Women of “a certain age” grew up reading books by Walter Farley, who portrayed the horse world accurately and created exciting plots that were sometimes a little far-fetched, but very believable at the time. On the down side, the Black Stallion books were (with one exception) all about a boy, Alec. How we longed for horse books with girls as the main characters! There were none, unless you count the classics, Black Beauty and National Velvet. Since then, I’ve read and reviewed a lot of horse books for young readers and, sure enough, there are now plenty featuring girls. In fact, the pendulum has swung and boys are relegated to token roles in most books of this genre.
But, to my frustration, few contemporary horse books for YA and middle school readers are accurate, compelling, enlightening or memorable. Getting to the point, the books in Maggie Dana’s Timber Ridge Series are all that. Maggie gets everything right–characters, plot and the bond between girls and their beloved horses and each other. Even the boys are real, instead of tokens trotted through the story, and the boy-girl relationships are sweet, budding romances, not sexual encounters.
After discovering Keeping Secrets, the first book in the series, I knew I’d found a winner, and I happily gobbled up the next seven books. You will, too, if you’re a horse-loving female of any age. And if you’re an adult, you’ll buy these books for your daughters and your friends’ daughters. They’re not only entertaining, they carry a message you hope your children will “get”–that winning isn’t everything, that retaliation when wronged is not always the right answer, that you should always be faithful to your friends and that the horses always come first.
Without giving anything away, I can tell you that the series opens with Kate, who is staying with her aunt in Vermont while her father is researching butterflies in the Amazon. Kate takes a job as companion to Holly, who has been in a wheelchair since an auto accident that killed her father. Though there’s no physical damage to her spine, Holly has lost the use of her legs, which means she cannot ride her wonderful horse, Magician. Instead of being bitter, Holly is great fun, and she and Kate are instant friends. Holly’s mother, Liz, runs the stable at Timber Ridge, and is delighted that the girls get along so well. But Kate is keeping a dreadful secret (hence the name of the book, Keeping Secrets), which causes her to lie and say she’s afraid of horses. Angela, the barn’s bratty rich girl, treats Kate at first with scorn and then hatred when she finds out Kate can ride.
In Book Two, Racing Into Trouble, Kate is the only one allowed to ride the new horse in the barn, Buccaneer, which makes Angela jealous and even more determined to cause trouble for Kate, especially after she embarrasses herself in front of Kate and the new boarder, Jennifer. Holly is learning to walk again, and she and Kate are inseparable.
Don’t be put off by the glam cover of Riding for the Stars, Book Three in the series. Kate–an inveterate tomboy who is clueless about fashion, make-up and movie stars–will do anything to get the job of stunt double in the movie, Moonlight, that’s being filmed at Timber Ridge. Holly, like most teens, is gaga over the book and Nathan, the teenaged heartthrob who’s starring in the movie. Kate, who hasn’t even read the book, wants the job so she can earn the money to buy a horse of her own. Of course, Angela, whose mother can buy her any horse she wants, is keen to get the role and rub elbows with the stars. She’ll do some pretty underhanded things to get her way.
In Wish Upon a Horse, Book Four in the series, Kate’s wish comes true when she rescues a scruffy looking mare from the killers. But is this the horse of her dreams? Even her best friend, Holly, isn’t sure. Ever on the warpath when it comes to Kate, Angela insists that Kate’s horse is an embarrassment and should be banished from the barn. She enlists her mother’s help in this cruelty, and even spreads the rumor that the horse is stolen.
In Book Five, Chasing Dreams, things are going great for Kate and her horse, Tapestry, who turns out to be lovely and talented. Then her father returns from chasing butterflies in the jungle and prepares to take a job out West, which means Kate will have to sell Tapestry and leave her best friend, Holly. Angela conspires to get Kate in trouble—again—and Kate has no way to prove her innocence.
In Almost Perfect, Book Six, everyone at Timber Ridge is focused on making the team that will ride in the qualifier for the prestigious Festival of Horses, where scouts from the U.S. Equestrian Team will be looking for promising young riders. Angela and her mother will do anything to make sure Angela is on the team—and that Kate isn’t.
In Book Seven, Taking Chances, Maggie Dana once again comes up with clever, believable plot twists that keep readers up late at night, turning the pages or staring at their Kindles. It’s been less than a year since Kate came to the barn as a non-riding helper for the wheelchair-bound Holly (Book One). But Kate seems to have matured in some ways, if not in others. She’s still clueless about boys, but she shows fortitude in the face of an injury that could sidetrack her riding goals. Angela, who has a wonderful new horse, is still a major pain in the backside, but Kate feels sorry for her and takes the high ground instead of seeking revenge. Angela is nonplussed when Kate is kind to her, but is not about to change her evil ways. Hats off to the author, again, for instilling her work with a sense of right and wrong. I think we all recognize poor little rich girls like Angela, and think back to how we reacted to them as teenagers. Probably not as well as Kate, who will do anything to avoid conflict.
After the Storm is the eighth book in the series, and it’s obvious that the friction between Angela and Kate is reaching a boiling point. In fact, both Holly and her mother encourage Kate to take a stand rather than turning the other cheek—advice that causes Kate to lash out at the wrong people. In an instant, Kate’s whole world is changed, and she’s adrift and miserable. Angela’s relentless attempts to trash Kate’s reputation are vivid reminders of the bullying that is making the news today. This book may be Maggie Dana’s best yet. It’s certainly full of suspense and carries the underlying message that good does not automatically triumph over evil. Sometimes it needs help.
I can’t praise Maggie Dana highly enough for giving us such a wholesome, riveting series that any parent will approve of–and any kid will enjoy. Check out the enthusiastic reviews on Amazon.com if you don’t believe me. Lots of OMG! In every book, Dana cranks up the tension and there’s no predicting how things will work out. Isn’t that the mark of a good book in any genre, for any age? Without being aware of it, young readers get a healthy dose of values as well as primers in horse care and three-day eventing while enjoying the work of a masterful storyteller.
About the Author
Maggie Dana’s first riding lesson, at the age of five, was less than wonderful. In fact, she hated it so much, she didn’t try again for another three years. But all it took was the right instructor and the right horse and she was hooked for life. Her new riding stable was slap bang in the middle of Pinewood Studios, home of England’s movie industry. So while learning to groom horses, clean tack, and muck stalls, Maggie also got to see the stars in action. Some even spoke to her. Born and raised near London, Maggie now makes her home on the Connecticut shoreline where she divides her time between hanging out with the family’s horses and writing her next book in the Timber Ridge Riders series.