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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Winter Study (hardcover, $24.95), by Nevada Barr

Reading this book on a frosty spring day in Portland is like eating ice cream in a freezer. Everything seems just a little bit colder.

The latest release in the Anna Pigeon series takes us back to Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, site of Barr’s A Superior Death. Actually, Barr’s successful gimmick is she tries to place Park Ranger/Investigator Pigeon in a new national park in every book. This time, however, the park is not leafy and inviting; it is winter and a small group of people have amassed for varying reasons to study the wolves that live on the island. (A real-life long-term study of the moose and wolf populations on the island provides the background for the novel.)

So, how cold is it? Apparently it is so cold that even a wolf, kept inactive in a trap for a period of time, could freeze to death. This is one of the many interesting facts with which Barr laces her story. The author’s description of Isle Royale and its environment stripped of summer tourists is wonderful. There are also vivid descriptions of hypothermia, what blood looks like frozen, frostbite, and the perils of the cold in general.

In our terror-centric world, even this remote park is a potential gateway for terrorists, so say the administration-that-be, and a Homeland Security duo is sent to accompany the researchers and park ranger Anna for six weeks of study. In positively no time one of the group is dead, apparently savaged by wolves who, contrary to popular fear, do not attack humans. Huge paw marks appear in the snow. In the best Agatha Christie tradition, the weather turns nasty and the islanders are cut off from the rest of the world and left to solve their own problems.

As far as mystery stories go, this is one heck of a good nature story. The mystery part of it suffered from back-and-forth-itis. There is a lot of tromping around in the snow, and I cringed whenever Anna had to swaddle herself in winter gear, which was never enough to keep her (or me ) warm. In a bow to a horror-movie convention, the comeuppance at the end goes on and on -- but it is a spectacular ending. And a warning for you tender readers: there is also a medium “ick” factor when Barr describes the death and a prior crime committed by the criminal.

But frankly, the mystery is not always why I read Nevada Barr. Her nature writing is “superior” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), and I love Anna Pigeon’s mixture of humor, practicality, orneriness, and unpredictability. The girl’s got dignified sass!

Even if it’s 78 degrees outside your window, make yourself a hot mug of Ovaltine and pull on your mukluks to read Winter Study.

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