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.

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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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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.

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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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