• By Daniel Feist
  • Posted Monday, October 10, 2016

Books We Like

As a child growing up in the pre-computer era, my non-school time tended to be divvied up two ways. When weather allowed, I'd be outside, playing in the woods, fishing in a stream or pond, or hiking the nearby 1000-plus-foot tree-covered rock-littered elevation we geologically-challenged kids expansively referred to as 'the Mountain.' When I'd run myself sufficiently ragged so as to no longer present a hyperactive nuisance to grownups, or when inclement weather or darkness curtailed outdoor activities, I'd read. I favored stories about animals and the outdoors - Charlotte's Web by E. B. White, Big Red and other books by Jim Kjelgaard, Greyfriars Bobby, The Black Stallion series by Walter Farley and--as I got a bit older--books like The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London and various tales by Mark Twain. To this day, I have an affinity for stories with settings in the outdoors, and I've run across some good ones recently.

Off the Grid by C.J. Box. Off The Grid is the 16th full-length novel in the best-selling Joe Pickett series. Author C. J. Box says of the central character Joe Pickett: "(He's) the antithesis of many modern literary protagonists." Pickett is a happily married father of three who loves his wife and kids, goes to work every day, and tries to "do the right thing."

Joe is a Wyoming game warden who has had more than his share of workplace excitement over the years. A lot of that excitement has come compliments of Joe's sometime sidekick Nate Romanowski, an ex-special-forces operative. Nate still loves his country, but his experiences with his previous employer have left him with a trust deficit and a willingness to cross certain lines in defense of the land, people, and freedoms he values.

Off The Grid finds Nate living in a remote cabin with mostly 19th century amenities in the Wyoming wilderness, accompanied only by his girlfriend Liv and the falcons he trains and flies. His solitude is short-lived as he is paid an unsolicited visit by four men with military identifications who offer him an employment opportunity he can't refuse. His coerced acceptance of their offer will embroil both Nate and Joe in a clandestine effort by the federal government to thwart a possible terrorist attack being hatched in the unlikeliest of places - Wyoming's Red Desert. Joe Pickett, meanwhile, is looking into another type of attack.

A local man has likely fallen prey to a grizzly bear, and Joe has the unsavory task of searching the woods as nightfall nears, and with the bear probably still in the vicinity, in the unlikely hope that the victim might still be alive. But before Joe's business with the bear can be satisfactorily concluded, Wyoming's Governor Rulon dispatches him on a mission which will eventually reunite him with Nate. The Red Desert, with its natural grandeur and inhospitable terrain, will become the unlikely stage for a showdown involving Joe and Nate, special ops forces, and a band of jihadis. Add to the cast several other colorful and eclectic characters, the ancient art of falconry, and a futuristic weapon which I'd prefer to think doesn't exist but actually in some form probably does, all served up in unique award-winning C. J. Box style, and it all makes for a rollicking good read.

Great Falls by Steve Watkins. I initially opened this book and read a random paragraph or two. Written by a journalist, I thought, based on the terse Hemingwayesque writing style. Close enough. A quick glance at the author information on the flyleaf of the book indicates that the author previously taught journalism.

Shane's older brother, Jeremy, has recently returned from three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is, however, no longer the same big brother Shane looked up to before he left. Jeremy has recently moved away from his wife and two children. He now lives in the basement of the house he grew up in, along with his mother and his stepfather, who is called 'The Colonel' by everyone, although he is not a colonel. Jeremy drinks much of the time. His gun is his constant companion. He avoids spending time with his wife and children because small things like children crying can cause him to fly into fits of rage. Jeremy is, in short, a poster child for the adage that 'hurt people hurt people.'

Shane struggles to come to grips with the new Jeremy. He has begun to pick up Jeremy's responsibilities, helping Jeremy's wife Annie with the kids and the yardwork. He defends his older brother's bad behavior, telling others that Jeremy is fine, or that he 'needs time to adjust,' even though it's obvious he doesn't believe his own justifications of his brother's misdeeds. At times he tries to confront Jeremy concerning his actions. At the same time, however, he is very accustomed to his older brother being the leader in the sibling relationship, and he usually ends up going along with whatever it is that Jeremy decides to do. If Jeremy wants him to drink, he drinks. When Jeremy tells him to kill an animal, he does it. And when, with a Marine Corps psych evaluation pending, Jeremy decides to escape to the family hunting cabin, Shane, who has just had the humiliating experience of scoring a touchdown for the wrong team on the football field after suffering a concussion during the game, follows his older brother's lead and accompanies him to the cabin. Then Jeremy decides he wants to go canoeing on the Shenandoah River, and Shane, who is supposed to be in class the next morning, again accedes to his brother's wishes. As the two navigate their canoe down the twisty river, Jeremy's behavior becomes increasingly bizarre. He repeatedly disassembles, cleans, and reassembles his M-16. At one point, when Jeremy has fallen asleep, Shane wakes him, and Jeremy, evidently unaware of where he is or who he's with, pulls a knife and goes after Shane.

The canoe trip extends into a days-long excursion. As the river grows in size and strength, and nears its juncture with the Potomac, the relationship between the brothers becomes more tumultuous. During one of Jeremy's more lucid periods, and as they near the Great Falls, Shane questions Jeremy about the incident which resulted in his estrangement from his wife and children. The emotional dam Jeremy has built to contain the pain caused by the hell that is war breaks, and Jeremy, sobbing, says how sorry he is about everything. But now they can hear the roar of the Great Falls ahead. Will Jeremy's brief moment of catharsis prompted by Shane's questioning be sufficient to halt what is increasingly appears to be a suicide run?

This book is categorized as Young Adult, likely because a) the story is told through the eyes of Shane, a high school senior and b) because the author has previously written juvenile and young adult stories. The themes and language in the book are, however, adult in nature. The story addresses PTSD among homecoming veterans, and is based almost entirely on biographical events which are detailed on the author's website. The book may be helpful to those with a family member suffering with PTSD, if for no other reason than it paints a starkly realistic picture of how PTSD impacts the affected individual as well as family members and friends.

Breaking Wild by Diane Les Becquets. Anyone who has spent significant time in the outdoors knows that a careless step or a lack of vigilance can turn a day of adventure into a life-threatening or deadly situation. When a troubled woman, Amy Raye Latour, disappears in Colorado's snow-covered back-country while on a hunting trip, Pru Hathaway, a ranger with the Bureau of Land Management, is tasked with finding her. But with the winter snows already covering up any tracks, hope of finding the missing woman morphs into hope of finding her remains. And as days turn to weeks, Pru finds she has more questions than answers. Did Amy Latour disappear into the wilderness never intending to return? Could foul play have been involved in her disappearance? Did she fall prey to a bear or cougar attack? Pru's gut tells her that, contrary to all logic and experience, Amy Latour is still alive out there somewhere. To find the answers to her questions and to find the missing hunter, Ranger Hathaway must do more than read the signs in the wintry Colorado back-country. She will need to become a detective of the mind and heart, piecing together clues culled from conversations with friends and family of the missing hunter, and applying intuition gained from hard lessons learned during her own experiences of loss and brokenness in the wilderness. Becquets unfolds the stories of the two women in alternating chapters of the book.

She gradually ratchets up a tension which is built as much on the beautifully poetic descriptions of the wintry Colorado landscape as it is on the real and imagined fears and dangers in the minds of the searcher and of the woman she hopes is still alive.

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