Scholastic - £4.49
Lauren Brooke's website
Heartland series - 25 books, including specials
Oh dear. Is this worse than telling a toddler Father Christmas doesn't exist? Daughter and I were talking about Lauren Brooke, whose Chestnut Hill series is on special offer in the book leaflet she had from school. "Ah," I said, in passing. "Lauren Brooke doesn't exist, of course. She's three different writers." "WHAT??" said daughter. "But how can she have a website? Is she real and then there are other people who write the books?" "Well no," I said. "There's nothing unusual about it - publishers have an idea and then go and get someone, or several someones, to write it. Like Lucy Daniels. Masses of people have written the Animal Ark books."
Intake of breath from daughter. "You mean... you mean... there's no Lucy Daniels?" Me, looking anxious now: "No. I'm sorry." Daughter, quiet and subdued. "Oh. But I thought there was." I suppose it's a bit like being told Enid Blyton didn't exist. Poor daughter, who has now been enlightened about the ways of publishers - though it is some years since she passed her huge collection of Animal Arks on, obviously they meant something to her.
Although I know perfectly well that publishers do this - Ameliaranne after all, was written by several different people, and characters are often picked up by other authors after the death of the original author - there is something about the deliberate creation of a fictional author which does stick in my craw. There is a Lauren Brooke website. What a tricky tightrope for the publishers to walk: they want to provide the personal information the girls want, but they can't actually lie. I suppose the biographical details are a composite of the three contributors (Linda Chapman and Gill Harvey are two: I don't know who the third is). Nevertheless, it's plain on looking at the site that the girls who are its target audience believe there is a real, live Lauren Brooke who writes the books.
The product, though, is enormously popular. The Heartland series has been going for a while, and there are now 25 titles. I have no idea if this is how the series came into being, but I have a picture of a meeting at the Publishers:
Publisher 1: It's about time we had a new horse series. Girls love horses; they sell - look at the Saddle Club. That's finished now so there's a big fat hole in the market.
Publisher 2: We don't want to do another Saddle Club though. What do girls like?
P2: Yes, we've got that far already.
P2: Yup. We can include that.
P1: Unhappy background? Broken family?
P2: No, I've got a better idea than that. Let's make the heroine a tragic figure - let's kill her mother off in the first book.
P1: Brilliant! We can make those tears fall. And let's make her misunderstood by her family - cue storms of teenage emotion. And I know what's really current now - let's have some of that horse whispering and healing stuff in too. We can get a lot of dramatic tension in there by having some "traditional" horse people who don't understand...
P2: And she can do all this while still being at school. How about doing it in diary form?
P1: Nope. That might slip into humour, and we want those teenage dramas; the huge swathes of emotion... heart, that's what we want. Tug those heartstrings with all the abused and misunderstood horses, that only our heroine can understand and sort out..... people have been writing books like that for years, and it's the big pony girl fantasy.
P2: Great! Now we just need to find some people to write it.
Because that's what Heartland does: it ticks teenage boxes. It features a tragic heroine, Amy, from a broken family, who lives with her mother. Mama runs a horse sanctuary and re-schooling facility called Heartland using horse healer methods, until, that is, she dies (she doesn't last past the first half of the first book) and Amy descends into dreadful grief, misunderstood by her family.
Not only is Amy misunderstood by her family, the books also have the constant of their equine rehabilitation practices being disapproved of (by a couple of deeply cardboard characters: Ashley Grant and her mother Val. Ashley fulfills the vital role in a teenage novel of bitchy girl who loathes the heroine). I'd need to read rather more of the books than I have to comment fully on whether they give the more traditional approach any credence at all: I hope they do. In the first book, it's dismissed as the realm of the pot hunter.
Most of the book is taken up with poor, misunderstood Amy storming off into her room; her tragic misery so awful that all about her must tiptoe about, making special concessions.
It might be because I have teenagers of my own, and have been on the end of a lot of teenage storming, but I did not react at all well to Amy's massive self-indulgence. Yes, she's a teenager and it's what they do (oh, how I know it is what they do), and she has just lost her mother, but it's the way the author seems to tiptoe around the character as well, pointing out others' insensitivity to poor Amy. The others; her grandfather, and her sister Lou, and stablehand Ty, are running Heartland, while Amy locks herself in her room because NO ONE UNDERSTANDS HER AND HER TERRIBLE GRIEF. Of course they don't. You're a teenager. You're sitting there while everyone else is trying to keep the ship afloat and you are castigating them for being so utterly heartless as to keep the horses you are supposed to love going.
"Amy felt a sob rising in her throat. Feed deliveries! Phone calls from horse owners! How could they both carry on as if nothing had happened? She got up from her chair and hurried upstairs to her bedroom... What was the matter with them? Mom was dead. Was she the only one who cared?"
The frightful Amy does, at long last, see that she is being unreasonable (and all credit to her creators, I suppose, for making a character that certainly stirred me to depths of emotion I haven't felt for a character in a while). She comes to a rapprochement with her sister Lou, in a neat twist which I liked: Amy has tried and tried to rescue the grief-stricken Shetland, but it is Lou who understands how the pony feels and finds the key to making him want to live again. Oh, how I felt for poor Lou. She leaves her Manhattan life to come and look after her sister and try and organise the administrative chaos of Heartland, and does she get any credit for it? She does not. The worst scene happens when Lou finally cracks, and says what I have been muttering under my breath for pages:
"The only person you think about is poor Amy Fleming. And all you want to do is mope around feeling sorry for yourself. Well, moping around isn't going to bring Mom back, and I'll tell you one thing: If Mom was here now and you were dead, she'd be out there looking after those horses! You say I don't care. Well, take a look at yourself, Amy! Just take a look at yourself!"
Of course Lou instantly regrets what she has said, but it is a while before a rapprochement is reached. But, I suppose that's the difference between me and the average teenage reader: I read it from an adult's point of view, and not a teenager's. It is to the author's credit that she does manage to show both.
So, I have very mixed feelings about Heartland. I don't like the idea that they're written to a formula, but they are; and they are generally well done. I'd love to know if the average teenage reader sees the monstrousness of Amy's behaviour in the first book, but she is at least shown learning. Although the books are formulaic, the authors take the conventions and twist them: a less well thought out book would have had Amy being the Shetland's saviour, not big bad grown up Lou.
I like the emphasis on reading what horses are saying to you; and the advice is generally sensible, with the vet being constantly on call rather than an afterthought after the full ranks of the alternative medicine chest have been tried.
The one thing though, that I would absolutely love to know, is Amy's secret of time management. She manages, in the succeeding books, to go to school, re-hab horses and help run a business, have a relationship and see her friends. Now if the authors could get the secret of that one down in print they really would have a best seller.