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 habituĂ© 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