Thursday, October 10, 2013

Catch Rider (2013)

Catch Rider
Jennifer H. Lyne
2013, Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Submarine stood in my way, chewing on a flake of fescue.  He was an old skewbald pinto, huge feet and knees, a little swaybacked, large head and a big belly.  He had strong hooves and a powerful build.  Jimmy bought him for himself on a lark when they were doing work for a fellow in Pig Run.  Uncle Wayne said Sub was the soundest horse he’d ever seen.  Although most horss threw a shoe at about six weeks, Sub kept his shoes on so long, the blacksmith had to pry them off at twelve weeks.  Now he just stood there chomping on the hay.  He was past his prime and was a sad sight, with his long whiskers and manure stains on his white spots.  He wasn’t doing nothing but taking up space.  He was always in the way, and it made me angry.

14-year-old Sidney “Sid” Criser is angry a lot, for various reasons.  Her beloved father, Jimmy, died four years ago and her mother, Melinda, has managed to fall into a passive relationship with a violent man.  Sid’s love for horses and ambitions for riding gets some outlet working with her uncle Wayne, a drunk horse dealer, but going to work with him at Oak Hill, a fancy show barn, shows her just how far she is from the horsey pinnacle. 

And that’s where I’ll stop, because part of the charm of this book lies in how it keeps twisting. 
 The heroine’s path does take her down the unusual horsey book fortunate accidents, complete with rides on spectacular horses and getting vastly unlikely opportunities to do wonderful things.  It is, in fact, the most recent update of the classic modern horse-loving girl story – hardworking female child overcomes a disadvantaged background to achieve horsey success.  These are all set in what has to be one of the most esoteric, elite variations of equine competition, aka, hunter/jumper/Big Equitation – horse show genres that exist largely in America and tend to revolve around 14-year-old girls with well-heeled parents.  Barbara Morgenroth did it with Last Junior Year and Ride A Proud Horse, Jean Slaughter Doty with The Monday Horses and The Crumb.

An interesting plot, a realistic if often aggravating hero, and crisp action.    

Sid, while realistic in behavior for a teen, is way too poised verbally and her aggressiveness is unrealistic – one moment she’s fearlessly picking fights with threatening older boys, and the next she’s cowering because someone threatened her.  

Personal reaction
I dislike redneck stories with sullen, two-fisted heroines that ain’t afeered of no damn boy.  I’ve met hard knock girls with black eyes and ready snarls, whose fists are just a’coverin’ a hurtin’ heart, and most of the time it’s like walking into a buzz saw.  Also, there’s probably a little mild jealousy that as a New Jersey resident, I can never claim to be country strong because people would just laugh.  Probably people in North Dakota feel the same way about urban stories (or, in fact, suburban stories, given that state’s cow/human ratio) about ambitious young shoe-buying chicks who have zany adventures in coffee shops.  Returning to the point – given my high resistance to rural tough chick heroines, the fact I finished the book and have a mildly positive opinion is an indication that it’s a decent book. 

Something worth mentioning is that a catch rider is someone who “catches” rides at a horse show – ie, is a good enough rider, with a good enough reputation, that people will want them to ride their horse in a class.  In short, a rider without a horse, for the most part.  This doesn’t exactly describe our heroine, who has access to her uncle’s horses and horses owned by a variety of his friends (also, it should be added, low-rent dealers so their horses aren’t $50k warmbloods), but in essence, she’s a rider without a horse, and while the book is intensely horsey and the heroine is a typical fixated-on-horses type, there are a variety of horses who take center stage, then suddenly depart.  Appropriate, given the title and Sid’s ambition, but still rather jarring.

The action appears to take place during the 1980s.  It’s never explicitly stated, but two things – Sidney meets Idle Dice, a famous show jumper who retired in the 1980s, and the Maclay Finals occur in New York City, which hasn’t happened since 1989 – make me think it’s a period piece.  Also, things like cell phones, texting, etc., aren’t mentioned.   Things that are mentioned – Sid lives in rural south-west Virginia, near the city of Covington, and has an unfortunate habit of being overly hillbilly girl in speech.  OK, a bit bitchy, but I truly hate dialect.

The Maclay Finals, highlight of the National Horse Show, were named for Alfred B. Maclay, second president of the Association of American Horse Shows (which would become the United States Equestrian Federation or USEF).  His term was 1925-1936.  If you needed any further proof of the money that horse shows can contain, his predecessor was a Vanderbilt.  The Maclay family’s wealth was built on ice, which sounds funny unless you’ve just gone through a massive heat wave and then it sounds completely sensible.  After a brief flirtation with the family business, Alfred shrugged it off and settled down to what was undoubtedly a deeply satisfying life managing his personal wealth and being influential in various hobbies including harness horses, horse shows and dog shows (he was an AKC judge), glass art and gardens.  He had a Millbrook, NY house called Killean Farm, and a Florida home that his widow turned into a public garden.

And now tearing my attention away from the American rich - sorry, so much of horses seems to end up with the 1% - Maclay classes are horse show hunter classes for junior (youth) riders; to reach the finals, you need to accumulate points.  The finals, along with the National Horse Show, were originally held at Madison Square Garden in New York City.   The National moved the the Meadowlands in NJ in 1989, to Wellington, Florida in 1992, and to Syracuase (as part of another horse show) in 2008, and finally to the Kentucky Horse Park in 2011.



Friday, September 20, 2013

Heather Takes The Reins (1996)

Heather Takes The Reins
Sheri Cooper Sinykin
Illustrators: Richard Lauter (cover); Ed Tadiello (illustrations); Rich Grote (spot illustrations)
1996, Scholastic, Inc.
Series: Magic Attic Club

A series about four best friends - Heather, Alison, Keisha, and Megan - who find a golden key that unlocks a neighbor's attic and allows them access to a magic trunk.  The clothes they find in the trunk transport them - separately and together - to other places, and adventures.

Heather's confidence is shot after a disastrous first try at Academic Bowl.  Dispirited, she heads to the attic for an adventure to boost her mood.  She chooses a riding outfit and finds herself in a stable, with a sad bay horse named Adagio who isn't good at jumping.  Happily, he is good at dressage.

The central conceit of the attic adventures is that the girls get to experience their magical visits to other lives with all the necessary specialized knowledge.  So Heather knows how to ride and in one day goes from her first ride to winning a kur - a musical freestyle in dressage.  With only a background watching National Velvet to draw on.  Which is why magical adventures rock.

This is a short book, heavily illustrated and with writing that at best shows promise - but generally isn't trying too hard.  Maybe understandably, as this is part of a gimmicky series, but it's disappointing to have a line like:

At last, as if he were doing her a great favor, he accepted the treat and turned his head away. His teeth crunched noisily as he watched Heather from the corner of his eye.

It starts well, with a wry note that feels true, but falls apart as the crunching goes astray - the treat, surely, is doing the crunching, not the teeth - and the oddness of a horse (with virtually 360 vision) looking out the corner of its eye.

The books seem to have been accompanied by a set of dolls - the large sort, like the American Girl dolls - and I'm not sure which came first.  It's likely the books were marketing tie-ins with the dolls.

Sinykin's Magic Attic Club books
Fantastic Fiction list of the series

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Golden Pasture (1986)

The Golden Pasture
Joyce Carol Thomas, il.???
1986, Scholastic POINT

“I still say that Indian woman would still be here if you knew how to cooperate sometimes and learned how to show a little affection.  Black folks and Cherokees have been marrying and getting along for as long as I can remember.  What’s your problem?”

The uneasy relationship between Gray Jefferson and his grown son, Samuel, is laid out in that comment.  Samuel has just come to Gray’s Oklahoma  ranch, Golden Pasture with his newborn son, Carlton Lee.  In the first, startling chapters, Samuel had stolen the infant from his Cherokee mother, Rose Branch, after she gives birth in the winter woods, and Gray clearly suspects that his son’s to blame for whatever separated mother and child.  Carlton will never see his mother again, but he forms a strong bond with his grandfather almost from the moment he’s placed in his arms. 

12 years later, Carlton Lee is spending another summer at Golden Pasture, enjoying the company of his easygoing, story-telling grandfather and riding horses.  The only unsatisfactory spots are visits by his brooding father, his nagging desire to ride in the Boley Rodeo, and his curiosity over one remote pasture he’s forbidden to enter.  When an accident forces Carl Lee to enter this area, he finds a beautiful Appaloosa and, indirectly, a clue to his father’s past.  As he works to restore Cloudy to health, his grandfather tells him the story of Samuel and his wild horse, and their fate.

“Once, your daddy loved a horse.  I should’ve let him keep the horse after we caught him, but I wanted to show him off in that darn rodeo.  He was a king, that horse.”

Carl Lee understands the story – of Thunderfoot the wild horse, of Samuel the wild teenager who responded to the wild stallion, and of Hellhound, the brutal bronc rider who couldn’t resist the challenge of Thunderfoot’s reputation for putting cowboys on the ground.  But he doesn’t understand the last piece until history repeats itself at the Boley Rodeo. 

A father-son story centered on a horse, with a writing style that reads like a storyteller’s voice.  The author wrote several books set near Ponca City, where she grew up, and some feature Carl Lee. 
Marked By Fire
Bright Shadow
House of Light


Saturday, August 10, 2013

Saddle Patrol (1970)

Saddle Patrol
Carl Henry Rathjen, il. Cliff Schule
1970, Western Publishing (A Whitman Book)

13-year-old Mike Flynn is on a long visit with his cousin, Terry Stevens, who lives in a unique horse-friendly development in Wisconsin.  On his first night, he goes to check on his horse, Duke, and stumbles across a mystery.  When he and Terry investigate, they uncover a larger can of worms involving an unfriendly neighbor, mysterious tensions between horse-owners and farmers, and the troubling worry that Terry’s father, the local police chief, could lose his job.  Mike, a preternaturally level-headed kid, bounces between investigating the heck out of the mystery and soberly assuring Terry's policeman father that he'll leave the investigating to the proper authorities.  On one of the "No sir, I will leave policing the the adults" days, he helps his cousin deliver newspapers - on horseback! - and enters into a simmering feud with older newsboy Rod Baxter - which leads to a vital clue!  And back we go to investigation. Assisting in the plot is the town police dog, recovering at the Stevens household from an injury.  

An underwritten, plot-heavy mystery with flat characters and drawn-out action scenes.  And another of the awkward Whitman Books, with their horrible illustrations and fragile, yellowing pages and binding.

Carl Henry Rathjen
Rathjen was one of several writers who produced a volume in the Trixie Belden series. He also wrote two horse stories which appeared in The Boys’ Life Book Of Horse Stories (1963), “The Curb Bit” and “Sacrifice Spurs.” He also had a horse story in The American Girl Book of Sports Stories (1965), “Trophy For Sheri.”

Cliff Schule
Illustrated a number of Whitman books, including the horse anthology Golden Prize.

Odd Facts/Possibilities

Claybank  -
This was an unfamiliar term to me, so I googled around.  From the usage in the book, it clearly means Duke is a shade of chestnut, but I was interested in how it was used as a stand-alone adjective:

Mike touched Duke with his heels.  The claybank surged in outflanking pursuit.

It turns out claybank is a description of a red dun – a dilute chestnut the color of a clay bank.   Like many of the color obsessions, it seems to be heavily associated with the West and classically Western horses.  The other main horse in the story, Terry’s horse Wanderer, is a black blanket Appaloosa. 
From Wikipedia:
Red dun, also called claybank or fox dun, horses do not have black points, as there is no black on the horse to be affected. Instead, the points and primitive markings are a darker shade of red than the coat. Genetically, the horse has an underlying chesnut coat color, acted upon by the dun gene.”

Horse Colors website


The lone survivor of Custer’s command at Little Big Horn was a gelding named Comanche.  The horse, badly wounded, survived and became an emblem of the battle to the Army, which retired him with orders he never be ridden again.  The argument over Comanche’s color illustrates the flexibility of color terminology, particularly before the genetics were understood*.  Usually called a bay, Comanche is also sometimes described as a claybank; while current usage reserves the term for a dun without black, it seems that it was once used as a general way to describe any unusually light brown horse.

Kansas University’s Comanche Exhibit

*to be clear, color genetics – dilutes, champagnes, etc. - are still not understood by me.

And, to round it out, and because the Lincoln assassination adds interest to any topic, an old folk song “Booth Killed Lincoln” calls Booth’s getaway horse a claybank:

The people all excited then, cried everyone, "A hand!"
Cried all the people near, "For God’ s sake, save that man!"
Then Booth ran back with boot and spur across the back stage floor,
He mounts that trusty claybank mare, all saddled at the door.

J. Wilkes Booth, in his last play, all dressed in broadcloth deep
He gallops down the alleyway, I hear those horses feet;
Poor Lincoln then was heard to say, and all has gone to rest,
"Of all the actors in this town, I loved Wilkes Booth the best.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Odds and Ends

Various items while I finish up some reviews.

Shark Week!!!!!!!!!!!!
Tomorrow, The Discovery Channel's shameless annual sharkfest kicks off.  This does not constitute a significant cross-over with horse books, as horses generally stay on land.  However...

... didn't you just know the exception to the shark/horse rule would be Walter Farley?  Sharks menace Tena in The Horse That Swam Away and nearly eat Alec (once again shipwrecked) in The Black Stallion and Flame.  In the latter book, the Black is also attacked by a vampire bat, pictured above on the 1970's paperback cover looking as big as a turkey vulture.   

Anyone want a contest where you can win vintage (cough) horse books?  I have some rattling around that I keep meaning to do a contest for, but I wasn't sure if anyone would be interested.  I mean, these are books you can get at Amazon for a penny.  On the plus side, they'd be free and the only requirement to enter would be a comment on future reviews.  

Also, I once reviewed a picture book, Horses by Blanche Chenery Perrin.  Recently, I came across a comics blog which shows the entire (well, it was a Little Golden Book) book.  Well worth a look - I really like Hamilton Greene's illustrations.

And my sole horsey purchase at a used booksale today.  Cute - Trina Schart Hyman's illustrations are always eye-catching.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Wilful Princess And The Piebald Prince (2013)

The Wilful Princess And The Piebald Prince
Robin Hobb, il. Jon Foster
2013, Subterranean Press

For something a little different.  This book stands alone quite nicely, but also functions as a prequel of sorts to the author’s popular fantasy series, much of it centering on a dragon-plagued land called the Six Duchies, and the royal Farseer family that rules it when they're not busy killing each other.  I’ve read most of the books – there are currently 13 – and generally liked them.  They’re decent fantasy novels based on characters and convincingly portray a complicated fantasy world.  This novella is much shorter and concentrated than the sprawling enormity of the rest of the series, but has many of the same elements – strong and often unlikeable women, mysterious men, royal squabbles, high fantasy tone and a tendency toward unexpected bloodbaths. 

The backstory for this installment is that in the main series, there’s a violent dislike for one branch of magic ability.  The Wit is the ability to bond and communicate with animals in a mystic way; Witted folk can literally speak with animals.  When this book begins, years before the later books, being Witted is considered acceptable.  When the next book (Assasin’s Apprentice) in the series opens, the Wit is regarded as corrupt and evil.  In this book, it’s explained how that prejudice came to be.  It starts with a Queen-In-Waiting named Caution.  Who is, to put it mildly, quite unlike her name.  At 20, she’s refused to marry, refused to learn anything about ruling, and generally is vexing her indulgent parents.  And then the horse fair opens.  

Now among his ware this odd trader had a spotted horse – not dappled nor speckled, mind you, but blotted in great ugly spots, like a fruit that has taken blight, or a poorly-dyed blanket, or a milk cow.  Black-and-white he was, with a rolling blue eye on one side of his head and a dark staring one on the other.  Big was this beast, and a stud, unruly of temper, screaming out his challenges to any stallion that came near and snuffing and stamping after every passing mare.

Caution sees the horse, and the Witted slave named Lostler who is the only one who can control him.  She buys horse and man, and installs them in the royal stable, and you can tell where this is going.  But Caution's predictable disaster is not where the story ends. 

The story is narrated by Felicity, the plain daughter of an ambitious wet nurse.  Maneuvered into place as the playmate and personal maid of Caution, she has grown to love her.  She has little choice; taken from her family at a young age and instructed harshly by her mother on how to please a fickle princess, Felicity has virtually no one but Caution.  The princess, all unknowing, is Felicity’s family, friends and lover, all in one.  Their betrayals of each other will be impressive, especially given that Caution really doesn’t recognize that she is betraying her – for how can a princess betray a servant?

Honestly, not all that horsey.  It is interesting, though, how Hobb uses the horse to rachet up the sexual tension between the heir and the groom; as the maid watches her mistress flirt with ruin.

Robin Hobb’s Six Duchies/The Elderlings novels
Assassin’s Apprentice
Royal Assassin
Assassin’s Quest
Ship of Magic
The Mad Ship
Ship of Destiny
Fool’s Errand
The Golden Fool
Fool’s Fate
Dragon Keeper
Dragon Haven
City of Dragons
Blood of Dragons

About the Author
Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden (1952 - )
aka Megan Lindholm

Subterranean Press
 Tor Books - excerpt