Friday, 14 September 2012
SUMMARY OF STORY
Tea seems to have everything: a gorgeous horse whom she is planning to compete on at high level, a great brother, fab friends. But emotional and family problems threaten her happiness, leading in turn to a terrible event which changes her life forever. As Tea struggles to cope with the aftermath she finds herself falling in love with her supportive step-cousin Jaden. But will this relationship help her come to terms with her problems or cause her even deeper hurt?
This blog was meant to be reserved for non-pony stories or adult books (both horsy and non horsy) so what is a young adult/teen horse story doing here? The answer is (as it is with so much in life!) sex. There’s a lot of it in the book and quite a bit of it in the review. Not really suitable for my more child friendly ponymadbooklovers blog!
If this book were a person my relationship with it would be a bit of a roller-coaster ride – going from a shaky start to a full-blown love affair (when I could not put the book down) but then degenerating into dissatisfaction as the honeymoon period wore off.
After reading the first few pages I thought oh dear typical modern teen horse novel. Heroine with a prodigious riding talent – check. 16 hand warmblood – check. Glam girlies discussing boys and looks – check. However, as I had heard good things about the book, I decided to read on. And I soon found that this book was in fact actually quite far-removed from the typical teen horse story. Under the veneer of the usual equine young adult story, everything was slightly off-key and out of kilter and this originality was for me the outstanding element of the book. The reader soon learns that though our heroine seems to live a perfect life, things are not as they first appear.
This is brought home devastatingly by the extremely shocking, but extremely well-written scene where Tea is beaten by her step-father after disobeying him. The reader is expecting a lecture or perhaps a temper outburst, but this is actual physical abuse. This amazing scene immediately takes the story to a new level. Throughout the book, the issue of physical abuse is explored deeply and sensitively, from both sides of the problem. Another theme which is explored at length is that of grief and depression. Tea’s experience of both is portrayed realistically and with compassion.
The writing is accomplished, the characters are for the most part realistic, and the dialogue is very good, with the interaction between the brother and sister perhaps the highlight .
So, with all these good points, why did my ardour for the book begin to fade?
It was when the horsy side of the story (incidentally realistic and authentic) began to be subsumed by the growing romance between Tea and Jaden. If only their relationship had stayed as a sub-plot to a main equine plot, my love affair with the book would have surely continued to until the end. As it was, the horsy side of things seemed to shrivel up and die under the all consuming shadow of the romance. At the same time so did my unadulterated passion for the story. I am actually using the relationship metaphor here for a purpose (it’s not just my literary conceit!) because far more than being a horse novel or a young adult story, this is in essence a romance not far removed from the old 'Mills and Boon' scenario. It should really have been called ‘Blaze of Passion’ rather than ‘Blaze of Glory.’
The relationship between Tea and Jaden actually starts off as an interesting and a refreshing backdrop to the horsy parts of the book. The growing obsession Tea starts to feel for Jaden is very well portrayed, as is the burgeoning closeness between them when Tea begins to share her pain with him. However as their relationship progresses from one-sided to mutual it begins to overtake the entire story. The ‘will they – won’t they?’ aspect of the pair's interactions becomes somewhat tedious. And the ever-lasting preamble to their first making love is drawn out longer than a period of Sting-style tantric sex. After a while it becomes like a session of eternal foreplay which goes on so long you start to lose interest and begin to think about what you are going to cook for dinner and if the curtains need cleaning or not. The reader longs to scream, For Heaven’s sake you two get the dirty deed over and done with!
I also felt the overly ‘gentlemanly’ approach of Jaden to sex was fairly unrealistic. In my experience men of that age have to be practically beaten off with sticks! (And no, that is not a metaphor!)
In other ways, however, Jaden is the typical Mills and Boon hero: gorgeous, rich, talented, with the usual beautiful girl rival to our heroine hovering in the background. He also shares that (for me at least) unendearing masterful streak which so many romantic heroes seem to possess. The scene where he picks Tea up and carries her out of the racing yard is pure (and the worst sort of) Mills and Boon, as is the initial intense dislike of the pair which soon blossoms into desire, after a myriad of misunderstandings and confusions.
I have read a lot of discussion about the unsavoury nature of the relationship due to the fact the pair are cousins (step-cousins not blood-related), or because of the age gap. However to me these issues are not as worrisome as the old-fashioned attitude to the gender dynamics between the pair. Throughout the story Jaden is almost always made out to be the one in the right, and Tea is slowly made to conform to his viewpoint. In just about every way he is dominant, with her becoming subservient. His mood swings and blowing hot and cold, his bossy overpowering behaviour and moralising are seen to be justified because they are the result of his caring for her, but although he gets away with unacceptable behaviour in this way, Tea is made to seem childish and irresponsible when she doesn’t behave perfectly. Supposedly it is Tea’s wild streak which attracts Jaden, but once he has her in his grasp he loses no time in trying to subdue it. This is perfectly illustrated by the way he keeps her under overly-tight wraps on the polo field. Even in their sexual relationship he is the one who calls the shots and decides when they will consummate their relationship, whilst Tea’s sexual needs are ignored. In some ways the heroines of the 1950s pony stories were more enlightened and independent than poor lovesick Tea. I can’t see the likes of Jill Crewe for example submitting to the will of Jaden! I don’t want to get too much on my feminist hobby horse here, but I feel it’s a shame that such old-fashioned attitudes to gender politics should be displayed in this day and age in a book aimed at teenage girls.
Because the relationship between Jaden and Tea dominates the book, there is a lot less horsy content than I would have liked, particularly as the novel appears to be marketed as a pony/horse story. This is a pity, as the equine parts of the book are very well done and, because of the author’s experience in the field, authentic. The polo aspect in particular is interesting, as it is not seen in too many horse stories. Unfortunately even most of the polo matches are portrayed more in terms of the relationship of Tea and Jaden than that between her and her horse. I feel that the book should have been marketed as a teen romance rather than a horse story; in that way the reader would have been more prepared for the turn the story takes.
As a romance and a study of teenage problems and issues the book is excellent. It is certainly far better written than the average teen pony story and has a much greater emotional depth than most. But as an actual horse story, for me it fails somewhat. Of course I am slightly biased against romances and if you love them, you will probably love this book too. Likewise a lot of teenage girls, full of hormones and romantic notions will probably devour the story hungrily. For those, like me, who don’t relish the Mills and Boon angle and are perhaps a bit more jaded, the relationship aspect of the book may pall a little. The fact that the book concentrates a lot on themes such as sex, drugs and physical abuse also makes this an unsuitable read for younger horselovers. Not that any of this is done in a salacious or tacky way, it must be added. However it does once again narrow the field of potential readers.
A sequel is apparently planned and one can only hope that with the first passion of her relationship with Jaden out of the way, Tea can get on with the really important stuff in life – horses! In that case I’d certainly be back to renew my affair with the books!
Sunday, 19 August 2012
My first book review on my new blog which I have set up for non-horsy and adult book reviews and anything else which is not really suitable for my child friendly Pony Mad Booklovers Blog!
Appropriately this book does not feature a single horse or pony (although it is written by the author of a number of children's horse stories - and she has somehow managed to shoehorn the words 'pony' and 'horses' into the text just to remind us that is her true calling in life!)
Also appropriate for a new start is the fact that this is not my normal sort of read. I am not really much of a 'girly' girl. I don’t understand the shoe thing at all and the conventional male heroes of romantic fiction really turn me off. Therefore I don’t normally read romances or woman’s fiction. I usually find them dull, shallow and formulaic.
However Maggie Dana’s excellent novel is none of these things. Although ostensibly a romance about a woman who rediscovers her first love later in life, there is far more to the book than those bare bones. The novel attempts to explore many interesting aspects of relationships, in particular how the act of falling in love can change your relationships with the other people around you. And, even more tellingly, how it can negatively affect your own personality as it is subsumed by the power of emotion. Most romances don’t even question the way that a woman can lose her own identity in trying to conform to what she feels the man in her life wants her to be. In fact in the worst of them there is still an out-dated belief that a woman should mould herself into a certain type in order to ‘win her man.’ In Maggie Dana’s story the heroine, Jill, does indeed change when re-united with her first love Colin: treating her friends badly, losing her independence, and becoming increasingly erratic in her behaviour. But the author forces her heroine to confront these changes and question what she is doing.
The book also explores other serious issues including psychological parental abuse and physical spousal abuse.
However despite having a depth few romances aspire to, and tackling weighty issues many authors in the genre would shy away from, this book is not at all dull and depressing. On the contrary there is a light humourous touch throughout which balances out the serious aspects of the story and makes the book an easy pleasurable read. Humour ranges from out and out slapstick to wry observation on the oddities of life.
This novel also has another string to its bow, being something of a mystery story too. No, we are not talking Miss Marple or Inspector Morse here. The mysteries within the story are far more subtle. Such as why Jill’s mother seems to despise her and what is the secret behind Colin’s relationship with Shelby? The sense of hidden secrets slowly unfolding keeps the reader turning the pages in a way a conventional romance perhaps would not. There are various twists and turns throughout the book and we are never sure whether the story will have the conventional romantic ending or nor. Even the final scene is ambiguous and keeps us guessing!
But perhaps my favourite aspect of the book is that it treats the older woman as both human and sexual. These middle-aged women are not content to fade into the background as the stock motherly older woman character. They have lives, careers and interests of their own. And yes, they have sex. Lots of it! (In fact I’m starting to think I am doing something wrong!) The sex is very well handled, neither too coy nor too blatantly ’Fifty Shades’ soft porn, and with a humour that makes it extremely realistic.
Anyone of a certain age knows that though bits may start to sag and wrinkles appear, we are all still young on the inside and never really change that much. I love how the author portrays this by skillfully blending snippets of the heroine’s teenage years with her present day life. Jill and her old friend Sophie’s behaviour as adults parallels the things they did as teenagers, giggling over men, spying on the ‘boys’ and even decorating sans clothing! I think making the older characters still appear young in this way gives the book appeal to all ages, not just those readers who are a similar age to the main characters.
It sometimes pays to move out of your comfort zone and I would certainly have missed out had I not ventured outside my normal horse related/thriller/fantasy territory to try this excellent novel. Whether or not you like romances, whether you are 19 or 90 - if you want to read a story which has a bit of depth, a lot of humour and will keep you turning pages (and who doesn’t?) then this is the book for you!
Painting Naked is available as a Kindle e-book on Amazon