Sunday, August 9, 2009

Romance novels for a sweltering night

And now, because it's filthy hot and so humid the wallpaper behind me is dark with sweat and peeling away from the plaster walls - a little diversion. I happily admit to reading anything - mysteries, picture books, literature, chick lit, westerns, scifi, fantasy, romance - if it's text-based, I read it. So I read and enjoy romance novels sometimes. It wasn't until I started riding, however, that I discovered the best way to enjoy romance novels is to search out egregious horsey mistakes. I am far from an expert at horse stuff, so if my quibbles are unjustified, please feel free to shoot me an email to explain where I went wrong.

Above, I don't even want to get into exactly how our heroine is sitting aboard that horse. My question concerns the reins; clearly, there is only one and it is crossed under the horse's chin.

This brave native person appears to be holding reins in his right hand, but these are the reins to nowhere. Admirable torso, but where'd the bridle go?

And a real review of a romance novel, using a far snarkier approach than usual just for a change of pace.

Leaping Hearts

Jessica Bird

2002, Ivy Books (Ballantine - Random House)

A.J. Sutherland was captivated by the stallion from the moment she saw him. And she wasn't the only one. Like believers in front of a hypnotist, the whole audience was under a spell and had the dreamlike eyes of zombies. Called by the master to come forward, the crowd moved like a glacier, pushing its way toward the auctioneer's stand and bulging out of the cordoned-off area where the horse was displayed.

Hypnotists, zombies and glaciers - that's a heck of a lot of similies and metaphors to throw at an innocent reader in the very first paragraph.

A.J. Sutherland buys the 4-year-old black Thoroughbred stallion Sabbath for a whopping $30,000, defending her rashness to her stepbrother Peter (the financial side of their wealthy father's hobby-turned-serious show barn) by saying he has good bloodlines. Peter points out that the horse's reputation is very, very bad - he has shown talent at jumping, but also at ridding himself of his rider and terrorizing any human nearby. No sooner has Peter said this than Sabbath shakes loose of his five (five!) handlers in the auction ring and bolts through the crowd, chasing people. Among them is Devlin McCloud, a nationally famous rider who had an accident last year that killed his favorite horse and left him with a shattered leg. Devlin and A.J. spot each other and mentally swoon.

Outwardly, they carry on as usual - Devlin is surly and reclusive, A.J. is arguing with Peter.

Long story short, A.J. impusively leaves her father's barn - Sutherland - and shows up on Devlin's doorstep looking winsome and helpless. Devlin, who's been brooding about her all day, grudgingly lets her stay the night. After some perfunctory fencing, the two establish that he will coach her in training the difficult horse, and prepare them for the huge tryout for the national team two months away. Two months away!

This is a fairly readable romance novel; it moves quickly, the characters aren't loathsome (Devlin never grabs A.J.'s arm, A.J. never suddenly reveals she has a toddler stashed away in Mexico) and the horses are a nice plot touch. An uneven, odd plot touch, which allows me to revel in my inner horse nerderie. The prose is a bit purple, but that's often the case in romances.

  • Sabbath is - a black stallion. Ahhh, a classic.

  • Sabbath is a Thoroughbred, untried at jumping, who somehow sells for $30,000.

  • Sabbath is described thus on page one: his coat glistened with flashes of black and navy - er, navy? A navy horse? I get so-black-he's-blue, or blue-black, but NAVY?

  • A.J. corrals Sabbath at the auction after he's broken loose by performing the classic 'I am magic touch with the horses' routine. And walking the horse back to his stall sans halter, lead, etc.

  • Sabbath and Devlin clear the air on their first meeting by having a stallion-stallion standoff including Sabbath roaring. Do stallions roar? Isn't this lions?

  • Devlin is surprised that A.J., a rich girl, has well-used leather tack instead of a nice new nylon bridle. Because horse people hate leather, and wealthy southerners despise quality goods?

  • A.J., about to mount her $30,000 investment for the first time, a horse known to like to unload riders, doesn't bother thinking about her horse because she's obsessing over Devlin.

  • The first ride culminates in jumping, and serious jumping; all subsquent training sessions for the next two months are jumping. One line emphasizes the horse and rider pounding down over and over again after each fence, but the issue is how wan and frail our heroine has become.What about the horse, who is the one whose legs are taking the brunt of this intensive prep?

  • As an old friend tells A.J. "The strength's in your heart, not your head."
  • Well, thank God, right, because A.J.'s all sturm and drang, and no sense. She forgets she hasn't paid Devlin for board, training, etc., until about a month and a half after she moves in. Her big break from Daddy basically translates into running straight into the arms of an older man who can take care of her - Daddy #2.

  • A.J., hunting down Sabbath's history, finds the name of the stallion's 'broodmare.' Wouldn't that be 'dam'? I mean, I dunno, but I've never seen 'broodmare' used like that.

  • In both jumper shows she attends with Sabbath, she pauses to remove her 'hat' respectfully to the judges; have I been missing something at horse shows? Outdated idea, dressage idea, what?

  • When someone has a bad fall at a show, the spectators begin stomping their feet in a weird 'death march' - again, have I been missing something?

  • Bummed at being ditched by Devlin, A.J. summarily moves to sell her phobia-ridden, quirky stallion who only eats when she's around, tries to eat farriers if she's not there to hold his halter, etc.

  • And the whole name - DEVLIN MCCLOUD.

According to this interview, Bird owned, rode and competed horses as a kid. Which explains her effortless use of so many classic horse tropes, from black stallions to horse whisperers. And the need to appeal to a wide audience explains how some of it was simplified.

Author's Website

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