Maggie Gilbert. Riding on Air. Escape Publishing, 2013. ISBN: 9780857990457
One of those aphorisms that is often wheeled out to writers is to “find your own voice”. Maggie Gilbert has her own voice. It is funny, light, wry, self-deprecating, engaging and real. Reading Riding on Air is just like chatting to Maggie herself. I know this because I have known Maggie since we were about ten years old. I’m not going to tell you how long that is. As long as I have known her, Maggie has been writing and working towards being a published author, so I had a reasonable idea of her excitement when she told me that her first full-length novel was being published at Easter.
Of course, I was also worried about reading it. Or, more to the point, reviewing it. What if it sucked? It’s a young adult novel about teenage girls and horses, published by Escape Publishing, a new ebook imprint from Harlequin. I am not exactly this book’s target demographic. And my last experience of a Harlequin Mills & Boon romance was less than great.
I needn’t have worried. As I said, sitting down with Riding on Air was like settling in with Maggie for a natter. The book is funny, engaging and believable. Light without being vapid. In my opinion, being able to write good, realistic, conversations is perhaps the key sign of a good writer or, perhaps more accurately the real let-down of less good writing. It has never seemed that difficult to me, but some writers do seem to need to turn their characters’ conversations into speeches, making them mouth the things that are required to drive the story forward rather than letting them say what they want to say. I felt that the voices of Riding on Air’s characters were natural and flowing and authentic.
Melissa is 16, and devoted to giving her horse, Jinx, the best chance she can give him to shine at dressage. They’ve come a long way together, but Melissa’s juvenile rheumatoid arthritis is getting worse, and she’s stashing pills for the times her hands become too painful to prepare Jinx for the qualifying event coming up in Goulburn. And she’s worried that this flare-up may not go away. Of course, there’s also a boy.
I should have known he’d be the one to come to my un-rescue on his mechanical charger. I have that kind of luck. God, why didn’t you kill me in that fall?…
A lanky body moved in to block the sun and I blinked my watering eyes at the sudden change in light… I blinked some more, still sun-dazzled. Dazzled, anyway. William’s face came into focus, dark eyebrows frowning above narrowed lake-blue eyes.
The storyline follows Melissa as she pursues her dream of making Jinx the best dressage horse he can be, while she keeps her increasing pain a secret from her family, from William, and from her two best friends Tash and Eleni. A few online reviewers have commented that those not into horses might find all of the technical dressage detail a bit much. I found it interesting to understand a little bit more about what is going on between horse and rider, although there were a couple of moments where it got a bit beyond me and I felt I might have accidentally picked up a horse riding handbook.
We also watch as Melissa overcomes her lack of self confidence to realise that William does care for her, and that his interest is not some kind of cruel trick. Melissa feels all of her emotions in her guts. Fairly literally. The word “stomach” appears 70 times in the book, although it’s rarely clichéd. In fact, it’s amazing the sorts of original gymnastics Melissa’s stomach can do:
My stomach plummeted and then curled in on itself, as tight and prickly as a startled echidna.
Most of the stomach quivering is, of course, related to William, who I found just a shade too restrained and wise for an eighteen year old boy. Although, my experience with eighteen year old boys is a bit dated.
There is a chapter towards the end of the book where Melissa, too nervous to sleep before her big day in Goulburn, chats in the kitchen with her stepmother Jennie. It’s an important scene where Melissa begins to realise that she may have misunderstood the motives of the people who have hurt her. It’s a lovely moment, and its revelations are pointed without being forced. And there is Maggie’s ever-present wry humour to even out any potentially bumpy bits.
“I stuffed it up,” I choked out.
“Maybe. But I’m sure you could fix it.”
“I’m not. He was really mad at me.”
“I don’t know what you two argued about but I do know this: that boy is totally besotted, Melly, and it wouldn’t take much effort from you, I’m sure.”
“He wants me to do something I can’t,” I said, and almost fell over myself as Jennie’s eyes widened. “No! Not that. He wouldn’t – I wouldn’t, not yet anyway – oh!”
Jennie laughed and shook her head, miming putting her fingers in her ears.
Canberra connections? The Caphs Count is becoming an increasingly vivid example of the importance of sample size when drawing conclusions from statistical data. Melissa and her friends live in Sutton, which literally butts up against the ACT border. Is very much a country town. At about half-an-hour’s drive from Civic, it’s not too far for William and Melissa to go out for a movie and get some Thai for dinner, but the action here is very much in the horse paddocks at home.
Riding on Air is, as the publisher’s blurbs tell us, a story about following your dreams, but it is also about deciding what you are and aren’t prepared to give to achieve them. These are life lessons we all need to learn at some time or other. It is something I think Maggie is pretty clear about too.