Tag Archives: horse story

Book Review: Atmosphere and Subtlety and Poetry in The Scorpio Races

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Scorpio-paperback-website

I was a horse fanatic who grew up reading all of Marguerite Henry’s books, My Friend Flicka, National Velvet, The Pony Pals, and dabbling in The Saddle Club. Pretty much since the introduction of Harry Potter to my life, I’ve read fewer horse books and more fantasy books and epic quests. Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races combined these two genres and gave me more than either in some ways. This story takes place on the fictional island of Thisby at an indeterminate time (though because of the mention of women’s suffrage movement I can place it probably somewhere between the early 1800s and early 1900s presumably off the coast of the U.K. for the capaill uisce are a British myth and the name is borrowed from the Irish. The capaill uisce or water horses are sea creatures that can come on land and take on more equine features and natures when they do, but they are believed to be faster and are more vicious, eating flesh and blood instead of hay and oats. Iron and red ribbons and bells and knots in their manes can all be used to curb some of the capaill uisces’ power and make them less menacing and more manageable, but none of these is all-powerful, and a capall uisce will always be dangerous.

Every autumn the bravest of the men of Thisby capture, train, and race the water horses along the beach, where the siren song of the ocean is loudest and the capaill uisce are most unpredictable and dangerous. This year—driven by poverty and a belief that running in or winning the race may change her circumstances—Kate “Puck” Connolly has entered as the first woman and on the first land horse to ever race among the capaill uisce.

Ostensibly this is a story about the races but it is more the story of the islanders and particularly the racers—particularly Kate and Sean Kendrick. Sean is the four-time returning champion who trains thoroughbreds and water horses to race and loves the mount from which his father once fell while racing. Corr did not eat Sean’s father, but he couldn’t save him either. Sean needs to win to be able to buy Corr and to leave the service of the stable owner Malvern.

Kate is a woman in a man’s role, but she sacrifices none of her femininity, none of herself in order to race.

In Kate, I believe Sean sees some of himself, the same love and understanding of horses, the same bravery. He reaches out to her, and the two form an unlikely partnership.

I have been feeling overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of romance in especially teen literature of late, and Stiefvater here snuck in a budding romance so subtle and so sweet and so understated that I forgave her and even rooted for the pairing. I don’t think that’s a spoiler only because of the pervasiveness of romance in teen literature which seems to dictate that if there is a male and a female protagonist in the same story they will inevitably get together. There’s a kiss, but gratefully there’s nothing more to make me reluctant to recommend this to younger readers. This will be a book I’m putting in the hands of the middle schoolers who are reading at a higher level without fearing the wrath of the (almost) most conservative parents.

Stiefvater pulled me in with her poetic prose, her love and understanding of horses, which for me was nostalgic—not only for the literature that I grew up on but also for my own childhood, much of which was spent horseback, loving and learning to understand horses.

Stiefvater relates to Thisby itself as a character and it’s hard to argue with her on that point; The Scorpio Races is an atmospheric book, one that makes you a part of the circles and relationships of its characters. It’s a difficult thing to describe if you’ve never experienced that sort of embrace and envelopment from a book. It’s a difficult thing to achieve, and a sense that is ignored or overlooked or slacked off by many writers. It was something my high school English teacher discussed in reference to Thomas Hardy and Return of the Native (which is not a book I particularly enjoyed, but it seems worth mentioning if only because this is the level of prowess I sense in Stiefvater—and if I didn’t enjoy my fling with Hardy it makes him no less revered).

I recognize that perhaps a great deal of this book’s appeal to me is nostalgic and personal, but it is nonetheless something different, something magical, and something subtle.  I’ve already picked up another book of hers to see if that magic extends beyond what is nostalgic–and I’m hopeful that it will.

*****

Stiefvater, Maggie. The Scorpio Races. New York: Scholastic, 2013. First published 2011.

This review is not endorsed by Maggie Stiefvater or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: July 2014 Picture Book Roundup

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First a quick acknowledgement: The first picture book roundup was posted July 1, 2013.  I have officially been doing this for over a year now; I just hadn’t realized it.  Since I’ve realized it, you might notice a small detail added to the title of this post.  I guess it’s time to start distinguishing by year as well as month.

Also, I ought to apologize.  This month’s is awfully late.  But never mind.  Here it is at last.

Waldo the Jumping Dragon

Waldo, The Jumping Dragon by Dave Detiege and illustrated by Kelly Oechsli. Whitman-Western, 1964.

This one I found in an antiques mall, drawn to it by the dragon on the cover. Waldo is a careless dragon who doesn’t look where he’s going, and because the characters warn the dragon that that heedlessness will get him into trouble, I’m tempted to think of this as a didactic story. He runs into a knight—literally—and the knight decides that he must slay the dragon. The knight chases him, eventually catching hold of the dragon’s neck after the dragon frightens a king and a queen. Waldo, however, just continues to jump from place to place with the knight clinging to him, until he runs into a tree, dislodging the knight, who runs away from the reckless dragon, deciding that he is too dangerous. But before dislodging the knight, Waldo admits that he is a lonely dragon, so his recklessness leads not only to danger for himself and others but also a lack of friends, making it truly unenviable to a young audience. Because he isn’t watching where he is going, Waldo breaks the 4th wall and jumps off of the page. I’ve always been a fan of books that break the 4th wall and acknowledge themselves a book. 

****

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Touch the Red Button by Alex A. Lluch. WS, 2014.

Hervé Tullet’s Press Here has spawned several copycats, including this book and Bill Cotter’s Don’t Press the Button. (There are more copycats than I’d realized. Here’s an online version intended for an older audience.) These books ask readers to interact with the illustrations, and the illustrations reflect the readers’ assumed interaction. It’s a pretty fun concept, and though I recognized pretty quickly that Lluch’s book was a Press Here copycat, I still read it all the way through, then held it out to a coworker for him to play with too. This more than any of the other books I’ve found—including the original—is more complimentary, praising the reader for following directions. But it’s also less original than Cotter’s book.

These will never be good story hour books but will always be good bedtime books. They’re educational. The interactive model makes them books of play for kids and adults too. The novelty of the concept is starting to wear off, but I think that the interactive and playful nature of the books will ensure that they keep selling.

***

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Can You Say It, Too? Moo! Moo! by Sebastien Braun. Nosy Crow-Candlewick-Random, 2014.

This flap book shows hints of the animal behind the flap. It is peppered with animal sounds paired the animal’s name. It’s actually been pretty highly praised, but I found nothing in it to disappoint and nothing in it to blow me away.

***

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Dragon Stew by Steve Smallman and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Good Books, 2010.

Now Smallman seems about as enthusiastic about dragons I am, and I understand that Vikings and dragons have a long history, but there are so many echoes of Cowell and of DreamWorks here that it seems nothing so much as a leech to the How To Train Your Dragon franchise’s fame (the movie was released about six months prior to Dragon Stew’s release). In Cowell the bathroom humor of middle-grade boys is age-appropriate. In a children’s picture book, it seems grotesque (though I do recognize that my disgust is also mixed with my outrage at the book so blatantly coasting on Cowell’s success without acknowledging it). For an older audience, I’d love it, and maybe for, say, ages 7-8 (ages which are within the realm of picture book marketing), it would be great. It’s an exciting adventure about bored Vikings who decide to go and hunt a dragon for their stew without knowing what a dragon looks like, battle their way past sea monsters, eat all of their teatime sardine sandwiches, land on a dragon’s island with the help of a killer whale, examine a pile of dragon poo, and then are confronted with the dragon itself, who rather than allowing himself to be chopped up for stew, sets their bums alight. It might be a delightful picture book, but it’s not one I’m likely to read to my children while they are young enough and incompetent enough readers for picture books—and by the time they’re ready for it, I hope we’ll be reading chapter books.

**

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The Silver Pony by Lynd Ward. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973.

A wordless picture book! A wordless picture book from the ‘70s! So it’s a much older concept than I’d thought. I stumbled across this book in a local used bookstore. I was at first attracted by the title and then because the illustrations reminded me Wesley Dennis’ artwork. Dennis illustrated all of Marguerite Henry’s books, so the style was familiar and warm as a childhood security blanket. When I realized after several pages that no text was forthcoming, I became more intellectually interested.

In this tale, a farm boy with his head in the clouds spies a Pegasus. The boy tries to tell his father, but his father doesn’t believe his wild tales, and the boy’s punishment for his perceived tale-telling is a spanking. The boy sees the Pegasus again, however, and this time befriends it rather than fleeing to tell his father. Once friends, he and the Pegasus travel the world, helping other children, delivering sunflowers to young, lonely girls—acts of kindness and bravery and chivalry, sure, but I can’t really cheer the depiction of children of other ethnicities and cultures, as they are shown to need the help or love of the superior white man and his flying horse. (I’m a product, aren’t I, of my generation, as much as this book is of its time?)

[SPOILER] Like so many good horse stories, the boy is hurt riding, and he thinks that he has lost the horse. The injury softens the father. The book ends with the boy receiving a pony who is the doppelganger for his lost Pegasus as a gift from his previously hard father. [END SPOILER]

But aside from that, these illustrations are pretty beautiful, particularly the landscape and animals. I could hope for a little more emotion from the human characters but not from the animals. The format delights me. There’s room for creativity but enough to have—I think—a fairly similar story and enough illustrations to make the story coherent as well so that it is a feat of storytelling in picture format.

****1/2

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: They Were After Grace (1670 words)

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They were after Grace and that changed everything.  Guin was a favorite of the cook.  She took her instruction, learned quickly, worked efficiently, and kept her head down, not rising to the boys’ bait and never playing with the flour.  She rewarded him with pats on the head, sometimes a slightly larger portion for her meal, and very rarely a spoon to pick clean of dough.  So if she were caught now with a sack of food that wasn’t hers and one of the cook’s best knives tucked into the belting of her boot, the cook would be surprised and disappointed.  She hoped she wouldn’t have to use the knife to fight, but she knew that if she had to live in the woods for a while a knife could save him if even she only used it to chisel spears or cut meat.  She hoped she’d be able to catch meat for himself.  The animals had always been brought into the kitchen killed.

That thought spurred Guin on as she pushed open the kitchen door and crept up into the courtyard, which was dark but not silent even at this hour of the night.  Vigils kept watch on the world beyond from the crenellated outer walls and several more guards were crowded by a fire on the opposite side of the yard.

Guin flattened herself against the wall and considered her options.  The stable was opposite her.  It was possible that the guards’ fire would blind them to movement in the darkness beyond their circle of light, but these were trained vigils who ought to know how to spot a thief in the darkness.  Guin didn’t like her chances of passing undetected.

But if she didn’t….

Guin set off across the courtyard, staying as near as she could to the wall and within the shadows as much as was possible.  If she was caught, well, she’d deal with the repercussions.

The gods were merciful and she slipped into the stable without being hailed by the guards.  Now she had to not wake the stable master and his boys nor disturb the resting animals.  The loose hay that littered the stable floor muffled her footsteps.  The breathing of the animals, the flicking of their coarse tails, and the shifting of their own feet hid the noises Guin made still more.  She made it without incident to Grace’s stall.  The mare was resting, one foot cocked, completely unaware of the fate that awaited her in the morning.  Guin looked up and down the aisle before slipping the mare’s bridle off of its hook and lifting the latch of the stall door.  It squealed as loudly as any rooster it seemed to Guin, so she quickly threw open the door and shut it behind her.  She ducked down with her back to the door and waited for the sounds of any of investigation.  She waited, her heart pounding, for several minutes down by the hay and the soil, breathing in the heavy smell of horse.  Grace had been roused by the noise if no one else had, and the mare startled awake, turned her head and then her body.  Her heavy feet crept near Guin, but Guin never feared that the horse would hurt her, not even when she lowered her nose to Guin, who wrapped her arms around the mare’s head and whispered against her forehead, “Shh. Shh, Grace,” while the horse fought to rummage in the kitchen girls’ pockets.

No one seemed to be coming, so Guin finally gave Grace her head and was unsurprised when the mare quickly found the carrot that Guin had stolen for her, that protruded just out of the top of her apron pocket.  The brush of the horse’s nose and lips against her made Guin giggle, but the sound was hopefully smothered by the crunch of Grace’s teeth on the vegetable.  Guin waited another moment for that to raise an alarm, then she stood.   She moved to Guin’s side.  “Now, shush,” she reprimanded the mare as she lifted the bridle up so that the bit would slide into her thankfully willing mouth and the crown would go over her ears.  “We have to be really quiet.  They can’t hear us leaving.  Maybe once your buyer leaves we can come back but for now—for now we have to go.  But I’ll keep you safe, Grace.  I’ll keep you safe and I’ll make sure that they don’t take you away from here.”

The horse batted her head again against Guin’s arm in search of more carrots.  “Later,” Guin said.  “Now, shush.”

But how would she get the door open without arousing the stable?  How would she get the mare out into the courtyard and then out of the gate without arousing the guards?  Guin wrapped her arms around the mare’s neck and began to cry, her tears dampening the dappled coat.  Grace waited patient and still, without judgment, but her patience only made Guin angry.  It was the mare’s patience that had won her the approval of her new master.

Just one last ride she thought, one last ride.  If she couldn’t get the mare out of the manor then she could at least enjoy one last hour with her.  Maybe the guards wouldn’t be upset if she rode the mare in circles around the yard as she had done before, even if before she had only done so at night.  She wouldn’t be stealing the mare if she never took her.

Guin pried the door open again, but this time didn’t wait to see if the squeal would bring investigators.  She led Grace into the aisle with confidence, the mare’s shod hooves ringing against the packed earth in a steady beat rather than a shuffle.

She was unsurprised to find her way barred by Braydon, but she explained her intent to the stable boy, and Braydon eyed the tear tracks on her face before taking the mare’s reins from her and leading her out into the yard.  Braydon helped to lift her onto Grace’s back, beneath the eyes of the vigils.

And with all of them watching her, Guin rode Grace in circles around the yard and Guin felt a smile tugging at her mouth again as she laid her hand upon the mare’s warm wither.

As she the mare’s nose back toward Braydon, she realized that he wasn’t alone.  A tall man stood beside him, wrapped in a robe to fine for any servant.  The two of them were deep in conversation, but from here and in the moonlight, Guin could not make out their expressions.  Guin paled and she drew Grace to a halt, staring at the man.  She recognized him from his paraded arrival.  He was the same man who meant the next morning to take Grace for his own daughter.

Guin looked behind her, she began to back Grace away, began to turn her.  The gate was barred.  The guards had seen her.  The visiting noble was watching them.  They would never lift the portcullis for Guin now.  They would never let her ride out on Grace.  The mare would be taken.  There was nothing she could do.

Braydon raised a hand and waved Guin towards him.

Guin, still nervous, rode Grace over to where Braydon stood beside the man.  She did not dismount.  She wanted to be able to flee more quickly than they could follow her.

The man addressed her before Braydon.  “You look good upon that mare.”

Guin had no response for him.

“You heard that I purchased her for my daughter.”  It wasn’t a question.  “She’s six.  Perhaps young to start her on horseback, but I have always loved horses.  Mine is a small estate compared to this, and I haven’t near Lord Eli’s wealth.  I planned to teach my daughter to ride myself.  I would have had one of my servants muck the stalls and groom the mare when I and my Mel cannot, but,” he smiled at Guin, “would you care to come with and Grace to do so instead?”

“Come?” Guin repeated.  “With you?”

“And Grace.  I cannot offer you as comfortable a living, I think, as you have hear, and there will be few children for you to play with when your duties are through but there is my daughter, and I will certainly be sure that you are cared for, warmly dressed, well-fed.”

“I can still ride Grace?”

“For a long while my daughter will not be able to give this mare the exercise that she needs to be kept fit.  Someone will have to ride her.”

“Will—will Lord Eli let me go?” Guin wondered.

“Certainly we can ask him if you’d like to.”

“Oh yes!  I’d like very much to come and ride Grace, but I—  Will you all miss me?” she asked Braydon.

“Of course we will, but you may be able to ride back to us to visit.”  The visiting noble nodded.  “And you’ll have Grace.”

“I may need you,” the noble added, looking somewhat sheepish, “to help out in my kitchens occasionally too, when,” he clarified, “there are guests or if one of my regular kitchen staff is unable to fulfill her duties.”

“Cook says I’m very good,” Guin told him.

“Then I can ask Lord Eli if you can attend me?”

“I am called Halder.”

“And I will be able to say goodbye to everyone here?”

“We must leave tomorrow, but we can put off our journey till the afternoon if I send a messenger home before us.”

“And if I decide that I cannot go with you?”

“I will not make you.”

Guin thought about this and nodded.

Lord Halder smiled, and said, “Take her around a few more times, Guin.  Then we will put you both to bed so that she can be ready for tomorrow’s journey.”

Guin smiled at him too and spurred Grace into a canter that kicked dust from the yard.

I am a thief!  This first line was lifted from Kate of More Than 1/2 Mad, who used it to write “Faulty Plans.”

Book Review: The Secret of Blackwatch Lacks Detail But Introduces Interesting Ideas

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Spoilers.

Amber Cavalier Spiler understands the deep bond that can form between human and horse.  In her new middle-grade series, Blackwatch Stables, the girls of Blackwatch can hear their horses’ voices in their heads.  The girls of Blackwatch are descendents of families that have unusually deep bonds with the spirits of particular horses.  The spirits of those horses always find their girls.  The girls of Blackwatch are one of several stables whose riders have this unique bond with their horses.  Then there is at least one rogue stable.  When the heart of a rider with this bond to his horse turns cruel and hard, so does the horse, and these horses become dragons.  I love the concept of horses with a connection to cruel riders becoming dragons.  It explains so much of dragon-rider literature.  First, that dragons can be ridden, also the nearness of many of these tales to “horse stories” (see Anne McCaffrey or Chris Paolini and compare to Walter Farley or Marguerite Henry, though admittedly the dragons in these tales can often be ridden for good), and last the question that I came across on the Internet: “Why are the bad guys’ horses always menacing and demonic too?”

The first book in the series, The Secret of Blackwatch, did not delve into the sort of depth that I would have liked either in creating rounded characters or explaining the magic with which the story is infused.

This book started a bit slowly.  The protagonist, Maggie, has lost her mother, and her dad, wanting to see his daughter smile again, decides to give her both lessons and a pony.  At auction, a dirty gray belligerently insists on Maggie’s attention in the pen.  This is the pony that Maggie sends to Blackwatch.  Maggie spends a lot of time learning the finicky rules of Ms. Cavalieri’s stable before the magic begins.  Ms. Cavalieri runs her stable as a military encampment at war rather than a stable—which thanks to the fantastical elements of this story, it is.  I attended a stable that was run more like summer camp year round except that we had fewer hands year round and were more responsible for mucking fields in the other seasons.  Helmets were insisted upon as they should always be, but while proper riding boots and pants or chaps were recommended, we could get away with jeans and sneakers on occasion.  Braids, jackets, shirts (not a uniform but just a button down with a high collar), and spotless ponies were for show days only.  Tall boots were never worn.  The girls of Blackwatch as consequence remind me of the girls who always looked down their noses at our stable, and so I think that I was prejudiced against them from the get-go, the girls didn’t really become rounded enough to earn reprieves.  I’m intrigued more by the adult riders, who seem now to have more secrets.  I fear Spiler fell victim as so many have done to the perils of school stories: a necessarily huge cast overwhelming of the author and making it difficult to give any character—let alone all of the characters—depth.

The dragon-riders who have retreated to a hollow mountain fortress are at war with the stables that still have horses instead of dragons.  The reasons for this war are not explained, though I suspect that they are personal and have more to do with jealousy and broken hearts than any gainful objective.  It is implied that Maggie’s mother and a parent of each of the girls in the stable have been killed in this war.  Maggie and her friend Katie discover the parents’ horses penned in the mountain.  Maggie is able to communicate with her mother’s horse, who presumably shares a soul with Maggie’s horse Bella.  How this soul is passed is not explained.  The horses are not of the same breed, but look similar, sharing markings and coloring.  I would have assumed the soul would pass on death and was very surprised when Maggie discovered her mother’s horse alive.

Stylistically, at times, it was evident that this is both Spiler’s first novel and one that was self-published.  The protagonist’s physical description and back-story were shoved mercilessly into the beginning and not worked into the text.  Physical details were often not mentioned a second time, making them forgettable, and unsurprisingly, the horses were better described than the people.  Spiler kept Maggie at a distance increased greatly by the use of Maggie’s father name, a detail that, though Maggie would obviously know, she would not likely use in thinking or speaking about him.  Though Maggie was very clearly the only POV character and it was supposed to be Maggie’s story, I felt as if I never got to know Maggie.  The narration seemed to brushed light fingers over “her gray matter but never took me into the squishy parts” as I just explained to a friend.

Through all of these rather common stumbles, I thought that the concepts of The Secret of Blackwatch were all good ones if I’d have liked them to be a bit better explained and executed.  I hope future books will expound upon and make clear the purposes of this war.  I hope we will learn more about the workings of this universe and magic.

***

Spiler, Amber Cavalier.  Blackwatch Stables, Book 1: The Secret of Blackwatch.  Alpharetta, GA: BookLogix, 2013

This review is not endorsed by Amber Cavalier Spiler or BookLogix.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

I won a copy of The Secret of Blackwatch thorough Goodreads‘ giveaways.