Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Borderline by Nevada Barr (Anna Pigeon series)

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 399 pages
Publisher: Putnam Adult, 2009
Price: $25.95
ISBN-10: 0399155694
ISBN-13: 978-0399155697

Tucked away on a wilderness retreat for a weekend, cozied up in a rocking chair by the fireplace, I opened the cover of the review copy I had received of Nevada Barr’s newest novel in the Anna Pigeon series, Borderline. One of the best things about receiving review copies of books in the mail, frequently unrequested, is that I end up reading books I would never consider on a bookstore wander. This would be one of those. The cover illustration is a little too cheesy for me (rushing river rapids between high blue cliffs), a series of any kind is a bit of a turnoff (note to series authors: get over it and move on to your next character), and a detective story by any measure (beyond cliché) would have had me at a quick trot past this one. But retreats are a time for escapism from our usual reality, so I cracked open the cover to read.

From the book jacket I learned that Anna Pigeon, the park ranger of this now 15-book series, is apparently quite a popular read. You don’t reach 15 without fans. Must be something to this, I thought. Either sheep mentality, or, one would hope, something of value. And, admittedly, I was finding curb appeal here. Anna is no gumshoe. She is, after all, a park ranger, and my wilderness-loving self warmed to the idea of each book having a backdrop of a national park rather than the cops-and-robbers’ inner city. I am also interested in strong female characters, as much of my dislike for detective novels is that too many are based on Bogie-like womanizers, forever saving (and subsequently “doing”) “damsels in distress.” Look, there wouldn’t be so many damsels in distress if there were fewer womanizers wandering the landscape. I was ready to give Anna a chance.

The cool and sharp Anna, independent to the bone, found favor with me in the first few pages. Independent, sure, but she also knew how to be soft for that one special man—her husband, Paul. Her vulnerability showed in a recent diagnosis of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), an after-effect of the novel preceding this one … a story about a killing in which Anna had been involved (without regret) on Isle Royale in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Anna and her husband head south to Texas for a much-needed rest, planning on rafting the rapids of the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park. Also on the raft trip are four teenagers and the raft guide.

To no one’s surprise but maybe Anna’s, the trip is far from soothing. Instead, we are quickly pulled into another mystery, replete with half-drowned bodies and illegal border crossings, a corrupt politician and her philandering husband, a sassy and savvy journalist sniffing out a good story, snipers on mountaintops and falling dead bodies, suspect security guards, whiny teens, a sacred cow, and even a C-section performed with a pocketknife on a drowned corpse. Rapids, indeed. Yet among all this chilling, fast-paced, page-turning stuff, I also found snippets of delicious humor that had me laugh out loud, or else simply snicker in female comrade recognition.

“Paul kissed her gently. He was the best kisser of any man she had ever met. Most men thought they were good kissers, just like they all thought they were good drivers. Most were wrong on both counts.”

And I thought I was the only one with that observation, ha!

Barr could also slip in a political statement while addressing border laws and drug wars:

“America no longer wanted anybody to give her their tired, their poor, and their huddled masses made people’s blood run cold.”

Or the occasional jibe at religious views: “Should there be a heaven it would probably have a border patrol that put Homeland Security to shame.”

Mostly, Barr just did what she apparently does best: she kept me turning pages, putting another log on the fire, turning more pages, then reading late into the night. I like this Anna. I get the way her mind works and how her nerves settle. And I enjoyed, rather than the damsel-chasing for which this genre is known, having a warm, caring marriage as the backdrop for our heroine. Goodness, Paul even touches her on occasion simply to show love, with no demand for the night to end in more. What a guy. He gets that his wife mostly just needs him to be there. There is plenty of passion and mutual physical admiration, but placed strategically to tell us more about the characters than for cheap and gratuitous thrills. Nice.

The mystery is solved satisfactorily, if not exactly with unpredictable results. Anna’s devotion to the orphan child she saves from the river turns very quickly to the aloofness of a woman who is not maternally inclined—too suddenly not to be a bit jarring. Overall, Barr has a snappy, sharp style, not particularly literary, but with moments of wit and sparks of humor; she knows what she is doing with this genre. The main character is engaging enough that the reader quickly and easily grows fond, and so, to my own surprise, I added a couple more Barr books on my wish list. Anna Pigeon is the kind of main character women readers enjoy: the right and realistic mix of strength, intellect, softness, introspection, independence, with an ability to lean on, and be leaned upon by, one trustworthy man.

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