Jul 13, 2008

Without Wonder we have to suffer through Star...

I remember that when the title of this book became known to the general public, there was quite an uproar. How dare they kill off Wonder? I remember being one of the (few) who wasn't too upset by this news because, you know, Wonder has to die, being mortal, and at least this momentous occasion was to be acknowledged with its own book. Plus, I think we were all aware at this point that the focus of the series would be returning to racing starting with this book, so surly this had to be heartening news. Then we found out how Ashleigh's character acted in this book and much anger ensued. Fun.

Really, there's not much to complain about here. Except for Wonder didn't live long enough to make it out into the paddock. I just wish an artist like Casale, or whoever it was that took over between #38 and #42 had drawn this cover. Because this one is kind of flat, and Wonder looks like a bay. Anyway.

An interesting bit of TB trivia is that this book was written by an author who wished to remain anonymous, hence the pen name Brook James. Why, you may ask? Well, apparently she didn't agree with how the issue of Wonder dying was being handled and where the series was headed. Basically, she didn't want to receive death threats for being the author who wrote the book where Wonder dies. I don't really blame her. Angry twelve year olds are scary.

When one contemplates the book itself...it becomes pretty clear that Dale Blackwell Gasque was the author of the book. The most damning evidence is that Eliza and Flash from Camp Saddlebrook make a cameo, a la the Johnston's in all of Jennifer Chu's books. But when one reads the prose, it does read like a Gasque book. I for one am glad that she was the author of this book. Despite her four book tenure, she was probably the best NewGen author. There was some speculation this book was written by Mary, but let's all thank God that fate was avoided because we would have been greeted with infantile characters and boring two dimensional and unbelievable plots. Sorry Mary, but Derby Fever has scared (I meant scarred, but both words are appropriate, really) me for life.

To return to Gasque, this book is actually pretty good, despite the fact that I still don't quite buy Ashleigh turning into a frigid bitch. It just seems so ridiculously out of character that it's jarring, even though Gasque writes Ashleigh very well. If it hadn't been so out of character, it would have played wonderfully. There isn't really much else to complain about though, which might make this review rather dull. Reading this book has always made me uncomfortable, a sure sign that the writing of the tragedy was handled skillfully. Maybe it's because my 14 year old cat is very ill now, but I found myself tearing up repeatedly during my reading. I said Racing Parker was the last good book in the TB series, but I take that back. This one is. It's all the Christina racing and bad writing crap that came after it that made the wheels this book set into motion irredeemable. Though this was definitely not Gasque's fault.

This book is set several months after Dead Heat, in February. Christina is off to ride in a dressage clinic at Whisperwood conducted by Lars Stockholm, who is apparently a legendary rider. He's just started a team for young eventers like Christina called the Young Riders. They train during the winter in Florida while they are home schooled, and apparently this is a step up to the USET or something. You have to be 16 to be on the team, but Christina is considered 15 by the Young Riders' standards, so she of course is super excited about this clinic, as she will have a chance to impress Lars.

As Chris is riding out to Whisperwood, she meets her mother riding Wonder bareback in a paddock. After Christina gave up Legacy for Sterling, we are so helpfully informed, Ashleigh decided to breed Wonder one last time. Please keep in mind that at this point Wonder hasn't had a foal for three years. She's probably about 26, if I remember correctly. Probably not the best time to breed a mare, especially one who's always had trouble with giving birth, but hey, maybe that's just me.

Anyway, Christina rides over to Whisperwood and the clinic goes great. She and Sterling perform some dressage moves beautifully, and Lars Stockholm is apparently very impressed. Chances that Christina will make the Young Riders team look rather good. Everything is going great until Ashleigh calls and says the Chris needs to come home - Wonder has gone into labor three weeks early and Ashleigh is the only one on the farm. This is because Whitebrook has absolutely no grooms, a fact I find to be consistently infuriating.

Parker quickly drives Christina home, but everything is going all wrong with Wonder. She keeps lying down and standing up over and over, but not giving birth. Unfortunately, Whitebrook's regular vets are both out of town and the backup vet is apparently the most incompetent horse care professional on Earth. Also, he's taking care of an emergency at another farm and is unreachable. Therefore, it's up to Christina and Ashleigh to diagnose and solve whatever is keeping Wonder from actually giving birth.

Fortunately, Ashleigh is super horse woman, and upon reaching inside Wonder she discovers that one of the foal's legs is curled up under him. I don't know what she does up in there, but she manages to straighten the foal's leg out and Wonder is finally able to give birth. They're not out of the woods yet, though. The foal isn't breathing, and Super Ashleigh is forced to perform mouth to mouth. After a tense minute, the foal finally begins to breathe. Huzzah! Ashleigh and Chris dry him off and stand back as the foal gets to his feet and nurses. This whole bit might sound melodramatic, but it's probably the most realistic birth scene in the history of the TB series, or of any children's horse series ever, for the most part. Even though I know everyone survives this part of the ordeal, I was on the edge of my seat. Terribly captivating, all of it.

The vet finally manages to make it there after all of the drama, and says that both Wonder and the foal are fine. Wonder, however, looks pretty beat. Exhausted in a way that seems abnormal. The vet tells Ashleigh Wonder will be fine, but Ashleigh is still skeptical. Melanie and Kevin come home, and Samantha comes over, so they all go up to the house to celebrate. But Ashleigh is still worried about Wonder.

The next day Christina is preparing to go out to the second day of the dressage clinic, but decides to go visit Wonder and the foal first. There she finds Ashleigh standing with the mare, who's not at all interested in a steaming bucket of bran mash. She's also extremely dehydrated because she's not drinking. Ashleigh, of course, is pretty worried by Wonder's inability to bounce back after the birth. Seeing how worried her mother is, Christina does something completely out of character and decides to stay home from the second day of the clinic to help around the farm and offer her mother much-needed moral support. Hey, anyone have a time machine I can borrow? I've decided I need to go back in time and change history so that Gasque is the sole writer of the TB series from the beginning of the NewGen on.

The day progresses and Wonder doesn't get any better. Most Incompetent Vet in the World keeps telling Ashleigh this failure to recover is completely normal. Christina reluctantly goes to bed but wakes up in the middle of the night to see the barns ablaze with light. Wonder has a fever, but Dr. Seymour has finally made it to the farm, and he's worried about Wonder too, though no one knows what's wrong. Despite an offer to stay home and help, Christina, Melanie, and Kevin are all bustled off to school, where they can only hope that Competent Vet can find out what's wrong.

After school, Christina rushes to the broodmare barn only to see Dr. Seymour's truck outside. He and Ashleigh are in Wonder's stall, and both of them are distraught. Turns out Wonder has been bleeding internally, and toxins in her blood have damaged her internal organs beyond repair. She'll have to be put down.

Christina freaks out, demanding they do something to help Wonder, but Dr. Seymour takes her outside and explains to her that there's just nothing to be done. The only humane thing to do is let Wonder go. Accepting this reluctantly, Christina goes back into the barn to hold Wonder's foal while she Wonder euthanized. Ashleigh is crying, and Wonder's foal is freaking out, and at this point I almost bawled myself.

The foal is moved to another stall and Dr. Seymour explains to Christina how to take care of him, mentioning that it will be extremely difficult. Christina is determined to save the foal. Partially she thinks it's what her mother wants her to do, and that Ashleigh would be doing it herself except she's still too distraught over Wonder's death. But Christina is certain that Ashleigh will be happy knowing the foal lived. It's honestly heart wrenching to see Christina's love for her mother emerge through her desire to keep the foal alive for Ashleigh, especially since we already know how wrong this idea is. There is nuance here I doubt any of the other intrepid NewGen authors could have pulled off. Also, I find the whole Foal-Lac scene to be extremely reminiscent of Ashleigh's Christmas Miracle.

Samantha and Tor arrive, and both make sure to tell Christina that orphaned foals grow up to be strange and not to expect Wonder's foal to be any good if he does live. This pretty much pissed me off, because true as it might be, I refuse to believe Samantha at least would have been so openly discouraging to Christina. She probably would have crawled in the stall herself. So, minus one, Gasque.

Christina doesn't let this gross mischaracterization get her down, and sleeps in the stall with the foal, getting up every two hours to feed him. She also names him: Wonder's Star, for the ragged heart-shaped star he has. Boring as it is, at least it's better than Wonder's Champion. Uck. Anyway, Mike comes home, and finally we are treated to someone sane and caring. He is proud of Christina, and is positive about Star's chances for recovery. Another reason this book is good is because Mike isn't forgotten or written like a piece of wood. Wonderful.

Despite a hard first week, Star makes it, and the vet says his chances of living to adulthood have drastically improved. Christina is overjoyed, but when she tells her mother all Ashleigh can do is stare blankly at some carrots. Before Chris can figure out the meaning of her mother's newfound obsession with vegetables, Mike distracts her with praise and encouragement.

The next day Christina goes out on a trail ride with Parker, and when she returns to find Brad Townsend standing outside Star's stall with here Dad and Melanie, she's understandably freaked out. However, Brad is certain that Star is a dud. He says so in that word, actually. At this point I had the thought that as a well educated and cultured wealthy business magnate, it seems to me that Brad would have picked a much more sophisticated synonym for the word "dud." But, as usual, Brad must always be characterized as 12 years old, so whatever. Minus two, Gasque.

Well, poor vocabulary aside, Brad thinking Star is worthless means that, at this point he has no interest in taking Star away. Yay, let's celebrate that short-lived victory. Then Mike and Christina attempt to take Star outside in a scene that is also extremely reminiscent of Ashleigh's Christmas Miracle, except they are unsuccessful. Star is way too freaked out to make it out the door. Mike is worried about Star's inability to act, you know, normal, and murmurs something about Star needing a pet. Later he will regret this.

Christina has a brainfart, I mean, idea, and remembers a goat she and Parker saw on their trail ride the other day. Because, remember, Kentucky is filled with goat farms. So they drive over and the owner is glad to let them borrow Nana, the goat. Off they go back to Whitebrook and they bring her into Star's stall, but not before she poops in the bed of Parker's pick-up truck. Out of the three books I've read for this blog with goats in them, two have involved scenes with goat poop. I think that makes me pretty lucky, right?

Despite initial misgivings, Star and Nana get along great. Star even makes it outside okay. This makes everyone (except Ashleigh) generally cheerful for about 24 hours, until Nana begins getting out of the stall and making a mess in the barn. She also learns how to jump out of her paddock. Oops. Even more disturbing, Star is starting to act like a goat. He bleats like a goat and climbs on things when he can, including people's laps. Not such a good sign.

Christina and Parker go out to an event, even though Christina's been pretty much ignoring Sterling lately. Despite this, Sterling and Christina manage to do really well in dressage and cross country except for the fact that Sterling almost dies going around the course, being really out of shape. In another completely out of character move, Christina decides to scratch Sterling from the stadium jumping.

When Christina returns home she finds that Nana has eaten all of Perfect Heart's tail...oops. Ashleigh, who already hates Star, is pretty pissed about this. After all, how will Heart kill flies? And what if the goat eats the tail of a broodmare in for breeding? Not good. The goat has to go. Poor baby Star, what will he do? He's completely freaked out, so Chris is completely freaked out, and when she asks if she can stay home from school to make sure the colt doesn't hang himself. Ashleigh, who probably desires this outcome, refuses.

Star still needs company though, and he needs to spend time with other horses or he's going to go insane. First Mike tries turning Star out with Silver Jane and her baby Catwink (familiar?) but that doesn't work, so Chris and Mel turn him out with Perfect Heart and Raven, figuring a horse who will let a goat eat her tail won't mind an orphan foal in the paddock. Turns out they're right, huzzah.

Meanwhile, Christina has decided she's going to start exercising racehorses. She got the idea from Eliza, who told her she was exercising racehorses to help her pacing during cross country. Who knew. This is an ostensible excuse for Chris, however. She's secretly hoping Star will be a dud at the track so she can train him to event, but if he does race, she wants to be able to exercise ride him. So she goes out on the track with Melanie and Kevin, who have been exercising this whole time, I forgot to mention. Ashleigh and Mike are thrilled, thinking this means Christina wants to be a jockey, and she is pissed at both of them for making this assumption. Why can't they understand her love for eventing? Honestly, this pisses me off too. They are way too believably oblivious in that parent kind of way, and they obsession with her becoming a jockey really crosses the line from insensitive to creepy.

So the plot moves slowly along after that. Christina and Melanie have a mock race in Whitebrook and Townsend Acres silks, which Christina wins. Then they all go to the racetrack to watch Missy in a maiden race. Once there, they run into Clay Townsend. Uh-oh. He will undoubtedly want to come see Star, who is beginning to look very impressive. Christina is fearful, and she has a right to be. She sort of forgets this on the ride home with her mother though, where Christina finally gets up the courage to confront Ashleigh about hating Star. Ashleigh, however, refuses to respond to her daughter. Pussy.

Christina sort of forgets about the whole incident, until Clay and Brad come over. While Ashleigh is showing them Star Christina learns that Ashleigh has agreed to send Star to Townsend Acres. Christina pretty much freaks out. She vows that she won't let it happen, and runs out into a field to cry. She returns to the farm house later that night, intending to confront her mother, but finds Ashleigh in her office surrounded by pictures of Wonder and crying. She admits tearfully to Christina that she blames herself for Wonder's death. She believes she kills the mare by breeding her one last time, and every time Ashleigh looks at Star she's reminded of this and filled with guilt. Then she admits that she's sending Star to Townsend Acres for that very reason.

Christina tries to convince Ashleigh that it's not true, but she won't believe her. Then Christina realizes just how much pain her mother is in, and despite her own pain at the thought of losing Star, she tells here mother it's okay to send him to Townsend Acres. Ashleigh is hesitant - she doesn't believe Christina means it, and even seems ready to change her mind. But Christina insits, and Star goes off to the Townsend Acres the next day while Christina sobs in her father's arms. And I teared up again.

Points of Interest:
  • When Mike hears Wonder has died, he drives all the way back from Florida without stopping. What is the sudden aversion to planes? I mean, fucking really.
  • In this book Jonnie the groom is old, whereas I feel in later NewGen books written by Leonhardt, Mary, and Chu, he (or maybe Joe) have magically regressed in age and are exercise riding horses. Blah. Another thing I will say for Gasque: she paid attention to details in her own books and in the rest of the series and made them consistent (i.e. she knows that Townsend Acres' colors are green and gold). Also, characters didn't disappear. God I wish this woman had written more books.
  • ...Except for the time that Christina leaves Melanie at Star's stall to walk over to where Melanie is working with a horse named Gomer. That's kind of strange. I didn't know Melanie could teleport.
  • I guess Gasque wasn't too good at horseracing because Missy, a filly, runs her maiden race against colts.
  • When Christina learns that Star will be going to Townsend Acres she immediately thinks this is not fair because Star is her horse. So this train of thought has started early, you see.
So there you have it. I recommend everyone go reread this book and approach it as an insular book. If you ignore Ashleigh's out of characterness, it's really quite enjoyable. And the only TB book ever to have a deliberately unhappy ending. The tone is refreshing, the writing is good, and holy crap, Star actually has a personality. Now that that's said I will return to reviewing terribly awful books, though I can't say whether or not poontang will ever make another epic appearance. Though I have a feeling it just might.


Heather said...

I remember this book being one of my favorites of the new gen. The tragedy was actually tragic, and Chris and Star were actually interesting. I don't remember if it was the next book, or the third in this trilogy that ticked me off. I just remember it going into detail about how Brad ran Townsend Acres like an anal military camp. Lame.

Molly (formerly anonymous) said...

You know, as out of character as Ashleigh was...maybe she wasn't. If anything could fuck her up that hardcore, I'd think it'd be losing Wonder.

I seriously wish Dale Gasque had written the entire damn series after Joanna Campbell left. This book was actually well-written, a weird thing to say about a Thoroughbred book.

Monique said...

I always thought this was a Dale Gasque book! You are right, she was the best NewGen author. If only we'd had more of her! Perhaps it was her lack of racing knowledge that did her in...
I liked this book too. It was pretty fitting.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I'm not surprised Ashleigh was so screwed up after Wonder died. They had a *cough*not in real life*cough* bond and had been together for years. I absolutely loved this book, even though it was a cheesy ripoff of TB #1...I cried.

I can haz tissue?

Anonymous said...

I remember I was in a bookstore when I found this book. Just the title alone made me feel like I got slugged in the stomach. I immediately pulled out the book and read it there, sitting there bawling like a baby in a bookstore reading about Wonder's death and the ending.

One of the best books, at least NG.