Saturday, 27 April 2013

Review - Kit Ehrman: At Risk

Kit Ehrman: At Risk

Other Steve Kline mysteries on Kindle: £0.66

This was a cracking read. I sat up far too long trying to finish it and find out what happened. It’s tautly plotted, has an excellent horsey background, and had me holding my breath as the denouement approached. If you like heart-in-mouth stuff, with strong, attractive characters, download this book: you really don't have anything to lose, because it's free.

Hero Steve Kline, at the age of only 21, is barn manager to Foxdale, a stable of over 200 horses. He’s very, very good at his job. The book opens as Steve is heading to the barn in the middle of the night to give a horse medication. He surprises an attempt to steal seven of the barn’s horses; is beaten up and abducted. He gets free, but with no idea of who’s abducted him. The theft is not an isolated incident: the barn is subjected to increasingly horrible incidents. Someone has obviously singled out Foxdale for an especial brand of terror.

Steve Kline is tough and resourceful, but has an empathy with both humans and horses which makes him a particularly attractive tough guy hero. He has the sort of can-do air to him which gives the reader confidence that things will work out, but makes you interested in how he does it. The other characters are all neatly drawn, and the whole thing is a thoroughly believable gallop through American barn life.

Kit Ehrman does write very well indeed about horses. She observes them without sentimentality, and she understands them. Chase is one of those horses who is hell on legs in the stable, but a dream once ridden, and particularly when jumping. It’s difficult to get horses realistically horsey: too often sentiment intrudes, or the horses are like action men with four legs: devoid of any personality save what the rider chooses to believe they’re like. For comparison, here’s a bit about Chase:

“I pulled Chase sharply to the left, kicked him in the ribs, and he plowed through the thick undergrowth and bounded up the hill. His hooves slipped on the rain-soaked leaves. I grabbed mane and clucked to him. As we neared the ridge, I felt him abruptly focus his attention. I squinted through the rain. Directly ahead stood a four-foot-high picket fence, its white planks gleaming in the darkness. Chase pricked his ears and extended his stride with enthusiasm...... When we reached the curb on the far side, I hopped off the gelding and led him onto the sidewalk. Chase snaked his neck around and tried to get a piece of my skin between his teeth.”

This is a very superior equine mystery indeed. I’m now going to download the others in the series.  

Friday, 26 April 2013

Review: Jessica Burkhart - Canterwood Crest, Take the Reins

Jessica Burkhart - Take the Reins (Canterwood Crest, 1)
Simon & Schuster, 2009, $6.99 (UK price variable)

Jessica Burkhart's website
Canterwood Crest's website

The exclusive girls' school which has elite riding on the curriculum is something that's taken off a bit in recent years, in America, at any rate. America's comfortable with its private schools: in the UK, we're not. Or at least, even if we're perfectly happy to send our children there, we're not happy to see such establishments as the setting for children's literature unless it's suitably dressed by fantasy or distanced by geography, thereby absolving us for the need to feel squeamish about the public v private debate. So, we've had Lauren Brooke's Chestnut Hill series, and Stacy Gregg's Pony Club Rivals, both set in exclusive boarding schools in America. They're now joined by Jessica Burkhart and her Canterwood Crest series, set in yes, an exclusive girls' boarding school in America.

I have to admit I was all prepared not to like this. I'd assumed that it was, like the Lauren Brooke series, a publisher's construct, but it's not. The author, Jessica Burkhart, exists. She wrote the first book before she was out of her twenties, and the series now numbers 17 published titles.

In the first book, Taking the Reins, Sasha Silver, and her horse, Charm, are due to start their first term at Canterwood Crest. Sasha is understandably nervous about this leap into the unknown. She's ridden, and won, before, but only at a local level. Canterwood Crest is a whole new thing. Sasha has to get used to new surroundings, new people, and new ways of doing things. She has to have her riding tested to see if she's good enough to get into the school teams, and once that's happened there's pressure on her to proceed to the next level, as well as considerable pressure to succeed academically.

There can't be a school story in existence without a villain, and Canterwood Crest has one in Heather. Heather is, of course, extremely rich, extremely well horsed, and extremely capable. She's also determined that Sasha won't challenge her place in the school, or her chance of qualifying for the Advanced team. Yes, the way the Heather situation works out is a tad predictable, but Heather isn't a cardboard villain, and both we and Sasha can see why she is the way she is. One of the things that really won me over to the book was the insights we get into Heather.

The author has a brilliant ear for teenage dialogue,and teenage obsessions - in Sasha's case, lip gloss. Goodness, that girl has lip gloss. By the ton. For each situation, there's a lip gloss. I did , I have to say, like that about her. It reminded me of Ruby Ferguson's Jill and her forays into lipstick: there's the same sense of innocence; of light experimentation with the adult world. In the first book at least, there aren't any dark, deep, teenage horrors. There are parties, and baking, and friends: Canterwood isn't only for equestriennes: the book's given interest by Sasha's room mate, and her hopefully soon-to-be boyfriend, neither of whom are horsey.

This book is, of course, about a privileged set of characters whose only real problems are, in the scheme of things, relatively minor. The plot's predictable  but the way the book gets there makes you smile. It's all good, escapist fun.

My page on Jessica Burkhart

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Thursday, 25 April 2013

Mary Gervaise and the early pony book

Just when you think you have a reasonable idea about an author, something pops up which makes you rethink. I've included Mary Gervaise in my book, Heroines on Horseback, and have recently written about her too. What I didn't know, until it turned up in a load of books I bought this week, was that she was a very early exponent of the girl plus pony story. In 1932, when The Twins in the Third was written, pony stories were generally stories told by the pony, and they weren't exactly numerous, being far outnumbered by the school story.

The Twins in the Third is a story where the ponies are an important part of the plot. They're not central: the author could just as easily have used some other device to achieve her aim of social inclusion for twins Jean and Laurie, but ponies, and the fondness the girls feel for them are there. The book illustrates a key factor of Gervaise's writing over the years: if she didn't intend to write a girl-gets-pony story, neither did she want to write a school story, despite the title. For someone known as a school story writer, she's remarkably reluctant for her characters to actually be in school. It's noticeable in the G for Georgia series, and it's noticeable here: most of the action takes place outside school. It's relationships at home and outside school that interest Gervaise most. The ponies, and the school, are merely convenient devices which let her write about what she's most interested in.

Twins Jean and Laurie have not been at the High School for long. They are both shy, and although most of their classmates are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, the twins have been uncommunicative for so long, most of the other girls have ceased to bother with them. The twins don't like it, and indeed some of their classmates are worried about it too. This gives the start of the book an interesting tension.

This situation probably would have carried on for months, had not the form been collecting to fund a child's cot in the local hospital. The third form have fallen behind, and are some way off their £2.00 target. Everyone can contribute a little something to the total, surely? says the form mistress. In Jean and Laurie's case, no, they can't. They're staying with their grandmother, who doesn't believe in pocket money, and the girls therefore have nothing to give. They're too proud to explain, and so appear to their form as misers. They are determined not to spill the beans on their grandmother, whom they love, and are desperate to earn money somehow to contribute to the cot. They decide to sell their watches. On the way to sell them, they come across a man ill treating a pony and they trade in their watches for the pony.

None of this makes their lives any easier, but the book works its way through to just the conclusion you'd expect. It's the sort of warm and involving story Gervaise carried on producing throughout her life. She didn't go on to write traditional pony stories: she was a writer who wrote what would sell, but whatever badge her publishers put on her books over the years, she wrote what she wanted to write: books on children and their relationships.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Afternoon walk

Spring has sprung, even right next to the A14.


Warm enough at last for dogs to swim.

Friday, 19 April 2013

A guest post on Patricia Leitch

This post actually appeared as a comment on my post on 1970s pony literature. I enjoyed it so much I felt it was a shame it was buried in the comments. It deserves to be read, so here it is, and many thanks to Laura for writing it. I hope you don't mind being moved to a starring role!

I'm now a university lecturer in English Literature, though struggled with reading from about the age of 9 through to 13. Patricia Leitch's books kept me reading and thinking during that time and, most importantly, they kept alive in me the notion of a life of the imagination. The book that I loved most was Dream of Fair Horses, which I still reread.... it is really a book about what it means to have relationships that aren't driven by possessiveness.

One of the rather melancholy aspects of Patricia Leitch's work that I think I sensed as a child, but that I see much more clearly now, is her anxiety about what it means to be live as an adult woman. The books sometimes seem to share Jinny's disappointment in seeing characters like Sue getting interested in boys and makeup, and this process of growing up, or at least growing up in a particular way, is almost always represented as a loss of real identity. 

In terms of the adult women in the books, Gill's rather spectral mother is happy so long as she can support her brilliant father; Jinny's mother doesn't even have a first name, only coming alive in the glimmers of memory she has about her own girlhood. Miss Tuke is a strong and valuable character in the Jinny books, but a caricature, really, with very little psychological depth. There is a telling moment in Dream of Fair Horses where a girl comments on the woman who runs the down-at-heel riding school, saying how 'terrific' she is. Gill says, 'I was cold to think what it must be like to wake up in the night and know that you were Jennifer'. It's very poignant, and striking, that adult women who are in relationships seem to lose themselves, and those who hold on to their own passions usually find themselves alone.

 Only Gill and the end of Dream of Fair Horses offer the barely glimpsed possibility of another kind of relationship, in which her identity can remain intact. Perhaps one of the things all these girls are waiting for is the opportunity to lead adult lives where they can continue to think and work and love passionately and imagine and create. I'm grateful for the fact that feminism made it more possible for girls brought up in the 70s to make such lives for themselves than those brought up in the 40s/50s, as Leitch was.

The American printing of Dream of Fair Horses

I'm also grateful to Patricia Leitch's books for bringing to life girls who refuse to give up their passions. This demand for something other than what society was handing out and which seems linked to Leitch's wild and sometimes frighteningly unforgiving sense of landscape – a sense that oddly reminds me of Moby-Dick as much as anything (a book that Ken tells Jinny she'll appreciate when she's older, I seem to remember) – is one of the reasons why Jinny, in particular, can be so irritating and impossible. It is also the reason why I value her, and Gill, and Patricia's work. 

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Ride Like the Wind, the eighth Jinny book, has just been republished by Catnip. It's £5.99, and is available from the usual sources.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Mary Gervaise

There were bits of my book which ended up on the cutting room floor, and some of them I was quite fond of.  Mary Gervaise was one author whose section was cut quite considerably. Anyone read pony books in the 1970s will remember the Armada paperbacks of her Georgia series, with photographic covers, and rather alarming bright blue spines.

These photographic covers, with their casual, Seventies children, were a world away from those depicted in the books. Georgia, Susan and Gerry seem irredeemably lodged in a version of the 1950s where women don't work, the family is central, and everything always does seem to work out. Other pony stories written at the same time, like Ruby Ferguson's Jill books, don't seem as firmly lodged in time and place. Ruby Ferguson, whatever her real opinion on careers for girls, always left you with the sense that Jill was going somewhere. Georgia, although a decent enough character, was forever stuck in early teenagerhood. When I read the books, only 20 years after they were written, they already seemed part of a fantasy world, albeit an attractive one.

The Mary Gervaise books were never amongst my favourites: I always felt there wasn't quite enough pony, though I did enjoy the Kane family, as I think I was supposed to. The family is the nurturing centre of the books: always accepting, always kind, it's an idyll for the dispossessed. Looking back at the series now, I think that Mary Gervaise was far happier portraying families than she was ponies. For her, as I suspect for other authors, ponies were something she included to keep her books being published. She started off her writing career as a school story author, and a pretty prolific one, with a liking for a florid first name: Nepeta's First Term (1936) and Tiger's First Term (1928) are just two.

In the 1950s, she started writing the G for Georgia series. Heroine Georgia is worried and upset by life generally in A Pony of Your Own (1950), but one of her major fears is horses. She manages to overcome her fears enough to help a man and horse who have an accident outside her house, but the experience isn't a turning point for her: she doesn't suddenly develop a love of horses and charge off to the gymkhana. Georgia’s family are well aware of how badly her life is affected by her fears, and decide to send her off to The Grange, a new small school where pupils ride as well as learn. Georgia is appalled by the thought, and at first, almost sinks.

“Miss Primrose smiled and sighed at the same time. This girl baffled her. Georgie was terrified of horses, yet she had gone to the rescue that frosty night and had probably saved Firefly’s life...Matron had told Miss Primrose privately that Georgie came in for a good deal of ill-natured teasing from Barbara and her friends, and the headmistress was sorry to hear that this difficult girl was quite unable to stand up for herself.”

But slowly, with the occasional prompting of friends and staff, Georgia grows in self confidence. It's not a straightforward process, and much of the interest in the first book comes from wondering whether she will manage to overcome her fears. However, in true school (and pony) story tradition, she does - fortunately, as it would have been tricky to have sustained a long pony book series where the heroine was too scared to go near a pony.  

Once Georgia has joined the majority in the school who ride, that left a gap for an author who liked an outsider. They crop up in her school stories, and in her other pony series. Georgia is an outsider because she does not share the other girls’ enthusiasms, but other characters suffer because they don't have the happy family life Georgia does. Susan Walker, Georgia’s great friend, rarely sees her parents, who work abroad, and lives with an academic uncle. Georgia’s cousin Gerry lives with the Kane family as her own family are in Singapore, and seem to want little to do with her. Both girls find a harbour (even if they do not like it much at times) with the Kane family.

Fellow pupil at The Grange, Patience, was brought up in a loving but constricted atmosphere with a guardian whose ideas of child rearing would have been perfectly acceptable to the Victorians (Ponies and Holidays, 1950). When Patience arrives at the Grange she says: “We’ve led a very quiet life, and I’m afraid I shall find this youthful atmosphere extremely trying at first.” She does. Poor Patience, hauled out of the last century and thrown into this:

“A strange house is horrid, just at first,” said Georgie, very sorry for her. “I know what you feel like—“
“You don’t.” Patience spoke in a desperate little whisper, quite unlike her usually sedate tones.”No one can possibly know. You see, I’ve never been inside a real home before, let alone stayed in one... It makes me feel—odd.”

Outsiders crop up in Mary Gervaise's other pony stories too.  Perhaps the best of them is Belinda. Belinda is a pony book character you either love or loathe. There is something of the Fotherington Thomas about her: when reading the books, you do rather expect her to dance off singing "Hello sky! Hello trees!", but I like her despite this. She is portrayed right from the off in the first book, A Pony for Belinda (1959) as an outsider and oddity: she is going through agonies at a tea party. The other children are dressed in jeans: she's in a frilly dress. They go to school: she is educated by her grandmother and the Vicar. They are easy in each other's company: she sees almost nothing of other children and sees no reason why she should. Then Belinda, that stiff little person, is thrown into a modern family. It does not go well.

Mary Gervaise benefited hugely from the popularity of pony books. Without her Georgia series, she would probably have faded from view in the 1950s, remembered for her school stories. In a period when Collins were keen to reprint anything with a pony in it in order to shore up their Armada paperback imprint, she was lucky.

Mary Gervaise's books in full and glorious colour on my website

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My book, Heroines on Horseback, is out in April/May 2013.
Pre-order from me - if you'd like the book signed, please add this in the Special Instructions section
Pre-order a copy from Waterstones

Monday, 15 April 2013

Review: Lauren St John - Race the Wind

Review: Lauren St John: Race the Wind
Lauren St John: Race the Wind
Orion Books, 2013, £9.99 (hardback)

Race the Wind is the second in the Casey Blue series. In the much grittier first book, Casey is living in East London, in grinding poverty. She buys a horse for an American dollar (the only money she has is the sort useless in London) and after many trials, wins Badminton at the age of 17.

The sequel has very little of the spiky, difficult background that made the first book an interesting read: inevitably, as life has moved on for Casey. She no longer lives in London, but at a training stable in Kent with her mentor, Mrs Smith. Having won Badminton, she gets an automatic entry into the Kentucky Three Day Event, and when the book opens, all seems set fair for an attempt on that. However, her father’s background as an ex con, which haunted the pair throughout the first book, comes up again. He is arrested on suspicion of murder. Casey receives a blackmail demand: win the Kentucky, and she’ll get a DVD with evidence that will clear her father. Lose, and she won’t. Casey is determined she’ll win, but first she has to overcome the fact she’s nearly destroyed her bond with Storm.

This book is a very different one to the first: rather than an exploration of the difficulties of making it in the horse world when you come from a poor background, this is a pretty straightforward mystery. There are corrupt police, blackmailers, and a devious plot. All this is mixed up with Casey’s new, stringent, training regime. She is put on a diet of which Gwyneth Paltrow would approve, and experiences a fitness programme that sounded terrifying from the depths of my sofa. Mrs Smith also introduces some radical new elements into Casey’s riding too, designed to get her to re-bond with Storm. The book is an interesting insight into what top athletes go through to get to the top: the book’s strength is its portrayal of just how hard it is to succeed in eventing.

Race the Wind doesn’t see anywhere near the same exploration of Casey’s relationships as the first: her boyfriend, Peter, is absent for a chunk of the book, but when he does appear, there’s enough there to please any reader who likes romance as a side issue which doesn’t detract from the plot.
There’s still no explanation of Angelica Smith’s mysterious illness, which causes her much pain but is of the convenient sort that still enables her to function more or less normally. No doubt we’ll get an explanation in the third book, in which Casey will probably win the last Three Day event necessary to win the Rolex Grand Slam – Burghley, something that’s only ever been achieved once, by Pippa Funnell in 2003. Actually, I hope Casey doesn’t, because it would make for a more interesting story if she either lost, or decided to devote her talents elsewhere. I hope Casey’s poor father is let off the hook in the third book too. It does seem a bit rough when your creator keeps whacking you round the head with your past, whilst berating the fact it’s happening in her fictional world.

Did Race the Wind grab me? No, it didn’t. It lost me when Casey receives the ransom demand, as the requirement for her to win the Kentucky Three Day event was so spectacularly unreasonable I couldn't think why the blackmailers made the demand, or why Casey had not wondered, even for a moment, if it wasn't all just a touch unlikely. Just because you’ve won Badminton, there’s absolutely no guarantee you’ll win the next four star event. All is explained at the end, but by then I’d lost interest.  The first book I found more involving, if flawed: I found Casey's fight for recognition involving. Now she's made it, for me she's lost any interest as a character. The mystery became the dominant feature, and having failed to engage with it from the beginning, I failed to engage with the book. It's a shame. I wanted to like it. 

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Review: Chloe Ryder - Princess Ponies, and a diversion

Chloe Ryder: A Magical Friend
Chloe Ryder: A Dream Come True
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013, £4.99

I was looking through the children’s books in our local Waterstone’s recently, and found a series of truly epic awfulness: the publishers of Holly Webb’s Animal Stories series have moved on from merely brandishing huge-eyed cuteness at the infant reader to straightforward manipulation of their emotions: how about these for titles? Harry the Homeless Puppy, Alfie All Alone, Lost in the Snow, The Kitten Nobody Wanted, Alone in the Night..... The series, according to the publishers, Scholastic, “realistically describes the range of emotions animals and their people feel when they are separated.” Which is fair enough, but do you really need 24 different variations on misery, albeit misery which is overcome, to make the point? When you see the books gathered together on the shelf, it’s even worse: a solid concatenation of animal melancholy.

Anyway, I’ve wanted to get that one out for a while, and now I have, onward to the Pony Princess series. I have problems with many pony books aimed at the young reader. Stories are often formulaic dips into sparkly pink cuteness, with a dash of pompous fantasy mixed in. The Pony Princess series does rather lead one to think it’s going to trot off down that path. The cover of the first title, A Magical Friend, is pink, has sparkles, and a tiara. On a pony.

But stick with me, because matters improve after heroine Pippa’s whisked off by a pair of only mildly pompous giant seahorses to the island of Chevalia. There Pippa meets a talking pony who happens to be a princess - Stardust. There’s an entire islandful of talking ponies. The island itself only exists because the world’s love of horses is funnelled into eight golden horseshoes, which have been stolen. If those horseshoes aren’t hanging back up on the wall of the palace by midsummer, then Chevalia will cease to exist.

The missing thing which must be found else disaster beckons is a pretty conventional literary trope, but it does give a satisfying structure to this series, and the author has turned in a couple of decent, well-plotted, and differentiated, adventures. She hasn't simply re-written the first story. A Magical Friend develops the relationship between Pippa and Stardust, and introduces Chevalia, with its school, Mane Street and its cast of talking ponies. The second book, A Dream Come True, introduces the Royal Games, in which ponies compete in dressage, racing and other horsy sports, all of course without the aid of a rider. It bangs the moral drum in a way the first doesn’t: Stardust’s erstwhile best friend is hurt by Stardust’s announcement that Pippa is her new best friend, and Stardust has to both realise the error of her ways and make amends.

Both books have the same sparky pony characters, charmed because they have the pet they’ve always longed for: a girl. The ponies are of course little humans in pony form, but they’re fun. The creation of a topsy turvy world in which ponies rule, but have the same life experiences as humans, is neatly done. There is just one thing that bothers me about the ponies are jolly nearly humans scenario. It is a thing that bothered me with the uber-talking pony book, Silver Snaffles, and it bothers me here. How, with their total lack of opposable thumbs, do these ponies tack themselves up, let alone dress themselves in tiaras, and paint their hooves? I know, I know, I should suspend my disbelief.

That aside, I was agreeably surprised by this series. It takes what have become the stand bys of pony literature for the very young, a pony mad girl and fantastic ponies, but doesn’t fall into the trap of taking any of it too seriously. Author Chloe Ryder (pseudonym of Julie Sykes) has done a good job here.

The author, who has horses herself, I hope was not responsible for the pony care tips. It's become common for pony stories to include some horse care advice, which is good, providing it's accurate. Pippa Funnell's stories are particularly good here, with sensible and accurate information. Unfortunately Princess Ponies has gone off down a rather strange alley. The care tip in the first  book recommends ponies have regular visits from the vet, rather than the farrier, to take care of their feet.

Any vet called out as a response to this would pretty soon put the owner right, and the advice isn't actively dangerous (gallopingly over cautious perhaps) but if the publishers want to include pony care tips, getting them right is essential. The care tip in the second book suggests you plait your pony's mane with flowers, which is harmless, providing you don't pick a selection of lethal vegetation, and make sure the pony's tied up so that they don't mug you for your decorations. Trying this over the fence on someone else's pony may well end up in tears.

I suspect that these "tips" are down to the publishers, rather than the author, but it's a shame when inaccuracy lets down an otherwise decent series.

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My book, Heroines on Horseback, is out in April 2013.
Pre-order from me - if you'd like the book signed, please add this in the Special Instructions section
Pre-order a copy from Waterstones

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Afternoon Walk

We're getting used to living in Kettering. Actually, I like it here. Having been to school here, I would never have believed you if you'd told me I would, but I do. I like being able to walk pretty well everywhere I need to go, instead of getting the car out the whole time. I like the large library at the top of the road, with its attached art gallery, and the café opposite. I've found bits of the town I never knew existed.

Dog walking of course is not quite the same. We're lucky in that we live straight opposite the local park, so there is that to walk on, and we can cut through the sports ground till we get to a lake. The best walks though need a bit more getting to, but are perfectly achievable on foot. As is the way of these things, the fields where the best walks are will be developed. What a weasel word that is. It implies things will improve, which of course they will if you are the developer or landowner, but not so much if you are the wildlife that lives there, or the many, many people priced out of the housing market and hoping for lots of low price houses. Because that's never what's actually built. There will of course be the usual tiny nod towards providing "affordable housing", but most of what's planned will be the usual identikit, could be anywhere, estates.

Still, we will make the most of the walks while they're there.


The A14 runs at the bottom of the fields. Recently all the trees bounding the road have been felled, which has led to some interesting things, like the chestnut coloured piles of shreddings lurking in trees, but which is generally depressing.

Dog, who has settled in well, wisely decided against a chilly dip in the stream.