Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Review: Victoria Eveleigh: Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe

Where did all the boys go? Pinked out, that’s where. Once, in pony stories, you’d expect the occasional boy; even equal participation. Josephine Pullein-Thompson wrote many titles in which it was entirely normal for a pony club to include girls and boys. No one thought it was odd. She even wrote titles in which the main character was a boy, like polio-stricken Charles in Show Jumping Secret.

But girls came, more and more over the years, to be the only sex at which pony books were aimed. It’s a sad fact that a genre which started with girls being strong, independent and forging their own lives with their ponies, has been driven by the incessant need of marketers to define markets, into a pink cul-de-sac. The pony is now almost indivisible from princess culture, not helped by the sea of pink and sparkly stuff that’s swept over the equestrian equipment market: the insistence on workmanlike sobriety for horse and rider is long gone. Whilst personal choice is all very well, it’s worth asking whether it’s really ok for this focus on the pony as dressing up object to go unchallenged. Is it really ok to alienate half the population? To make the horse exclusively female? And what of the horse itself? How far are its animal needs obscured by its objectification?

That’s not to say, of course, that series aimed fairly and squarely at girls aren’t good: Chloe Ryder’s Pony Princess titles are, despite the badging, perfectly decent stories. But it would be a rare boy who would pick them up. Their huge-eyed pony cover stars, their tiaras and sparkles, ensure that.

Victoria Eveleigh’s latest series addresses all this fairly and squarely. Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe is about Joe. A boy. He’s not Joanna, or Josephine, he’s an actual boy. He has parents, and a sister, and as the book opens, Joe’s on the move. In a beautifully written scene, which captures exactly the wrench of moving, the closing the door for the last time on all that is familiar, Joe is cast out of the town and into the country.  His mother and his sister think it’s great. They love horses, and they’ll be able to have them. Joe doesn’t mind horses: in fact he quite likes them, but went off riding lessons under the twin assault of being the only boy, and his little sister starting riding and showing him up.

There’s a clear-eyed view of what it’s like to come and live in the countryside when you’ve been used to the town. The internet signal is non existent, getting a phone signal involves a trip out of the house, and, if his parents don’t take him, Joe's going nowhere. There’s no freedom in the countryside as far as Joe’s concerned. Then Joe’s mum goes off and buys two ponies: Lady and Lightning. Lady is nothing like her name, and Lightning came free because she’s lame. The ponies are a rapid learning experience for them all: particularly Joe’s mum. She has a fall from Lady, and is hospitalised. Emily, Joe’s sister, rapidly goes off the idea of ponies when Lightning runs away with her, and it’s left to Joe, with help from their Romany neighbour Nellie, to look after the ponies.

Joe, being devoid of the romantic love for horses of his mother, is rather better with them than she is. It’s natural to Joe to work out why horses are doing what they are, and being unencumbered with any preconceived notions, he soaiks up the information he gets from Nellie, and Chris the farrier and re-schooler of horses, like a sponge. Slowly, Joe finds himself fitting in to the rhythms of the countryside; making friends, and enjoying the horses. Life is full for Joe: he's not a pony obsessive: he does aikido with his friends, and finds that what he learns there crosses over to the horses. Joe gets a dog, and learns to understand his sister (a bit). He learns, as do we, useful stuff like how to train as a farrier, how to avoid laminitis, and why a horse going barefoot might be an idea. It’s all woven neatly into the story: Victoria Eveleigh doesn’t beat you about the head with what she knows, not beat a sanctimonious drum.

I loved this book; it’s certainly my pony book of the year so far. Victoria Eveleigh has created a brilliant horse-loving, aikido-playing boy in Joe, and a world in which it's entirely normal for girls and boys to love horses. I hope that all the boys out there who are too wary of being thought weird to admit that they like horses, read this book and realise that horses don’t have to be pink. There’s a place in the horse world for them too.

Victoria Eveleigh: Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe
Orion, 2013, £4.99

Thanks to Orion for sending me a copy of this book.

Review: Lynda Kelly - The Most Horrible Pony

Amy’s dearest dream is to have a pony, but then her Great Aunt Myrtle buys her one. Clown, as the title, The Most Horrible Pony, suggests, has some horrible habits. He’s a demon to catch; he bites and bucks. There’s more for Amy to contend with though. One day, out on a ride with Clown, who isn’t totally unreliable, Amy finds a Thoroughbred filly in a deserted cottage. The mysterious Dagmar appears too. Amy finds out a famous filly has gone missing, and works out that the filly in the cottage is of course the missing Eastern Eclipse. There’s a reward for her return, but the huge blowfly in the ointment is Dagmar, who wriggles and squirms her way out of informing the police herself, and endlessly manipulates Amy (and later her friends) into not doing anything about it either. Amy finds this hornswogglingly irritating, and so did I. That’s good, in that I identified with the character, but Dagmar’s intransigence is so unrelenting and pigheaded (and this is quite a long book, so there’s an awful lot of Dagmar and her bolshiness) that in the end I lost all sympathy with her and no longer cared about the reasons why she wouldn’t do the right thing.

The book does take a long time to get where it’s going. The plot is pretty conventional; girl, pony, gymkhana and missing racehorse, and there were periods when I wondered when it was going to get moving again. Fortunately the author does a pretty good job, on the whole, with her characters. Amy is an energetic creation, and there’s a lot to like in her. Lynda Kelly has written a brilliant younger brother in Liam, one of the best I’ve read in a long while. Liam has a procession of imaginary creatures, which provide a comic highlight in the book, and the relationship between him and Amy is realistically snippy. The children are the most successful characters: Mum is something of a shadow; Dad rather less so, and Great Aunt Myrtle rather too exaggerated for comic effect.

That said, the author does a good job with Clown. She writes a good horse; or at least a pony: the mysterious filly never really emerges from the shadows. Clown, however, does. The writer also does a gripping gymkhana. Clown turns out to have a talent for gymkhana games, and the gymkhana is one of the highlights of the book. Gymkhanas aren’t necessarily easy to write: they can easily turn into yawn-a-minute litanies of who won what. Lynda Kelly creates real interest in hers, and it’s interesting seeing Amy realise in a thoroughly realistic and unmoralistic manner, that winning isn’t everything.

There are a couple of horsy bits I struggled with a little: Clown gives Amy some hefty bites while she’s grooming him. I can see that she might not have known to do it herself, but it might have been an idea for some other character to suggest tying him up as a solution. Then after Amy’s spent hours trying to catch Clown she dumps him into his stable, fully tacked up, and leaves him there.  That might well be a failure of editing: with the way Amy’s portrayed in the book, I’m sure she would relent and go and sort him out, but she didn’t, and that did make me start to get judgemental and twirl my pearls.

If you’re after a straightforward pony adventure with some decent characters, don’t be put off by the clunky titles, as these books should fit the bill. There’s four more in the series (one’s planned for later this year).

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Lynda Kelly – The Most Horrible Pony (Amy and Clown 1)
Kelly Publications, 2012, £4.50
Ebook,  in Kindle only

Friday, 17 May 2013

Review: Karen Bush - It Only Happens in Stories

Do you have editor’s twitch? Because I do, and there are an awful lot of books out there at the moment that make me want to grab a red pen and set about them. I recently read a self-published book whose whole plot was ludicrous because it was based on a fundamental error of fact a few moments’ Googling could have cleared up. Even books brought out by established publishing houses get it wrong: at least one of the pony facts in the Chloe Ryder series is puzzling, to say the least. Thankfully, none of that applies to It Only Happens in Stories. The horsey background is excellent: the author obviously knows her subject, and it’s great to read something which has been carefully thought through, is technically accurate, and didn’t make me think “WHAT?????” even once: because that is pretty rare.

This is a short story (and be warned, it is short) about Clare and how she wakes up to what life could bring her. Clare and her best friend Nicky have just left school. Nicky’s the fortunate possessor of parents who have set her up with a yard. Nicky’s capable and driven, and she recruits Clare to work for her. To publicise the yard, Nicky decides to enter her horse Dizzy for the Rising Stars show jumping competition at Olympia. In the first qualifier, Nicky breaks her wrist, and so Clare steps in. The story’s told from Clare’s point of view: she’s fallen into working with Nicky, and then falls into riding for Olympia. Clare’s a bit of a drifter in fact, and this story’s about what makes her change, because she isn’t the same girl at the end that she is at the beginning. The fact this is a short story means there’s not a lot of development of Clare’s change, and it would be great to see more of this if the story turns into a full length novel, which there are plans for.

I look forward to it. This is an accurate, well-written short story – well worth buying.

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Karen Bush: It Only Happens in Stories
Ebook, Kindle, £0.77

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Review: Sarah Lean - A Horse for Angel

Sarah Lean: A Horse for Angel
HarperCollins, 2013, £6.99
Also available as an ebook

Sarah Lean is a new author to me: A Horse for Angel is her second book, following A Dog Called Homeless. Aimed at primary age children, it’s the story of Nell, who lives with her frantically busy, on-the-edge-of-neglectful, mother. Her father left them years ago to live in Las Vegas with a new woman, and Nell’s not seen him since. Nell’s life is a procession through different forms of childcare. She’s shipped off to an aunt she’s never met for two weeks during the summer, and there she meets Angel. Nell’s life may be difficult, but Angel’s is even more so. She’s on the run from a children’s home, and has kidnapped a horse, Bella. Bella needs saving from the meat man, and Angel needs saving from a life of loneliness. The two girls have a difficult relationship at first, but their gradual acceptance of one another is beautifully depicted.

This book’s strength is in its depiction of relationships: Nell’s difficult relationship with her mother is well observed: Nell has the watchfulness common to children buffeted by parental busy-ness, sidelined into an endless round of pre and after school clubs, not really certain of their place in the world or in their parents’ affections. Nell’s mother comes off even worse in comparison with her Aunt Liv. Nell’s never met her aunt, but is going to stay with her for two weeks during the holidays, part of the endless juggling necessary as working parents attempt to match long school holidays with the much less generous time off given by the average employer.

“I noticed we’d completely left out a whole middle bit of the conversation where I could say I didn’t want to go. Which is always part of Mum’s master plan. Cut out the annoying middle bit and get to the point, or the next appointment. Never mind what I want.”

Aunt Liv’s house is untidy and cluttered: Nell’s is shiny and organised. Aunt Liv’s children bake cupcakes. Aunt Liv grows things. She’s the earth mother to Nell’s mother’s gloss, to her harried attempts to make a life for herself and her daughter. This isn’t, however, a bashing of working mothers. Sarah Lean isn’t judgemental about Nell’s mother: “It’ll be hard for me, too” she says as she drops Nell off with Liv, “being without you.”  Sarah Lean portrays quite brilliantly the differing perspectives from which we can view the relationships between her characters. It’s wonderfully nuanced.

The horse content isn’t quite so strong: the romance of the legend about the hundredth horse sounds rather lovely, but the reality of one person owning ninety nine horses, with really not very much help is that those horses wouldn’t have been looked after properly. You just can’t. The legend shades into outright fantasy as the book progresses, and the nature of Bella’s foal becomes clear. This didn’t detract from the story: it’s done with a light touch.

As an observation of the dynamics of modern family life, this is beautifully, beautifully done. The little nuances and niggles of feeling, the shifting and uneasy compromises of modern life are done with such sensitivity: it’s a lovely read. It’s firmly enough rooted in real life for the fantastic elements to sit relatively easily with it.

Friday, 10 May 2013

In which something arrives in my letterbox

In our old house, post used to thump on to the doormat and the brass letter box would clang shut. It was difficult to miss the racket. The dog, who loved the post lady, would often bark with joy too. In our rental house, we have one of those external postbox things, and the dog tends not to spot the post people, so it wasn't until quite late this morning I spotted this:

Which turned out to be this:

The first copy I have ever held. I took it up with me when I met my daughter for lunch. "No, no, don't BEND it," I said. Really need to stop thinking as a bookdealer and as someone who wants people to read the book......

If you'd like to win a copy, I have one, this one in fact - the first, the very first, which you can win on my Facebook page. You'll need to Like the page, and then add your name to the comments below the picture. I'll do the draw on Thursday.  If you absolutely never do Facebook, not ever, at all, feel free to add your name to the comments on this blog.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

More from the cutting room floor: Ruby Ferguson part 2

Having found that there was at least an element of truth in Ruby Ferguson’s Children at the Shop, I was now bitten by the bug of family research. If Ruby had indeed lived in Woolwich, how much more of what she said in Children at the Shop was true?

According to the book, her father was of Danish stock.  She describes a visit to her grand Danish grandmother in The Children at the Shop:

“a psychologist would say that my blurred memories of the visit to Denmark were due to an unconscious desire to forget it. I  know that I suffered quite a lot and was rather subdued for days, then managed to get over it, though I found it impossible to like my grandmother and I don’t think she liked me either.”

Although the autocratic grandmother is a splendid creation, if she existed, she lived in Sydenham. In this case, it is the dustjacket of Ruby’s Apricot Sky which is nearer the truth, with its description of her father coming from a long line of Norfolk farmers. Both David Ashby’s parents came from Norfolk, though whether either came from farming stock I have not been able to tell. If either did, they’d long left it behind them by the time Ruby was born. David Ashby, her father, was born in Lewisham, London, in 1866, the son of William Ashby, a fishmonger living in Sydenham, and Harriett Ashby. William was a man of considerable acumen: born in 1820, in the census of 1851 he is working as a groom in Sydenham Hill: by 1881 he is living in number 3, Sydenham Hill, London, in what must have been a very large house (the house is no longer there, but if it is anything like those remaining in the area, it was a substantial  Victorian edifice).  The household was large and bustling: the Ashbys had many children; possibly as many as thirteen.  In the census of 1881, William and his wife Harriet are living at the Sydenham house with four children including David, as well as a servant, a lodger, a boarder, and three visitors staying overnight.  In this census, David is described as a fish salesman’s assistant, presumably working for his father.  David entered the Methodist ministry in 1990, when he was 24, having according to his obituary  in The [Methodist] Minutes for Conference 1946, “experienced a definite conversion.”

The obituaries in the Minutes (those that I’ve read, which I admit is a limited number) don’t admit to much in the way of failings in their subjects, but David Ashby appears to have been an admirable man: outgoing and likeable.  He is described as “genial in disposition”, and one who “won the affection of his colleagues. In the homes of the poor he was a sympathetic and generous friend. He was no recluse and enjoyed a full and richly varied life.”  He worked principally in northern circuits (the Methodist equivalent of the Anglican parish): when Ruby was born, he was working in Clacton-on-Sea, and then moved every three years or so. Ruby must have known that feeling of insecurity familiar to any army or clergy child forced to move with a parent’s job, never able to put down roots. During Ruby’s childhood, the family’s homes were in:

1901 Clacton-on-Sea
1903 Skipton
1906 Newcastle-on-Tyne (Elswick)
1909 Woolwich, London
1912 Bradford (Great Horton)
1915 Bradford (Shipley)
1919 Bolton (Farnworth)

It’s perhaps not surprising that Ruby invented family backgrounds of aristocratic or romantic solidity. Her claim on the dustjacket of Jill and the Perfect Pony (1966) to have had a childhood in Inverness, that she was “of Highland ancestry, and although she was born in Yorkshire, much of her young life was spent in Inverness” - is somewhat removed from the truth. The list of David Ashby’s appointments as a minister show that the furthest north the family got was Elswick in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  I haven’t found any evidence to suggest that Ruby was spirited off elsewhere away from her family, and if she was, to whom?

In The Children of the Shop, the Highland element comes from Ruby’s mother. Was this, I wondered, where the attraction of the Highlands came from?

Pictures: view of William Ashby's Forest Hill Fish & Poultry Market in Dartmouth Road. It's now a Winkworth's estate agents.

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Part three to follow soon

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

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

More from the cutting room floor: Ruby Ferguson

I wonder how many people read the blurb about the author that appears on many dustjackets? If you have a collection of Ruby Ferguson’s books, and had made a habit of reading the dustjackets, you’d very soon have ended up confused. They’re contradictory, to say the least. Many of the biographical snippets she flung out in dustjacket blurbs need to be taken with a pinch of salt; and most of all those in her “autobiography”, Children at the Shop. Ruby Ferguson’s life as portrayed by her is best described as a romance built on scraps of fact, which when one’s living is earned as a writer, is perhaps fair enough.
There are not many sources for Ruby’s life: the most easily accessible are the dustjackets of some of her books, and the “autobiography” Children at the Shop. It doesn’t take long before you spot inconsistencies: on the dustjackets of Apricot Sky (1952), Ruby claimed descent from a long line of Norfolk farmers; on Jill and the Perfect Pony (1956), a Highland ancestry and a childhood spent in Inverness.  The picture in The Children at the Shop (1967) is different again.    

It is the story of a child called Ruby Ashby (Ruby Ferguson’s maiden name) growing up with a father who was an Army chaplain in Woolwich, home of the Woolwich Royal Academy and the Woolwich Arsenal. It’s billed by the publishers on the dustjacket as a “charming autobiography of childhood”. However, Hilary Clare and Alison Haymonds have between them found out that what at first sight appears autobiographical is in fact mostly fiction.  Hilary Clare described the book thus in her article on Ruby's background:

although it is a first-person narrative with an authentic ring of truth about it (the ‘Shop’ in question, for those who have not read the book, is Woolwich Royal Academy) it becomes clear after only a little research that it does not tell the whole story, and further investigation proves it to be fiction.  Details of birth and parentage are not given, and though it is a superb account of a childhood in a military atmosphere, with Scottish interludes, the material is treated in a novelistic rather than an historical way, and in fact it does seem to have been pure imagination, complicated by the fact that the narrator-heroine’s name is the same as the author’s.”

I therefore didn’t expect much truth from the book, but was intrigued to see if any of the geographical detail, at least, rang true. Woolwich is an area I know. A good part of my twenties and thirties were spent living in South East London, just up the river from Woolwich.  I spent much time ploughing up and down the railway line on which Woolwich lies.  The moment I read Ruby Ferguson’s opening chapter, in which she describes a journey she nearly made along that railway line to revisit childhood haunts, it had a note of authenticity. (Ruby took the wise decision not to revisit childhood.  “What has Time ever changed but for the worse?” she said: alas all too true in the case of Woolwich. By the 1960s much of the Woolwich she had known had been torn down, although military Woolwich had survived.)

As I carried on reading, I recognised more than just the railway journey: the military buildings Ruby described were familiar. The Woolwich Ruby described was the one I had walked through and driven past.  It seemed to me that she had either visited it while she was writing the book (in view of the fact she lived in Jersey, and by the time she wrote the book, was ill with the cancer that killed her this seemed unlikely) or did indeed have the vivid memories lent by a childhood spent there.

Could she possibly have lived there? One major advantage I had in my hunt for information over previous investigators of Ruby’s background was the release of the census of 1911. The 1901 census has the infant Ruby, then aged 1, living with her mother at her grandfather’s house, 33, Carlisle Terrace in Bradford.  In the census of 1911, Ruby is reported as living with her mother and father in 73, Plumstead Common Road, Woolwich.  So she was there. No wonder the descriptions of Woolwich life sounded authentic.  She did indeed spend some of her childhood in Woolwich.

So could it be true that Ruby’s father was, as described in the book, an Army chaplain, based at the Garrison church? Investigations with the Methodist Church confirmed that Ruby’s father, David Ashby, had been a Methodist minister in the Woolwich area from 1909-1912. I haven’t been able to pin down exactly which church. The house in which Ruby lived, is close to the Trinity Wesleyan Methodist Church, which was built in 1863.  Perhaps this is the church of which David Ashby was minister. It is some way distant from the Army buildings, and definitely a fair hike from the Garrison church.  David Ashby was not Chaplain to the Army, though he might have had some informal contact with them as a Methodist minister. I haven’t been able to find any evidence, but that’s not to say some arrangement didn't exist.

It looks as if Ruby has taken her childhood, and made it a rather more romantic, and certainly grander affair than the reality of solid, if socially unexciting, red brick Edwardian London. 73, Plumstead Common Road is not the red brick gabled affair overlooking the Barracks described by Ruby as her childhood home: it is a small, flat fronted, mid Victorian terraced house. It definitely does not overlook the Barracks.  David Ashby, and by extension the Ashby family, were not in quite the social position they would have been had David Ashby been Chaplain.  

Part two to follow soon
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Free to use images of Woolwich seem to be thin on the ground (next time I go I must take my camera). Here's a link which shows the old Garrison Church, destroyed in the Second World War.

My book, Heroines on Horseback, is out now.
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

Friday, 3 May 2013

May Bank Holiday Sale

For the first time ever, my horse book collection is in the same place. And in alphabetical order. Like this:

and this:

After rather a lot of this:

All of this frantic activity means that I've been able to sort out my duplicates. I've also decided that some of my childhood collection has to go. I've replaced much of it now with hardbacks, and (for once) I'm going to be hard hearted and the childhood stuff must go. Apart from this:

and indeed this:

and well, the odd other title.....

So, the stuff I have managed to harden my heart about is going, very cheaply, on my sales website.  Not only that, there's 10% off on everything else on my site, apart from new stock, during the Bank Holiday weekend.

Like this: down from £40.00 to £36.00.