THE RIGHT-HAND MAN is a spectacularly horsey book; but with patience and application it is possible to discern, under a fearful muddle of kickers, wheelers, leaders, bay mares, cruppers and croppers, a pleasantly romantic tale, set in romantic Regency England, of a sturdy young coachman and his romantically noble employer, dying (romantically) of consumption. Presumably, given the generally equestrian nature of everything, it would be of the galloping variety.
Although the story improves on a second reading, there still remain impediments to total enjoyment; chief among which are K. M. Peyton's zeal for hanging historical knick-knacks on just about every paragrah (as if she was decorating some monstruous educational Christmas tree), a sad lack of comedy (except where it is unintentional, as when a lyrical flight of fancy ends in a bellyflop: "The violet sky was filled with enormous water-laden clouds drifting slowly like pregnant angels") and far too many horses.
Of all creatures great and small, the horse is the most antagonistic to literature. It's fine in paintings, sounds well enough in music, but put it in a book and it wrecks it. Shakespeare knew all about that when he made King Richard cry: "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" The whole point of which is, that there wasn't a horse in sight. Had there been one, it would have ruined the play. In The Right-Hand Man, I fear, it is a case of too many fillies making a folly. However, on the credit side (and there is a credit side), there is the undeniable interest of the story (the dying lord needs to beget an heir to prevent his estate from passing to disagreeable cousins); there are some good scenes of low life and a touchingly related death of a dishonest kitchenboy; and there is much energetic action and an affectionate evocation of the English countryside.
By and large, The Right-Hand Man is no different, either in content or manner, from many historical novels serialized in magazines and appearing on the adult list -- better than some, not so good as others -- so there is nothing to distinguish it save the way in which it is marketed. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on your view of literature for the young.
Presto or The Adventures of a Turnspit Dog, written and illustrated by Marilynne K. Roach, is different. You would be surprised to find it on an adult list; and, I might add, pleased. You would be surprised by the high spirits, the stylishness and the honest delight in storytelling. The period of the story is the mid-18th century; the place is London and the surrounding countryside, and the hero is "a small grimy terrier who viewed his world through the whirling spokes of a turnspit wheel, which was wheel and cage in one." A little more about him:
"Except for the briefest recollection of his puppyhood, his life had been passed at the wheel, which moved a belt, which in turn drove other wheels that turned a spit of roasting meat. The inn where this creaking prison operated, Fortune's Whim, was famous for its roasts. The dog knew them only by scent."
There, I think, you have real quality; and Roach keeps it up. The dog escapes and has tremendous adventures -- comic, frightening and touching -- and comes at last to happiness. His principal associate is Dick, a young puppeteer; but also there is Horace Walpole and a brilliantly sinister creation -- the Spotted Dog. It is a peripatetic tale in the manner of Smollett and Fielding, and revives the splendid custom of indicating what each chapter contains: "Wherein our hero's captivity is lightened by the beginnings of hope." Although animals take the leading roles, humans are not neglected. Both species talk among themselves, though not, of course to each other.
Presto is not an ambitious book, inasmuch as it seeks to search no souls; but like any good book, it is illuminated by many a casual shaft of wit or wisdom that stays in the mind. "At least we dogs can scent out moods. These humans have no skill with their noses. I don't know how they got on at all." Take it, if you like, as an allegory, or take it as a historical entertainment (curiously informative at times); but either way, take it, for it is a book that gives pleasure out of all proportion to its size.