Jan 31, 2012

New Series: Timber Ridge Riders

Keeping Secrets
Timber Ridge Riders Series

by Maggie Dana

A valuable horse is dead, and it's all her fault . . . which is why 14-year-old Kate McGregor has put horses and riding out of her life. Forever!

But her new job as a companion to Holly Chapman, a former riding star who's now confined to a wheelchair, takes her back to the barn where she's forced to confront her guilt. Can Kate keep her terrible secret from Holly, who is fast becoming her best friend? And, more important, can she keep her secret from Angela Dean who lives for only two things--winning ribbons and causing trouble? 
Some of us might find this synopsis familiar, because Timber Ridge Riders was once a book series called Best Friends. It took me a while to put my finger on why it seemed like I'd been here before, until I realized I'd read the fourth book in the series, If Wishes Were Horses, circa 1988. Naturally I hadn't read the previous books, as I was a child and had not yet developed crazy quirks like stridently insisting on chronological order. Therefore my memory is hazy, but bells are definitely ringing and I am intrigued.

Anyway, Kate is a roving teen looking for a job. Her mom is gone, and her dad has basically abandoned her for bugs, leaving her with an aunt who would rather not have this responsibility. Consequently, Kate goes forth and, with the courage and tenacity most of us lack in this economy, lands herself a job as companion for a wheelchair-bound teen named Holly. Kate moves in for the summer and thinks she has it made, right up until she realizes that horse stable they all live on? Yeah, that's going to be a big part of her life, and Kate would rather it not be.

Holly lives and breathes horses, which is not so great for Kate because it turns out Kate is traumatized from having accidentally killed her old barn's favorite horse: Black Magic. In order to get out of being near the horses Holly insists she be around every waking moment, Kate feigns horse phobia (is there a word for that? Equinophobia! Thank you, internets!) and is immediately mocked by the reigning antagonist, Angela, an antagonist name if ever there was one. Angela has problems of her own, of course. Her mother is a show mom on steroids, and it's all she can do to get a couple of nice words out of the woman. Therefore, all will know Angela's wrath, and Kate is right in her path of fury.

When Sue, one of the riders on the stable's equestrian team, is injured out in the woods somewhere, Kate is forced to out herself and leaps aboard Holly's horse, Magician, in order to race for help. Everyone goes ooooh at Kate's sudden and unexpected ability, before going boooo at Kate's lie, and finally landing on awwwww after she tells Holly her tragic tale of woe. But now that Sue can't ride, Kate is the perfect fall back, so looks like everything happens for a reason. Or something.

Only Angela is lurking in the shadows, having overheard everything and plotting mercilessly to make sure Kate can never ride at Timber Ridge! For that would surely mean Angela would not receive the medal for individual accomplishment at the upcoming show, and that means she must do what antagonists do sort of well, but not really. Sweet, sweet blackmail.

Forced to not tell Holly's mother, the manager and trainer of these kids and their horses at the barn, because Angela will then take Kate's horse killer story to her mother, who will then make sure Holly's mom knows the sting of a pink slip, Kate feels trapped and helpless. Thus begins the power struggle.

I will say one thing, I have never seen a more motivated antagonist. You know how lots of middle-grade horse books have "antagonists" who are sort of annoying and might do one or two somewhat ridiculous things that are more merely irksome than they are true sights to behold? Angela falls into the last category. When blackmail doesn't succeed, she moves on to researching the rulebook to get Kate kicked off the team. When that doesn't pan out, she destroys the cross country trails to ensure Kate gets lost. When Kate pops out of the forest despite the bad signage, she wrecks Kate's stall so the team will be docked points for bad stable management. That actually works. But is she done? Hell no! We have stirrups to tamper with, because Angela is thorough.

But I'm not saying Angela makes the book. Kate is rather likeable by herself, and Holly is plucky and enthusiastic. The horse scenes are knowledgeable without going overboard, and while there is a subtle hint of Wonder Pony about Magician, the book certainly tones down the sentiment that seems to run rampant in horse books. (ie, crops are used to effect without anyone crying about it.) By the end, winning is shown not to be all there is in life, which is accentuated by the show results and the battle royale at the end.

Keeping Secrets has reminded me that I really should scour Amazon for more independently published horse books, because where traditional publishing has failed me in so many ways, the indie authors are out there striking out on their own, taking chances publishing houses would probably rather not. Kids with Kindles and a distinct love of horses will devour Keeping Secrets and search for more. Not to mention, I will be reading more so I can compare and contrast with my hazy memory of book #4.

Keeping Secrets is available for Kindles everywhere at Amazon.

"You never get used to it. That's why they make Jim Beam."

1.1: Pilot

Luck might be interesting.

I say that since I could see my face reflected back at me on my computer screen as I watched the pilot episode, and mainly my expression was that of pained befuddlement. And I kind of got what was happening about three quarters of the time. No really!

We shall start with Ace (Dustin Hoffman). Ace just spent three years in prison for something. Maybe that something was mentioned and I tuned it out somehow, but he's been in prison and now he's out and he's kind of melodramatic and eccentric...in a cute way. At one point he gets all bent out of shape when one of his shady friends hesitates at his recording device and he throws a fit about how it's a helpful aid because he forgets things *tears shirt apart, buttons flying everywhere* and he was in prison and holy shit the buttons just flew off his shirt and now he's embarrassed and he needs new shirts because prison left him a physically smaller masculine specimen. And he sits down and tries to do his buttonless shirt back up.

He's adorable.

Meanwhile, since I suppose he was banned from the track, his chauffeur now owns all of his horses, one of which is a $2 million dollar pony that will not pass a bowel movement, irritating his trainer who gets mad at his bug jockey for saying things like "we're going to win big!" or something, because to talk about anything other than the weather on the backside is forbidden. (They do, actually, win big.)

Then there's Nick Nolte. I don't know what his name is, but he mutters to himself a lot and stares at his horse and I suppose some of those mutterings were about how someone killed the horse's father...or his own father. Regardless, someone (or some horse) is dead and Nick Nolte didn't stop it. Generally speaking, the second these words popped out of his mouth, I thought about that creepy shoebox of porn and a little part of this show was ruined for me.

Then there's the four handicappers who spend the whole episode plotting to win the day's pick six. I have no idea what their names are, but for me they will be known as Oxygen Man, The Degenerate, Dick, and Third Wheel. Oxygen Man is the ringleader who yells at The Degenerate a lot, since he has a gambling problem (ha! at a racetrack, you say?). No, no, he has a poker problem. He only gambles on racing to feed his urge to lose at poker. Dick and Third Wheel are sort of extraneous characters I don't care about, only Dick feels that he's entitled to blow his winnings on prostitutes and Third Wheel is essentially that. I have no idea why he's there. Anyway, they win $2.8 million dollars on the pick six, making them sort of well off after you divide that four ways and take out taxes. Don't get too excited, you guys. You'll only be back tomorrow.

Also, a horse dies...graphically. It was not too offensive, and did not insult my intelligence. They just outright show everything: bone snaps, vet shows up, screen goes up, intravenous pink liquid administered, horse dies. Pretty cut and dry. But the poor, previously enthusiastic bug has his heart broken and trampled upon, so Gary Stevens shows up to tell him how to cope: drink. Heavily.

However, it's an exercise rider girl who provides the moment I really liked in this pilot, which basically sold me on the entire series, where she rides Nick Nolte's horse in a breeze. It's beautiful. Girl and horse are galloping and then girl and horse are racing time, and the second that happens was pretty awesome to behold.

So it's a pilot that is putting down a lot of ground work. I can't say I was really wildly impressed with it, but it's certainly authentic. I felt a little dirty after watching it, just like days at the track usually make me feel. I suppose I'll keep up with it out of curiosity's sake or until I'm genuinely interested in the goings on, which apparently occur around episode five.

This will be a long race.

Jan 22, 2012

TB #51: Distance Runner

Distance Runner
Thoroughbred #51
by Jennifer Chu

Christina and Star need a change of pace.

A competitive bug is sweeping through Whitebrook Farm. Image, Star, and Gratis are all contenders for the Triple Crown races, which begins with the Kentucky Derby, a little over a month away.

Christina can't stand the pressure. So, when she is given the chance to leave Kentucky for a little while and ride for another farm in California, where Derby fever isn't quite as intense, she packs her bags and takes Star with her. There, Chris focuses on making the most of Star's running style. He's always been a come–from behind–horse, but he sometimes misses his chance to beat the leaders. Christina is going to try to change that in time for the Derby. But it may not be as easy as she thinks.

Hey, guys! I have returned with another Thoroughbred book, which just so happens to be more Christina melodrama, so I'm sure you're all appropriately thrilled. Up there we have a book cover, in which Star and Christina are attempting to wedge themselves in between two horse butts and Star is probably about a half second from clipping heels with Horse Butt #1. You know, of all of these colored pencil drawings (or whatever they call themselves) I happen to be mildly okay with this one. There is action. For whatever reason, Christina is wearing green and white. It's just like Wildfire, you guys! How can I not like such randomness?

Well, anyway, Christina and everyone else she's ever known (that's almost in the literal sense) are at Keeneland preparing for the time-honored tradition of running a Whitebrook pony in the Bluegrass. Actually, Jennifer Chu really screws up the Derby prep race order in this book thanks to creative license, which is one of the many reasons the rest of the lead up to the Derby makes even less sense. But that's reality, and Thoroughbred doesn't do reality, even when it tries! (I actually really, really regret the attempts at inserting realism, but that's another story.) Christina exercises Star during yet another time-honored Whitebrook tradition: the three-furlong breeze. She notices, to her horror, that Star starts his breeze well enough, only to not try to rip her arms out of their sockets and leave her behind in a speedy fury in the second furlong, gradually speeding up in the last bit of the work.

As we all know THIS IS HORRIFYING. SO HORRIFYING. Ashleigh, Mike, Ian, Cindy, and probably even Melanie take one look at this situation and call it like it is: Star is a closer. A closer, Christina. This is how closers act in workouts, never mind actual races. But these people, of course, are not Christina and they can never know the sheer magic that courses from Star to Christina. Never! (Okay, I'm pretty sure Christina never utters the infamous "they don't know *insert horse name here* like I do!" line, so I'll hand it to Jennifer Chu for finding a new way to get that sentiment across without being totally aggravating.)

So here's the deal: since Star wired the field in the Louisiana Derby, Christina, for whatever reason, believes he is now a front runner, and must exercise as such forever and always. Christina apparently hasn't heard of flukes, or maybe Karle Dickerson just knew the easy way out of a race scene. Regardless, Christina now wants Star to be a front runner/awesome stamina-having sprinter of doom. I don't know. Star, of course, has no idea what he's in for.

Trying to avoid the crush of reporters that flock around her always, Christina runs into a horse having it out with a mechanical hotwalker. Because Christina keeps dozens of carrots in her pants, she whips them out and of course this distracts the horse from destroying the hotwalker and bashing open her head in the process. His trainers, the new kids in town from the West Coast called the Johnstons, immediately show up to give Christina the critical eye and proclaim her fit to ride their pack of nerves called Callie later that afternoon.

Chris rides the horse, they win, but Melanie rode Raven in the same race and decided to stir up some drama by calling foul. Get this: according to Melanie, Christina was over there waving her crop around in the middle of the race, and because Raven is a delicate Whitebrook horse, she flinched. Now, this is hard to believe just in general, but who actually uses crops at Whitebrook? Even though they all like to say that maybe the crop could be the miracle answer to all life's ills, and supposedly these devices are used on other, less fragile horses...seriously? I'm supposed to believe this?

Christina is crushed, and Melanie decides to glare at her for several days. They go to the birthday party of a friend (like we care who) and act like twelve-year-olds, and then Christina discovers Parker aimlessly stalking the broodmare paddock at Whitebrook in the middle of the night and they break up because they have no time and apparently this will eventually mean heartbreak and hurt somewhere down the road. Thus Christina can now take Star to California, and Parker can train for the Olympics in England, and maybe they will successfully date others who will never understand their miraculous bonds with their wonder ponies. Ha! If only.

Christina manages to convince Ashleigh to let her take Star to California, because Cindy helpfully dragged up all those time she was a bitch to people. Yes, fierce competition within family units is a horrible thing, something I was forced to read about for many, many books. Thanks for reminding me, Cindy. THANKS A LOT.

So Christina has her way and takes Star to California, because she does not have to be at school and her parents totally trust her with the farm's Derby runner, and apparently "exclusive" attention for Star in Christina-speak is training Callie, exercising every other horse in the West Coast, and then getting around to Star.

While in California, things continue to go to hell with Star as Christina refuses to believe he is anything other than a frontrunner. Meanwhile, new boy Aaron is here to offer a shoulder for Christina to cry on. He tries to take her out on the town in efforts to show her California, but in true Thoroughbred fashion, Christina freaks out over Star's poor times and shuns him, refusing to have fun because that is for the irresponsible. She decides that the only way to get Star's attention is to smack him with the crop, which of course Star literally cannot stand and falls apart. Christina does not know any other way to train her horse, so she keeps using the crop and things keep getting worse and let me remind us all that this is the girl that used her hand to smack her horse when he was panicking not two books ago. Two books! Two!

So at Santa Anita, during the big reveal for Callie's owners, nothing works out, both horses suck, and famous trainers rue the day that they asked a 17-year-old they don't know to train their horse. Or whatever was going on. Aaron comforts Christina as she has a breakdown in Star's stall, and then finally gets her to go to an amusement park with him.

This is probably the first time Christina has experienced non-horse fun in her life, so naturally she has no idea how to react. Poor girl. She backpedals to discuss Star at any and all opportunity, and has her moment of enlightenment: she's a moron! That's right! Star isn't a frontrunner. He's a closer! Looks like all those people that didn't know her horse like she did actually did know her horse better than she did. So Aaron and Christina decide to pull a Cindy and take the horses out at night in order to prove Christina's point that she was stupid. After some brilliant attempts to lure Star into running like his old self using motivational speaking, it turns out that, yup, Chris is stupid.

So Christina gets out of everyone's way, Callie wins his race, Star comes in second in his after narrowly avoiding disaster, and Christina tells everyone that Aaron should ride Callie in the Preakness before coming clean to poor Aaron that she just broke up with her lifetime forever love. But don't worry, Aaron. You've demonstrated to Christina that there are other things out there besides horses for girls to think about (i.e., males, of course!) Hooray Triple Crown!

  • "Spectators" and "reporters" are not the same thing. 
  • How is it that Image and Gratis are the horses to beat? Did I miss the point in the series where they were brilliant and actually won a serious race?
  • Dude, the whole point of a race (and a breeze) is to go faster at the end than you're going at the start. That's what they call "building stamina" and how you win races. Stop complaining about nothing, Chris! (By the way, this is the Big Problem That Needs Solving in this book. Which means it's not a problem at all.)
  • If Christina "is the only one" who knew how the Louisiana Derby really went down, she's not doing her job.
  • How many carrots does Christina keep in her pockets at any given point in the day? A whole bag?
  • Ooh, today Brad is wearing a tailored suit with gold buttons.
  • A Jeep! It's been so long since I've seen a Jeep carting around a Thoroughbred series character, it almost makes me misty eyed for the good old days. With this and all the Cindy Era nostalgia I'm half tempted to just say it: Jennifer Chu is the New Generation's Joanna Campbell.
  • Does anyone get the feeling of Gary Stu for Aaron? The book, as refreshing as it is in certain ways, has the stink of fanfic on it. Consider: main character dumps boyfriend, and suddenly a new love interest pops up who is, of course, perfect in all ways. I'm not saying Jennifer Chu wants to date Christina, but it fits a certain pattern.
Next up, I think we're actually going back in time to see what Melanie was up to in Florida. Because apparently she was there, and now she's back in Kentucky, and no one decided to talk about it at all in Distance Runner other to say she was there and there were "obstacles."  Yet one more perplexing decision brought to you by Thoroughbred!