In Flying Finish, Henry Gray is a lonely, buttoned down, slightly impoverished earl with a pilot's license, a chip on his shoulder about his ancestry, and a bad attitude in general. When his sister goes deservedly ballistic on him, he attempts to shake himself out of his rut by taking a job as a groom who escorts horses on international flights.

His life starts to change when he notices an odd pattern: grooms on flights between England and Italy tend to vanish in Italy. And then, on one flight, he meets an Italian woman who smuggles birth control pills (illegal in Italy at that time) and speaks no English. It's love at first sight - probably the only love-at-first-sight story that I've ever found truly convincing. (I completely buy sexual attraction at first sight, and camaraderie/connection within a brief conversation. But Francis sells me on actual love.) Meanwhile, Henry begins to realize that the vicious young groom who's been bullying him on flights may not only resent Henry for being a lord...

Despite some oddities and dated bits, Flying Finish is one of my favorite Francis novels. The romance subplot pulls off a very difficult premise, and the climax is a masterpiece of sustained suspense. Warning for horse harm. Also for human harm.

In some ways Rat Race feels like a run-up to Flying Finish. It also features a withdrawn pilot hero and some extremely suspenseful flying sequences. But the romance, while nice, isn't as memorable, and the hero's blossoming from a going-through-the-motions existence to actually living isn't as vividly drawn. It's also hampered by a hilariously dated portrayal of a creeper hippie. (Creeper hippies still exist. It's the language that hasn't aged well.)
Re-read. This has one of Francis’s best premises, and the execution lives up to it. Neil Griffon, an antique dealer, has temporarily taken over his trainer father’s stable after his father was seriously injured in a car crash. Neil is kidnapped by a dangerous madman who demands, on pain of destroying the stable, that Neil hire his son Alessandro as a jockey… and let him ride their prize stallion in the Kentucky Derby.

The theme here is fathers and sons. Neil’s father was emotionally abusive and distant, but competent in his own sphere; Neil, forced to step into his shoes, must gain the trust of all the employees who prefer his father. Alessandro’s father is a sociopathic megalomaniac, but gave him everything he ever wanted. The heart of the book is the relationship between Alessandro and Neil, an oddly paternal one though Neil is only 15 years older, and Alessandro’s growth into becoming his own person.

Excellent suspense, plus Francis’s usual good characterization of the supporting cast. My favorite here was Etty, confident in her place as a female “head lad” in a male-dominated profession. Though Francis doesn’t use the word “asexual,” Neil describes her as having no interest in sex. The phrasing isn’t sensitive in current terms, but the sentiment is nonjudgmental.

One of my favorite things about this book was the way that Alessandro seemed to have stepped out of an entirely different novel, one where the arrogant and damaged young man is the romantic lead, and was forced to interact with Francis’s down-to-earth characters, who either didn’t notice how hot he was or noticed but didn’t let it cloud their judgment. His interactions with the no-time-for-this-shit Etty were comedy gold.

Warning for horse harm.
Pamela, a lonely little girl, lives in an isolated house with her two aunts (one nice, one distant and strict). Her absentee father visits occasionally, and her mom is dead. But her life gets a lot more fun when she gets a magic amulet that enables her to meet a mysterious boy her own age and his herd of pastel ponies.

Obviously, the best part of this book is the pastel ponies. Who wouldn't want a herd of pink, blue, sunset, and sunrise-colored ponies named after clouds? I wish I'd read this book when I was nine, because I would have absolutely reveled in the pretty, pretty ponies. Probably a better title would have been The Rainbow Ponies.

Ponyboy is annoying - the book was written when it was common to portray boys being sexist as cute and funny, and that has not aged well. But like I said: pretty, pretty pink ponies! If you think you'd like that, you will certainly enjoy this book.

Season of Ponies
Re-reads, but it's been so long since I read High Stakes and Nerve that all I really remembered was that I didn't think they were in the top tier of Francis's books. Dick Francis is perfect for when you really want to read about someone having a worse day than you are. I may have bronchitis, but at least I'm not suicidally depressed/fighting off an axe-wielding criminal while I have a broken wrist/blindfolded, chained, and soaked in freezing water.

Blood Sport is the most interesting of the three. The plot isn't as well-tuned as his norm, with an unusual amount of low-stakes wandering around looking for clues, but the hero makes it memorable.

Gene is a former James Bond-type secret agent turned private eye (unusually for Francis - his heroes tend not to be professional hero types) suffering from long-term, severe depression. He spends a lot of the book trying to convince himself not to commit suicide. Treatment is never mentioned, and he seems to think it doesn't exist - at one point he muses that some day depression will be recognized as a disease, and babies will be inoculated against it. Originally published in 1967, when there most certainly were treatments for depression. However, to this day many depressed people never seek treatment, so I believe that Gene wouldn't.

In the first and best action set-piece, Gene's boss invites him on a boating trip, where Gene meets the boss's sweet 17-year-old daughter and saves someone's life in what appears to be, but of course is not, a boating accident. The boss gives him a job - hunting down a missing race horse in America - with the clear intent of keeping him too busy to off himself. There's a semi-romance with the teen daughter of the "I'll wait till you're 21" type, of which the best thing I can say is that it's less squicky than usual. There's a much better non-romance subplot involving a woman Gene's age who seems to be a standard unstable, alcoholic sexpot, but who is then given actual depth and a very satisfying storyline.

The pieces of this book don't fit together as well as Francis learned to do later. Gene has a helper who needed better characterization for his storyline to really work, and the final action climax isn't that climactic. But the depiction of depression is very realistic, and it's a good example of how to write a depressed hero without making the book itself depressing to read.

Nerve has an excellent A-plot, in which Rob Finn, a struggling jockey from a family of musicians, is the target of a plot to undermine his career. This book is impossible to put down starting from the first paragraph, in which a jockey shoots himself in front of Rob.

The B-plot, in which Rob tries to court his true love who won't marry him because they're cousins, is less successful. Francis is a bit hit-or-miss with romance. Some of his romances are fantastic. This one never quite worked for me - Joanna's "totally cousins" objection seemed a bit ridiculous and lampshading it didn't help. I never quite bought their relationship.

But the slow disintegration of Rob's career is nailbitingly readable, even though there's no physical jeopardy until about halfway through. The showpiece action sequence, in which Rob is kidnapped, blindfolded and chained, drenched in water on a freezing night, and must free himself and then race the next day, is brilliantly done. Nice comfort via hot soup afterward, too.

I had totally forgotten High Stakes before I re-read it and I can see why. Even now, it is fading from my memory. A toy inventor gets mixed up in some mystery involving racing and... um... wow, I honestly cannot remember more and I read this 48 hours ago. The romance is with a woman whose sole characterization is that she's American. The only parts I remember are the toys, which are cool, and an action sequence in the toy workshop.
My quest to read more self-published books is mostly demonstrating to me that there is often no difference in quality between them and traditionally published books. In fact, in certain genres, it is much easier to find more ambitious or unusual books, of equal literary quality, in self-publishing.

I am tempted to say that this middle-grade book is more ambitious than most, but recently middle-grade seems to be getting more ambitious, while YA, overall, is getting less so.

It's divided into three timelines, which bleed into each other from fairly early on. In modern times, American Meredith is sent away from her beloved pregnant Lipizzan horse and her mother, who is recovering from cancer, to accompany her archaelogist aunt on a dig in Egypt. In ancient Egypt, Meritre, a singer in the temple of Amon, worries about her pregnant mother and the pharoah's daughter, who is sick with a mysterious plague. And in a cyberpunk future that has cured most diseases, Meru pursues her missing mother into a secret quarantine zone.

This novel reminded me of a childhood favorite, Mary Stolz's Cat in the Mirror, which also contrasted dual timelines, of the same soul reincarnated in ancient Egypt and modern New York. Tarr's book is more complex and ambitious. The three timelines are not merely compared and contrasted and paralleled, but directly affect each other.

The book starts a little slow, probably due to having to set up three plot lines rather than one, but becomes quite a page-turner by about the one-third mark. The themes are grief, times changing and times staying the same, the inevitability of death, and the equal inevitability of life going on: reincarnation, and birth, and life itself.

Satisfying and complex. I especially liked the pets of the three girls: a horse, a cat, and a half-insubstantial alien creature.

Note: The author is a friend, so I'm probably not that objective.

Living in Threes
Panelists: Rachel Manija Brown, Cora Anderson, Janni Lee Simner

Please forgive or correct any errors made in these notes. They were typed quickly and in shorthand, and I made them legible and comprehensible as best I could. But they are not 100% complete or accurate.

R: What was your introduction to the idea of companion animals?

J: Pern! And imaginary friends when I was growing up

C: The She-ra horse! When I was six, I had an imaginary friend who was a winged unicorn named Starlight with a rainbow mane, who could turn invisible and go to school with me. Oh, and Pern also.

R: Dragonsong I used to think up lists of names ending in -th. I mostly had blue and green dragons - the sidekick dragons. I always liked the sidekick characters. Also, I used to tame wild animals when I was a kid. You can tame a feral cat in about six months, if you’re patient.

R: What is the appeal of a companion animal (telepathic or not)?

R: I was obsessed with animals, and you get into an emphatic empathic communion when you sit for hours with feral cats. Telepathy goes right to the heart of that. Also, there’s a powerful draw in the idea of a creature that can understand you perfectly. At least, there is when you’re as a kid.

C: There’s something about creatures that not only understand you but love you regardless. Pern dragons never say 'fuck this noise, I'm outta here,' no matter what you do). McCaffrey has said Pern is inspired by the feeling, as a five-year-old, of getting a pet. You want the pet to be a perfect friend, and it just wants to be a cat. It's what you want from a childhood pet, then a boy/girlfriend, that you can’t have. It’s the wish fulfillment that something can understand you completely.

J: As an outcast child with no close friends until later, imaginary friends always were there for you and also wanted to do what you wanted. Best friend + subservience.

R: Should we jump into subservience?

C: The Heralds of Valdemar. In those, the Companion will in fact repudiate you and leave. The Pernese bond is unbreakable. In other ones, the animals don't have human morality. The Companions are metaphors for guardian angels; they won't condone serial killers. It’s a different type of relationship.

R: Don't forget they are sparkly magic white horses.

C: It’s the dream of a horse, not a real horse.

J: When I first rode a horse, I was disappointed. They weren't flying!

R: Judith Tarr said Anne McCaffrey based dragon Impression on watching humans with young horses. Of course a real horse is much more rebellious.

C: And can't talk.

J: But then you can believe they understand you perfectly. If they can’t talk they can’t contradict that feeling.

R: Going back to the idea of companions as metaphors for other relationships…

J: Childhood wish fulfillment animals. I get much less interested when it becomes metaphors for adult relationships, but fiction seems more interested in that.

R: Romantic relationship with everything but the sex... and sometimes they do include sex, hopefully not with the animal. The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik has dragons in the Napoleonic wars. Those dragon-human relationships are very much like a good marriage, complete with falling outs, but if the humans have sex, it doesn’t affect the dragons, and vice versa.

C: I've read the first book - that's the one where the relationship is seriously romantic. Another rider treats his dragon as an aircraft, and the dragon just wants to be loved. The rider gives it more baubles and thinks that’s all it needs. It’s classic unrequited love, complete with pining.

J: Most bondings happen with adolescence. It’s a stand in for coming of age/romance.

R: Before the panel we were talking about Ariel, by Stephen Boyett. It’s maybe not that good of a book objectively, but it’s interesting. The hero is a teenage boy in a post-apocalyptic world where technology has been replaced by magic. He bonded with his unicorn when he was twelve, when the book starts he’s nineteen. The virgin mythology is real. They fight sometimes. It’s definitely a romantic relationship. But he can't have sex with anyone, woes. At the end he does, and the unicorn leaves. It’s clear that unicorns are better than sex.

C: And then there's Pern, where you have to have sex. [Audience indicates that they’ve almost all read Pern.] When the dragons do it, so do you. NO EXCEPTIONS!

J: You are forced to the dragon’s schedule. How do they feel when the humans are still at it?

R: The Pern books actually mention that. I think it was meant as id wish fulfillment, but it comes across as problematic, McCaffery used just enough realism that it seems creepy.

C: She's said in interviews that these are not romantic relationship, but in the books, the dragon’s partners are almost always the humans’ partners. So, you start getting sex = love. It makes the concept of choice more problematic.

J: Also one-sided.

R: Pern has very contradictory canon. The dragons are color-coded by gender. Green dragons are always ridden by men, and they’re always female. The only dragons with female riders are gold, and they’re extremely rare. So most dragon-mating would also involve men having sex with men. But it took 10 books for McCaffrey to be explicit about that.

C: I totally didn't notice that when I was nine.

R: I think the dragon mating is meant to be the wish-fulfillment of being utterly swept away by passion. It’s an appealing fantasy, but the execution highlights the creepy aspects: rape is love

C: There’ve been thousands of discussions about this. There’s the 70s trend of romance novels that start with rape. One theory is that in society where it's not OK for women to want to have sex, it's an out so that you don't feel like a “slut.” [Sarcasm scare quotes.] It can be a safety net if you don't own your own desire. Is the dragon mating flight the same thing? “It wasn't me, it was the dragon!”

R: Animals are close to nature, so it may also be the romanticized idea of that. You don’t have to worry about social restrictions. Let’s just all bone!

J: Do any books go the other way? Where the animals and people have to discuss whether they want to have sex?

C: Arrows of the Queen, sort of. A girl is bonded to stallion. Sex is not stigmatized and they are not compelled to have sex when the other, but they can tell. “Could you warn me next time? I'm in the middle of something, and then really?” They negotiate the timing.

R: The C. J. Cherryh Finisterre novels. (Rider at the Gate) We should discuss these more when we get to parodies and dark takes. On this planet, animal life is telepathic and empathic, and can overwhelm humans. Certain people can bond with night horses and put up mental shields. Sex transmits both ways. But it’s not overpowering, you can go with it or not. There’s one scene where the rider wants sex, and the horse is bored.

C: If your companion animal is comparable intelligence to you, what does it mean that the human is the decider?

J: Except in Valdemar.

C: It’s not always the case, but most often. Dragons have no choice in Pern. They have to do what they are told to do, no exceptions.

J: A Swiftly Tilting Planet. There’s a flying unicorn and a boy; neither are making solo decisions.

Audience: In Pern they are bonded, but choices are built into the environment

C: In Temeraire, dragons are human-level smart but subservient. Later in the series they start trying to get voting rights.

R: In other parts of that world dragons are equal to humans, or even superior.

R: Wolf companions are interesting because authors tend to use older research that turned out to be incorrect. The concept of the alpha wolf comes from wolf behavior in zoos. In the wild, the wolf pack is actually a family: a breeding male, a breeding female and pups. It’s not about constant fighting for dominance or rape.

J: A happy family of wolves. I want to read that.

C: Ya'll can talk about sex, I'm talking about Jhereg. It’s got a snarky flying lizard. AND IT’S AWESOME. It’s extraordinarily loyal, but will tell you that you're stupid. It’s much more realistic, like real friends. Not a creepy “I love you forever and everything you do is awesome.”

J: So you need your perfect friend companion, and your companion who will give you advice and call you out.

A: Sabriel: Mogget and the Destructible Disreputable Dog.

R: A kind of subversive version is Diana Wynne Jones’ Dogsbody. Who is whose companion? Sirius the Dog Star is a powerful being in the form of a tiny dog. It’s told from dog’s point of view, and the girl is actually called a “companion.”

C: Other books where the animal is the POV character?

J: Maybe the Valdemar short stories?

A: The Princess and the Bear

A: Traveller (Not fantasy.)

C: Does the bond need to be magical? I was explaining to my mother-in-law what I was doing at Sirens and since she doesn’t read fantasy, I explained what a bond animal was. She is blind and has a guide dog, and asked whether her guide dog was a ‘bond animal.’

J: Even in fiction it’s not always a magical bond, now that you mention it.

R: Sure. Pern is what first comes to mind, but Robin McKinley is next. She has very emotional relationships with non-magical bonded animals. She also has service animals. If you look at Deerskin and The Hero and the Crown, there are points where the heroine is badly wounded or sick, and her horse or dog acts as her service animal.

J: In Tamora Pierce’s books, everyone ends up with animals. They’re not always magical.

Audience: Have you read the Mountain's Call series by Judith Tarr, with the horses? (The Mountain's Call; under a pseudonym.) I loved Pern, but not so much for the sex issues. I read Valdemar, but the companions a bit too much – it’s a great relationship if you fall in line. In Tarr’s series, she really nailed the perfect horse relationship. No one is in charge. There are Gods in horses bodies, but they act like horses.

J: Tarr has a YA book, House of the Star, with magical horses. [Under a pseudonym.] The protagonist asks the horses why they need humans. The horse says humans can think around corners.

Audience: No one was better than anyone else. No subservience.

J: You get something bigger than the sum of either.

C: Question time!

Audience: Friendships vs. Partnership? Dealing with Dragons books.

R: I didn't think of those because I would think of them more as two characters, not an animal companion.

C: In those, the human is the companion animal.

Audience: Back to sex! There are books with deep romantic but non-sexual bonds with animals. Everyone avoided using the word asexual. Is that conscious, that the human is in an asexual relationship? Or is it just bestiality avoidance?

C: In most examples the characters do have sex, just not with each other. I hadn’t considered the idea of bond animals as asexual relationship. That’s a good thing to think about.

R: Yeah, it’s interesting. I didn’t think of it because the partners are usually sexual, but with others.

J: That would be a good opportunity for exploration.

A: It could be a model of an asexual partnership.

A: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes, is a book where you only get a companion animal if you were bad. If people saw it, they knew you did something wrong.

R: We didn't get a chance to talk about it, but there’s a little subgenre where the animal companion is a part of you, a manifestation of your soul. Zoo City actually had a little take on The Golden Compass included as a fake academic paper.

Audience: There’s the Firekeeper series. (Wolf Captured (Firekeeper)) Would that count as companion animals? Girl raised by wolves. She can't remember who she is. One of the wolves is her best friend. They even have thoughts of 'if we were the same species, we'd be together' but it's not weird. They can speak, but not telepathically; the way wolves speak. Is that a companion animal?

J: Raised by wolves is a trope on its own.

Audience: She thinks of herself as a wolf. When she’s found by humans, she insists she is a wolf. Her relationship with the wolf does become romantic but not sexually. It’s an example of a romantic asexual relationship.

J: There’s a wide range of ways of dealing with this. It hasn't been explored enough.

R: If ya'll go write it, there are lots of places to explore.

J: The animals are always the good guys.

R: No! If you want to see evil companion animals, read Sheri Tepper’s Grass. The companion horse are evil aliens. The Cherryh books I mentioned earlier have a parody of the special girl with a special bond. It doesn't go very well.

Audience: Recommends Yuletide fics that were dark interpretations of Valdemar.
On the tiny island of Thisby, killer carnivorous water horses emerge from the ocean every fall to eat people and gallop along the beach. The inhabitants of the island capture some of the horses, train them all year, and then race them along the beach for a huge cash prize to the winner. Often at least one rider gets eaten during the race, or ridden into the water and drowned, for the water horses are killers, never fully tame, and always desperate to return to the sea.

I adore this premise. All else aside, it's not "my vampire/werewolf/zombie boyfriend" or "I kill demons/ghosts/robots" or "post-apocalyptic cannibalism/rape/vampirism" or "the government controls the color of your eyes/skin/shoelaces." So huge points for being different. I read this despite getting too bored to even finish Stiefvater's previous book which I tried, Ballad. The Scorpio Races is much better than that one. But, ultimately, it's more ambitious than successful.

It's told from two POVs. One is of a boy, Sean, who works for an eeeeeevil stable owner and has ridden the same water horse to victory five times over. Corr, the water horse, is the only thing Sean loves, since his father was eaten by a water horse during the races and his mother died. The other is Puck, a girl, who loves Thisby and is an orphan after her parents were drowned by water horses. Her brother decides to move to the mainland to find work. Desperate to keep him home, Puck decides to be the first girl ever to ride in the Scorpio Races.

This is very atmospheric, and I love the killer horses. But it's atmospheric in a vague, wifty way that detracts from rather than adds to the story. What country is Thisby in? When is the story set? Are there magical creatures everywhere else, or just in Thisby? There's not enough detail to tell. The supporting characters, apart from the two eeevil ones and the water horses, are also vague. Periodically someone would get eaten by a horse, and I'd always think, "Wait, who was that?"

While Sean is riding Corr, Puck decides to ride her own regular horse, Dove, because the water horses are too dangerous. No one has ever done this before, but there's no rule against it. I feel bad complaining about a plot point which wasn't the obvious way to go, but the obvious way (have Puck ride a deadly water horse) would have worked much better. Or even have Puck ride her own horse because her own horse is SO badass and special that she can stand up to the water horses.

The problem is, Puck's horse is not only a regular horse, but not even a super-special Black Stallion type horse. Just a fairly fast mare who is terrified of the water horses, which could easily kill her and very well might. It seems cruel for Puck to subject her horse to the races under those circumstances. Also, if a regular horse always had a chance of winning (since it's more obedient than the water horses) why aren't people riding regular horses in the Scorpio Races all the time?

This plot choice makes Puck look cowardly and selfish, introduces a plot hole, and deprives the reader of the fun of watching Puck struggle to master a deadly water horse. The last storyline is much of the reason why I wanted to read the book, and you never see it - Sean has already thoroughly tamed his own water horse. Normally I like "ordinary person squares off against the special people" stories, but in this case, that was less satisfying than the more standard plotline would have been.

Also, the race itself is a very small part of the book. Tons of build-up, very quick climax.

I did like aspects of the book, and it's certainly different. Some individual scenes are excellent. But for me, it was too much promise and not enough delivery.

The Scorpio Races
Once again, it has been made abundantly clear that female sf writers get less respect, less reviews, and less sales than male sf writers. In response, I’d like to take the meme going around (in honor of Joanna Russ) and give it a bit more content.

The original meme is a basic list, available here, which simply shows which writers you're familiar with.

My version: Drop the authors you’ve never read to the bottom. For the remainder, discuss or rec at least one of their books with at least one sentence of explanation about why you do or don’t like it. Ask your readers to tell you about the authors you’ve never read.

Eleanor Arnason. Ring of Swords. A first-contact story involving a race of furry aliens, hwarhath, with a strictly gender-segregated society. The alien culture is wonderfully detailed, unusual but not gratuitously bizarre, and it captivated me. The plot is fairly standard, but the characterization and prose style is good, and oh, those aliens!

Octavia Butler. Wild Seed is an exceptionally well-characterized and thoughtful novel set largely in Africa, about the multi-generational relationship and battle between two people whose mutant abilities make them effectively immortal. Most easily available in the compilation Seed to Harvest, but note that while it stands on its own and ends hopefully, the loosely related sequels are really depressing. Click her tag for more reviews.

Joy Chant. Only read one of hers, and was not enormously impressed. Click her tag to read the review.

Suzy McKee Charnas. I’m a fan of hers. All else aside, she made me read a horse bestiality book – and like it! Her books are all extremely different from each other, and several of the ones long out of print are back, either in paperback or Kindle, such as the unsentimental The Vampire Tapestry, the moving southwestern fantasy Dorothea Dreams (Heirloom Books), and the genuinely epic post-apocalyptic feminist quartet beginning with The Slave and The Free: Books 1 and 2 of 'The Holdfast Chronicles': 'Walk to the End of the World' and 'Motherlines'. For the latter, warning for upsetting content and amazingly non-gratuitous bestiality. If you can get through the first one, they get steadily less depressing and more hopeful as they go along. Click her tag for more reviews.

C. J. Cherryh. I love Cherryh, bizarre prose style and all. No one captures paranoia, sleep deprivation, and alien thought processes quite like she does, which makes reading her books a disconcerting yet immersive experience. I often have to plow through the beginning before I get sucked in, but I am immensely rewarded when I do. My favorites are Cyteen (you can skip the stultifying prologue to get to the juicy emotional and psychological dynamics between the clone slaves and their co-dependent owners), and the weird and wonderful duology Rider at the Gate (Nighthorse, Book 1) and Cloud's Rider, which is both revisionist of and glories in the tropes of the companion animal story, set on a planet where all the animal life is telepathic, and humans must huddle in enclaves protected by the bonded riders of native “horses,” lest they be driven insane. Click her tag for more reviews.

Diane Duane. I’m a huge fan of her, from her marvelous Star Trek novels suffused with a sense of wonder, to her great original fantasy. She can be uneven, but her better work is fantastic. So You Want to Be a Wizard and Deep Wizardry (The Young Wizards Series, Book 2) are still wonderful (the sequels are uneven), and I will never stop pushing her adult fantasy “Tale of the Five” books, which are charming and lovely and have dragons and polyamory and battles and shapeshifting and very cool magic, and make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. (Note: warm fuzzies notwithstanding, the second book contains a non-gratuitous, plot-essential scene of child sexual abuse.) Also, you have to click this just to see the most hilariously inappropriate cover in the history of anything: The Door Into Fire (The Tale of the Five #1). Click her tag for more reviews.

ETA: I have been tipped off that "Tale of the Five," several of the Young Wizards books, some uncollected short stories and an original fantasy novel I never heard of before are all available now in e-book form, DRM-free and for anyone in any country to read, here.

Mary Gentle. I either love or hate her books, which vary widely in tone and subject matter. Her completely engrossing A Secret History: The Book Of Ash, #1 (one book split into four due to length), is an alternate history/science fiction/steampunk/war story, about a medieval woman mercenary on a very, very strange journey, featuring stone golems, incursions from the future into the past (and vice versa), a Carthage that never fell and where the sun never shines, and a whole lot of pigs. Dark and violent but not depressing, and laced with black comedy. It might well have been hailed as one of the essential classics of the field had it been written by a man and had a male protagonist: in terms of ambition, scope, and cutting-edge ideas, it’s up there with Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.

Authors I’ve never read, A-G: Lynn Abbey, Moyra Caldecott, Jaygee Carr, Jo Clayton, Candas Jane Dorsey, Phyllis Eisenstein, Sally Gearhart, Dian Girard, Eileen Gunn. If you’ve ever read anything by any of them, please discuss in comments.
Please reminisce, fondly or not, about any of these, or other books read in childhood, especially if they seem to have, deservedly or undeservedly, vanished from the shelves. I'd love to hear about non-US, non-British books, too.

[Poll #1720139]
Please reminisce, fondly or not, about any of these, or other books read in childhood, especially if they seem to have, deservedly or undeservedly, vanished from the shelves. I'd love to hear about non-US, non-British books, too.

[Poll #1720139]
The battle of Orangutan vs. Apocalypse was very, very tough. I'm not sure the current results were really statistically significant. Nevertheless, Apocalypse wins and goes on to the next round.

Once I shook up the brackets, "shoot your rabid dog" easily trounced "shoot your veggie-eating deer."

Because I added a new contestant in the last round and so ended up with an odd number of finalists, the winner of the Paterson entry is now going up against another newbie which I forgot to add last time, Sounder.

Death, death, mutilation, madness, and more death, but no blindness unless you count Sounder losing an eye along with half his face to a shotgun blast )
I meant to do standard "winner of # 1 faces winner of # 2" bracketing, but was forced to shake it up as the contenders in the "You have to shoot your beloved pet" category tied. Also, I added a couple that I forgot last time. Katherine Paterson now has her own category!

Dead kittens, blind ponies, and evil puppeteers )
rachelmanija: (Emo Award: Shinji agony)
( Feb. 14th, 2008 12:59 pm)
In honor of The Anime Ewo Awards, I present the YA Agony Awards! Voting by rounds. Expect spoilers, though honestly these books are not exactly surprising, ie, the dog dies.

Please argue for your favorites or nominate others in comments.

Dead dogs, dead moms, and the death of the universe )
Before I begin ragging on this book, I should note that although I cannot call it good, it's pretty entertaining. I would not hesitate to recommend it for salon reading, as long as you can either call up your inner twelve-year-old at will or else enjoy a good inner snark-fest.

Also, it is very heartfelt-- very, very, very heartfelt-- and was apparently written at a time when very few gay characters ever appeared in fantasy, let alone lengthy pleas for gay rights, so I give Lackey major points for that. Even though, out of all the gay men I've ever met, and given my history with theatre, the entertainment industry, gay rights, and AIDS education, I've met quite a few, I have never met anyone who resembled any of Lackey's gay men.

I now present Vanyel in fifteen minutes!

Vanyel: I am a sensitive, gorgeous, and musical young man. Why is everyone so mean to me? Woe! Did I mention that I have fabulous dress sense and exquisite silver eyes?

(Vanyel’s father sneers)

(Vanyel’s brother jeers)

(Vanyel’s evil martial arts instructor breaks Vanyel’s arm)

Vanyel’s father: I’m sending you off to your butch aunt’s school. Maybe she’ll make a man of you. If that’s even possible.

Vanyel: I think I’ll wear my taupe breeches with my eggshell shirt. Oops, almost forgot: woe!

Tylenol Tylendel: Hi, I’m a gorgeous young student of your butch aunt’s and I am incredibly gifted at magic and I have a telepathic horsie. Also, I’m gay. Are you gay too?

Vanyel: Dude, I think I am!

Tylenol Tylendel: Excellent! Let’s be gay together!

Everyone at Vanyel’s butch aunt’s school: Vanyel is sensitive, gorgeous, delicate, musical, misunderstood, and a fashion plate. He owns the complete catalogue of Judy Garland on remastered CD. I am totally shocked that he’s gay, even though every other gay character in this book also fits that description! However, there is nothing wrong with being gay! Have fun, boys!

And then there is woe, and also aromatherapy )
You have to love a writer who spends about half a book setting up a climactic race between the Black (backed by his true love owner Alec Ramsey) and Satan (the Black's son, backed by his trainer, Henry), and then has the race cancelled and all the horses quarantined when one of them drops dead from swamp fever, in order to have them whisked out into the mountains so the climactic race can occur as they race for their lives to outrun a deadly forest fire. That's The Black Stallion and Satan. There's also the really quite strange twist in which the comic Italian Tony volunteers his horse Napoleon as the guinea pig to test the blood of Satan and The Black, and a lovely little moment at the end when Alec lets Henry keep his illusions.

I really hope that there is a better test for swamp fever now than injecting a healthy horse with the blood of a possibly infected horse, and then waiting to see if the healthy horse dies.

The Black Stallion Revolts is the one with amnesia, caused by the second plane crash and about the fifth serious vehicular accident in the series. If I was Alec, I would never travel except on horseback.

The Black feels his wild oats and tries to kill Satan; Alec decides to let him run wild on an enormous ranch for a month to get it out of his system; Alec leaves his ID with Henry; the co-pilot gives the Black a bucket of ice water, which gives him colic, which makes him go berserk and causes the plane to crash-land; the Black runs off and kills a bull moose; Alec hits his head, gets amnesia, and stows away in a truck; Alec wakes up with no ID, a wad of blood-stained money, no memory, and everyone talking about an escaped criminal who looks just like him; saves the life of a horse an evil guy named Cruikshank was trying to drag to death behind his truck; and gets a job as a cowboy on a ranch. Where he finds the Black! And feels the bond! But he still thinks he's a criminal! And so is afraid to ride the Black in a race when the ranch owner wants him to, because he might be recognized and arrested! Woe!

If I was Mrs. and Mr. Ramsey, by now I would stop worrying any time my son disappeared and was presumed dead. This is about the sixth time. If the Black is with him, he'll be OK.

View on Amazon: Black Stallion and Satan

The Black Stallion Revolts
I went to a used bookshop yesterday and picked up this, The Black Stallion and Satan (the one with the forest fire), The Black Stallion's Filly, and The Black Stallion Revolts (the one where Alex gets amnesia. Hmm, which to read next...?

In this, the third Black Stallion book, the Black is still in Arabia in the care of Really Long Named Arab Sheikh. RLNAS keeps his promise and sends Alec the Black's first foal, a black colt with a white diamond on its forehead. Alec is thrilled, but the colt, whom he names Satan, is not just wild, but vicious, malicious, and directs his considerable intelligence to the cause of harming everything in his sight. In the course of the book, Satan makes a determined effort to kill not only Alec and Henry, but the comic Italian stablekeeper's old horse Napoleon and Alec's father's dog.

I like that Farley does not make Satan glamorously dangerous, but a disturbingly disruptive influence: the colt is enormous, everyone is afraid of him, and the difficulty of breaking him leads Henry into a pretty dark place. (At one point Alec accuses Henry of beating Satan with a chain!) Alec does manage to tame him, of course, but Satan never loves him like the Black loved him.

Races: 2

Aliens: 0

Rabid vampire bats: 0

Vehicular accidents: 0

Apocalypses: 0

Dramatic training sequences: At least 5

Injuries requiring hospitalization and/or bed rest: 3, including the dog's.
It's the one with the aliens. [ profile] matociquala was right on the money when she said that Walter Farley is his own crackfic.

A boy named Steve whose black hair distinguishes him from Alec Ramsey, whose hair is red, previously discovered Skull Azul Island and its secret hidden valley containing Flame, the wild red stallion, and other purebred Arabian horses in The Island Stallion, which I haven't yet read. He's back visiting Flame when an alien spaceship containing two alien tourists lands on Skull Azul Island, just as Steve is daydreaming about racing Flame-- something which he can never do without revealing the secret of Skull Azul Island and ruining everything for everybody. But lucky for him, one of the aliens just happens to be a big fan of horses and horse-racing, and is eager to set it up, with a magic bridle for Flame and liquid disguise for Steve, so Flame can race in an international contest and then safely return to Skull Azul Island without anyone ever learning where he came from.

No, really. No, really.

At first I thought, "Wow, Farley hates to use a normal plot device when a totally insane one would do." But the aliens, who can turn into birds or men in suits or pretty much anything else, turn out to be not just a handy device for getting Flame to race, but integral to the story-- and their arrival at Skull Azul Island is not a coincidence.

It's still kind of a whacky story, but it's a thematically coherent and poignant, if slightly preachy, whacky story, which is more than I had expected.

Boggle on Amazon: The Island Stallion Races (Black Stallion)
Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses. A set of very brief essays on the five senses (organized by sense) and related matters, ie, the section on taste has essays on chocolate and vanilla. This makes amusing bedside reading, but Ackerman's overheated writing style and precious persona get tiresome if you read more than a few at once. She's constantly getting manicures and leaping into scented baths-- I mean, even more than one would expect given the subject matter. Also, some of the information she presents is wildly oversimplified or even wrong-- not totally off-base, but not quite right. (Sorry, I can't recall examples off-hand.) Not bad, but Sharman apt Russell does this sort of thing with more wit, less swooniness, and much better attention to accuracy.

Walter Farley, The Black Stallion's Blood Bay Colt, in which the Black sires a son, Bonfire, on a harness-racing mare. Horse-knowledgeable readers, how likely is it that the son of a race horse would do harness racing? That's the excuse to include this book in the Black Stallion series, anyway, because it has no other connection. Harness racing, in which horses pull light carriages, is traditionally done at county fairs, but times are changing and it's starting to become a big sport with big money involved. The old harness racer who owns the colt is violently opposed to this, but it's not a clear-cut issue.

This entry is exceptionally well-written and well-characterized, centering around a young man who cares for and races the colt, and his complicated relationships with several father-figures from the harness-racing world. The young man is your basic reader stand-in, but the adults are complex, prickly, sometimes unlikable characters who grow and change and reveal more facets of themselves as the story goes on. One of them is a middle-aged woman who races her own filly against Bonfire in the climax. Let me repeat: there is a middle-aged female jockey! She's sympathetic-with-flaws, like the other adults in the story.

This one has no vampire bats, aliens, apocalypses, or other insane plot elements. It's not that kind of story.
Also know as, "The One With The Rabid Vampire Bat." I am using this icon because it's the closest I have to a deadly rabid vampire bat icon.

This is the first sentence: Like a giant bat the transatlantic plane flew through the night, using sensitive antennas to find its way.

Bats have antennas? Or is that antennae?

The title of the first chapter, by the way, is "Bat 29167." From page two: It [the plane] could now be seen clearly and the name on its side read Bermuda Atlantic Transport. On its vertical tail fin were the large initials:

Alec, the trainer Henry, and miscellaneous crew members are transporting the Black and other horses by air when they get caught in a storm, lose their way, and crash at sea. The humans get on a lifeboat, and the horses swim away. While searching for land, the humans are attacked by sharks and the Black by a giant squid. But the humans make it to an inhabited island, and the horses to Skull Azul Island, site of Sekrit Government Experiments, alien visitations (in other books-- they don't turn up in this one), and the wild red stallion, Flame.

Alec and Henry immediately begin searching for the Black. They follow reports of a wild black horse, which leads them to the discovery that a deadly rabid vampire bat is on the island. A lengthy info-dump on bats, vampire bats, and rabies ensues, sprinkled with an impassioned defense of bats as a species, which left me in inappropriate hysterics.

The policeman smiled sympathetically. "I'm afraid you're prejudiced against all bats," he said, "And you shouldn't be."


"Did you know that bats were flying millions of years before our own race appeared on Earth?"

And so forth. Alec and Henry go to Bat Cave (no, really) to look for the vampire bat. It's there, it attacks Alec, it escapes, they find the wild black horse dead of rabid vampire bat bite, and charter a boat, Night Owl to look for The Black on surrounding islands. But little do they know that in the cabin of the Night Owl slept the vampire. ... He slept comfortably, awaiting the coming of night when he would set out once more to feed on another's blood.

Meanwhile, on Skull Azul Island, which appears to be a featureless dome of rock but which contains a secret passageway to an island paradise within, The Black and Flame are having it out over who gets the mares. But when Alec and the vampire bat boat get close to the island, the bat attacks Alec, then flees to Azul Island, where it attacks the horses. At this point we get a bit of the vampire bat's POV: Finally, the drive within him turned to aggressiveness, and he was no longer able to quell his mounting excitement.

A lengthy rabid vampire bat vs. The Black and Flame battle ensues. Let's just say that by the end, everyone lives happily ever after. Except the bat.

Boggle on Amazon: The Black Stallion and Flame
I read a bunch of this series when I was a kid-- there are 25 of them-- but not all, and I must have missed The Black Stallion Returns because it didn't seem at all familiar, and I am pretty sure I would have remembered the ending, if nothing else.

These were much as I remembered them: pulpish but evocative writing about a boy and his horse, the joy of riding and communing with a powerful and half-wild animal, and enough races, troubles with registration papers, and thrilling adventures to make up a story upon which to hang the overarching point of the series, which is the love between Alec Ramsey and his stallion, The Black. (Shut up, it is totally platonic.)

The best part of the first book is the first half, in which teenage Alec survives a shipwreck by hanging on to the halter of the wild black stallion the ship was transporting, and whom he'd earlier tried to befriend by leaving sugar in his stall. The Black swims to a desert island, where Alec manages to feed them both by drying seaweed, and tames The Black and learns to ride him. The second half, where they are rescued and Alec brings The Black back to America, breaks him to saddle, and races him in a test match between the two fastest horses in the country, is a bit of a come-down after the primal desert island scenes.

The Black is absent from much of The Black Stallion Returns, for his original owner, an Arab chieftain, shows up to claim him. Alec offers to buy The Black, but the chieftain refuses to sell and taes him away. Alec manages to get the owner of one of the horses The Black beat in the test match to take him and The Black's trainer to Arabia, to seek out the chieftain, Abu Ja Kub Ben Ishak, and no I am not going to type that out every time I mention him, so they can buy some of his other horses as breeding stock, since he's obviously got an excellent breeding program. This does not square with the fact that The Black appeared to be a captured wild horse in the first book, but whatever.

Arabian adventures follow, as Alec and company get lost in the desert and have to drink water vomited up by a dying camel, get mixed up in a complicated scheme involving a feud between two Bedouin tribes, get shot at, get tortured, see significant Arabian medallions, are instrumental in returning a house-boy with a significant birth mark to his rightful place in a Bedouin tribe, and, of course, Alec races The Black.

This is kind of Orientalist-- it was written in 1945-- but I prefer the "They are a noble race, terrible in battle yet bound by honor" Western narrative of the Middle East to the current one of "They are a race of evil suicide bombers."

The first book also assumes that women can't ride and have no interest in horses, but the second one introduces a tough Bedouin princess who rides The Black's intended mate. (She hooks up with another Bedouin, not with Alec. I think Alec is still fourteen at that point.) The Black Stallion and the Girl includes two female jockeys, although one is unfortunately a bit of a Mary Sue of a free-spirited hippie girl and the other is hard as nails.

Fun stuff. I look forward to reading The Island Stallion, which I vaguely recall involves aliens or weird experiments or Atlantis or some other sf-nal elements, unless I'm totally hallucinating.

View on Amazon: The Black Stallion

The Black Stallion Returns


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