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Many, many years ago I, a horse-mad youngster, went to an equine demonstration night, all wide-eyed and fascinated, and came away with a goody bag sponsored by an equestrian magazine.
Amongst samples of horsey products, a free magazine and various leaflets from horsefeed providers, I found a paperback fiction book called Going The Distance by Christina Jones. At the time I was still a bit young for reading what was soon to become known as "chick lit" so I put it on the shelf, refusing to get rid of it because fundamentally it was horse connected and therefore I knew one day it would get read, and forgot about it for a year or two.
I finally read Going The Distance in my early / mid teens (I was always reading things intended for ages ahead of my own) and I fell in love with the way Jones had incorporated the background against which her story was set strongly, rather than it just being a necessary backdrop; in this instance she chose a small village highly populated by racehorse trainers and her clear thorough research and subsequent understanding of the subject matter shone through her characters, which were also strongly written, humorous, believable and above all, either widely likeable or, if intended otherwise, strongly believable.
So, having spent many years being constantly frustrated of seeing every fictional portrayal of horses and racing executed with a ludicrous amount of plot flaws and factual inaccuracies / impossibilities, my respect for Jones as a writer who would thoroughly research her work was set. (Anyone who saw the fat excuse for a Thoroughbred who, as "Bantling Boy" was meant to be the best racehorse ever trained in the treacherous borough of Midsomer a few years ago will know what I mean if they know which end bites and which kicks). So, I happily tracked down a few more of the author's works over the next few years.
Recently I picked up a copy that I had not read in so long that I had forgotten everything about it - several house moves will leave stuff in boxes for years no matter how organised you try to be, so, in search of something light and not ready to shell out my hard-earned for a copy of '50 Shades Of Grey' so close to payday, I started to read Stealing The Show and instantly returned to the easy, readable writing style of Christina Jones.
Christina Jones is a cat lover and the wife of a trucker and became a published writer in 1997. I would imagine her to be a bubbly, charming character in person because not only does she write beautiful characters, she also has her own website, christinajones.co.uk, on which she chattily recounts her background, upbringing and interests. It's a sweet website and it's nice to see someone who is actively letting the door open and letting themselves interact with their fanbase.
Her style of writing is probably one that can qualify for "chick lit" but it is, to me, executed with a bit more character than that. For a start, her books, as I mentioned earlier, make a strong use of the background and Jones conducts such research (as you can tell by the list of acknowledgements in her books) with such thoroughness that her understanding comes through her characters, thus not detracting from them and her characterisation nor from the storylines as a whole if you have any understanding of the scenario yourself. For me, this is invaluable, as for too long I have read writers who have good characters and good plots but let themselves down with poor research which must make people who understand the world in portrayal curl their toes in anger and frustration!
***STEALING THE SHOW - THE FACTUAL STUFF***
Published in 2001, Stealing The Show seems to no longer be available brand new. However, various copies are available via Amazon marketplace sellers / ebay.
It is 320 pages long, and seemingly has had a couple of reprints as there are more than one cover images around.
***STEALING THE SHOW - THE PLOT***
Petronella - Nell - Bradley is the only girl in a group of three siblings, the other two being Danny and Sam. They run a travelling fair that they inherited from their retired parents on the event of their father's sudden heart problems. They are doing well with their common-place style of fairground rides, have regular spots and live a travelling showperson's life happily, along with their crew of 'gaff lads'. Nell, friend to virtually everyone and an instantly likeable character, has a sharp intellect but a good nature and these make her successful despite that fact that, if she were honest, she would rather hark back to the old times of carousel horses and ghost rides as other fairs start to invest in smaller version of rides that Alton Towers use to scare the living daylights out of the paying public.
Danny, the most profit margin-focused of the siblings, is old-school showman. He believes, as the whole family have been brought up to believe, that show families do not divorce, that they marry young and they stay married. Thus, he has long been married to Claudia, clever, sharp-witted and on the surface, seemingly sexually provocative. Despite her only being 27, she seems jaded and unhappy in her marriage and Nell has suspicions of this from the outset, although she cannot guess at how deep the problems lie. Claudia's sometimes brazen dress sense and inner turmoil unravel throughout the book and the character elicits both support and sympathy, without ever appearing weak, just a product of her upbringing and situation.
Sam, Nell and Danny's brother, has a dreamy disposition and is never short of a smile for anyone. Never tied down to one relationship, he just seems to go through life from one happy accident to the next, but soon shows his inner depth as well.
Nell wants to believe in love, rather than a marriage of convenience and eventually growing to love someone as opposed to falling in love with them. Ross Percival should be perfect for her. Friends for years and more than that for just about as long, he is gorgeous, funny, intelligent, and the son of a legendary family in the showmans Guild, Clem Percival. With Nell's parents having retired to protect her father's health, enjoying the 'flatty' life of a nice house, Jaguar and gym memberships despite never losing their seemingly quite common, not unlikeable roots, keen to see the Bradley fair keep with the times, Adele Bradley sees a way to make everyone happy by intervening...
Meanwhile, unbeknown to anyone on the travelling fair, Nell takes a wrong turn one day and finds something - and someone - that she couldn't have imagined ever finding. And, as the various plots and subplots, characters and supporting acts become apparent, it's up to Christina Jones to keep this strong cast in place and let the story play out.
***STEALING THE SHOW - MY THOUGHTS***
Well, as you can already tell I'm a pre-existing fan of Jones and her writing style. This book is no different.
Whilst it is now over 10 years old, I don't think this is dated because, for all we are all now familiar with the bright-light, loud-music approach to fairground rides that aim to scare the hell out of you, some of us probably still do prefer the kitsch, the old fashioned and the memory-lane stuff.
In terms of characterization, Jones has done it again here - it's all well-crafted and believable. Characters develop - and as in life, that means some do so positively and some, sadly, do so negatively. But this is all done well.
If I had one criticism about the characterization it is that there is a big reliance in the plot on the characters all being brought up to believe in the unspoken 'code' and way of life of travelling show people - not something that was particularly up with the times in 2001 and therefore certainly not now. This was the fundamental foundation to the plot in that it caused not only the confusion, the well meaning intervention, but also the frustration and unhappiness of some characters that needed to be resolved. However, because Jones is not afraid to put her characters in a niche scenario and research it thoroughly, and having read her work when that niche is the one that I know and treasure so well, I am more than willing to believe that she has crafted an honest and at least partially realistic portrayal of that scenario rather than just making it up for her own ends.
Nell is a strong lead character. Massively likeable, she is also sharp and her dreamy side is countered by her realism and her strong character. She hadn't wanted to succumb to the show life tradition of marrying young and thus losing her independence, and her resistance against marrying to merge two strong families from the showman's Guild is admirable, for on paper there is nothing stopping her and no reason at all to stick to her guns against all her upbringing tells her - except for that she knows it will not make her happy. When she stumbles across the thing that could be what she has been looking for all along, something that might make her own personal ambition a reality, you can't help but root for her finding a way to make it work.
I feel that this book is the right length and it never lags. The easy writing style makes it a book that you can dip in and out of and curl up with for hours at a time, and I enjoyed it from start to finish, soon finding myself rooting for the characters and hoping they find their way through the situation to their own individual happiness.
A book you could read to relax for ten minutes before bed or devour in a whole sitting with a bottle of wine and a duvet on a winter's afternoon, I think Christina Jones has done it again here, again picking a brave setting rather than reverting to "bored city girl seeks new adventure and strapping young man" type, and really enjoyed this book.
This is, at the end of the day, precisely what it is - a light, funny romantic chick lit fiction. But if you've ever hankered for the old days of carousel horses and organ music, or sometimes want a light read that offers real escapism, this could be a great book for you to try.