Book Review: The Perfect Horse

Book Review: The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Perfect Horse

The year is 1945.  The war in Europe is almost over.  American troops learn that a stud farm in Hostau contains horses looted by the Nazis from all over Europe, including all the mares of the famous Lipizzaners of Austria, the pride of the Spanish Riding School.  Unless something is done to ensure the area is captured peacefully, the cream of Europe’s equine population will be at risk of destruction in the fighting.

There’s a huge problem standing in the way; Hostau is on the other side of the Czechoslovakian  border, where the U.S. Army has been forbidden to trespass.  Can the 2nd Cavalry convince command to make an exception in time?  Even if they do, can they pull it off with minimal bloodshed?

That mission is the centerpiece of this volume, but there’s considerable material both before and after it.  Author Elizabeth Letts is an equestrian herself, and it really shows in the descriptions of the bond between rider and mount.  There are also quite a few black and white illustrations that give context to the story.

One of the central figures of this history is Alois Podhajsky, introduced riding dressage for the Austrian team during the 1936 Berlin Olympics before taking the reins of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.  A great lover of horses, especially the Lipizzaner, he did what he had to do to preserve the horses and the riding school, even if it meant abandoning the school building to save the stallions.

On the American side, there’s Colonel Hank Reed, cavalry commander from the days when they had been horse soldiers (not that long before–it was 1942 when the U.S. decided to make their cavalry completely mechanized!)  He was fully aware of the value of what might be lost if Hostau was not captured without a battle, and was the one to order the mission.

But there are plenty of other humans involved.  Gustav Rau was Nazi Germany’s Master of Horse, and believed that he could breed a perfect horse, superior in battle, and destined to aid the Third Reich in conquering the world.  (Since he was a civilian and not involved in any war crimes against humans, he got off scot-free at the end of the war.  Information that has come out since has made his legacy more controversial.)

Rudolph Lessing was a German Army veterinarian who’d spent the first few years of the war fighting on the Eastern Front.  It wasn’t until he was pulled back to Occupied Poland that he realized just what atrocities were happening and that his country might not be the good guys in this conflict.

And of course General George S. Patton, America’s Fightin’est General, who sort of authorized the Hostau mission, in the Mission: Impossible sense.  “If you are captured or killed, Command will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”  He, too, was a man who appreciated a fine horse, and also helped out the stallions of the Spanish Riding School.

Of course, just capturing the stud farm didn’t actually make the horses safe, and they then had to be moved to better locations.  Some went home to the countries they’d been stolen from (and the Spanish Riding School exists to this day), others made the perilous sea voyage to America, and some found homes wherever they were.

There’s an epilogue section that details the final fates of the major figures in the story, both horses and men.  There are endnotes (including notes on when the sources used contradict each other), a bibliography and full index.

The book is movingly written and will be appreciated both by horse lovers and World War Two buffs.  There is some discussion of disturbing material, but this book should be suitable for senior high readers on up.

Older readers may be thinking, “wait, wasn’t there a Disney TV movie about this?”  Yes, there was.  The Miracle of the White Stallions was released in the early 1960s.  It was, of course, somewhat loose with the historical facts, but here’s the trailer.

Book Review: The Black Stallion Challenged

Book Review: The Black Stallion Challenged by Walter Farley

Alec Ramsay and his faithful trainer Henry Dailey are wintering in Hialeah, Florida, where they hope to race their prize horse, the Black Stallion.  Provided, of course, that the Black has fully recovered from the hoof injury he received some months back.  One day Alec receives a piece of fan mail asking for his help.  It seems that young Steve Duncan has a horse he’d like to race, a stallion named Flame…if he can convince the racetrack officials to let him.

The Black Stallion Challenged

Unbeknownst to Alec or Steve, Flame and the Black have met before, and feel a strong rivalry towards each other.  Plus, Steve needs to make a lot of money very quickly, in order to save Flame’s island home.  The stage is set for a thrilling match between the two great stallions!

This is the sixteenth in the Stallion series penned by Walter Farley, and the last that’s a straight-up horse racing story.   There’s some time compression involved; the first book, The Black Stallion, clearly takes place in 1940 when it was written, and this volume takes place in 1964, but the Black is most assuredly not twenty-four years older.

However, the main attraction of the series is less the plausibility of the setting (one book had aliens!) and more the detailed descriptions of horse care and racing, and Mr. Farley delivers well in this volume.  (Some details are different–the rules of horse racing have changed since the 1960s, let alone the 1940s.)  The final race in particular is exciting as the outcome is in doubt until the horses pass the finish line.

The Stallion series is nominally children’s books, so I should mention that there is an operation on an injured horse that may be too intense a scene for sensitive readers.  Several characters smoke; one specifically mentions that he neither smokes nor drinks alcohol for his health.  I am told there’s period racism and sexism in some of the volumes, but this one manages to avoid that.

The book starts slowly; a one-page letter gets stretched over an entire chapter in a manner that does not build suspense in the mind of anyone who read the back cover copy.  A couple of scenes stuff a lot of telling about the personalities of supporting characters in, rather than showing by their actions.  And to be honest, Alec, Henry and Steve are not deep characters.  (Steve’s a bit more of a hothead here than in his solo appearances.)

But all of that pales compared to the exciting race scenes and the bond between the riders and their horses.  The hardback edition with illustrations by Angie Draper may be hard to find, but there are inexpensive paperback reprints which you can probably get through interlibrary loan.  Recommended to young horse lovers and horse lovers young at heart.

And now, the trailer for The Black Stallion movie, starring Mickey Rooney as Henry Dailey.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GlZJ4wVLdA

Book Review: Headaches Can Be Murder

Book Review: Headaches Can Be Murder by Marilyn Rausch & Mary Donlon

Charles “Chip” E. Collingsworth III was supposed to become a neurosurgeon like his father and grandfather before him, but wasn’t suited to being a doctor, so dropped out of medical school.  Three failed marriages later and with his trust fund depleted, Chip wrote a crime novel about famed neurosurgeon John Goodman  investigating “the Cranium Killer” with the FBI, and casting two of his ex-wives as victims.  To his surprise, he found an agent willing to represent the manuscript, and it turned into a best-seller.

Headaches Can Be Murder

On a cross-country trip, Chip stumbled across an abandoned farmhouse in Turners Bend, Iowa, and decided that this would be a good place to write his second book in.   Except that he’s run out of ex-wives he wants to murder (his first wife was much nicer)  and that means he’s out of ideas.  Until one day he falls off a shed, and the ensuing bump on his head gives him a painful inspiration for a possible plotline.  As his real life and novel intertwine, can Chip survive long enough to finish the manuscript?

The gimmick in this book, the first in the Chip Collingsworth series, is that there are two stories unfolding simultaneously.  Chip lives his life in rural Iowa, and as things happen around him, he incorporates versions of them into Dr, Goodman’s quest to find out whether microchips inserted into people’s brains are turning them into killers.  Chip meets an attractive veterinarian, and Dr. Goodman meets an attractive FBI agent.  Chip adopts a golden retriever, and Dr. Goodman does as well.  Not all the things happening in Turners Bend are so benign, however, and Chip winds up doing some investigating himself.

One thing that amused me was Chip constantly being given suggestions on what kind of characters should be in his next book, which just happened to match the persons who suggest them.

The twin narrative approach is fun, but means that each story gets less character development.  I noticed quite a few spellchecker typos, which would be acceptable in the “fictional” chapters as Chip writes his drafts, but not so much in the “real world” ones.

There are a couple of sex scenes, and a bit of torture in the Goodman section.

Recommended for those wanting to read mysteries with an Iowa connection.

Book Review: Danger in the Dark

Book Review: Danger in the Dark by L. Ron Hubbard

Yes, it’s another of those L. Ron Hubbard reprints; thanks, discount bin!

This time, we have three fantasy stories, none of which have anything to do with the cover.  (It’s actually illustrating “Returned from Hell” by Steve Fisher.)

Danger in the Dark

“Danger in the Dark” is set in the Mariana Islands east of the Philippines.  Billy Newman was suckered into buying an island with a copra plantation.  Unfortunately, a series of disasters, including a smallpox plague, have come to Kaisan Isle, something the natives ascribe to the evil spirit Tadamona.  Billy naturally spurns this explanation as the foolish superstition it would normally be.  But this time, Tadamona is real, and it has a bone to pick with the arrogant white man….

While it’s a neat twist on the “superior white dude overcomes native superstition” plotline, it’s still pretty darn ethnocentric–only Billy and the half-white girl Christina are willing to do anything to thwart Tadamona, while the natives have decided to surrender completely to their unseen nemesis.  And the ending restores the “natural” superiority of white people.

“The Room” takes place somewhere in rural America.  Uncle Toby, the local veterinarian, has disappeared.  His nephew Joe has been tagging along on the rounds for years, despite his crippled leg, so starts filling in at doctoring animals.  Eventually, Joe becomes aware that the study he has inherited from Uncle Toby contains objects not of this Earth, and that might have something to do with his uncle’s disappearance.   Nothing is ever really explained, the story ends when Joe and his Aunt Cinthia disappear as well, gone no one knows where, and the house eventually burns down.  I had to look at the dates to see that it was not a poor attempt to imitate one of Ray Bradbury’s pastorals.   Mr. Hubbard’s style is not suited to this sort of story.

“He Didn’t Like Cats” is the tale of Jacob  Findley, an otherwise blameless fellow who doesn’t like felines.  One day a cat crosses his path, and a momentary impulse makes Jacob kick it–into traffic.  The incident quickly becomes an obsession, and it’s not clear whether the cat is taking supernatural vengeance, or if it’s just an overactive conscience, but Jacob will never sleep well again.   There’s some light comedy to stretch out the story as Jacob becomes the focus of a love triangle without ever grasping that fact.   Mr. Hubbard is a bit too heavy-handed with the humor.

There’s a preview of the next volume, “The Crossroads”, a glossary and the usual potted material.

This is easily the weakest example of Mr. Hubbard’s work I have seen in the Galaxy Press reprints; very skippable.

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