Wednesday, 26 November 2014

PBOTD 26th November: Gillian Baxter - The Stables at Hampton

Gillian Baxter was an author who tantalised me. In my pony book reading childhood, I knew she existed, because her books were advertised at the end of some of my pony books, but I never found one, not a single one. I forgot all about her until I started thinking about buying pony books, and came across a book dealer called Louise Simmonds, who ran a company called Ozbek Books. I found her on the internet, and she sent me a catalogue. I was thrilled by the idea of a catalogue just devoted to pony books, but did wonder just how much there would be that I didn't already know, because I must have pretty well every pony book that ever there was, mustn't I?

How wrong I was. The most exciting thing though was to see some Gillian Baxter paperbacks listed. Louise wrote great catalogue descriptions, and she was obviously very keen on the Gillian Baxters herself, so I ordered as many of the paperbacks as I could afford. Gillian Baxter, I have to say, was well worth the wait. Shortly after this, I went to a book fair in Northampton, and bought three Gillian Baxter hardbacks, one of which was The Stables at Hampton (1961).

It's the story of Ginny, who rides at a terrible riding school in London. When its owner is put in prison, Ginny manages to find a job with Tamara Blake at her dressage stable. Tamara is not an easy character at all. She's been badly burned in a fire, and her instinct is to push away anyone who offers her help, so desperate is she not to be patronised or pitied. Right until the end of the book, the reader doesn't know if Tamara will remain locked behind her prickly walls.

Ginny doesn't have an easy time of it trying to get used to the very different standards of a dressage yard. Gillian Baxter is excellent at showing the realities of a life working with horses. When she was 17, she started as a working pupil with Robert Hall at the Fulmer School of Equitation.  It was demanding work: Hall had two yards: “One of my first jobs was to wash all the tails of the riding school horses: they hadn't been touched for weeks, only a quick brush.  His other yard had his Lipizzaners and dressage horses and it was absolutely perfect.  I had to groom the dressage horses, and when I did I had to knock out the curry comb on the floor outside so he could check how much grease I was getting out!”

The Stables at Hampton isn't always the easiest of books to track down, but it's well worth it. It's quite possibly the first pony book to be exclusively concerned with dressage as an end in itself, rather than as a means to improve your jumping and cross country riding.

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More on Gillian Baxter

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Review: Stacy Gregg - The Island of Lost Horses

Stacy Gregg is really striking out – after her modern day biographical story The Princess and the Foal, she’s now moved on to a story where the focus moves between the present day and 15th century Spain.

If you’re a regular of my reviews, I expect you can guess who the heroine is: yes, the child of a broken family. Beatriz lives with her mother, although their current home is the Phaedra, a boat moored off the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. Beatriz' mother is researching jellyfish. Beatriz wants to go back to the USA to live with her father in Florida, but her mother’s not keen.

When the novel opens, Beatriz is being delivered back to her mother on a tractor by a woman called Annie, after Beatriz suffered sunstroke. It turns out that Beatriz, in her wanderings around the island, came across a mare struggling in a mudhole, and after an epic struggle, Annie and her tractor helped them both out. Annie is the conduit between Beatriz and the world of 15th century Spain. She sees the connection between the mare Beatriz names Duchess and Beatriz, and so gives her a diary to read. The diary is obviously hundreds of years old, and as the story progresses we learn that it was written by a girl who has somehow ended up on the Abaco Islands, but who at the beginning of the diary is with her horse at the court of Queen Isabella, when Columbus is trying to get the Queen to fund his next adventure, and Torquemada is stalking Spain, ridding it of heresy. 

The two stories intertwine, as Beatriz struggles to save the mare Duchess and her herd from the hurricane that is heading towards the Abaco Islands. As she fights for Duchess, Beatriz finds her place in the world and what’s important to her, and learns that relationships are more complicated than she believed. Her counterpart, Felipa Molina, learns much the same sort of thing, though in the rather more brutal surroundings of Queen Isabella’s court, where life can be threatened by the plague, and the life of a half Jewish girl is one that could at any second be threatened by Torquemada. 

Stacy Gregg tells a very good story. I enjoyed the way the two storylines mesh and diverge, connecting over the horse. She does a good job of portraying 15th century Spain, though with the odd anachronism like "ok", which sits slightly  oddly in the more formal language used in these parts. It’s a novel stuffed with women, this one: in the Beatriz section, the only man is her father, and he doesn’t actually appear. Annie is an eccentric and joyous creation: there is nothing wrong, Stacy Gregg says, with being thoroughly eccentric and doing things your own way. The women in the story all learn, in the end, to work together with the people who will help them best.

I don’t think you can go wrong with getting this for any pony-loving child for whom you need to provide a Christmas present.

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Stacy Gregg: The Island of Lost Horses
HarperCollins, 2014, £9.99
Kindle, £3.99, Kobo, £4.99

Age of main character: 12
Themes: wild horses, hurricane, persecution, death

PBOTD 25th November: Vian Smith - Minstrel Boy

Today's PBOTD is a complete contrast to yesterday's story. The Minstrel Boy (1970), is based on a true story. Mrs Meredith's son, Philip, was killed on the Western Front during the First World War, and she id determined that his horse, Minstrel Boy, will win the Grand National, running in Philip's name.

Mrs Meredith, it must be said, is not a sympathetic character. She is horribly driven, and whilst fully conscious of her own suffering, blithely unaware of anyone else's. However, Vian Smith is a subtle and skilled writer, and at the end, when Mrs Meredith finally achieves some happiness, you are actually glad that she's done so.

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More on Vian Smith

Monday, 24 November 2014

Review: Olivia Tuffin - The Palomino Pony Rides Out

This is the second in the Palomino Pony series. The Palomino Pony of the title, Lily, is in foal, so doesn’t do a great deal in the book because Georgia (Gee) can’t ride her. Georgia is, however, given the chance to ride Wilson to try out for the Working Hunter Team Challenge, as his owner is away at university.

So, there’s plenty of authentic horsy action, and there’s a good wodge of dramatic tension caused by the introduction of a new character, Lexie, the step daughter of Joe, former top show jumper. They have moved into the ritziest of ritzy horsy places, dripping with every possible equine luxury, and shining with that spectacular neatness you can only achieve if you have an awful lot of money. Joe’s utterly determined that Lexie will do well, and so she rides, and she jumps, and she has the best ponies, whether she wants them or not. She is, poor girl, terrified of jumping, and is isolated because of the family’s constant moving about from place to place. She’s looking forward to starting at the local school, because what she wants more than anything is a friend.

The friend she makes is Gee’s great friend, Emma. Gee tries her best not to be jealous, but it’s massively difficult. As Emma starts to spend more and more time with Lexie, Gee doesn’t understand why, and simply feels rejected. All this is interwoven with the Working Hunter Team championships in which both Lexie and Gee are riding, and the progression of Lily’s pregnancy. And there’s sort of romantic interest Dan and the farm and the threat to that too – Dan doesn’t play as much of a part in this story as he did in book one, but thankfully he’s still there, providing some male input.

There aren’t the dramatic chases and thefts of the first book, and I think The Palomino Pony Rides Out is much the better for it. Oliva Tuffin is much happier when writing on a more domestic scale, and when concentrating on the shifting qualities of friendship, which she does very well. That said, I was slightly surprised at the total and utter lack of any mention of Gee’s home life to start with, but half way through the book it’s as if the author’s realised that herself, because Gee’s mama makes a very welcome appearance. It’s a pity we don’t get a more detailed picture of Lexie’s step father too, but the author’s focus is squarely on her teenage characters.

Like the previous book, this I think is aimed squarely at the late primary market, and they will love it. It’s a superior slice of horse with enough to challenge and interest the reader.

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Olivia Tuffin: The Palomino Pony Rides Out
Nosy Crow, 2014, £5.99
Kindle, £3.59
Kobo, £5.15
Age of main character: year 9 (14) although note that like the previous book, and as is the publisher’s intention, the character does read a lot younger

Themes:  equine pregnancy, birth of foal, jealousy, difficulties with step parents

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

PBOTD 24th November: Florence Hightower - The Dark Horse of Woodfield

I really must re-read this - writing about it reminds me of how much I like it. You have to love a book which opens with the heroine forgetting herself and neighing in class.

Dark Horse of Woodfield (1962) is the story of the Armistead family. They used to be fabulously wealthy, but the Great Depression of the 1930s has hit them catastrophically hard. They're not bowed down by it, despite the difficulty they have in surviving from day to day. They meet the challenge with gusto. All of them have plenty of schemes to make money, including the neighing schoolgirl, Maggie.

She wants to enter her mare, Stardust, in the Unior Hunter Stakes, but she knows she has to earn the entry fee herself. To Maggie's surprise, it's the one member of the family who wasn't keen on horses, Great-Uncle Wally, who eventually provides the key.

The whole book is bursting with brilliant characters: it's a great ensemble piece. There's Bugsy and his caterpillars, and Elizabeth binding on and on and on about her boyfriend (and then his stuttering incoherence when we finally meet this paragon). The book isn't a conventional horsey story by any means, but horses, and the love of them are interwoven throughout the various plotlines. And it's very funny.

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More on Florence Hightower

Sunday, 23 November 2014

PBOTD 23rd November: Mary Treadgold - Return to the Heron

Return to the Heron (1963) is the sequel to The Heron Ride (1962). Sandra and Adam's diplomat parents have been killed, and they have to live with an uncle and his family; none of whom want them, or even particularly like them. Mary Treadgold captures the bleak and soul-shrivelling effect living in that household has on them, particularly Sandra who unlike her brother, does not go away to school. In The Heron Ride, Adam and Sandra have a charmed summer staying with Miss Vaughan, who understands and likes them, but they still have to go back to their grim existence when the summer ends. There is no easy way out; no fairytale removal from a horrible situation; Sandra simply learns enough to make it a little more bearable. 

Return to the Heron breaks both Sandra and Adam out of their prison, but the book is not just about that; it is about the love of beauty, loneliness, possession,  and generosity. At the end of the book, when Adam and Sandra are going to live with their other trustee, it is Adam, difficult and closed off from Sandra at the beginning of the novel after a terrible accident, who genuinely rejoices for her when she is to be bought a horse. 
“And lastly, Grant Maynard’s voice, rising above them all: ‘Long ago, way back, I gave Sandra a Castle in Spain. And it got left behind, when things went wrong for her and Adam. Now things are coming right. Everybody needs a Castle in Spain. Mighty few get it. Sandra’s going to get this one. I’m going to buy her that horse.’
To Sandra, Grant Maynard’s voice seemed to carry right over the shadowed garden, right over Betsy’s field. It seemed to carry right up to the sleeping Downs, where she would again ride Grey Horse. And, as she came down the terrace, speechless because of what she had heard, hardly yet believing, it was Adam’s voice that said: ‘Thank you. Oh, thank you.”
Adam loves the great grand house, The Heron, despite the decaying white elephant it has become. For Adam, the house symbolises the end of the bleak, constricted life he and Sandra lead with their uncle; the start of their independent life. It is a symbol of peace, of journeys done and strife ended; new beginnings for Sandra and Adam. Its beauty can be preserved, but not in the same way as before. The social order has changed. The Barrows, once servants, are now friends. It is also about learning to share: Adam cannot cling to his vision of a Heron that belongs to just him and Sandra, although it is this that has got him through his terrible time in the hospital. The Dene family, who once owned The Heron, will be part of its future too.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

PBOTD 22nd November: K M Peyton - Greater Gains

Greater Gains is the sequel to yesterday's PBOTD, Small Gains. It takes the story of Clara Garland and her family on.

K M Peyton specialises in feisty heroines, and Clara is one of the best of them: I enjoyed the way she keeps her family going by sheer determination. In passing, I wonder what the story would have been like if it had been told from the point of view of one of the weaker characters in the book, like Margaret, Clara's sister. K M Peyton's heroines are always blessed with plenty of oomph, which I like: there's nothing wrong with a plot showing a strong woman, but it would be interesting to see how the author handled a less self assured character as the pivot of the plot.

Clara has to make difficult choices to survive, and her dilemmas are entirely believable. The plot of both books turns on the difficult choices Clara has to make: without spoiling the stories completely, I can sympathise with her first choice, but I have a little more difficulty believing in the second, on which the narrative of Greater Gains turns, and more still believing in the neat ending of the second book, though it is exactly what you want to happen. This makes Greater Gains a less satisfying read, though it is still excellent on period detail, and in particular on the unwritten rules women had to obey at that time.

K M Peyton does write a good romantic hero too. The wonderfully named Prosper Mayes is up there with Jonathan Meredith and Peter.

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