Thursday, 20 December 2012

Books of the Year 2012

This post has been bubbling away for a while now, but has kept falling to the bottom of the list of things to do. We are still trying to move house and I am still spending hours disinterring the junk of ages and attempting to sort it out. The people at the tip no longer bother to tell us what to put where, as they know we know.

Reading has been something I've managed in five minute bursts, usually while waiting for something else to happen. But this year has not been a total washout on the reading front: far from it.

There has been some fine series fiction. Victoria Eveleigh's Exmoor stories (Orion), have been republished and re-written to good effect. Belinda Rapley's Pony Detectives series (Templar) is an exciting new series for the slightly younger reader. Maggie Dana has been re-writing and re-issuing her Timber Ridge Riders books. She has a particularly good appreciation of the ups and downs of teenage life, and the latest, Wish Upon a Horse is one of her best. I particularly enjoyed Angela Dorsey's oddly named but utterly absorbing Whinnies on the Wind series (Enchanted Pony), set in northern Canada. The author has succeeded in keeping one central question unanswered in the four books I've read so far, leaving me still desperate to find out what happens.

Diana Kimpton's There Must be Horses (Diana Kimpton) is one of my stand out books of the year. Heroine Sasha is in care, and has been booted about from foster carer to foster carer. Her adoptive family have now rejected her, and she is on her way to yet another foster placement, with yet another social worker, her possessions crammed into a couple of bin bags.

I am an habitué of the parenting site Mumsnet, and one of the old chestnut topics which always brings forth heated debate is what age of child is most challenging - generally asked by mothers of two year olds, convinced that the two old is as bad as it gets. The thing about two is that most of its troubles are, although often spectacular and certainly noisy, containable. With teenagers, their mistakes can have profound and disastrous consequences not only for themselves, but for those around them. Declan, teenage hero of Sheena Wilkinson's Grounded (Island), carries on crashing through life in the same dramatic fashion he showed in Taking Flight.

Historical fiction has been well served this year: Troon Harrison has started a new historical series, and the first The Silk Road (Bloomsbury) successfully transported me to 1st century AD Asia.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I appear to have found myself a reputation as a hater of fantasy. I love fantasy; I loathe it when it's bad. 2012 has brought forth some excellent equine fantasy. Linda Benson's The Girl Who Remembered Horses (Musa) has a fascinating, and believable premise: in a post-Apocalypse world, the horse is now a rarely seen species. Humanity has to rely on its own energies to get around, and they have forgotten what horses could do for them. Elaine Walker's The Horses (Cinnamon Press), set in a Britain where the population has been reduced to a remnant, is a story with some very fine writing indeed. It comes highly recommended by the non-horsy members of my family too.

The Horses wasn't the only book to succeed with the non-horsy. My son and I often exchange books, but I never usually bother to try him with anything equine. He is off-horse; he does not do horses. That is what I am there for. However, he loved (as did I) Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races (Scholastic). Set in a fictional island somewhere in the Atlantic, the population relies on the water horses which live in the surrounding seas to provide a living. These are not romantic, gentle creatures: the water horses are killers, and the annual Scorpio races along the shore leaves horses and riders dead.  The story is violent, bloody, but utterly convincing.

Reprints have been somewhat quieter this year, but if I had to beg you to read just one of Patricia Leitch's Jinny books, it would be The Magic Pony (Catnip). Patricia Leitch is an under rated, and a brilliant, writer. The Magic Pony can be read as a straightforward (and a very fine) pony story; as a commentary on the nature of possession, and as an acute look at ageing and death. It is a wonderful, wonderful, book.

There has been some cracking non-fiction this year too. Sue Millard's One Fell Swoopis a book of brilliant cartoons about the Fell pony, which, allied to its witty and well observed text, make it a joy. I love equine travel writing, and Hilary Bradt's Connemara Mollie absorbed me from the first page. It is an unsentimental, and beautifully observed, story about the author's ride through Ireland. Susanna Forrest's equine memoir, If Wishes were Horses, is a triumph. It observes the equine world with a quiet and brilliant passion.

It's been a good year for the horse in books.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Guest Blog: Janet Rising on a vicious recruitment drive in Suburbia

Busted! Vicious recruitment drive in Suburbia!

They were there again yesterday as bold as brass; circling the churchyard, trawling for recruits, secret agents under their thin Christmas disguise, masquerading as Santa’s little helpers, sweeping up victims one at a time and taking only a circuit of the churchyard to gain followers for life. They knew what they were doing, and they were doing it in broad daylight, under the gaze of fully consenting parents.
Flashbacks washed over me like a tsunami as I bore witness to unsuitably dressed children lured to a few moments of seemingly innocent pleasure, their eyes wide, in a winding queue impatient for their turn, excited and breathless. Volunteering to be suckered in, their unsuspecting parents paying for the privilege, well oiled from mulled wine from the adjoining Christmas Fair and snapping away on their iPhones to record the moment for Grandma. To all intents and purposes a harmless bit of fun ‘for the kiddies’. Merciless, that’s what it was.

But I’ve got their number.

The perpetrators? Two oh-so-cute black Shetland ponies, carefully chosen for their furry appeal and their professionalism in knowing exactly how to work a crowd. A two-pronged attack at that –felt antlers wafting in the breeze, red pom-pom noses stuck to bridles, a ploy to sweep up any recruits unimpressed by mere equines. Oh the sheer nerve of it.

In broad daylight.

Their occupation? Pony rides.

The queue grew ever longer, future participants blissfully unaware of the real purpose, of what was to come. Those furry secret agents with their big eyes and their fluffy manes beckoned to a life some could consider glamorous, of galloping with the wind in your hair (not now love, get this helmet on) and of looking sexy in skin-tight breeches (best not look in the mirror), of controlling a quivering, powerful half-ton of horse who loves you unconditionally (but you’ll need to find a wall in which to ram it in order to bring it to a halt, and it’s likely to rub your jodhpurs to shreds against it – if it hasn’t already bucked you off in the mud).

Let there be no mistake: unless you’re loaded this innocent-looking treat leads to nothing but a lifetime of forking out for never-ending riding lessons, livery, vets bills and miscellaneous sundries – all for the love of horses. This, my friend, is where it starts. The trembling thrill of sitting astride the saddle, of entwining course horse hair around ones fingers, patting a warm neck and feeling soft lips brush against ones fingers as you offer a carrot – it all begins here. An instant hit that hooks you in and maps out the rest of your life. More intoxicating than alcohol, more addictive than drugs, it entices you with a £3.50 amble around the churchyard. Before you know it you’re working all hours to feed your habit, mucking out in the dark, upgrading your tack on an annual basis, reluctant to acknowledge that the reason your electricity bill resembles the national debt of a third world country is because your washing machine runs for 24/7 to keep the horse clothing up to scratch against the scrutiny of other owners at the yard.

Oh I’m onto them all right.

Not that it will make any difference. Once you’ve wised-up it’s too late, you’re hooked. And they know it. Ruthless, that’s what they are.

I just wish I were able to re-live it all again – the wonder, the thrills, the passion. What begins with a sit aboard a fluffy Shetland roller coasters you through the rest of your life, casting sanity and commonsense aside, leaving normality in its wake, an unstoppable adventure to bewilder the uninitiated, a madness never lost. Who knows how many life-changing rides will be given this Christmas? I only know I wouldn’t change a thing – and I envy those being lifted onto a fluffy black Shetland.
Get ready for the ride of your lives!

Janet Rising

Monday, 26 November 2012

Guest post: Jane Ayres on Black Beauty

My guest blogger today is, Jane Ayres, author of the Matty series. You can download Matty and the Racehorse Rescue for free today and tomorrow (26/27 November 2012).  The other two books are Matty and the Problem Ponies and Matty and the Moonlight Horse. All the profits from the books go to support Redwings Horse Sanctuary.

Black Beauty, past and present by Jane Ayres

I can’t actually remember the first time I read Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty.  I think it was over several sessions when I was staying with an aunt in Kent on a family holiday.  It was on the bookshelf along with other classics like Treasure Island and Little Women.   I was about eight years old, and got very upset about any kind of cruelty to animals.  I loved the illustrations in the book (and wish I could remember what edition it was).  I cried when I read about Ginger’s fate and got so angry I felt like tearing the pages out.  I wanted to attack the people who hurt Ginger.  I also felt like Ginger was being punished for being rebellious, whereas to some extent Black Beauty’s compliance and kind nature helped him to survive.

I was, and still am, greatly moved by the reason Anna Sewell wrote the book and the fact IT DID MAKE A DIFFERENCE.  She changed things for the better and that had a big influence on me.  Writers can change things.

Writing this post triggered me to find out more about Black Beauty’s author and I was surprised to discover that it was her only published book. It was written between 1871 to 1877, when her health was declining, confining her to bed and she often dictated the text to her mother. Published in 1877, when she was 57 years of age, Black Beauty is now considered a children's classic, but Anna originally wrote it for those who worked with horses, with her “special aim to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses."  The novel became an immediate bestseller,although Anna died five months after its publication, and Black Beauty is one of the best-selling books of all time.

When I think about the books that have popular appeal, the books that are universally loved, they all have empathic characters, and a compelling story.  These are the qualities that endure.  And if the story has compassion as a central theme, the book will live forever.  Black Beauty has all these, and has inspired a host of stories that feature a distinctive, beautiful black horse.  What is it about black horses?  What makes them so magnificent and appealing?  I’ve often wondered about this.  We associate black with darkness, and when applied to horses maybe it is the idea of the wild black stallion that we dream of taming. There are plenty of examples of this in literature, the one that immediately springs to mind being Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion and all the sequels (I recall a title called The Black Stallion and Satan).

I later read a book that I was convinced was called Black Beauty’s Daughters and comprised 3 stories, one each by each Josephine, Diana and Christine Pullein-Thompsons which I remembered as Black Ebony, Black Princess and Black Velvet, but looking at Jane’s page I see there were several versions of the Black Beauty Family, so maybe I remembered wrong.  I loved the idea of stories told by his descendants.

There have been various film versions of the book and even though I know the story inside out I still cry my eyes out when I watch them.  The cruelty always makes me despair at human nature and despite the eventual happy ending, I can never forget Ginger’s fate.

On a more cheerful note, the 1970s TV series The Adventures of Black Beauty (bearing no relation to Anna Sewell’s story apart from being set in Victorian England) brought a stunning black stallion onto our screens at Sunday teatime – played by at least 7 (or was it 10) different stunning horses.  Set in 19th century rural England, it created an idyllic picture of rolling green landscapes. The heroine, Vicky, (played by beautiful actress Judi Bowker) got to wear pretty long dresses and knickerbockers and cool lace-up boots and gallop to the rescue on Beauty every week.  I loved it!  I still have the theme tune on a 45” record (Galloping Home) and I had posters all over my bedroom wall of the stars and the horses.  Later additions to the show were sister Stacey Dorning and many years later the show was revived, set in New Zealand and I loved it all over again.  I get nostalgic thinking about it.  

I don’t know whether the Black Beauty series was a key factor in the birth of glossy magazine Lucky Rider. Although it only lasted a year or so, I would reserve my copy at the newsagent and eagerly await each new issue.  Beautifully produced and glamorous, it gave an insight behind the scenes and into the lives of the stars and horses – a kind of celebrity horse magazine. And the stars from Black Beauty, both equine and human, featured heavily.

I’ve meandered somewhat but going back to the start point for the post, Anna Sewell’s iconic book had an enormous influence on the future of animal welfare and may even have been the first pony book.   How wonderful if she could see the work today of animal welfare charities and horse sanctuaries.  She has been an enormous inspiration for me and her achievements were truly revolutionary, on so many levels.  That her book is so loved and revered today is a wonderful tribute to her. Long live Black Beauty.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Review: Diana Kimpton - There Must be Horses

Diana Kimpton: There Must Be Horses
Paperback, Diana Kimpton, £6.29
Kindle, £2.56, Kindle, $1.23,, $3.99

Diana Kimpton's website

Thank you to the author for sending me a copy of this book.

Diana Kimpton is best known in horse circles as the author of the Pony Mad Princess series, of which I am a fan.  There Must be Horses is her first essay into horse fiction for the older reader. It's only available (thus far) in Kindle format, but don't let that put you off. I have to say I am not a Kindle habitué, and if I get an e-book, it tends to take me longer to read, as I prefer your actual page to your virtual one. This book (file?), however, I finished in a day, and at the end was sitting with tears streaming down my face.

There Must be Horses is the story of Sasha. Her adoptive parents have given up on her, and when the book opens, she is off to yet another set of foster parents, for yet another temporary placement. She is now a hard-to-place child, too old to be cute, too spiky and difficult after a lifetime of constant rejection to make her an easy fit into a family. Her life has been reduced to a series of journeys with social workers to new foster placements, her belongings in black bin bags.

Sasha loves horses, but has had little to do with them, after a brief series of lessons while living with her adoptive parents. However, her new foster placement is at a stables which rehabilitates horses.  Sasha is not the only wounded creature at Joe and Beth's stables. Meteor arrives on the same day as Sasha, too petrified of humanity to let anyone near him.

What makes this book particularly interesting is that it is not only Meteor and Sasha who are only able to reject any friendly advance: Beth and Joe have had problems of their own. Sasha's dearest wish is to stay with them permanently, and she cannot understand why Beth and Joe will not let her. She is desperate to make herself indispensable, and the book follows her attempts, crowned with both success and disaster.

This book is an interesting study in why we reject each other. It's completely gripping. It's a moving and observant look at a damaged girl and a horse, and of their at least partial healing. It is also an absolute bargain at £0.77.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Tuesday giveaway

Another giveaway - completely different to Friday's. This one is a rather charming unicorn story. I am not normally a fan of the unicorn; not in his 21st century guise, anyway. This one does have a noble unicorn, but he is quite a worried beast too. No one can see him, save for one elderly man, and the unicorn does want to be seen. This is a charmingly told story, and it has beautiful illustrations, and a satisfyingly ambiguous ending.

If you'd like to be entered for the draw to win it, just add your name to the comments below.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Friday giveaway....

Friday giveaway .... though possibly not if you're easily offended. I have a copy of Judy Reene Singer's Horseplay, which I suppose you could just about consider a romance. It's more about the heroine sorting out her horse life, and the up
s and downs of the women she lives with. It is at times very funny. And occasionally quite rude. Those who have read it will know whereof I speak if I mention the vet. If you'd like this copy, which is very minimally exlibrary but really in pretty good shape, add your name to the comments. I will pick names out of a hat at some point on Saturday.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Comfort reading

I am about to give up, slope away and sleep on the sofa with the dog, for I have a cold. Usually I carry on regardless, my agricultural labourer genes usually up for slogging on, but today I have had enough. I am a bit goggled by the fact that we have NOWHERE TO LIVE. To be more accurate, we do, we're still living in the house, but the sale is hurtling towards a conclusion (good, because that's what we wanted, wasn't it?) but there is nothing for sale in the area we want to move to, and nothing to rent that has a garden, or that will allow dogs, if it has a garden. 

Today I am feeling completely overwhelmed by our imminent homelessness, and the vast amounts of sorting out I still have to do to de-clutter, and now I have a cold. And it is right at that drippy, miserable, temperature-y stage where the world seems a place viewed best from underneath the duvet. Comfort reading is what I need. One useful side-effect of the decluttering I have done is that I do at least know where some of my books are. Not all, I wouldn't go that far, but some. I do know where the book I would probably take with me if forced against a wall and forced to chose only one is (right next to me at the moment): and it's Veronica Westlake's The Ten Pound Pony

One luxury of writing a book is spreading yourself on your favourite topic, and I have spread myself on the subject of Veronica Westlake in one of my chapters on 1950s authors. The Ten Pound Pony is about a family who actually do struggle for money. They're not pony-book-poor, where there's still enough money for several ponies, a private education and a large house, or that classic term used by Olivia Fitz Roy to describe her Eton-educated, debutante-containing family in Orders to Poach - "the poorest family in Scotland". Jessica, Ann and Martin have no father, and their mother works part-time. The family are deliciously observed, and narrator Jess has a trenchant view of the world. They do of course get a pony, but it's a major slog. I love the almost tremulous wonder when the pony is finally theirs:

""We simply could not believe that she belonged to us... and we felt almost afraid as we smoothed her rough coat and tried to finger the mud off it..."

The ending is gloriously sentimental and I expect I shall cry, but on the plus (if somewhat revolting side) I expect that will help my nose, which as I write is morphing from drip to block.

If I finish The Ten Pound Pony, then I shall hit the Dick Francis. It seems a bit counter-intuitive to have stories of violence and wrong doing as comfort reading, but Dick Francis' strong, capable heroes - all really Sid Halley, with different expertises - sort everything out. Every time. And it is so comforting to enter a world in which everything will work out. Sid, I need you now. Add estate agency to the detective stuff. You know it makes sense.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Heroines on Horseback

which is the title of my book, will be out in March 2013. Here's the draft cover. It won't look like that when it finally emerges into the light of day.

It's about

the pony book, which galloped on to the children’s book scene with a flick of its rosetted bridle in the 1930s, and has remained a fixture ever since. Brave girls, nervous ones, scruffy ponies and ornaments of the show ring cantered through pony tale after pony tale, all fallen upon by an audience desperate to read anything that reflected their own passion for the pony.

Heroines on Horseback looks at the pony book through its beginnings in the 20s and 30s, to the glory days of the 40s and 50s, and beyond. I write about the lives and contributions of noted exponents, including Primrose Cumming, Monica Edwards, Patricia Leitch, Ruby Ferguson and the Pullein-Thompson sisters, as well as providing a wide-ranging view of the genre as a whole, its themes and developments, illustrators and short stories.

There are plenty of illustrations, and a bibliography.

And you can get it
Once it's published, from all the usual sources. You can also pre-order a copy from the publishers (Girls Gone By) or directly from me (and get a signed copy).

To pre-order
Email me with how many copies you’d like (see how hopeful I am there), or order directly from the Publishers. If you're from Australia or New Zealand, it's more cost effective for you to order direct from the Publishers.

Prices (ordered from me)
Australia/New Zealand/USA/Canada.........................£22.80

All prices include p&p

Once the book is delivered to me, I will send you a Paypal or Nochex invoice, so you can pay by credit or debit card. You are also very welcome to pay by cheque.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Interview: Belinda Rapley

My latest interviewee is Belinda Rapley, author of the Pony Detectives series. It's about a group of four girls: Rosie, Alice, Charlie and Mia who keep their horses at Rosie's farmhouse home.  It’s a solid and well-written series, which concentrates on the relationships between the girls and their ponies, and avoids the fantastic or romantic elements that have been added to the genre over the years.  

Can you tell me something about how you came to love the horse?

The honest answer is that I’m not quite sure how it came about, it crept up out of nowhere! None of my family had ever shown any interest in anything remotely horsey, and I grew up in suburbia with very little greenery anywhere near. I used to share my name with an ancient donkey on the Isle of Wight, and whenever we went over there on holiday I was allowed to lead her out for some cow parsley, which she loved. But I don’t think I ever crazed my parents for lessons, or a pony. On one holiday though my parents organised a hack and I sat on my first ever pony at the grand old age of 10. My sister went too, and we both had fairly regular lessons after that but for some reason she lost interest while my obsession with horses just grew and grew. At 16 I ran away from home to fulfil my dream of working with them. My parents became very supportive once they knew I was serious, even if they couldn’t accept it necessarily as a sensible idea. After a while I did return to London and an office job but once horses get into your blood, you can never fully leave them – thankfully. I moved to Suffolk / Norfolk border five years ago simply to be back in the countryside and to give myself the option to finally live the life I’d longed for. After sharing a friend’s horse, Pinto, last year, I became the immensely proud owner of an even more immensely proud, yet equally comic, Andalusian. I adore him.

When you left school, you worked in yards and as a riding instructor. Were there any particular experiences you squirreled away, thinking that one day they’d be good in a book?

Not consciously, no. In fact, I wish I’d squirreled away more but my memory’s so appalling that if I did squirrel something away I’d soon forget where to dig for it anyway! But while I’m thinking up ideas something in the foggy recesses often gets jogged and details emerge. One memory tends to lead to another, which is always quite nice, if a bit distracting. Moonlight, the stolen pony from Moonlight, Star of the Show, was based on my favourite pony at the riding school I went to (also called Moonlight, funnily enough). I used to dream incessantly about owning him and taking him to shows. He was awesome and somehow I always knew he would live on in one of my books. Some of the things that happen to Rosie have happened to me, too – like the cowpat situation, I’ll say no more... And I got the idea for the ghostly goings on in Puzzle, the Runaway Pony, from an enormous Danish Warmblood I knew called Sprout (his breeder had a sense of humour). He had the spookiest neigh I’d ever come across. If I was ever the last person on the yard in the dark and I heard him whinny it used to give me the willies and I’d end up running up the lane to the road, scaring myself all the way!
What made you decide to write a pony book series?

I’ve always, always wanted to write. I’m a bit of a dreamer and tend to think in stories rather than live in the real world most of the time (it’s a happy place to be). And because I love horses and could talk about them endlessly all day, every day (and I do....!) it seemed like not just the natural, but the only place to start. 

Which books (pony or not) have influenced you most in your own writing?

I love humour, and my favourite author is PG Wodehouse – the way he juggles so many balls, keeping them effortlessly in the air before catching them all at the end so neatly, is genius. I like catching all the balls in my stories, too. I know that doesn't necessarily reflect real life, but I think in these stories and for this age group it’s possible. Any humour in my stories tends to arrive courtesy of Rosie. I love her for the way she can lighten a serious situation, saving it from getting maudlin. I wish she’d been my best friend growing up. I'm also a huge fan of Alexander McCall Smith's The Ladies Number One Detective Agency. I love its attitude of simplicity, even when the darker crimes are being investigated. It feels like a very gentle world and that’s the kind I like! Apart from that, any detective books are definitely my cup of tea (and I love tea very much!).

A lot of modern pony series tend to take place in large livery yards. Yours is on a much more domestic scale: it’s four girls and their ponies. What made you decide to give your characters a relatively small-scale background?

I think a few things. First, I didn't want lots of adults hanging around, watching over the girls, checking out what they’re up to and being restrictive. If you have a large livery yard, the adults are pretty much unavoidable and it would be strange if they didn't step in now and again when the girls make mistakes or need help. Second, I wanted to inhabit a yard that I would have loved to have kept a pony at when I was younger. A large livery yard would need the odd unsavoury character in there, and clashes of personality, to make it realistic; I did'’t want that within the stables themselves. I wanted Blackberry Farm to be a cosy, fun yard for the girls, with the bad characters lurking elsewhere...

You write very movingly of the struggle one of your characters has with her new horse: she’s going backwards, and whatever she tries, things get worse. Is this struggle something you've seen at first hand?

This is something that’s really quite odd, with fact reflecting fiction. It wasn't written from first-hand experience, although as I've got older it increasingly bothers me that horses are a pet, yet are often subject to many changes of ownership during their lives. It’s easy to sell a horse on if things aren't quite working. I had a session with an Intelligent Horsemanship coach last year with my friend's horse, Pinto. It was so incredible to see the way horses can respond when treated in a certain way; it’s all about trust, leadership and trying to see things from their perspective, rather than our own human one. Classic Black Beauty. I wanted Phantom to be a dark force, but also to have a really understandable reason for that.

The odd bit is that, after writing this story, I got my horse, Jerezano. He came over from Spain at 6, having just been gelded and allegedly well schooled. He then stood in a field for 2 years before I stumbled across him. It was meant to be a straightforward case of bringing him back into work and away we go. It’s been anything but. Instead I've been on a journey of discovery, including the revelation that he probably hadn't done more than a few months worth of work in Spain before coming over here. It was like having an overgrown Bambi to begin with, and when he lost his confidence he began to throw his (unco-ordinated) weight around. But, after working out how some of the jigsaw pieces fit together we’re beginning to get somewhere. It takes time with any new horse – moving yards, moving owners. Suddenly everything’s new. The owner can rationalise it, the horse can’t. Jerezano brought that home really hard, which is why I ended up dedicating book 4, Phantom, One Last Chance, to him.       


You tackle some major themes in your books: death and grief. Was it a deliberate choice to include them, or did your characters take off and land you in surprising places?

I concentrate on trying to get the best plot I can and I'm not very conscious of the themes which develop around that. If I set out consciously to put some kind of theme in my writing it normally kills creativity. But I knew that I needed a bit of a lost soul to link into Phantom and Neve just grew from that. I do love the 4 main characters, though, they’re like best friends to me and they lead the way in the books. I simply follow.

Do you think the pony book has a valid role in a society where most people are never going to be able to have a horse?

Absolutely and whole heartedly. I didn't have a hope of owning a pony when I was younger, so any contact with horses – from a glimpse out of the car window, a picture in a magazine or my fortnightly lesson – was special. That’s what made pony books so precious to me. They allowed me to take a step into this amazing, ‘other’ world, giving me detail far beyond what I knew to imagine. It was the ultimate in wish fulfilment. So to flip the question round, I think that precisely because most people might not get to own their own pony, books about ponies have the potential to hold a special place for children. When I started writing the Pony Detectives it was exactly that kind of reader I had in mind.

What do you want people to take away from your pony books?

Very simply, whatever they chose to. Each book’s individual and personal to each reader, I’d hope, so I’d never like to put any expectations on anyone. Although, if everyone gets enjoyment from them, that would make me immensely happy!

Are there plans for more books in the series?

Yes! There will be two more coming out next year – I'm so excited about writing them, I can’t wait to head back onto the yard at Blackberry Farm for some more adventures and to solve pony crimes... Although, in a bit of a scoop, I can reveal that in one of the books the girls leave the Farm as they head off to summer camp. 

You’re written on your favourite pony books for the Guardian. Was it difficult to pick your top ten books? What almost made it?

It was difficult to just pick ten, but I sneaked round that by choosing one book from a particular series, or author and mentioning the whole series or other books by that author.  The book I would have loved to have included was The Pony Book by Nancy Roberts. It’s not a novel, but a book on pony care, which my parents gave me one Christmas years ago. I read it cover to cover countless times and I must have read the chapter about riding holidays about a thousand times. Just looking at the pictures now evokes such a strong memory. The book that I haven’t read yet, but am desperate to, one that I'm sure I would have put on the list if I had, is Fair Girls and Grey Horses, the Pullein-Thompson’s biography. I just love them. Blind Beauty, by KM Peyton, was another that nearly made it. Oh, and then there’s Ryan’s Master, about John Whitaker and Ryan’s Son. Ryan’s Son is, to this day, my favourite horse of all time. Well, at least equal with Desert Orchid and Kauto Star.

If you could press just one pony book (other than your own, of course) into the hands of a pony-loving child to encourage them to read, what would it be?
Lordy, I don’t know. Hmmm, just one...? Really...?! In that case, it would have to be a Shantih book, and I’d probably pick Jump For The Moon (by Patricia Leitch). So many strands, so well realised – it’s heart-breakingly wonderful.

What do you think are the differences between pony books now, and the ones you read as a child?

I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that, or at least answer it fairly. When I picked up a pony book as a child the desire to be immersed in the world I was reading about was all consuming. That enabled such a deep connection to a book that, years later, just reading the opening lines transports me back to that time. For that reason I don’t think that I can compare pony books now to the ones I used to read, not because of the content but because I'm approaching it with such a different mindset. I did love the sound of the old fashioned life, though, that’s something I do miss!

And lastly, as it’s Olympic year, what were your golden Olympic moments?

So so many! In fact, this year has just been amazing full stop for horsey moments. With the Olympics it has to be watching the dressage – it was so gripping and edge of the seat stuff that I was watching through my fingers. The tension was unbearable right to the last rider. Charlotte Dujardin is just an absolute hero to have held her nerve. Personally, sitting in front of the laptop, I boiled over completely! Show jumping was always my first love – I think because it was covered so much on television when I was younger - so I was a bit emotional about the team gold, but especially for Nick Skelton. I visited his yard once and stuck coloured stickers all over his horses and took pictures of them for a project I was doing during my Diploma in Horse Studies. It was all about angles. He was very welcoming, if slightly bemused. I remember making the phone call to ask him if I could visit his yard – I was totally awestruck and to this day can’t quite work out how, as a very shy 18 year old talking to one of my heroes, I even managed to get a word out!

I desperately wanted Lee Pearson to get his three gold medals, but thought that bagging a bronze, silver and gold was pretty legendary, as well as completing a neat full set. I felt bereft when the Olympics finished, not just for the equestrian sports but the whole occasion. Clare Balding excelled herself too, she was fab.

But, aside from the Olympics, it’s been a great year for racing, too, and I can’t not mention a certain horse by the name of Frankel. He’s hit the headlines this year and has been another horse that I could hardly bear to watch. My heart almost crashes out of my chest from before they set off to when they cross the finish line. I love horses, but they do put me through the mill! Still, they’re worth it a million times over.

Thank you Belinda!


Belinda Rapley's website
Belinda Rapley writes on her favourite horse books for The Guardian

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Elaine Walker: Fact, Fiction and Reality - Writing What I Know

Elaine Walker - Virtual writer-in-residence - October 2012
Elaine writes fiction and non-fiction about the horse. Her work has been featured at The Guardian Hay Festival and translated into several languages. Her book The Horses, mentioned in this piece, is an excellent post Apocalyptic story, in which a family who have been holidaying in remote Scotland find that everyone who lived in any community numbering more than a few is dead. The family are trying to survive on a Scottish farmstead, but life is desperately difficult, particularly when the family’s father dies. And then the horses come...

As well as lecturing in Creative Writing and English Literature, Elaine offers bespoke courses and mentoring in Creative Writing. Mention Jane Badger Books for a discount on courses and copies of Elaine's books - you can contact her via her website.

Writing Residency - week 4

For my final post, I'm going to talk about the way my connection with horses links to my academic and creative writing.

I didn't start writing so I could write about horses and I have more published articles, short stories and poems on other subjects. Yet out of my five books, three are about horses. They also feature in at least another four of the ideas for novels and non-fiction books percolating at the back of my mind. Writing what we know is perhaps inevitable - both Horse and To Amaze the People, came about because someone who knew the subject was needed to do the work. I happened to be in the right place at the right time. In fact, although Horse came first, the research for To Amaze the People, which began as my doctoral thesis, lead indirectly to it. This is the nature of writing for publication - the order in which books are published is not necessarily the order in which they are written. 

As I've mentioned in previous weeks, my own knowledge comes from long interest in horses. Like many children, especially girls maybe, I had an early love of horses. I had riding lessons for my fifth birthday and a pony on loan when I was about eight, then my own ponies from ten or eleven. 

My first pony, Shannon, as I saw her (age 9).
They were kept in borrowed, loaned and rented fields that were on the market as building plots - now I drive down the road where we lived and it's completely built up. My father loved horses too, and had spent his school holidays as a ‘pony boy’. This meant he took the local riding school ponies down to the beach to give children sixpenny rides to the pier and back. He had to walk up and down leading them all day, look after them between rides and then take them home at night. For this he got nothing except the ride to and from the beach but that was enough! He also loved western films and with my own love of reading, we had all the motivation we needed. 

Shannon and I out riding on Bryn Euryn, above Colwyn Bay, taken by my dad,
who walked many, many miles with us.
Reading Tolkien triggered an interest in research as I started to read the mythologies that inspired Middle-Earth and critical studies of The Lord of the Rings. My first fiction writing was a highly derivative fantasy, out of which emerged a character who still surfaces from time to time, getting less and less fantastical every time. One day I'll write his story, maybe - I gave him a bit part in The Horses, so there was a thread I could follow.

My academic work on horses came from a slightly different direction. I started my first degree when I was thirty and in the final term of the final year, did a module on seventeenth-century women writers. I decided to pursue the subject via an MPhil and a specialist in the seventeenth century happened to be on campus the day I went for my interview. She was in a hurry so invited me to talk over a sandwich in the pub. She sat down with half a lager and a huge beef bap and said, 'So, who do you want to look at?' The first name that came into my head was Margaret Cavendish, so that's what I said and my future changed direction from that moment. The more research I did on Margaret Cavendish, the more I came across her husband, William, Duke of Newcastle, who wrote books on horsemanship. At that time, the academic world considered it an odd thing for a royalist nobleman to do. This highlights the differences between what a riding and non-riding reader/academic could bring to the material, because it didn't seem odd at all to me. By the time I completed the MPhil on the Duchess, I was already committed to a PhD on the Duke and his horsemanship manuals. 

Research on the Duke of Newcastle has lead to a lot of interesting consultancy work - this is filming with Atacama Films for English Heritage at Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire, with Peter Maddison-Greenwell of  El Caballo de España in the saddle as the Duke.

Much of what we perceive about horses in culture and history is received information, shaped by many levels of knowledge and motivation. Horses are historically linked to elitism and that's still a pervasive image, even though they have similarly strong links to work and transport at the most everyday level. By the time I'd completed my PhD (which took eleven years), I had a new perspective that fed into the
shape of Horse and also The Horses.

William Cavendish, Marquis (later Duke) of Newcastle demonstrates the perfect seat for a horseman.
Humans are often relentlessly self-centred and in writing both fiction and non-fiction about horses, I didn't want - and will never want - to simply accept that humans are best equipped to make judgements and rules regarding other animals or consider them as a resource. The research I did on the Duke of Newcastle, for Horse and The Horses crossed, intersected and was all pulled together by the fact that I go out to my own horses every morning before I go to my desk. Even that needs looking at: are they mine? They are in my care, certainly, and they are my responsibility. Whether or not they are 'mine' in any sense that means something to them is another question. 

Me with Rowan as a two-year-old, just starting
 to get fluffy for winter.
The starting point for The Horses came when I was looking for epigraphs to set up the chapters for the Newcastle thesis. A colleague reminded me of Edwin Muir's poem, 'The Horses', which I'd known as a child. It came back to me in a rush and I went home and wrote the first chapter of what became the novel in a single sitting. Even though it then waited a long time to take off, the idea of missing a huge event had been with me since I was at school and saw a poster that asked the question, ‘What if they held a war and nobody came?’ Also the experience of arriving home from a family holiday, having seen no television or newspapers for a week, and finding the whole world shaken by a crisis was one I'd discussed with friends and thought had potential. 

While The Horses was languishing as a single chapter, I was reading a lot on environmentalism and came across mention of a bomb that would kill people but not damage property. The sad irony of that kick-started the story as the priorities of the modern world and the idea of a quiet apocalypse developed. I wanted to counter post-apocalyptic visions where ordinary people at once become gun-toting and violent and to explore the much older idea that ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’. I also wanted to challenge the idea that the dysfunctional family is the norm in the modern world. 

I've always been drawn to magical realism, which offers the room to explore inexplicable events that require a new way of seeing. Muir’s poem resonates with the great cultural importance of the horse whilst modern interest in horse psychology uses herd behaviour to improve our understanding of and relationships with horses.

I wanted to pull these two elements together without the implications of domination that mark the long-established historical relationship. What if humans were removed from all the things they understood? Horses, being instinctive, might offer insights humans have lost. Jo’s horses behave pretty much like my own and are intended to be fully 'real' horses, while being enhanced from the perspective that a greater communication process could be available to us if we took the time to recognise it. 

Not the best photo of Rowan, perhaps, but the one that 
captures her character perfectly!
I still like that idea and think anything that makes humans more inclined to be humble is good. Watching my own horses constantly leads me to question what I 'know' about them. That has lead me to all the writing I've done on horses so far, and I am pretty sure, will lead to whatever comes in the future. 

Left to right - Darius, Rowan and Topaz.


Elaine Walker
All photographs copyright Elaine Walker

Previous posts:
Reading Horses

Writing Horses, part one
Writing Horses, part two

Monday, 22 October 2012

Review: Patricia Leitch - The Magic Pony

Patricia Leitch: The Magic Pony
Catnip, 2012, £5.99

Thank you to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.

Patricia Leitch’s books are immensely satisfying; multi-layered: they succeed on so many levels. If you want to read The Magic Pony as a pony adventure in which a girl rescues a woman from dying somewhere she didn't want to; a mistreated pony from appalling conditions, and sees her own horse recover from a mystery foot injury, it works perfectly on that level. As a pony story, it is extraordinarily good, but it has much to say on ageing, and on death, and on how we perceive those around us.

The Magic Pony is the seventh in the Jinny series. Jinny is struggling with school (the intractability of algebra), and the utter frustration of a half term that has seen even she, normally uncaring about the weather, restricted to home in the face of the deluge that lasted until the last day of half term. And now the last day has come; it has dawned fine, but Jinny has to go to the dentist, and finish her algebra. When at last she is free, she rides Shantih into the dusk, but in a fit of fury at the things that restrict her; family, school, she hurtles with Shantih towards a high stone wall. Shantih crashes on the other side, and is lamed. Nothing Jinny or the vet try, over the coming weeks, seems to work.

In a search for a horsey expert who will be able to divine the cause of Shantih’s lameness, Jinny tries a nearby riding school. It is a hell-hole, with half-starved horses, overworked and uncared for. Amongst them is Easter, an ancient grey pony in whom Jinny can still see the remnants of beauty. Jinny is determined to rescue Easter. Over-reaching all of this is Kezia, the Tinker woman, who has been taken into hospital to die. She wants to die as she lived, in the hills, within reach of the outside, but she needs Jinny’s help to do it. Jinny is uniquely placed amongst those Kezia knows: a child outside the traveller society, she will be able to marshal the right sort of help.

Death is not the normal preserve of a pony book; not the death of another human being, at any rate. Neither is age. It struck me when reading the book that sadly, little has changed since the book was written in 1982. When she learns that Kezia is dying, and wants to see her, Jinny’s first reaction is horror: in her life “people were either alive or else you heard they’d died. You didn't visit them, knowing they were dying.” The dying are tidied away, neatly, in hospital. That is where all right-thinking people believe they should be, and Jinny at first unthinkingly parrots this line.  She comes, though, to recognise that the right-thinking way is not necessarily the way for everybody, and she, and those adults she knows will be sympathetic, help Kezia to sign herself out of the hospital.

The unexpected help too. This is one place where Patricia Leitch is so clever: we typecast people, and expect them to react in certain ways. Mr Mackenzie, owner of the farm next door to Finmory, is never slow to point Jinny’s stupidity out to her. He is the bastion of good sense, and has little time for her flights of fancy. But Kezia has asked to die in Mr Mackenzie’s bothy, and Jinny asks him, and he says yes. Kezia was a “bold one” in her youth, says Mr Mackenzie, a beauty. “It’s the sleepless nights I've spent tossing on my bed thinking of that one. Aye, So it is.” Jinny hurries away, not wanting to know. It is difficult to see the old; the middle aged even, and to think that they were once as you are now.

The old women in Kezia’s ward “the parchment skins, gaping mouths and white wisps of hair,” remind Jinny of the awfulness of the riding school, where she felt “the same hopelessness, the same empty endurance.” The pony Easter “is like a ghost – so old she seemed hardly there, unable to stand against the assault of the light.”  And yet Jinny is able to see, every now and then, what lies within both Kezia and Easter. The outer shell does not matter: there is still fire within.

“She looked up out of the window again. Keziah was tall and stately, the robes she wore about her shoulders trailed to the ground. She rode a white mare, proud-stepping with eye imperial and cascading mane and tail. A handmaiden walked by her side, and a page boy walked at the head of her palfrey. All the fairytales Jinny had ever read, all the illustrations she had ever seen of queens upon white horses, or wise women, or elfin lands, took hands and danced in Jinny’s sight. She watched spellbound.
For a minute they dropped out of sight as the track looped downhill and when they reappeared the spell was broken.”

It is not just the skins of the aged Jinny, and we, need to learn to see beneath. There is Miss Tuke, the generally dismissive owner of the local trekking centre, who sets about the owner of the pathetic riding school.  Brenda, who runs the riding school, once had dreams herself, but has been utterly ground down by life. 

“For a moment before Brenda turned away she smiled at Jinny, her mask drawn back, and, for a second, Jinny saw quite clearly the girl who had once shared her dreams.”

When Kezia’s death comes, Patricia Leitch meets it head on. There is no “passing away”, or even the dreadful modern “passing” (passing away-light? Is one only half dead?).

“Easter came slowly towards them. She reached out her head and breathed over Jinny’s tear-stained face, exchanged curious questioning breath with Shantih, then stood waiting.
‘Keziah’s dead,” said Jinny bleadkly. She’s gone. No more. Dead.’

This is a brilliant book; in which every time I read it, I see different things. There is Jinny herself, meeting life head on; flawed and intolerant but fighting her way towards understanding the world and how it works; “the right thing to do.” There is the glorious mixture of myth and faith: the Red Horse, personification of the horse goddess Epona, and the unspoken communication between human and horse.

It’s the sort of book that pierces you with the beauty of its language. Jinny’s “great camel groan” when she has to get back to her algebra and not ride Shantih, is the sort of thing that resonates over the page to anyone who has had to turn away from what they really want to do and get on with the dull, the oppressive, and the everyday.  And the horse, the wonderful Shantih. There are few, if any, pony writers better than Patricia Leitch at capturing the blazing brilliance of the Arab. Shantih, cured by Kezia’s herbs is restored and vital again.

“Jinny felt her drop behind the bit, her weight sink back on her hindlegs as she reared, struck out with her forefeet, then with an enormous bound was galloping up the track to the moor.
Shantih was all captured things flying free, was spirit loosened from flesh, was bird again in her own element.”

Thank you to Catnip for offering a copy of The Magic Pony to readers of this review. The competition has now closed, and the copies (they awarded two) will be on their way to the winners shortly.

If you'd like to learn more about Patricia Leitch, here's some useful links and further reading:

My interview with Patricia Leitch
Susanna Forrest has a chapter about Patricia Leitch in her excellent If Wishes were Horses
Susanna Forrest's editor located the real Finmory
Patricia Leitch's books - an illustrated bibliography