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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Review: Hell's Gate by Stephen Frey

It’s summer. Hot, dry, windy and Montana is burning. Hunter Lee, at the suggestion of his brother Strat, has left New York City, a failed marriage and an extremely successful junior partnership at a prestigious law firm behind and moved to Fort Mason, Montana. Hunter and his brother attempt to uncover the identity of who is behind the recent mega-fires that are destroying homes, thousands of acres of timber, farms, livestock and now human fatalities. Suspense builds throughout Stephen Frey’s latest novel, Hell’s Gate; the fires continue to burn while Hunter and Strat discover that even small towns are filled with incendiary secrets.

A few years ago, I was up in Montana visiting the in-laws, and my mom-in-law mentioned a friend of hers had just recently started up a company that supplies the wildfire and smokejumpers with meals, cots, showers and bathrooms. I remember thinking that a really shady, disreputable type could possibly use this type of contract with the Forest Service to really line their pockets if they figured out a way to start the fires. And that is part of the premise of Hell’s Gate. When the author thought of how much money independent air cargo companies get paid to shuttle firefighters around the west during fire season, and how much food services get paid, he came to the same conclusion I did. It wouldn’t be all that difficult to arrange a lot of fires and make lots of money. The question in this novel is who is doing this. Add to the air cargo company and food service company, a railroad who has just been hit with a 40 million dollar payout from a lawsuit, a timber mill going out of business from a lack of trees, a powerful Senator, unfaithful wife, vindictive business partner and you have a whopper of a story.

I don’t know if Stephen Frey has spent a lot of time in Montana or simply researches the heck out of his books, but I can tell you, having lived there for the first 30 years of my life, he just nails it.

“Montana’s nickname was perfect. Big Sky Country. It seemed as if that pristine, azure blue stretched majestically above and beyond in every direction forever.”

*sigh…now I’m a little homesick….

“It wasn’t that people out here were unfriendly. They were just wary, careful not to let you be a friend too fast, probably because most outsiders didn’t stick around too long…..”

*umm…yup…that’s pretty much true…..

Many of the towns in the novel are fictional, but I know the area he sets them in, and he portrays it very well. The mountains, trees, fly-fishing, grizzly bears, the bars and café’s, the vastness of the state are captured superbly. When the wildfires explode, I swear I could almost smell the smoke.

But you know me…if there’s a nit….I’m gonna pick it, so here are my only two nit-picky, teeny little complaints. First:

“Strat had been living in Fort Mason for twelve years, so he was almost a local. If not for that southern accent, he might be.”

Huh…nope. My in-laws lived there for over twenty years before they stopped being known as, “those folks from California.”

And my last little nitpick is the name that the author called the men and women who jump from planes to fight wildfires. We always called them Smokejumpers. In fact the Smokejumper center is in Missoula, only about 40 miles south of where I grew up. I knew some Smokejumpers. (By the way…they are possibly all certifiably nuts to do this every summer.) In Hell’s Gate, these firefighters are called Firejumpers. And it bugged me. My kid said, “Get over it.” My hubby said, “Get over it.” But it still sort of bugs me. I’m sure there’s a good reason for the name change and if I ever find out what it is, I’ll let you all know.

Nitpicking whining aside, I like this book. A lot. I want to go fishing. I want a big ole greasy cheeseburger in a dump that makes great food. I want to drink a cold beer on a hot afternoon while the smell of fresh cut hay fills the air. (And I don't even like beer.) I want to stand next to the Mission Falls, see a bear cross the road in front of me, hear the horrifyingly scary sound of a mountain lion screaming late one night up in the hills. (Sounds like a woman getting murdered…I swear it does…) I want to see that pesky herd of deer that invade my mom-in-law’s yard every evening and eat the flowers. *sigh….I think I’m heading north soon…I’m feeling the need for a little Montana….

Oh…and I almost forgot…the story was awesome. I didn’t figure out the who, what and why until the author revealed it, and how great is that??!!

‘Nuff said, hie yourself off to the bookstore today and git yerself a copy….its derned good readin’. (And it comes out today, so it’ll be easy to find. Right there, front of the store, just as you walk in the door.)

My rating:


rhapsodyinbooks said...

Your comments are great. I love when someone has actual experience to bring to bear on a book. But since you came up with the plot premise before you read this, maybe you should be writing your own!


Justin Davis said...

Wow tons of info, thanks.

Justin Davis
Freight Quote

Sandra said...

My son reads this man's books and really likes them. I haven't read a book that I couldn't guess the who, what or why of in years. I love your rating system. I have a poll running rght now about which rating system people prefer.

bermudaonion said...

The book sounds great even with its two tiny faults. In the Deep South, you're from wherever you were born, so you could live somewhere for 50 years and still not be from there.

Laughing Stars said...

I love your review, especially since you have such a wealth of experience with the setting.