Sep 1, 2008

I read this book and all I got was this empty feeling.

A Horse of Her Own
by Annie Wedekind
Published: June 2008

Annie Wedekind is a new author, just experiencing the first blush of publication and enjoying the thrill of seeing her words in print. Congratulations, Annie! Your hard work (I presume you worked hard, but whatever) has payed off. What's more, you have a very cute website. I admire all of that.

But it's not going to stop me from recapping this book to the standards I usually reserve for Thoroughbred. (Annie, if you've read Thoroughbred, don't worry. I love it and will be the first to defend it. Think of this as a very positive situation for you.)

Summary:
Fourteen-year-old Jane Ryan has always dreamed of having a horse of her own—but so long as she gets to ride her favorite school horse, Beau, at Sunny Acres farm, she’s content. And this is the summer she means to try out for the advanced riding class.

But just as camp begins, Jane receives heartbreaking news about Beau. She loses, not just her favorite horse, but also her chance to ride in the end-of-summer competition. When her trainer asks for her help with an out-of-control chestnut warmblood, Lancelot, a newcomer to the barn, she has no choice but to say yes.

There’s another new addition to the farm: Ben Reyes, the grandson of the barn's manager. As Jane struggles to go on without Beau, and to make Lancelot the great horse she believes him to be, her feelings for Ben, her relationships with the privileged group of girls she rides with, and her painful, joyous road to self-discovery all lead to a heart-pounding conclusion that is truly a new beginning. Only Jane’s faith in Lancelot, and her own rediscovered skill and strength, can see her through the hard journey toward a horse of her own.
The Kirkus Review calls this "probably the most honest horse book since National Velvet." I have a huge problem with this statement for three reasons. The first among them is that National Velvet was published in 1935. Am I really to expect that the world has been without an "honest" horse book for 73 years? Secondly, this isn't an honest horse book. This is basically Camp Saddlebrook and Melanie's Last Ride combined. That's right. Think on that for a minute. Thirdly, I'm pretty sure the Kirkus Review only mentions National Velvet because this book shamelessly references National Velvet's plot as being similar to its own.

I'm going to focus first on the author for a minute. Annie is originally from Louisville, where she learned how to ride on a farm similar to the farm she depicts in her novel. There's also a note in the back of the book about how the setting of her novel is so very similar to the setting of her youth (as in, it is the same), but don't worry all you people who knew her when she was young. She didn't write you into her novel, or anything. Not to worry! Oh, except for that Beau horse (which is pronounced "Boo," so why they didn't just spell it Boo is beyond me), who I guess existed at one point.

Yeah, so from all of that are we immediately suspicious that our main character is going to be a Mary Sue? Well, let's find out, shall we?

Meet Jane Ryan. She's the daughter of two college professors and lives in downtown Louisville, which therefore makes her unworthy to all the other suburban-raised kids in her riding class. Except for Robin, who is rich and suburban-raised herself, and somehow manages to be accepted by the rich snobs while dutifully playing Jane's best friend. The rich snobs are Alyssa and Jennifer, who have snubbed Jane for about five solid years. Then there's Jessica, Alyssa and Jennifer's third portion of their triumvirate of bitchiness. Jessica drifts back and forth, mostly loyal to Alyssa, but she sometimes throws Jane a brief glimpse of hope that she'll be included in their clique, which mainly just confuses Jane. Jane, you see, so desperately wants to belong.

Now, the thing here is that everyone has their own horse except for Jane. Jane is painfully aware of this fact. Riding school horses, you see, is so very terrible and Jane so wants her own horse and you see the issue, I'm sure. In the early goings of the book she begs her father one last time for her very own horse and he tells her again that they just can't afford it (yet they've been sending her to a private school up through 8th grade...because they are college professors and public school is not good or challenging enough for their socially awkward daughter). Jane responds by bursting into tears.

Jane just takes this melodrama and applies it to her determination to get into the Advanced I class on Beau, her trusty school horse. During their last lesson before their instructor, Susan, decides on their placement for camp, the other evil bitchy girl, Emily, arrives with a brand new horse. It is the fantastical chestnut gelding Lancelot. Only he's crazy. And Emily sort of beats the crap out of him with her crop. And now he hates crops. Of course he does. So Susan sticks Emily in Advanced II and thus Jane gets to be in Advanced I. Camp starts. This is all fairly uneventful until Jane runs into the boy of her dreams, Ben. Only she spends most of this meeting being even more socially awkward than normal and talking to animals. Poor, poor Jane.

In the early goings of the camp, instructor Susan has the Advanced I girls go over this cross country course, having them all go over this crazy big hedge jump without really informing them that this jump is involved in the course. Ben is hidden in the trees to make sure they all go over this jump, and only two actually do -- Jane and Jessica. Alyssa and Jennifer opt out of the jump entirely, getting reprimanded by Susan as they hold firm in their belief that they were being responsible by refusing to jump such an obstacle. I can't really say what the whole point was of this giant hedge jump other than Susan expecting everyone to do as she commands, but whatever. After this reprimand, Susan goes and informs Jane that Beau was sold to one of the younger kids and so Jane has no mount. There's some talk about the owners of the barn deciding to get another horse for the stable, but this never actually materializes. I kept expecting someone to tell Jane not to worry because a new horse is coming along, but no one does.

You want to know why? No one tells Jane about the new horse because Emily has thrown a temper tantrum and left camp, dumping Lancelot in a stall with a bucket of grain. Lancelot colics, and while Jane is all moping around in the middle of the night, she runs into the drama in the barn with Ben and his grandfather, Jose, who are both taking care of the panicked gelding. Only Jose decides to put the horse back in the stall to let him roll because that's supposed to be just fine? Apparently it's okay to let a colicking horse roll all over the place and the only danger to a horse in this condition is that they might smack a leg against the sides of their stall? Is there some reasoning behind why Annie is rewriting EVERYTHING I've ever known about treating colic? Horse people, help me out here.

So, after saving Lancelot's life, Jane becomes the gelding's personal Jesus. She walks out to the horse in his paddock and offers him grass and he's all "grass!" and lets her lead him around. Everyone is shocked. I...am not, I've got to say. So then Susan let's it be known that she bought Lancelot from Emily's parents and she wants Jane to ride him.

Let's just get this out now: Jessica has already told Jane that the other girls don't like her because they're intimidated by her. Also, it's pretty apparent that Jane is the best rider there ever was in the history of this barn. Also, Alyssa calls her Ms. Goody, and she's right. Jane is a perfect goody-goody. She may be a dirty mess who wears high-waisted jeans and Keds from 1986, but just because she has no fashion sense doesn't make her any less of a perfect brat. After this Ms. Goody moment, it becomes screamingly apparent that Jane is just that. And it's highly annoying.

So, right when Jane starts harboring these feeling for Ben, Jessica comes along and swoops him up. She also transforms from a somewhat sympathetic and interesting character into a two-dimensional nut case who shows two emotions: jealousy and pissiness. Therefore the main antagonist switches from Alyssa to Jessica in the bat of an eye.

Meanwhile, Jane continues to ride Lancelot and he continues to accidentally beat the crap out of her. Jose and Susan get into this random yelling match about how Jane shouldn't be riding Lancelot at all because he's not hers and she'll just get all heartbroken when she has to be taken off of him again? Like...suck it up, Jane. And who are these people to really care whether or not she has a horse? And where is this horse the owners were buying and moving to the barn? Huh? HUH?

Anyway, Ben and Jane start taking Lancelot on trail rides and Jessica is not pleased about this. At one point she strolls up to them in Lancelot's stall and informs Ben she's going to go swimming. She proceeds to strip her shirt off to show him how wonderful her breasts look in a red bikini. Jane just blushes again and realizes she'll never have a chest like Jessica's. This is a pretty clunky area, obviously.

So, let me see here. Let's just get to the main point. Jane decides she's going to ride in the end of camp show with Lancelot, only she's going to ride in Advanced I. Because Lancelot is kind of a lunatic, Jane winds up doing more Advanced II work with him because no one wants Lancelot to fly into a cross country jump and kill them both. Only Jane is not satisfied with this. So she has Ben spy on Advanced I classes for her, and he gets her the jumping tests for the show, and Jessica is further pissed off. Ben finally tells Jane that he had told Jessica about the hedge jump from the beginning of camp, with expectations that Jessica would tell everyone else in Advanced I. Well, Jessica didn't tell Jane. Wow, shocking. So Ben and Jessica get into a fight about Jane.

Eventually, Jane falls off of Lancelot again and injures her shoulder. Fighting through the pain, she enters the Advanced I show anyway and wins. Afterward Susan gives Lancelot to Jane (we all saw that coming, right?), but only after they all discover that Lancelot isn't actually the horse they all thought he was. Gasp! Who is this horse? Where did Emily's dad get him?

Well, those questions aren't answered because Annie is working on a sequel. I'm going to predict right now that the sequel is going to be about Lancelot's real background and then there's going to be a plotline that will concern Jane possibly having to give him up, but in the end she gets to keep him. Right? If that's not exactly on the money, I'm sure it's a variation on the same theme.

  • There are two things that started to annoy me in their repetition: blushing and calling everything crazy. At one point someone yells something about "that crazy horse! That's crazy!" Like...there are synonyms for crazy. Lots of them. Also, the blushing. Jane may be shy, but I don't think it's possible to blush that often. It happened nearly three times per chapter. There are 21 chapters. That's too much.
  • I appreciated Robin the most in the entire book. I expected her to fall into the typical secondary character meant to solely support the main character's brilliance, but she does have an little plotline of her own. The unfortunate thing about her plotline is how lame it is. Her problem is she doesn't want to compete, which pretty much boils down to the repeated insistence that no one is as good as Jane.
  • Annie was trying for some humor in this book. You could really tell she wanted readers to laugh at the antics and the characters constantly lapsing into British accents, but it felt really forced and unfunny to me. Actually, Robin and Jane always seemed to act like they were drunk whenever they were together, which was probably not what Annie was going for at all.
  • Beau is sold to a ten-year-old girl named Megan, giving Jane the opportunity to become Megan's mentor. There was a lot of sappiness that was not needed at all here. About half of Megan's scenes could have been cut entirely and Jane's character would have been stronger for it.
  • Jane never does anything wrong when she's riding. In fact, she always does everything right. What's more, she only falls off during accidents involving twigs or things that happen to slap at Lancelot. Therefore, the only reason Lancelot is dumping Jane is because Emily is such a bitch. Really.
  • At the show, Alyssa and Jennifer's older brothers show up. Jane's older sister, Lily, also shows up. Immediately I just knew the brothers were going to take an interest in Jane and Lily. What happened? Oh, they totally stared at them. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to feel smug.
Here's my final verdict on Jane. She's not a Mary Sue. A bit of a self-insert, she may well be, but mostly she just suffers from being a typical main character in a typical young adult horse story. She's the girl that doesn't have everything, doesn't own a horse and desperately wants one, works hard, is a "natural" at riding, is almost too down to earth, gets beaten up severely and rises above her injuries, and wins her show/class/whatever before randomly getting a horse of her own in the end. God, that girl and plot gets annoying eventually.

So, Annie, I'm sorry to say, but "most honest horse book since National Velvet" this story is not, because it's basically every juvenile horse story I've read since January...and that's a lot of them. It's a good first try, and I will most assuredly read the sequel, because I mainly want to see if I'm right about the plot. Otherwise, A Horse of Her Own is about as original as its title. Which, considering I already reviewed Joanna Campbell's A Horse of Her Own, is not very original at all.

5 comments:

sundae_mourning said...

i think they should banish the title "A Horse of Her Own." there are already way too many book with that title and i can't believe there are still authors out there that are uncreative enough to continue using it.

as far as the colic thing, it's all right to let a colicky horse lay down...it's not necessary to keep him walking. but rolling is still bad, bad, BAD. if a horse starts rolling, you've got to get him walking.

Molly said...

Oh my freaking god.

WHAT in the sam hill could be "honest" about this book? (Though I never found National Velvet all that "honest," either. Unless "honest" means "overrated and kind of boring.")

- Mary Sue main character, perfect in every way.

- Horses with human emotions (a horse is not going to be grateful you saved his life. He's just going to wonder if you have a carrot for him or what.)

- Everyone who's rich is a horrible bitch JUST BECAUSE. Rich people also don't care about their horses!

- CROPS ARE EVIL.

- Riding school horses is OMG HORRIBLE. Seriously, when I was a kid, I LOVED riding school horses. Hell, the horse my parents ended up buying me was a horse I used in lessons. I wanted my own horse, of course, but it wasn't because the school horses were shit.

Seriously, this book has every cliche ever written. I'm betting the reviewer was a relative.

Also, has this person REALLY spent time with horses? Because anyone who thinks it's fine to let a colicky horse roll is a complete idiot.

Mara said...

@Sundae:
Oh yeah, "A Horse of Her Own" is definitely overused by this point. I would heartily support a ban on that title.

@Molly:
Yes, it is one cliche after another, complete with totally typical horse story girl. Jane wouldn't be an exact Mary Sue if she was in any other story, but as it is, she's a serious part of the cliche.

Annie said...

Oh my freaking lord, I just read your review of my book and laughed my ass off. It's a hilarious send-up. Of course, I don't agree with you, but you did make me laugh really hard. Maybe you'll like my next couple of books better (they're part of a new series, but also horsey) -- fingers crossed, but breath not held!
Cheers,
Annie Wedekind

Anonymous said...

horse of her dreams has to go too. how many girls in these kind of stories aim to get a horse that isnt in their dreams?