Monday, 20 October 2014

PBOTD 20th October: Christine Pullein-Thompson - Riders on the March

There were a few books I acquired as first editions, and Christine Pullein-Thompson's Riders on the March (1970) was one of them. Of the Pullein-Thompsons, it was Christine who worked hardest at being relevant. Even in the 1950s, decade of the middle class pony owning child, Christine used working class characters. The First Rosette (1956) had as its hero David Smith, the youngest son of a family where money really is an issue: David’s family genuinely struggle, and there is no money for riding lessons, let alone ponies. 

David's struggle is contrasted with the far more conventional pony life of Pat, the daughter of the Master. After David catches Pat's pony when she falls off, he is invited to tea and offered the chance to borrow a pony. Christine carried on introducing working class characters, with Janice and Mick in The Lost Pony (1959). All these characters, and the comprehensive school pupils in Riders on the March, are all prone to the same mercurial swoops from happiness to gloom. It is as though Christine’s desire to sympathise with the difficulties of being poor leads her to over-write their emotions. Without any direct experience herself, she seems to assume there must be a heightened emotional response to life generated from being brought up in difficult circumstances.

I loved Riders on the March at the time because it dealt with characters who didn't have ponies, which was my lot, but I must admit I've found it hard to keep feeling the love over the decades. I do find the characters' emotions hard to keep on top of.

~  0  ~

More on Christine Pullein-Thompson

Sunday, 19 October 2014

PBOTD 19th October: Kathleen Mackenzie - Minda

It took me several years to write Heroines on Horseback, my book on the pony book. When the book finally had its last edit, my editor asked me for more quotations from several books, but I had to say no because I didn't actually have a copy of the book myself. There were several books I analysed and made notes on and then promptly sold. Minda (1953) was one of them, and sadly it made so little impression on me it didn't even make it into my book. It does carry on the theme of riding clubs, because heroine Minda Budge (who sounds as if she should make it into a Jill book on the strength of her name alone) joins a Pony Club started by three children. As we saw a couple of days ago, joining a club run by your peers can be tricky, and so it proves here. Another member of the club, Jill, is jealous of Minda's talents and schemes to keep her out of an event in which she will represent the club. I think you can probably work out the outcome for yourselves.

Minda is another book illustrated by Maurice Tulloch: not alas as successful an illustration as Ponies in Secret, but he has captured the girl and pony relationship pretty well.

In case you missed it when I posted it a few days ago, here's a modern day interpretation of just that thing.

~  0  ~

More on Kathleen Mackenzie

Saturday, 18 October 2014

PBOTD 18th October: Christine Leslie - Four Start a Riding Club

Today's PBOTD is another book that's more notable for its illustrator than anything else. Christine Leslie's Four Start a Riding Club (1963) is one of those books which had sunk into total obscurity. I first ferreted it out myself when I wrote about Anne Bullen for Fidra Books' newsletter. It was cheap as chips at the time as no one else had even heard of it, so I hoovered up a copy. 

Sadly the book wasn't an undiscovered gem. The Tollhouse Riding Club is launched by Karen, Gilla, John and Patrick. They don’t agree about much, and have some healthy fights about how to do things, but do in the end manage to get the Riding Club going successfully. And that's about it, really.

Illustrator of the book, Anne Bullen, died young at the age of 50 in 1963, and Four Start a Riding Club was the last pony book she illustrated. If you follow my Facebook page, keep watching, because I have an exciting Anne Bullen related giveaway coming up.

~  0  ~

More on Christine Leslie
More on Anne Bullen

Friday, 17 October 2014

Review: Carolyn Henderson - Beside Me

Carolyn Henderson’s Beside Me is based on her Grey Ghost, which she originally wrote for Caroline Akrill at J A Allen. If you’ve read that book, don’t assume you’ve already read Beside Me, because you haven’t. There are a few similarities, but Beside Me is a very different book. I liked the original, but I love this version. It’s subtle, involving, moving: I read it for the second time at our local coffee shop, having forgotten that it made me cry the first time. 

Corinne has a lot to contend with. She doesn’t fit in at school. She’s not, as queen of the school Penny makes clear, one of the cool kids. She is, Penny says, horses obsessed – Corinne says she’d rather look round a tack shop than Top Shop. And Corinne sometimes hears things, and sees things, that really shouldn’t be there. This doesn’t stop her being able to connect with horses: her favourite is Secret, an unbroken pony at the stables Corinne rides at. But the stables are closing, and all the horses and ponies, including Secret, have to be sold. There is no chance at all that Corinne and her careworker mother will be able to buy him, and Corinne’s mother takes a very dim view of Corinne’s ambition to work with horses.

Into all this comes new boy Luca, a Romany gipsy whose father is a horse dealer. Luca is particularly gifted with horses, and that’s what brings him and Corinne together, as Luca helps Corinne break Secret in. Entwined with the pony plot thread is a mystery surrounding Miss Meynell, whom Corinne’s mother cares for. Miss Meynell lives in a ramshackle house with ramshackle empty stables, and when Corinne wanders off to inspect the stables, something happens that has profound effects on all of them.

Beside Me is a richly realised book: we see Corinne at school, and at home, as well as at the stables, so although there’s a strong pony element to the book, we see Corinne as a real teenager, not just a cipher for pony-related events. Carolyn Henderson has a very sure touch with teenagers, and she’s created a thoroughly believable one in Corinne. I don’t like obvious characterisation in books: character x is the bully, so she is BAD, and character y is not the bully, so she is GOOD. It’s much harder to create characters, good and bad, with whom you can sympathise, and understand, even if you don’t particularly like what they are doing. In one of my favourite scenes, Corinne goes to see Penny in hospital, and these two utterly dissimilar girls talk: the real genius of this scene is that there’s not some mushy reconciliation – rather Corinne starts to understand why Penny is as she is.
“I’m starting to realise that we all have ways of protecting ourselves: my way is to keep myself separate and as inconspicuous as possible, but Penny’s is to dress and paint herself into the person she wants to be. Last week, she was the bitch queen. Today, she’s the princess of sorrow.”
I also liked the approach the author takes with Luca. Granted he is the stuff of which dreams were made, but there’s no frantic storms of emotion from Corinne. The author allows her to take the relationship at a slow pace, which is, though they’d probably rather  die rather than admit it, what most 14 year old girls want.

Henderson tackles difficult subjects: an overdose, and the death of a dog, sensitively and realistically. Yes, there’s grief, and pain, and although some minor characters definitely go off the deep end, Corinne and Luca have a much more measured attitude. I liked this heroine, who thinks her way round the things that happen to her. I liked the solid belt of decent instruction on things horse. This book takes over the instructional mantle from Josephine Pullein-Thompson. I can see people reading this book using it if they ever have a pony to break in.

The book combines solid equine fact with some brilliantly realised characters, and Carolyn Henderson tells a good story. The supernatural element isn’t overdone, and I was completely convinced by it.

My one minor quibble lies with the publisher. Forelock are still prey to typographical errors here and there: fortunately not quite as many as their earlier books, but they’re still there.

But Beside Me is one of my books of the year.

~  0  ~

Carolyn Henderson: Beside Me
Forelock Books, 2014, £9.99

Age of main character: 15
Themes: supernatural gifts, bullying, overdose, breaking in of horses

PBOTD 17th October: D A Young - Ponies in Secret

D A Young's Ponies in Secret (1955) is another book about a riding club, but it's also about what happens when power goes to people's heads. When the book opens our heroes are hugely excited by the prospect of a summer filled with ponies. They're even more excited when they learn there's a local riding club, but then they meet the people who run it, who are not actually much older than them, but have rigid ideas on what's what. The book is a well observed story of the wielding of power, and of how easy it is to misinterpret what people do.

Ponies in Secret is illustrated by Maurice Tulloch. I often burble on about how the classic pony book seems to exist in a sun-drenched eternal summer. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and the ponies all smart and glossy. Maurice Tulloch captures this vision in his pony book illustration. I do wonder if it made a difference from his hunting illustration, hunting necessarily being often rather bleak, as much of it takes place in the winter.

I think Ponies in Secret is the most sun-drenched of all the pony books he illustrated, and if I had to pick an illustration which sums up the pony book world of the 1950s, I think the one below would be it.

~  0  ~

More on D A Young (not much. Sorry.)
More on Maurice Tulloch

Thursday, 16 October 2014

PBOTD 16th October: Elinore Havers - The Surprise Riding Club

This is Elinore Havers' first appearance in PBOTD, and it's taken her 10 months. This is I suppose because she's not one of my favourite authors, and so she, like a few others, has taken something of a back seat in PBOTD.  Her Surprise Riding Club is an ok sort of read - pedestrian, if I'm being honest.

Sarah and her friends start a riding club during the summer holidays so they can improve their riding. The “Surprise” element comes in as each President is supposed to provide a surprise for the members when they finish their time as President.

Most of Elinore Havers' books were published in the Crown Pony Library series. The Surprise Riding Club was published by Collins, and made an appearance in the Collins Pony Library. I wonder if the appearance of her books in pony libraries is the key to understanding her appeal: she writes books which tick all the boxes required by the pony lover, and is utterly reliable in doing so.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

PBOTD 15th October: Josephine Pullein-Thompson - The Radney Riding Club

I wonder if children today will ever understand the frustrations of living in pre-internet world? Before the world wide web, you simply couldn't find everything you wanted with a quick Google search. Finding secondhand books, for a start, could take years, if you even managed it at all. When I was a child, what books I read depended on:

a. Whether the local library had them
b. Whether our (rather limited) supply of local bookshops had them
c. Whether a noble relative living elsewhere found the book
d. Whether I hit the jackpot at a jumble sale (vanishingly rare)
e.  Whether I could borrow the book from a friend - not something that happened often as none of my friends were pony book fans.

Publishers of course want you to buy their books, so as well as handy lists of the books in a series, they used to put page long descriptions of other books you might like at the end of the book.  These, to me, were hideously tantalising. I knew Monica Edwards' Punchbowl Midnight existed, because I'd seen it listed, but I didn't see a copy until I was in my forties. That's a gap of a good thirty years since I'd found out the book existed. And The Radney Riding Club was the same. I knew it was out there, but I didn't see one (Six Ponies was the same).

I don't think today's children will ever understand the huge excitement; the thrill, of finally, after decades, getting your hands on a book you'd longed to read as a child but never found. Because for them, everything is obtainable: in some cases as long as you're prepared to pay for it, but every book is out there, somewhere, and getting it is often a case of simply being prepared to wait the few days before it's delivered. Not decades.

I think out of all the books I'd longed to read as a child, The Radney Riding Club and Six Ponies were the ones that gave me the greatest pleasure to find. In an ideal world I admit I would have preferred not to wait decades, but that did make the sheer joy of reading them at last all the more intense.

And fortunately both books were very well worth it. I'd never known that Noel and Henry had ventured out from the shelter of Major Holbrooke's estate, which they do in Radney, as it's set at Henry's home. There was an entirely different set of characters, most of whom didn't appear in the other books.

I think, for me, this book will always be coloured by how long I had to wait for it. Reading it was all the sweeter for having had to wait.

~  0  ~

More on Josephine Pullein-Thompson