Friday, 22 January 2010

Reviews: Janet Rising and Sharon Siamon

Janet Rising: Team Challenge
(The Pony Whisperer Series 2)
Hodder Children's Books, 2009, £5.99

Team Challenge is the second in Janet Rising's Pony Whisperer series. The whole idea behind the series is that Pia can hear what horses and ponies are saying, but only as long as she is touching the little statue of the horse goddess, Epona, which she found when out on a ride. I reviewed the first book, The Word on the Yard, a few months ago, and liked it. I was wondering quite where the series would go after Pia's quite spectacular horse whispering efforts on TV - Pia, Pony Whisperer - the Film? - but I needn't have worried. The action this time has switched to the yard, and to Pia and her friends' efforts to win the Sublime Equine Challenge. This is a competition for a team of four, each of whom must do one discipline from a choice of dressage, cross country, show jumping and Wild Card (where anything goes).

I liked this one even more than the first: it's a wildly entertaining read, which I thoroughly looked forward to picking up so I could read the next chunk. I love the humour; and in particular I like the main character Pia (which is a major help, I suppose). She has a wry way of looking at the world which I find makes me smile. The ooh-nearly romance between Pia and James stays that way, with a major plot twist at the end making me very keen to get the next in the series. I'm also keen to know how Pia's mother's latest no-hoper works out - will the poor woman ever meet someone halfway decent? And will Pia's father get tired of the moneypit he left Pia and her mother for?

The huge strength of these books, I think, is that you really want to know what happens next. Those characters have got me. The adults are drawn just as well as the teenagers, and the ponies are really well done too. I particularly enjoyed the the pony Tiffany's thoughts. She is one of those ponies who sees a monster round every corner:

"I don't really do dressage, as you know, AND it turns out I have to wear a noseband, which is the final straw and - ooh, WHAT'S THAT? Oh, it's OK, it's just a burger carton -"

which you can just imagine, can't you, if you've ever had anything to do with a pony like that.

There was one point in the plot, though, when I did begin to have major quibbles: Pia's friend Dee suggests they use a ouija board so her grandfather can advise the team from beyond the grave. In my own dim and distant teenage past, I had friends who used these and were upset for months, and I am completely spooked by the whole idea, so I was worried about whether I was going to have a big internal maternal panic wondering quite how to give this book to my daughter and bring up the subject of ouija boards. Was I going to send her pell-mell into trying it because I'd over-egged the warning, or then again if I'd underdone it, knowing how sensitive my daughter is to horror - 3 weeks' nightmares after "Are you my mummy?" in Dr Who - would we have broken nights and an even more tempestuous girl than normal...... Janet, how can you DO this to me?, I thought.

Fortunately, Pia and her friends are spooked by the whole thing too, and I think, on balance, if I was reading this I'd feel worried by the idea, and not inclined to try it. I just hope it's enough to put teenage readers off. I did wonder why it made an appearance in the book, as it does appear quite random, to quote my daughter. Maybe Pony's readers are having a break from ponies and dabbling in the supernatural.

Apart from this, this is an excellent read. I think Janet Rising's about my age (apologies, Janet if you are in fact in your 30s), so I wonder if she, like me, just about hung on the gate waiting for next month's issue of Pony in the early 1970s, agog for the next Caroline Akrill instalment. Janet's books have the same humour and energy as Caroline Akrill's, and I am having an excellent time enjoying something written with humour. Roll on episode 3, Runaway Rescue, out next month.

A final word about the covers: I suppose Hodder did one photo shoot for the covers, and now we're stuck with them, but that is still a bay HORSE on the cover, and not a pony. I don't think even Photoshop can sort that one out.

Sharon Siamon: Wild Horse (Mustang Mountain series)
Egmont, 2009, £5.99

This is another of those books I'd pre-judged before I'd even opened the cover. "Blimey," I thought. "Three wholesome American girls on the cover. Saddle Club rides again." Not that there is anything wrong with wholesome American girls, or wholesome girls of any other nationality: it's just the way that sort of cover tends to make you expect a plastic world filled with girls who never get spots and always lurve each other, which if you spent your time ferrying teenage girls about as I do, you would know they do not. And they get spots.

The cover is, of course, very often nothing to do with the author. This book is part of the Mustang Mountain series, which is new to the UK, though it's been about in its native Canada for a while now. It's about three girls, Alison, Meg and Becky and their adventures in Wyoming. It's book number 4 of a 10 book series, but was the earliest one I could find when out and about in the rocky wildlands of the Grosvenor Centre, Northampton, waiting for the girls to finish shopping in New Look.

The strapline on the cover: Find adventure at every turn up on Mustang Mountain - makes you expect that this is going to be a non-stop charge through cliff hanging episode after episode, but it's actually far more about the girls' characters and how they develop than toe curling adventure. Alison is the child of rich and demanding parents. She thinks they hate her - but do they? Did they manoeuvre her into visiting Cousin Terri-Lyn in Wyoming for her own good? Or do they really dislike her as much as she thinks? It's the ambiguous nature of plot lines like this that make this book better than the common run: frankly, you could argue the toss either way, though Alison's relationship with her parents is undoubtedly problematic.

Alison, Meg and Becky have gone to visit Cousin Terri-Lynn in Wyoming for ten days. Alison's parents have sold her dressage mare, Duchess, and Alison has sworn not to ride ever again. Of course, she does, but Alison's toppling from her mountain of righteous resentment is believable.

I assume the other girls' characters emerge more in the earlier books: this one is very much focussed on Alison. It's an enjoyable read, though, and it's always fascinating to see how things are done elsewhere: I learned plenty about wild horse auctions, and I'm intrigued enough by the series to search out more.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Review: Michael Morpurgo - Farm Boy

Michael Morpurgo: Farm Boy
Harper Collins, £4.99
Illustrated by Michael Foreman

This is another book I've had for ages; in fact since I went to see War Horse when it was still at the National. Farm Boy is badged as a sequel to War Horse, but it is only in the loosest sense. Joey and Albert's histories are updated, but by Albert's son, looking back from decades later.

Having read War Horse, I was puzzled by a couple of things. The grandfather tells his grandson Joey's history. Joey is indeed won at the toss of a coin in No Man's Land, as Farm Boy says, but it is a Welsh soldier who wins him, not Albert, who only comes across Joey when he is brought into the Veterinary Corps for treatment. Albert bought Joey back from the Army after they were going to sell him and the other army horses for meat; using all his savings to do so, says his son. In War Horse, what actually happens is that the soldiers all band together to try and save Joey by buying him at auction, but they fail. Joey is bought in the end by a Frenchman who had Joey on his farm at the beginning of the war, and he sells Joey back to Albert for a penny.

I can't believe Michael Morpurgo forgot what had happened in War Horse, so I wonder if the story, over the years, changed in Albert's mind so that in the end it was what Albert wanted to happen that mattered, not the truth. If you read it that way, there's a great poignancy to it: after all Albert did for Joey, shielding him from his father's rages, and nursing him back from his dreadful war-induced frailty, he still wished he'd done more, and that he had been everything to the horse.

Joey's story once he returns from the war is as you would expect: he was, after all, a plough horse. The post war period saw the introduction of mechanisation to farms, and this book describes what happens as the tractor takes over. The book does a good job of showing the villagers' mixed feelings about this: the great pull of the old ways and the horses themselves, compared with the undoubted labour saving of ploughing with a tractor.

This book certainly bears a re-reading. I read it at first at the gallop, picking up only on what I thought were inconsistencies between this book and War Horse, but on a second reading, I began to appreciate what Michael Morpurgo was saying about the deep pull farming can have; even on those brought up in towns, and on the relationship between different generations. The boy has far more in common with his grandfather than his urban parents, and their changing relationship is the great strength of the book.

The grandfather is unable to read, and is deeply ashamed about it, and offers to help his grandson with his plans to visit Australia, in exchange for being taught to read. Having had my own small share of Defra forms, I did wonder in passing how the grandfather managed for 20 years without being able to fill in the fifty feet of Defra paperwork that would have washed into the farmhouse every year, but it was only a passing blip: the portrayal of the struggle an adult has to learn to read was utterly convincing.

The illustrations by Michael Foreman convey rural charm; the whole book is full of it. It portrays a rural idyll which alas doesn't exist any more, if it ever did: I suspect many, many farmers would not be able to say, as the grandson does about farming "It's all I hoped it would be, and more," but it's the relationship between grandfather and grandson that is the most important part of this book, and it is so tenderly done, it's a joy.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Reviews: Simon Weston

Simon Weston: A Nod from Nelson
Pont, 2008, hb, £7.99

Simon Weston: Nelson to the Rescue
Pont, 2009, hb, £8.99

Having a quick look back at my lastest reviews, I see they're almost all historical fiction: I promise you I do read other things (though I have a couple more historicals waiting in the wings to be reviewed), and here are two.

The Nelson books are by Simon Weston, a soldier who overcame appalling injuries sustained during the Falklands War. He has written several books about his experiences, but these are his first excursions into children's fictions. The books are written with David FitzGerald, and are illustrated by Jac Jones.

These are tricky books to review: I normally end a book with a few comments charging about in my brain, but I finished the first one of these not entirely certain what I thought about it. I then read the second, hoping that would clarify what I thought, but I'm not certain that it did.

Both books are larky fantasies about Nelson, a just-retired Shire horse who used to pull a milk float. If I tell you that the other characters in the book include Flight Lieutenant Pigeon and James Pond the frog this perhaps gives you an idea of what you're up against: plenty of puns, and masses of references to popular culture: the horses send hay-mails, and experience saddle-lite broadcasting. The stories are certainly wacky, and full of energy, but for me they didn't quite come off: I liked the puns; the authors do a good job of making talking animals seem entirely normal, and yet... and yet.... the wackiness is maybe a little too concentrated. There's a sense of rushing pell-mell off to the next amazing episode, and the next joke. I think, at the end of the books, I felt whirled through Nelson's world, without having had time to appreciate it. I'd have liked a slower unfolding of some of the jokes.

The illustrations do a great job, and have some of the subtlety the stories lack.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Reviews: Diane Lee Wilson and Kim Ablon Whitney

Another post done at the gallop to try and get the to-be-reviewed pile down a bit; not that either of these two really merit a quick review, as they're both excellent reads.

Kim Ablon Whitney: The Perfect Distance
Knopf, , New York, 2007 (pb) £3.74

It's very noticeable, when you look at Kim Ablon Whitney's website, that this is the only horsy title she's written. If she lived in the UK, her chances of publishing a standalone story would be virtually zero; and to publish it as a hardback (which it was originally) completely non-existent. Thank goodness for American publishers, willing to take a chance.

This is an excellent read. Granted, it meets some horse story conventions - girl at the bottom of her particular equine heap wants to be the best - but it doesn't take the easy way out by writing in cardboard, bitchy opposition, and a fairytale rise to stardom. Francie Martinez lives with her father at a top training stables, where pupils are trained for the Maclay Finals. (I don't think we have anything similar in the UK: this is a competition for junior riders in which competitors are judged on how well they jump a course, as well as how many jumping faults they get. Click here for some footage from a recent final.) Francie is a talented rider, but she has more of a battle than many of her competitors: she is half Mexican, and so faces sneering contempt for her background; her father manages the stables where she rides, she doesn't own her own horse, and she lacks confidence.

Her trainer, whose approval she longs for, is fixated on the one rider he thinks will win. His training methods are bullying to say the least, and I liked the way the author handled Francie's gradual realisation that she doesn't have to have his approval. Francie does change, and grow up, in this book, and if a portrait of an intelligent teenager coming to terms with her world is something you like, this is the book for you.

Diane Lee Wilson: Black Storm Comin'
Margaret McElderry, £9.78 (hb) £3.65 (pb)

Another horse story tackling racism is Diane Lee Wilson's Black Storm Comin', again, an American book. On a quick search through my memory of modern British pony books I've read recently, I can't think of one offhand which tackles racism in the way these books do: there are nods to multi-culturalism with Asian and black characters, but that's about it. Please let me know if you have read any books which make an effort to look at the issue.

Black Storm Comin' is another historical horse story (I do like these, and have just found a Vian Smith one which delves back into the stone age, about which more anon), and this is about Colton, left on the wrong side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains with his sisters and his sick mother after they are deserted by his father. The only way Colton can manage to earn the money to pay for a doctor, as well as get his black mother's freedom papers, is to try and ride for the Pony Express. The chilling advertisement for riders says: "Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over eighteen. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

Even given the stringent list of conditions, it still wasn't easy to be taken on as a rider, and Colton struggles. This author specialises in portraits of resourceful children taking on a world restricted in one way or another: Colton suffers racism, as although he looks white, his mother was black, and his petrified anxiety less his ancestry be discovered lends the book much of its energy. Colton though has the inner fire to win through in the end. He's a character with plenty to make you like him, and the historical background is fascinating to a Brit whose knowledge of the Pony Express was shaky at best.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Reviews: K M Peyton

K M Peyton: Small Gains
Random House: appears not to be in print, but easily available secondhand

K M Peyton: Greater Gains
Random House: £5.99

This pair of books are set at the beginning of the 19th century, and are the story of Clara Garland, her family, and her Norfolk Trotter horses. It's good to see the Trotters making an appearance: horses in historical novels aren't often differentiated into breeds, but K M Peyton takes you into a rural world where matches between trotters are huge social events, and the owner of a good horse can make a lot of money. (The breed is alas now extinct, though was used to produce the Hackney and the American Standardbred.) The horses, as ever, are wonderfully drawn, and I'd love to see a return of the breed. The ability to trot up to 17 miles in an hour would be very handy if we ever have to say farewell to the car.

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.

Small Gains is an excellent read, taking the reader back to a time when rural life was often brutish in the extreme, and women had to make difficult choices to survive. Clara's dilemmas in that book 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.

Monday, 4 January 2010

New Year Reviews

A very belated Happy New Year: my resolution this year is to try and get down the books to be reviewed pile. I think the only way I am going to manage this is to review several books at a time, and not go on at quite my usual length.

So, here are the first reviews of this year:

Diane Lee Wilson: Firehorse
Margaret McElderry Books, 2006, £9.90 (hb), July 2010 £5.05 (pb)

Diane Lee Wilson writes historical horse books, and does it very well. Like her earlier novel, I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade, Firehorse has a feisty heroine pushing the boundaries of what is expected of women. Rachel is forced to move to Boston from Wesleydale, Illinois, which is the American equivalent of moving to London from Piddletrenthide. Rachel moves, but her horse Peaches does not move with her. Life in Boston is cloistered, smelly and seemingly completely without hope, until Rachel meets the firehorse of the title: The Governor's Girl, who has been terribly burned in a fire. Rachel decides to try and save the horse, but has her work cut out. Not only are the horse's injuries terrible (this is not a book to read if you are squeamish) but she has a fearsome temper. The horse is gradually nursed back to health, which fuels Rachel's desire is to become a vet. Not only society, but Rachel's father, are vehemently against the idea, and Rachel's struggle to fulfil her dream is even harder than that to cure her horse.

The book provides a fascinating insight into the beginnings of feminism in America, as well as the workings of the fire service and the Great Fire of Boston itself. I had heard nothing about this at all (my own great fires being strictly of the London variety) and if you like lots of historical background, a rattling good story and believable characters, try this book. It's out later this year in paperback, but is still available in hardback.

Kate Thompson: Annan Water
Bodley Head, London, 2004, £9.89 (hb), £5.39 (pb)

The second book in this section of reviews is Kate Thompson's Annan Water. There's an attractive tension to the author of the horsy novel in the situation of the child of horse dealing parents; constantly used to improve and show off horses, and constantly finding them sold on, however keen on them they are. K M Peyton famously used this tension in Fly-by-Night, and Kate Thompson's hero, Michael, is another child of dealing parents. His sister has been killed by a pony she was bringing on, and Michael lives in a world which is emotionally barren. His parents have flung themselves even further into their dealing business, and Michael thinks them no longer a family, just a business. Michael hates school and the only faint light on his horizon is the girl Annie.

It seems as if the relationship between the two of them will lead them both out of their bleak worlds, but nothing is simple in this novel. The relationship is tightly written, and the action draws you in, but this is ultimately not a story of hope (unless you read the ending rather differently to me). Nevertheless, I'm glad I read it.