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!



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: