Monday, 29 June 2015

Review: a brace of Forelock books - Lucy Johnson and Ken Lake

It's been months since I did any sort of blog post. My dad died unexpectedly shortly after I wrote my last post, and I've found it tremendously difficult to get my brain into any sort of gear for reviewing. I hope, now we're a bit further down the line, that grief hasn't had an influence on how I've responded to the books, but I guess I can't discount it.

Anyway, kind Forelock sent me their most recent books, and I also found in a huge and much overdue study tidy up one of their earlier ones, so I'll be reviewing three of their titles over the coming days.

First up is Lucy Johnson's Pony Racer. Pony Racer takes a well known trope – the suffering child who is redeemed through the love of a good horse, and places it in this rosy-hued story of foster families and racing. Hero Tom has been taken away from his mother who has unspecified mental health issues, and who neglected and ill treated him. The effect this produces on Tom is to make it very hard for him to trust. He is convinced that he will soon be shipped away from the Heaven family (yes, really) and returned to his mother. He has been driven in on himself, and finds the only way he can communicate is via the pony, Leo.

Tom, as you might expect, turns out to have a particular gift for riding, and is extraordinarily good at working out what horses are feeling - often the case with abused children, whose safety often relies on being hyper-aware of others’ feelings so that they can take avoiding action. Tom progresses very fast with his riding, aided by the Pony Club and visits to a local racing stable, and finds he is particularly keen on racing. 

Lucy Johnson makes Tom‘s ups and downs sympathetic, but I found myself feeling oddly distant from the character. This might well be that having just experienced the death of my dad, my emotions are not working as they normally do. Or it might be because Tom sometimes comes out with statements that sound oddly over-mature. Not that that’s impossible – children do come out with this stuff. I think it’s more that here, the child’s voice doesn’t sound like them – as if they’ve momentarily stepped out of the room, and a completely different person has stepped in. I felt the same thing on occasion with Tom's foster brother and sister, who seem surprisingly ignorant at times for horsy children. The episode where Tom has to tell Emily and Ted not to chase the ponies when they're trying to catch them was puzzling - surely any children of a horsy family would know perfectly well that wasn't going to work?

However, this doesn’t happen so often that it disturbs the flow, unlike Forelock’s persistent, and extraordinarily irritating, inability to use the comma, which leads to you having to stop and re-read a sentence until you have the sense of it because the lack of punctuation has destroyed the meaning.

That aside, this is a competent story with a very well drawn racing background with which the author is obviously very familiar. The riding and racing scenes are well done, and the author writes a good pony. She has an eye for the idiosyncrasies that make a pony character come alive. I liked the human characters – I liked them all, in fact – but my sympathies weren’t 100% engaged with any of them. That might, as I said, be me. Do let me know in the comments if you have a different reaction.

Lucy Johnson: Pony Racer

Age of main character: 9 
Themes: foster children, child cruelty, mental health

Equine themes: pony racing, Pony Club, National Hunt racing

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Next up is Ken Lake's A Year at the Yard. A Year at the Yard is one of those books where horses talk to each other. Don’t expect a Ponies Plot though – this one is definitely aimed at the younger reader. A Year at the Yard is the story of a livery yard, the horses and ponies who live there, and their riders. During the year, there is a show, a visit to a beach, birthdays, Christmas and some Suffolk Punches ploughing. There are varied horses and ponies, riders ranging from the young to the old, and the oldest stable hand in the world, Jim, who is often confused about the humans at the yard, but never about the ponies. One of the ponies, Priti Pony, can read people’s thoughts, which proves helpful in moving the plot on.

There is rather a lot of plot - I felt the book was possibly over long for its target market, and for me, the book needed a strong central character around which to weld the year’s events. Jim is the nearest it gets, but the veering between lucidity and confusion was confusing, and the other characters are fairly obvious stereotypes. This is, however, a story with plenty of warmth, and certainly nothing to worry or upset the infant reader. 

Ken Lake: A Year at the Yard

Age of main characters: varies from around 8 to old age
Equine themes: livery yard life

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Many thanks to Forelock for sending me these books.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Isis Model Horses - a Rival to Julip

Julip Model Horses had the rubber (or latex) model horse field pretty much to themselves in the 1950s, but by the 1960s competition began to spring up from rival firms Isis, Pegasus and Otway, and Julip appeared thoroughly spooked by the competition. Their advertisements took on a distinctly panicky tone: “Beware of imitations!” they begged.

Pony Magazine, April 1963
Otway and Pegasus, as far as I can tell, only lasted a couple of years, but Isis Products provided more sustained competition in the early 1960s. The company’s founder, Margaret Hughes Hartmann (1929-2006) grew up in the docklands of Cardiff. She desperately wanted to be a vet, but money was short, and her older brother’s education ate up what money there was. He eventually became a paediatrician. Margaret trained as a teacher, and then married Cyril Hughes Hartmann, an historian and writer, and contemporary and friend of CS Lewis and Tolkein. Cyril and Margaret’s daughter Carola was born in 1956: she was one of twin girls, the other of whom was stillborn. As was common at the time, the baby’s death was never spoken of. Carola had no idea about the existence of her twin until she was in her teens, although when she was very young, and learning to talk, her mother told her she would often ask where the other girl was. After her mother died, Carola found a sculpture of a baby’s head and shoulders, whose eyes, Carola said, “seemed somehow dead.” Carola believed this was the only way her mother could mark the death of the baby she had not been allowed to hold.

This sculpture was strictly for private consumption: the sculptures by which Margaret made her living were inspired by the passions of her surviving daughter. Carola loved ponies and Margaret began to make model horses and ponies out of rubber with manes and tails made out of real hair. Exactly when the company started, I am not certain. The earliest advertisements I have found are in Pony Magazine, and date from May 1962. They show what looks like an established range of horses and riders, and it seems likely that the company probably started a few years before this. Isis Products was named after the Isis River, on which the family lived, and at first were made at home. When the company took off, Margaret employed two staff, and moved the company to a workshop in the village of Eaton Hastings, near Faringdon in Berkshire.

Unidentified Isis model © Pam Wakelam
Isis Walking Pony © Pam Wakelam
The company had a small range of horses and ponies, riders and tack, made in the workshop, with jumps being made by a local supplier. The company sold their horses through mail order, and produced catalogues (sadly I have never seen one) which listed their models and accessories.The models I’ve seen mentioned are: walking horse, walking pony, hunter, Thoroughbred, child’s pony, walking foal and standing foal. I have never come across any of these in the flesh (rubber?) and for an idea of what they actually look like have had to rely on the advertisements I’ve found in the equestrian press, and the lovely Pam Wakelam, who’s been kind enough to supply photographs of her own collection of Isis horses. Pam was able to provide some help on how to tell Isis from other latex models. They look, it must be said, a lot like Julip, but Isis ponies generally don’t have silver horseshoes painted on, which Julip almost always did. In addition, Isis models have flatter sides and bigger heads than Julip models, and paintwork which looks rather thicker. I like them: to me, the Isis models are more finely modelled and altogether prettier than most Julips. You can see more Isis models on this link to the Equorum forum.

Isis Pony Mare and Foal © Pam Wakelam
Isis - Hunter or Thoroughbred © Pam Wakelam
Margaret Hughes Hartmann certainly seemed rather more clued up about the power of advertising than Julip. The earliest Julip advertisements I’ve found used photographs, but by the time the first Isis advertisements appeared in Pony Magazine in the 1960s, Julip’s advertisements consisted of text simply asking people to order early for Christmas. Presumably alarmed by the competition from Isis, and similar company Pegasus, Julip took out an ad in Pony in December 1961 which exhorted their readers to beware of imitations, but made no effort to compete with the other companies’ much more attractive advertisements. Julip still relied on the power of words alone.

Looking at the companies’ advertising strategies from 1962-1965 is instructive. Isis’ advertisements were all accompanied by attractive pictures, with beautifully composed backgrounds, showing off their range. Isis also outgunned Julip in other departments. Pony Magazine ran an annual competition, with prizes donated by publishers, riding schools, and of course, Isis. Julip contributed a prize in 1961 (a horse and bridle), but then donated nothing in 1962. Isis’ prize was a voucher for £2 2s. They continued to donate prizes until the company closed. Each year, they outdid Julip, and because their prize was more valuable, each year they appeared further up the list of prizes.

Pony Magazine, September 1963
Both company’s products were also featured in editorial. It may seem odd to us now, but there was a time when Christmas issues of magazines appeared without a spread of horsey present ideas for you and for your family. In post-war Britain, with rationing in place, it is perhaps not surprising that these didn’t appear until Britain’s economy improved in the 1960s, with Pony Magazine’s first gift ideas feature appearing in 1962. Both companies were mentioned in the feature, and it’s fascinating to read just what was written:
"...if you want less fragile specimens [than Beswick china horses] there is the unbounded range of ponies, horses, riders, stables - a whole riding stable or horse show - produced by Julip Associates, the pioneers in the field....Other providers in this field are Isis Products.
Julip quite obviously didn’t like the fact they had competition, and I would love to have read the original communication they sent the editor, Col C E G Hope. Whatever it was, it was strong enough to make him at least give the spirit of it to his readers, whilst also mentioning that there were indeed other providers. Julip backed up their down-with-the-competition attitude with another “Beware of cheap providers” advertisement in the same issue – it was another effort restricted to text only, and appeared buried in the depths of the magazine. In contrast, Isis’ November 1962 advertisement was this very pretty scene, printed just inside the front cover.

Pony, November 1962

Julip fired off another “Cheap Providers” ad in April 1963, and then reverted to text advertisements without feeling the need to snipe at the competition. There was less of it, as Pegasus’ last advertisement appeared in April 1962, after which the company presumably folded. Isis continued to expand, and in November 1963 put out their card game “Tack”, sold in WH Smith’s network of shops as well as directly from Isis. Alas, this, and their rather lovely "Yearling" money box, which appeared in 1966, seemed to be the company’s last hurrah.

Pony, December 1966
I believe that Cyril Hartmann’s illness led to the slow winding down of the company, and Carola told me her mother wound up the company altogether when Cyril died in 1967. Margaret Hughes Hartmann went back to teaching, eventually becoming a Head Mistress. She never gave up sculpting. Sadly, few Isis models remain in the family after a disastrous house fire destroyed pretty well everything the family owned, leaving Carola with just her model donkey. The Isis model her mother made of her beloved piebald pony, which appeared on her birthday cake at her 12th birthday, did not survive.

Isis models provided a fascinating episode in the history of model horses. If her husband’s ill health had not forced Margaret Hughes Hartmann to wind up the company, it’s interesting to speculate just how major would have been the competition they provided to Julip. Certainly, with her keen marketing brain, and her thoroughly charming range, Margaret Hughes Hartmann deserved to succeed.

~ 0 ~

Many thanks to Carola Hartmann, and her husband Malcolm Cooper for the very considerable help they gave me with this piece. Carola sadly died in 2013 . She was a keen writer, and you can find some of her stories here.

Huge thanks too to Pamela Wakeham for supplying all the pictures of Isis models for this piece.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Reviews: Elaine Brown - Jackie's Pony Secret and Ponies at Penstorran

Elaine Brown: Jackie’s Pony Secret

Jackie’s Pony Secret opens with Jackie sitting on a train with the lady from social services, on their way to Devon, where Jackie will start a new chapter in her life after the death of her mother. She is to live with her grandfather and his new wife in Devon. Until she gets there, Jackie has had very little to do with the countryside, and even less to do with horses. However, her grandfather and his wife, Elise, have a farm. They keep their own horses, and the other stables are rented out to a riding school, which is of course absolutely ideal if you find you’re keen on ponies, which Jackie does. There are plenty of hurdles to be overcome, however, before Jackie can settle into her new life. 

The first of these is to overcome her instinctive fear of horses, and to learn to ride. If you read this book as a pony-mad child whose knowledge of ponies is limited you’ll absorb plenty of useful information. The instructional stuff is nicely done. Instruction can be difficult to do without it feeling sanctimonious, or breaking the flow of the story with wodges of indigestible facts. Generally, Elaine Brown manages to insert the information seamlessly, and still keep you interested in Jackie’s progress and in what she’s learning.

The story takes place against an interesting set of family dynamics. I particularly like the step grandmother, Elise, who comes over as a warm character, and I like the developing relationship Jackie has with her father, from whom she’s initially distant. Jackie herself is likeable, with a strong sense of what’s right and wrong. The dynamics of her relationships at school, with all its ups and downs, are realistic. I felt that there are occasions the author doesn’t quite have Jackie’s voice straight in her mind: most of the times she speaks pretty much as any 12 year old would, but occasionally she comes out with something that sounds as if she’s considerably older.

Elaine Brown has a real feeling for describing horses and what they’re up to. I could see Tia, and Secret, and all the other ponies trotting around in my mind. She’s also really good at letting you know what a place is like – something authors can often skip over in their headlong rush to get on with the plot.

If I have a criticism of this book, it’s that the author leaves me wanting more. Because she is good at getting into her character’s feelings, I’d have liked to know more about what Jackie’s “aunts” – Grandfather and Elise’s children, who are younger than Jackie, thought about the new arrival into their household, and more of the back story of Jackie’s father’s new relationship. That said, there are a lot of relationships in this book, most of them new to Jackie, and the author does a good job of showing what it’s like to be an uncertain 12 year old thrown into a whole new life. Jackie’s Pony Secret is a good, traditional pony story which allies well developed characters to plenty of authentic pony action.

Jackie’s Pony Secret

Age of main character: 12
Themes: family break up, death of parent, bullying, false accusations

~  0  ~

Ponies at Penstorran
This is the second in the Pony Chronicles series, in which Jackie, Nicole and their friend Joanna are being shipped off to Cornwall for the summer. Jackie’s grandfather and his partner Elise are going to America on a lecture tour, so the girls will stay with Celine, Elise’s half sister. She is described as “quite eccentric and enormous fun,” and she sets the tone for the book. It’s a story of quite some energy, with adventure, ponies and villains. The girls contend with a dastardly developer who wants Celine’s land and buildings, and is prepared to stop at nothing to get them.

That isn’t all there is to the story. The girls have taken their ponies with them, so there’s plenty of pony action, with cross country and beach rides, as well as experiences with the multitude of other animals Aunt Celine has. It would have been easy to make Celine a caricature, with her broken French, but she isn’t. She comes over as genuinely warm (Elaine Brown has a real talent for writing decent adult characters). The girls’ friendships develop and Jackie learns how to tackle a cross country course, a skill she puts to good use. The characters’ voices are more settled in this story; having established them in the first book, the author seems to have relaxed and is able to enjoy them.

The action is believable, and it’s a good, rollicking, holiday read.

Ponies at Penstorran

Age of main character: 12
Themes: friendship, intimidation

Monday, 30 March 2015

Two Authors, the Man from the CIA, and his Horse

If you'd like to know who they were, go on over to the Horsecrossings blog, where I waffle on about unexpected horse story authors.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Review - Amanda Wills: Into the Storm

I haven’t read any pony books for a while, because I’d lost my pony book mojo for a couple of months, and I’m glad I read this book as my first essay back into the pony world. Amanda Wills’ Into the Storm, I have to say, I’d have enjoyed whether it had been about ponies or dustbins. It’s exciting, dramatic, and an excellent answer to the question of what do you do with your characters when they’ve had two home-based adventures – you plonk them somewhere totally new and see what happens.

Amanda Wills has spirited Poppy away from Devon in this third of the Riverdale ponies series. Poppy has won a riding holiday in a competition with her short story about a Connemara, and she and best friend Scarlett are about to leave when the book opens. Poppy is desolate at the thought of being without her beloved Connemara, Cloud, and things don’t improve when they get to Oaklands Trekking Centre. Poppy tries her best to overcome her shyness with the other trekkers, but it doesn’t really work. She thinks that because she won the writing competition to get here, she’ll have a fantastic horse, but what does she end up with? Solid, hairy piebald cob Beau, that’s what. Everyone else has dream ponies – grey Arab mares; floaty palominos.

It’s not fair. That’s what Poppy thinks. Neither is it fair that tall and glamorous Cally seems to hit it off with Scarlett. Nobody seems to think very much of Poppy. Beau isn’t interested in being a willing co-operator, and Poppy’s always at the back of the ride, always the one people are waiting for, and the one people have to pick up off the floor when it all goes wrong. Poppy couldn’t be more fed up. This isn’t how things should be.

Amanda Wills does a brilliant job of showing someone who has what my grandmother would call a real mardy fit on. Poppy has painted herself into a corner. How she gets out again makes an excellent story. Amanda Wills does friendship spats extremely well, and best of all, she lets you see both points of view.

I enjoyed this story more than book two (and I liked that very much). It’s neatly plotted, wryly amusing, and full of those moments that anyone who’s had anything to do with ponies will recognise – the failure to travel those few centimetres that would make opening the gate easy, and the casual plonking of a hoof on your fragile foot. The drama when the storm hits Oaklands is thoroughly gripping. I do like a story that moves its participants on; where they’ve realised something about themselves, or the way life works, and when, as here, when it’s done by a subtle and effective writer it’s a real treat.

~  0  ~

Amanda Wills: Into the Storm

Age of main character: 12
Themes: jealousy, friendship issues, violent storms

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

In other places

I have been very quiet here of late. I've not been utterly silent though - I am contributing to a new blog written by equestrian authors, Horse Crossings.

Here's my take on the American horse stories which made it to Britain. Just to whet your appetite, here's one of the Knight printings of the Black Stallion. I loved these covers.

And here I am on how it all began - the beginnings of the pony story.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Review: Kate Lattey - Dream On

Dare to Dream was one of my stand out books when it appeared, and its sequel, Dream On is right up there with it. Sequels aren’t necessarily easy things to write. Often authors have used up their best plotlines; any dramatic tension was resolved in the previous book, and you can’t help but be aware of the author scrabbling round frantically trying to find something else with which to engage the reader. None of that applies to Dream On.

At the end of the previous book, Marley’s beloved horse, Cruise, had to be sold to enable the girls and their stable to survive. The New Zealand horse world is a relatively small one, and so there’s no way in Dream On that Marley can escape Cruise. It’s not that his new owner, Bubbles, is a monster either, because she isn’t. She understands just how bad Marley feels. The worst thing for Marley is that it’s obvious Cruise still misses her. He’s not jumping to the best of his ability, but in an act of real love, she advises his new owner what to do to get Cruise on side, and it works.

Marley does have other things to think about. Van’s boyfriend Mike has a difficult stepbrother, Jake, who’s been landed on him. Marley and Jake have one of those uneasy and edgy relationships, and it’s this, and Marley’s reaction to it which give this book much of its passion and poignancy. Marley is, of course, still riding, and has a new problem horse to contend with in the shape of the vicious and violent mare, Borderline Majestic. Majestic is an all too believable picture of a talented horse who has been backed into a behavioural corner by the “show them who’s boss” school. 

Kate Lattey’s horses are as excellent as her humans, and I love the way she portrays them as more than winning machines, or the recipients of girlish dreams.

There’s plenty happening with Marley’s sisters too, both of whom are facing life-changing decisions. But it’s a measure of this author’s talents that one of the stand out characters in the book for me is the bad girl of the last book, Susannah. She’s still on the horse show circuit, but her appearances at shows must be torture, with a hissing swarm of hostility greeting her every move. Everyone knows what her brother did to Marley so that Susannah would win, and no one, with the rather wary exception of Marley, is prepared to give Susannah any quarter. But Kate Lattey makes Susannah brave; not bolshy, or defensive, or a victim. She carries on turning up, even though she knows how awful it will be. Real bravery, something which isn’t raw physical courage, is a tremendously difficult thing to portray without making your character an unrealistic saint, or a wretched victim, but Kate Lattey does it effortlessly with Susanna. I do like the way this author doesn’t take the easy way out with her characters: there’s none of the traditional stereotypical figures so common in pony books.

Kate Lattey has produced another tremendous, character-driven book, with every bit of authentic horsey detail you could wish for. I defy you not to cry at the end. If you haven’t already gone and loaded this on to your Kindle go and do it now. You won’t regret it.

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Kate Lattey: Dream On
Kindle: £3.06
Available in paperback format only in NZ/AUS directly from the author.

Age of main character: 15/16
Themes: some romance, grief, self harm (relatively minor; probably not triggering)