Underground, going underground…

I have been rereading a series of books I enjoyed many years ago by the brilliant writer, Nevada Barr; her main character Anna Pigeon is a law enforcement officer and National Park ranger and in all o the books I have read so far she has been involved in an adventure in a different National  Park, the Guadalupe Mountains, the Mesa Verde, Lake Superior and in the most recent I have read (which I had to read in daylight hours, not just before I went to bed because it was so exciting!) it is set in a subterranean wonderland. You might wonder how a National Park can be underground, well in this adventure it is not a park but a cave system – the  Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

I read a story about potholing when I was a child, and the idea always fascinated me. When I was working with young people who had various difficulties engaging with education, we explored many different ways of re-engaging them… one of which involved an adventure underground… we took them potholing. As teachers with these students,we were expected to accept the challenges they did and when i discovered caving was one of them I was so excited!! My childhood dreams of adventure were about to come true! Not everyone was as excited as I was, and they were delighted to stay topside while I went with the kids and the caving instructors into the bowels of the Mendips. I had a moment’s thought that I might feel claustrophobic, or struggle trapped in tight spaces in the dark… but no! I loved it! It was as exciting and enthralling as I had imagined all those years ago.

In ‘Blind Descent’  the Anna Pigeon book I read, Anna – despite her severe claustrophobia, went into a vast cave system to rescue an injured potholer. It took a couple of days to get there, and when she did the casualty told Anna that her injury was  not an accident! (I think we may have guessed that!) There was quite a complicated story which followed, mainly set in the caves, but which then went out into the park… and then (I hope this isn’t a spoiler) went underground for the thrilling, and heart-stopping denouement.

The adventure was incredible – Nevada Barr’s powers of description are sensational. I honestly wonder why she isn’t up there with the great story writers and novelists because her prose is stunning. The way she described the wonders of the subterranean world, the processes of caving (which involve climbing skills as well) the sheer slog and yet exhilaration of going deep into the earth with nothing but your own courage and physical strength – plus the characters involved in mystery – are they goodies or baddies – and even if they are baddies are they the baddies involved in the crime?

This is the Amazon blurb:

Lechuguilla Cavern is a man-eating cave discovered in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the mid-1980’s. Estimated to extend for more than three hundred miles, only ninety of them mapped, the cave was formed by acid burning away the limestone; corridors, pits, cramped wormholes, cliffs, and splendid rooms the size of football fields tangle together in a maze shrouded in the utter darkness of the underground.Anna
When a fellow ranger is injured in a caving accident, Anna swallows her paralysing fear of small spaces and descends into Lechuguilla to help a friend in need. Worse than the claustrophobia that haunts her are the signs – some natural and some, more ominously, man-made – that not everyone is destined to emerge from this wondrous living tomb. The terrain is alien and hostile; the greed and destructive powers of mankind all too familiar. In this place of internal terrors, Anna must learn who it is she can trust and, in the end, decide who is to live and who is to die.

If you haven’t read her… do!



A Superior read

I wrote recently that I had rediscovered an author I really liked when I first read her quite a few years ago. As with anything you loved and now return to, there was the anxiety that I might not like the books as much, or worse, that they might not seem as good as I once thought they were… Well, to my relief I discovered that yes, I did enjoy the books as much as I had before, and yes I did think they were as good… in fact, on rereading, I thought they were better than I had first appreciated! First time round I was galloping through the gripping read and not really paying much attention to the writing. Perhaps because I write so much now, and so aware of writing I realised what a really good writer the author is.

The author of the books I have been rereading is Nevada Barr – that really is her name, not an assumed name. She writes about a national park ranger cum law officer, Anna Pigeon, who has all sorts of tricky and interesting crimes to solve against the backdrop of stunning American national parks.

I have just finished reading the second book in the series, A Superior Death, set on and around Lake Superior. The actual mystery is extraordinary – I’m sure there never has been any crime scene, real or fictional like it! On such a large lake there have over the centuries been many disasters and shipwrecks; in the past it was not always possible to recover the bodies of drowned sailors and so they would remain in the ships and because it’s so cold they didn’t decompose in the usual way but just stayed as ghastly wraith like creatures. Some divers go down to explore and discover there is an extra body… and it’s a modern person dressed up in an old sea-captain costume…

You can guess that is an intriguing story, and despite seeming so far-fetched it’s so well-written that the possibility or impossibility of it all never interferes with the narrative. However, what I now find almost more interesting (and I am so surprised that it didn’t properly register before) is the stunning descriptions – not only of the scenery, the islands, the little settlements, the camp sites, the water above and below the surface of the mighty lake, but also of navigating on such a vast and changeable area, and the detail of diving down into it.

I know Nevada Barr was a ranger herself, so she is writing from experience and must have contacts she can ask for extra details, but the amount of research she must have done is incredible… and yet it all sits so lightly on the story line. I never thought, oh here is a great chunk of explanation about air pressure or here we go, this is about navigating at night. I must say though that the plot is quite convoluted, although it all makes sense when I read it, and although plenty of hints were dropped I did not guess who did the dreaded deed!

I’ve just bought the next in the series, Ill Wind , which is set in the Mesa Verde National Park, in Colorado

Here is a link to her page:


Nevada Barr… I’ve finished ‘Track of the Cat’…

I mentioned last week that I had started reading a book by an author I had enjoyed twenty or so years ago… Nevada Barr. She wasn’t named after the state, although she was just born there – but what a great name… but would I still think her books are great? I couldn’t remember much about them except that the main character, Anna Pigeon was a park ranger and detective and her adventures took place in different national parks across the USA.

I hadn’t realised she had written so many books, nineteen in fact – so if I did still like them i could not only re-read the four or five I’d already read (and probably forgotten the details) but I had a whole load more to enjoy!

The first in the series and the one I have just finished is called ‘Track of the Cat’ and was first published in 1993. I settled down to read and some time later I emerged, I came out of the Guadalupe Mountains where I had been tramping around with Anna… In other words I was utterly absorbed, sucked into the story, engaged with the puzzle, and needing a rink since I had been exploring the Chihuahuan Desert where the mountain range is in western Texas.

So from opening the book I knew yes, I will like these stories, they are as good as I remember, I will be engaged, intrigued, absorbed in Anna Pigeon’s adventures… However, what I hadn’t remembered and which really added to the whole enjoyment of reading were the descriptions. From the opening pages, the mountains and desert are vividly painted – not in great chunks, not in whole paragraphs, but in sentences woven into the introduction to Anna herself.  We are drip-fed details so we see it in our mind’s eye…

Anna sat down on a smooth boulder, the top hollowed into a natural seat. The red peeling arms of a Texas madrone held a veil of dusty shade over her eyes… A spiny rock crevice lizard peered out at hr with one obsidian eye, it’s gray-and-black mottled spines creating a near perfect illusion of dead leaves and twigs fallen haphazardly into a crack in the stone.

A madrone, by the way is also known as  a naked Indian tree or a Texas madroño,  a species of flowering plant in the heather family.

The story, as in all good mysteries is puzzling, the characters realistically contradictory – for a while you might think one is a ‘goody’ another is a ‘baddy, but then something is discovered which changes that! Someone has a motive… or perhaps they don’t… someone behaves suspiciously, but then their behaviour is explained… Clues are dropped, hints are made, but no-one could predict the actual revelation at the end – and yet it is believable and fits with the rest of the novel! The main character Anna isn’t perfect, she is flawed and makes mistakes, says the wrong thing to the wrong person, sends the wrong signals… but she is consistent and true to herself in the novel.

One thing which did strike me – the plot couldn’t be set in the twenty-first century! Mobile phones and phones which can take and send photos, GPS, computers and internet, scientific procedures and processes… These would have changed the whole novel!!  This story is cemented on the cusp of change, before the world shifted into the age of technology!

My picture is not of the Texas desert… I’ve never been there… it’s a sandy Norfolk cliff!!

I’m not sure my books are as exotic in location as Nevada Barr’s, but here is a link to them:


Nevada Barr

Many  years ago, before we moved south to Somerset we lived in the village of Lees near Oldham. Many people might drive through and not realise it was a separate place from the larger town, but yes, it is a village, and a very old village, dating back nearly eight hundred years. There were (and no doubt still are) lots of great things about Lees and living there, and one of the best was the library. There was always a great selection of books, always new books coming in, friendly helpful librarians, and it was where I first joined a book club!

I found so many books on Lees Library shelves which introduced me to authors I have continued to enjoy ever since – Ian Rankin was publishing his first Rebus novels, Bill Bryson, Robert Harris, Frank McCourt… and in the fiction section I came across a book by the remarkable sounding Nevada Barr. Being attracted by the unusual name, and finding that it was a mystery novel, I borrowed it… and having wolfed it down, borrowed every other book by her that I could.

I know I read these, because they were all published in the 90’s when we were living in Lees:

  • 1993 Track of the Cat
  • 1994 A Superior Death
  • 1995 Ill Wind
  • 1996 Firestorm
  • 1997 Endangered Species
  • 1998 Blind Descent

Nevada Barr was not named after the state of Nevada, although she was born and brought up there – apparently it was a name her father liked from a character in a novel. She was born in 192, and seems to have had a most interesting life as an actress and park ranger among other things before she had books published in the late 1980’s – I don’t know when she started writing, maybe she’s written all her life!

Nevada has written other books, but she is most well-known for her Anna Pigeon mysteries – which are the ones I mention above. I guess I didn’t find the name Pigeon as strange as other people might because we had neighbours, Mr and Mrs Pigeon when we were younger – I don’t remember them except they were elderly and always seemed to have very smokey bonfires in their back garden!

Anna Pigeon is a park ranger, and also a detective; the mysteries are set in various different national parks where Anna works – for example the books above are set in:

  • Guadalupe Mountains National Park
  • Isle Royale National Park
  • Mesa Verde National Park
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • Cumberland Island National Seashore
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park

I remember enjoying the stories very much but I only ever borrowed the books from the library so I have never reread them. I was at a bit of a loss as to what to read the other night, having bought a couple of disappointing  books, and wanting something engaging and puzzling, I looked down various lists of suggestions… when suddenly I remembered Nevada Barr!

I looked her up and found she had written a lot more Anna Pigeon books, in fact nineteen altogether!!! Gosh!!! If I still like her writing then I have a treasure trove! I bought the first book, Track of the Cat, hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed. It’s horrid when you remember a fabulous book from long ago, buy it and then found it’s not nearly as good as you remember!

I started reading it last night… and I’m delighted to report I am utterly gripped – not just by the mystery (dead body at the end of chapter 1) but by the wonderful descriptive writing; I have never been to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, but I can vividly imagine it now!

Here is a link to Nevada Barr’s page:


By he way, my featured image is not of Nevada or anywhere else in the USA!