Friday, 13 March 2015

Review - Amanda Wills: Into the Storm

I haven’t read any pony books for a while, because I’d lost my pony book mojo for a couple of months, and I’m glad I read this book as my first essay back into the pony world. Amanda Wills’ Into the Storm, I have to say, I’d have enjoyed whether it had been about ponies or dustbins. It’s exciting, dramatic, and an excellent answer to the question of what do you do with your characters when they’ve had two home-based adventures – you plonk them somewhere totally new and see what happens.

Amanda Wills has spirited Poppy away from Devon in this third of the Riverdale ponies series. Poppy has won a riding holiday in a competition with her short story about a Connemara, and she and best friend Scarlett are about to leave when the book opens. Poppy is desolate at the thought of being without her beloved Connemara, Cloud, and things don’t improve when they get to Oaklands Trekking Centre. Poppy tries her best to overcome her shyness with the other trekkers, but it doesn’t really work. She thinks that because she won the writing competition to get here, she’ll have a fantastic horse, but what does she end up with? Solid, hairy piebald cob Beau, that’s what. Everyone else has dream ponies – grey Arab mares; floaty palominos.

It’s not fair. That’s what Poppy thinks. Neither is it fair that tall and glamorous Cally seems to hit it off with Scarlett. Nobody seems to think very much of Poppy. Beau isn’t interested in being a willing co-operator, and Poppy’s always at the back of the ride, always the one people are waiting for, and the one people have to pick up off the floor when it all goes wrong. Poppy couldn’t be more fed up. This isn’t how things should be.

Amanda Wills does a brilliant job of showing someone who has what my grandmother would call a real mardy fit on. Poppy has painted herself into a corner. How she gets out again makes an excellent story. Amanda Wills does friendship spats extremely well, and best of all, she lets you see both points of view.

I enjoyed this story more than book two (and I liked that very much). It’s neatly plotted, wryly amusing, and full of those moments that anyone who’s had anything to do with ponies will recognise – the failure to travel those few centimetres that would make opening the gate easy, and the casual plonking of a hoof on your fragile foot. The drama when the storm hits Oaklands is thoroughly gripping. I do like a story that moves its participants on; where they’ve realised something about themselves, or the way life works, and when, as here, when it’s done by a subtle and effective writer it’s a real treat.

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Amanda Wills: Into the Storm

Age of main character: 12
Themes: jealousy, friendship issues, violent storms

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

In other places

I have been very quiet here of late. I've not been utterly silent though - I am contributing to a new blog written by equestrian authors, Horse Crossings.

Here's my take on the American horse stories which made it to Britain. Just to whet your appetite, here's one of the Knight printings of the Black Stallion. I loved these covers.

And here I am on how it all began - the beginnings of the pony story.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Review: Kate Lattey - Dream On

Dare to Dream was one of my stand out books when it appeared, and its sequel, Dream On is right up there with it. Sequels aren’t necessarily easy things to write. Often authors have used up their best plotlines; any dramatic tension was resolved in the previous book, and you can’t help but be aware of the author scrabbling round frantically trying to find something else with which to engage the reader. None of that applies to Dream On.

At the end of the previous book, Marley’s beloved horse, Cruise, had to be sold to enable the girls and their stable to survive. The New Zealand horse world is a relatively small one, and so there’s no way in Dream On that Marley can escape Cruise. It’s not that his new owner, Bubbles, is a monster either, because she isn’t. She understands just how bad Marley feels. The worst thing for Marley is that it’s obvious Cruise still misses her. He’s not jumping to the best of his ability, but in an act of real love, she advises his new owner what to do to get Cruise on side, and it works.

Marley does have other things to think about. Van’s boyfriend Mike has a difficult stepbrother, Jake, who’s been landed on him. Marley and Jake have one of those uneasy and edgy relationships, and it’s this, and Marley’s reaction to it which give this book much of its passion and poignancy. Marley is, of course, still riding, and has a new problem horse to contend with in the shape of the vicious and violent mare, Borderline Majestic. Majestic is an all too believable picture of a talented horse who has been backed into a behavioural corner by the “show them who’s boss” school. 

Kate Lattey’s horses are as excellent as her humans, and I love the way she portrays them as more than winning machines, or the recipients of girlish dreams.

There’s plenty happening with Marley’s sisters too, both of whom are facing life-changing decisions. But it’s a measure of this author’s talents that one of the stand out characters in the book for me is the bad girl of the last book, Susannah. She’s still on the horse show circuit, but her appearances at shows must be torture, with a hissing swarm of hostility greeting her every move. Everyone knows what her brother did to Marley so that Susannah would win, and no one, with the rather wary exception of Marley, is prepared to give Susannah any quarter. But Kate Lattey makes Susannah brave; not bolshy, or defensive, or a victim. She carries on turning up, even though she knows how awful it will be. Real bravery, something which isn’t raw physical courage, is a tremendously difficult thing to portray without making your character an unrealistic saint, or a wretched victim, but Kate Lattey does it effortlessly with Susanna. I do like the way this author doesn’t take the easy way out with her characters: there’s none of the traditional stereotypical figures so common in pony books.

Kate Lattey has produced another tremendous, character-driven book, with every bit of authentic horsey detail you could wish for. I defy you not to cry at the end. If you haven’t already gone and loaded this on to your Kindle go and do it now. You won’t regret it.

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Kate Lattey: Dream On
Kindle: £3.06
Available in paperback format only in NZ/AUS directly from the author.

Age of main character: 15/16
Themes: some romance, grief, self harm (relatively minor; probably not triggering)

Friday, 9 January 2015

Guest blog: Elaine Brown on Self Publishing

Elaine Brown and I first met when she asked me what I thought of her first pony novel, Jackie's Pony Secret, then unpublished. I read it and loved it, and have watched Elaine's progress ever since. Elaine has followed up Pony Secret with another novel, and after several nearly-there episodes with publishers, has decided to go it alone. This is the story of how she did it.

Elaine's books are:

Jackie's Pony Secret
The Ponies of Penstorran

and you can follow Elaine on her website:

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Books were a large part of my childhood. My older sister and my mother used to read to me every night at bedtime - more, I think, in the interests of getting me to sleep than anything else as I was a poor sleeper. However, I was told that they would often fall asleep themselves but I would still be awake. It wasn’t long before I started reading for myself and I was able to read quite fluently at a very pre-school age. I was fascinated by words and how they clung together to make a sentence, a paragraph and then a story. One of my most treasured possessions was a children’s dictionary and I would look up words I hadn’t heard before and then use them liberally.

I have written for as long as I can remember. When I was still quite small I used to write short stories, poems and songs. English was really the only class I bothered with in school and I managed to pass my English O’ level a year early: just as well really, as I didn’t stay at school to take any others (you were allowed to leave school at 15 in those days and O’ levels were generally taken at age 16).

Writing went on the back burner when I was a teenager – horses and boys were much too fascinating. I was also a swimmer and much of my free time was spent in the local baths, honing up for competitions. I still always read though. Bedtime always saw me with a book in my hands and my reading matter was very catholic.

In my late twenties the writing bug hit me again. I started submitting short stories and articles to magazines, mainly about cats and other domestic pets, reader’s tips and reader’s letters. It wasn’t something I did seriously, but rather for the fun of it; seeing my name in print and being paid a small amount of money. I used to get about £10 for a reader’s letter or tip and around £50 for an article. I was also working for a large employment agency at the time and it occurred to me that our numerous temps might like to know what went on at ‘headquarters’ and to feel more part of a team. I started up a monthly newsletter, which was very well received. Time and time again I was told “you should write a book.” That was all well and good, but you needed to have an idea and I didn’t. “Write what you know” was another recurring theme; horses, obviously, but I didn’t have a plot.

When my son was born I desperately wanted to be at home with him but I had to go back to work. It wasn’t a lifestyle choice, it was a necessity because I am the wage earner in my family. I used to come home every evening and my son and I would cuddle up on the sofa and read while my husband cooked. Tell The Time with Winnie the Pooh was a favourite. We still have that book, carefully looked after. I racked my brains to think of something I could do from home but ideas eluded me, at least those that were in any way sensible. Then, when my son was a few months old, a family tragedy occurred. My step daughter-in-law died and left three children aged 11, 9 and 2. The children were farmed out to various family members and it got me thinking about the different turns life takes and what alternatives there might have been. From this small kernel a series of books – The Pony Chronicles - was born. For a while I scribbled on the train and produced a book which, frankly, wasn’t that good. It was far too short and galloped through itself at a rate of knots. I needed to slow down and put some meat on the bones. I read through carefully and first of all noticed that there was very little descriptive narrative. I could see the characters and the scenes so clearly in my mind that I had assumed the reader could see them too. I’m not a fan of reading pages of description so I was careful to add it in carefully and make it flow with the general plot so that it read naturally. Then I realised that Jackie went from one “adventure” to another without any space for the mundanities of eating, going to school or other activities so I went back over it again. Gradually the book took shape and became much more readable. I have recently gone back to it again to do some re-writing. I did say I was never going to read it again at one point, but that seems to have gone by the board!

Jackie’s Pony Secret features 11 year old Jackie who is sent to live with her Grandfather and his second wife on a farm in Devon. It’s a huge change for a girl who had been brought up in South East London, and I have tried to combine contemporary social issues, instruction on horse-riding and stable management, and also incorporate an element of adventure.

I looked into various options for getting Jackie published and readied it to send off to a publisher. I struck lucky on my first attempt. The publisher liked the way I wrote. However she was worried that the books might be similar to a line they were already running, and she wanted to see the second in the series. I got down to writing immediately. Sadly, it took a long time. The death of both my parents and a move to a different part of the UK stalled the process. By the time I had finished the second book – Ponies at Penstorran - and sent it off to the publishers the lady who was interested had moved on and her successor sent me the standard rejection letter. In retrospect I should probably have included the letter from her predecessor, but we live and learn.

I tried several other publishers. I had some rejections but also some minor successes. Some were quite rude – a one line email saying “not for us”, for example. One wrote that she loved the book but didn’t feel strongly enough about it to do it justice and I should look for a more specialised publisher. I put the book away in a drawer for a couple of years.

It is worth mentioning that during this period I stayed firmly away from reading any kind of pony book. I have a horror of inadvertently absorbing someone else’s idea and regurgitating it at some time in the future. I still don’t read books that are similar to mine for this reason. However, I have now gone back to reading pony books and have rediscovered the joys of Ruby Ferguson, the Pullein-Thompson sisters and Mary Gervaise. I have also discovered quite a few excellent indie authors and have enjoyed their books. It’s a mystery to me why these people haven’t been picked up by publishers.

Months, even several years passed, before I decided to go on with my project and started sending Jackie out again. Writing a book is certainly not a five minute project. Like raising a child, it takes patience, understanding and rethinking things. Situations and times change and Jackie was first written in the late 1990s – a time when most people did not have home PCs and mobile phones were almost unheard of.

The first publisher I sent it to expressed interest. I waited and waited but nothing happened. More than a year went by and still nothing happened. I am not the sort of person who pesters other people and my occasional emails were met with the answer that it was still in the pipeline. Eventually I got fed up and rang them. It turned out nothing was going to be imminent, probably for a couple of years!

Around that time Kindle raised its head above the parapet. I decided to go along the self-publishing route for several reasons. I was impatient to get my baby ‘out there’. I was getting older and was beginning to feel that if my books were ever published, it would be posthumously. I also wanted to test the water and see if my books had legs, rather than relying on friends to say that they were good – you only have to watch Britain’s Got Talent to see where that leads! Early signs were encouraging but a lot of people were asking when the book would be out in physical form – they neither had nor wanted an e-reader and I started to think about publishing the book as a paperback. 

For a long while I put it off. ISBN numbers are a major outlay for me, for a start. They can generally only be bought in batches of 10 and cost over £100. There are other ways, such as going through a vanity publisher, to get an ISBN number but after some research I decided this avenue was not for me. I have a number of books - written and in the planning stage - so it would have made financial sense to buy my own. The printing was another cost, but I am lucky enough to know someone who has published a book and he pointed me in the direction of a printer who was not only reasonable but very helpful. Another cost that normally has to be taken into account is the book cover design. Websites recommend you put aside £350 for this alone. Again, I am lucky enough to be married to an artist (whether he considers it lucky or not I’m not too sure) and he is happy to do my covers for me. I did have some good ideas for marketing – having been in marketing at one time - and thought I could probably manage to sell my book.

Fortunately, someone talked sense into me. I have two jobs, I am a volunteer for my local Cats Protection branch, I am a registered chaperone for children in entertainment for my local council, I am trying to help my husband with his prospective business and also get my son set on his career path. Most weekends are spent doing mundane jobs around the house. I fall into bed, exhausted, every evening, and I barely have time to write. How on earth did I think I was going to have time to market the books? I also suffer from chronic depression and generalised anxiety disorder. There are days I just can’t function and, if you are trying to run a business that will inevitably involve having a thick skin and knocking on doors, it isn’t a winning formula.

So now I am back to having a major re-think. I’m re-writing my first book, Jackie’s Pony Secret, as I was never happy with the beginning. It is certainly very true to what happened when my stepdaughter-in-law died, but it is rather dreary reading. Curiously, I am also writing an adult book. It didn’t start out that way. My husband has often said I should try writing an adult book as the children’s book market is notoriously hard to crack. I used to tell him that my mind just doesn’t work that way. I have enough trouble understanding why people do what they do anyway, never mind writing a story with a plot and a good beginning and ending. Somehow, though, it is happening. What started off as a stand-alone children’s book took a mysterious turn and wandered off on its own, which does tend to happen when I write! The Horses of Streatham Hill focuses on 18 year old Nick and is set in the 1970s. It follows Nick’s journey from cramped tenement to dealer’s yard to becoming a professional rider. It isn’t a traditional pony story, although there are horses in it. It is more a ‘coming of age’ book (if that isn’t too hackneyed a phrase). I must say I am enjoying writing it and hope it will be finished by early Spring.

I still have hopes that I can make a moderate amount of money from writing – at least enough to work part time and devote more time to my writing and to my son. It hasn’t happened yet, but who knows?

Self publishing has, for me, been a rewarding experience. It has given me the confidence that my books are worthy of notice and that I am right to continue. Certainly I have met some nasty people, who were scathing about my work and told me I would get nowhere. I am a bit of a sensitive bunny and don’t deal very well with this sort of thing. On the plus side I have met some lovely people whose help has been invaluable. They have held my hand and pulled me back up during my black dog moments. They have swept up the pieces and put them back together. They have given me advice from the position of actual knowledge of the industry. They have also given me a well-aimed kick up the backside when I needed it. They know who they are. My little triumvirate family now has several shoots branching off from it – each one labelled ‘friends’. Thank you.

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Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Review: H C White - A Dark Horse's Quest

As I worked on this book I can't review it, so thank you very much indeed to guest reviewer Sue Howes for standing in. Sue is the author of The Bay Mare, and has had her short stories published in Horse and Pony. She's also contributed guest pieces on self publishing to this blog.

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 My first impression on reading the blurb of this book was that it promised to be one of those ‘bonkers’ pony books, like Michael Maguire's Mylor, the Most Powerful Horse in the World, or John Thorburn's Hildebrand. I was intrigued, as I enjoy seeing where authors take their stories when the normal rules of life don’t apply.

Throughout the book I felt as if I were missing something, and now learn that there was indeed a previous book. I would like to read this, to see if Beth, the main human character, comes more to life. I didn’t feel as though I got to know her very well in this book alone. Harry, her talking horse, is another matter! He bounces off the page, a bossy, independent thinker. I think the author has got his voice spot on.

This book avoids many of the clich├ęs prevalent in pony stories. Traditional difficulties, such as finding the money for an impulse buy of a horse at an auction, are not even presented. The only villains are minor characters, who make brief appearances to give Harry the chance to come to the rescue.

However, there are many sections where the author has included some sound advice on horse care and training. Occasionally this does jar a bit with the fantasy elements of the story, particularly in regard to the pace of the plot.

There were several pages on Beth learning how to jump. This was interesting and reminded me a lot of Tattles in Silver Snaffles, and it definitely merited being included in the book. But … only a few lines on what happened at the vet’s? When that episode was dangled under my nose as a prospect, earlier on in the book, I was looking forward to reading about it. I felt cheated, I wanted more!

Since the premise of the story is a fantastical talking horse, I would have preferred more of this, and less of the real world. It’s still an entertaining read, and the ending sets the author up nicely for the next book. I look forward to reading it, and hope it’s even more bonkers than this one.

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Wallisfarm Publishing, 2014, £4.99

Age of main character: 16
Themes: talking horses, adventure, minor romance

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

PBOTD 31st December: Ruby Ferguson - Pony Jobs for Jill

I have changed my mind a couple of times over what book I would choose to round up the year with. In the end, Pony Jobs for Jill (1960) seemed ideal , because if ever a book encapsulated the tension between the pony-filled dreams of childhood and the harsh realities of adult life, that book is Pony Jobs for Jill.

In the her earlier Jill stories, Ruby Ferguson created an idealised world which we, her readers, loved. Whilst we were prepared to accept (and might even have welcomed) the total absence of romance in the series, we did not feel the same when Jill was not allowed to take up the horsy career we hoped she would have. That's not to say Ruby Ferguson disapproved of working women as a species: the series is filled with them. Mrs Crewe supports Jill and herself through her writing; the local stable is run by Mrs Darcy. No one ever doubts that Jill will work when she leaves school. In Jill Has Two Ponies, Catherine Crewe says:
“When all is said and done, Jill is the one to decide. I should like her career to be entirely her own choice, and whatever it is I shall help her in every way.”
Mrs Crewe alas has recanted these high ideals by the time the next book, Jill Enjoys Her Ponies, appears. Jill gets the dream offer: a job after she finishes school in the stables of a member of the British Show Jumping Team, Captain Cholly-Sawcutt. It is, as Mrs Darcy says, the sort of chance she really needs if she is to make horsemanship her career. But Jill says her mother wants her to take a secretarial course, and the implication is that however much Jill might want the dream job, her mother won’t agree. 

In the last book (chronologically) Pony Jobs for Jill, Mrs Crewe announces “A girl can’t learn too young to run a home.” Jill and Ann would much rather run a stable. And so they do, for a while: having finished school, they take a succession of short term horsy jobs. None leads to anything important. Mrs Crewe is not alone in her new views: Captain Cholly-Sawcutt appears to have thought again about his job offer. “You’re going to get yourselves seriously trained for some proper job, and you’re going to keep up your riding for a hobby,” he tells Jill and Ann at the end of Pony Jobs for Jill. And they do. In the very last paragraph of the book, Jill’s set for a secretarial course, and feels she’s “secretary to the Prime Minister already.” She wanted to be an MP several books earlier.

The effect on Jill’s readers was profound. To us, Jill was a role model who went out and forged her own way, but when she meekly accepts a limited and conventional view of what a girl should do their ideal world was shattered. Although some readers might, as Liz Thiel says , go on to “seek an explanation for Jill’s heroic demise, to question the influences that have encouraged her to submit to conventionality and to consider the possibility of an alternative ending,” those readers I have asked do not consider an alternative ending: they simply reject the one that is provided. 

Jill’s calm acceptance of the end of her dream came as an almost physical blow to me when I read it first as a child. Pony book devotee Konstanze Allsopp said: “I will never forget the disappointment of reading that Jill book”; fellow fans agreed. Kate Hill said “So here is someone who largely through her own determination, has progressed from knowing next to nothing to becoming a talented horsewoman who is valued by Mrs Darcy and the champion Captain Cholly-Sawcutt, but who ends up doing a pedestrian office job. What a waste of all that experience and talent!”

Did Ruby Ferguson intend readers to question the ending she gave to Jill? Or was Ruby Ferguson reacting to the thousands of girls she felt she was inadvertently encouraging in ridiculous dreams? Ruby herself did a secretarial course after Oxford. Maybe she too had dreams, but they were dashed by the realities of finding work in post war Britain. It is noticeable that Jill was still allowed to write: was writing Ruby Ferguson’s escape? Pony Jobs for Jill, in which the moral voice of the sternly practical parent obtrudes and rips apart the dreams we have all built up for ourselves and for Jill, is the least popular of the series. Ruby Ferguson made a romance of her own life: perhaps therein lies the key. Her best creations, and she knew it, were those in which reality was not allowed too free a rein.

In the last book in the series, Jill’s Pony Trek, Ruby Ferguson takes Jill back to schooldays, when all she had to think about was enjoying the holidays with her ponies. It is Jill in the earliest books of the series that her readers remember best: lively, pony-obsessed, and with a world of possibilities at her feet. And it is noticeable that the authors who wrote the pony book series that followed in Jill’s footsteps kept their heroines firmly within the boundaries of their ideal, and pony-filled world.

This piece was taken from the Jill chapter in my book, Heroines on Horseback.

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More on Ruby Ferguson

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

PBOTD 30th December: Joan Selby Lowndes - Family Star

Today's PBOTD is Joan Selby-Lowndes' Family Star (1961), it is Jenny's birthday. It's a day which starts well, but it ends badly when Jenny finds the family's pony, Kitty, is lame. Kitty is not just any pony: she works for her living, pulling Jenny's father's flower cart.

The family is now up against it, as with no pony to pull the flower cart there is no income. Jenny, however, has some talent as an actress, and she gets a part in a pantomime. Fortunately, there's a part for Kitty too.
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More on Joan Selby Lowndes