Books for the Saddle Bag

Books I want to buy and read:

Sometimes it’s tiresome when publishers try to ape a successful book by buying similar titles, but sometimes that policy opens the best of floodgates: suddenly writers get the chance to work on projects that would have been turned down as uncommercial till a forerunner proved otherwise. Laura Hillenbrand’s smash-hit Seabiscuit has opened the barn door for a whole series of new commissions and reissues of horse biographies, from William Nack’s Secretariat to Ruffian: Burning from the Start, Man O’War: A Legend Like Lightning, Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of the World’s Smartest Horse and The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation.

The latest is Sharon B Smith’s The Best There Ever Was, about Dan Patch, a harness racer from the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century who became America’s national pet. It grounds Dan Patch’s career against a time of rapid social, economic and technical change, as he moves, like every biographised horse since Dick and Black Beauty, from owner to owner.

And thanks to Mark Bond-Webster for alerting me to a book I missed in May. Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread is about showjumping in Australia in the rough and ready 1920s and a rider who is slowly paralysed after being struck by lightning. In the words of Alfred Hickling, reviewing for the Guardian:

The bush country of New South Wales is a tough, unforgiving landscape and Foal’s Bread turns out to be a tough, unforgiving book. But to her immense credit, Mears’s account of a terrible illness never becomes self-pitying or sentimental, while her galloping prose thrums to the rhythm of some perfectly constructed sentences: “The sound of horses’ hooves turns hollow on the farms west of Wirri.” The outlook may be pessimistic in the extreme, but you are unlikely to read a more courageous novel this year.

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