s BREAKING POINT, Joe Pickett finds himself working as a trouble-shooter for the governor, and assigned to finding out the truth behind the enigmatic rich stranger named Wolfgang Templeton, who is single-handedly keeping Medicine Wheel County afloat – but might also be funding a group of covert private assassins. Joe is sent in undercover – albeit, under his own name and occupation as a game warden – to determine the veracity of these rumors. Of course, it’s pitched as a simple assignment: observation only. And, of course, in typical Pickett form, he can’t help but get involved and raise the stakes . . . and instigate the possible return of series favorite Nate Romanowski to his life. And as this is happening, Joe’s eldest daughter Sheridan is spooked by an aloof boy in college, who she believes might have sinister intentions. When a few hunting rifles go missing, it seems obvious: something bad is going to happen, soon.

The twin plots are simple, and unravel with great pace, but little surprise. New readers might find events uninspiring, while regulars will find some comfort in the novel’s minimalism, and relish the call-backs to previous novels, and the re-emergence of past characters. STONE COLD is a novel crafted for the loyalists, but even then, it’s one that falls into that middling category; it’s just not an installment that will live long in the memory, unlike its predecessor, BREAKING POINT. As a single entity, then, it’s not the best; but as part of the vast, complex collage CJ Box has been piecing together for fourteen novels now, it’s worthy of its place in the canon. And the ending suggests there’s more upheaval to come in the life of the Pickett’s.