Feature: Nevada Barr

Hey everyone,

I’m a bit off schedule this month; my husband and I enjoyed another camping trip to the beautiful California desert and I got a bit behind. On everything! So I’m catching up with one of my favorite topics, “Authors I Admire.” This week, it’s Nevada Barr. There’s a lot to admire about Nevada Barr. For starters, there are the books: the amazing Anna Pigeon series, set in national parks across the country. There’s Ms. Barr’s mastery of the craft of writing and her ability to create a suspenseful murder mystery, where the setting is as much of a character as Anna Pigeon herself. And her own service as a park ranger, a job that involved everything from law enforcement in highly developed campgrounds to patrolling the backcountry.

Her name actually is “Nevada.” She was born in Yerington, Nevada in 1952 and her parents named her for the state of Nevada. She was raised in the small town of Susanville, California, the county seat of Lassen County, where her parents ran a regional airport. Her mom sounds like a take-charge kind of person who could wrangle just about anything from airplanes to ranch equipment. Ma. Barr studied acting in college and spent eighteen years as an actor, performing in the theater and doing voice-overs, while wandering from New York to Minneapolis to Mississippi.

After marrying a man who worked in the park service, Ms. Barr became a National Park Service Ranger at the age of 36. Her first parks job was in Isle Royale, which became the setting for two of the Anna Pigeon mystery series. She started writing seriously in 1978, and wanted to focus on female characters. Three women served as role models for strong, capable Anna Pigeon: Nevada Barr’s mom, a pilot and mechanic; her Aunt Peggy, a third-grade teacher in New York City public schools, and her grandmother, a “fighting Quaker Democrat.” (1)

Ms. Barr started her writing career in historical fiction, and then “graduated” to mysteries. The idea for the Anna Pigeon series came to her as she was hiking through the woods. “She thought about the multiple ways a person could die and about the ones she believed would be better off dead.” (1) Track of the Cat, the first Anna Pigeon mystery, was published in 1993. All of the Anna Pigeon mysteries are set in national parks and bring the job of park ranger to life, from navigating the endless bureaucracy to the constant interactions with the public and the tensions of managing the wild-human interface.

Ms. Barr won the 1994 Agatha Award for best first novel of 1993 and the 1994 and the Anthony award for best novel of 1993. She has been awarded the Mississippi Library Association’s Award for fiction. And in 2010 Nevada Barr received the Robin W. Winks Award given to people who enhance public understanding of the National Parks. She also won the 2015 Pinckley Prize for a Distinguished Body of Work for her Anna Pigeon series.

I love these books. Ms. Barr’s writing is fearless. She digs deep and draws the reader in with detail, detail, detail. She knows how to build tension and use setting to enhance that tension. She knows just when to slow things down and speed them up. She builds her character over the series, giving us more insights into Anna’s motivations, intentions, vulnerabilities, strengths, and weaknesses.

There are 19 Anna Pigeon mysteries. As an author who managed to write a three-book series, I am so impressed by the discipline and imagination and fearlessness to write a 19 book series. Here are the books, in order, with their locations.

So if you haven’t read any of these books yet, I suggest you try one. You can pick up a book at any point in the series; there’s plenty of backstory to fill in context and characters. Pick one where the location speaks to you. You won’t be disappointed! I’d also like to add a plug for the audio version: veteran narrator Barbara Rosenblatt brings this series to life with a strong, animated, silky-smooth voice.

Until next time,


(1) Mississippi Writers & Musicians: Nevada Barr https://www.mswritersandmusicians.com/mississippi-writers/nevada-barr

Feature: Cornelia Read

Hey everyone,

As it’s the last week of the month, it’s feature Monday, where I spotlight an author I admire. Today, it’s Cornelia Read and her Madeline Dare series. When I was first studying mysteries and thrillers in order to learn something about the genre before attempting to write one, I looked at Edgar Award winners and nominees. A Field of Darkness, the first book in this series, published in 2006, was nominated for a host of awards: Barry Award Nominee for Best First Novel (2007), Macavity Award Nominee for Best First Mystery Novel (2007), Anthony Award Nominee for Best First Novel (2007), Edgar Award Nominee for Best First Novel (2007).

Once I started reading it, I figured out why. Ms. Read’s writing sparkles. For starters, her sentences are glorious. They’re filled with unlikely similes, unusual word choices (just enough of them to make a reader pause in admiration, but not enough to disrupt the flow of the paragraph), and a self-deprecating, sarcastic, dark humor that is the voice of Madeline Dare. I was hooked by the first sentence in the book blurb: “Madeline Dare would be the first to tell you her money is so old there’s none left.” I ended up loving the character: a quick wit, and a ruthless cynic on the face of things, but also a woman with a soft heart and deep love for her partner, Dean.

There are four books in this series. I’ve added the book blurbs so you can get an idea of what’s in store.

  • A Field of Darkness: Madeline Dare would be the first to tell you her money is so old there’s none left. A former socialite from an aristocratic family in decline, Maddie is a tough-talking, would-be journalist exiled to the rust belt of upstate New York. Her prospects for changing her dreary lifestyle seem dim–until a set of dog tags found at a decades-old murder site is linked to her family. Shocked into action, Maddie embarks on a search that takes her from the derelict smokestacks of Syracuse to the posh mansions of Long Island’s Gold Coast. But instead of the warm refuge of home, this prodigal daughter soon uncovers dark, sinister secrets that will violently challenge everything she believes in and holds dear.
  • The Crazy School: Madeline Dare has finally escaped rust-belt Syracuse, New York, for the lush Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. After her husband’s job offer falls through, Maddie signs on as a teacher at the Santangelo Academy, a boarding school for disturbed teenagers. Behind the academy’s ornate gates, she discovers a disturbing realm where students and teachers alike must submit to the founder’s bizarre therapeutic regimen. From day one, Maddie feels uneasy about smooth-talking Dr. Santangelo but when she questions his methods, she’s appalled to find that her fellow teachers would rather turn on each other than stand up for themselves, much less protect the students in their care. A chilling event confirms Maddie’s worst suspicions, then hints at an even darker secret history, one that twines through the academy’s very heart. Cut off from the outside world, Maddie must join forces with a small band of the school’s most violently rebellious students-kids whose troubled grip on reality may well prove to be her only chance of salvation.
  • Invisible Boy: The smart-mouthed but sensitive runaway socialite Madeline Dare is shocked when she discovers the skeleton of a brutalized three-year-old boy in her own weed-ridden family cemetery outside Manhattan. Determined to see that justice is served, she finds herself examining her own troubled personal history, and the sometimes hidden, sometimes all-too-public class and racial warfare that penetrates every level of society in the savage streets of New York City during the early 1990s.
  • Valley of Ashes: Madeline Dare trades New York’s gritty streets for the tree-lined avenues of Boulder, Colorado when her husband Dean lands a promising job. Madeline, now a full-time homemaker and mother to beautiful toddler twin girls, has achieved everything she thought she always wanted, but with her husband constantly on the road, she’s fighting a losing battle against the Betty Friedan riptide of suburban/maternal exhaustion, angst, and sheer loneliness. A new freelance newspaper gig helps her get her mojo back, but Boulder isn’t nearly as tranquil as it seems: there’s a serial arsonist at large in the city. As Madeline closes in on the culprit, the fires turn deadly-and the stakes tragically personal. She’ll need every ounce of strength and courage she has to keep the flames from reaching her own doorstep, threatening all she holds most dear.

Each book is a master of suspense, narrative voice, and setting. And each is a page turner. From the get-go, Ms. Read figured out suspense and the varied ways to keep a reader turning the pages. And she captures every location in her books with an amazing ability to transport the reader right to that place. Her research must have been meticulous and thorough. There are enough details to set the stage, but not enough to grind the narrative pull to a halt.

The strange thing is that Cornelia Read has fallen off the map. After Valley of Ashes was published in 2012, she just disappeared. I can’t fault her, after writing four knock-out books in just about as many years, an author deserves a rest. But, I do wish she’d publish again; she has such talent and her books are an absolute delight to read.

So I suggest that you do yourself a favor and check out this series. It will captivate you, guaranteed.

Until next time,