Nicholas Evans's "The Brave" and two more novels about horses

By Yvonne Zipp
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 9:37 PM

As anyone who's ever read "Black Beauty" or Cormac McCarthy knows, fiction can be rough on horses. Not only must they look majestic and carry their riders faithfully through deserts, snowstorms and bullet fire, they're frequently expected to have magical healing qualities and put up with troubled teens. (Nobody puts these kinds of demands on zebras.) But for readers raised on "The Black Stallion," "Misty of Chincoteague" and "My Friend Flicka," there's also nothing like a good horse book to unlock your inner 11-year-old.

1. Nicholas Evans, whose 1995 bestseller "The Horse Whisperer" launched a catch phrase and a thousand horseback-riding lessons, is back with his fifth book, The Brave (Little, Brown, $26.99). In the late 1950s, lonely 8-year-old Tom Bedford adores cowboy westerns - but only ones featuring "real" cowboys. He has no patience for the Lone Ranger, Gene Autry or any cowboy who sang or "carried two shiny silver guns . . . and had holsters with no leg-ties. How could you be a serious gunfighter without a leg-tie? "Sent away to a sadistic British boarding school, Tom hangs on by dint of his fantasy life. When his mom gets a chance to star in movies, Tom goes west - Hollywood, that is - where he learns to ride and shoot while his mom dates an actor on one of the TV shows he loved. Then something goes very wrong, and the aspiring actress ends up on death row. In the present, Tom, an author and documentarian, lives alone in Montana, estranged from his Marine son, who has been charged with the murder of Iraqi civilians. Evans cuts back and forth between past and present, unraveling the twin mysteries, while Tom tries to find a way to help his boy.

2. For an entertaining novel about forgiveness and the four-footed, try The Blessings of the Animals (Harper Perennial; paperback, $14.99), by Katrina Kittle. After rescuing a starving horse, who responds only by biting and kicking her, veterinarian Cami Anderson hits more trouble: Her husband announces that he's leaving her and their teenage daughter for a 22-year-old. Cami has a wry likability that carries the novel over too many romantic entanglements, and, refreshingly, Kittle doesn't believe in fairy tales. Not only is the horse recognizable as an actual Equus caballus - rather than a unicorn with an invisible horn - but there are plenty of furballs for animal lovers of all stripes, including a three-legged ginger cat, a rescued pregnant donkey and a white goat who could teach Houdini a thing or two.

3. How tough is Vaclav Skala? The Texas farmer hitches his four sons to the plow and saves his horses for racing in Bruce Machart's densely told novel, The Wake of Forgiveness (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26). All four boys grow up to be weathered and have crooked necks, but Karel, the youngest, also has a gift for racing that his father uses to increase his holdings. Then wealthy Spaniard Guillermo Villasenor shows up with his three girls and a proposition: One of his daughters will race Karel. If Karel loses, the families will unite. Like "The Brave," this novel jumps back and forth in time - primarily between 1910 and 1924, when Karel is the lone brother left working what was his father's land - but Machart is operating on another level when it comes to writing. "The Wake of Forgiveness," which hails from the Robert Olmstead school of western, is a dark tale about fathers and sons, missing mothers and the poison that lies at the heart of the question, Who's to blame?

Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor.

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