Two Winners: Equestrian Fiction from Mary Pagones

Here’s a rare experience for me: reading a book so intensely personal, I was literally nodding my head “yes, yes,” along with the narrator’s internal dialogue. Here’s a rare experience for me: finishing a book, reading the teaser of the follow-up book on the next page, and immediately downloading that book so I could continue the journey I was on. Here’s a rare experience for me: the next book was completely different in every way, from voice to characters to motivation, and it still affected me as much as the first one.

Pagones THINWI’m talking about the work of Mary Pagones here, an equestrian writer who Gets It. She’s one of those rare breed of writers who can get inside the head of a horse-person and lay bare our hopes and dreams, our ambitions and fears.

And she does it in a clever way, too.

Pagones starts her two-book (so far?) equestrian series with The Horse is Never Wrong, a totally non-conformist Young Adult horse story. (When I think about this book and how far we’ve come from The Saddle Club and Thoroughbred, I am just amazed and grateful for the gifts of independent publishing.) Narrator Heather isn’t impressed with her Asberger’s diagnosis — a crutch her teachers seem to love pinning her social anxieties and occasional academic blunders upon, but which might not actually exist, since Asberger’s has been folded into the Autism spectrum. All Heather knows is, everyone else is weird, and she is just doing her own thing. What’s wrong with that?

Heather discovers riding and riding is good for her… but it isn’t a Cinderella Goes To The Olympics story. Heather as a character is beautifully written — she narrates without self-pity, without (intentional) humor — she’s a just-the-facts-ma’am reporter. Her voice is unerringly true to herself. Not particularly flowery, even stilted at times, and always pretty sure something is going to go wrong. Here, Heather sums up her biggest challenge in life: dealing with herself.

“I’m just going to have suck and up and deal with the me I have been given, just like I have learned not to complain about a horse’s behavior. Change your behavior; it’s not the horse’s fault, I’m told.”

I got Heather. I totally understood Heather. I felt an almost alarming connection to Heather — she took me back to ninth grade (which was not a place I particularly wanted to go, but… I did some good riding that year, and I met some cool people at the barn to make up for the people I didn’t even remotely understand at my high school).

And that’s what makes Fortune’s Fool so interesting.

Pagones FFSimon, who makes his first appearance in The Horse is Never Wrong, couldn’t be more different from Heather. It’s several years in the future and Simon has gone from the local barn’s resident bronc-buster, that teenager who will get on anything, to a high school senior about to embark on his life’s dream. He’s going to be a working student at an eventing barn (clearly inspired by Tamarack Hill) and take life by the horns. He’s going to make a living as an eventer. He’s going to ride horses forever and ever and no one can stop him.

Simon is brash, arrogant, proud, hot-tempered, know-it-all… and yet he’s totally lovable. He listens to 80s punk and New Wave, worships The Killers, and is dying for a pair of Doc Martens if only they didn’t cost as much as a new pair of paddock boots. No one can tell Simon a damn thing… Simon knows best, thank you very much, especially about his riding, especially especially about his hell-for-leather cross-country style and his possibly-psychotic horse, Fortune.

Oh boy, did I get Simon.

If Heather took me back to my awkward “only my horse understands me” freshman year, Simon took me back to my post-high-school “I’ll sleep/earn money when I’m dead” years. (I’m still kind of in those years, except I give in to sleep way more often. I still don’t really earn any money, though. I write horse books.) But seriously… listened to 80s punk and New Wave. wanted a pair of Doc Martens but couldn’t justify the cost. knew that my parents and my teachers and life and everyone were wrong — there was no need to waste time on so-called intellectual pursuits, not when I could ride a horse, take care of a horse, clean up after a barn full of horses…

As truthful to writing from Simon’s perspective as she was from Heather’s, Pagones does a total 180 shift in her writing. Simon’s sentences are jagged, his observations are hyperbolic, his language is very, very salty. Simon cusses like a sailor, but what 18-year-old working student doesn’t? I used to boast that I only spoke English but thanks to fellow working students and foreign grooms, I could swear in five languages. (I don’t remember them anymore.) Simon thinks in bursts of emotion and long moments of introspection; what some people see as editing misses are more likely the workings of his mind. No one thinks in perfect sentences.

The aching truth behind Simon’s rough swagger is that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen and that’s scary as hell. He doesn’t have money, just talent. And he’s just as plagued by thirty under thirty lists as I’ve always been — of course, now my pet peeve are forty under forty lists. Could people stop being so accomplished, please? Here’s Simon, telling it like it is:

The sense of motionlessness is particularly strong when I read about about someone my age winning an international event. This seems to confirm everyone’s opinion that I’m making some sort of horrible mistake with my life.

He’s eighteen, he’s in a state somewhere between elation and panic about the future, and he’s in very deep waters, not just professionally, but romantically.

Been there.

What it all comes down to: The Horse is Never Wrong and Fortune’s Fool are not your average horse books. I’ve never read two books by the same author that were written so differently, and yet so genuinely. I’ve never identified with two characters so completely opposite in every way. These books are challenging in structure and story, completely honest to the equestrian life, and by turns both soft and gritty. Non-traditional and utterly readable, these are wonderful new entries into the growing equestrian fiction niche.

Click to find The Horse is Never Wrong and Fortune’s Fool at Amazon in Kindle ebook and paperback.

 

Great Equestrian Books: Keeping The Peace by Hannah Hooton

Part of my Great Equestrian Books review series, this post was originally published at Retired Racehorse in 2013.

I have a fabulous horse racing romance to share with you this week! It’s one of the most fun, suspenseful, and horsey romances you’ll ever read.

Keeping the Peace by Hannah Hooton

Keeping the Peace by Hannah Hooton

Keeping The Peace is the first of a series built around a National Hunt racing stable. I’m utterly in love with the main character. I’m just going to say it: this book could be called Bridget Jones Goes to the Races and it wouldn’t be far off the mark. Luckily, I love both Bridget Jones and racing, so this was a match made in heaven for me.

Sweet, lovely, and impressively creative with bad language when she’s pissed off, Pippa Taylor is going through the motions. She’s got a job, she’s got a flat, she’s got a sort-of actor boyfriend who is just bound to get discovered one of these days. She has the requisite bad-girl best friend, she has the requisite lost dream of being an artist — she has everything you need to be a another cog in the machine.

But nothing throws a machine out of whack like a horse. They’re pre-Industrial Age, they defy all logic, and we love them without reason. And while Pippa is no horsey girl, when she inherits a pair of Thoroughbreds from her uncle, she’s struck by not just the inherent promise in a horse, but by the dream that her uncle had for one of them.

That’s Peace Offering, and like every horse, he comes with baggage. His racing history is rubbish, for one thing. His trainer is a bad-tempered Horse Racing Ken Doll, for another. Peace Offering immediately starts changing Pippa’s life in all sorts of crazy fashions, as horses do.

Hooton’s evocative imagery and crisp writing sets this story apart from the competition. Here’s Pippa meeting a yard of racehorses for the first time:

She stopped at the first stable and peeked inside. Suddenly, half a ton of horseflesh came hurtling towards the door, teeth bared, ears pinned back. Pippa gave a startled yelp and jumped out of harm’s way. She yelped again as she collided with a neat cutlery set of pitchforks and spades leaning against the wall.

I loved the National Hunt racing setting. Like most Americans, I know about Cheltenham and the Gold Cup and the King George V in a sort of abstract fashion: they’re steeplechases in England. I know that… that… um… well, they happen. I’ve sat up at odd hours watching the jumps racing and I absolutely love it… riding a steeplechasing course is definitely on my bucket list. (Some might say it ought to be the last item on my bucket list.) I know about Kauto Star. If pressed I would say Haydock is a horse and not a place but I’d have to Google it.

Despite holding an exercise riders’ license, when it comes to jumps racing, I’m kind of a Pippa:

“Who’s Virtuoso?”

Jack shook his head helplessly.

“We won the Cheltenham Gold Cup with him earlier this year. Won eight Grade Ones on the bounce. He’s a bit of a celebrity.”

“I know Cheltenham!” Pippa cried, excited that she knew something to do with horseracing.

The new-to-me setting gave this book a particular charm, especially the very thrilling racing scenes. Thrilling, terrifying, you know — just think how stressful you find it watching your favorite horse (to say nothing of your own) running a six furlong race. Now imagine a three mile race. I wonder if Americans as a society would even survive if we were suddenly forced to watch NH instead of flat racing. Our poor over-taxed hearts would just give out after 2 minutes.

Imagine poor Pippa urging on her horse, only to see a horse fall on the other side of the fence, right in their landing path, that Finn, the jockey can’t possibly know about.

Peace Offering stretched higher and wider to clear the yawning ditch and wall of spruce. Pippa could almost see the surprise register in Finn’s body language when he caught sight of the fallen horse on the landing side.

“Please God, help them.”

They touched down a stride away from Corazon. Peace Offering took half a stride and took off again, hurdling the half-risen faller.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Pippa babbled. She wondered how many other repented sins God would allow her. Another fifteen fences’ worth?

Fifteen fences. At this point I’m sweating and I’m just reading the book.

But that’s one of the many pleasures of Keeping the Peace. With exciting racing scenes, a slow-burning romance, and the delightfully creative swearing (yes, two mentions in one review) that the British have truly mastered, Keeping the Peace is one of my favorite reads this year.

Visit Hannah Hooton Books: http://hannahhootonbooks.blogspot.com/

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Interview: Equestrian Author Mara Dabrishus

I recently had the pleasure of reading a new racing novel by equestrian author Mara Dabrishus’s Stay The Distance. This is the story of July Carter, her racing family, and one tough summer in Saratoga.

Stay The Distance - Mara Dabrishus

Stay The Distance – Mara Dabrishus

It’s a coming of age story, but not the one you’re used to. July is in that pivotal summer between high school and college, and she isn’t sure just what’s next. She’s been riding for her father, a successful trainer on the New York circuit, for so long, it’s become the path of least resistance, even while her best friend is encouraging July to move to into the city, go to college, and live a real life for a little while.

But who can turn down a summer in Saratoga, even for a taste of real life? Or even to get away from a pain-in-the-arse two-year-old and his equally pain-in-the-arse (maturity-wise) young owner?

I wouldn’t be able to say no either, July.

Author Mara Dabrishus was lovely enough to answer a few of my questions about the inspiration and writing behind Stay The Distance, along with her own equestrian background. Here’s my interview with Mara:

Stay The Distance is filled with tension, not just at the races, but inside the main character, July’s head. She isn’t quite sure that she wants to devote her life to horses, but it seems like the decision has been made for her. Did you draw on personal experience to create July and her mental crossroads?

Sometimes I think the only thing July and I have in common is hair color. Her life and her personality are so very different from my own, which I think was why it was so much fun to write about her. That said, I think a lot of people go through that What am I doing?! stage, especially after high school. I experienced that after I graduated college. I really still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and ultimately I chose what I knew – libraries, books, writing. For July, the horses are such a constant part of her life that deciding anything other than horses is so huge it’s paralyzing. As for me, I just went to grad school.

You set this book on the New York racing circuit, and the sections set at Belmont Park are particularly detailed. Tell us about your background in racing – did any of it take place in New York?

My background in racing has always been that of obsessive spectator. Growing up, the closest major track was Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and getting there required nauseatingly twisty driving out of the Ozark Mountains on a road called the Pig Trail. So that happened exactly once in order to see Behrens win the Oaklawn Handicap. (I’m dating myself. I’m dated now.)

Much later, nothing was going to stop me from getting to Belmont Park to see Curlin narrowly lose to Rags to Riches in the Belmont Stakes. For someone who grew up with the Thoroughbred Series, it was like living fiction. What I think struck me so much about Belmont is how awesomely huge it is. It takes up so much space where space is at a premium, and you have to love how grandiose that is.

Then there’s Saratoga. Last year I spent a week leading up to the Travers Stakes sitting in a lawn chair by Saratoga’s saddling paddock and was thoroughly thrilled the entire time. It’s such a gem of a track, and one of those places where you can feel totally comfortable asking Jerry Bailey which of his mounts was his favorite when he randomly shows up next to you. (Cigar, of course, is his favorite.) That’s just the sort of thing that routinely happens there.

It’s refreshing to read a racing story that can easily weave horsemanship and post-race training into the narrative. Do you ride now? What discipline? Any OTTBs in your life?

Stay The Distance - Mara Dabrishus

Mara Dabrishus

I’ve been riding dressage when I get the chance, and have been for about seven years. Currently I primarily ride a little Quarter Horse mare who has this adorable, big personality. Coincidentally, we both started to learn dressage at about the same time, so we’ve improved together. (If my riding instructor is reading this, she is probably snickering herself sick right now.)

When I was just starting dressage, I rode this big, black, permanently fluffy OTTB called Diablo. In his earlier days he lived up to his name, scaring the basics into students. By the time I came along, he was the barn’s grand old man. He was such a character. Unfortunately he passed away a few months ago, but he was well-loved.

Books tend to come in threes nowadays. Will we see more of July and Beck?

Stay the Distance was initially designed and written to stand on its own. That said, bringing July and Beck back for more shenanigans with Lighter and Kali is definitely in the cards. If not for a trilogy, then definitely for a sequel. I don’t think Lighter’s character will allow anything less! 

Author Bio:

Aside from her Texas beginning, Mara Dabrishus spent the first two decades of her life in the Arkansas Ozarks. She pined for a horse and never received one, so she settled on writing about them. The Black Stallion, the Thoroughbred Series, every horse book you can imagine was dutifully consumed. For the past several years she’s ridden dressage, learning how to spiral in, half halt, and perform the perfect figure eight.

Stay the Distance is her first novel. Its prequel short story, Whirlaway, was published by the Thoroughbred Times.

Contact Mara:

Website: www.maradabrishus.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/maradabrishusauthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/marawrites

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