Friday, 19 September 2008

Lauren Brooke: Heartland

Lauren Brooke: Heartland 1 - Coming Home
Scholastic - £4.49

Lauren Brooke's website

Heartland series - 25 books, including specials

Oh dear. Is this worse than telling a toddler Father Christmas doesn't exist? Daughter and I were talking about Lauren Brooke, whose Chestnut Hill series is on special offer in the book leaflet she had from school. "Ah," I said, in passing. "Lauren Brooke doesn't exist, of course. She's three different writers." "WHAT??" said daughter. "But how can she have a website? Is she real and then there are other people who write the books?" "Well no," I said. "There's nothing unusual about it - publishers have an idea and then go and get someone, or several someones, to write it. Like Lucy Daniels. Masses of people have written the Animal Ark books."

Intake of breath from daughter. "You mean... you mean... there's no Lucy Daniels?" Me, looking anxious now: "No. I'm sorry." Daughter, quiet and subdued. "Oh. But I thought there was." I suppose it's a bit like being told Enid Blyton didn't exist. Poor daughter, who has now been enlightened about the ways of publishers - though it is some years since she passed her huge collection of Animal Arks on, obviously they meant something to her.

Although I know perfectly well that publishers do this - Ameliaranne after all, was written by several different people, and characters are often picked up by other authors after the death of the original author - there is something about the deliberate creation of a fictional author which does stick in my craw. There is a Lauren Brooke website. What a tricky tightrope for the publishers to walk: they want to provide the personal information the girls want, but they can't actually lie. I suppose the biographical details are a composite of the three contributors (Linda Chapman and Gill Harvey are two: I don't know who the third is). Nevertheless, it's plain on looking at the site that the girls who are its target audience believe there is a real, live Lauren Brooke who writes the books.

The product, though, is enormously popular. The Heartland series has been going for a while, and there are now 25 titles. I have no idea if this is how the series came into being, but I have a picture of a meeting at the Publishers:

Publisher 1: It's about time we had a new horse series. Girls love horses; they sell - look at the Saddle Club. That's finished now so there's a big fat hole in the market.

Publisher 2: We don't want to do another Saddle Club though. What do girls like?

P1: Horses.

P2: Yes, we've got that far already.

P1: Romance?

P2: Yup. We can include that.

P1: Unhappy background? Broken family?

P2: No, I've got a better idea than that. Let's make the heroine a tragic figure - let's kill her mother off in the first book.

P1: Brilliant! We can make those tears fall. And let's make her misunderstood by her family - cue storms of teenage emotion. And I know what's really current now - let's have some of that horse whispering and healing stuff in too. We can get a lot of dramatic tension in there by having some "traditional" horse people who don't understand...

P2: And she can do all this while still being at school. How about doing it in diary form?

P1: Nope. That might slip into humour, and we want those teenage dramas; the huge swathes of emotion... heart, that's what we want. Tug those heartstrings with all the abused and misunderstood horses, that only our heroine can understand and sort out..... people have been writing books like that for years, and it's the big pony girl fantasy.

P2: Great! Now we just need to find some people to write it.

Because that's what Heartland does: it ticks teenage boxes. It features a tragic heroine, Amy, from a broken family, who lives with her mother. Mama runs a horse sanctuary and re-schooling facility called Heartland using horse healer methods, until, that is, she dies (she doesn't last past the first half of the first book) and Amy descends into dreadful grief, misunderstood by her family.

Not only is Amy misunderstood by her family, the books also have the constant of their equine rehabilitation practices being disapproved of (by a couple of deeply cardboard characters: Ashley Grant and her mother Val. Ashley fulfills the vital role in a teenage novel of bitchy girl who loathes the heroine). I'd need to read rather more of the books than I have to comment fully on whether they give the more traditional approach any credence at all: I hope they do. In the first book, it's dismissed as the realm of the pot hunter.

Most of the book is taken up with poor, misunderstood Amy storming off into her room; her tragic misery so awful that all about her must tiptoe about, making special concessions.

It might be because I have teenagers of my own, and have been on the end of a lot of teenage storming, but I did not react at all well to Amy's massive self-indulgence. Yes, she's a teenager and it's what they do (oh, how I know it is what they do), and she has just lost her mother, but it's the way the author seems to tiptoe around the character as well, pointing out others' insensitivity to poor Amy. The others; her grandfather, and her sister Lou, and stablehand Ty, are running Heartland, while Amy locks herself in her room because NO ONE UNDERSTANDS HER AND HER TERRIBLE GRIEF. Of course they don't. You're a teenager. You're sitting there while everyone else is trying to keep the ship afloat and you are castigating them for being so utterly heartless as to keep the horses you are supposed to love going.

"Amy felt a sob rising in her throat. Feed deliveries! Phone calls from horse owners! How could they both carry on as if nothing had happened? She got up from her chair and hurried upstairs to her bedroom... What was the matter with them? Mom was dead. Was she the only one who cared?"

The frightful Amy does, at long last, see that she is being unreasonable (and all credit to her creators, I suppose, for making a character that certainly stirred me to depths of emotion I haven't felt for a character in a while). She comes to a rapprochement with her sister Lou, in a neat twist which I liked: Amy has tried and tried to rescue the grief-stricken Shetland, but it is Lou who understands how the pony feels and finds the key to making him want to live again. Oh, how I felt for poor Lou. She leaves her Manhattan life to come and look after her sister and try and organise the administrative chaos of Heartland, and does she get any credit for it? She does not. The worst scene happens when Lou finally cracks, and says what I have been muttering under my breath for pages:

"The only person you think about is poor Amy Fleming. And all you want to do is mope around feeling sorry for yourself. Well, moping around isn't going to bring Mom back, and I'll tell you one thing: If Mom was here now and you were dead, she'd be out there looking after those horses! You say I don't care. Well, take a look at yourself, Amy! Just take a look at yourself!"

Of course Lou instantly regrets what she has said, but it is a while before a rapprochement is reached. But, I suppose that's the difference between me and the average teenage reader: I read it from an adult's point of view, and not a teenager's. It is to the author's credit that she does manage to show both.

So, I have very mixed feelings about Heartland. I don't like the idea that they're written to a formula, but they are; and they are generally well done. I'd love to know if the average teenage reader sees the monstrousness of Amy's behaviour in the first book, but she is at least shown learning. Although the books are formulaic, the authors take the conventions and twist them: a less well thought out book would have had Amy being the Shetland's saviour, not big bad grown up Lou.

I like the emphasis on reading what horses are saying to you; and the advice is generally sensible, with the vet being constantly on call rather than an afterthought after the full ranks of the alternative medicine chest have been tried.

The one thing though, that I would absolutely love to know, is Amy's secret of time management. She manages, in the succeeding books, to go to school, re-hab horses and help run a business, have a relationship and see her friends. Now if the authors could get the secret of that one down in print they really would have a best seller.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Have I read a Booker Prize nomination?

I'm not sure that I ever have - I've certainly read books by Booker nominees, but not, I think, a title which has been shortlisted. I certainly, beyond a shadow of a doubt, have read none of this year's nominees.

So, in an attempt to broaden my limited intellectual horizons, there's a poll on the Ibooknet blog so you can suggest which Booker nomination I should read. I have a source of supply, I have a flicker of interest: I just need your advice now on what to choose.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Deportment Girdle

I mentioned this in my blog post on the Ibooknet blog; but I think a full explanation of its glories is probably better off here.

I never did win a Deportment Girdle in my entire school career - and yes, it really was called a Deportment Girdle. It was a crimson sash, worn tied around the waist. To a scruffy, scrawny, eleven year old, drowned in an enormous gym tunic, it seemed that all the more glamorous members of the school wore them, sashaying around the corridors, distant goddesses. 

Deportment girdles were just one of a range of school prizes. Northamptonshire, where I went to school in the 1970s, was late to embrace the comprehensive movement, and so having passed the eleven plus, I went to Kettering High School, a grammar school with a prize giving structure probably unchanged for decades. We did have other prizes besides the deportment girdle: there were form prizes, and subject prizes for the upper school, as well as colours for sporting achievement. That is, until we went comprehensive. Every year, I had just missed out on the form prize. The year I actually came top, we went comprehensive; a no discipline experiment was imposed (you can imagine the results of that one, once we were combined with the Secondary Modern down the road) and form prizes were abolished. They were elitist.

I wouldn't have minded the lack of academic prizes were it not for the fact that sporting colours were still awarded: which seemed to me spectacularly illogical. It's just as discriminatory to reward sporting achievement as it is academic. If you argue that it encourages girls who aren't academic, surely you are saying that sporting achievement is not as valid as academic: if you view the two as equal, then you cannot possibly justify awarding prizes for one and not for the other.

I may say here that the chances of my getting a sporting colour were unbelievably remote. I did though, always hanker after a deportment girdle - I was never going to win sports colours for anything unless it was the deep science of PE avoidance, but I did think I stood a remote chance with the deportment girdle. I walked then pretty much as I walk now, I suppose. I like to think of it as a leonine lope, but I think it's probably more accurate to think of it as slightly knock-kneed shambling, but anyway, in my fifth year, I made a determined effort to walk beautifully: if there had been piles of Latin text books on my head, they would not have shifted an inch. I did not run in the corridors. I kept to the prescribed side on the stairs. I did not practise skidding round corners. End of term assembly approached, and I was quietly confident. It went, and still, I had no deportment girdle.

"Well, darn me," I thought. "I have really tried for this - what has gone wrong?" I got on well with the Head of PE so trotted up and asked her. She looked me up and down. "Well, Jane," she said. "Deportment girdles are not just about how you walk. It's about how you behave," - oooh -, "and how you look. How tidy and presentable you are."

I knew then there was no hope.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Lady of Leisure

Today I had a full plan for the day. I was going to clean the kitchen, hoover the stairs, ebay some more of the vast amount of junk we need to shift; try and get near enough to the garden to plant some spinach; get down the wood pile....

But none of it is done. I sat down on the sofa, put my feet up, and watched Burghley, texting dear son to come home and walk dog (he did).

Cor. BRILLIANT round from William Fox-Pitt (though why did the BBC cut the round off two jumps early?) on Tamarillo - just amazing to see, and of the young riders I was really impressed by Sara Squires and Angus Smales. Loved the commentary by Ian Stark too, and his female counterpart - who was she? Missed the very beginning but I thought she did a grand job. Far, far preferred them to Mike Tucker, who always sounds as if he should be commentating on racing.

Friday, 5 September 2008

K M Peyton: Minna's Quest

K M Peyton: Minna's Quest
Usborne, 2007, £5.99

Despite what you might be thinking, I have not forgotten my quest to scan the heights (or indeed the depths) of modern ponybookdom, and this is my latest. Alas my fellow reviewer has fallen by the wayside, though I am not too sad about this, as she has been distracted by Antonia Forest, one of my absolute favourite children's authors. Oh joy! Oh rapture! I rescued Autumn Term from a school library sell off and gave it to her, not expecting she would read it, as my track record for persuading her to read things I like is frankly, dismal. However, she trotted downstairs earlier in the week to ask if I had any more by AF? My joy was unrestrained (and for those who are interested, yes I do!)

Still, on to what this blog post is supposed to be about: K M Peyton's Minna's Quest. I came to this book with very high hopes: K M Peyton is one of my favourite authors. She has written probably one of the best pony books ever in Fly-by-Night, and a major contender for best recent pony book with Blind Beauty.

This book is set on the Essex coast opposite Mersea Island, when the Roman Empire was disintegrating after the death of Constantine. Minna, the book's heroine, lives in the fort of Othona with her parents and her brother Cerdic. The fort's centurion has recently died, and his son, Theo, has taken his place: he is inexperienced, but with an air of command. There is constant threat from pirates, and the fort's position on the sea makes it vulnerable to attack.

Many of K M Peyton's characters are outsiders, and Minna is no different. Her parents want her to settle down and marry someone good and sensible. She has other ideas entirely: the book opens with her rescuing a foal abandoned by the soldiery on the saltings. Like all Peyton heroines, she is a passionate soul: she fights for the foal's survival, and against all odds, and opposition, it survives. She develops a strong relationship with it, and this relationship in the end proves vital to the fort's survival.

Passionate Minna may be (she also has a passion for Theo) but she is not as convincing an outsider, or character, as many of K M Peyton's earlier creations. K M Peyton is wonderful at creating complex female characters; Ruth in Fly, and Tessa in Blind Beauty are both fine examples, wrestling with worlds that are to some extent alien to them. I don't think that Minna is quite in their league.

Her brother Cerdic, is initially the more unsympathetic of the siblings: he is selfish and thoughtless, and his only redeeming grace is his utter devotion to his dogs. Cerdic, though, changes throughout the story: the scene where he casts off his devotion to Fortis, his dog, in order to save the fort, is completely wrenching.

Minna doesn't undergo much of a journey as a character: she starts the book as a heroine, feisty, independent and brave, and ends up that way too. In a way, she's a typical romantic heroine (and she does have a passion for Theo, the centurion); she's unusual for a Peyton heroine in being described as physically attractive, with her flashing eyes. She would have been a more interesting character had her independence taken her into wilfully defying everyone and getting it wrong, but it doesn't.

Theo too, is rather too much the hero: good looking and brave; without the wilful self-destructiveness of Patrick Pennington, or Jonathan's introspection; he's a little like the Mr Darcy of Othona. The romance between the two doesn't convince me as much as say Jonathan's in The Last Ditch.

This, I think, is the main weakness of the book: it's oddly formulaic, a straight romantic read, which Peyton very rarely is. Despite that, the historical background is well done, and the Essex scenery as ever is wonderfully described. The story whirs you along: but the real dramatic tension and emotion are reserved for the sub-plot of Cerdic and his dog.

However, it's a good read, if not up to her normal standards, and I look foward to reading the sequel. I shall be interested to see exactly what K M Peyton does with Minna next - I'd rather like her simply to get something wrong.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Katie Price: the human face of the horse

Or something like that. KP has been much in the equestrian news lately, whether it's because China White wouldn't let her in to the polo (their tent, at least), or because she's going to be appearing at the Horse of the Year Show as the subject of a dressage lesson, or because of the (oh oh oh I am LONGING to say something smartarse here but I won't because really, I don't need to) new equestrian wear range she's designed.

However, she is now going to be the face of "Hoof", which wants to challenge the idea that eventing doesn't really fit into London (a point of view which I have some sympathy with) and which also, much more laudably, wants to encourage London children to ride. Here's Hoof's website.

I think this is an excellent idea, though I'm not sure how realistic it is. I can see that having an accessible person like KP to promote riding will do more to reach people who wouldn't normally think of riding than say, Zara Phillips. But - riding costs a lot. Riding schools aren't exactly ten a penny in London either.

I had a look on the website for my old London borough, Greenwich, and the only equestrian thing you can do there is help the Riding for the Disabled in Charlton (I wonder if my son remembers being taken to see these ponies when he was wee? Don't suppose so. When it came to a competition between a London bus and a pony well, there wasn't any competition.)

I hope this idea works, though I feel it will need more sustained financial support to make a real difference to whether children without much money ride or not.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Helen Griffiths

Every now and then I happen across an author who completely blows me away, and oh, the joy when I find out that the book I've read is by no means all - all those lovely things still to be read. Antonia Forest was one such, a few years ago, when I read her Autumn Term, and Helen Griffiths is now another.

One advantage of being unable to do much of any practical use over the past couple of weeks while my knee has been out of action is that I've been able to catch up on my to be read pile. To be accurate, the TBR pile is not a pile; it fills several boxes and is a fluid thing, often governed by whether or not I've sold a particular book.

But, prompted by the fact someone from whom I bought a large collection of books said this one always made her cry, I picked up The Wild Heart.

and was completely and utterly hooked. Helen Griffiths does not write conventional pony books: all her horse stories are set in the Spanish speaking world, and are very far from girl-gets-pony: they tend, in fact, to be boy-gets-horse, but to describe them as simply that is doing them a terrible dis-service. Her books are often about the casual cruelty with which man treats the horse; and if you read pony books as escapism, these are emphatically not the books for you.

They are starkly realistic: horses die, sometimes by the hundred when they are hunted down by the Gauchos for their skins, and people die too. The Last Summer is about Eduardo, a wealthy boy whose life is changed forever when the Spanish Civil War starts in 1936. His father is killed; he sees the family servants killed, and his only friend is an aged horse, whom he has to learn to love and care for, as he plods around Spain, trying to reach Galicia and his mother, whom he hopes has survived.

Sometimes Helen Griffith’s heroes share in the cruelty; though it is generally through ignorance rather than inclination, and they all learn there is a better way. The learning process is not necessarily straightforward, and often comes from an unexpected source.

The best of her novels, I think, is The Wild Heart. It is the story of La Bruja, a wild South American horse, who is blessed (or cursed) with great speed from her Thoroughbred grandsire. She becomes hunted; and in the end a seeming cruelty is her only hope of survival in freedom.

All the novels I have read are about loss: the loss of freedom; loved ones and innocence. Generally the loss is coped with, and a degree of understanding reached, but the process doesn’t always make comfortable reading. It does, however, make for stories which explore themes often missed by the average horse or pony story.

It is a very long time since I have added to my list of favourite pony books, but The Wild Heart is now there. Helen Griffith’s writing is a world away from the comfortable familiarity of Pony Clubs, but it is very well worth getting to know.

Monday, 1 September 2008

The revenge of the barn

I was finally starting to feel ok after my op, and had been out for my first run. We then ordered a skip so we could clear the rubble of ages out of the barn (and we had a lot of rubble - we are terrors for hanging on to odd bits of wood just in case. This is all very well, and we have occasionally used bits, and the chicken wire store came in very handy when the chickens arrived, but even we realise that you can go too far.)

So, we ruthlessly hurled all sorts of odd bits and pieces on to the skip - well, when I say hurled, with the price of skips these days we arranged carefully making the best use of the horribly expensive space - until we came to a particularly hideous, battered but solid 1930s mahogany sideboard. I have had this horror in my sights for years, and had meant to arm son and friends with crowbars and let them get on with it, but of course had not got round to it. Husband, although not fond of the foul sideboard, felt it had a future.

We discussed this, as you do, and he eventually saw the force of my argument. He chopped, and I happily trotted backwards and forwards with the bits. All was going well, and the sideboard was virtually dead, when I spotted a bit of wood on the far wall I'd meant to put in the skip but forgotten.

On my way back up the barn, I trod on something which whirred and went flying. I landed on my left knee, which was not too clever to start with after a horse I was looking after trod on it a few years ago, and there I was. Or rather, wasn't. So that's why I've been silent, and the books have been offline. The books live on two different floors, and the office is on another, and stairs are not my best thing at the moment. Neither is sitting, which rather put the kybosh on computing, but I can now sit long enough to do some things, so am back. Sort of.

The good thing is that I have been able to catch up with my reading, so hope I'll have a bit more to say about that in future posts.

I could swear though, as I hobbled out of the barn, that the sideboard, in its ruins, was grinning a smug and satisfied grin.