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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Blue Heaven, by C. J. Box ($7.99)

C. J. Box is better known for his series about Joe Pickett, a game warden in Wyoming. Blue Heaven is a standalone but shares many qualities with his Pickett series.

Annie and William, a 12-year-old sister and 10-year-old brother, witness the murder of one stranger by several other strangers. On the run, they soon learn that the people they thought they could trust are their enemies. Roaming rural Idaho, they look for someone to help them, and luckily for them (and us) they stumble across Jess Rawlins.

Think Gary Cooper. Strong and silent. Not one to gossip or gander. Jess is very similar to Joe Pickett in that regard, but Jess is an older, maybe not so much wiser version of Joe. It takes almost until the end of the book to learn about Jess, his isolation, and his grief. Jess shows himself to be a man of integrity and grit as he meets each challenge to help the children survive.

Add to the cast a retired police detective, Eduardo Villatoro, from a town near L.A., who has flown into Jess, Annie, and William's small town in Idaho to follow a lead on his one unsolved case as a detective, a robbery of immense proportions at the local race track.

Box works hard to make his characters three-dimensional. Even some of the bad guys have their moments of illumination. One of the aspects of the Pickett books I find endearing is the way Box depicts children. Some authors either tend to make children too precocious or they are nothing more than stage props. Annie and William are real children. Jess is someone you might have as your neighbor -- if you raised cattle in Idaho. Villatoro is defined in small and large ways: He is disgusted that people cannot pronounce his last name correctly, he loves his wife, he is excited as a schoolboy when the trail heats up.

Box is great at creating the sympathetic, but not melodramatic, situation. Jess is on the verge of losing the ranch that has been in his family for generations because of issues facing real cattle ranchers. Villatoro is an L.A. fish out of Idaho water and flounders a little before he gets his bearings. In a beautiful passage, Villatoro asks about a mountain in the distance. Jess goes on about the history of the mountain and events he remembers taking place there, putting the mountain in perspective to the community. Villatoro says that's his problem in Idaho: When he looks at the mountain, all he sees is the mountain; Jess sees a part of his life.

It is because of those big and small touches that I love C. J. Box's books. I am a bigger fan of the Pickett books, but Blue Heaven was a nice change of pace.

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