Jul 22, 2008

What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men? The Shadow (Horse) Knows

Shadow Horse
by Alison Hart
First Printing in Hardcover: 1999
First Printing in Paperback: 2001

In my avoidance of reading more books of the Ashleigh series, I ended up at Borders with $9 remaining on my Christmas gift card that I just had to get rid of somehow. So I cased the young adult/juvenile section, and picked up a mystery by Alison Hart, which is of course the pen name for a Thoroughbred author. It was an Edgar Award Nominee; not sure if it won or if it was the only book nominated that year or something, but heck, I gave it a stab (har har) and read the thing.

After assaulting the owner of the horse farm where she works, thirteen-year-old Jasmine Schuler must face the inside of a courtroom and then juvenile hall.

Jas knows no one will believe her defense -- that the man she attacked had poisoned Whirlwind, the mare she loved. Wealthy horse owner Hugh Robicheaux is powerful enough to shift all blame to Jas's grandfather. But Jas refuses to give up. After the judge pronounces her guilty of assault and puts her into foster care at Second Chance, a farm for abused animals, she remains determined to prove her charge against Hugh.

The key becomes a scrawny brown gelding she rescues at a horse auction. She's sure Shadow is somehow connected to the mare she lost, but how?
Brilliant! It’s a grand synopsis. Pretty spot on, does Random House have better synopsis writers than Harper Collins or something? Other than the fact that the rescued horse turns out to be chestnut, and not brown, I think it fits pretty well. There’s the story in three simple paragraphs. Also, Hugh Robicheaux is sort of sleazy, and does not ever meet the awesomeness that is Brad Townsend. Just because.

So we begin with a flashback; one I think was adequately enough written that I feel I ought to share. It certainly beats out other beginning paragraphs in other books.

She was a flash of gold as she cantered around the ring. Ears pricked, neck arched, she moved like a movie star in the spotlight as she sailed over the last fence. Landing smoothly, she slowed to a trot, tossing her mane as if to say, “Wasn’t I great?”

Because she was great. She was the most beautiful horse in the world.

But now, she was dead.
The whole mane-tossing horse “talking” bit aside, I rather liked that, it seemed pretty and all. So thus we begin with Jasmine moping sadly over a picture of her favoritest horse in the whole world in the middle of the court holding room, whilst clutching a paper bag full of (possibly dirty) underwear and wearing handcuffs, which only serves to add to her embarrassment because said bag fall on the floor, and everyone can clearly see that Jas (because obviously, she needs a nickname to make her seem bad-girl) does not go for racy lacy lingerie from Victoria’s Secret. Needless to say, this draws the attention of Vince, a future gangbanger/drugdealer who feels the need for his very own bitch. So he hits on her, and she plays coy, and tries to brush him off before the cops come, and take her into the courtroom.

You see, it is then revealed that Jas has done what Ashleigh Griffen and the rest of the TB-verse girls would never in their wildest dreams have dared do. She freaking tries to rip off the face of our Wicked Villain, Hugh Robicheaux, with a piddly-ass hoofpick. Unfortunately for Jas, a hoofpick is neither sharp or dangerous, and she does nothing more than slash his cheek (if Hugh was actually bleeding as a result, he’s a fucking pussy.) This however means that Jas is now branded as a juvenile criminal, and being as she’s pretty much poor trailer trash, she has been appointed a public defender, while Hugh can afford a sleazy lawyer who practically convinces the judge that Jas is the Second Coming of Jack the Ripper. Bonus points for Skeevy Lawyer to insinuate that the judge has no knowledge of horses whatsoever by informing him what a hoof pick is used for (and double bonus points for him calling a hoof a ‘foot’ and Jas for mentally correcting him.)

And then the Rich Evil Bad Guy™ goes up in front of the judge and just starts oozing sleaziness about what happened on the afternoon of June 1st. Which of course kicks in another flashback for Jas. It seems that her grandfather pretty much had a heart attack/stroke/apoplexy after Hugh grills him mercilessly about a yew branch that turned up in Whirlwind’s pasture. Which of course apparently sends Jas over the edge according to Hugh and he paints a very nice picture of her as a crazy psychopath while the best that Jas can do is mentally insult him by calling him a “dirty, fat liar.” Awwh, c’mon girl, tell us what you really think of him, please! So then we get to the fun part, of the farm manager coming to the stand and get to hear his side of the story. Turns out, Jas does slash Hugh’s cheek. And it bleeds. So yeah, he’s one fucking big pussy. How pathetic can that be? I can’t even manage to scrape my hand with a hoofpick, either Jas is stronger than she looks or Hugh is on a power trip and keeps razor sharp hoofpicks in his tackroom.

And then, it gets it even better because once Hugh and Jas are alone after she assaults him, he threatens and gloats over her which adds a whole new dimension to their relationship. But that’s all in a nice flashback, because we’re thrust back into the present, with Jas being found guilty and being placed into foster care. And she gets to wear one of those electronic monitor bracelets which will enforce her lockdown. Whoop! This gets better and better. Once Social Services and the probation officer lay the smackdown on Jas, it’s off to Second Chance Farm where she’ll be staying.

Jas is excited at first because her foster home is run by a chick named Miss Hahn, and there’s horses. But then, her first view of the place pretty much confirms that Second Chance Farm (the sign actually reads S COND CHANCE ARM) is a real shithole. Because it’s rundown, and the animals there are *gasp* mutts and stuff. At least the dogs are, and one only has three legs, which is clearly Jas’s rude introduction to the world outside the perfectly manicured estate of Mr. Rich Evil Asshat Villain who only keeps blue-blooded purebred critters on his land, thank you.

So anyway, Jas goes up into her room, but just because she’s now a criminal mastermind, she keeps her hand in by snooping around the room of her foster parent. And lo and behold, she finds several pictures of Miss Hahn riding a horse, and in one picture, who should be lurking sinisterly in the background – but Rich Asshat Villain himself. *SHOCK!* However can Jas trust Miss Hahn now?

Jas then takes a shower. And I gotta hand it to Alison Hart at this point because she actually acknowledges in a book that Jas is buck naked in the shower because y’know, people are usually buck naked in the shower. And there’s no reason it ought to really be glossed over in a book for teens, right? Teens are ever so aware of their burgeoning sexuality, after all. And in the meantime, she steals some of Miss Hahn’s scented shampoo. That criminal mastermind, her!

And just as Jas emerges from the shower, she gets a phone call from a mysterious stranger. Well, actually, it’s a guy who claims to be called ‘Dr. Aladdin’ and he’s calling about her grandfather. Now, at this point, I’d say something’s seriously fucked up with the situation because Dr. Aladdin turns out to be Hugh – and if Miss Hahn has past connections with Hugh, she’s got to be the dumbest broad on the face of the planet if she can’t recognize his voice. Also, someone in Social Services is a squealer. Or something. Because Hugh knew exactly where Jas was. And anyway, he calls her, and it practically gets her heart racing. Now, my gut feeling right there is Hugh gets a hard on when he threatens Jas – I can just imagine him jacking off while he talks to her over the phone because the guy sounds really creepy, and a lot like some sick stalker. (But hey, maybe it’s my sick twisted mind at work, but I doubt that.) And he does ask Jas to say hello to Diane for him… Diane being Miss Hahn. Which adds more doubt into Jas’s mind that her foster parent is in cahoots with Hugh.

And then it all clicks together for Jas – that Aladdin is actually the name of a horse that died when she was 8, and she saw the dead horse, and it’s mentally scarred her tiny little mind for life. So anyway, she dries her hair, and runs into this boy who works at the farm named Chase. And he takes her out to the barn, and shocks her out of her frigid little mind because the farm is like a freaking barnyard with llamas and cows, and geese and other assorted farm creatures beyond your average equine specimens. And the stable office is like a dump compared to the immaculate cleanliness of Hugh’s High Meadows Farm, and this just breaks Jas’s heart because Second Chance Farm is basically a place for abandoned animals – or as she puts it … “rejects.” (Gee, isn’t she a high and mighty little snob, considering how close to being a reject she is.)

To make a long story short, Jas runs across one of the ‘rejects’ at Second chance Farm -- an emaciated horse – and it shocks her sheltered snobby trailer trash self in such a way that she literally sicks up her guts at the sight of it. So she freaks out at Chase, and pretty much says that the vet ought to put all the horses down because they’re “no good” and Chase gives her whatfor by calling her a horse snob. Go Chase!

Jas gets to go along with Miss Hahn and Chase to a horse auction, and she practically shits a brick when she hears they only have a budget of $850. I mean, holy hell, that sure won’t buy y’know, a Thoroughbred. And lookee there, kill buyers. I really really gotta hand it to Alison here, you’d never ever hear a hint of kill buyers in the Thoroughbred world (because even the slowest nag in the world lives in a magical land of sunshine and rainbows and the selfsame sparkly golden butterfly farts from Magikal Gypsy Vanner butts) so I really really gotta say how happy I am that Alison is not wrapping this story up in more of the above. It’s real. Yeah, kill buyers are total shit and all, but y’know, they do exist, and people should be aware of them. And shit, they’re hauling ‘em away in a double decker. It’s the seedy underbelly of horse society. And it’s real, and there’s no reason anyone ought to be wrapped in cotton about it. Just tell it like it is.

So while at the auction, Jas spies a horse being led around. A big horse with weird orange hair. And she realizes what’s wrong with the horse. And gets into an argument with the seller, who’s very blunt at telling her he’d rather the horse went to the kill buyers because he could actually make some money rather than paying to get the horse’s problem fixed. And man, that guy must really need to get laid, because he tries to hit Jas up and proposition her. Sicko! If Jas doesn’t have enough problems with the guy, Reaves, she then gets into a fight with Chase about the horse and how he can be fixed up and sold for big money. Which only pisses Chase off because the horse was dumped because he wasn’t valuable anymore. Luckily, Jas runs into Miss Hahn, and they get the horse, and he becomes Jas’s project to work with. Hurrah!

The next day, Jas goes to see her grandfather in the nursing home. Her granddad suggests she talk to Hugh’s vet, Dr. Danvers, because Danvers would have had to examine Whirlwind after the horse’s death. Hmm, how thoughtful. So Jas files that away for reference, and then tells her grandfather about the horse they rescued the day before, whom she named Shadow. And along the way, she finds out that Danvers is pretty much donating time to the horse rescue, which means she’ll get to talk to him face to face. What glee!

So after Dr. Danvers gives the Shadow some meds, and they talk about the thyroid issue a bit, Jas seizes her chance, and asks the vet about the yew killing Whirlwind. And it turns out, the yew itself didn’t kill her, but rather the colic reaction she experienced with a twisted gut (and god, that was hard for me to read for a second there, given Flair’s death due to intestinal colic of that severity) but needless to say, Dr. Danvers is no longer the vet for our evil villain. This obviously raises him in Jas’s esteem because she invivtes him to come over for dinner. Because hey, he’s kinda got this thing for Miss Hahn, and apparently she wants to screw him blind or something. Excellent, so not only is Jas a criminal mastermind, she’s a human version of a dating hotline. Brilliance!

So our intrepid heroine suspects that Hugh killed Whirlwind for the insurance money, but as she later finds out, Whirlwind was only insured for fifty grand, but this makes her even more suspicious, and she throws all caution to the wind, and asks Phil about Aladdin. Aladdin it seems also died of colic (one of the number one killers of horses anywhere) and was only worth thirty grand so he didn’t have a full autopsy. Hmm, the mystery grows!

And as it turns out, Shadow is a chestnut. Whoda thunk! And he’s turning into a big old monster. Which doesn’t add to Jas’s problems because now she’s pretty much at it in a drop dirty fight with Chase. Who continues to insist that she’s a bloody horse snob with a swelled head the size of Texas. They scream at each other a bit, and Chase finally admits he’s jealous that Jas can ride so well. And Jas puts Shadow out in pasture. Whereuopn they learn the horse can jumping a fucking five foot wall as if it were a cavaletti. And herd cattle too. Just like the dead Aladdin. What’s going on here? Is it time to even start to cue the ominous mystery music?

Now, it turns out that Jas’s social worker contacted her mother. Jas it seems is the product of a teen pregnancy, and her mother dumped her off on her parents, and took off after that to become a jockey. And she doesn’t want Jas anyway, so that’s settled. And then Jas recruits Chase, and Lucy (a girl who works at the farm and can drive) into sneaking over to the one place that she’s been banned from for life – High Meadows. And she steals the photo album and her grandfather’s dog. Assult, and theft .. whoo, this kid’s racking up the brownie points. But the photo album was necessary because as it turns out, Shadow has the exact same markings as Aladdin does. Can it be… are they one and the same? Could Shadow have risen from the dead?

Or, as Jas’s grandfather suggests, could Shadow have been a ringer for Aladdin? Because Hugh then bought two horses for over a million dollars … but if Aladdin was only insured for 30 grand, then where’d the rest of the dough come from? Unless … the ringer was the one that died, and Aladdin is Shadow. Dun dun dun!

Does this also mean that Whirlwind is not truly dead? The suspense builds!

Jas enlists the help of the vet, and they scan Shadow for a microchip. And lo and behold, the horse has one. Suspense! But alas, the vet can’t find Aladdin’s file, so he’s not sure if the numbers all match up. But in the meantime, Miss Hahn and Jas haul Shadow over to a friend’s house. Now, this friend is apparently rich, and probably is screwing Hugh the way Jas imagines Miss Hahn is. But just before they leave, Dr. Danvers phones with the most unexpected expected news possible (I mean obviously!) The numbers match up. Shadow is Aladdin, Aladdin is Shadow. Hugh is a dirty rotten double timing crook. Like duh!

They arrive at Miss Hahn’s friend’s place, and Jas goes into the tack room to get a saddle, only to find her crazy creepy potential rapist stalker there. (Man, Hugh really gets around.) And she confronts him, and he admits that Whirlwind isn’t dead. And he threatens her.

But here comes to save the day! Miss Hahn is on her way! Because now it’s Girl Power against Evil Villain Scum! And Hugh retreats, muttering “If it wasn’t for that meddling Miss Hahn” which leaves Jas free to ride Shadow over fences and pretty much give Miss Hahn’s friend a hard on over how well the horse jumps. Bully! And the best part is, Miss Hahn turns her down flat, and offers Jas and her grandfather a home at Second Chance Farm. Hooray! And life can now be happily ever after. Plus, maybe Jas can try and find Whirlwind.

Points of Interest:
  • Vince is in Juvie because the cops caught him with weed. He's 13, and already doing drugs. This is a far cry from the world of Thoroughbred where apparently except for a minor incident with drugs, the backside is surprisingly drug free because Whitebrook people let their kids run around the place by themselves.
  • Miss Tomlinson, Jas's social worker, talks about the horses that Miss Hahn has as being "big ones, small ones, pretty ones." but admits she doesn't know one horse from another and I like it... the non-horse world far outnumbers the horse world, where some people don't know jack about a horse -- it just makes for a refreshing change.
  • Chase seems to start to say something, and then stops. And Jas mentally fills in something she'd think she'd like to hear like .."because you're cute." etc. It's amusing, because Chase does kiss her later on in the book, but I'd almost have hoped he'd turn out to be gay or something, and have something else in mind than Jas's conveniently mental conversation endings.
  • Miss Hahn apparently had a wealthy father with a fancy horse farm. I betcha anything High Meadows probably used to be in her family before Hugh got his hands on it.
  • Jas's mother was only 16 when she got pregnant. Teenage pregnancy is not avoided in this book, even if it's only a brief mention.
This was a good book, I must say. I’d have to give it a 6 out of 10 because it was realistic, focused and actually examined the seedy underberlly of the horse world; in a way that Thoroughbred and many of its ilk seemed to brush things off. In the same way, Alison doesn’t brush other aspects of society off either; the fact that Jas is in trouble with the law, and she has to have a probation officer, etc. It’s not sunshine and butterflies. My only regret is that there never was a sequel. It seemed so much like it was building up to one in the end, and then it all went flat. I certainly would have been interested in a continuation.

So there we have Shadow Horse, and coming up next, we step back in time to an America long past with To Race A Dream which I foresee I'm likely to be fleeing from at the very end.


molly said...

I liked Alison Hart's Riding Academy series. Didn't realize she was a TB writer, though. But there ARE some similarities, come to that.

And I have to admit, some horses really do seem to be "talking" with their body language. My horse was a complete diva who would ham it up to get a crowd reaction.

sundae_mourning said...

i am crazy about this book, but i still feel it's incomplete. besides the fact that it set up so nicely for a sequel, there is just so much mysterious history behind all of the characters. i'm really disappointed there wasn't one.

i still can't figure out how Hugh's face got ripped open with a dull, metal prong. i couldn't cut myself on one if i tried. i also can't figure out why Chase got so offended at Jas' suggestion of buying Shadow and reselling him so they could use the money to rescue more horses. it's not like she was trying to come up with a get-rich-quick scheme, she just wanted to be able to help more horses and Chase seemed pretty gung ho about that.

and i never made the connection in my head, but it was always just sort of poking away at my brain but now that you mention it, i can *totally* see Hugh jerking off while he's taunting Jas on the phone.