Saturday, 19 November 2011

Track of the Cat & On the Banks of Plum Creek

A two-book post today, both of which qualify for my American states challenge. First up Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr.

Anna Pigeon is a park ranger with the National Park Service in the USA. Her current post is in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park on the borders of western Texas and New Mexico. Anna is out patroling one day when she comes upon a body in a very inaccessible part of the park. The body is another female park ranger and it looks like she's been mauled to death by a cougar. Anna's boss seems happy to accept this verdict and later a big cat is 'dispatched'. Anna is furious at this premature killing and begins to investigate more closely. She finds that the cat prints that were around the body are all wrong and other things are also not right, why would the dead woman have gone so far without water for instance?

The problem is, no one wants to hear that this could have been murder. They all think Anna's mistaken and ought to give it up. But it's clear, after a while, that the culprit, if there is one, is probably another park ranger. Unknowingly, Anna is putting herself into extreme danger, especially when she's out alone in the mountains...

Oh wow. I finished this book some days ago and still can't get it out of my head. It had everything. Firstly, the sense of place was amazing. The author describes the mountains, the terrain, the atmosphere, the heat, wonderfully. You're there with Anna. Well I was. Stunning, just stunning. It made me want to visit the area, except that I'm probably too decrepit (bad knees and arthritis) to enjoy it the way it should be enjoyed, ie. by getting out and walking. As I said in my previous post, I didn't know about this national park, in fact I know little about Texas as a whole other than it used to belong to Mexico. I need to put that right...

Leaving aside the sense of place - which to be honest is reason *enough* to read this book - everything else about the story was just right too. Anna is a thoroughly interesting main character. She lost her husband a while ago (I didn't catch how long) and is clearly still grieving. She has a boyfriend but he senses that Anna is still in love with her dead husband. Anna herself drinks a little too much but it's not hard to understand why. I liked her relationship with her sister in New York and hope we actually get to meet her in a future book.

The plot was also excellent. Truthfully, I would have to say, 'thrilling' and I don't use that word lightly, in fact I never use it. Things happen to Anna that had me on the edge of my seat. Not only that, the way one person dies literally had me sitting in my chair with my hand over my mouth. Oh, God. I had my suspicions who the murderer was but really I didn't know the who or the why for certain until the end. And I never mind knowing who did it anyway because, for me personally, the how and the why is often far more interesting.

To sum up: wonderful. Thank you so much to the people who recced this series - LizF and Kay I think; I'm going to be eternally grateful as I read my way through the 15 or so books. In fact, book 2 is on reserve at the library right now. They only have three or four so I'll be buying the rest... I thought I could get them for my Kindle but annoyingly Amazon only has that first book available in that mode. Never mind, I will *have* to read them so how I get hold of them is irrelevant.

Next up, On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Ma and Pa Ingalls and the three girls, Laura, Mary and Carrie are on the move again. The danger from Native Indians in Kansas was too much so they head away from there to Minnesota. The place where they decide to settle is called Plum Creek and is once again prairie-land. At first they live in a dug-out under a hill but Pa, borrowing against the prospect of a good wheat crop next summer, builds a lovely log-cabin.

This time they are only a couple of miles from a town and Laura gets a shock when she's told that her and Mary can go to school. A shock because although Mary can read and add up, she can't. Most of the children at school are friendly but Laura despises Nellie, the arrogant daughter of the store-keeper who is spoilt rotten and scornful of Laura's humble 'country' background.

Things take a turn for the worse when Pa has to leave home to go east to find work. Ma is left with the children in the midst of a terrible winter and they most cope or perish.

You can see Plum Creek on the Walnut Grove website here: Plum Creek. It looks idyllic, and would be now, but life was a great deal more dangerous and less predictable back then than it is for us now. We think of these books as cosy - well I did - but the harsh realities of life are actually more to the fore in this book than in the previous two. Things take a real turn for the worse when something very unpredictable happens to the Ingalls' wheat crop. They have debts and there is nothing for it but for the father to go and find work. And he has to walk several hundred miles in worn-out shoes because he's given the three dollars for new ones to the minister for the church bell fund! Life is incredibly hard. Laura and Mary have to stop going to school for fear they'll wear out their shoes and anyway, Ma can't be left alone with young Carrie, she needs help.

There are of course compensations. There is a very strong sense of community and neighbours are always there if help is needed. There's a lovely scene towards the end where it's Christmas and the church is full of gifts from a surprising source. And family is all. Laura adores her father to distraction and even though she finds it hard to be quite as selfless as Mary, family is definitely the most important part of her life.

I can't believe how much I'm loving this series of children's books. Although they're not as hard hitting as maybe adult books on the same theme, there is real hardship and Laura Ingalls Wilder in no way shrank from telling it like it was, whether her audience were children or not. If you've never read this series you really, really should.


Anonymous said...

Cath, I'm so pleased you're enjoying the Anna Pigeon books. I've been a fan of those for a very long time. I think the second book is in the Lake Superior region. Later books take her to the West to fight fires and then there's BLIND DESCENT, set in the New Mexico and involving Carlsbad Caverns. Quite the thriller, in my opinion.

I'm also glad you're enjoying the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I'm thinking it might be time for me to reread those.

Oh, another series I thought of that you might like. Strong sense of place I think. J.A. Jance's Joanna Brady series, set in Arizona. The first one is DESERT HEAT. It's quite a long running series, but a good one.

Yvonne@fiction-books said...

Hi Cath,

Great review of 'Track Of The Cat', definitely a series I wouldn't mind getting into.

Just something you may want to consider before you read too far into the series ....

I was checking out Nevada Barr and discovered that the latest 'Anna Pigeon' book, due out in Jan 2012 and called 'The Rope', is in fact a prequel which takes you back to where it all started. So if you want to know Anna's background and get it all straight as a series, it might be worth getting hold of 'The Rope' first.

Have a good week.


Jeane said...

When I was a kid this one was my favorite book in the series because I thought the dugout house was so cool. I'd never heard of a dugout before.

Kailana said...

Wow, when I looked at this post it actually took me a moment to process that was a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. I am not so sure I enjoy that cover... I really liked the book, though.

DesLily said...

well you sure are going like fire on those books! Really glad you are enjoying them so much! It's one way to "see america" I guess lol.... although we no longer live in log cabins I"m afraid lol

I am beginning my second Oscar Wilde murder mystery... and the third came in the mail (both hardbacks/ both used and in like new condition!) and I'm waiting on Bill Bryson's Thunderbolt Kid book.. geez you'd think I didn't have over 140 bks in my tbr pile to get to!

Cath said...

Kay: I think Anna Pigeon is going to be a firm favourite, judging by my reaction to the first book anyway. Blind Descent sounds like another 'edge of your seat' read. I see it's book 6... hopefully I can get on and read the ones inbetween asap.

I'll check out the J.A. Jance books and add those to my list. Thanks again for such good recs.

Yvonne: I think I would recommend Track of the Cat to anyone who likes a good crime book, set somewhere different and that is rather exciting. Yes, I saw that the latest book is a prequel, but I usually prefer to read books in the order they were published so will probably stick to that.

Jeane: The dugout surprised me I have to say. The time they woke up and the creek was in flood and almost up to door was a bit shocking though!

Kailana: I'm used to those covers as those were the 1970s ones that my kids read. To tell the truth I find the very modern ones a bit twee for my taste.

Pat: WHAT? You Americans don't live in log cabins any more????? Well *darn*. ;-)))))

I got the second Oscar Wilde mystery from the library and then someone else wanted it before I had time to read it so I had to take it back. Rats.

Hoping to find The Thunderbolt Kid myself for my American books thing. Think it should easily qualify. You can let me know what it's like when you read it.

LizF said...

I'm really pleased that you like Anna Pigeon, Cath. I have always thought that she was very underrated on this side of the pond (if not virtually unknown) and in fact apart from a couple of books which I found in the local library, all of my copies of her books were acquired at Logan Airport, Boston returning from my only American holiday (so far!)and shoe-horned somehow into the hand luggage of my other half and children! Good job they were the small, cheap paperbacks!
I will have to keep an eye out, via Amazon, for the new book.

Cath said...

LizF: I was thinking that if we make it back to the US within a couple of years I too will load up with Anna Pigeon books. (On our last two visits books were our major purchases.) That is if I haven't already bought and read them all! Our library has 3 or 4 I think and several more in audio form, which I don't tend to do. Slim pickings.

Susan said...

I am also delighted that you enjoyed both books! I love the Anna Pigeon series - I have Wolf Study on my shelf to be read. I agree with Kay, Blind Descent is a harrowing thriller in those caverns. *shiver* So is the fire one. I can never hear about forest fires any more without thinking about Anna's experience in one.

Laura Ingalls Wilder books are good! I commented on your other post that I grew up reading them. I agree with you that I'm glad Laura didn't shirk in telling what life was like. It was hard, and it was good sometimes. So glad you are liking these!

Cath said...

Susan: Oh, another Anna Pigeon fan! I can easily understand why so many people love these books. I was blown away by Track of the Cat. I now have A Superior Death on my library pile, in fact it's my next read. Can't wait to get to Blind Descent!!

I just finished Midwinter of the Spirit and was thrilled to grab Merrily Watkins book 3 in the library yesterday. I'm all set for December now. Woohoo!

*Loving* the Laura Ingalls Wilder books to bits. I think I own 2 more and will then send for the rest. Kay will agree with me (I think) that These is My Words by Nancy Turner is also a wonderful read, Susan. Not that I'm pimping this to you or anything... ;-)

Cath said...

Kay: I forgot to say... I now have Desert Heat on my library pile too. So many good books on that pile now.