Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Review: Sheena Wilkinson - Too Many Ponies

Sheena Wilkinson's novels Taking Flight and Grounded are both aimed at the Young Adult market, so don't pick Too Many Ponies up thinking it's the same. Although the book features characters from the previous books, Declan and Seaneen are now grown up, married, and have two children, Aidan and Kitty. The family have a farm (Rosevale) for abused and rescued horses, which is run on a financial shoestring. Aidan's just starting secondary school, and the book's aimed at children of around that age.

Aidan's not the only one starting secondary school: his good friend Lucy, who keeps her pony at Rosevale, is starting too. The author has a canny eye for what life as an eleven year old is like: an age when the comfortable life of primary school vanishes, and you're thrust into the maelstrom of senior school and fight to stay afloat, or not. Lucy floats; Aidan doesn't. Lucy unwittingly thrusts Aidan into the path of the class bullies, who view ponies as something pink and girly, and taunt Aidan unmercifully because he likes ponies. Aidan proves to have few resources to draw on to defeat the bullies, and life gets more and more miserable for him. Lucy, on the other hand, is seduced by the cool girls at school, who also have ponies, but who do things in a very different way to Rosevale. At Sunnyside stables, the colour co-ordinated pony is all: rugs, numnah, bandages: everything must match.

A much more direct rivalry rears its head when both stables enter for a cross country competition with a prize of £5,000: a frill for Sunnyside, but a new roof for the foal barn for Rosevale. Lucy is mad keen to compete. She's an enthusiastic, gutsy rider: Aidan, although a sympathetic rider, is terrified of jumping. Their strengths, and their weaknesses, get in the way of both of them, and how this works out is balanced well against school, competition and a thoroughly authentic horsey background.

In her earlier books, Sheena Wilkinson drew excellent male characters, and she's carried on with this one. Aidan is that alas still rare creature in pony books, the boy who rides. As Aidan himself observes, it's not surprising that the boys at school have such a negative view of horses and riding: the colour-coordinated approach of horse as dressing doll is alien to boys. There's an interesting discussion to be had on whether there should be, in the interests of equality, a bit of self-censorship on the pony dressing front. This book isn't the place to have it, but it's interesting to see it's the strength and expertise Aidan shows with the ponies that convince Aidan's tormentors to leave him alone. Perhaps there's an argument for not obscuring what really matters with horses with tinsel and tatt. Perhaps there's an argument for saying that the bling approach is sexist and excludes more people than it includes.

It is this approach, after all, which is the cause of some of Aidan's problems.

In a book which takes a good hard look at the difficulty of boys engaging in what has become a feminised and exclusive world, and which looks at how hard it is to be different to the norm and to be included, there are some slightly off notes.

It's a pity Seaneen doesn't get much of a look in in this book, having been a central figure in the previous two. Perhaps it's because in this book she's no longer a focus of dramatic tension, no longer the love interest or pregnant teenager, now she's a mother, she's unfortunately locked away from the important stuff of the book - the horses. Alas mothers in pony books can often be cyphers. Patricia Leitch's pony books feature mothers who are all oddly distant and barely sketched in. It leaves the impression that it's difficult to do the housework, have children, and attend to horses. That's left to men and children. It doesn't have to be so: look at the fine parents K M Peyton writes: Mr and Mrs Hollis, and the unforgettable Mrs Meredith (Fly-by-Night et al).

That is a minor quibble though, in a book that is a fine read. The characters are lively, brilliantly drawn, and the plot, although a standard pony competition affair, is handled so that the competition is not the whole point of the book. Sheena Wilkinson's done what the best pony writers do: keep her human characters at the absolute centre of her book.

~  0  ~

Sheena Wilkinson - Too Many Ponies
Little Island, 2013, £4.99
Age of main characters: 11/12

Sheena Wilkinson on my website

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Review: Jill Hucklesby – Samphire Song

Jill Hucklesby’s Samphire Song deals with grief and illness, and combines them with the conventional girl gets horse only she can ride plot. Heroine Jodie’s father, a pilot, died in a flying accident, leaving her, her mother, and her ten year old brother, Ed. The grief and gap left by Jodie’s father’s death is not the only thing they have to contend with: Ed has kidney disease, and has to have dialysis several times a week. Life is too much for Jodie, but she’s helped by looking after a horse called Rambo, who provides an escape for her as she tries to get through her days. Jodie’s dreams of horse owning come true when her writer mother gets a regular post on a gardening magazine, meaning Jodie will be able to have her first horse.

The fact this book is called Samphire Song does rather ruin the plot of the getting-the-horse section, as from the moment Samphire appears, you know that’s who Jodie’s going to end up with, not any other horse described in this section. Samphire of course is not any horse: he’s a part Arab grey stallion, and he’s three: he’s been mistreated and refuses to interact with anyone, except Jodie.  This book does fulfil, in spades the horse that only I could ride theme. Jodie does buy Samphire, and after a bit of oofing, manages to ride him, and plans to enter him in a cross country race. Then everything goes wrong as Ed becomes seriously ill, and needs a kidney transplant; Jodie’s mother loses her gardening column, and Jodie sells Samphire to raise the money to keep the family going. The rest of the story deals with the fall out from this decision.

On a human level, I enjoyed this book. The author deals with the difficult themes of grief, death and life-threatening illness well. Jodie is an engaging character, and little brother Edward is beautifully written.

Where I did struggle was with the horsey elements. There are some fairly major inaccuracies:

- a novice buys a stallion, who is taken on at the stables she works at without a second thought, and with no thought given to managing a stallion on a yard with plenty of other horses. Fortunately for the book, Samphire seems not to have heard of mares.

- the horse is three. Leaving aside the fact that it is, unfortunately, perfectly possible to buy a horse who’s been broken and ridden often at the age of three, if you buy a horse like that you shouldn’t just continue riding it, let alone plan to ride it in a strenuous race. The horse needs turning away so his young bones can grow without strain.

- the end stages of the cross country race are distinctly peculiar. With 100 metres to go, there are two fences in that distance, and once the last fence is cleared, the horse in front of Samphire is described as being 5 seconds ahead, which means by my calculations he’d be long over the finishing line, and not still have time for an exciting and drawn out finish.

Unfortunately the inaccuracies (and there are more) killed the book for me. I really can’t recommend it as a horsey read, because of them.  If you look at this book purely from the point of view of the characters, then it is a good read. Jill Hucklesby is particularly good on the inter-action between brother and sister. The strong affection between them, and the teasing and occasional irritation, is beautifully done. If you can grit your teeth and get past the equine inaccuracies, then this is a decent study of the effects of grief and illness.

~  0  ~ 

Jill Hucklesby: Samphire Song
Egmont, 2011 (USA 2013), £5.99 (easily available secondhand)
Kindle: £2.87, Kobo £3.95
Age of main character: 13/14
Themes: death, grief, life-threatening illness

Jill Hucklesby on my website

Friday, 6 September 2013

Amazon, the OFT, and Price Parity

Until very recently, sellers on Amazon weren’t allowed to sell any item they had listed on Amazon for less elsewhere.  Many booksellers have their own sites. It costs much less to sell a book from your own site as you aren’t paying Amazon either their monthly fee, or the 17.25% they take from every sale, and the cut they take of the postage. It makes good economic sense for you as a small business to encourage people to your site with costs that undercut Amazon’s, but under Amazon’s price parity policy, you couldn’t do this.

There was an outcry about this back in 2010, and a complaint was made to the OFT. One of the booksellers who complained was contacted by the OFT on 4th June 2010 via email (which I’ve seen, as I have the rest of the emails mentioned in this piece). The bookseller was asked if they’d be available to answer some questions, as the OFT gathered information on Amazon.

The interview happened. Not a lot else did, so the bookseller wrote to the OFT on 10th August 2010, and asked if there was any news, as they were still waiting to see whether or not to re-price all their books, in accordance with Amazon’s policy, or whether the new rule would be overturned by the OFT. Christmas came and went, with no answer. By January 2011, it was no longer the original OFT contact’s problem: they’d moved on. Remarking in a reply to the patient bookseller that it was unusual for informal enquiries to take as long as this did, the bookseller was told they’d be contacted.

Years went by. In March of this year (2013) the OFT were again in touch with the bookseller, with a reply which is a masterpiece in obfuscation. After several reads I’m still not entirely clear what they wanted to say: the one thing that is clear is that not much has changed since 2010. The bookseller was told that the OFT had only recently been able to examine the issues raised. What was it, I wonder, that bumped Amazon up the OFT’s Prioritisation Principles after years? Could it have anything to do with Amazon’s unpopularity late in 2012 as a UK tax avoider?

In August 2013, things at last moved on. It should be noted at this point that the OFT still has not commented on the policy, but Amazon have backed down. Here’s what the OFT sent to those who complained back in 2010:

You have previously contacted the Office of Fair Trading (‘OFT’) to raise concerns about Amazon’s price parity policy in its agreements with third party sellers trading on the Marketplace online retail platform.

You may already be aware that the OFT launched a formal investigation into this policy in October 2012, under Chapter I of the Competition Act 1998 and Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The webpage for this investigation can be found here.
Amazon has informed the OFT of its decision to end its price parity policy across its Marketplace in the European Union effective from 30 August 2013. As a result, the OFT is minded to close its investigation on the grounds that it is no longer an administrative priority. Further details can be found in the OFT’s press release available here.

The OFT welcomes confirmation from you, as a third party seller trading on Marketplace, that Amazon has notified you of its decision to stop enforcing its price parity policy and remove the relevant clauses subsequently from your agreement.     

If the OFT was originally contacted in 2010, why did it take it two years to launch a formal investigation, despite its protestations of action in 2010?

What was the effect on booksellers? One wrote to me:

"I think the key thing is that this policy stopped sellers having a sale or a special offer which improves cash flow, and cash flow, as we know, is what keeps a business viable. The OFT have taken 3 years and 5 months before Amazon have backed down and also have STILL passed no opinion. Small businesses and consumers have been at the mercy of this policy for all that time. They still are because there has been so little prominence given to the change in rules that the rules might as well still be in place."

Booksellers have, as yet, no email from Amazon alerting them to the changes. The seller contract has been changed, but the notification was:

“Just a plain link to changes in participation agreement in sellers home ‘headlines’ – they often tweak this and not everyone will read it all the time.

For any bookseller not yet aware, here’s the agreement with the changes:

You will notice that I don’t give the names of any booksellers in this piece.  As with the previous times I’ve written about Amazon, booksellers do not want to infuriate the company that provides them with their bread and butter. Of the sellers I spoke to, Amazon make up 33-50% of their income; more when sales from ABE, which Amazon also own, were included.

It’s good that Amazon have backed down on price parity. It’s good that they can be made to, when the OFT acts. Let’s hope that, as Amazon acquires ever more book-related businesses (Goodreads is the latest) that the OFT keeps a firm eye on them.

~  0  ~

Here’s a list of Amazon’s bookish businesses, according to Wikipedia:

Book Depository, UK online book retailer, which became Amazon UK in 1998
BookSurge, print-on- demand
Brilliance Audio, largest independent publisher of audiobooks in the United States, on-demand books, CDs, and DVDs.
GoodReads, eBook software company
Shelfari (including a 40% stake in LibraryThing and whole ownership of,, and FillZ);

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Review: Katharina Marcus - Eleanor McGraw, a Pony Named Mouse and a Boy Called Fire

Eleanor McGraw is Katharina Marcus’ first book, but I must say it doesn’t read as if it is. It’s an accomplished piece of writing. Heroine Eleanor doesn’t have the usual pony book heroine background. She’s the daughter of a rock star (long since faded from the scene, though he keeps in touch) and a folk musician. Eleanor’s not had a stable background, but at last her mother has settled down with Kjell, a Swedish dentist, with whom she’s expecting a baby. The family have moved to the south of England, and Eleanor’s about to start yet another new school, which means yet another group of people who have to get used to the fact the only way Eleanor’s going to look like everyone else is if she grows another foot and puts on another stone.

Eleanor’s life has given her a fair degree of self-possession, which she needs. The new school doesn’t go well, but there are two things that make it a bit more bearable: a pony she’s found near her home, alone in a field, and a boy, Pike. Pike, it turns out, knows the pony. He lives on the same farm, which used to be a livery stable until his aunt sold off all the ponies but this one, Mouse, who’s due to go off to rejoin the other horses in a couple of weeks. But until then, Eleanor can ride.

There’s a lot that’s odd about Pike. He used to ride, but he won’t now, and there are parts of his life he refuses to let Eleanor into, despite their growing attraction. When he does let Eleanor in, what’s there rocks her to her core.

Eleanor is a fantastic heroine: she’s fierce, funny and observant. Katharina Marcus treats Eleanor’s dawning sexuality particularly well: she steps back and lets her characters be as scared, enthralled and passionate as people are, without ever tipping over into prurience. It’s a real challenge to write sex scenes, particularly with teenagers. that do not give you the feeling of being a literary peeping Tom, and it’s one Marcus succeeds in. There’s considerably more to Eleanor and Pike than this though: both their lives are changing utterly, and you are absolutely with them both as they negotiate the two weeks before Mouse must go where she’ll be happiest, back with other horses.

This book is a cracking read, from an author who’s not afraid to tackle what it’s really like being a teenager.

~  0  ~

Thanks to the author for sending me this book

Katharina Marcus: Eleanor McGraw, a Pony Named Mouse and a Boy Called Fire
Kindle:, £0.98, $1.48
Paperback:  £5.99
Age of main character: 13
The book has a parental advisory notice on the front: explicit content

Monday, 2 September 2013

Review: Tudor Robins - Objects in Mirror

I like this book very much indeed. The moment, I’d finished it, I wanted to start it again straightaway, to check out any bits I missed, and enjoy the story all over again.

It's a very fine piece of writing. I don’t normally rush like a fiend for the author bio, if there is one, but in this case I was racing to get to it. The heroine in this book, Grace, has an eating disorder. She’s anorexic. I had an eating disorder (if I’m being honest, I still have it; it just takes different forms) and was anorexic at about the same age as Grace. All anorexics are different, but it soon became obvious to me as I was reading this that the author knew exactly what she was talking about. There are little tricks that you have as an anorexic, ways you think... There was so much about Grace’s story that rang bells. The author, like me, had an eating disorder.

Grace lives with her stepmum, Annabelle, and her half brother Jamie, who’s three. Her distant, and frankly unlikeable father, has left them all to take up a university post in the UK. Grace’s mother died a long time ago, and Grace has a good relationship with Annabelle and Jamie. It’s Annabelle who’s been left to bear the brunt of Grace’s illness. Grace doesn’t see herself as ill: she’s on a mission, and that’s all she sees.

She’s not helped by Mavis, full-blown anorexic who fuels Grace’s behaviour. Mavis is the sort to whom her skinniness is a badge of superiority; who views those who are bigger than her as failures. She’s hyper-competitive; a real mean girl. She has something to be competitive about: despite Mavis’s push-button horses, Grace is the better rider. Grace rides Sprite - a “hepped, off-the-track thoroughbred.”  She’s the only one who can ride him, though it’s not easy: “Forget pretty, forget elegant; those can come later if we make the flat phase but for now, my priorities are (1) don’t knock down any jumps, (2) don’t die.” Grace loves Sprite, but he’s sold. Grace is devastated, but she’s offered the chance to work at the stables, to ride and show, and maybe ride Sprite, who’s staying at the stables. She takes the job.  Her work at the stables makes an excellent story, interwoven with Grace’s fight against her illness.

Grace has an ability to connect with animals: probably because they’re the only really truthful relationships she has; the only ones that aren’t filtered through her anorexia; because if you’re anorexic you don’t see a person first, you see someone with whom you have a mission. Your mission is to fool them that you are eating, and to avoid any conversations that go where you do not want them to go. Grace spends a lot of mental effort on precisely those things.

Where this book succeeds brilliantly is in showing the two Graces: the Grace who understands horses, and can get under their skin, and the Grace obsessed with losing weight. The book is told in the first person, with diary entries at the end of each day. They’re done in a sort of Bridget Jones way – though the Bridget Jones 1100 calories, good thing was a joke, and this is deadly serious. 

Anorexia is grim; there’s no getting round it, but this isn’t a grim book. It’s hopeful, but it is truthful. Here’s Grace in the therapist’s office:

“I lean forward to catch this week’s summary – I’ve learned I can spend fifty-five minutes contemplating the wrist angle Drew wants me to achieve, outlining a history essay in my head, and planning how I’m going to manage not to eat dinner tonight – if I just listen to Dr. Keelor’s last five minutes. It gives me something to discuss with Annabelle on the drive home, and satisfies her that I’m participating in my therapy.”

There is so much I like about this book: I love the bit where Annabelle comes home to find Grace in front of the fridge, desperate to eat but just as desperate not to, and so she gets her an apple, a rice cake and some skimmed milk. Something she can eat. Annabelle is a star: you see just how difficult it is to live with an anorexic; to wish them better the whole time, and to endlessly tread a tightrope of attention-giving: not enough to smother, not so little they feel ignored.

The balance of horse versus anorexia is good: 100% anorexia is difficult for anyone to take, but there is plenty of excellent horse content in the book, as Grace rides difficult horses, helps rehabilitate the starved ones (and yes, she does see the irony), and grows ever closer to heart throb Matt, who works at the stables.

This is a brilliant, and hopeful, portrait of a girl, her love for horses, and what it's like to live with anorexia. I loved it.

 ~  0  ~

Thank you to the author for sending me this book.

Objects in Mirror: Tudor Robins
Red Deer Press, $12.95, £8.30
Age of heroine: around 16

Romance, a little swearing