Thursday, 29 March 2012

Morning walk

I'm sorry for the almost total failure on the morning walks front. We were looking after my sister in law's dog for six months, and as she's not totally reliable at recall, had to be on the lead during walks, and I wimpishly didn't take the camera as well as two dogs, leads, pooh bags etc. Anyway, small dog has now returned to her Cornish fastness, and the labrador and I have reverted to our usual routine.

It's unseasonably warm here in the UK: June weather, with the trees still bare. I'm walking at just gone dawn, and the half light makes even the industrial sheds on the skyline look romantic. It'll be interesting to see, now that our planning laws have a presumption towards saying yes to development provided it's sustainable (and I can foresee much dancing on the head of a pin concerning the definition of that one) how many more sheds and housing estates we acquire.  It's almost certain the view below won't be around for long. Developers have an option on the field on the left, and have plans for around 130 houses. People do have to live somewhere, and this is probably the least awful plan, but I shall miss this walk. I hope the larks survive the housing development.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

New books out March-April

There's a decent amount of books out in the next few weeks, but first, some books I missed:

Anne C Hambleton: Raja, Story of a Racehorse
The author is an ex steeplechase jockey who now events, so the detail in this should be authentic!
It’s about what happens to a 
racehorse after his track career: not something traditionally dealt with
in horse stories, which tend to finish with the glory of the finishing line. The book is $12.00 - not as far
as I can see available in the UK, but it will be soon.

Alex Brown: Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro & His Legacy
Actually out last year, this is the story of a horse who won the Kentucky Derby by the largest margin
for sixty years; was destined for glory it was thought, but broke down in the Preakness, and eventually
fell victim to laminitis. Glen View Media, £19.15, Kindle, £5.83.

Kirsten Radtke & Bernd Radtke: The World of the Tahawy Bedouin and
Their Pure-bred Arabian Horses
Out on 31 March, published by Medina at £35.00 is a history of the Tahawy Bedouin and their horses.
Records of the horses were mostly oral, but after much research this book includes over 30 pedigrees,
as well as rare and hitherto unpublished photographs.

Judy Steel: Horse Tales & Saddle Songs
On 17 March a revised edition of this anthology of horse poetry was issued.

Robert Hudson and Marie Philips:  War Horses of LettersThis is the book version of a series which originally appeared on Radio 4.  Napoleon’s horse, Marengo,
and Wellington’s, Copenhagen, write to each other. This series aired late at night; if you’re easily
offended, don’t buy it. It is distinctly irreverent, but it is very funny. 
Two horses divided by war, but
united by love. Out on 15 March, £8.99.

Susan Kiernan-Lewis
Out on 26 March on Susan’s own imprint, San Marco Press, is her post-Apocalyptic story about an
American family marooned in Ireland after a nuclear incident, which has immobilised all cars. Horses
are now essential. 
The book is $6.99 for a week and then there will be a a free promotion starting April 2-5.
There will be a giveaway of the print on demand edition through Goodreads until April 8.

Diane Lee Wilson: Tracks
The always reliable Diane Lee Wilson has another historical story coming out. Set after the American Civil
War, it’s about two boys from completely different backgrounds working on the transcontinental railroad. And
their animals. Published in hardcover on 3 April, £10.85., and as an ebook: nookbook, $8.99.

Sheena Wilkinson:  GroundedAfter her excellent debut horse novel, set in Belfast, Sheena Wilkinson has followed it up with Grounded.It takes Declan’s story on, and sees him torn between home and ambition. Out on 1st April, it’s £8.99 in

Lisa Williams Kline:  Wild Horse Spring
Out on 23rd April for £6.99 is this book from the 
Sisters in All Seasons series.

Janet Whyte:  Rescue Rider
Part of the Lorimer Sports series, this is out in hardback at £10.85, and in paperback at £3.02. It’s
saving the world, one horse at a time. Nook Book, $7.33. Kobo, £5.39.

Maia Wojciechow: A Kingdom In A HorseOut on 5 April 2012 is a re-issue  by Sky Pony Press of this story of a boy trying to come to terms
with his father’s decisions, and his own actions. Pb £5.99, Nook Book, $6.59, Kindle £4.10

Troon Harrison:  The Horse Road
Published by Bloomsbury on 12 April is this historical story, set in Central Asia, 102 BC. Kallisto has been
taught her equestrian skills by her nomad mother, which she needs when the Chinese Army invades, on a
mission to steal horses. About, I think, the Akhal-Teke, so far a neglected breed in equine literature!
PB £5.99. Kobo, £4.91, Nook Book, $10.36.

Maggie Dana:  Racing Into Trouble
The second book in the re-issued and updated Timber Ridge series is out in paperback this month.  Angela
Dean, a thorn in Kate’s side in the first book, is continuing her winning ways. The book’s already out on
Kindle for £1.84, and as a Nook Book for $2.99. Read my 
review of the first book here.

Sorry this isn't illustrated: Blogger is being a complete pain and will not upload photos at the moment.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Review: Susanna Forrest: If Wishes Were Horses

Susanna Forrest: If Wishes Were Horses
Atlantic, hb £16.99, pb £12.99, Kindle £8.78

Susanna Forrest's website

It doesn't normally take me too long to write reviews, as I am usually pretty certain before too long about what I want to say. What stymied me with this book was having to read it again almost immediately after I'd finished it, as I liked it so much.  Susanna Forrest has the gift of writing about horses with passion and insight, whilst avoiding the sentimental. No rainbow bridges here. No parades of pretty horses either, and certainly none of that discomfort you get when peering at someone's private obsession, because although billed as a "memoir of equine obsession," Susanna Forrest's experiences are those of most of us who love horses. She does not concentrate only on her own experiences, but on aspects of the horseworld that might explain that obsession.

There is the genesis of riding ("the first little girl who loved a pony ate it"); Swedish "worst ones", girls written off by the welfare system, who find a way out of their difficulties through horses; pony books; pony racing; and side-saddle - what horses meant to the Victorian girl, able to be daring in her corsetted habit in a way she simply could not be on foot. The chapter on Pat Smythe does not concentrate just on her successes as one of the first women to be allowed to compete in Olympic equestrian events, but on her amazing progression in a world dominated by men, the people she and her groom Paula called "the Colonels". And there is an exploration of the old chestnut flung at every girl who rides once she hits teenagerhood - is the love of horses a sublimation of sexual desire?

Susanna Forrest's descriptions are brilliant: here she is on an early riding lesson:
"On a wintery day we perished in the winds that swept across the old quarry. My teacher told me that my new thick string gloves made my hands too clumsy, so I buried my bare fingers into Gipsy's scurfy brown mane and didn't cry till I got back to the car after my lesson."
And there you have the obsession that overrides everything else; comfort, the desperate urge to cry.

Her obsessions are, of course, mine. There are many, many parts of this book where I was completely and absolutely in sympathy with the author: the attempts to pick up riding again in adulthood; the paucity of school friends who share your obsession; the snide comments by teachers on your horsiness, and the recognition, in your teenage years, that perhaps in order to survive in this world, it might be an idea to moderate your obsession, or at least not express it. And the fear of riding which can strike in later life, "the terrors [which] furled out in front of me like furiously growing branches."

I wonder what it's like to be my parents, or indeed Susanna's, parent to a child immersed totally in a world outside the home.  Our mothers both liked horses; Susanna's rode and had horses, and found her daughter Tav, the pony she looks after and rides through Norfolk. The lyrical chapter on Tav is as good a portrayal of the relationship between girl and pony as anything you will find.

She makes you see what she sees: the clever pony nature of Tav; the slew of sparkling horsy ephemera in Olympia's shopping village; the tension of the boy jockey waiting for the pony race to start ("Tom pulled up his  yellow-plastic goggles and retreated into some private, nerve-rattled space); the flat landscape outside Berlin where she rides.

My one quibble with this book is a completely unreasonable one.  By the time I reached the chapter on show jumping, and how it has virtually vanished from the public radar,  I was so used to finding the author a god among women when it came to equine insight that I expected a 10 point plan on how to rescue show jumping and its image. But, as the author makes clear, the image of show jumping is so caught up in how the equine world sees itself that rescuing it  is not going to be straightforward. Susanna describes her visit to Olympia, and the contrast between the sparkly pinkification of stuff sold to horsey girls, and the sheer athletic power of the showjumping they are all there to see, a power almost completely ignored by terrestrial television, who prefer their horses in conjunction with celebrities like Katie Price.

Is the disappearance of equestrian sport on television to do with the trivilisation of the horsey world: the mindset that slings bling at everything? Which allows those outside the sport to dismiss it as the sparkly fantasies of little girls? Does the horse world need to de-bling its act? After all, the power and drama of the sport should speak for itself:
"In a ringside seat, tucked behind the advertising panels for H&M, you can be close enough to hear the rhythmic, fluttering snort that horses make to mark every stride. You can see the way their fine-skinned coats wrinkle for a split second on their necks or their quarters; you can hear their joints click as they land after a fence and sometimes a quiet 'oof' noise of effort that comes from their chests. I got close enough to feel the disturbance in the air as they passed, their lower lips wobbling with concentration."
But this isn't a book which offers to sort out the ills that afflict the horse world; it observes it with quiet passion, and does that quite brilliantly.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The One Dollar Horse revisited

WARNING: Contains spoilers!

It's been a very long while since I read a book which left me so disquieted, so much so that I've been thinking about it all weekend, and wondering why on earth the book for me didn't quite gel.  I think light has finally dawned.  It's the fairy godmother character, Mrs Smith, who bothers me; or to pin it down a bit, her position as fairy godmother and enabler of the heroine's dreams.

I find the beginning and the end of the book credible; the gritty reality of East London at the beginning and the heroine's struggle to even ride, let alone have a horse, and odd though it might seem, the Badminton triumph at the end. Some people just are that good.  And it is possible for people who come from nothing to succeed in a world notorious for needing wads of cash to do so.

Mrs Smith is someone the heroine already knows; she goes to tea with her regularly. Mrs Smith had a horsy background herself, but lost her money through a disastrous marriage. She sees the ability and promise of success in Casey, and helps her by training her and giving her support. That I can entirely see.

What I don't see is the fact that it is Mrs Smith who turns out to be Casey's mystery benefactor - the one whose sponsorship takes her onto that other plane. In a novel which preaches hard graft, it seems odd that success depends on a wave of a magic wand; it's just a bit too much of a lottery win, an X factor unlikeliness. To me it says that yes, you can achieve the fairytale, but your hard work and talent will not be enough without that staggeringly unlikely stroke of good fortune.

I don't know. Am I being too puritanical about this? I wanted the heroine to succeed but in a way which would give hope to people who want to ride, not one which says you need to be lucky in your friends.  I suppose the author gave herself a very short time frame: if your heroine is going to be the youngest Badminton winner ever, a more realistic, though lengthy, slog, round as a groom and rider in an eventing stable as she works her way up just isn't going to happen.

I'm puzzled still by why I personally feel so let down by this. I'm not a teenager, so I don't know if the book's readers are going to think well, this is all very well, but I know no Mrs Smith is going to happen for me, so really this horse business is all a dream, isn't it? Or what? How seriously will they take it?  It's something I want, for horses to be more accessible (see the Ebony Horse Club in Brixton, and the Emile Faurie Foundation).  When I read in my teenage years K M Peyton's Fly-by-Night, in which Ruth buys an unbroken pony and has a desperate struggle to keep him, I identified with Ruth (although I came from a solid middle class background, I knew there was no way I would ever have a pony) and her fight. What Ruth did I could see myself doing.  Will readers of The One Dollar Horse see a way to achieve their dreams, or just a fairytale?

I must stop thinking about this, I really must.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Lauren St John: The One Dollar Horse

Lauren St John:  The One Dollar Horse
Orion, hb: £9.99, pb £6.99

Lauren St John's website

Thank you to Orion for sending me this book

It's a rare pony book that deals with equine life in London, let alone inner city London, in the shape of Hackney. Horses in London are unusual: they need space, and space in London is expensive and tends to be given over to humans. 15 year old Casey Blue, the heroine of this novel, lives on the eighth floor of a tower block in Hackney. She cannot afford riding lessons; she and her father live hand-to-mouth now that he has emerged from prison, and is unable to get a job. Hope Lane Stables, at which Casey volunteers, is "a last ditch stand against the city's concrete advance."

Casey has a seemingly unachievable aim: she wants to ride at Badminton. The moment that becomes apparent, you are aware that the novel is almost certainly going to have to move outside London, and away from the gritty, scrabbling round for scraps reality that is the novel's strength in its first section. Cross country courses (with the exception of Greenwich, which is a. not exactly open to all and b. not permanent) are short on the ground in London, and if cross country is your aim, you will have to gallop over large screeds of green at some point.  That is the thing with trying to do horses on no money: sooner or later, particularly if you want to compete, you are going to need large amounts of it from somewhere, even if you do have a one dollar horse, which Casey has: a wild, starved creature close to death her father buys for all the cash he has on him: a one dollar note he found in the street.  Sure enough, Casey has a fairy godmother; a mystery sponsor who pays her way.

I wonder what this novel is telling children; nothing that isn't true, I suppose,  If you come from a working class background, you have a stupendous mountain to climb if you want to ride competitively. Competing with horses is expensive, and you will need hard work and an awful lot of  luck to get hold of the money necessary and when you get it it it will almost certainly take you away from your roots. Casey moves to Kent to work on her eventing, and starts to find Hackney alien when she returns, and to feel a distance from her father when he visits.

It is a common complaint of the pony book; that it is elitist, full of middle class and monied girls and their ponies. This book has them, but has a genuinely working class girl with a convincing struggle, though it still  ticks all the classic pony story fairytale boxes; girl gets horse; has a special relationship with him; competes successfully. It shows many things I like in a story: a girl working hard against great odds; a cast of interesting characters, a villain who can actually ride and yet, and yet.... I finished the novel feeling there was something missing.

I think it's the X Factor. This book reminded me of the X Factor. Work hard enough; want it enough, and you too can have your dream, is what the X Factor tells people, though we all know that's tripe: however much singing might be your dream, if you can't sing in tune success will probably not happen.  I think in a novel that starts off realistically enough, it's the total and utter contrast with what comes next that jars: the contrast between grinding poverty and struggle and staggering success. The book almost reads like two novels. If I can compare this book to anything published recently, it's Sheena Wilkinson's Taking Flight, in which the working class hero ends up being offered a job at the stable, which, in the scheme of things, is a bit more likely than competing at Badminton when you're not out of your teens. If you start off reflecting real life, I'm not sure how wise it is to switch so completely to fairytale mode.

That said, I'm sure this novel will find many fans. It's an involving read; the characters are interesting (I particularly liked Casey's father). I liked the portrayal of the eventing world and its reaction to Casey - the secondhand breeches left hanging on her trailer door for her were a neat touch.  Maybe I'm being overly cynical: there's nothing wrong in showing dreams coming true.  Fairly hefty leaps of imagination are often required in children's books. I made that leap while reading the book, but when I put it down, after finishing the last page, felt oddly flat; oddly short-changed.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Review: Elaine Walker - The Horses

Elaine Walker: The Horses
Cinnamon Press
10.03.2012: Update on availability: available via the author's website, £9.00, including p&p. Mention this site when ordering and get a £1.00 discount.

I've had this book for a while, so many apologies to the author, who must have been wondering if I would ever get round to reading it. Initially, I admit, I was put off by the blurb, which says the book "uses magical realism to stunning effect; the disruption of the boundaries of the physical and the psychological and a constant sense of strangeness add to a  powerful story that is as compelling as it is important."

What I thought I was going to get was something that was consciously difficult; which paraded its shifts of focus in that sort of authorial display of cleverness that makes you wonder just whose clothes, or lack of them, are being paraded.

What I actually got was one of the most absorbing books I have read in a long while. It's set in a post-Apocalyptic Scotland. A neat nuclear family, parents, son and daughter were on holiday in remote Scotland, only to find that anyone living in a centre of population is dead. They have been living on a remote Scottish farm, attempting to survive through farming. The father though, is near to death, after a kick from one of their cattle. The father does die, but when he does, a herd of horses gallops over the hills, and takes up residence with the family.  Joel, the son, knows that he will have to journey to the nearest town to get more supplies; brave whatever has de-populated the world and get enough for his own family to live.

Ever since I read Peter Dickinson's Changes trilogy, which deals with a world in which machines are feared, and society has returned to a Mediaeval level, I've been fascinated with how the world would cope in disaster. How would I cope if I had to survive just by what I could produce? How would anyone cope? So, this book was right up my street in that respect. It deals with the family's slow emergence from their initial isolation, and what happens as they gradually encounter more survivors of the disaster. It is genuinely gripping. The horses are an essential part of the action, though there's a bit more to them than the usual horse. Their interaction with the human subjects of the book is more considered. As to what the horses actually are, and why they're there, no explanation emerges; one has to take them as read, but that isn't a problem. They, and the vast majority of the novel's more fantastic moments, fit into the plot seamlessly.  There is the odd episode which jars; the appearance of a doctor in the absolute nick of time seems just too unlikely, but in the main believability isn't a problem.

The difficulty with combining post apocalyptic struggle with magical  realism is that there still needs to be enough believable struggle. Life needs to be convincingly hard, and generally here it is. Once you've introduced the possibility of the fantastic solving problems, it must be a temptation to wave that wand and sort out your characters' problems through it, but it's a temptation Elaine Walker generally resists.

What she has done is produce a gripping study of man's reaction to disaster. It is beautifully written and observed, and  contains one of the most powerful pieces of observation of  personal disaster I've read in a long time. There is one particular scene in the novel which will stay with me for a long time; what happens as Joel rescues the French children from the nearby town takes your breath away.

I am looking forward to reading it again.