Tag Archives: novels

Jump!

I’ve wondered what real jockeys think about horse racing novels. Especially those where newcomers – human and horse – manage against all the odds to win THE BIG RACE. It’s a frequent, and beloved, theme. National Velvet, The Black Stallion.

cover of Jump! by Jilly Cooper
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Jockeys know too well the years of blood, sweat, tears and broken bones that go into racing. Trainers do too. For the horses, many may be called but an infinitesimal number make it to the top races. So when I read the back cover of Jump! by Jilly Cooper, I was dubious. An older woman finds a horribly injured filly – and the rest is racing history. However, I absolutely love Jilly Cooper’s novels. Especially the Rutshire horsey ones. if anyone can do justice to the horse world with this premise, I thought, she can. And she does.

It takes a village

It takes a village to get a horse to the races. Fortunately our heroines, horse and human, can call on a village full of trainers, riders and wannabe owners. All of them love racing and most love horses. Enough of them have money. Horse_racing_Paul-2009-Bangor-on-Dee-wikicommonsThe wherewithal for preparing a horse – and a Jilly Cooper story – is here. The truly good, the selfish and silly, those evil to the core, and all points between. In this novel, Jilly Cooper keeps a curtain drawn on most of the evil done. Thank heavens! Some descriptions of horse “training” in her earlier books still give me nightmares.

So it works. It’s classic Jilly Cooper and as true to life as any of her tales of the English horsey set life may be. The covers of her books alone tell you what to expect. A fun, racy (in all senses) farce. Many people, horses, dogs, cats – all with huge personalities. A lot of sex, a lot of drinking. Schemes and manipulation. It’s as competitive off the course as on.

cover of Mount! by Jilly Cooper
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You get pulled into this world and you happily live there for as long as you can. You want to keep reading to find out what happens next. But you don’t want to come to the end either. So like many of the characters, you face a difficult choice. It’s just not as difficult as the choices that the characters must too often make. I thought I had read all Jilly Cooper’s novels so was delighted to find Jump! (2010). Looking further, I found another, Mount!, published in 2016. Jump! is about hurdles and steeplechase while Mount! is about flat racing. I can’t wait.

You could start reading the Rutshire Chronicles with Jump! since it’s set much later than the others. And the major characters are new. The main characters of the earlier ones are in Jump! but you can figure out their history.

Amazon link for UnbreakableLooking through Amazon.ca for links, I found this book. A 41-year old countess and a little mare compete against Nazi riders in a Czechoslovakian steeplechase just before World War II. It sounds like Jump! and National Velvet put together – but it’s a true story. Unbreakable is the story of Lata Brandisová and her horse and their 1937 Grand Pardubice. (tap image for link)

Today is Derby Day in Kentucky. Best of luck and safe ride to all the horses and jockeys!

A Great Reckoning

Usually I read an author’s acknowledgement page first, even if it’s at the back of the book. But when I started A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny, for some reason I didn’t. And for that I am so thankful. Maybe it was Inspector Armand Gamache telling me – leave it, let the story tell its tale.

My three pines in misty morning photo d stewartMs Penny’s acknowledgements are heartfelt and heartbreaking. So too is her novel. After reading the last page of the novel, and letting my emotions and thoughts settle, I read the acknowledgements. Ah, I should have known. I should have known where this book fit in Ms. Penny’s real life story. But not knowing while reading it made both all the more moving.

This 2016 novel, 12th in the series, gives the history and geography of Three Pines. It explains some of the mysteries of this isolated little village in Quebéc’s Eastern Townships. It also tells some of the backstory of Inspector Gamache. I wasn’t sure, while reading, that I wanted to know these things. The formative aspects of Armand Gamache and Three Pines were mysteries, yes, and ones I no longer felt I needed to know about. But their telling was good. Knowing more of their histories hasn’t diminished my appreciation for either him or the village.

There are many reckonings in this book, murder being the central one. Many reverberations of Shakespeare’s line in As You Like It: “It strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.” Ms Penney uses that as her introductory quote. Paying up, consequences.

A Great Reckoning is best if you know Three Pines

I think this is the most beautiful book in the entire series. But don’t start with it. To see the beauty, and significance, you need to know Three Pines and Inspector Gamache’s history in the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force. It’s good also to already know the odd assortment of village residents. Then you get the full import of this story.

World War I is part of A Great Reckoning too. No matter what time of year you read it, that will stand out for you. But if you like to mark November 11th with a special personal tribute, read it then. If you haven’t read the series, you could start now and easily get to this one by Remembrance Day.

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Thank you, Ms Penny. It must have been very hard for you writing this book. I’m so glad you did. It will stay with me, phrases and images that bring a smile and a tear.

Louise Penny’s website has a lot about Three Pines and writing as well as the complete order of novels. There are two more published after A Great Reckoning and a new one due in August 2019 entitled A Better Man.

King’s Curse

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The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory is about Henry VIII. It was published in 2014. Despite knowing this, I kept checking the publication date because of passages like this:

Dear God, I’d never tell the truth to this king… He has become a man quite out of control of his teachers, of the priests, perhaps of himself. There is no point giving the king an honest opinion, he wants nothing but praise of himself. He cannot bear one word of criticism. He is merciless against those who speak against him. (p. 495)

In 2019, two years into US President Donald Trump’s reign, The King’s Curse reads like subversive allegory. That is unintentional of course. It was written pre-Trump. Also Philippa Gregory is a historian, and keeps her imagination true to historical likelihoods.

A passage in her author’s note, about “how easily a ruler can slide into tyranny,” is chilling, though. And it applies equally to those born to the position or elected.

Because no one effectively defended

As Henry moved from one advisor to another, as his moods deteriorated and his use of the gallows became an act of terror against his people, one sees in this well-known, well-loved Tudor world the rising of a despot. He could hang the faithful men and women of the North because nobody rose up to defend Thomas More, John Fisher, or even the Duke of Buckingham. He learned that he could execute two wives, divorce another, and threaten his last because no one effectively defended his first. (p. 603)

Henry VIII just wanted people to like him. He was a breath of fresh air at the beginning. Accomplished in everything he did, young and handsome, in love with his Queen Katherine. But then it went wrong. His moral compass, it seems, centred on himself. The belief system and welfare of the country took second place to what he needed. And he needed a son. So began his complete upheaval of everything sacred and secular in Britain. For Henry, the political was extremely personal.

Lady Margaret Pole

Unknown_woman_formerly_known_as_Margaret_Pole_Countess_of_Salisbury_NPG_retouched-wikicommons
possibly Margaret Pole, National Portrait Gallery

The King’s Curse tells Henry VIII’s story from boyhood, when he was the “spare”, to midway through his six wives. Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, tells the story. She is a York from the Plantagenet line of British monarchs. The Yorks wore the white rose in the War of the Roses, opposed to their cousins, the Lancasters, whose emblem was the red rose.

Henry VIII’s father was the first Tudor king. Henry VII took the throne after defeating Richard III, the last Yorkist king, in battle. So Henry VIII was desperate for a son to ensure the continuation of the still new House of Tudor. But it lasted only to the next generation. First the brief reign of his young son Edward VI, then his daughter Mary, and finally Elizabeth I. She fulfilled her father’s dreams of empire but, having no children, the Tudor dynasty died with her.

Family_of_Henry_VIII_Allegory_of-Tudor_Succession wikicommons
Tudor Succession: Mary, Henry VIII, Edward, Elizabeth (detail) National Museum Cardiff

The King’s Curse is the last in The Cousins’ War series by Philippa Gregory. It also fits in with her Tudor Court novels (philippagregory.com). Despite it being late in the story, you could easily start her books with this one. It stands alone and touches on much of what is in the other novels. For more on those, see my Reading History.

pagination from Touchstone paperback ed. 2014

Your Blues

Your Blues Ain't Like Mine Amazon link
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If you want to do some social research on the US of the latter half of the 20th century, read Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine. It is a first novel by Bebe Moore Campbell, published in 1992. All the major socio-political movements from the 1950s to 1990s are here, seen through the eyes of individuals living amidst the turmoil generated by idealism and socio-economic changes.

It can be emotionally hard to read but it’s well worth it. At the beginning, you meet unhappy poor people in rural Mississippi in the 1950s. Right off the bat, you see that there is going to be violence and misery. They are so unlikable that I almost pic Tim Hilton Mississippi house 1966stopped reading. I couldn’t get past them but my brother had told me this was a really good book. So I kept going. He was right.

Bebe Moore Campbell takes you into the black and white worlds of Mississippi and Chicago, of racism both personal and institutional, of poverty, of people who have dreams and those who have no hope. There are heroes and Chicago inner city apartments 1975 pic Danny Lyons wikicommonsvillains but there is no simple categorization of either/or. Just when you start feeling sympathy or respect for a main character, she or he will do something cruel or unthinkingly hurtful. When you decide that a character is unremittingly nasty, you will get a glimpse into his or her motivation. That at least explains why or gives you reason to sympathize.

Bebe Moore Campbell NPR photo“Powerful,” “compelling,” “engaging,” “extraordinary” – the words in the cover blurbs describe the book perfectly. It also scares the hell out of you, makes you cry, and makes you think.

NPR wrote and broadcast about Ms. Campbell at the time of her death in 2006.

 

 

Who’s Kitten Who?

In the mood for a fluffy book, I wondered if Cynthia Baxter’s Who’s Kitten Who? might be a bit too fluffy based on the cover and title.  Still, give it a try.

Who's Kitten Who?
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Amateur sleuth Jessica Popper is a veterinarian who runs a mobile clinic on Long Island.  She lives with her fiancé and numerous animals.  She has a habit of running into murder and mystery.  In this book, it’s the murder of a community theatre writer. The backdrop is her home life and the visit of her future in-laws, whom she has not yet met, and their little dog Mitzi.

The actual mystery is good – some clues so you could feel like you were figuring it out but not enough to be too obvious.  The pets and her interaction with them are well drawn and entertaining.  Some LOL moments produced by her daily life with humans and animals. Fluffy? Yes.  A good read?  Yes.

The visit by the in-laws – good in that her fiancé’s mother is so god-awful that she gives you nightmares.  The tension between Jessica, her fiancé and his parents and Mitzi is very good.  It is realistic enough for any of us who have hideous memories of meeting “the fam” of a significant other.  It is over the top enough to make us laugh and feel relief that nothing we experienced was ever quite this bad.

In-laws – and fiancé – from hell

Where it fails, in my opinion, is that Jessica tolerates this abuse by fiancé and his parents and actually still wants to be involved with this inconsiderate jackass.  I was relieved when I thought she had seen the light, smelled the coffee, woken up to her future with this dysfunctional pack of egotistical lunatics.  When loose ends are being tied up after the mystery was solved, I fully expected her to say “I never want to lay eyes on you again, so go live with your deranged mother and her deranged dog and spare every other woman’s emotional wellbeing.”  What I read instead surprised me – indeed annoyed me.

Aside from that, I don’t like books where there’s no connection between title and content (excepting those with a series-based reason) and there isn’t here.  No kitten except for the punning opportunity. I also don’t like mystery protagonists who suddenly act stupid for the sake of moving the plot along. That happens here at least once in a major way.

I should, I suppose, read another of Ms. Baxter’s ‘Reigning Cats and Dogs‘ series to get a better sense of Jessica and the pillock she’s engaged to.  Other than the points I mention, Who’s Kitten Who? is a fun, well-written and engaging mystery with mostly likeable characters.

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, Sept. 8/11. Below are Amazon links to the first two Jessica Popper books. The right sidebar links are for Cynthia Baxter’s second series featuring travel writer Mallory Marlowe.

 

Water for Elephants

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(from 2011*) In the past week, I’ve been sent two Facebook requests to boycott the film Water for ElephantsADI (Animal Defenders International) says that Have Trunk Will Travel, trainers of the elephants in the film, use abusive methods.  This contradicts the trainers’ statement that they only use positive reinforcement.

I watched the 2005 video ADI provided, and I think I don’t know enough about elephants to know.   I went to Sara Gruen’s website.  She wrote the novel on which the movie is based.  She is a supporter of animal welfare and several specific animal sanctuaries.  While the author of the original material may not have much say over the movie production, having read her other novels, I couldn’t Tai, in ADI videoimagine Ms. Gruen not caring about the animal stars of a work in which she’s got a vested interest.  But I still don’t know.

I don’t think the trainers did themselves a favour by saying they only use reward-based training methods.  No way electric prods look like positive reinforcement.  But used in conjunction with reward?  Necessary for effectiveness and safety?  I don’t know.  I do know that they and bull hooks do not look nice.  But the appearance of something shouldn’t Tai lifting Sara Gruenbe the sole criterion for judging it.  Lots of things don’t look nice, but there may be valid reasons for their use.  Also, anything can be an instrument of cruelty if used incorrectly or to deliberately inflict pain.  A dog’s leash, a horse’s reins.

Two things this controversy made me think about:

1.  Shock collars.  Many trainers condemn their use, saying they’re just a lazy way to train a dog.  Other trainers sell them to people (I got a Shock_collar-Polymath38-Wikicommonssalespitch on their virtues when talking to a trainer about my dog’s poop-eating habit.)  I know a barky dog who can live happily in an apartment building because she wears an electrified “bark collar” when left alone.  Without it, I don’t know what would happen.  But the bottom line is, those collars administer shocks of varying intensity to dogs.  And electric shock is not only used for retraining bad behaviour.  “Invisible fencing” relies on a shock if the dog gets too close to the boundary.  It’s selling like hotcakes.

2.  When learning to ride, my teacher told me “kick him” when my horse would not move forward with just verbal clucks.  I kicked a bit.  “Harder” she yelled, “kick him like you mean it.”  I couldn’t.  I felt I was betraying our friendship by kicking him.  She told me to watch the horses in the field and see what they do to each other.  I did, and sure enough, I watched ‘my’ horse give his best friend a big old kick when Spurs_western_lostinfog-wikicommonshe got too near the hay.  There is no way I could ever kick as hard as he did.

When I learned to kick, he looked back at me like “ok, you’re learning horse language now!”  I learned to use spurs, a riding crop and a longe whip.  I try to keep my hands steady. Reins jerking ‘giddyup’ style does cause a horse pain.  With me knowing proper use of equipment, we began riding as a team.

All methods of control and training can be abused and therefore cruel.  All, aside from sheer brutality, can also be used correctly.  Until I try handling an elephant, I won’t opine on how to do it.

*First posted on my St. Thomas Dog Blog May 12/11. Since then, I’ve read Water for Elephants and it is absolutely wonderful.

Dog Gone

Eileen Key’s Dog Gone is about dogs disappearing from a boarding kennel.  Cleaning lady Belle wants to help her friend, the kennel owner, keep her business alive so she enters the world of dogs and dog shows.

Amazon link for Dog On by Eileen Key
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It’s a well-intentioned story about dog breeding and showing as well as dangers posed by a black market in purebred dogs.  But I felt important issues about pets and show dogs and breeding were muddled in their presentation.  Puppy mills, research labs and dogfighting fodder were mentioned as possible fates for stolen dogs.  The value of microchipping was stressed, as was the fact that chips are not like a GPS that track the dog.  You must have the dog in order to read the microchip.

My biggest problem was with the dog owners.  All the dogs were from champion bloodlines.  All were used for breeding and were beloved family pets.  The expected revenue from the central dog’s puppies was the means for financing the college education of the dog owner’s daughter.  Yick, I thought, are they concerned about losing their pet or an income source, one that they stress cost a huge amount to acquire?  So visions of backyard breeders recouping the cost of an overpriced puppy danced through my head.  The people who say “I paid $2000 for that dog, you know”,  “I can sell those puppies on Kijiji for $800 each, you know”.

Dog Shows

These owners enter their dogs in major AKC shows.  But they all have just one or two dogs who are family pets. However, nice as that thought is, I’m not sure it’s realistic. The amount of money involved in dog shows is made clear by Key, both the outlay required to participate at the top level and the rewards for having a champion.

Ok, there are people in the hobby or business of dog shows and breeding that do not have large kennels.  But they are pretty few and far between at the top championship levels.  Living and breathing dog shows is what most reputable breeders do, and Key’s dog-owners don’t do that.  So I wasn’t sure if I was being asked to care about pet owners who enjoy competing at dog shows or who see their purebred as a money-making machine.

Belle, our sleuthing heroine, is a self-confessed non-dog person.  Ms Key does not mention any dog in her acknowledgements, which seems de rigueur in doggy books. But she thanks kennel owners and vets. I think they gave her a good crash course in dog shows and pet care.

There is a strong Christian message in the book.  Rereading the publication details, I saw Barbour Publishing’s mission is to provide “inspirational products offering… biblical encouragement to the masses.”  It fits in easily with Belle’s characterization as a Christian and pastor’s wife.  It’s a good light read.

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, Sept. 16, 2012.

 

Dog On It: Review

Dog on It is the first in a mystery series by Spencer Quinn, aka Peter Abrahams.  The protagonists are Chet (dog) and Bernie (human).  Set in the US Southwest, the story is told by Chet.  He is a K-9 police school flunk-out and Bernie barely scrapes by as a private detective. They work as an investigation team, but neither of them has a superior or supernatural method of communication with the other.

Amazon for Dog On It by Spencer Quinn
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Chet understands human language, verbal and body, better than Bernie realizes.  But Chet can’t always convey what he knows to him.  Unlike Randolph, say, in the Bull Moose Dog Run series, he can’t read and doesn’t know how to use human language to communicate.  He does dog type communication – barking, wagging tail, bristling neck hair, growling.  Bernie can misinterpret these signals as Chet wanting a toy or Chet just barking for no good reason.  And Chet sometimes misses the significance of something in the human realm so doesn’t indicate its importance to Bernie.  I found myself thinking, “come on Chet, that’s important – bark!  Tell Bernie!”  And Chet would just think, “hmm, that kinda reminds me of something” and go back to licking himself.

The plot centres on a missing girl, so there are not a lot of doggy elements in the story itself.  You meet a neighbour dog and his situation makes you think.  And there’s a trip to an animal pound – also a lot to think about.

The jacket blurb says you don’t have to be a dog lover to enjoy the story. Being a dog lover, I really liked the insights into dog behaviour from a dog point of view. You get to know the people and dogs through Chet’s eyes. If you aren’t interested in dogs, I don’t know what it would be like reading a story from a dog’s perspective.

Chet and Bernie both can figure things out and are clever, but not overly so.  I don’t know what goes through a dog’s mind, but Chet’s thoughts seem pretty believable.  He comes across as a regular smart and galumphing type dog. So does Bernie. The book is a good who-dun-it, aside from the pleasure of reading something from a likeable dog’s point of view.

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, June 28/11

Lab Mysteries

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If you like dogs and mystery novels, or even just one or the other, have a look at J. F. Englert’s Bull Moose Dog Run series.  There are three so far; A Dog About Town (2007), A Dog Among Diplomats (2008) and A Dog At Sea (2009). The ‘sleuth’ who tells the story is Randolph, a middle-aged black Labrador Retriever.

A sucker for animal stories, I’ve read some of the other dog- and cat-perspective mystery series.  I’ve liked them, found them kind of cute, kind of funny. One of the Midnight Louie books by Carole Nelson Douglas made me think about feral cat life and TNR (trap, neuter, release) from the cats’ point of view.  Not as straightforwardly beneficial as people may think it to be. While I’ve enjoyed the animal-detective books I’ve read, I haven’t felt a pressing need to immediately get the next one.

Randolph, a literate Lab

As soon as I finished A Dog About Town, I went back to the library and took out the second, A Dog Among Diplomats.  Now I want to read the third.  I want to know what happens next. Randolph’s take on being an intelligent dog in a human world made me think about many dog behaviours, and people’s behaviour in relating to dogs.  You learn a lot (Randolph is a very literate dog), you are given lots of little doggy asides to think about, and the mysteries at the heart of the books are interesting and well-presented.

As with all novels featuring non-human protagonists, disbelief has to be suspended.  But it wasn’t a lot of work doing that with Randolph.  This is despite him being able to read (a skill learned while being papertrained in puppyhood), and not just reading the cereal box.  He reads Dante’s Inferno, Proust, Kierkegaard and, for light reading, Dickens.  He teaches himself how to use the internet and succeeds in setting up a hotmail account for himself faster than I’ve ever been able to do. But these improbabilities do not get in the way  – I found myself quickly accepting Randolph’s extraordinary skills and just got on with the story.

Dog park behaviour

Randolph’s observations on human-dog interaction are shrewd, even cringe-making sometimes when you recognize yourself.  He also observes the child-dog relationship in a refreshing way, especially coming from a Lab, the perceived ‘kids’ dog’. Randolph takes you into his Manhattan – the streets, Central Park and the dog parks.  He gives you the dog perspective on dog park politics of dogs and people.  He notes the types of dog behaviours in meeting each other and even in their toilet habits.  After you read his descriptions of dog habits, you find yourself watching dogs to see if they fit Randolph’s classification system.  By and large, they do.

Englert is an astute observer of dogs and people, or he has been taught a lot by his own Lab.  I’ve never been a big Lab person – they’re too boisterous and single-minded (usually involving a tennis ball) for me.  But I look at them a bit differently now, after ‘meeting’ Randolph.  He reminds me of Labs I have known and liked, nice old sensible ones.  I also look at my dogs a bit differently, wondering if there’s more going on in their heads than what I have thought.

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, Apr. 24, 2010.