Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review of Ghost Horse by Thomas McNeely

Ghost Horse by Thomas McNeely
Publisher: Gival Press
Publication Date: October 6, 2014
Length: 260 pages
Source: Publisher, through TLC Book Tours

Ghost Horse by Thomas McNeely is a powerful debut novel; it is both a deeply moving coming-of-age story and an intense psychological portrait of a family in crisis. McNeely weaves an intricate web of a plot against the backdrop of the racial and class tensions of Houston of the 1970s, and explores themes of love, lost innocence, loyalty, and broken families. The tale of eleven-year-old Buddy over one unsettling year of his adolescence makes for a compelling and worthwhile read.

Synopsis from Publisher: Set amidst the social tensions of 1970s Houston, Ghost Horse tells the story of eleven-year-old Buddy Turner's shifting alliances within his fragmented family and with two other boys--one Anglo, one Latino--in their quest to make a Super-8 animated movie. As his father's many secrets begin to unravel, Buddy discovers the real movie: the intersection between life and he sees it and the truth of his own past. In a vivid story of love, friendship, and betrayal, Ghost Horse explores a boy's swiftly changing awareness of himself and the world through the lens of imagination.

My Thoughts: Ghost Horse is beautifully written. McNeely’s dialogue is sharp and believable, and he skillfully creates a suspenseful, dark atmosphere that fits the intensity of the story perfectly. The characters are richly drawn; Buddy’s two grandmothers, each controlling and difficult in her own way, his hardworking and hopeful mother, his volatile father swinging wildly from one extreme to another, the cold-eyed bully at Buddy’s new school—they all come startlingly, fully to life.

Importantly, McNeely gets Buddy’s adolescent voice exactly right. Buddy is on the cusp of change, sitting at that precarious transition between childhood and adulthood; I’ve read precious few novels that capture that charged passage so exactly. Buddy's anxiety and angst, as he struggles with difficulties at home and at school, are palpable. As the adults all around Buddy make bad decisions, tell lies, and prove themselves to be mostly unreliable, Buddy must learn--at far too young an age--to make his own choices and guide himself through the rough times ahead.

McNeely touches on many themes in Ghost Horse—race, class, sexuality, lost friendship, bullying, and abuse, to name a few, and I could hold forth about how McNeely sheds light on all of these. But one issue that struck me in particular as I read Ghost Horse was that of broken families, and the tumult that divorce causes for children. Divorce felt like a great and terrible scourge to those of us who grew up in the 1970s; at least half of the kids I knew suffered through the break-up of their parents, and the rest of us feared it. McNeely demonstrates how Buddy tries to make sense of his parents’ arguments and actions, but of course he can’t fully understand the complexity of their emotions. He’s trapped in a chaotic situation that is none of his own making, forced to choose between his parents and to deal with issues that no child should have to consider. As a reader, I wanted leap into this story and hug this boy, and give him back a carefree childhood with no greater concern than creating an animated movie with his best friend.

And the “Ghost Horse” itself—what a haunting image. The Ghost Horse, from the Super 8 movie that Buddy and his Latino friend Alex create, appears like a mythological creature . . . symbolizing, perhaps, escape, freedom, and strength. The Ghost Horse represents a world in which things are still black and white, while Buddy’s world has turned to confusing and constantly shifting shades of grey. If only the Ghost Horse could fly in and save Buddy; but Buddy, must, of course, find a way to save himself.

I could go on, but this is becoming a lengthy review, indeed. Let me sum up by saying that Ghost Horse is a gripping read—I turned the pages feverishly, desperate to know what would happen and if Buddy would be okay. This is a story that unsettled me at times, but will stay with me. I highly recommend this novel for readers who love literary fiction and complex family stories.

I received a complimentary copy of this novel from Gival Press. Thank you to TLC Book Tours and Gival Press for the opportunity to read Ghost Horse and participate in this blog tour. You can visit the other tour stops on TLC’s website here.

About Thomas McNeely: A native of Houston, Texas, Thomas H. McNeely has received fellowships from the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University, the Dobie Paisano Program at the University of Texas at Austin, and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as from the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Vermont Studio Center. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Epoch, and has been anthologized in Algonquin Books’ Best of the South and What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. His non-fiction has appeared in Ninth Letter and The Rumpus. Ghost Horse is his first book. He teaches in the Emerson College Honors Program and the Stanford Online Writing Studio, and lives with his wife and daughter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Find out more about Thomas at his website.


  1. Dear Leila - Thank you very much for your thoughtful and generous review. You are absolutely right in identifying the parents' divorce as the epicenter of Ghost Horse. I tried to convey a little of what it was like for children in that painful time. I would appreciate it if you could post this review on Goodreads. If you are interested, I am available to write guest blog posts, participate in Q&A, or visit your writing groups. Please feel free to contact me through my website:
    Best, Tom McNeely

  2. Thanks, Tom--it truly is a moving novel that I will not soon forget. I'm very glad I had the chance to read it. I will certainly post a review on Goodreads!

    1. Thank you for posting your review to Goodreads. I have posted discussion questions for Ghost Horse on Goodreads, too. Would you feel comfortable if I posted these discussion questions as a reply in this thread? Best, Tom

    2. Thank you for allowing me to post these discussion questions for Ghost Horse. If you could let your subscribers know they are here, I would appreciate it, and thank you again for allowing me to post them. I look forward to reading and discussing your readers' answers with them. Best, Tom
      Ghost Horse concerns a family in the 1970's which is breaking up in a divorce. How do you think divorce affects children in families? How do you think attitudes toward divorce have changed since the seventies? Do you think it is easier or harder for children of divorce now?

      In Ghost Horse, three boys vie with each other to control a home-made movie that takes many shapes. How do you see children today using media to connect, and sometimes to harm each other, as in various cyber-bullying cases? Do you think children see themselves and their relationships differently because of their exposure to media today?

      Ghost Horse explores the effects of class and racial tension in Houston, Texas, in the 1970's. How do you think attitudes toward race and class have changed in America since that time? Do you see a greater or lesser distance between races and classes now or then?

    3. Those are excellent discussion questions, Tom. Those would be very helpful for a book club reading Ghost Horse. I will highlight these in another post about the book, probably later in the week.

    4. Thank you, Leila! I want readers to feel free to use the novel as a starting-place for their own discussions and explorations of these and other topics. TM

    5. Leila - Sorry to bother you again, but would you mind posting your review on Goodreads? I would appreciate it. Thank you, Tom

    6. Hi Tom, no problem . . . my review is posted on Goodreads! I'm on the site under the name Leila.

  3. Leila, What an excellent review and I liked how you put into it the publicity material from those extra sheets. Yes! Yes! the story stays with one for a long time after and it was such a personal reminder of ruthless a period of time that was to experience.
    Tom McNeely writes a powerful book and captures so much.
    I thought the black and white ghost horse was more about confusions of depression and needing to decide for oneself - solve the problem on your own - expand or compact the self - the horse was riding the rails and trying to leap the gates of input
    What a good job or writing here and it is so fun when an author comes by and comments...thank you for your comments on my review...

    1. the word HOW I missed before ruthless - sorry

    2. Hi Patricia . . . Oh, how interesting that we had different perspectives on what the ghost horse meant! I think you've described a great interpretation for it. That is what I love in a good novel--when there are various ways to interpret the text and subtext. It shows how deep the layers are in this book.

      Thanks so much for stopping by today and sharing your thoughts! I'm looking forward to reading the other reviews for Ghost Horse. This is what I love about blog tours--it feels like a virtual book club when we all discuss our reactions to the book.

    3. Both of your interpretations make sense to me! I hope that reviewers and readers will discuss Ghost Horse - especially the impact that divorce has on children.

      Best, Tom

  4. I LOVE the title. :)

    Sounds like a good read.

    THANKS for sharing your thoughts and for visiting my blog earlier.

    How fun the author stopped by to comment.

    ENJOY the rest of your reading week.

    Silver's Reviews
    My Blog

    1. It IS a cool title, isn't it? And the title fits the kind of darkly uncertain, unsettling nature of the book. I like the cover, too; simple, but evocative.

  5. I can see why Buddy's story captured your attention! I love it when a book grabs me like that.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

    1. I really enjoyed the opportunity to read Ghost Horse and participate in the tour! I'm looking forward to reading the other reviews next week.

  6. I am adding this one to my list! I also lived through divorce in this time period, as a parent, and dealt with the aftermath for years. The characters sound like real, fleshed out people to whom I will relate. Thanks!

  7. Thank you for your comment, Laurel - I look forward to hearing your comments on Ghost Horse. Best, Tom McNeely