Welcome to the page where I’ll post my reviews of books from the world of horses that I’ve enjoyed! If you like my reviews, I’d love a review of one of my books!
Ambition, by Natalie Keller Reinert (romance)
Backstretch Baby, by Bev Pettersen (romance)
Blind Switch, by John McEvoy (suspense, humor)
Bloodstock, by A. P. Hill (mystery/suspense)
Cold Burn, by Kit Ehrman (mystery/suspense)
Dead Man’s Touch, by Kit Ehrman (mystery/suspense)
Decider, by Dick Francis (mystery/suspense)
Eleanor McGraw, a Pony Named Mouse, and a Boy Called Fire, by Katharina Marcus (YA romance)
Kickback, by Damien Boyd (mystery/police procedural)
Lady Joe, by Mark Saha (humor)
Learning to Fall, by Anne Clermont (romance)
The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill
Silks and Sins by Clare O’Beara (romance)
Outside Chance, by Lyndon Stacey (mystery/thriller)
Warned Off, by Richard Pitman and Joe McNally (mystery/thriller)
Juliet (Jules) wants most of all to beat the big riders in the dangerous and highly competitive world of eventing. Working herself nearly to death on a shoestring, she’s furious to be shut out for a prestigious grant by rich-guy Peter Morrison. Life keeps getting worse as her working student abandons her, a promising horse turns out to be suffering from an apparent psychosis, and a disastrous show experience starts sucking her clients away—and sending them to Morrison. The major chip on Jules’s shoulder doesn’t help. The stage is set for a battle that doesn’t turn out to be quite the one Jules has been training for.
It’s with great relief that I can give Ambition three stars and wish I could give it three and a half. I was worried for a while. For the fact is, this book starts at Chapter 13.
I did need a lot of the information in the first 12 chapters: the source of Jules’s maniacal drive for success, where she got the money for her farm, what her days were like. Obviously I needed to see the meeting with Peter and to learn about Jules’s first disaster, and I needed to meet Mickey (the horse), of course. I didn’t at all mind being taken back to some of the atmosphere of an outdoors working life in Central Florida, having ridden and taught riding in Tampa for 23 years. But by Chapter 13, I was skimming the text, muttering, “I know this already!” I was thinking, “When is something going to happen in this book?”
Fortunately, it did. Peter showed back up, Jules went to a show, we found out a little of the challenge she faced in Mickey, and we saw just how ferociously she sabotaged herself. I got caught up in Jules’s struggles, even though I kept wanting to give her a body shake and shout, “Girl, get a read on yourself!”
Despite my impatience with her, I found Jules well-drawn, believable. I had a little more trouble with Peter, who comes across as flatter, more of the Good-Looking Guy Who Is Misunderstood requisite in romances than a flesh-and-blood person. I couldn’t understand why he kept coming back to someone who treated him so brutally. He wasn’t painted as a masochistic type.
The writing is lively, capturing the train wrecks so often characteristic of a life with horses with humor and insight. I know whereof Reinert speaks when she takes us through a horse person’s learning curves: For example, like Jules, I somehow internalized the idea that it was my job to place the horse’s feet at exactly the right take-off spot. The day the trainer I’d found late in life (too late) said to me, “Your job is to set the tempo, pace, and frame; it’s his job to jump the fence” was the beginning of one of the most unsettling psychological leaps I could imagine. As a confirmed control freak, letting the horse make his own decisions? Really? Reinert knows her stuff; all the horse-handling in this book rings true.
I did raise an eyebrow once or twice. Two people taking full care of 13 horses, riding 9 a day? A trainer as far along as Jules not recognizing a bad shoeing job and a sore-footed horse? On the former point I’ll have to cede to Reinert; she’s been around a lot more than I have and maybe people can manage that schedule. The latter point I attribute to poetic license; it gives Peter a chance to show his stuff. But still. That said, the completion of Jules’s character arc was fitting and worked well.
Anybody who has been where Jules and I have both been, watching other people ride while we clean stalls, trying to negotiate personal relations when differing views of what ought to be done with a horse intervene, hanging on to a precarious dream without the basic wherewithal it requires, will have a lot of fun with this book. As will those who dream of being rescued by Peter—not a bad fate.
Backstretch Baby—Genre: Romance
Eve, a young single mom whose promising career as a jockey has been cut short by injuries, struggles to prove herself when she’s sent as an assistant trainer to a second-rate track with a small barnful of horses who must win if she’s to keep her job. The mysterious theft of the barn’s bridles, which threatens her ability to get her charges ready for their races, sets off a series of events that look as if they’re designed to make her fail. Enter Rick, an investigator sent by her solicitous brother-in-law, who owns her best horse and who, worrisomely, may be making a bid to gain custody of Eve’s young son. Because this is a romance, it goes without saying that Even is initially wary of tough, dangerous Rick, but soon comes to believe that he’s the answer to her dreams.
I must start out by confessing that I don’t read widely in the romance genre. I chose this book because I was curious, as an author of horse-racing mysteries, to know what kinds of horse tales were attracting readers. Finding that YA stories tended to dominate reading lists, I put out a query for “adult horse stories” on some Goodreads groups, and Pettersen’s novels turned up.
I realize that “romance” covers a lot of ground and that my definitions may not jibe with that of many other readers. Goodness knows I’ve avidly read Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, the prototypical romances. I actually wrote two for NAL’s short-lived Rapture line under the name Megan Ashe (they’re still out there in Amazon’s third-party-vendor universe). And the book I’m now updating to begin sending on the rounds contains most, but not all, of the characteristics I ascribe to “genre romance.”
Backstretch Baby clearly fits all of my definitional characteristics, and that close fit did affect my reading. I tended to skim all the “tingling flesh” paragraphs (a little goes a long way for me); it worried me how often Eve let herself be thankful she had a guy around to keep everyone safe; it worried me how the male protagonist, typically rather inscrutable and unsettling at the beginning, is so thoroughly domesticated at the end. I suspect that some of these components only obtain for certain subcategories of romance; after all, Elizabeth Bennet did not expect much protection from Mr. Darcy, nor Catherine from Heathcliff. But if you like these elements and read for them, this pleasant book will provide them, though how well in comparison to others in the genre, I’m not qualified to judge.
What didn’t bother me was being able to project pretty much the general shape of the story (I even knew precisely what was going to have to happen at the end for all the issues to be resolved). Compelling stories tend to share certain features: start out bad, get worse, look as if they’re going to get better, then get really terrible, then come full circle, so that the protagonist gets what she’s earned. The particulars of this archetypal pattern (thinly described here, I know) are what make each story succeed beyond its structure. But if the structure’s missing, the particulars are meaningless.
Fortunately, Backstretch Baby is pretty well structured. Eve has problems galore to solve and watching them get solved is enjoyable. Rick greases the skids a bit too much for my taste, but as much as Eve has to contend with, she deserves at least one piece of luck (Rick) in her life.
The best feature of this book is its authentic depiction of backstretch life on a racetrack. Pettersen clearly knows this life and fleshes it out through a cast of recognizable characters: flighty, unmarried young Ashley trying to grow up enough to accept the baby she’s carrying; worn-down groom Miguel making the most of a life that could dump him out with the trash the day his aged body fails him; above all, the immigrant women trying to raise children while surviving menial jobs in a strange country. Pettersen presents these people and their hard lives with a deep empathy that enriches the story considerably. I spent time on the racetrack researching my books, but I learned something about that community from Backstretch Baby.
If you’re a romance fan, add a star to my rating. Even if you’re not, I think you’ll find this book a quick, pleasant read.
In Blind Switch, Jack Doyle is an independent cuss with a big heart who has independenced himself out of a job. To fluff up his layover fund, he agrees to engineer a high-paying but uncomplicated horse-racing fix. In the process he learns some fundamentals about taking care of Thoroughbreds, so when his dip into crime brings him to the attention of a couple of FBI agents, he’s primed to become their spy at the fancy Kentucky breeding and training farm of Harvey Rexroth, Big Blue Meany Extraordinaire. Rexroth is suspected of hiring creeps to off horses that have performed below expectations, among other crimes. Jack confronts the slime bags and ferrets out the truth, though the final blow is delivered literally out of the blue in a very funny twist.
McEvoy clearly enjoys taking us off on tangents with his grotesque villains and with the gently deviant characters who end up playing unexpected roles. Personally, I grew quite fond of Jack, who hates all the right people and forgives the rest. I enjoyed entering his world every day. McEvoy’s clean style is full of lovely gems. For example, one of his mentors in crime is Moe Kellman, whose “white, electrified-looking haircut” made Jack think of him as “a tough old dandelion.” When I read that great line, I was on board for the ride.
I found myself thinking of this book as Elmore-Leonard-light, with a dash of Carl Hiaasen. McEvoy’s villains and their escapades are not quite as bizarre as those of these two authors, but they fall into the same camp camp (not a typo).
This isn’t a book you race back to at every break, and the reason is, in fact, McEvoy’s pleasure at wandering around showing off his villains. I think one difference between Blind Switch and the best of Hiaasen is that in Hiaasen, we stay close enough to the peril facing the main characters, with enough close calls, that the sense of urgency builds even through the black comedy. McEvoy’s tangents took me out of Jack’s story, and Jack himself never faced any immediate danger. But McEvoy was having fun, and when I tagged along with him, I did as well.
The horse knowledge is accurate, a great virtue in a book like this. The villains’ comeuppances are apt and believable given the world McEvoy has conjured. So if you enjoy a quick, clearly written excursion into some enjoyable bizarre corners of humanity, with an actually original hero and an outrageously imaginative ending, you’ll have fun with this book. I did.
Emma Lewis is a veterinarian with the prestigious practice run by Harvey Winslow in Saratoga Springs, New York, upstate site of the famous old racetrack and home to well-heeled owners, trainers, and breeders. Emma is called to one of these upscale stables, owned by Colonel Thornwood, to diagnose a serious problem with a champion racehorse. She believes the horse’s massively swollen hind leg indicates an infection, but her boss Harvey takes over, pronounces the swelling the result of an inoperable fracture, and has the horse euthanized. A second top-flight runner soon dies under mysterious circumstances, and a series of strange accidents to other race and breeding stock, many of the victims connected to Thornwood, leads Emma and her fellow vet Tyler Finnegan to conclude that the tragedies and accidents aren’t accidents at all. Soon they’re caught up protecting both horses and their own careers from the fallout from a complex scam they must expose to survive.
There’s much to like in this book. Hill provides a detailed picture of the lives of vets at work in premium horse country, and her expertise is unquestionable. Possibly readers with less experience around horses and modern veterinary surgery would find the technicality of some of the episodes off-putting, but I found them intriguing. In addition, the scheme she has created for her protagonists to unravel is clever, taking us well beyond the insurance-fraud plots that many horse-related mysteries rely on. The writing is generally crisp and clear and the characters likable.
A couple of things, though, did make this book harder to read than it may have had to be. First, the plot is hugely complicated. At every turn, another thinly sketched character pops up to insert another clue; the clues, characters, and twists that one would normally hope for pile up so fast that at times I felt I was dealing with a spilled box of paperclips. I too struggle with my tendency to create unnecessarily complicated plots (I just reread Rebecca, and was impressed by how simple, really, the plot was and yet how suspenseful). I found myself wondering if Hill shared the fear I tend to succumb to: that my basic plot won’t carry the story and needs some kind of ribbons and bows to make it “big” enough. I found myself wanting her to trust her plot a little more so that I would have more time to get to know the characters, who tended to race around madly just trying to keep up with their roles.
My other problem is that this book contained many moments that, in more or less non-technical terms, “took me out of the story.” That is, I found my suspension of disbelief interrupted by a sense that normal people wouldn’t behave the way Hill asked them to, or that something just didn’t ring true. I actually laughed aloud at Emma’s reaction in the climactic scene because it didn’t seem to fit the gravity of the moment. As another example, Emma faced a series of attacks on her own barn and her own horses. Such events led me to wonder what threat Emma represented that she would end up so directly in the line of fire. What did she know? Who feared her? Yet Emma herself never asks these questions. The incidents almost seemed inserted to raise Emma’s stake, give us a sense of danger to her personally. But this sense of danger wasn’t really earned; as a result, I found myself wondering more about Hill’s writerly motives than about how Emma was going to cope with the threats.
Finally, since Hill can probably post updated versions of her book, I’d want her to have someone do a quick edit for spelling and grammar. These kinds of mistakes weren’t so frequent as to make me put the book down, but they did interfere with my immersion in the story. For example, “break” for “brake,” “descent” for “decent,” “compliment” for “complement,” and some typos and missing words as well as some of the common pronoun case errors that do get under my skin: these can be easy to find and fix with a second set of eyes. I just finished another edit of my own ebooks; Blood Lies was scanned from the original mass-market paperback and even after several run-throughs, still shows slips from the OCR process. Seeing how small mistakes can break into my concentration in Hill’s book underscored my awareness of how important it is to keep looking for them and fixing them.
Hill has a good following, and I think that in general, horse people will enjoy this book. Many may especially like the parts I found most confusing. They certainly won’t lack for puzzle pieces to slide into place!
Cold Burn—Genre: Mystery/Suspense; some violence
Steve Cline has taken a leave of absence from his regular job as barn manager for Foxdale Farm to help his friend Corey find her missing brother, Bruce. Steve’s investigation takes him to the place Bruce worked when he disappeared, a major Thoroughbred operation, Stone Manor, where Dr. Deirdre Nash and her husband Victor specialize in “foaling out” expensive broodmares and breeding three stallions. Steve’s search for Bruce takes him deep into secrets both at Stone Manor and in Bruce’s life as he tries to discover links between the disappearance, events at the farm, and a series of threatening arsons that seem to be closing in on Stone Manor.
Fast-paced and taut, written in crisp prose with an appealing protagonist, Cold Burn drew me back relentlessly to see where Steve’s exploits had taken him. Steve presents a sweet mix of sensitivity and toughness in his dealing with the four women whose lives intersect his in the story as well as in his cautious kindness to Dr. Nash’s eight-year-old daughter Jenny, who adds a gentle touch of humor to an otherwise grim tale. Horse folks will appreciate his responsiveness to the many mares whose foals he must deliver as part of his job.
I especially want to mention two aspects: First, much of Steve’s work at Stone Manor occurs deep into the night, in the dead of winter, and the darkness and cold contribute an evocative tension to the plot. Ehrman’s prose beautifully conjures the dark, frosty nights and the pelting storms without exhausting us with detail. Second, for writers, Cold Burn is a terrific primer in how to convey complex technical information necessary to the plot, as well as backstory, without bogging down the narrative. The descriptions of the process of caring for and “foaling out” the mares are inserted neatly into ongoing events so that they fascinate rather than stall.
That said, I do want to point out a couple of issues. I’ve found laying out geography hard, and in Cold Burn I never quite got a strong sense of the physical layout at Stone Manor. I didn’t know what a “bank barn” was, and only figured it out during a tense climactic scene. It also took me a while to sort out the male help at Stone Manor. After quite a few chapters, the men working with Steve distilled into those that mattered and those that didn’t. Again, this is a common problem for writers, especially in fast-moving mysteries like this one.
Finally, I always like it when the “detective” unravels clues to figure out the mystery for her- or himself. Steve finally gets the answers by overhearing an explanation by the villains. I couldn’t help wishing that Steve had found a couple of pointers among Bruce’s possessions that he could have used to deduce the truth himself.
Still, I really enjoyed this book. It’s skillfully paced and set in a world I enjoyed visiting (though I don’t think I want to work the midnight shift at Stone Manor any time soon!).
Dead Man’s Touch is the second Kit Ehrman horse mystery I’ve read, and, based on this book and Cold Burn, I do recommend this author to people who enjoy realistic mystery/suspense built around the horse world. I like the crisp style and the clean logic of the plots.
I especially like Ehrman’s refusal to anthropomorphize the horses. I gather from some of the reads I’ve done that writing about horses that might as well be humans (and cuddly ones at that) wins a lot of hearts. But for me, a story that turns the horse into a romantic toy has to be very special in other ways. An original voice, or the sense that I’m in the mind of the human who needs to see horses a certain way, will seduce me. But I’m not comfortable imagining horses who think like humans unless there’s a compelling reason to do so. Horses are their own nations. Those nations should be respected for what they are, not turned into weak mimics of our human minds.
So . . . for Ehrman, in both the books I’ve read, horses are respected in every sense of the word: as living creatures and as beings that demand attention both for the needs they communicate and the damage they can do. Steve Cline cares about his charges, but knows they’re not toys.
In Dead Man’s Touch, Steve is recovering from a trauma experienced in an earlier book in the series and is resisting the pressure to return to his job at Foxdale, an eventing center. His recovery is complicated when his father dies—and turns out not to have been his true father after all. Seeking his biological father, Christopher Kessler, takes Steve to the racetrack, where he becomes embroiled in uncovering a plot to force Kessler to fix races. In the process Steve connects with a new family whose struggles give him the purpose and sense of worth he needs to recover from his emotional distress.
This books lacks the stark atmospherics of Cold Burn, in which the midnight shifts at the foaling-out barn, the ice and snow, the savage fires with their existential threats, and the technical but visceral views of mares and foals and the people around them in do-or-die moments, all carried me into another world. Dead Man’s Touch presents the much more mundane world of a racetrack backstretch, but it does so, I think, with a richer sense of the people who flounder through that world. Subtle attention to the effects of race and class on characters’ choices adds insight to a picture of what it takes to survive a not-very-forgiving scene.
One other thing I really like is the depiction of a virile male character who never becomes hurtfully macho. Steve’s efforts to work out his relationship with Rachel and with his new half-sister as well as a groom who attracts him feel genuine and unapologetic without slipping into braggadocio or stereotype.
I will say that although the plot was believable and smoothly structured, I did spot the villain almost from his first appearance on the scene. The sleight-of-hand involved in making readers look “over there, not here” is a delicate skill, and I don’t pretend to be the best at it. Even so, there was enough to learn and like here to make up for the lack of a shocking reversal. I like those, but I like other virtues as well.
Now why would I review a 1993 title by Dick Francis when there are so many new books about horses and horse-racing to sample?
Well, I have my reasons.
As I read around in the horse-book world, much of it rich with indie authors, I keep coming across mystery/suspense entries supposedly “like Dick Francis,” or “as good as Dick Francis.” Each time I read this, I wondered. In my memory, the Dick Francis thrillers I read when I was younger were riveting (even though I was often put off by the nearly S&M-type torment to which he subjected his heroes).
But could I trust my memory? Were there really differences between those DF novels and the novels I’m reading now, some of which I enjoy reasonably well, while in other cases, I have a hard time finishing? If so, are there lessons to be learned about constructing a thrilling thriller versus one that’s just okay?
Maddeningly, for my immediate project. none of the early novels I remember enjoying seem to be available for Kindle. I picked a later offering more or less at random: Decider. Its publication date falls later in Francis’s career, but the title page does not name a collaborator, as his books with his son Felix do. Enough of the signs pointed to what I consider the Francis touch that I am willing to believe that he wrote it—or that a well-schooled imitator did.
And yes, there are lessons to be learned. For better and worse.
The touches that make Decider sound like vintage Francis are subtle but, to me, telling.
First, there’s the first-person narrator, the hero. Male, of course. A wry, quiet guy, quick to self-deprecate, skilled at taut one-liners that punctuate scenes and sum up emotions. Never consciously funny or deliberately clever, just dry and observant, both of self and context.
And, as in so many of the earlier novels, this character, Lee Morris, has a special expertise that comes into play in the mystery he’s called on to solve. He is an architect and builder who specializes in finding “ruins” and restoring them to livable status, and the suspenseful events he’s involved in revolve around a dysfunctional family trying to determine whether to demolish or restore an old racetrack the family owns. Lee’s expertise plows him into the middle of the squabble and exposes him to the danger and threats requisite to thrillers and suspense.
Okay, he’s a little too perfect: I wearied of hearing constantly from other characters how wonderful he was. A thin line: making your character likable without making him cloying. Francis (or whoever) skates just along the edge of that line in this book.
Another feature that sets this book apart from many of the books I’ve been reading is Morris’s unusual family life. After far too many books where I could paste in the male-female relationship from six or seven books I just finished (or didn’t finish) reading, it was refreshing to find a couple whose interactions I wouldn’t have predicted. No “I want to be there for you” or “I want you in my life.” Morris and his wife have six sons, and between them there lies a vague unease that makes him both want to end the marriage and to continue it: a subtle disconnect that has to do with her love of having children and his propensity to uproot his family willy-nilly for his next “ruin.”
These characters are adults living their own lives, albeit under the same roof some of the time, with only the sons to connect them. Lee and the five oldest sons set off in an RV in search of the next ruin but are sidetracked by the need to rescue the racetrack, and Lee grapples with the effects of the story adventure on his children, each of whom has a different set of needs. The interactions between Lee and the boys and the people they encounter gild the story gently and later become a driving plot focus, as the boys’ safety, physical and mental, shoves Lee well beyond the comfort zone of rationality and authority within which he’s generally managed, it seems, to hide.
So: these characterizations and relationships among well-drawn, almost unique people are a feature I remember from my DF reading days.
Second, the mystery isn’t predictable. It’s set around an architectural question—can the track be rebuilt?— and a dark family history that, while not wildly shocking, at least provides some surprise.
Here, though, the story does slip: as the climax approaches, we’re subjected to an info dump from Lee, who has figured everything out from slim clues. Did the earlier Francis avail himself of this flimsy plot device? I don’t remember. It will be worth a paperback purchase to find out.
The villains, as well, don’t completely hold up. They’re a bit over the top, especially the arch-villain. Francis works to keep them from being one-dimensional, but they lack the nuance of Lee himself.
The other Francis touch from which I take a lesson is the intimation of trouble ahead right from the first page:
They looked pretty harmless on my doorstep: two middle-aged civil Englishmen in country-gent tweeds and flat caps, their eyebrows in unison raised inquiringly, their shared expression one of embarrassed anxiety.
That’s all it takes to tell us there’s trouble ahead! Harmless? Anxiety? Just those two words. Yet it’s surprising how often mystery/suspense novels don’t convey this absolutely necessary message.
Or do so too heavy-handedly. Let me make what has become, for me, an essential distinction here between novels that start off with “crisis” versus those that start off with “conflict.” I don’t care how exciting an opening scene is, how many bullets fly or bombs go off. If I have no connection with the characters, I could care less.
The opening scene of Decider is low-key. Just three people talking. But two of those people are trying to convince the third to do something he doesn’t want to do. Of course we know he will do it. But in his resistance are the seeds to his personality and his own enduring personal conflicts.
These conflicts come to a head in the final scene of the book, which I found both surprising and unexpectedly moving, as Lee “decides” about a burden he’s been carrying through every crash-and-burn in the book. It’s an adult scene, about people, not crimes, and transcends, I think, the endings of the DF novels I remember. Again, I’ll have to check.
Perfect book? No. Not at all. “Couldn’t put it down?” Not quite that compelling. Still, lessons? Yes.
Obviously the book has conventional strengths I keep aiming for: clean, clear, coherent writing and dialogue that gets the job done pithily and economically (when you like your characters, it’s a little too easy to enjoy their clever dialogue a little too much). But the notes-to-self from this review are these:
- Push beyond generic, seen-it-a-thousand times heroes and clichéed romantic relationships. Unique people will have unique relationships. Figure out who your people are, then put them in difficult situations with other people whose motives and needs you’ve figured out (or are in the process of discovering), and let them have at it. Don’t follow the models you’ve seen just because they are close at hand.
- Even if you’re not writing a mystery, you need suspense. We need to worry about somebody from the first line. It’s okay if we’re worrying over an emotional danger rather than a physical one. In fact, even in a thriller, it’s the emotional worries that will carry the book.
- And finally, start with conflict, not crisis. If points One and Two above are in place, this will be an easy rule to follow. It will take care of itself.
And by the way, Lee manages to avoid getting beat to a pulp. Now that’s a good change!
Eleanor McGraw, a Pony Named Mouse, and a Boy Called Fire—Genre: YA Romance
Eleanor McGraw is a young adult novel set somewhere near a seashore in England (I must have missed the geographic specifics, though I did search a bit for them). The novel recounts the burgeoning romance between fourteen-year-old Elizabeth and sixteen-year-old Peter. Their friendship is triggered by their involvement with the elderly pony Blueberry Mouse, once a mainstay of Peter’s riding career and now a retiree temporarily banished to a once-thriving farm Peter’s family is about to lose to a rapacious creditor.
As the day approaches when the land will be turned over for the family’s debts, Blue draws Peter and Eleanor closer and closer: Eleanor learns to ride and Peter learns why he can’t give in to his spiraling depression. The two young people are seconded by Peter’s unsupportive parents and his genial grandfather and by Eleanor’s mother, a successful musician, and her new husband, a wise and patient Swedish dentist. In the background are Eleanor’s rock-star absentee father, Peter’s aunt Karen who got her family into its predicament by falling for the wrong man, and an upcoming Scottish folk singer, Ebony.
I learned from this book that it’s not necessary to have a loudly ticking bomb to carry a story. I knew that, of course, having read enough lit-er-a-ture in my career as an English professor. But this story meanders and lingers in ways that might easily have turned me away in a less well-rendered novel. In fact, in its quiet tracking of Eleanor’s mind as she fits the people around her, new players and old, into a pattern she can make sense of, this story feels authentic—like what it would really be like to be a precociously self-aware fourteen-year-old living out these weeks.
The story almost feels autobiographical, and may be: The meanderings seem almost too idiosyncratic to be invented. For example, Eleanor is the daughter of a genius rock guitar player and her mother is the author and conduit of a famous song—and why is her new stepfather a dentist? Peter and his kin feel more fictional, like a dream a girl like Eleanor, distanced from her father and his exhilarating life and trying to become her own person among all these changes, might search out. I actually believed in Eleanor more than in Peter, and more in her acceptance of her mother’s pregnancy and the resulting new brother than in her investment in Peter. I know that’s not how a story of young romance is supposed to work, but the pony almost feels like a contrivance. Perhaps I don’t mean that in a negative way: the pony is like a genie inviting Eleanor, “the sprite,” across the magical barrier to adulthood, and in this role Blue pleases me.
I don’t romanticize my horses in quite the way this book (and some of the other books I’ve read in my project of reading horse stories) does. But I’ll engage with that view of the horse/human relationship to the extent that it allows me to enjoy other people’s relationships with horses as long as these relationships take me to new places in my own sense of my place among living things, as this gentle story does.
Kickback—Genre: Mystery/Police Procedural
Detective Inspector Nick Dixon “of the Avon and Somerset police” investigates the suspicious death of a groom and wannabe jockey at a British racing stable. It’s no spoiler to state that the death is not what it seems. The investigation leads Dixon and his partner and paramour Jane into the intricacies of betting schemes and hidden relationships as they resolve the murder and several other scams as well.
In general I’m not a fan of minimalist writing, but in this case, Boyd supplied me with the information I needed in a style that highlighted Dixon’s no-nonsense, get-the-job-done panache. The low-key, taut voice pleasantly understated Dixon’s occasional (and probably obligatory) rouge-cop maneuvers and encouraged readers to supply atmosphere that might have slowed this austere plot. In short, I found myself more than willing to return each evening to Dixon’s quest. In fact, I could say that Kickback provides what some of the indie horse books I’ve been reading recently lacks: a “voice”: that elusive sense that you’re hearing a unique, imaginative individual speaking to you as narrator and not just someone who has looked up the “rules” for narrative prose.
Minor quibbles: 1) The betting scheme is distinctly British, based on a bookmaker culture that American race goers may not fully understand. Boyd does a reasonable job of explaining it, but I found myself wishing the explanation was a bit more fleshed out with a specific example. 2) I didn’t feel completely prepared for the twist at the end; by that, I mean that when I encountered it, I didn’t find myself saying, “How fitting!” or “Now I see that I should have sensed that coming on.” Still, the plotting led to it neatly enough, and I was willing to buy it if not to celebrate its cleverness or aptness.
My only real gripe is that Jane’s role seems limited to passively following Dixon around, fetching his slippers and praising his acumen. I wished she could have stepped out from behind him more. I suspect she has many admirable qualities that weren’t on display.
In short, a direct, clean read for horse-mystery fans. This is one of series featuring Dixon, I believe; the horses weren’t center-stage, but the glimpses of the British racing world enticed and entertained.
Lady Joe—Genre: Humorous adventure
If ever there was a story that ought to be titled, “What could possibly go wrong?”, this is it. Almost-ne’er-do-well Lee Estes manages to get dumped from champion cutting mare Lady Joe on a ride in the California foothills just before she’s to be sold to a rich Texas lawyer for an astronomical price. When Lee climbs to his feet and finds her gone, he has to come up with a plan to hide his carelessness from his judgmental boss. He enlists a reluctant sidekick, good-hearted tag-along Jim Harrison, to set up what one chapter calls a “three-horse monte” to deliver the money and cover his sins. This sweet tale is both comic and heart-gripping, with each chapter punctuated with OMG moments as the guys twist and turn to extricate themselves from mess after mess.
Neither of the women in the story are as well fleshed out as Jim and Lee (or for that matter, as are the three horses involved). At one point, Jim’s wife Francine has to go along with a part of the scheme, and I had to suspend a bit of disbelief to buy that she would be so agreeable. Later, I learned why she was willing to indulge her husband, but at the time I had to let go of my skepticism to move on.
Among the perks for me was an introduction to the cutting-horse world, which I’ve only seen occasionally on television. The development of connections between riders and horses and the ballet of the cutting itself are described with an understated lyricism that grants full credit to these horses that Saha so clearly understands and loves. The book ends with a gentle disquisition on horses and the people who make a place for them in an increasingly indifferent world. I was reminded of the times I’ve commented to my trainer that my horse Paddy deserves a better, braver rider who could take him further. My trainer always answers, “Virginia, Paddy doesn’t stand around in the field all day thinking, ‘Boy, I wish my mom would jump me higher.'” This book reminds me that Paddy’s journey could have ended in many much worse places. Instead he’s here with me.
This book is almost short enough to be read in one sitting on a vacation day. So find a sunny spot and a comfortable chair and drop the reins for the ride!
Learning to Fall is the story of Brynn Seymour, a young woman whose hopes of becoming a vet are dashed when a tragedy thrusts her into the role of running her family’s show-jumping ranch in upstate California. Although her father, himself a nationally competitive jumper rider, wants her to follow in his footsteps, Brynn has always believed that she lacks the talent to make it to the top, even with her beloved jumper, Jett. But when her father dies, he leaves the business in big financial trouble. Brynn has to find the talent and the drive to succeed as a rider and trainer or lose the farm.
Learning to Fall has all the right structural elements: an attractive young woman encountering obstacle after obstacle as she draws on inner resources she didn’t know she had to battle huge odds. As a romance, the book presents Brynn with the comfortable device of two young men, one of whom will help her realize her best self once she realizes which one he is.
Young women in their teens will probably find Learning to Fall a good, fast-moving read, full of horses, romance, and growing pains. Adults looking for a richly textured story full of deep explorations of human ambition and love may enjoy it less. As a reader, I tend to value writing that surprises me, that presents me with insights into lives and selves that I wouldn’t have predicted, or that I haven’t encountered in fiction dozens of times before. Though it has all the right pieces in the right places, Learning to Fall is ultimately predictable. It’s not exactly a spoiler alert to say that from the first pages, readers know exactly how Brynn’s quest will end.
The voice and style are also familiar: well-edited, smooth, more than competent—but never delightful or original or intriguing. Though it carries readers nicely from Point A to Point B, Learning to Fall doesn’t teach much that’s new about the resources of language to evoke feelings and moods.
One of the book’s strengths, though, is its authenticity. Clermont obviously has been around the show-jumping world. Her depictions of life and work at a top show stable are right on the mark. Although Brynn’s reaction to the original tragedy is a bit suspect (why did she do something so foolish?), Clermont never leaves me shaking my head and thinking, “That would never happen.” The obligatory nasty rival trainer who gets a comeuppance is somewhat overdone, but the struggles for customer loyalty Clermont depicts are real.
Another strength is the single unexpected element in the story: the inclusion of yoga and meditation as elements that help Brynn find success. The good boyfriend introduces her, and us, to the powers of mental commitment that yoga can provide. I’m persuaded that these sequences are genuine; young women hoping to become better riders may well benefit from following Brynn’s lead.
So, as a comforting, familiar story about a young woman fighting through to triumph, Learning to Fall will engage many readers. If you don’t want to go anywhere new, you’ll probably have fun.
The epigraph to The Mare invokes National Velvet, Enid Bagnold’s 1935 classic about a butcher’s daughter who serendipitously inherits a remarkable horse she subsequently rides illegally in the Grand National in her disguise as a boy. As The Mare progresses, the parallels to National Velvet come slowly into view. Velveteen Vargas, a black middle-schooler of Dominican heritage living in Brooklyn, is recruited as a “Fresh Air” kid, taken on by an affluent white family for weekends in the “fresh air.” In this particular white family, Ginger, now married to Paul, is a recovering addict; she has no children of her own, and for her, Velvet begins—dangerously—to fill needs. Soon Velvet is caught in a tug of war between Ginger and her own mother, Sylvia, for whom Velvet seems to be more of an encumbrance and a trial than an object of love.
As in National Velvet, the young girl’s fairy-tale travels into Ginger’s world bring her serendipitously into contact with the horses at a nearby barn, especially a rogue mare named Fugly Girl with whom Velvet develops a rapport. As in National Velvet, the culmination of all the emotional arcs is Velvet’s unlikely participation in a “competition” over fences (the details suggest she’s riding in jumper classes). And as in National Velvet, the nexus into which all the emotional threads are collected is the moment when Velvet’s mother finds out that her daughter has become involved in this potentially deadly, forbidden game.
It should be clear just from this short synopsis that this book is deeply layered. Even as she grapples with her mother’s rough love and her complicated relationship with the unstable Ginger (“gingerly” is an excellent descriptor for their encounters), Velvet must make sense of her maturing sexuality and the often brutal social world of her school and neighborhood. The roles of daughters, mothers, women, and men play out against a background in which horses occupy a symbolic, almost mystical role. It is only through her contact with the much-demeaned Fugly Girl, whom Velvet renames Fiery Girl—through her conversion of this monster horse into something praiseworthy and magnificent—that Velvet enters into her own grace. One could attribute this apotheosis to many causes. A likely interpretation is that seeing the horse bloom at her touch gives Velvet a sense that she, too, is worthwhile, a champion, at the core, even though the people she most wishes to see it, her mother and the boy whose attention she craves, won’t or can’t acknowledge her full worth.
Just as likely, to me as a reader for whom horses have often been a salvation, is the possibility that Velvet’s transformation stems from the agency that comes from daring things that seem impossible, that others warn against and consider undoable—as when Velvet slips out with the unridable mare in the night and rides her. The challenges that Velvet faces—riding the mare, walking down the street in her neighborhood, negotiating several kinds of compromised love—are challenges that would floor most of us. She is young enough and desperate enough to confront them all.
Some caveats for readers: the novel develops slowly. Velvet and Ginger’s relationship progresses inch by inch. I realized, reading, that any such relationship would indeed progress haltingly, and I slowed my own expectations. But it takes a while to build the kind of suspense that made me eager to read.
Ginger’s struggles, while central to her relationship with Velvet, were muddier and less compelling than those of other characters. There’s a sub-theme about Ginger’s sister, who passed away in heartbreaking circumstances, that never feels integrated, and her trials with her husband and the demands of her own wishful heart never quite take hold as backdrops to Velvet’s story. What did work is the contrast between the kind of love Ginger wants to give Velvet and the kind her actual mother is capable of giving her. A character with Ginger’s unfocused emotional history would understandably struggle, as Ginger does, to finally name the kind of love she feels for the girl and to define that love against the biological mother’s. Multiple kinds of human need are effectively set against each other in this conflict.
Another tension in the story that left me ambivalent was the insertion of this girl into the horse-show world. Although she is aware of the clash between her own life and the lives of the entitled girls she encounters at the various barns, Velvet seems less attentive to this tension as a character than I was as a reader, with my own sense, from my own life, about the contradictions in being concerned about social justice while every day indulging in this activity that is almost as far removed from social justice as it is possible to get. In my own case, I have a number of mechanisms for rationalizing my own indulgence; The Mare, to be fair, is not so much about the inequalities of American culture as it is about one girl’s attempts to establish her own value within a system that is given to her, not one she can change. Part of the premise of the book is that horses can somehow play a part in such quests, and I can attest to the truth of that premise.
I also find rather amazing Gaitskill’s daring in representing the mind and voice of a girl like Velvet. As an academic, I am necessarily aware of the dangers of representing “the other,” which it would seem that Velvet must be for Gaitskill. I know full well that writers always represent people unlike them; they invent such people, cobbling together observations and wishes to create characters from foreign emotional and cultural landscapes. But still, I found myself unable to stop wondering if the life of a girl like Velvet (not to mention that of her mother) was really the way Gaitskill showed it to me. I cannot know. The story was beguiling enough that I bracketed my uncertainties, but they remain. Can we really make such a stretch?
Finally, though, this is a book about a girl and a horse, and as such, it will reward readers who are involved with horses. One of my own reasons for riding is that I know that feeling Velvet gets when her leg makes contact with her horse’s side and she feels a response. I believe that this connection between alien realities is one of the things that makes riding so special, setting it apart from many other sports that offer peak experiences like the one Fugly/Fiery Girl allow Velvet to experience. Metaphorically, Velvet’s connection to her horse stands as proxy for the connections across realities embodied in her movement between the different “mares/mères” she encounters. So the horse asks her to respond to a reality different from the ones she would ordinarily have seen before her, and to imagine herself able and resilient in those surprising spaces.
I do recommend this. I think it’s time to go back and reread National Velvet, too.
Silks and Sins: Genre: Romance
Two sisters who appear to be in their twenties, Jackie and Geri O’Keane, inherit a family riding stable in Ireland when their father dies. Geri, just made “redundant” by layoffs, and Jackie, going through the motions in a less-than-promising job, decide to take a chance and revitalize the stable into a vibrant and profitable enterprise. This project leads each to meet an eligible young man. The book focuses primarily on Jackie’s relationship with Val, a promising jockey. As a romance, the book follows a familiar trajectory: Jackie and Val’s developing intimacy founders on an emotional hurdle that the characters must overcome before (no spoilers here, surely) reuniting.
Thus, two plot lines intertwine: the romance and the women’s efforts to showcase their business as a lively part of their community. Val links the two by contributing to the stable’s web site launch and by providing Jackie with the impetus to compete in well-publicized “best-dressed” competitions at a variety of race courses. Jackie, in turn, becomes involved in the life of the racing yard for which Val serves as both principal jockey and “lad,” or groom.
Silks and Sins is a gentle story populated by gentle, sensible characters with whom I thoroughly enjoyed spending time. Part of my enjoyment came from learning about the horse world in Ireland; O’Beara’s matter-of-fact depiction of a young jockey’s working life alongside her portrait of the day-to-day obstacles faced by young women in modern Ireland breathe life into the familiar romance framework. She doesn’t glamorize either racing or running a riding stable, showing each as places where people work hard and struggle to keep up the discipline and integrity essential to success.
But I also enjoyed the realistic, quietly engaging plot lines. Geri’s efforts to modernize the stable kept me thinking about what I’d do with such a challenge. Jackie and Val’s inevitable crisis isn’t melodramatic or contrived; it presents them with a serious challenge that they must work to resolve. Their reactions are natural and true to the characters. There are not a lot of surprises, but none are really needed. I found myself quite caught up in these people’s understated lives.
In other words, you probably won’t stay up until four in the morning to finish this book, and if you’re not a romance fan (I’m not), you may resist the predictability underlying (but in this case not defining) the main plot line. But the compensating strengths of the story are such that I think many readers, like me, will look forward to re-entering O’Beara’s world each day.
My only thought for O’Beara: the cover image doesn’t do the book justice. The two woman depicted look like Queen Elizabeth’s aunts, not at all like the stylish young entrepreneurs I took Jackie and Geri to be!
Of course, I’ve never been to the races in Ireland, more’s the pity. So I’m open to correction by those in the know. 🙂
Review of Outside Chance by Lyndon Stacey.
Freelance journalist Ben Copperfield, who specializes in reporting related to horses, is hired to help locate a valuable racehorse kidnapped from the British steeplechase stable where his younger brother is a contract jockey. This investigative venture interferes with a second assignment to cover a traveling Hungarian equestrian spectacular. The search for the missing horse involves Ben with the stable owner’s dysfunctional family while his interactions with the Hungarian troupe entangle him in the complex kinship circles that conceal their own messy history.
This book passed what has come to seem a rather crucial test: It didn’t annoy me. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, perhaps it is. But unlike three or four books I’ve recently found myself unwilling to finish, this book didn’t suffer from a major deterrent for me personally: what I call “illogic.” The characters in Outside Chance acted like normal people with normal instincts and judgment. Not that no one made any mistakes—their behavior wouldn’t be “normal” if no one did—but their decisions to do or not do things were based on accessible and understandable motives.
The linear sequencing of the plot was also comfortable, with no need to wonder how we got here from there, or why. What’s more, someone took the time to edit this book. As trivial as misspelled words or incorrect words or missing words or extra words may be, they are distracting. In this book, I was able to give myself over to the story.
It seems a shame to base a good review on the absence of mistakes. But because I was able to avoid scratching my head in confusion or disbelief, I found myself really interested in what was going to happen and actually regretting having to stop reading each evening when my appointed reading time ended.
All that said, I did have to forgive a few things that keep this from being a five-star read. For one thing, the whole plot is predicated on a huge coincidence. I didn’t learn about this coincidence until I was far enough along in the story to want to know how it ended, so I just bracketed this particular plot problem.
Second, Ben is a sweet guy, a very sensible, down-to-earth protagonist with all the right sentiments, but, to be frank, he’s just a little . . . um, boring. He’s the kind of guy all us gals should surely want to marry, but I’m not sure he’s the kind we want to romp around with in our fiction. He just lacks the edge of the best mystery/thriller characters. This comparison may seem incongruous, but in thinking about what makes a fictional character compelling, I found myself thinking of Doc Martin in the PBS series. Louisa is nuts to even think of marrying the guy, but each week I can’t wait to see what kind of misanthropic nonsense he’s going to cook up. Even Ben’s relationship with his girlfriend is predictable, the kind of thing we’ve seen hundreds of times before. (And folks, every time a character in a fictional relationship says, “I want to be there for you” or “I need you to be there for me,” I have to restrain myself from driving an ice pick through the computer screen.)
The book’s PR casts it as akin to the work of Dick Francis. It has been a while since I read Francis, but I remember his early books as being riveting. I think my next step may be to go back and reread one to see whether my recall is accurate. If it is, this book really isn’t quite in the same class, though it made for a pleasant read.
And by the way, some really nice horses are front and center. I loved that part.
Eddie Malloy is a former champion jockey living a dismal life after having lost his license on trumped-up race-fixing charges that he has never been able to disprove. When he stumbles on the body of a forensic chemist who had been working on the doping case Eddie was linked to, the Jockey Club unexpectedly calls on Eddie for help in running down the criminals, who are still at large, maiming and terrorizing anyone who stands in their way.
For Eddie, the carrot for his participation in this dangerous manhunt is the possibility of regaining his license to ride—to join once again the world that was his love and his life. In the course of identifying and tracking down the players in the scheme to create an undetectable new doping drug, Eddie endures and transcends physical torture and outsmarts the criminals to bring them to a final showdown.
This first title in the McNalley/Pitman Eddie Malloy series presents us with a hero who truly has something at stake and who is willing to risk his life to metaphorically win it back, but who also plays it smart and careful, so that his choices are believable responses to the dangers he faces. I found him engaging enough to revisit night after night, and I often read “just one more chapter” before taking up other duties. That’s always a good sign.
Among the things I liked about this book were Eddie’s relationships with the two main female characters. One was just a bit predictable, but with a twist that kept it interesting. The other did not follow the typical good-guy-meets-beautiful-girl script at all. His dealings with the situation this woman presents make for some of the most interesting parts of the story.
The mystery itself fell a little flat. Eddie has a pretty good idea as to who the villains are from early on, and most of the book details his efforts to get proof that can be used against them. The jockeys who get caught up in the mess are the most vividly drawn of Eddie’s antagonists, with the masterminds more broadly sketched and stereotyped.
As for the horses, well, we don’t see a whole lot of them. The racing backdrop is authoritatively explored, but there’s little engagement with any individual horses that might enliven the story for readers who want that kind of relationship in a horse book.
I enjoyed this book; it’s several cuts above average. The plot is logical, the hero attractive, his challenges and motives compelling, and several of the turns surprising. That’s actually pretty high praise.
I will say that when I read the sample chapters from the next Eddie Malloy book, I was more than a little disappointed. In these chapters, Eddie starts out locking horns with a bad guy for a good cause—protecting a younger rider—but then descends into baiting the villain unnecessarily, actually inviting a dangerous confrontation on the racetrack. I know the writers wanted to set up the attempt to kill Eddie in the upcoming race, and to do that, they had to make the bad guy really, really mad. But I felt set up and manipulated myself by Eddie’s uncomely macho behavior, and I probably won’t read this next book.