Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Review: Another Kind of Cowboy by Susan Juby

Oh, man, when I was a kid I loved horse books. Is there a woman out there who didn't devour them when she was a kid? I think there's something about it in our DNA. Misty of Chincoteague was the one I read over and over again - probably because it was one of the books my mom remembered reading as a kid, so it was something we could share.

I don't recall actually, seriously, wanting a horse though. I do, however, remember once terrifying the daughter of one of my mom's friends while we were pretending we had horses. I was very thorough in my pretending - after galloping the horses around the yard and making sure they were well fed, I decided we also had to clean up after the horses - conveniently we had a rock pile the looked rather like horse manure. This apparently was too much for the girl and she ran crying to her mom. :-( I wasn't trying to traumatize her - it was just a natural extension of pretending you had a horse!

Which is probably part of why I found Alex in Another Kind of Cowboy to be so charming and endearing. As a kid, Alex dreamed of riding horses. When his family couldn't afford a horse - or his mother simply refused to allow one anywhere near her house, believing that Alex wasn't responsible enough to care for one - Alex rode his bike around the neighborhood, using an old red dog leash as reins and making sure the bike/horse had feed and water every night.

While Alex loved everything about horses, his true passion was awakened after seeing dressage riding on TV. Not that his dad was ever going to allow that - so when his dad wins old Colonel Turnipseed (Turnip for short) in a poker game, Alex takes up the manly cowboy event of Western riding. But Alex never gives up his dream of dressage, and when a pair of dressage riding teachers, Fergus and Ivan, move into town, Alex works out an agreement with them that lets him learn the art of dressage in exchange for chores around the farm.

Living in a completely opposite world is Cleo, daughter of a rich and famous LA director, Cleo loved collecting plastic horses as a child. She never wanted anything to do with real horses, but her parents, wanting to get her involved in an athletic activity, threw money at all of the right people until Cleo was able to get riding and dressage lessons with one heck of a horse. After a significant lapse in romantic judgment leads to the family's house being robbed, Cleo's parents ship her off to Canada where she can attend an elite all-girls riding school. However, the school's focus is on jumping - which terrifies the hell out of Cleo - so with more money exchanging hands, Cleo's parents arrange for her to begin taking lessons from Fergus and Ivan as well.

Alex and Cleo have almost nothing in common. Alex adores his horse, adores riding, and doesn't mind putting in a hard day's work. Cleo is indifferent to her horse, couldn't care less about riding, and thinks it's incredibly unfair that she is paying for lessons and boarding her horse yet she's expected to clean out the horses stall. The only thing they do seem to have in common is Cameron, a dreamy boy Cleo meets at a party and falls head over heels for, but Cameron is a lot more interested in Alex than he is Cleo!

After an awkward almost-date, Alex comes out to Cleo, and an uneasy friendship begins. Cleo supports Alex's sexuality and pesters him to come out to his eccentric family - twin sisters who want to be movie stunt women and a hair dresser aunt who consistently tries to kill the family with her attempts at cooking. But Alex finds Cleo's fascination with his aunt and his sister's frustrating, as well as her inattention to her horse and the art of dressage. Additionally, Alex has the constant pressure of hiding his identity from his alcoholic father and his latest girlfriend - a local realtor who lends Alex her dressage-trained horse when it becomes obvious that old Turnip can't handle the rigors of the event.

Alex finally seems to get one wish answered when Cleo gets a new roommate at school - one who is more interested in partying and booze than horses or school. Cleo starts spending more and more time drunk at parties, leaving her unable to visit Alex's family - or show up for dressage lessons on time. Meanwhile, Alex's father begins to grow suspicious of why his son would be interested in a "girly" event like dressage, and life for both Cleo and Alex looks like it's going to collapse at any moment.

Juby seems to really know her stuff about horses and dressage - or at least she knows enough to sound smart, which is more than enough to fool a total lay-person like me. Yet despite all of the information on horses and dressage, it's all explained well enough that said lay-person can understand what is going on.

Alex's sexuality is handled extremely well - while in some ways this is a book about coming out and accepting yourself, since the book has the larger story of dressage it no longer becomes a Book About Being Gay. On the other hand, Cleo's problems are handled with much less subtlety and sometimes have the feeling of an after-school special.

One final note of interest: the story is told in alternating chapters by both Alex and Cleo, with Alex's chapters being told in third person and Cleo's in first. Just one of those writing choices that make me go "huh" and wonder why the author went that route. Right now I'm thinking it's because Alex is such a private person that he would never tell his story, but then why not just stick with third person throughout?
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