Sunday, 30 November 2014

PBOTD 30th November: Mary O'Hara - Thunderhead

Mary O'Hara's Thunderhead is another of those books it took me decades to read. Unlike other books I've talked about in PBOTD this wasn't because I knew it existed but was condemned to lust after it, fruitlessly, because neither the local library not local bookshops had it. Oh no. I actually had Thunderhead. I had the Dragon paperback version published in volume format. And I had My Friend Flicka too. I didn't read that either, and I'm not entirely sure why. It wasn't because I had a thing about Dragon books, because I happily read the other Dragon pony books I had (from memory, all Christine Pullein-Thompson titles) time after time, but something put me off the O'Haras. I can only think it was the volume format that put me off, because I was certainly quite happy to read about American boys and their horses. Walter Farley's Black Stallion series and G Rutherford Montgomery's Golden Stallion books were as meat and drink to me.

Now that I have read the whole series (and absolutely loved it) I wonder what I'd have made of it as a child, because I'm not absolutely certain these are children's books: certainly not Thunderhead. Whilst the books feature Ken, son of ranchers Rob and Nell, Thunderhead's focus is certainly far more on the relationship between mother and father.


Rob and Nell's relationship in Thunderhead is close to disintegration as the horse business is less and less successful. Rob cannot bear to fail, or be questioned. Fortunately their son, Ken does succeed in taming Thunderhead, Flicka's wild colt, but the horse longs to revert to his wild nature, even though Ken hopes he will save the family fortunes by becoming a successful racehorse.
You're left with the conviction that whatever happens with the horse, the underlying tensions and rifts between Nell and Rob are far deeper than anything that can be cured with a horse. It's certainly not the stuff of which the everyday pony story is made.

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More on Mary O'Hara

Saturday, 29 November 2014

PBOTD 29th November: Susan Chitty - My Life with Horses

Susan Chitty's My Life & Horses is the story of Crony. Crony doesn't have much in the way of qualifications, but she knows what she wants out of life. She wants to work with horses. My Life & Horses is not the sort of novel that sees our heroine using her life as a groom as a springboard to greater equestrian achievements. Gillian, a user of my forum, describes the book as like Monica Dicken's One Pair of Hands, only with horses.

Getting chased around the feed bins by an amorous employer certainly isn't part of the girl groom's life as depicted in the pony novel, though it is hinted at in Dorian Williams' Wendy books. This rather more honest look is probably due to the fact this book was written for adults, rather than children. Having said that, the first chapter appeared in the PONY Magazine Annual for 1965, with these immortal lines:
"My friends... call me Crony for short because it rhymes with pony and I'm mad about them. I've always been mad about them. At the age of four (they tell me) I got up on a chair at Christmas and delivered a lecture entitled "Constipation in the horse. Its Cause and Cure", and I haven't looked back."

I love this little sketch of family life, with its all too believable portrait of the horse-obsessed child lecturing her family, but with that little sting in the tale. Does Crony really believe that's what she did? Because the only evidence she has is what her family tell her. Or is it something that's entered the realm of family myth, having been inflated in the telling from a simple childish description of ponies?  It's all delicious stuff. 

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More on Susan Chitty

Friday, 28 November 2014

PBOTD 28th November: Gillian Baxter - Ribbons and Rings

I will make heroic efforts to get myself back on track for this piece. Gillian Baxter's Ribbons and Rings (1960) nods towards one of Gillian Baxter's other loves: fast cars. Her hero Shaun O'Rorke has been trying to earn his living as a driver. Unfortunately, he's crashed rather often, and so has decided to come home from Spain, with his stallion Toreador, and make a living from horses.

Parents and those responsible for teenagers don't always get an easy ride in Gillian Baxter's books. There to help Shaun are girl groom Pauline, and the reluctant debutante Leslie Marsh. She wants to help Shaun make a success of riding a wealthy owner's show jumpers, but her parents are violently opposed to this plan.

The Marsh parents finally acknowledge Leslie’s feelings, though her unromantically practical mother sees Leslie’s work at the stables as an opportunity to keep an eye on her, and perhaps redirect her towards a far more suitable match than Shaun.

“Lady Marsh decided that Della might be right about the depths of Leslie’s feelings for this surprising pleasant, almost charming young man.... In any case, thought Lady Marsh, even if Leslie was fond of him, she was far too young to think of marriage yet, and with her back at Ambleton her mother felt that she would be able to keep a closer watch on any increase in their liking for each other. It was one of the very few advantages that she could see in the collapse of her plans for Leslie’s future.”

There was no sequel to Ribbons and Rings, but I don't think for one moment that Lady Marsh got her way.

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More on Gillian Baxter

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Wild Horses of Abaco

I wrote  yesterday about Stacy Gregg’s book Wild Horse Island, with its story about the Abaco Barb. I was intrigued by the idea of a breed of horses who had originated in Spain, and who were still galloping round the Abacos Islands today.

There is no herd: there is one, single horse.

Once, there was a herd of horses of Spanish descent, but a fatal combination of hurricane, invasive poisonous plants, ignorance and inbreeding has led to the horse’s catastrophic decline.

Although the horses were indeed descended from Spanish horses probably brought over by Columbus, it’s not that likely that they arrived on Abaco in the 15th century. Cuban logging companies who worked in the Abaco Islands imported horses to work the forests in the late 19th century. These horses were of Spanish descent, as Columbus established horse farms on Cuba. The Abaco horses were genetically tested, which showed that they were indeed of Spanish descent.

When the logging companies left in the 1940s, the horses stayed. They grew into a herd of about 200, but their existence was threatened once roads were built into the forests. With the roads came things you’d expect from the intrusion of civilisation into the wilderness: humanity, and traffic. Other, more insidious things were also brought into the horses’ grazing areas by the roads. Invasive and poisonous plants threatened the horses’ grazing, and killed them. The horses weren’t always treated well by humankind. They were killed for sport, and dozens were killed in retaliation after a local child was killed, trying to ride one of the horses. Numbers, which had sunk to three by the 1960s, were beginning to recover in the 1990s, with around 30 animals. The Bahamian Government had set aside a reserve of 4000 acres for the horses. Then a hurricane struck, and the horses were driven into grazing lands that were too rich for them, as well as into areas where poisonous plants flourished. The horses’ rate of reproduction plummeted, possibly not helped by the fact that with such a small gene pool, they were becoming inbred.

The video below shows the last three horses, but there is now just one, Nunki.

There are plans to try and re-establish the horse using eggs from Nunki, and using stallions of the right genetic make up to create embryo transfers. Finding the right stallion is complicated. You need more than one stallion to avoid inbreeding, and you need those stallions to be genetically close in type to the Abaco horses, so that you’re still producing a Spanish Colonial Horse. Dr Gus Cothran, from the Department of Integrative Biosciences at Texas A&M University, is an expert in equine genetics, and has found one suitable stallion. He is searching for four more possible stallion candidates. His research interests include the conservation of rare breeds, and you can’t get much rarer than one.

There are other problems. Nunki is a wild horse, and she needs to be worked with so the egg harvesting can take place. As I write (November 2014), Bruce Anderson (a horse whisperer, for want of a better term) is teaching Milanne Rehor to work with Nunki. The plan is to harvest eggs from Nunki next year.

Milanne Rehor has made it her life’s work to ensure the survival of the breed. She has set up two organisations, WHOA (The Wild Horses of Abaco Preservation Society) and Arkwild Inc, a not for profit, who work to look after Nunki and, eventually, breed new foals. You can follow Arkwild on their Facebook page, which is regularly updated.


PBOTD 27th November: Gillian Baxter - Tan and Tarmac

Tan and Tarmac was one of the first Gillian Baxters I read. I was intrigued by its description of a stable in the middle of London, which rode out in Hyde Park, and whose stables were in storeys, and had to be accessed by a ramp. Those stables really did exist. They were at De Vere Mews in South Kensington, and were the home of the Civil Service Riding Club. The CSRC was founded in 1937, and had its own horses. The Club operated out of the Mews until 1974, when they were sold for development.

The Club's home moved spectacularly upmarket after that, when the Queen gave the horses a home in the Royal Mews. The Club made the decision to sell its horses in 2003. It does still exist, and organises affordable riding lessons for its members. The Club is mostly London-based, and uses centres like Vauxhall City Farm and the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre.

As an aside, while I was researching this piece, I found that artist Lucian Freud used some of the ponies at the Wormwood Scrubs Centre as models. Here's a link to his Skewbald Mare - and also one to his Horse Smiling, which has nothing to do with Wormwood Scrubs at all. I just like it.

As for the De Vere Mews, the then London County Council fortunately had an excellent photograph archive, and I have tracked down photographs it took of the Mews before they were developed.

Here's a rather sad link to the entrance to the Mews after it was acquired for development.
The Mews complete with horse.
Here's a shot of a horse on the upper level. I love the fact that the numnahs were balanced over the railings, and did wonder if anyone had ever put a saddle there which had then fallen off.
An internal shot of the stables.
I like this shot, which shows the double decker nature of the stables. I wonder what the protocol was for this sort of situation.
The top floor of the building was given over to flats, with washing lines strung between them. It must have been a fine way to bomb proof a horse.

I have managed to come pretty near to the end of this blog post without mentioning much about Tan and Tarmac at all: besides its fascinating historical setting, the book is very unusual in being set in London. The vast majority of pony adventures only happen because the story's heroes have moved out to the country, not because they've moved back to town. Gillian Baxter never allowed herself to be restricted by pony book convention, and because of that she's left us with a fascinating insight into what it was like to ride in London in the 1950s.

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More on Gillian Baxter
More on the Civil Service Riding Club

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

PBOTD 26th November: Gillian Baxter - The Stables at Hampton

Gillian Baxter was an author who tantalised me. In my pony book reading childhood, I knew she existed, because her books were advertised at the end of some of my pony books, but I never found one, not a single one. I forgot all about her until I started thinking about buying pony books, and came across a book dealer called Louise Simmonds, who ran a company called Ozbek Books. I found her on the internet, and she sent me a catalogue. I was thrilled by the idea of a catalogue just devoted to pony books, but did wonder just how much there would be that I didn't already know, because I must have pretty well every pony book that ever there was, mustn't I?

How wrong I was. The most exciting thing though was to see some Gillian Baxter paperbacks listed. Louise wrote great catalogue descriptions, and she was obviously very keen on the Gillian Baxters herself, so I ordered as many of the paperbacks as I could afford. Gillian Baxter, I have to say, was well worth the wait. Shortly after this, I went to a book fair in Northampton, and bought three Gillian Baxter hardbacks, one of which was The Stables at Hampton (1961).

It's the story of Ginny, who rides at a terrible riding school in London. When its owner is put in prison, Ginny manages to find a job with Tamara Blake at her dressage stable. Tamara is not an easy character at all. She's been badly burned in a fire, and her instinct is to push away anyone who offers her help, so desperate is she not to be patronised or pitied. Right until the end of the book, the reader doesn't know if Tamara will remain locked behind her prickly walls.

Ginny doesn't have an easy time of it trying to get used to the very different standards of a dressage yard. Gillian Baxter is excellent at showing the realities of a life working with horses. When she was 17, she started as a working pupil with Robert Hall at the Fulmer School of Equitation.  It was demanding work: Hall had two yards: “One of my first jobs was to wash all the tails of the riding school horses: they hadn't been touched for weeks, only a quick brush.  His other yard had his Lipizzaners and dressage horses and it was absolutely perfect.  I had to groom the dressage horses, and when I did I had to knock out the curry comb on the floor outside so he could check how much grease I was getting out!”

The Stables at Hampton isn't always the easiest of books to track down, but it's well worth it. It's quite possibly the first pony book to be exclusively concerned with dressage as an end in itself, rather than as a means to improve your jumping and cross country riding.

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More on Gillian Baxter

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Review: Stacy Gregg - The Island of Lost Horses

Stacy Gregg is really striking out – after her modern day biographical story The Princess and the Foal, she’s now moved on to a story where the focus moves between the present day and 15th century Spain.

If you’re a regular of my reviews, I expect you can guess who the heroine is: yes, the child of a broken family. Beatriz lives with her mother, although their current home is the Phaedra, a boat moored off the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. Beatriz' mother is researching jellyfish. Beatriz wants to go back to the USA to live with her father in Florida, but her mother’s not keen.

When the novel opens, Beatriz is being delivered back to her mother on a tractor by a woman called Annie, after Beatriz suffered sunstroke. It turns out that Beatriz, in her wanderings around the island, came across a mare struggling in a mudhole, and after an epic struggle, Annie and her tractor helped them both out. Annie is the conduit between Beatriz and the world of 15th century Spain. She sees the connection between the mare Beatriz names Duchess and Beatriz, and so gives her a diary to read. The diary is obviously hundreds of years old, and as the story progresses we learn that it was written by a girl who has somehow ended up on the Abaco Islands, but who at the beginning of the diary is with her horse at the court of Queen Isabella, when Columbus is trying to get the Queen to fund his next adventure, and Torquemada is stalking Spain, ridding it of heresy. 

The two stories intertwine, as Beatriz struggles to save the mare Duchess and her herd from the hurricane that is heading towards the Abaco Islands. As she fights for Duchess, Beatriz finds her place in the world and what’s important to her, and learns that relationships are more complicated than she believed. Her counterpart, Felipa Molina, learns much the same sort of thing, though in the rather more brutal surroundings of Queen Isabella’s court, where life can be threatened by the plague, and the life of a half Jewish girl is one that could at any second be threatened by Torquemada. 

Stacy Gregg tells a very good story. I enjoyed the way the two storylines mesh and diverge, connecting over the horse. She does a good job of portraying 15th century Spain, though with the odd anachronism like "ok", which sits slightly  oddly in the more formal language used in these parts. It’s a novel stuffed with women, this one: in the Beatriz section, the only man is her father, and he doesn’t actually appear. Annie is an eccentric and joyous creation: there is nothing wrong, Stacy Gregg says, with being thoroughly eccentric and doing things your own way. The women in the story all learn, in the end, to work together with the people who will help them best.

I don’t think you can go wrong with getting this for any pony-loving child for whom you need to provide a Christmas present.

~  0  ~

Stacy Gregg: The Island of Lost Horses
HarperCollins, 2014, £9.99
Kindle, £3.99, Kobo, £4.99

Age of main character: 12
Themes: wild horses, hurricane, persecution, death

PBOTD 25th November: Vian Smith - Minstrel Boy

Today's PBOTD is a complete contrast to yesterday's story. The Minstrel Boy (1970), is based on a true story. Mrs Meredith's son, Philip, was killed on the Western Front during the First World War, and she id determined that his horse, Minstrel Boy, will win the Grand National, running in Philip's name.

Mrs Meredith, it must be said, is not a sympathetic character. She is horribly driven, and whilst fully conscious of her own suffering, blithely unaware of anyone else's. However, Vian Smith is a subtle and skilled writer, and at the end, when Mrs Meredith finally achieves some happiness, you are actually glad that she's done so.

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More on Vian Smith

Monday, 24 November 2014

Review: Olivia Tuffin - The Palomino Pony Rides Out

This is the second in the Palomino Pony series. The Palomino Pony of the title, Lily, is in foal, so doesn’t do a great deal in the book because Georgia (Gee) can’t ride her. Georgia is, however, given the chance to ride Wilson to try out for the Working Hunter Team Challenge, as his owner is away at university.

So, there’s plenty of authentic horsy action, and there’s a good wodge of dramatic tension caused by the introduction of a new character, Lexie, the step daughter of Joe, former top show jumper. They have moved into the ritziest of ritzy horsy places, dripping with every possible equine luxury, and shining with that spectacular neatness you can only achieve if you have an awful lot of money. Joe’s utterly determined that Lexie will do well, and so she rides, and she jumps, and she has the best ponies, whether she wants them or not. She is, poor girl, terrified of jumping, and is isolated because of the family’s constant moving about from place to place. She’s looking forward to starting at the local school, because what she wants more than anything is a friend.

The friend she makes is Gee’s great friend, Emma. Gee tries her best not to be jealous, but it’s massively difficult. As Emma starts to spend more and more time with Lexie, Gee doesn’t understand why, and simply feels rejected. All this is interwoven with the Working Hunter Team championships in which both Lexie and Gee are riding, and the progression of Lily’s pregnancy. And there’s sort of romantic interest Dan and the farm and the threat to that too – Dan doesn’t play as much of a part in this story as he did in book one, but thankfully he’s still there, providing some male input.

There aren’t the dramatic chases and thefts of the first book, and I think The Palomino Pony Rides Out is much the better for it. Oliva Tuffin is much happier when writing on a more domestic scale, and when concentrating on the shifting qualities of friendship, which she does very well. That said, I was slightly surprised at the total and utter lack of any mention of Gee’s home life to start with, but half way through the book it’s as if the author’s realised that herself, because Gee’s mama makes a very welcome appearance. It’s a pity we don’t get a more detailed picture of Lexie’s step father too, but the author’s focus is squarely on her teenage characters.

Like the previous book, this I think is aimed squarely at the late primary market, and they will love it. It’s a superior slice of horse with enough to challenge and interest the reader.

~  0  ~

Olivia Tuffin: The Palomino Pony Rides Out
Nosy Crow, 2014, £5.99
Kindle, £3.59
Kobo, £5.15
Age of main character: year 9 (14) although note that like the previous book, and as is the publisher’s intention, the character does read a lot younger

Themes:  equine pregnancy, birth of foal, jealousy, difficulties with step parents

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

PBOTD 24th November: Florence Hightower - The Dark Horse of Woodfield

I really must re-read this - writing about it reminds me of how much I like it. You have to love a book which opens with the heroine forgetting herself and neighing in class.

Dark Horse of Woodfield (1962) is the story of the Armistead family. They used to be fabulously wealthy, but the Great Depression of the 1930s has hit them catastrophically hard. They're not bowed down by it, despite the difficulty they have in surviving from day to day. They meet the challenge with gusto. All of them have plenty of schemes to make money, including the neighing schoolgirl, Maggie.

She wants to enter her mare, Stardust, in the Unior Hunter Stakes, but she knows she has to earn the entry fee herself. To Maggie's surprise, it's the one member of the family who wasn't keen on horses, Great-Uncle Wally, who eventually provides the key.

The whole book is bursting with brilliant characters: it's a great ensemble piece. There's Bugsy and his caterpillars, and Elizabeth binding on and on and on about her boyfriend (and then his stuttering incoherence when we finally meet this paragon). The book isn't a conventional horsey story by any means, but horses, and the love of them are interwoven throughout the various plotlines. And it's very funny.

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More on Florence Hightower

Sunday, 23 November 2014

PBOTD 23rd November: Mary Treadgold - Return to the Heron

Return to the Heron (1963) is the sequel to The Heron Ride (1962). Sandra and Adam's diplomat parents have been killed, and they have to live with an uncle and his family; none of whom want them, or even particularly like them. Mary Treadgold captures the bleak and soul-shrivelling effect living in that household has on them, particularly Sandra who unlike her brother, does not go away to school. In The Heron Ride, Adam and Sandra have a charmed summer staying with Miss Vaughan, who understands and likes them, but they still have to go back to their grim existence when the summer ends. There is no easy way out; no fairytale removal from a horrible situation; Sandra simply learns enough to make it a little more bearable. 

Return to the Heron breaks both Sandra and Adam out of their prison, but the book is not just about that; it is about the love of beauty, loneliness, possession,  and generosity. At the end of the book, when Adam and Sandra are going to live with their other trustee, it is Adam, difficult and closed off from Sandra at the beginning of the novel after a terrible accident, who genuinely rejoices for her when she is to be bought a horse. 
“And lastly, Grant Maynard’s voice, rising above them all: ‘Long ago, way back, I gave Sandra a Castle in Spain. And it got left behind, when things went wrong for her and Adam. Now things are coming right. Everybody needs a Castle in Spain. Mighty few get it. Sandra’s going to get this one. I’m going to buy her that horse.’
To Sandra, Grant Maynard’s voice seemed to carry right over the shadowed garden, right over Betsy’s field. It seemed to carry right up to the sleeping Downs, where she would again ride Grey Horse. And, as she came down the terrace, speechless because of what she had heard, hardly yet believing, it was Adam’s voice that said: ‘Thank you. Oh, thank you.”
Adam loves the great grand house, The Heron, despite the decaying white elephant it has become. For Adam, the house symbolises the end of the bleak, constricted life he and Sandra lead with their uncle; the start of their independent life. It is a symbol of peace, of journeys done and strife ended; new beginnings for Sandra and Adam. Its beauty can be preserved, but not in the same way as before. The social order has changed. The Barrows, once servants, are now friends. It is also about learning to share: Adam cannot cling to his vision of a Heron that belongs to just him and Sandra, although it is this that has got him through his terrible time in the hospital. The Dene family, who once owned The Heron, will be part of its future too.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

PBOTD 22nd November: K M Peyton - Greater Gains

Greater Gains is the sequel to yesterday's PBOTD, Small Gains. It takes the story of Clara Garland and her family on.

K M Peyton specialises in feisty heroines, and Clara is one of the best of them: I enjoyed the way she keeps her family going by sheer determination. In passing, I wonder what the story would have been like if it had been told from the point of view of one of the weaker characters in the book, like Margaret, Clara's sister. K M Peyton's heroines are always blessed with plenty of oomph, which I like: there's nothing wrong with a plot showing a strong woman, but it would be interesting to see how the author handled a less self assured character as the pivot of the plot.

Clara has to make difficult choices to survive, and her dilemmas are entirely believable. The plot of both books turns on the difficult choices Clara has to make: without spoiling the stories completely, I can sympathise with her first choice, but I have a little more difficulty believing in the second, on which the narrative of Greater Gains turns, and more still believing in the neat ending of the second book, though it is exactly what you want to happen. This makes Greater Gains a less satisfying read, though it is still excellent on period detail, and in particular on the unwritten rules women had to obey at that time.

K M Peyton does write a good romantic hero too. The wonderfully named Prosper Mayes is up there with Jonathan Meredith and Peter.

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Friday, 21 November 2014

Review: Katharina Marcus - Boys Don't Ride

Why does Katharina Marcus not have a publishing contract? Why? I loved this book (well, novella, because it's not actually that long). I read a lot of horse fiction and Boys Don’t Ride is streets ahead of most of it. Complete towns and villages, in fact.

The author is wonderful at getting those more subtle nuances of the teenage state that pass most authors by: the isolation many feel; the difficulties of getting by even when you appear to have everything going for you. Tull, because of his staggering good looks, gets attention he doesn’t want. The attention hasn’t made him arrogant, or given him that gloss of self confidence the good looking often have. He’s gentle, and he loves horses. Always has done, but he keeps it very quiet, not least because his mother (yes, it is the single parent thing again but I will allow such a good author the odd cliché) doesn’t have the money to pay for lessons. When his absent father doesn’t top up his school canteen account, Tull doesn’t even have the money for food.  

Tull is to some extent a misfit, and so is Liberty. She doesn’t look like everyone else for a start, because of her repaired cleft palate, and she has a resolute and utter self possession. You simply can’t imagine Liberty posting selfies. She doesn’t see why she should engage with other people at school, so she doesn’t. She’s probably the one girl at school who doesn’t fall at Tull‘s feet. And of course she is the one he likes. It’s through Liberty that he finally achieves something he’s wanted all his life: to be with horses. There are so many wonderful little bits of description in this book, and I loved the way the child Tull would race out of his house just to look at horses as they went by. He’s waited years to get nearer to horses, and finally he manages it.

Liberty works at the local stables in order to ride. He learns how to look after horses, and helps out at a charity event at the stables. Something else I loved was the fact that everyone else knows so well what the whole thing’s about that it doesn’t occur to any of them until the day that actually, Tull has no idea who’s coming and why. The whole thing is dealt with quite, quite beautifully.

Katharina also succeeds in giving us a properly realised environment: we see all aspects of the characters’ lives; school as well as home, and of course the stables. Her characters don’t exist in a vacuum.  She’s packed in this rich, brilliant world, full of layers of feeling and understanding into a short book.

And you know what? You don’t even have to pay for this book, because the ebook version is free to download on Goodreads. If you are any sort of fan of YA literature, go straight off and get hold of a copy of this book. It is a great, great read.

~  0  ~

Katharina Marcus: Boys Don’t Ride
Paperback: £3.49
Ebook: free on Goodreads

Age of main character: 17
Themes: terminal illness, cleft palate, poverty, romance

PBOTD 21st November: K M Peyton - Small Gains

Small Gains, and its sequel Greater Gains, which follows tomorrow are some of K M Peyton's historical novels. I have a particular fondness for this pair of books. They're set at the beginning of the 19th century, in rural Norfolk, and are the story of Clara Garland, her family, and her Norfolk Trotter horses.

The Norfolk Trotter is sadly a breed that is no longer with us. Here it is in all its glory:

Louis Moll, Eugène Nicolas Gayot: François Hippolyte Lalaisse
In an era when proper roads were not that common, the Norfolk Trotter (and the other breeds known as Roadsters) were, quite simply, the fastest method of getting around. They were the latter day equivalent of the sports car. Then, a top speed of 16/17 mph, with a horse who could carry a fairly hefty weight all day, was as good as it got. Trotting races were immensely popular at the time, providing the same sort of excitement that Silverstone does now.

As time moved on, it moved without the Norfolk Trotter, but its genes survive in the modern day Hackney. Sadly time has moved on for the Hackney too, and there is no longer much space in the equine world for a horse whose speciality is driving. The Hackney Horse and Pony are on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust critical list, which means there are fewer than 300 breeding females.

The Norfolk Trotter's genes have done a rather better job of survival in America. In 1822, the Norfolk Trotter stallion Bellfounder was exported to America, where he was one of the founders of the Standardbred. Trotting, which is the Standardbred's speciality, is far more popular in America than the UK so the breed appears to be in good health.

In Small Gains, K M Peyton takes you into a rural world where trotting matches were huge social events, and the owner of a successful horse could make a lot of money. Clara's family is up against it, financially, with the nearby Grover family and their ability to make money by ruthless exploitation, providing a dramatic contrast. Nat Grover is the favoured son of the family, and he proves like catnip to Clara, even though she can see his weaknesses.

Clara though is a classically feisty Peyton heroine, and it's through her that the book receives its moral focus. Nothing, as is the way in the best Peyton novels, is straightforward, and Small Gains is an enjoyable exploration of the difficulties of living in a small community.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

PBOTD 20th November: H M Peel - Jago

There are books which change the way you think about things, and Jago was one for me. It's about a Thoroughbred who could have been a great racehorse, but because there's no allowance made for his individuality, is turned into a rogue. Jago escapes into the Australian bush, where he learns to survive. It's not an easy process.

I read other pony books set in Australia at the same time: and loved Elyne Mitchell's Brumby books. They're told by the horses themselves, and although there are occasional intrusions of stern reality when horses die, the horses themselves are noble characters. They look after their mares, don't fight the other stallions too often (and only if they're aggressive first) and are generally all round good eggs. That said, I adored these books and read and re-read them. The triumph of good as portrayed by Elyne Mitchell is enormously attractive.

There's not a lot that's attractive about Jago's early existence in the bush. It is both nasty and brutish, but there is a savage glory in the freedom that Jago finally achieves. I think that part of me always knew that horses weren't like Mitchell's heroic brumbies, and that H M Peel had a rather more realistic view of the situation, but both series celebrates the ability of a horse to live without any intervention from man.

"He is Jago, the supreme. King of the outback."

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More on H M Peel

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Review: Karen Bush - The Five Pound Pony

It’s a great pity that pony annuals these days don’t tend to feature short stories, because this collection would have been lapped up by the editors of the pony annuals that appeared in the 1970s and 1980s. The Five Pound Pony is a collection of eight pony stories, each followed by a short article on the background to the story, and giving you ideas of what you can do, and links you can follow, to take the stories further.

All of the stories have an interesting twist to them: if you’re reasonably sharp you’ll probably work out what’s going to happen before the end, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t enjoy the stories, because Karen Bush does have a way of hooking you into the miniature worlds she creates. 

The common theme of the stories is children’s longing for ponies, and what they do to fulfil it. There are model ponies, and hobby horses, and ponies you adopt. It’s difficult to pick out particular stories because I enjoyed them all, but I was very struck by The Pony Rescue, which is about a boy bullied at school, and his resolute refusal to mention his love of ponies because he knows he’ll be mocked for it. This story does have a particularly neat resolution.

This is a very readable collection of stories, and well worth the bargainous £1.81.

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Karen Bush: The Five Pound Pony
Available in ebook format only
Amazon: £1.81 (free on Kindleunlimited)

Age of main character: varies, as this is a collection of short stories, but most characters seem to be in the first years of senior school

Themes: again, vary, but nothing the wary parent needs to be concerned about.

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

PBOTD 19th November: Olive Norton - Bob-a-Job Pony

When I wrote my book Heroines on Horseback, I had to cut a lot out. I had particular difficulties with the 1950s and early 1960s, when there was an explosion in the number of pony books published, and stern decisions had to be made. Some authors were funnelled off into the chapter on famous authors; others to the one on series fiction, and the Pullein-Thompsons to a chapter of their own, but that still left plenty of authors to cover in what became known as the Mop Up Chapter.

Intitially, it had a cast of thousands, but in the end it was whittled down to M E Atkinson, Hilda Boden, Gillian Baxter, Catherine Harris, Patience McElwee, Sheila Chapman, Kathleen Mackenzie, Lorna Hill, and Veronica Westlake to keep what was already a very long chapter within bounds. Authors only made the cut if they'd made a notable contribution to the genre, whether it was being rather bad (Lorna Hill), or writing well-constructed, involving fiction. Authors of single books failed to make the cut, and so that was the end of Olive Norton.

She wrote Bob-a-Job Pony, which was published by Heinemann in 1961. It’s a story about the attitudes we take, and how it is as well to keep an open mind. Tabby and her sister Anna-Jane are desperate for a pony, but after their father falls ill, that looks pretty unlikely. Their mother has what seem now very dated ideas about earning ones’ living: “We may be short of money, for the time being,” she said. ‘But we don’t have to tell the world. It isn’t done. We must just manage with what we have, that’s all.”

Tabby, however, does not take this attitude: appearances are not there to be kept up, as far as she is concerned. She is an immensely resourceful figure and soon sets about trying to earn some money to buy Peggy, the pony she has fallen in love with. Tabby does have her own prejudices however. She sees June as nothing but a nasty snob, but it's Tabby's mother who sees the real person behind the snobbish nightmare Tabby sees.

The author mostly wrote detective fiction, and the ability to plot necessary to writing a decent detective story stands her in good stead in Bob-a-Job Pony. Sadly the book is not easy to find, but it is well worth tracking down.
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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Review: Amanda Wills - Against All Hope

Against all Hope is the second in the Riverdale Ponies series. When the first book in a series (The Lost Pony of Riverdale) ends with most of the major tensions being addressed, you do wonder quite where the next book will go. The major difficulty for heroine Poppy in the first book was her relationship (or the lack of it) with her stepmother. Poppy has never quite forgiven Caroline for not being her dead mother, and with the leaden-footed determination to hold to her point of view that many parents will recognise, shut her stepmother out of her life at every opportunity. By the end of the book, the two have reconciled, and Poppy has realised that stepmother Caroline isa person, just like her. Which is actually quite something, because often children simply don’t think of their parents as people at all.

Against all Hope therefore doesn’t have that tension: Poppy’s focus is now moving outside herself, and on to her pony Cloud, and her new friends. As the book opens, the vet’s checking Cloud over. He’s been living wild on the moor for the last five years, and is in remarkably good health, apart from his leg. The vet suspects a broken pedal bone, which means a good two months’ stable rest. If it heals, fine. If not, he can never be ridden.  And so Poppy has the awful, months' long wait ahead of her to find out if her pony will ever recover. Not for her the pony book dream of competing and improving her riding, but the long, tedious round of box rest, and hoping that this time, perhaps this time, the scan will show something good. All kudos to the author for showing that sometimes, pony owning is a long way from the dream, but also showing that you can find still build a relationship with your pony that isn't based on festooning it with rosettes.

Against that, normal life continues: at least, relative normality. Poppy has made friends locally, and she has an active social life, and in the way of happy girls, they're keen to include others. Poppy and her friend find out about a new girl and her mother moving in nearby, and try their best to make friends. It is not straightforward, however: if Poppy and Caroline had a strained relationship, Hope Taylor and her mother Shelley have a relationship that’s downright peculiar. 

Just how peculiar it is emerges only slowly. And tragically. Amanda Wills has taken a brave decision to feature a mother-daughter relationship that is damaged to this degree. No relationship exists in a vacuum, and the effect Hope and Shelley have on the community is well explored too. When the inevitable conclusion comes, it is quite heart-wrenching.

Against all Hope is another triumph from Amanda Wills.

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Amanda Wills – Against All Hope
Amanda Wills, 2014
Kindle: £1.99

Age of main character: 11
Themes: serious illness in child, long term illness of pony

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

PBOTD 18th November: Monica Dickens - Stranger at Follyfoot

Today's PBOTD is a book from a series I covered most of months ago: Follyfoot. Stranger at Follyfoot (1976) is the last of the series, and it changes the dynamics of Follyfoot by sending the Colonel away at the start, leaving Slugger nominally in charge. This creates something of a power vacuum, because being in charge isn't Slugger's forte, and so Dora, Steve and Ron are to some extent jockeying to fill the gap the Captain has left.

Another element is thrown into the mix when Yaz turns up, complete with a horse. Yaz tells endless, endless stories about who she is and why she's there. At first Dora, whose first instinct is always to believe what she's told, believes Yaz, but eventually she becomes suspicious, and as so often in life, the presence of a negative force has the effect of (thereabouts) uniting everyone else.

The Follyfoot Series
Cobbler's Dream (reprinted as New Arrival at Follyfoot)
Dora at Follyfoot
The Horses of Follyfoot
Stranger at Follyfoot
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Monday, 17 November 2014

PBOTD 17th November: Diana Pullein-Thompson - Cassidy in Danger

Today's PBOTD is one of its author's favourites amongst her books. Cassidy in Danger (1979) is the story of Katy, who is sent to stay with her godmother. Katy's had a wandering existence with her mother, never settling anywhere for long. She has few friends, and because she's moved from school to school, she can't read. Much of her life is devoted to hiding the fact that she can't do what everyone else seems to do without question.

While Katy's staying with her godmother, she's looking for friends. Her first friend is a pony grazing in a nearby field. She also makes friends with a boy who lives nearby, and his rat. No one is supposed to go near Cassidy, the pony, because he's dangerous. Because he's dangerous, his owners are going to put him down, but Katy fights for him, and at the same time, she begins to find her own way through her difficulties.

It's interesting that it was only when Katy made a break with her family that she manages to find her way. It's something you could argue was reflected in her creator's life. When I interviewed Diana Pullein-Thompson, she talked about her books, and about how many of her characters were, at the start of the book, on their own. Generally, by the end of the book, they have managed to find friends. Diana felt this transition reflected her own childhood. 
"Cassidy in Danger, she’s on her own. The family in Pony Seekers don’t have outside friends. Ponies on the Trail – just them all together. I think it’s because that’s how it was for one, really. ... We were cut off, you see. We had no friends nearby. [Living near us were] three single women, of course, who lived with mother. We always had a terror we might become like them. We didn’t have any children friends in the village at all."
I asked her when she and her sisters started to make friends outside the family.
"We made friends with pupils quite a bit. And [when] I became political, because I became a Young Conservative, because Labour was in and when you’re young, you react about what’s there. Everything was still rationed.... I made a lot of friends there. And when I left and came to London I made friends then. I did find it very difficult to make friends actually. [But in the end] I found it quite easy to have friends. It didn’t damage me permanently."

It's that sense of hope that you find in Cassidy (later republished as This Pony is Dangerous), and the book is a good and uplifting read.

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More on Diana Pullein-Thompson

Sunday, 16 November 2014

PBOTD 16th November: Mary Gervaise - Pony from the Farm

I read the G for Georgia series by Mary Gervaise because Armada badged them as pony books. It's fair to say the series isn't really a pony one: yes, there are ponies, but they're not really the central point of the series. School, and family, are far more important components of the plots.

Pony from the Farm (1954) is (along with A Pony of Your Own) something of an exception, because it's centred around a trick ride that Georgie Kane's friends, Ermyntrude and Susan, organise in order to raise funds for one of Mrs Kane's pet charities.

So far, so conventional, but there's a tragedy in this book: Susan's beloved mare, Black Aggie, dies. It's a tragedy that Mary Gervaise handles with sensitivity, and which sees her writing at her best, as we see Susan's grief, and guilt, and the other characters' response to it.

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Saturday, 15 November 2014

PBOTD 15th November: Primrose Cumming - Rivals to Silver Eagle

There are some books it can take you years to find, and one of them for me was Rivals to Silver Eagle, by Primrose Cumming. It's the last in the Silver Eagle series, and was printed in 1954, long after the first two in the series. It was never reprinted in English (a later Swedish edition did appear), which is probably what made it rare. That's not to say copies didn't turn up: they did, they were just extremely expensive (by my standards - a minimum of £80, which I realise is small change in the rare book world). It was a very, very long wait until I came across one. 

I probably didn't help myself by deciding I was only interested in a copy with a dustjacket, which were even harder to find. I never did find the lurking, cheap, immaculate copy I was sure must exist out there somewhere, if only I could make sure I was in the right secondhand bookshop at the right time, and had in the end to bite the expensive bullet. But such is the lot of the collector. For every cheap gem which thrills you to your marrow, there is the expensive, take a deep breath book.

And was it worth it when I found it? I have to say it's the Silver Eagle book that made least impact on me.

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More on Primrose Cumming

Friday, 14 November 2014

PBOTD 14th November: Christine Pullein-Thompson - Stolen Ponies

Stolen Ponies is the last of Christine Pullein-Thompson's books in this particular section. It's another of her adventure stories, and was published in 1957. It's interesting looking to see what else Christine published that year, as it gives a good idea of her scope. First was The Impossible Horse, which she published under the pseudonym Christine Keir, which must to some extent have been based on life. The Pullein-Thompsons earned some of their living by re-schooling difficult horses, and that's exactly what Jan does in The Impossible Horse. Whether glamorous men heading off to the Army featured in the Pullein-Thompsons' early lives, as they do for Jan, I do not know.

The second of the David and Pat series, The Second Mount, also appeared in 1957. This again featured something with which Christine was familiar: running your own riding school. David and Pat have gone into partnership, and have bought the unrideable Tornado, who needs re-schooling. 

Perhaps Christine had had enough of all that rehabilitation: I can't say whether Stolen Ponies was written before or after The Impossible Horse or The Second Mount, though it would be fascinating to know. It takes Christine back to the adventure plus horses territory she had last visited with Phantom Horse in 1952. Two very different families meet when they are holidaying on the moors, and find that the wild ponies are being killed, probably for horsemeat. Although they have remarkably little in common, the two families unite in the face of the threat to the ponies. 

It was the last essay Christine made into the adventure story for some years, until the early 1960s Riding School series, which combined riding school life with overcoming villains.

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More on Christine Pullein-Thompson

Thursday, 13 November 2014

PBOTD 13th November: Christine Pullein-Thompson - The Impossible Horse

The Impossible Horse (1957) is in some ways an odd book. My first experience of it was the Dragon paperback pictured below, with the author's name as Christine Pullein-Thompson. Originally, however, the book was published under the pseudonym Christine Keir. The book was something of a departure from Christine's previous work, which featured teenagers fighting against adversity. The big difference was romance: when I read her earlier David and Pat series, I'd wondered if there might be some romance between the two, but there's nothing, not a scrap. The idea of it is there, as Pat's sent off to be a debutante and have a London season. The entire reasoning behind one's season was to find a suitable husband, but this is never mentioned explicitly. 

So, it was under a pseudonym that Christine first introduced romance. Heroine Jan has left school and has started up a business re-schooling horses. One of her clients is the handsome Benedictine, who, too much for the girl to whom he was sold, reared and came over backwards with her. Jan is convinced he can be rehabilitated, and the book sees her doing this, interwoven with her nascent romance with the handsome Guy. This book was utter manna to me: horses, and romance, plenty of one and not too much of the other. 

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Wednesday, 12 November 2014

PBOTD 12th November: Christine Pullein-Thompson - Goodbye to Hounds

In my rather illogical flitting about the pony book world, today I'm covering the last of the Chill Valley Hounds series. As its title suggests, the hunt is threatened. The Days' farm, which they only rent, is to be sold, and if that happens the Chill Valley will lose at a stroke its kennels, and most of its hunt staff. Goodbye to Hounds sees the two families who make up the hunt fighting to survive.

One of the things of which hunts used to be accused (and occasionally still are) is riding where they shouldn't without any care for the consequences. Sadly Goodbye to Hounds includes a text book example of this. They ride over gardens and are selfishly unmoved by their trespass:

”We rode into the garden belonging to the largest of the two houses. We rode up some steps, across a rockery and through a tennis court. We heard shouts behind us, but we didn’t care because we had seen a little wicket gate giving access to the wood, and because this was probably our last hunt with the Chill Valley Foxhounds and we wanted to enjoy ourselves more than anything else in the world.”

The two apologise on the way out, but the characterisation of the two householders by what they wear is distressingly belittling:

“They looked very cross, and Andrew raised his crash cap and said: “I’m very sorry to have disturbed you, sir,” to the man who stood in front of us wearing plus fours and carrying a golf club, and, “We haven’t done any damage, madam,” to the woman, who was wearing a windcheater and a tweed skirt.”

Whatever one’s views on hunting, this is not impressive. Goodbye to Hounds was reprinted, and to some extent updated, in 1990, and I wondered if this episode would have been cut, but no. 

That said, the book is not a bad read: it's the usual Pullein-Thompson tale of adversity overcome, and the characters of the Dashwood and Day families provide an interesting tension. The Dashwoods believe in perseverance until all hope is gone; the Days are convinced there is nothing they can do. It is probably not giving too much away to say that perseverance wins, in the end.

Chill Valley
We Hunted Hounds
I Carried the Horn
Goodbye to Hounds

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