Wednesday, 30 April 2008

An odd thing

Well, maybe it wasn't odd. What do you think?

I drove to the station as normal to pick the children up from the train, and pulled up behind a woman driving a big silver Merc. He who I presumed was her husband walked up to the car and then she got out of the driving seat so he could drive.

Is she not allowed to drive him? Is he one of these men for whom being driven by a, gasp, woman, is a huge dent to his virility?

It has never, not once, occurred to me to get out and let my OH drive when I pick him up from the station (not that it happens often). I might I suppose if I had a bad back and had struggled, but she skipped out like a lamb - a middle aged lamb, but a lamb nevertheless. While I drove home with my children, silent with sulks for quite different reasons but at least it made for a peaceful drive home, I tried to think of sensible reasons why one would give up one's driving seat.

Maybe, as I said, the back was bad, the feet arthritic. Maybe she hates driving and is only too glad to have someone else do it: maybe he does this for her even though he's tired from his commute. Or maybe not.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

The Internal Debate

Dutiful me: You have money which your kind Mama gave you for your birthday to buy shoes, and there is a pair you like. Buy them.

Book me: But there is that Dorothy Lyons I have not read on buy-it-now on ebay for less.

Dutiful me: But the shoes are pretty and you haven't had a new pair in a while.

Book me: The old shoes will mend.

Dutiful me: No they won't.

Book me: Summer is coming. I don't need shoes, and I have sandals.

Dutiful me: (struggling now) Yes. You do have sandals. Aha! It has started raining. You live in England. It rains. You need shoes.

Book me: You don't understand. I haven't read that Dorothy Lyons, and it is a very good price. It is not ex library. It has a dustjacket. There may not be another one along for ages.

Dutiful me: and what about your mother? Don't you think you should buy the things she's expecting you to?

Book me: She is the one who got me into books in the first place. Reading Wind in the Willows as a bedtime story is asking for trouble. How surprised can she be?

Dutiful me: You have done this before, haven't you?

Book me: Ahem.

Dutiful me: There is a limit to how many places you can go to wearing wellies.

Book me: There is?

Dutiful me: Yes.

Book me: But if I buy the book I would still have enough left over to buy some of those really cheap shoes in the factory shop......

Dutiful me: Which will last about six seconds. We've been here before.

Book me: But if I buy the book I would still have enough left over to get the old shoes mended.


Book me: Yes they will. And summer's coming, so I won't be wearing the repair out, and there's this really good cobbler....

Dutiful me: No cobbler is that good.

Book me: But I haven't read that book, and the last one of hers I read was really good and I'm sure that one will be just as good....

Dutiful me: Let's compromise. Let's not spend the money on anything for a while.

Book me: OK. If we wait a few weeks the shop will have sold out of that style, and you know how difficult it is to find shoes I like, and it will definitely be sandal wearing weather, and then.... there could be any amount of books out there that I haven't read. Easter the Showjumper! Crab the Roan! And there's nearly all the Patsey Grays...

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Secret Unicorn etc

For some reason best known unto only itself, Blogger has put this post below my last one. So, follow this link to get to it.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Pony Club Secrets and For Sale or Swap

I am going off on a bit of a detour here, as For Sale or Swap, although in print, is so only in Australia, but I do have a perfectly good reason for talking about it here: it is an extremely good book. But why, oh why, is it not in print in the UK? My other review title, Mystic and the Midnight Ride, is also by an Antipodean author, Stacy Gregg. For Sale or Swap leaves it standing, and yet Mystic and its fellows are the ones in print in the UK.

The only reason I can think of for For Sale not being in print over here is that its background is very obviously Antipodean. From the opening scene, with the Christmas barbecue, you know you're not in England. Mystic puzzled me. The cover has been re-done for the UK market, with ponies from South Cambridgeshire Equestrian Centre, and so I was expecting an English read. As I was reading, various things didn't quite chime right: Pony Club grounds? The Paced and Mannered event? I knew I wasn't in England, but I didn't know where I was, and so I was confused. From my point of view, a book being set somewhere that isn't England isn't a problem. I grew up on Rutherford Montgomery's Golden Stallion and Elyne Mitchell's Silver Brumby books. There was never any issue about where the books were set: I was expecting something foreign, got it, and enjoyed it. Be a bit more upfront about the books' New Zealand setting, Harper Collins. It isn't a problem.

Stacy Gregg: Mystic and the Midnight Ride
Harper Collins, £4.99

That is not to say that I didn't enjoy Mystic: I did. The book is part of what will be an eight part series: Mystic and the Midnight Ride is the first of them. Its author, Stacy Gregg is a fashion journalist who rode in her youth, and has started riding again now she is writing for the pony market. The book's heroine is Issie, whose pony is the grey Mystic. He is written out of the book pretty early on, but reappears in what seems to be the obligatory nod to the fantasy genre that many pony books now seem to think they need in order to appeal. (I will have a lot more to say about this in a future blog). Issie refuses to ride any more, but then she is asked to take on Blaze, a badly neglected pony, and she does. There is some well-described rehabilitation, a deeply unpleasant and over-indulged rich child, shenanigans with Blaze's former owners and the obligatory competition at the end of the book.

This is a pony book that will give the reader what she is expecting, and it does it well. It's a good, well-paced read, but I get no sense the author is trying to do anything new with the genre, or explore how her characters develop or react with each other. Alyssa Brugman's For Sale or Swap is an entirely different animal.

Alyssa Brugman: For Sale or Swap
Random House Australia

(available through Booktopia or Fishpond: beware vast delivery charges, more reasonably through ebay if you're lucky)

Alyssa Brugman captures the stresses and strains of being a teenager keeping a pony on a shoestring brilliantly. The book (part of what is now a series of five) opens with Shelby being given the Most Improved award, which "meant you used to suck but now you're slightly better." She won't even get this unless she pays her Pony Club dues, but she knows how difficult things are for her parents ("she didn't want to ask her mother and see that strained, despairing look that she always got when Shelby asked for money") and so she doesn't ask. Shelby's pony, Blue, is not a thing of beauty. She keeps him on unused land near to her home, and struggles to keep him. Her riding, she decides, would improve if only she had a better pony, and so she swaps Blue for the beautiful chestnut Maxshine Celtic Copper. The new pony however is not chestnut: the chestnut washes off. She is grey, and she is stolen. She is part of a scam. By then it is far too late to get Blue back and Shelby is left with no pony at all.

I liked the way the plot then twisted and turned without going exactly where you'd expect. I liked the changing relationships between Shelby and her friends Erin and Hayley, and I liked the way Shelby reacts to the world around her: and it is a world in which adults are a normal part. In many children's books, adults are not present at all, or else one dimensional figures floating around on the periphery of the children's adventures. Real life is not like that. Real life has the mother who is in charge of the ponies, not the daughter; the instructor who gets things wrong; the unsympathetic policeman. What I like about this book is the way it takes a framework that is utterly realistic, and works within it. No one appears to anyone in a dream; no pony turns into a unicorn. It's a normal world, and it's observed so well.

So, Random House, please publish this book: not because it's about ponies, but because it's good. It would be good if it were about football. It would be good if it were about golf. It's good, so let Britain have it.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Secret Unicorn, Magic Pony and The Magic Unicorn

Next on our list are three examples of the pony meets fantasy genre, all aimed at the 8-10s. Harry Potter has changed the face of children's book publishing, and now because fantasy sells, it is colliding with other genres. The fantastic and the horse in literature isn't new: in the pony book field Primrose Cumming's Silver Snaffles and John Thorburn's Hildebrand were out there in the 1930s with horses and ponies who talked. In the wider field of children's literature, Alan Garner created the wonderful unicorn in Elidor, and the black pony, vehicle of the Brollachan and one of the most memorably sinister creations in literature, in his Moon of Gomrath, and there are Bree and Hwin, two of my favourite talking horses, in C S Lewis' The Horse and His Boy.

Whether, without Harry Potter, pony books would have taken on fantasy is debatable. In the vast amount of titles published since the 1930s, very few could be described as fantasy. Michael Maguire's Mylor pair succeed because they leap straight into a fully realised fantastic world, and you are swept along by the power of the author's imagination. C Northcote Parkinson's Ponies Plot is more of a comedy: the fact the ponies talk is used to drive the humour rather than the plot.

With all of these titles, you do not sense the publisher standing over the author, suggesting that maybe a wizard here or there; a potion or two; perhaps flight, would all help sales. If you read today's blog titles, decide for yourself where the impetus for the fantastic came.

Elizabeth Lindsay: Magic Pony – A Dream Come True
Scholastic, 2004, £3.99

This didn’t fare well at all with my daughter. “The plot,” she announced firmly, “does not link up.” I don’t think I’d reject it as definitely. There is a lot to like about this book. Ned, the magic pony, is a cheerful beastie with the convenient gift of being able to change size. There is a realistic heroine, a splendid quarrel between her and her brother and parents with entirely believable reactions to the large and steaming pile of muck Ned leaves on the landing. It's when the fantasy scrapes against the believable that the book loses me. If only Elizabeth Lindsay had resisted the temptation to have Natty’s first riding experience leaping on a miniature Ned down 14 stairs, cantering across the sitting room, with a little light jumping over Dad’s foot. I’d been hoping that the meshing of the real world of Natty and the fantasy one of Ned would have led to her learning to steer round her slippers, say. I think this is what Miranda meant: the fantastical parts are just too fantastical to mesh well with the rest of the book, and it is a shame, because otherwise it’s good.

Jenny Oldfield: My Magical Pony – Dawn Light
Hodder, 2006, £4.99

An epic series of 12 books (soon to be 13), the heroine is Krista who has relatively normal pony experiences most of the time, save for when Shining Star the magical pony appears, emerging “from a shimmering mist, swearing her to secrecy, bringing his wisdom and kindness into her world.”

Unfortunately Jenny Oldfield switches style from her usual straightforwardness to a mannered portentousness whenever the magical ponies appear. “Make haste,” one says. And “Our magic is needed in a land far from here.” This had the unhappy effect of making me start to cringe in anticipation whenever I thought a magical pony was due to appear. All I can say for Miranda is that she handed this back without a word; just a stony glare.

The story itself (Krista thinks she and her family will have to move away from everything she knows) is competent enough, but the fantasy fails. The best fantasy succeeds because it is often just the smallest shift from reality: but it is still completely recognisable. The magic ponies here simply don't work. Whether the horse can succeed as a literary expression of a nobility and morality higher than you find in everyday life I don't know: it doesn't here. True goodness and kindness don't need the kind of distant stuffiness the magical ponies drag about with them.

Linda Chapman: My Secret Unicorn (Flying High and Starlight Surprise)
Puffin Books, £5.99

Linda Chapman's website

I have had this book for months, but put off reading it because I was so turned off by the cover.
I know these covers aren't directed at me (and neither is the website: tinkety tink it goes. Tinkety tink) but in some instances, and this is one, the bland cuteness of the cover illustration cheapens what is within.

This is a far better book than the cover would have you believe. It was a surprise to us both. Miranda, having read the other fantasy/pony titles, was not expecting much. "The unicorn bit," she said, "wasn't too over the top. I liked the fact not everybody had a horse, because usually in this sort of book everyone does, and that made it more real. I would probably read another." Well, I think I would too, even though I am missing its target market by about 40 years.

Lauren owns Twilight, a grey pony who is in fact a unicorn. His unicorn status has to be kept from the world, and the problems of doing this give the books some of their plot tension. Miranda has a good point when she says this book is real: despite the unicorn element, it is. The relationships between the children are well and sensitively described. The books are rather more about the characters' experiences at home and school than they are about ponies: the first is about adjusting to a new stepmother and stepsister, and the second about bullies and the fears of the very young.

The internal illustrations are, when it comes, to humans, fantastic. I wish, though, that the artist (Biz Hull) had as much skill depicting horses as he does people. It is such a shame they fall short, but I am delighted that Puffin are including illustrations, and making a break from the sub Nick Sharratt style.

So, much to my surprise, Linda Chapman was our favourite in this section. It would be interesting to see what she could do if she tried something for the older market.

BAFAB draw

has now been done - sorry for having not done it when I said I would. I completely forgot (oh the shame).

The winners are:

The Team: Becca
Equitation: Anne
Wild Swans: Booklogged

Becca and Anne - could you send me your details please? You can send to

Sexism in pony books

Jessie Haas is writing a book about pony books (it will be published in 2009 and is, at the moment, called Horse Crazy), about which we've been corresponding, and she told me recently about a book she read called The Ginger Horse by Maureen Daly, which I've never read, but "has a girl hitting her teen years and starting to think that her boy friend really is smarter and stronger and more important" (quote from Jessie).

That started me thinking about sexist attitudes in pony books. I suppose one of the reasons pony books are so very popular with girls is that they show girls as strong and capable, or as equal partners with boys. I'm going to pick the books I've read recently as examples (though I may be self-selecting here, as I've been reading titles by authors I already knew I liked). So, Veronica Westlake's The Mug's Game has a heroine who is initially a bit of a wimp being initiated by the twin girls with whom she goes to live into a country life which is something of a walk on the wild side. The boy character is an elder brother intent on writing a play, who is seen as eccentric but in an entirely understandable way. Here, the mother is the one with the high-powered job, who keeps the household going.

Next came Cecilia Knowle's Hippo, a Welsh Cob. This has a good mix of male and female characters, with never a hint that one might be better than the other. The only villains of the pieces are so because they are thoughtless.

Josephine Pullein-Thompson's Six Ponies has a character who is extraordinarily dismissive of girls; but he is one of the book's villains and JPT obviously disapproves of him. JPT is unusual in having a virtually equal distribution of male and female characters, and what sex you are has absolutely no bearing on how well you do with your horse.

I suppose one really glaring example of stereotyping comes in Pony Jobs for Jill. Until this point, Jill has wanted to be a Matron of an orphanage, run a stable, work for Captain Cholly-Sawcutt and be an MHF. Although she obviously becomes a writer as she describes herself as the author of the books, in what always struck me as a bizarre turn, after trying various horsey jobs, she and Ann go off to do secretarial courses. I am not decrying secretarial courses: I did one myself after university when it soon became plain that I needed a few practical skills as well as the ability to argue about Alexander the Great.

The thing that really made the Jill episode stick in my craw, I suppose, is that it's one of the few times you sense Ruby Ferguson's authorial voice coming through. It is so absolutely what your mother or grandmother are going to recommend what you, a horsey girl, do, and it doesn't ring true with Jill's character as we know it. I know she says she's going to be secretary to the Prime Minister, but why not be PM herself?

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Pony Club Diaries (Kelly McKain) and A Pony Called Magic (Sheryn Dee)

School holidays have started here (I could fulminate about the strangeness of the "standard school year" with which we are now cursed, and its divorce from Easter, but won't) so my fellow critic has been released from the servitude of vicious maths tests and is now here ready to start reviewing.

We're going to start with books aimed at those who are starting to read for themselves, or are reasonably confident readers.

Magic and the Best Day, by Sheryn Dee
Happy Cat Books, £3.99

Aimed at children of around 5 and upwards, this book contains two short stories about Magic and Jessie. It’s an Australian series about Jessie, who is 7 and lives on an Australian sheep station. For her seventh birthday Jessie is given Magic the pony, and the book contains two short stories about them and the farm. The first, Magic and the Best Day, is about the great day when Jessie is given Magic. Her parents teach her to tack him up and groom him, and Jessie has her first ride. A Big Day Out has Jessie and Magic going on an illicit ride out, and Jessie loses Magic and herself. This is a story with a moral - no going off anywhere without asking Mum and Dad - but it doesn't clobber the reader with good behaviour rules too hard.

These are gentle stories for reading before bed; and we both liked them. They have a lot of charm and some gentle humour, and farm and family life is nicely observed. Jessie, in these stories at least, is a remarkably equable child: bright and sunny all the time, but these are comfortable stories, not meant to challenge and not the worse for that.

What does let them down is their see-sawing between accuracy and the unbelievable in a way that’s quite breathtaking. Tacking up Magic is well and carefully described, but learning to trot, and indeed ride, is apparently instant. The illustrations suffer from the same bizarre mixture of accuracy and oddity, so that on one page you have an accurate picture of the underside of a horse’s hoof, and on the next a pony whose legs look as if they need a very long session with the hose. Depending on what sort of parent you are, these will either drive you demented and leave your child pleading with you to shut up and get on with the story, or you will swallow nobly and carry on, enjoying what is a sweet and gentle read.

Pony Camp Diaries: Kelly McKain
Stripes Publishing, 2007. £3.99
A series: so far there are 5 books
Kelly McKain's website

A homegrown series, it’s written in diary form, and each book is about the adventures of one of the girls who on holiday at Sunnyside Stables, where they have a pony allotted to them for the week. It's aimed, we thought, at children of 8 upwards - certainly primary age and no older.

We read the first in the series, Sophie and Shine. Sophie doesn't have a pony of her own, and is given Shine to look after for the week. The other campers are all girls, and they have the usual parade of lessons, outings and an end-of-camp gymkhana, plus a well pitched mystery.

What happens with the ponies is good and accurate (which is more than can be said for the illustrations). We disagreed about the way the technical bits are described. Miranda said "if you weren't horsey, you wouldn't have a clue about what was going on. If you're not horsey, how are you supposed to know what transitions and dressage are?" I thought Kelly McKain had wisely resisted the temptation to explain what would be incomprehensible to a non-rider and clutter up the story. The one thing that did prickle at me was the letter from the stable owner that starts the whole thing off. "Your pony can't wait to meet you!" it says. Most of the riding school ponies I've known, when I led them out to greet their bumpety beginner, were plainly thinking "Oh gawd, here we go again."

Miranda liked the style in which it was written, and the diary format. For her the style is normal. For her fussy mama, it was plain irritating, and at one point I was so infuriated by the relentless use of the exclamation mark I was reduced to counting them to see if there were any pages on which they'd been missed out. I think my daughter was rather more taken by the book than her comment here would suggest. “It’s not something I’d pick up again – well, I would, but I’d only pick it up if there was nothing else to read.” So, our verdict. Well, I'd agree with Miranda. It's a good enough read, but is there something about the characters that grabs you, that gives you that sense that yes, you know how this feels, and you want more? No.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

New pony book catalogue

now out - I'm hoping no one orders Hua Ma the Flower Pony too soon, as I haven't actually finished it yet......