Aug 6, 2012

Faith in an Extreme Long Shot

Faith in a Long Shot
Thoroughbred #57
by Alice Leonhardt

Does Image have what it takes to make Melanie's derby dreams come true?

Melanie and Jazz couldn't be more thrilled when Image comes in second in the Florida Derby. This is just the kind of proof they've been waiting for -- Image is ready to race in the big leagues! With high hopes, they decide to enter her to race in the ultimate competition: the Kentucky Derby.

Image has proven she has what it takes to win against other colts. But her competition at the derby will be really tough. Image will be running against Wonder's Star, Gratis, and Celtic Mist. Winning is a long shot. Does Melanie have enough faith in Image to make her derby dreams come true?

This summary misses the main point of the book, which is People Be Jealous. Otherwise, I suppose it's accurate. The cover, on the other hand, is composed based on all those winning shots of Kentucky Derby winners past, but in that style that makes you want to walk up to the artist and yell, "Since when do black horses look gray. Since when?" I'm having a hard time understanding this style's ability to depict black correctly. It's kind of basic. Then there's that buckskin in the background, which does make me a little ragey, I admit. They are running in front of a crowd that is wearing a lot of orange, blue and green. It does a good job of indicating the attendance of the race, but otherwise the colors amuse me. And Melanie's silks. Music notes on a field of green must be very hard to remember or draw...either way, she most certainly is not wearing red and blue.

But moving on...because pointing out the flaws of the covers and summaries is often like shooting fish in a barrel, right? Let's focus on the book, because Melanie is insistent on driving Image to Keeneland for the Ashland Stakes. For all of us wondering, that puts us back in April. So, that means that the events of Derby Fever have already happened, but Cindy's Last Hope is currently happening, and Great Expectations will happen...in May. Those being the three books leading up to Faith in a Long Shot. (Don't get me started on Hoofprints in the Snow.)

So, Image is entered in the Ashland Stakes after coming in second in the Florida Derby. Melanie starts to sense some attitude coming from the Whitebrook camp when she finds out that Ashleigh didn't want to put Catwink up against Image in the Ashland, and so decided to enter her in a claiming race because "Catwink needs it." I don't know why, exactly, but there you go. Impetus for drama ahead! Image wins handily, spurring Jazz into making crazy-eyed comments to similarly crazy-eyed reporters that this horse is running in the Kentucky Derby. OOOOOMG, says everyone. And then Melanie gets all crazy-eyed angry that Jazz hauled off and told everyone when she wasn't prepared for that sort of...reality? I thought they were thinking Kentucky Derby since Florida, but apparently this is news to Melanie.

Back at the shedrow, some guy tells Melanie that she doesn't know what she's in for with the media. They are relentless vultures that she cannot hope to handle, because she is a) a girl and her horse is also b) a girl. Also? The other Derby entrants are boys. OOOOOMG girls vs. boys! It's the biggest headline ever, because sex battles are the best. Everyone knows this. Melanie brushes him off. Surely the media frenzy for the Kentucky Derby won't be that bad, she thinks to herself. Surely!

And then she discovers that Catwink was claimed, which is somehow Melanie's fault because no one can trust Ashleigh to make a sound business decision if her life depended on it. Dear Ashleigh: if you want to keep your horse, totally and completely, don't enter it in a claiming race. You're not cut out for that type of gamble. But anyway, now Melanie thinks this is all her fault. Racing Image in anything means that Whitebrook will get screwed over, and then she realizes OOOOMG I'm racing Image against Star in the Derby! What will become of us all?!

So then we need Jazz to step in and tell Melanie that when he got famous, all of his previous friends who couldn't handle it got all butthurt and jealous of his success. People Be Jealous, he says. But that's okay, we're better than them. Did he lose a lot of friends chasing his dreams? Yes. Tons of them. They dropped like flies. But don't let that stop you from being a special snowflake, dammit! Melanie tentatively takes this advice and proceeds with plans to run Image in the Derby, despite what she feels is an increasingly icy atmosphere at Whitebrook. So icy, she stops riding Image on the track because that is apparently where Christina spends every waking moment relentlessly racing Star against the clock.

Compounding matters is the media frenzy. Because Whitebrook employs two people and lets random passersby wander their paddocks, the farm is trampled by reporters desperate for interviews and photo opportunities. Ashleigh has a meltdown about Whitebrook not being able to handle the attention. They've never had to go through this before! Ever! (Um, yeah.) And it's all Melanie's fault for entering an unworthy filly in the Derby as a distraction! Melanie tells reporters that she wouldn't have entered Image if she didn't think she could beat all the colts, upsetting Christina's delicate sensibilities, and causing to deepen the rift. And then Christina nearly runs over a reporter with her car, crossing the line between innocent girl we should feel sorry for and assault with a deadly weapon (vehicular.)

At school, Melanie is told she sucks at chemistry, and so she decides that she will force Parker into tutoring her. Because apparently he is back from England, although I was pretty sure he was supposed to be training for Burghley. But whatever. Apparently he has time to skip back and tutor Melanie in chemistry so he can hang around Whitebrook and make eyes at Christina, who has suddenly taken an interest in clothing and proper hair care. She is dressing and blowing out her hair like this girl who has walked out of a teen drama, much to Melanie's consternation. Feeling slovenly and unworthy, Melanie slinks off to talk to Jazz on the phone, who tells her he won't be in town until Tuesday. OOOOMG. Or whatever. It's like a week from the Derby now, and Melanie just wants this over with all ready, except then some guy decides that jumping into Image's paddock at night to get a photograph is the best time to do this ever and causes another collective meltdown. Image isn't safe! There could be people with cameras hiding in her stall! Lurking in the bushes! Sleeping at her feet! (Wait, that's Melanie...) She has to get out of here!

ENTER BRAD TOWNSEND.

So, apparently Celtic Mist isn't getting the attention Brad thinks he deserves. So he listens to Parker's business proposal that they allow Melanie and Image to stay at Townsend Acres so that Parker can finally have sex with his on-off girlfriend, and hears instead that he should have Image live at Townsend Acres so he can get in on the media frenzy. He approaches Melanie about his proposition, and Melanie is of course a petulant brat at first before Brad employs his awesomeness and she is stunned into accepting. In a haze, she tells Mike and Ashleigh about Brad's plan, and of course they all say that Brad is awesome and she should clearly do this. Of course, this could just be them trying to get rid of her, but Image must come first! Horses, then family. Always.

Melanie settles into her gargantuan and exquisite surroundings at the Townsend Acres guest house, and Image settles in under the watchful security cameras and Brad's all knowing stare. Much to her irritation, Melanie loves it. She loves the manicured grounds, and the helpful groom that has to work for her or be kicked out on his ass, and the microwave that looks like a bread box. She loves it. So much that she goes to a formal event at Townsend Acres. She wears a dress. And it is tight, and mid-thigh, and low-scooped, and splashed with primary colors. Even Jazz decides that tonight is not the night for his all black ensemble, or his groom outfit, or his geek costume complete with pocket protector. Tonight is the night for no ties and no socks. Jazz cannot be contained. Nor can Christina. She waltzes in wearing a short blue dress and strappy heels.

For a second--a brief, almost horrifying second--I imagined this as a CW show. And it almost worked. I could almost see it happening. But then Christina opened her mouth and started to accuse Melanie of abandoning family for the enemy, and then I couldn't decide if that made this vision worse or better. Melanie insists that she did it for Image. It was all for Image! Only Christina doesn't believe her and flounces off, somehow managing not to break her ankle while wearing heels for the first time in her life. Melanie then overhears people talking about how little a chance they believe Image has, and because she is a Thoroughbred series character she seriously takes this to heart.

When derby day dawns, Melanie puts Jazz's new silks on and stares at herself in the mirror long enough to feel self-conscious when someone else walks into the jockey's room. It was just a loose thread! Ha ha! I wasn't just staring at myself, or anything. Christina gives her a look, and probably rolls her eyes. Then Wolf gets into a jockey war of words that is ridiculous, and Melanie has to break it up before they start calling each other jerkface and proclaim that the other will eat their dust. OOOOMG. Jockey fights are the best.

Out in the paddock, Jazz kisses Melanie for good luck and off they go. Admittedly, I was bored, so I skimmed through the race, but rest assured that the announcer said something stupid and all the horses are so evenly matched that they all tried to run in front together. Only at the very end of the race do Image, Celtic Mist and Gratis break free of the clump and race on to victory. Star, as fate would have it, got stuck behind horses, which is a phenomenal achievement when there are only nine horses in the race. Nice work, Chris!

But then, after the high of winning the Kentucky Derby, Image breaks her leg and falls to the ground. Melanie goes into shock and wakes up in a hospital bed with a broken rib and a bruised lung, which means she is just sympathetic enough now for Chris to make the effort to make up. Everyone group hugs, and Melanie decides to let Image die, which is probably the most adult decision anyone has ever made in this series, considering it's a series of completely ridiculous recoveries and declarations of "we must try!" Melanie just throws in the towel, knowing that Image is the second coming of Ruffian and isn't going to stand for a sling and will probably tear down her stall.


And thus Perfect Image dies.

Ha! No, wait. This is still the Thoroughbred series. Here's what really happens: Melanie goes back to Townsend Acres, under the impression that she will stay there for a few days with Christina and Parker and Jazz and this is okay with all their parents despite them being rowdy teens. They are rowdy teens in mourning, I guess, so whatever. Before Melanie can get to the guest house ENTER BRAD TOWNSEND who is all come, Melanie, allow me to show you my super awesome medical facility that is part of my super awesome Thoroughbred farm because I am so super awesome I can barely be contained. COME WITH ME. And Melanie, because she cannot say no and has no power against him, goes. Brad shows off the whole place, and forces Melanie to agree that he is awesome. Although she is suspect, because Brad is cheerful and chipper, and for whatever reason everyone in this series gives Brad the side eye when he's happy. Then he shows her the pool, and lo...there is Image treading up a storm.

Melanie falls to her knees, totally stunned, and Brad lets out one final, "Yes, I am this awesome" before he magically disappears before Melanie or Jazz can find and thank him. At one point, someone actually says they should thank Brad..."wherever he went."

Brad Townsend = Batman. I'm just saying.

So then Melanie jumps in the pool and swims out to Image, and it's heartwarming and actually an okay ending. So there.

Talking Points:

  • A lot is made of Whitebrook really depending on Star and expecting him to do well in the Kentucky Derby, but I'm not sure that's ever been the case. Case in point: see all the times everyone didn't want to race him after the virus. 
  • Ashleigh never won the Triple Crown, apparently. She just won "jewels," much like Julie Krone.
  • Also, Wonder never won the Derby after Winning Colors. 
  • Also, Champion never won the Triple Crown. Whitebrook has now "never had a Triple Crown winner."
  • Ashleigh, at one point, says that the farm isn't able to handle the kind of attention they're receiving. She waves her arms around and says, "Look at this place!" I think...I may be imaging some of it because I find it super amusing. But it's still basically what happened.
  • I highly doubt Ashleigh would act like that much of a bitch to her niece. Christina, yes. I mean, that's a given any day of the week for any reason at all, but Ashleigh never had it in her to make Melanie feel that unwelcome. I think there's always been an undercurrent of Ashleigh finding Image unruly and not worth the trouble, but this book takes it too far. And where the hell is Mike to temper this craziness? 
  • Brad has Melanie's dad and her stepmom ride some boat in some Kentucky Derby festival thing and they're all besides themselves because to ride this boat is reserved for dignitaries or whatever and I imagined Brad Townsend standing atop it, staring into the wind, being so full of awesome no one dare approach as the boat wins their festival race by daylight. 
  • And then Image won and Star came in last. I still can't wrap my brain around this. Years have passed and I am still awed and confused by this decision.
 Anyhoo. So that's the Kentucky Derby. Next up, the Preakness (wherein Star still doesn't win.)

Aug 2, 2012

The Head and Not The Heart

The Head and Not The Heart
by Natalie Keller Reinert
2011  
Horses have always been Alex’s obsession. Their presence has defined her life: all her choices, from her love-life to her career, have been made with horses as her priority. But the horse business isn’t for the sentimental, and it’s growing harder for her to tamp down her emotions and think about the horses with her head and not her heart.

When their racing stable suffers a loss, she and Alexander, her partner and teacher, slowly begin to fall apart. A chance find of a long-lost horse sends Alex alone to New York City, and she wonders if this is the sign she’s been waiting for. Is it time to leave it all behind and start fresh?
Everyone say hello to Natalie. She runs the Retired Racehorse Blog, a place where most of us could probably lose hours of our lives. Natalie is steeped in horses, so much so that her knowledge flows over in her debut novella, The Head and Not The Heart. Horse fiction realism, thy name is Natalie.

But let's get down to business. The Head and Not The Heart has a basic premise: horses. You love 'em and you hate 'em, am I right? They suck you in and keep you there, held hostage for years of your life, never able to do simple things to the point that you find yourself envious of people who have a three day weekend in which they do nothing but sit around marathoning Heartland all day (I am guilty. I am so, so guilty). So, how awesome would it be to break free and not be around horses all the time? Pretty freaking horrible, that's what. God, how can you even ask that question?

Equiholics are in deep. There's really no saving them.

So we have Alex. She manages the racing stable she shares with her older mentor/live-in boyfriend, when their favorite horse is injured and subsequently destroyed. This alone might not have been catastrophic, but it comes on the heels of the death of their absolute favorite, Red Erin, two years previous, and now they're really in a funk. Now her boyfriend is sequestering himself in his man cave and Alex can only dream of a future where she's forced to smell the gut-churning scent of lube mixed with manure forever. Being only twenty-five, Alex is starting to have second thoughts about her career choices. There's still time, Alex! Break free!

Dumb luck presents Alex with that option: television offers up the missing half-brother of Red Erin and she is quickly dispatched to New York to meet with this colt's trainer. While in New York, she is further tempted. She could be a writer. She could live in Brooklyn. She could hang out with hipsters and listen to indie music and be ironic all the time. But there would be no horses, and I don't know if anyone pointed this out to Alex while she was there but New York is fricking cold in winter.

Meanwhile, there is the new horse to consider. Will he be able to lure Alex back to an unforgiving horseman's life after she's sampled Brooklyn's nightlife and yelled at strangers about horses? Will Alex fall for him like a twelve-year-old with a chestnut horse and yell screw you and your bar scene, Brooklyn! as she hauls out of there with a horse trailer?

Well, I won't spoil you. But it goes without saying that this debut is bursting with realism that any equiholic will adore. The details are what make the book come alive and flesh out what is essentially a simple story about a young woman questioning her future. On the flip side, it is still a debut and it falls into a few common pits that debuts always seem to fall into. It repeats itself and waxes on in areas you wish it wouldn't, because therein lies the encouragement to skip to the good stuff -- the details, the action, the voice. These sometimes get lost in the fray of heavy inner monologue, which is common in first-person narratives. But it's 100% horses, and when the book turns on the detail no horse person in the audience (and I imagine they will all be horse people here) will care about the rest.

Solid little debut, Natalie Keller Reinert. Tighten up your craft and I'll be seeing you next time.

The Head and Not The Heart is available in print and Kindle at Amazon.