Tuesday, 31 August 2010
Thursday, 26 August 2010
Thursday, 19 August 2010
I love this time of year: even if it rains, the layer of straw covering the path means we don't get particularly muddy, and I love walking on the straw.
The straw is rather more treacherous this year than last as there are still large cracks in the path because of the drought. The straw has just floated over the top, which makes for some interesting moments.
Here are two of the last swallow brood. They must be nearly ready to fledge, as the little nest they're sitting on isn't the one they were hatched in, which is further up. The parents have very considerately nested over the hens' droppings board so I am clearing up after swallows as well as hens at the moment.
Wednesday, 18 August 2010
The ultimate dream for many a pony mad child was getting a pony, and some lucky souls achieved it by winning one. Judith M Berrisford's fictional Jackie did it in Jackie Won a Pony by winning a competition in Horseshoes Magazine.
People did it in real life too: Pony Magazine, in its earliest days, ran Win a Pony competitions, which required some dedication. It wasn't a question of whipping a quick essay off or doing a few questions: you had to enter twelve separate competitions over a year. Here's one from September 1950, in which you had to complete the story by filling in the blanks with names from the list of well known horses and ponies supplied.
This is the winner (or at least I assume it is: the competition presumably ran into 1951). Carolyn Brown won Mr Murphy, and this is a photograph of them, reunited, in 1958.
Dragon's Win a Pony competition in 1966 was rather less taxing: matching attributes to characters was all that was required. The competition was held to publicise their launch, with Mary O'Hara's My Friend Flicka being part of the first tranche of books. There are still lots of those two part Flickas about. I wonder if many of them were bought so their owner could have a go at winning a pony. I bet they were. I was only 4 at the time, so the competition passed me by (though I was already pony mad. There was a riding school at the end of our garden. Despite being comprehensively bitten by one pony, nothing stopped me from spending hours hanging over the fence at the end of the garden, stroking whatever pony would wander up to me.)
Monday, 16 August 2010
"‘You’re just filling our minds with stuff that won’t get any marks!’” - is what Imogen Stubbs' children said to her and her husband, Trevor Nunn, when they attempted to give them other ways of looking at the texts she was studying for English. This is not just confined to the subjective Arts: my son is doing Chemistry, Biology and Physics.
"No," he said, when I said "ooh, you could look at this," when testing him. "I have to do what will get me marks and that won't." So, we turned away from investigating Dutch Elm disease back into the revision texts and the all-important margin with the mark scheme. I hope the A level exams have not turned my bright, maverick son, and all those other children with a thirst for just knowing stuff into mark machines. The tension they are put through at this time is anyway high: you cannot turn on the radio, television or open a paper without the words "A Level" and "miss out" leaping out at you. It does make me sad that there is such a huge pressure on them to succeed, coupled with what my daughter calls "sucking the fun out of everything." How tragic not to get in to your university of choice, and to have spent 2 years of unrelenting work turning away from what might interest you because it doesn't happen to attract any marks.
In the dim and distant past when I did my A levels, I got marks for trotting off down interesting alleys: it was called "reading around the subject" and "broadening your outlook." I got marks (at school at any rate) for being witty, and managed to pass my English language O level at A with a short story that was beyond weird. I think it involved bones.
Jane Smiley: Nobody's Horse
Faber & Faber, 2010, £6.99
(First published in America as The Georges and the Jewels)
Reading age 12+
Thanks to Faber for sending me a copy to review.
I've only tried to read one Jane Smiley before: Horse Heaven and that was a bit of a disaster. I struggled on to the middle, but gave up. So, when I heard she'd written a YA novel, I was curious to see what I'd make of it.
Nobody's Horse is the story of Abby, and her parents. Abby's father deals in horses: he buys them cheap in Oklahoma, feeds them up, tidies them, and has Abby ride them until he can truthfully say "a little girl can ride them", and then the horses are sold. So that Abby does not become too attached to the horses, the geldings are all called George, and the mares Jewel. Abby is generally happy with her lot, but not with having to ride Grumpy George, who bucks like a demon, and scares her. Abby's Uncle Luke tries some horse-whisperer tactics (and if you were convinced by the scene in The Horse Whisperer where Tom Booker overcomes Pilgrim's problems by casting him and sitting on him, I don't think Jane Smiley was. When Uncle Luke tries it, Grumpy George is left infinitely worse.) What works with Grumpy George is Jem Jarrow's join-up approach. At least that's what I think it is. Whether it was or not, it makes for an absorbing part of the plot, and I can see today's generation of pony mad girls using this part of the book as a text book as much as their mothers did Josephine Pullein-Thompson's Six Ponies.
What this detached and unjudgemental child has to deal with is considerable: she is a seventh grader at school, and is the outsider, with just one friend, Gloria. The balance of the relationship between Abby and Gloria is upset when new girl Stella appears, and is threatened even more by Stella's pash for a boy in their class; a boy so dull he thinks a blow by blow description of his breakfast is worthy conversation. Abby's fundamentalist father has fallen out with her brother, Danny.
There is much quiet manoevering in this novel: Abby's mother quietly negotiates her way around her husband to see her son, and Abby is her mother's daughter. She accepts what happens to her, and calmly gets on with life. What she has to put up with at school is difficult, but it never seems to grab her soul, which is elsewhere; partly with her devout Christian family, and partly with the horses. Abby never moans about her fundamentalist parents: she simply doesn't tell them when a school project involves the class building Catholic missions, as it is much less fuss. I wondered what would make this detached child shout or scream, for she never does. When she is suspended from school, she doesn't rage at the desperate unfairness of it: she simply goes and works with the horses. That is not to say that Abby does not change: she makes small, quiet, definite and successful moves to assert herself.
All this happens through the horses, who are wonderfully done. Starting to give them names, as Abby does with the orphaned colt Jack, is the start of her separation of herself from her parents. All the changes Abby makes are made within the framework of her family and school: there are no wild bids for freedom; just small adjustments which destroy nothing.
I was very struck by the calm and unhurried pace of the writing. There is no rush through to get to the next incident, no skated over episode. It's a very calming book to read: you soon slip into its rhythm, and become part of the smooth pace of it. I wondered if it was to maintain this pace that the book was set in the 1960s: Is it because it would have been difficult to maintain the slow pace of the novel in the more frenetic, gadget-bound present?
This is an excellent book: my horse book of the year so far. It's absorbing, and believable, with more instructional horse content than anything I've read in a long while: but the book is in no sense a pill, not even a sugared one. The book is more than strong enough to carry the technical stuff. It's also an achievement to portray a fundamentalist family as human beings: like her heroine, Jane Smiley does not judge.
A note on differences between the American original and the UK printing: Grumpy George was Ornery George in the original. The book's first title was The Georges and the Jewels, and it had a different cover.
Friday, 13 August 2010
American publisher Dorchester Publishing Inc is pulling out of publishing physical books altogether, and concentrating entirely on POD and e-books.
What do you think? Does a future exist where the Reader's Digest Condensed Edition will become a sought after rarity, salivated over on Antiques Roadshow?
What do you think? Does a future exist where the Reader's Digest Condensed Edition will become a sought after rarity, salivated over on Antiques Roadshow?
Thursday, 12 August 2010
Alison Hart: Whirlwind
Laurel-Leaf/Random House, £4.54
(price on Book Depository)
Shadow Horse (£4.45) has now been re-issued, and is also available via Book Depository.
Thank you to Alison Hart for sending me a copy of this book.
Readers of this blog will know that I am very keen on Shadow Horse, to which Whirlwind is the sequel. That book I found enthralling: it's the story of how 13 year old Jas comes to be in a courtroom, accused (and later convicted) of attacking her grandfather's employer. Hugh Robicheaux breeds horses, which Jas helps him to show. Hugh is, however, interested in making far more money than he can do legitimately through selling his horses, so hatches an insurance scam. He buys ringers for his horses; arranges for the ringer to be killed, and then claims on the insurance. This he does with Jas's favourite horse, Whirlwind.
All this, in the first book, Jas finds out. In the first book, there's a lot of pyschological tension: Jas is hostile, defensive, opinionated and comes through the course of the book to accept some of the help she's offered, and to thaw out. Besides the enthralling plot, it's in Jas herself that a lot of the interest lies.
This sequel comes to tie up the loose ends that were left at the end of the story: although Jas and her friends had found out what Hugh was up to, they certainly hadn't stopped him, and Whirlwind's fate was still unknown. When Whirlwind opens, Jas is very close to being released from being tagged and on curfew. The insurance company's case against Hugh, for a scam involving a horse Jas rescued, is collapsing. Jas's grandfather is due to return to live with her and her foster mother, after rehabilitation for the effects of his stroke. The very survival of the rescue Miss Hahn, Jas's foster mother, runs, is under threat through Hugh Robicheaux's exertion of his influence on local businesses who have sponsored the rescue, and the fate of Jas's beloved Whirlwind is still unknown.
The problem is that what this book does is tie up loose ends: we've already had the resolution of a lot of the psychological dramas in the first book, and Jas doesn't really seem to have anywhere to go and develop in this book: granted she is still prone to bolting rather than confronting her demons, and is not good at accepting help, but the narrative drive to reach a conclusion and confound Hugh seems to thrust the character driven fascination of the first book into the background. It's still a good read: Alison Hart drives the plot forward and is excellent at maintaining the tension. There were times when I was on the edge of my seat wondering whether Jas would wriggle out of a particular situation or not. She's still the same feisty character she was in the first book, and there is a new character in the shape of a wonderful private detective, Marietta Baylor, who deserves a series all her own.
If you enjoyed Shadow Horse you will undoubtedly enjoy finding out how the story resolves: will you want more from Jas than you get? I don't know. I look forward to finding out what other readers think.
Listen and weep, people, listen and weep.
Sunday, 8 August 2010
Saturday, 7 August 2010
Many congratulations to the winners, and very well done to everyone who entered. It was a very tough fight up at the top, with just a single point separating 1st from 4th.
A word on how the answers were marked: I marked any name which was incorrectly spelled as wrong. It simply wasn't fair to the vast amount of entrants who did spell names properly to give marks for answers where I had to guess whether an answer was wrong, or right and badly spelled.
Champion Cup and red rosette to - Caroline Shaw (75 1/2 points)
Smaller but still impressive cup and blue rosette to - Susan Bourgeau (75 points)
Splendid green and yellow rosette - Kate Hills (74 1/2 points)
Rather frilly yellow rosette - Bettina Vine (74 points)
Highly commended rosettes for doing jolly well and getting more than 70:
Hannah Fleetwood, Valerie Amis, Sue Howes, Norman and Samantha Ritossa
If you had a go at the quiz, and want to be put out of your misery, the answers are here.
I took the picture below to try and show the brown desert the garden has become, but paradoxically it doesn't look too bad. It is, however. Even stuff that is usually impervious to everything, like geraniums, are turning up their toes. I plant for drought as our village is "first with the wind and last with the rain" and this is the first year I've had a problem. I try and water only from the water butts, water only the vegetables and keep new plants to a minimum but even the butts have failed, and for the first time in eleven years here I've had to use a hose.
The grey things of course love this weather.
The butterflies alas don't seem to. Not one single Peacock or Red Admiral have I seen, and only a single Tortoiseshell. Normally the buddleia is teeming with them, but there's nothing. There are plenty of Whites, Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers, and Holly Blues (at least I think the ones below are holly blues) but none of the usual late summer ones at all: not even Painted Ladies, though I know they're migrants.
The rather bad photograph below has the pair of Holly Blues who inhabit the front garden; rather sweetly, they're always flying together.
I planted a cardoon last year, which has flowered, rather to my surprise. Quite why this took me by surprise I do not know: it's a thistle, and thistles have flowers, so what did I expect? Anyway, the bees and hoverflies love it.
The drought has had a fairly bad affect on my attempts at growing food. The potatoes are grown 80m from the nearest tap (as I now know now I've bought hose enough to reach the patch) but it's never been an issue before. It gave me something of an insight into what it must be like to battle to grow crops with no water, and a deep thankfulness that despite my much reduced crop, it's highly unlikely we'll starve.
The fruit, to my surprise, hasn't done at all badly despite the drought. Goodness knows what will happen next year. The plants must be severely stressed.
I forgot about the damsons until I walked into the ones below. When we first got to the house, damsons were the first thing to fruit, and all excited about this new venture, I made my first ever jam. It was a disaster. I had no sugar thermometer at that point, and used the cold saucer method to test for a set. Goodness, did my jam set. I did contemplate calling it damson cheese and making out that I had intended it that way, but whatever I called it, it was inedible. On Gardener's Question Time, Bob Flowerdew suggested putting jam out to attract ants away from your plants. An excellent way to use up my disaster, I thought. Not even the ants would touch it.
The pear tree is having a fantastic year, which is a bit of a shame as the pear is one of the few fruits I don't like.
Blackberries are fruiting already, to the excitement of the hens, who have a very large bramble patch in their hens. They become VTOL hens, leaping up to pick their own.
We're lucky enough to have a Cox's apple, which is an erratic fruiter, but any day now, they'll be ready.
Having had a bad year for garlic last year, this year was very good and I have tons. Cannot think what possessed me to plant quite so much. I have a dim memory of being told about a chicken dish that needed 40 cloves of garlic. That sounds like a recipe I need.
Friday, 6 August 2010
Marilyn Edwards: White Chin
Catnip Publishing, £6.99
Ages: 10 up
Thanks to Catnip Publishing for sending me this: a bit of a surprise as I was expecting Jinny, but I expect they know what I think about her, so are giving me a welcome chance to spread my wings.
Marilyn Edwards' White Chin was published on 1st August, and it is her first children's novel. White Chin is a young cat, who was abandoned in a wood by two men, and left to survive. He is seen by a girl called Kirstie, who falls in love with him. This doesn't instantly solve White Chin's problems: he goes through several homes before finally settling down with Kirstie.
My initial reaction on seeing this book I have to admit was not positive: the animal story is a very tricky one to get right. there is often not a lot of incident in an animal's life, so the book runs the risk of being a run through of fairly predictable events. Characterisation is often a casualty: the animal either emerges as rather dull, or is humanised, which often doesn't work either: the animal starts to think and feel in a completely unrealistic way. Humankind, in this sort of story, can often be painted in black and white: the dreadful, bad humans who do the animal harm, and the angelic rescuers who find the animal and ensure its life is a thing of well fed, comfortable bliss ever after.
So, I started reading this book not expecting to like it: I am irritated by animals who assume emotions they're unlikely to feel, and I wasn't expecting to be gripped by the plot. After all, it didn't take a lot of imagination to work out how it was going to end. And end as you would expect it does, but the process of getting there is absorbing.
Marilyn Edwards doesn't make her characters angels of rescuing bliss by any means: she shows rather neatly how differently people react to cats, and how even the best intentioned human will have their own needs which often conflict with the animal's. White Chin's first home after his abandonment has a woman who finds him a messy inconvenience, and a man who likes the cat, but can't really be bothered to fight his corner. A sculptress is so besotted by her Maine Coon cat she cannot find room for another animal, and Kirstie, ostensibly the heroine, neglects all her animals in turn, as she moves from one obsession to another: her pony is neglected when she finds White Chin, and he is ignored once she gets two kittens. A home where an animal gets shelter and enough to eat still might not actually be a good home.
Marilyn Edwards is good at her animals too: I was convinced by them all. There is an oriental cat, Dilly, who lurks every bedtime to stop White Chin getting upstairs; Adorabelle, the Maine Coon queen, alternately flirtatious and cool, and the outdoor farm cat, Stubs, who keeps himself to himself. White Chin himself is a cat who really needs peace and quiet, but this is rarely what he gets.
The author does an excellent job of weaving together the many different ways people and animals react. I particularly liked the way Kirstie was more than an Animal Ark rescue child: she's by no means perfect, and it was fascinating to see her coming to understand how she behaves, and how it affects her animals. This isn't just another animal story: it's a slice of life.
The illustrations are an absolute triumph: France Baudin has done a wonderful job.
Thursday, 5 August 2010
Linda Chapman: Loving Spirit
Reading age: 10+
Thanks to Puffin for sending me this book to review.
Linda Chapman has written several pony series: the Secret Unicorn series (which I liked) and several Heartlands (about which I wasn't so keen). With Loving Spirit she's going for an older age group than she's written for of late.
Ellie Carrington, the 14 year old heroine, is from New Zealand. Her parents have been killed in an accident, and her grandmother can no longer care for her, so she's come to England to live with her uncle Len and her cousin Joe. She's had to leave her pony, and the one small flicker of light on the horizon is that Uncle Len runs a showing stable. However, Uncle Len is worlds away from the sympathetic father figure Ellie needs. He is wedded to his work: all that matters is that the stables succeed. Len is impatient, dictatorial: a bully. Cousin Joe, 16, is cowed by his father and shows not a flicker of spirit; his father thinks he's useless, and tells him so.
Ellie clashes badly with her uncle. When she defies him, and rescues some kittens he wanted drowned, he tells her "This is my yard and my house, and I make the decisions. While you're under my roof, you'll do as I say. Tomorrow you'll start riding the ponies." Ellie flatly refuses. It does not go down well.
So far, so gothic. I like a really satisfyingly awful villain, and Uncle Len certainly is that. I also like defiant heroines standing up to bullies, and Ellie is that. However, Ellie finds she can't maintain her stance for ever after she buys a horse at a local sale. In order to persuade her uncle to let her keep the horse, at least temporarily, she has to promise to ride.
After Ellie starts riding, she finds of course that she enjoys working with her uncle's ponies, and she starts to appreciate that her uncle is extremely good at what he does. This is not just a straightforward showing story though: Ellie's horse, Spirit, talks to her. It's a moot point as to whether this means the book is fantasy or in the horse-whispering camp: there are people out there who say horses talk to them. They may very well do. Ellie is fully aware that people might well think she's mad if she tells them Spirit talks to her. The horse talking sections of the story are believable: after Ellie tells Joe she can communicate with Spirit (which Joe doesn't believe) they move smartly on to tidying the muck heap. There's not an over-concentration on the mystical at the expense of the practical stuff that has to go on around horses. There's a slightly different dynamic in this series than in Heartland, in which healing was the be all and end all: here the stable has to succeed to survive, and that's what the communication with horses helps. I think the book is the stronger for it: it's more rooted in reality than Heartland, though I shall be interested to see if school becomes more than a passing mention. There is a tension, particularly if Ellie's about to start her GCSE courses, between the amount of school work that needs to be done and the need to take days off for shows.
Ellie herself is an attractive character: I like feisty heroines, and I like her stubborn determination. She doesn't, unlike the heroine of Heartland, Amy, give way to storms of emotion. This is not a girl who feels sorry for herself, even though life has dealt her a rough hand. She gets up and gets on with things. There's an interesting range of characters: the book is, unusually for a pony book, quite male-dominated. Apart from Uncle Len, there's Luke, who helps run the stables, and Joe of course. Ellie's grandmother is a very distant figure, in New Zealand. Sasha, a groom, is a very intermittent romantic interest for Luke. Spirit, the major equine character, is male as well. So far, Ellie survives in this male world. It would be interesting to see what would happen were there to be other strong female characters as well.
I liked the setting of the book in a showing yard. It's been a very long while since Caroline Akrill's showing series, and it's good to have something different. I find myself increasingly fascinating by showing as I get older - the showing pages are the one bit of Horse and Hound I always read - maybe my inner Becky is coming to the fore as I get older, and I will end up touting a hack of bewitching beauty but appalling character around shows, as she does Benjamin in Caroline Canters Home. Yes, I know Benjamin's a pony, but you know what I mean.
I wasn't so keen on the incipient relationship with Joe: he's her cousin! They live under the same roof! Good grief. I googled to see whether you can now marry a cousin, and you can, at least in England, though not in some states in the American South but still, the complications of a teenage relationship under the same roof. Crumbs. I'm just glad I'm not Uncle Len.
This book is a good read: Linda Chapman has the balance between the horse whispering and the everyday about right, and an interesting set of characters to play with. I'm looking forward to episode two. It's probably because I have a daughter the same age as Ellie that I'm willing Linda Chapman to shift the romantic focus: find someone from school, preferably another school. Makes life so much less complicated.
Win a copy of the book!
I'm running a giveaway for a copy of this book: please add your name to the comments below, and I'll do a draw on 12th August.