Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Review: Sue Jameson - Pony Tails

Pony Tails is a collection of four stories, written by actress Susan Jameson, who obviously knows her ponies. Each story features a different native breed: Connemara, Welsh Cob, Shetland and Exmoor. There’s a common theme of girls and their love for ponies, but each of the stories plays out in a very different, but just as satisfying, way.

One thing they have in common is the sheer force and quality of their dialogue. The author has an excellent ear, and captures family bickering, conversation between friends, and business dealings equally brilliantly. In the first story, a Connemara pony is sold on and on as he’s small and backward. I loved this bit, when the colt is sold yet again:
“Sure, doesn’t little Maureen ride him on her own, and her not four yet?”
The dealer seemed to remember that little Maureen was “not four yet” last year either, but decided to let that pass.
The stories are full of acute bits of observation like that. There’s Wendy, now an Exmoor teenager involved with bikers who remembers her pony-mad girlhood, and Rosie and Charlie, desperate to help the poor young Connemara. Lucy bonds with a Shetland assailed by sweet itch, and Clare has a very torrid time with her new pony, a Welsh cob mare. 

All these stories integrate the adults into the stories as well as they do the children: there are no extraneous characters simply there to move the story on. Everyone has their part to play. The author is also extremely good at reflecting family dynamics. In the Connemara story, Rosie and Charlie cause a family row by asking if they can have the poor little Connemara, Mickey. Their Mum accuses them of being selfish and only thinking of themselves; to Rosie and Charlie, of course, they’re being anything but, because they’re thinking of the welfare of the pony. And neither side quite understands the other.

These are four excellent stories, from an author who I hope will carry right on and give us more. This collection is one of the best things Forelock has published.

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Sue Jameson: Pony Tails

Age of main characters: 10-13
Themes: family relationships, change

Equine themes: native ponies, rescue, Pony Club, Shetland Grand National.

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Monday, 29 June 2015

Review: a brace of Forelock books - Lucy Johnson and Ken Lake

It's been months since I did any sort of blog post. My dad died unexpectedly shortly after I wrote my last post, and I've found it tremendously difficult to get my brain into any sort of gear for reviewing.

Anyway, kind Forelock sent me their most recent books, and I also found in a huge and much overdue study tidy up one of their earlier ones, so I'll be reviewing three of their titles over the coming days.

First up is Lucy Johnson's Pony Racer. Pony Racer takes a well known trope – the suffering child who is redeemed through the love of a good horse, and places it in this rosy-hued story of foster families and racing. Hero Tom has been taken away from his mother who has unspecified mental health issues, and who neglected and ill treated him. The effect this produces on Tom is to make it very hard for him to trust. He is convinced that he will soon be shipped away from the Heaven family (yes, really) and returned to his mother. He has been driven in on himself, and finds the only way he can communicate is via the pony, Leo.

Tom, as you might expect, turns out to have a particular gift for riding, and is extraordinarily good at working out what horses are feeling - often the case with abused children, whose safety often relies on being hyper-aware of others’ feelings so that they can take avoiding action. Tom progresses very fast with his riding, aided by the Pony Club and visits to a local racing stable, and finds he is particularly keen on racing. 

Lucy Johnson makes Tom‘s ups and downs sympathetic, but I found myself feeling oddly distant from the character. Tom sometimes comes out with statements that sound oddly over-mature. Not that that’s impossible – children do come out with this stuff. I think it’s more that here, the child’s voice doesn’t sound like them – as if they’ve momentarily stepped out of the room, and a completely different person has stepped in. I felt the same thing on occasion with Tom's foster brother and sister, who seem surprisingly ignorant at times for horsy children. The episode where Tom has to tell Emily and Ted not to chase the ponies when they're trying to catch them was puzzling - surely any children of a horsy family would know perfectly well that wasn't going to work?

However, this doesn’t happen so often that it disturbs the flow, unlike Forelock’s persistent, and extraordinarily irritating, inability to use the comma, which leads to you having to stop and re-read a sentence until you have the sense of it because the lack of punctuation has destroyed the meaning.

That aside, this is a competent story with a very well drawn racing background with which the author is obviously very familiar. The riding and racing scenes are well done, and the author writes a good pony. She has an eye for the idiosyncrasies that make a pony character come alive. I liked the human characters – I liked them all, in fact – but my sympathies weren’t 100% engaged with any of them.

Lucy Johnson: Pony Racer

Age of main character: 9 
Themes: foster children, child cruelty, mental health

Equine themes: pony racing, Pony Club, National Hunt racing

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Next up is Ken Lake's A Year at the Yard. A Year at the Yard is one of those books where horses talk to each other. Don’t expect a Ponies Plot though – this one is definitely aimed at the younger reader. A Year at the Yard is the story of a livery yard, the horses and ponies who live there, and their riders. During the year, there is a show, a visit to a beach, birthdays, Christmas and some Suffolk Punches ploughing. There are varied horses and ponies, riders ranging from the young to the old, and the oldest stable hand in the world, Jim, who is often confused about the humans at the yard, but never about the ponies. One of the ponies, Priti Pony, can read people’s thoughts, which proves helpful in moving the plot on.

There is rather a lot of plot - I felt the book was possibly over long for its target market, and for me, the book needed a strong central character around which to weld the year’s events. Jim is the nearest it gets, but the veering between lucidity and confusion was confusing, and the other characters are fairly obvious stereotypes. This is, however, a story with plenty of warmth, and certainly nothing to worry or upset the infant reader. 

Ken Lake: A Year at the Yard

Age of main characters: varies from around 8 to old age
Equine themes: livery yard life

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Many thanks to Forelock for sending me these books.

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