Monday, 26 November 2012

Guest post: Jane Ayres on Black Beauty

My guest blogger today is, Jane Ayres, author of the Matty series. You can download Matty and the Racehorse Rescue for free today and tomorrow (26/27 November 2012).  The other two books are Matty and the Problem Ponies and Matty and the Moonlight Horse. All the profits from the books go to support Redwings Horse Sanctuary.

Black Beauty, past and present by Jane Ayres

I can’t actually remember the first time I read Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty.  I think it was over several sessions when I was staying with an aunt in Kent on a family holiday.  It was on the bookshelf along with other classics like Treasure Island and Little Women.   I was about eight years old, and got very upset about any kind of cruelty to animals.  I loved the illustrations in the book (and wish I could remember what edition it was).  I cried when I read about Ginger’s fate and got so angry I felt like tearing the pages out.  I wanted to attack the people who hurt Ginger.  I also felt like Ginger was being punished for being rebellious, whereas to some extent Black Beauty’s compliance and kind nature helped him to survive.

I was, and still am, greatly moved by the reason Anna Sewell wrote the book and the fact IT DID MAKE A DIFFERENCE.  She changed things for the better and that had a big influence on me.  Writers can change things.

Writing this post triggered me to find out more about Black Beauty’s author and I was surprised to discover that it was her only published book. It was written between 1871 to 1877, when her health was declining, confining her to bed and she often dictated the text to her mother. Published in 1877, when she was 57 years of age, Black Beauty is now considered a children's classic, but Anna originally wrote it for those who worked with horses, with her “special aim to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses."  The novel became an immediate bestseller,although Anna died five months after its publication, and Black Beauty is one of the best-selling books of all time.

When I think about the books that have popular appeal, the books that are universally loved, they all have empathic characters, and a compelling story.  These are the qualities that endure.  And if the story has compassion as a central theme, the book will live forever.  Black Beauty has all these, and has inspired a host of stories that feature a distinctive, beautiful black horse.  What is it about black horses?  What makes them so magnificent and appealing?  I’ve often wondered about this.  We associate black with darkness, and when applied to horses maybe it is the idea of the wild black stallion that we dream of taming. There are plenty of examples of this in literature, the one that immediately springs to mind being Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion and all the sequels (I recall a title called The Black Stallion and Satan).

I later read a book that I was convinced was called Black Beauty’s Daughters and comprised 3 stories, one each by each Josephine, Diana and Christine Pullein-Thompsons which I remembered as Black Ebony, Black Princess and Black Velvet, but looking at Jane’s page I see there were several versions of the Black Beauty Family, so maybe I remembered wrong.  I loved the idea of stories told by his descendants.

There have been various film versions of the book and even though I know the story inside out I still cry my eyes out when I watch them.  The cruelty always makes me despair at human nature and despite the eventual happy ending, I can never forget Ginger’s fate.

On a more cheerful note, the 1970s TV series The Adventures of Black Beauty (bearing no relation to Anna Sewell’s story apart from being set in Victorian England) brought a stunning black stallion onto our screens at Sunday teatime – played by at least 7 (or was it 10) different stunning horses.  Set in 19th century rural England, it created an idyllic picture of rolling green landscapes. The heroine, Vicky, (played by beautiful actress Judi Bowker) got to wear pretty long dresses and knickerbockers and cool lace-up boots and gallop to the rescue on Beauty every week.  I loved it!  I still have the theme tune on a 45” record (Galloping Home) and I had posters all over my bedroom wall of the stars and the horses.  Later additions to the show were sister Stacey Dorning and many years later the show was revived, set in New Zealand and I loved it all over again.  I get nostalgic thinking about it.  

I don’t know whether the Black Beauty series was a key factor in the birth of glossy magazine Lucky Rider. Although it only lasted a year or so, I would reserve my copy at the newsagent and eagerly await each new issue.  Beautifully produced and glamorous, it gave an insight behind the scenes and into the lives of the stars and horses – a kind of celebrity horse magazine. And the stars from Black Beauty, both equine and human, featured heavily.

I’ve meandered somewhat but going back to the start point for the post, Anna Sewell’s iconic book had an enormous influence on the future of animal welfare and may even have been the first pony book.   How wonderful if she could see the work today of animal welfare charities and horse sanctuaries.  She has been an enormous inspiration for me and her achievements were truly revolutionary, on so many levels.  That her book is so loved and revered today is a wonderful tribute to her. Long live Black Beauty.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Review: Diana Kimpton - There Must be Horses

Diana Kimpton: There Must Be Horses
Paperback, Diana Kimpton, £6.29
Kindle, £2.56, Kindle, $1.23,, $3.99

Diana Kimpton's website

Thank you to the author for sending me a copy of this book.

Diana Kimpton is best known in horse circles as the author of the Pony Mad Princess series, of which I am a fan.  There Must be Horses is her first essay into horse fiction for the older reader. It's only available (thus far) in Kindle format, but don't let that put you off. I have to say I am not a Kindle habituĂ©, and if I get an e-book, it tends to take me longer to read, as I prefer your actual page to your virtual one. This book (file?), however, I finished in a day, and at the end was sitting with tears streaming down my face.

There Must be Horses is the story of Sasha. Her adoptive parents have given up on her, and when the book opens, she is off to yet another set of foster parents, for yet another temporary placement. She is now a hard-to-place child, too old to be cute, too spiky and difficult after a lifetime of constant rejection to make her an easy fit into a family. Her life has been reduced to a series of journeys with social workers to new foster placements, her belongings in black bin bags.

Sasha loves horses, but has had little to do with them, after a brief series of lessons while living with her adoptive parents. However, her new foster placement is at a stables which rehabilitates horses.  Sasha is not the only wounded creature at Joe and Beth's stables. Meteor arrives on the same day as Sasha, too petrified of humanity to let anyone near him.

What makes this book particularly interesting is that it is not only Meteor and Sasha who are only able to reject any friendly advance: Beth and Joe have had problems of their own. Sasha's dearest wish is to stay with them permanently, and she cannot understand why Beth and Joe will not let her. She is desperate to make herself indispensable, and the book follows her attempts, crowned with both success and disaster.

This book is an interesting study in why we reject each other. It's completely gripping. It's a moving and observant look at a damaged girl and a horse, and of their at least partial healing. It is also an absolute bargain at £0.77.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Tuesday giveaway

Another giveaway - completely different to Friday's. This one is a rather charming unicorn story. I am not normally a fan of the unicorn; not in his 21st century guise, anyway. This one does have a noble unicorn, but he is quite a worried beast too. No one can see him, save for one elderly man, and the unicorn does want to be seen. This is a charmingly told story, and it has beautiful illustrations, and a satisfyingly ambiguous ending.

If you'd like to be entered for the draw to win it, just add your name to the comments below.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Friday giveaway....

Friday giveaway .... though possibly not if you're easily offended. I have a copy of Judy Reene Singer's Horseplay, which I suppose you could just about consider a romance. It's more about the heroine sorting out her horse life, and the up
s and downs of the women she lives with. It is at times very funny. And occasionally quite rude. Those who have read it will know whereof I speak if I mention the vet. If you'd like this copy, which is very minimally exlibrary but really in pretty good shape, add your name to the comments. I will pick names out of a hat at some point on Saturday.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Comfort reading

I am about to give up, slope away and sleep on the sofa with the dog, for I have a cold. Usually I carry on regardless, my agricultural labourer genes usually up for slogging on, but today I have had enough. I am a bit goggled by the fact that we have NOWHERE TO LIVE. To be more accurate, we do, we're still living in the house, but the sale is hurtling towards a conclusion (good, because that's what we wanted, wasn't it?) but there is nothing for sale in the area we want to move to, and nothing to rent that has a garden, or that will allow dogs, if it has a garden. 

Today I am feeling completely overwhelmed by our imminent homelessness, and the vast amounts of sorting out I still have to do to de-clutter, and now I have a cold. And it is right at that drippy, miserable, temperature-y stage where the world seems a place viewed best from underneath the duvet. Comfort reading is what I need. One useful side-effect of the decluttering I have done is that I do at least know where some of my books are. Not all, I wouldn't go that far, but some. I do know where the book I would probably take with me if forced against a wall and forced to chose only one is (right next to me at the moment): and it's Veronica Westlake's The Ten Pound Pony

One luxury of writing a book is spreading yourself on your favourite topic, and I have spread myself on the subject of Veronica Westlake in one of my chapters on 1950s authors. The Ten Pound Pony is about a family who actually do struggle for money. They're not pony-book-poor, where there's still enough money for several ponies, a private education and a large house, or that classic term used by Olivia Fitz Roy to describe her Eton-educated, debutante-containing family in Orders to Poach - "the poorest family in Scotland". Jessica, Ann and Martin have no father, and their mother works part-time. The family are deliciously observed, and narrator Jess has a trenchant view of the world. They do of course get a pony, but it's a major slog. I love the almost tremulous wonder when the pony is finally theirs:

""We simply could not believe that she belonged to us... and we felt almost afraid as we smoothed her rough coat and tried to finger the mud off it..."

The ending is gloriously sentimental and I expect I shall cry, but on the plus (if somewhat revolting side) I expect that will help my nose, which as I write is morphing from drip to block.

If I finish The Ten Pound Pony, then I shall hit the Dick Francis. It seems a bit counter-intuitive to have stories of violence and wrong doing as comfort reading, but Dick Francis' strong, capable heroes - all really Sid Halley, with different expertises - sort everything out. Every time. And it is so comforting to enter a world in which everything will work out. Sid, I need you now. Add estate agency to the detective stuff. You know it makes sense.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Heroines on Horseback

which is the title of my book, will be out in March 2013. Here's the draft cover. It won't look like that when it finally emerges into the light of day.

It's about

the pony book, which galloped on to the children’s book scene with a flick of its rosetted bridle in the 1930s, and has remained a fixture ever since. Brave girls, nervous ones, scruffy ponies and ornaments of the show ring cantered through pony tale after pony tale, all fallen upon by an audience desperate to read anything that reflected their own passion for the pony.

Heroines on Horseback looks at the pony book through its beginnings in the 20s and 30s, to the glory days of the 40s and 50s, and beyond. I write about the lives and contributions of noted exponents, including Primrose Cumming, Monica Edwards, Patricia Leitch, Ruby Ferguson and the Pullein-Thompson sisters, as well as providing a wide-ranging view of the genre as a whole, its themes and developments, illustrators and short stories.

There are plenty of illustrations, and a bibliography.

And you can get it
Once it's published, from all the usual sources. You can also pre-order a copy from the publishers (Girls Gone By) or directly from me (and get a signed copy).

To pre-order
Email me with how many copies you’d like (see how hopeful I am there), or order directly from the Publishers. If you're from Australia or New Zealand, it's more cost effective for you to order direct from the Publishers.

Prices (ordered from me)
Australia/New Zealand/USA/Canada.........................£22.80

All prices include p&p

Once the book is delivered to me, I will send you a Paypal or Nochex invoice, so you can pay by credit or debit card. You are also very welcome to pay by cheque.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Interview: Belinda Rapley

My latest interviewee is Belinda Rapley, author of the Pony Detectives series. It's about a group of four girls: Rosie, Alice, Charlie and Mia who keep their horses at Rosie's farmhouse home.  It’s a solid and well-written series, which concentrates on the relationships between the girls and their ponies, and avoids the fantastic or romantic elements that have been added to the genre over the years.  

Can you tell me something about how you came to love the horse?

The honest answer is that I’m not quite sure how it came about, it crept up out of nowhere! None of my family had ever shown any interest in anything remotely horsey, and I grew up in suburbia with very little greenery anywhere near. I used to share my name with an ancient donkey on the Isle of Wight, and whenever we went over there on holiday I was allowed to lead her out for some cow parsley, which she loved. But I don’t think I ever crazed my parents for lessons, or a pony. On one holiday though my parents organised a hack and I sat on my first ever pony at the grand old age of 10. My sister went too, and we both had fairly regular lessons after that but for some reason she lost interest while my obsession with horses just grew and grew. At 16 I ran away from home to fulfil my dream of working with them. My parents became very supportive once they knew I was serious, even if they couldn’t accept it necessarily as a sensible idea. After a while I did return to London and an office job but once horses get into your blood, you can never fully leave them – thankfully. I moved to Suffolk / Norfolk border five years ago simply to be back in the countryside and to give myself the option to finally live the life I’d longed for. After sharing a friend’s horse, Pinto, last year, I became the immensely proud owner of an even more immensely proud, yet equally comic, Andalusian. I adore him.

When you left school, you worked in yards and as a riding instructor. Were there any particular experiences you squirreled away, thinking that one day they’d be good in a book?

Not consciously, no. In fact, I wish I’d squirreled away more but my memory’s so appalling that if I did squirrel something away I’d soon forget where to dig for it anyway! But while I’m thinking up ideas something in the foggy recesses often gets jogged and details emerge. One memory tends to lead to another, which is always quite nice, if a bit distracting. Moonlight, the stolen pony from Moonlight, Star of the Show, was based on my favourite pony at the riding school I went to (also called Moonlight, funnily enough). I used to dream incessantly about owning him and taking him to shows. He was awesome and somehow I always knew he would live on in one of my books. Some of the things that happen to Rosie have happened to me, too – like the cowpat situation, I’ll say no more... And I got the idea for the ghostly goings on in Puzzle, the Runaway Pony, from an enormous Danish Warmblood I knew called Sprout (his breeder had a sense of humour). He had the spookiest neigh I’d ever come across. If I was ever the last person on the yard in the dark and I heard him whinny it used to give me the willies and I’d end up running up the lane to the road, scaring myself all the way!
What made you decide to write a pony book series?

I’ve always, always wanted to write. I’m a bit of a dreamer and tend to think in stories rather than live in the real world most of the time (it’s a happy place to be). And because I love horses and could talk about them endlessly all day, every day (and I do....!) it seemed like not just the natural, but the only place to start. 

Which books (pony or not) have influenced you most in your own writing?

I love humour, and my favourite author is PG Wodehouse – the way he juggles so many balls, keeping them effortlessly in the air before catching them all at the end so neatly, is genius. I like catching all the balls in my stories, too. I know that doesn't necessarily reflect real life, but I think in these stories and for this age group it’s possible. Any humour in my stories tends to arrive courtesy of Rosie. I love her for the way she can lighten a serious situation, saving it from getting maudlin. I wish she’d been my best friend growing up. I'm also a huge fan of Alexander McCall Smith's The Ladies Number One Detective Agency. I love its attitude of simplicity, even when the darker crimes are being investigated. It feels like a very gentle world and that’s the kind I like! Apart from that, any detective books are definitely my cup of tea (and I love tea very much!).

A lot of modern pony series tend to take place in large livery yards. Yours is on a much more domestic scale: it’s four girls and their ponies. What made you decide to give your characters a relatively small-scale background?

I think a few things. First, I didn't want lots of adults hanging around, watching over the girls, checking out what they’re up to and being restrictive. If you have a large livery yard, the adults are pretty much unavoidable and it would be strange if they didn't step in now and again when the girls make mistakes or need help. Second, I wanted to inhabit a yard that I would have loved to have kept a pony at when I was younger. A large livery yard would need the odd unsavoury character in there, and clashes of personality, to make it realistic; I did'’t want that within the stables themselves. I wanted Blackberry Farm to be a cosy, fun yard for the girls, with the bad characters lurking elsewhere...

You write very movingly of the struggle one of your characters has with her new horse: she’s going backwards, and whatever she tries, things get worse. Is this struggle something you've seen at first hand?

This is something that’s really quite odd, with fact reflecting fiction. It wasn't written from first-hand experience, although as I've got older it increasingly bothers me that horses are a pet, yet are often subject to many changes of ownership during their lives. It’s easy to sell a horse on if things aren't quite working. I had a session with an Intelligent Horsemanship coach last year with my friend's horse, Pinto. It was so incredible to see the way horses can respond when treated in a certain way; it’s all about trust, leadership and trying to see things from their perspective, rather than our own human one. Classic Black Beauty. I wanted Phantom to be a dark force, but also to have a really understandable reason for that.

The odd bit is that, after writing this story, I got my horse, Jerezano. He came over from Spain at 6, having just been gelded and allegedly well schooled. He then stood in a field for 2 years before I stumbled across him. It was meant to be a straightforward case of bringing him back into work and away we go. It’s been anything but. Instead I've been on a journey of discovery, including the revelation that he probably hadn't done more than a few months worth of work in Spain before coming over here. It was like having an overgrown Bambi to begin with, and when he lost his confidence he began to throw his (unco-ordinated) weight around. But, after working out how some of the jigsaw pieces fit together we’re beginning to get somewhere. It takes time with any new horse – moving yards, moving owners. Suddenly everything’s new. The owner can rationalise it, the horse can’t. Jerezano brought that home really hard, which is why I ended up dedicating book 4, Phantom, One Last Chance, to him.       


You tackle some major themes in your books: death and grief. Was it a deliberate choice to include them, or did your characters take off and land you in surprising places?

I concentrate on trying to get the best plot I can and I'm not very conscious of the themes which develop around that. If I set out consciously to put some kind of theme in my writing it normally kills creativity. But I knew that I needed a bit of a lost soul to link into Phantom and Neve just grew from that. I do love the 4 main characters, though, they’re like best friends to me and they lead the way in the books. I simply follow.

Do you think the pony book has a valid role in a society where most people are never going to be able to have a horse?

Absolutely and whole heartedly. I didn't have a hope of owning a pony when I was younger, so any contact with horses – from a glimpse out of the car window, a picture in a magazine or my fortnightly lesson – was special. That’s what made pony books so precious to me. They allowed me to take a step into this amazing, ‘other’ world, giving me detail far beyond what I knew to imagine. It was the ultimate in wish fulfilment. So to flip the question round, I think that precisely because most people might not get to own their own pony, books about ponies have the potential to hold a special place for children. When I started writing the Pony Detectives it was exactly that kind of reader I had in mind.

What do you want people to take away from your pony books?

Very simply, whatever they chose to. Each book’s individual and personal to each reader, I’d hope, so I’d never like to put any expectations on anyone. Although, if everyone gets enjoyment from them, that would make me immensely happy!

Are there plans for more books in the series?

Yes! There will be two more coming out next year – I'm so excited about writing them, I can’t wait to head back onto the yard at Blackberry Farm for some more adventures and to solve pony crimes... Although, in a bit of a scoop, I can reveal that in one of the books the girls leave the Farm as they head off to summer camp. 

You’re written on your favourite pony books for the Guardian. Was it difficult to pick your top ten books? What almost made it?

It was difficult to just pick ten, but I sneaked round that by choosing one book from a particular series, or author and mentioning the whole series or other books by that author.  The book I would have loved to have included was The Pony Book by Nancy Roberts. It’s not a novel, but a book on pony care, which my parents gave me one Christmas years ago. I read it cover to cover countless times and I must have read the chapter about riding holidays about a thousand times. Just looking at the pictures now evokes such a strong memory. The book that I haven’t read yet, but am desperate to, one that I'm sure I would have put on the list if I had, is Fair Girls and Grey Horses, the Pullein-Thompson’s biography. I just love them. Blind Beauty, by KM Peyton, was another that nearly made it. Oh, and then there’s Ryan’s Master, about John Whitaker and Ryan’s Son. Ryan’s Son is, to this day, my favourite horse of all time. Well, at least equal with Desert Orchid and Kauto Star.

If you could press just one pony book (other than your own, of course) into the hands of a pony-loving child to encourage them to read, what would it be?
Lordy, I don’t know. Hmmm, just one...? Really...?! In that case, it would have to be a Shantih book, and I’d probably pick Jump For The Moon (by Patricia Leitch). So many strands, so well realised – it’s heart-breakingly wonderful.

What do you think are the differences between pony books now, and the ones you read as a child?

I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that, or at least answer it fairly. When I picked up a pony book as a child the desire to be immersed in the world I was reading about was all consuming. That enabled such a deep connection to a book that, years later, just reading the opening lines transports me back to that time. For that reason I don’t think that I can compare pony books now to the ones I used to read, not because of the content but because I'm approaching it with such a different mindset. I did love the sound of the old fashioned life, though, that’s something I do miss!

And lastly, as it’s Olympic year, what were your golden Olympic moments?

So so many! In fact, this year has just been amazing full stop for horsey moments. With the Olympics it has to be watching the dressage – it was so gripping and edge of the seat stuff that I was watching through my fingers. The tension was unbearable right to the last rider. Charlotte Dujardin is just an absolute hero to have held her nerve. Personally, sitting in front of the laptop, I boiled over completely! Show jumping was always my first love – I think because it was covered so much on television when I was younger - so I was a bit emotional about the team gold, but especially for Nick Skelton. I visited his yard once and stuck coloured stickers all over his horses and took pictures of them for a project I was doing during my Diploma in Horse Studies. It was all about angles. He was very welcoming, if slightly bemused. I remember making the phone call to ask him if I could visit his yard – I was totally awestruck and to this day can’t quite work out how, as a very shy 18 year old talking to one of my heroes, I even managed to get a word out!

I desperately wanted Lee Pearson to get his three gold medals, but thought that bagging a bronze, silver and gold was pretty legendary, as well as completing a neat full set. I felt bereft when the Olympics finished, not just for the equestrian sports but the whole occasion. Clare Balding excelled herself too, she was fab.

But, aside from the Olympics, it’s been a great year for racing, too, and I can’t not mention a certain horse by the name of Frankel. He’s hit the headlines this year and has been another horse that I could hardly bear to watch. My heart almost crashes out of my chest from before they set off to when they cross the finish line. I love horses, but they do put me through the mill! Still, they’re worth it a million times over.

Thank you Belinda!


Belinda Rapley's website
Belinda Rapley writes on her favourite horse books for The Guardian