Keeping The Peace is the first of a series built around a National Hunt racing stable. I’m utterly in love with the main character. I’m just going to say it: this book could be called Bridget Jones Goes to the Races and it wouldn’t be far off the mark. Luckily, I love both Bridget Jones and racing, so this was a match made in heaven for me.
Sweet, lovely, and impressively creative with bad language when she’s pissed off, Pippa Taylor is going through the motions. She’s got a job, she’s got a flat, she’s got a sort-of actor boyfriend who is just bound to get discovered one of these days. She has the requisite bad-girl best friend, she has the requisite lost dream of being an artist — she has everything you need to be a another cog in the machine.
But nothing throws a machine out of whack like a horse. They’re pre-Industrial Age, they defy all logic, and we love them without reason. And while Pippa is no horsey girl, when she inherits a pair of Thoroughbreds from her uncle, she’s struck by not just the inherent promise in a horse, but by the dream that her uncle had for one of them.
That’s Peace Offering, and like every horse, he comes with baggage. His racing history is rubbish, for one thing. His trainer is a bad-tempered Horse Racing Ken Doll, for another. Peace Offering immediately starts changing Pippa’s life in all sorts of crazy fashions, as horses do.
Hooton’s evocative imagery and crisp writing sets this story apart from the competition. Here’s Pippa meeting a yard of racehorses for the first time:
She stopped at the first stable and peeked inside. Suddenly, half a ton of horseflesh came hurtling towards the door, teeth bared, ears pinned back. Pippa gave a startled yelp and jumped out of harm’s way. She yelped again as she collided with a neat cutlery set of pitchforks and spades leaning against the wall.
I loved the National Hunt racing setting. Like most Americans, I know about Cheltenham and the Gold Cup and the King George V in a sort of abstract fashion: they’re steeplechases in England. I know that… that… um… well, they happen. I’ve sat up at odd hours watching the jumps racing and I absolutely love it… riding a steeplechasing course is definitely on my bucket list. (Some might say it ought to be the last item on my bucket list.) I know about Kauto Star. If pressed I would say Haydock is a horse and not a place but I’d have to Google it.
Despite holding an exercise riders’ license, when it comes to jumps racing, I’m kind of a Pippa:
Jack shook his head helplessly.
“We won the Cheltenham Gold Cup with him earlier this year. Won eight Grade Ones on the bounce. He’s a bit of a celebrity.”
“I know Cheltenham!” Pippa cried, excited that she knew something to do with horseracing.
The new-to-me setting gave this book a particular charm, especially the very thrilling racing scenes. Thrilling, terrifying, you know — just think how stressful you find it watching your favorite horse (to say nothing of your own) running a six furlong race. Now imagine a three mile race. I wonder if Americans as a society would even survive if we were suddenly forced to watch NH instead of flat racing. Our poor over-taxed hearts would just give out after 2 minutes.
Imagine poor Pippa urging on her horse, only to see a horse fall on the other side of the fence, right in their landing path, that Finn, the jockey can’t possibly know about.
Peace Offering stretched higher and wider to clear the yawning ditch and wall of spruce. Pippa could almost see the surprise register in Finn’s body language when he caught sight of the fallen horse on the landing side.
“Please God, help them.”
They touched down a stride away from Corazon. Peace Offering took half a stride and took off again, hurdling the half-risen faller.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Pippa babbled. She wondered how many other repented sins God would allow her. Another fifteen fences’ worth?
Fifteen fences. At this point I’m sweating and I’m just reading the book.
But that’s one of the many pleasures of Keeping the Peace. With exciting racing scenes, a slow-burning romance, and the delightfully creative swearing (yes, two mentions in one review) that the British have truly mastered, Keeping the Peace is one of my favorite reads this year.