Wish for a Pony by Monica Edwards

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   This is a book aimed at fairly young children: I think I’d probably have enjoyed it most when I was about 7 or 8.  Our two heroines, Tamzin and Rissa, aged 10/11, are very keen on ponies and both long to have one of their own.  However, their families can’t afford them – although it’s *not* one of those annoying books in which comfortably-off kids carry on as if they’re practically on the breadline!   They offer to help out at a local riding school which is temporarily operating in their seaside town during the summer holidays, and have lots of fun and a few adventures/misadventures riding the ponies along the beach.

In the middle of it all, there’s a shipwreck.  The author, as a teenager, witnessed a shipwreck, in which a close friend (possibly her boyfriend) was killed, and, for whatever reason, chose to include one in this book.  Happily, everyone survives in this case, although the ship itself goes down.

Then, rather conveniently, the family of a girl who was injured in a fall from her pony decide that they want the pony out of the way but don’t want any money for it, so, hey presto, Tamzin gets her pony.  It seems rather unfair that Rissa doesn’t get one as well, but Tamzin does say that she’ll share.

I did read some pony books, especially the Jinny series, as a kid, but I preferred school stories, mystery/adventure books, and (despite being a fat clumsy oaf who only managed a few months of ballet lessons before giving up on the grounds of being useless!) ballet books.  However, I think I’d have quite liked this one – but, as I’ve said, I think it’s for fairly young children.

 

All Change at Blainstock Stables by Jemma Spark (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Oh dear.  Note to author – stop overthinking things so much, please.  Just write your story.  It’d be much better that way.  If you want to write a book about a girl who lives in a Scottish castle and rides ponies, just do so.  It’s fine.  There really is no law against either living in a castle or riding ponies.

I’m not sure quite what went on with this book, but it felt as if the author was stressing about being attacked by virtue signallers, for writing something as innocent as a children’s pony book.  So she’d shoved in some completely irrelevant conversations about, for example, the protests about Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War – which, given that the book was set two years before Australia really *got* involved in the Vietnam War, made even less sense than it would have done otherwise.  And claimed that the castle stables would be “a new social order”. ( The characters were opening a riding school/livery yard, not storming the Winter Palace).

Then she’d shown her main character writing books about her life and saying that it was very unfair of people to have a go at her just because she lived in a castle, thus proving the point that … , er there wasn’t a point to prove anyway, so maybe she’d have done better just to have stuck to the pony story.  And, to cap it all, shown the said main character of her book criticising the readers of *her* own book for over-analysing children’s books.  It all just seemed to get tied in knots.  Do we have to do this?   As I said, it really isn’t a crime to live in a castle or to ride a pony.

Now, despite never having ridden a pony in my life (unless donkeys on Blackpool beach count), I always rather liked pony books as a kid.  Newsflash – most kids do actually like books about people whose lifestyles are not identical to their own.  So I thought that this would be good fun.  We’ve got a girl who lives in a Scottish castle, where there is a cook (in the 1960s), the family have “a private income”, there are lots of ponies, and people go off to gymkhanas etc.  But, shock horror, a lot of the family’s money is stolen by an evil agent who runs off to South America.  So our girl Jill has to start running a riding school/stables business.  So far, so good – surprisingly traditional GO stuff for something published in 2021 and set in 1963/64.

Unfortunately, the author seems to have got a bit panicky that she was going to be accused of writing about “privileged, entitled people” living in their own little world, which is apparently now regarded as a heinous crime.  To be fair, even when I was a kid, teachers used to go mad about us reading “Girls’ Own” books.  One of my primary school teachers even complained to my mum and dad that I read too many Enid Blyton books.  I was known from a very early age as the class bookworm, but apparently that was no good unless I was reading the “right” sort of books.  I ignored her.  Incidentally, I also watched Grange Hill, but no-one ever complained that that didn’t include anyone who lived in a stately home.

So, at one, rather random point, the book completely diverges from the main plot, and wanders off down Virtue-Signalling Avenue.  We are informed that the stables are going to be a “new social order” in which servants are not treated as servants.  Were people still referring to “servants” in the 1960s, incidentally?   We also get the characters, out of nowhere, discussing veganism, animal welfare, Stalinism (in 1963/4?), the Bristol Bus Boycott, Aboriginal rights and demonstrating against Australian involvement in the Vietnam War.  Given that Australia didn’t really get involved with the Vietnam War until 1965, this was remarkably prescient of them: however, it’s rather odd that they didn’t appear to notice that President Kennedy had been assassinated.  Or did the author deliberately omit that because she thought she’d be “cancelled” for showing people expressing sadness over the death of a white male from a well-to-do family?  And we are informed that our castle-dwelling heroine Jill is a member of CND.

I’m not saying that any of this stuff is unimportant.  But it had absolutely nothing to do with the story.  Lorna Hill’s Annette Dancy trying to sabotage a fox hunt, when she lives in a community in which hunting is part of the way of life, or Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Verity-Anne Carey being reminded that not all Germans were Nazis, in a multinational school in 1947, works very well.  But, in this book, it all just seems to have been shoved in as some kind of virtue-signalling to placate people who think that living in a castle and owning ponies is some sort of sin.  It isn’t.

What’s even stranger is that the author obviously completely gets that.  Because (keep up, folks!) Jill is, in the middle of everything else, writing books about her own life, and is finding that people have turned nasty when they learn that she’s moved into a castle (which has only happened fairly recently, as it belongs to her new stepfather) and has joined the privileged classes.  She suspects that they will be actually be pleased to learn about the absconding agent.  We are reminded that there is nothing wrong with belonging to the privileged classes, and that all that matters is being a good person.  Yes.  We know that.  Why not just stick to the stables story?

And, just to confuse things even further, there are a few sarcastic comments about old and middle-aged ladies who over-analyse children’s pony books.  What, like me?!

Oh, and then, at the end, the author finally seemed to remember that it was supposed to be a pony story, and wrote a very long and detailed description of a children’s riding competition, involving a load of children whom we’d never met before.

Seriously, this would have been a lot better if the author had just stuck to writing the story about Jill and her friends/business partners setting up their business!  That was what I was expecting. The idea of this month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a book about someone going into business, and I got this one on a 99p Kindle download because I didn’t want to spend a lot.  It’s part of a series, and it would probably have been better if I’d read the other books in the series first, but I don’t think I’ll be bothering.

It’s a 120-page book, presumably aimed at kids, but the author just seems to have tied herself in knots over it all – which is a shame, because the characters were quite attractive, and the idea of setting up the riding business at the castle was a good one.  Next time, just ignore the virtue signallers and write your pony book, eh?!  If people don’t like it, they are quite at liberty to read something else.

 

Midnight on Lundy by Victoria Eveleigh

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This is a children’s book written in the 21st century but set in the 1960s, part pony book, part school story, and part tale of life in a small, close community.  It took me a while to get into it – the style of writing seemed to improve as the book went on – but I rather enjoyed it.  The school story section worked very well: rather than being a member of the in crowd and thinking that school was too marvellous for words, our heroine Jenny took several weeks to settle in, locked herself in the toilets for a bit of peace and privacy, and became part of a quiet group who thought the in crowd were pretty bitchy (as in crowds at schools often are!).  The pony book element was unusual – it wasn’t about a girl and her adored pony, like the Patricia Leitch “Jinny” books which I was very keen on back in the day, but about a notorious, badly-behaved stallion called Midnight and how Jenny kept faith with him and it all worked out well in the end.  And the depiction of life on Lundy, a small island off the coast of Devon, was lovely.  There aren’t too many Girls’ Own books in which everyone spends half their time down the pub!

At the start of the book, Jenny was living on Lundy with her father.  Her mother had died young, and there was a sub-plot about her father meeting someone else and Jenny struggling to come to terms with it.  I loved the depictions of life on Lundy, the landscape, the wildlife, the lighthouse, and everyone being part of a close community.  There does seem to be this nostalgic view of the ’50s and ’60s as a time when everyone was best mates with their neighbours and communities were very close, but there is certainly a lot of truth to it, and that must have applied so particularly on a small island.

Pony books often involve people from very wealthy backgrounds, but, in this case, Jenny was from a fairly ordinary family, and we saw her helping out at a hotel during the busy summer season, and becoming very friendly with a slightly older boy called Ben, who’d got a summer job on the island.  I’d never heard of Lundy ponies before, but apparently there were a lot of wild ponies there between the late 1920s, when the owner of the island began breeding them, and the 1980s – and Midnight was based on a real stallion who was seen as being dangerous and troublesome.

Jenny and Ben tried to tame Midnight by giving him sugar lumps, but it all went wrong when he started chasing tourists and local kids to see if they’d feed him, and he was shipped off to Devon.  Jenny was soon also shipped off to Devon, having won a scholarship to a boarding school there.  Conveniently, Ben lived nearby, and the two of them tracked down Midnight and kept sneaking off together to see him – until one of the bitchy in crowd girls found out and shopped them to the headmistress.  However, hooray, the headmistress was sympathetic, and Jenny became quite a heroine at the school as stories of a boyfriend with his own car and taming a wild horse spread.  Hooray!  I did really like that bit: it can be quite frustrating how school stories focus on the in crowd and the misfits are always the losers, and it was great to see Jenny win out!

She’d hoped to take Midnight back to Lundy with her, but realised that he didn’t want to go.  However, conveniently – this was all a bit too convenient, but never mind – Ben’s auntie had a big estate and lots of ponies, and Midnight was able to go and live there … along with Jenny’s late mother’s pony, whom it turned out was there too!

This wasn’t the best-written school story or pony book I’ve ever read, but it wasn’t bad at all.  I love traditional “Girls’ Own” books, but I know that some people struggle with the fact that all the characters are from very privileged backgrounds, and that no-one has boyfriends or girlfriends, or ever needs the toilet!   Like the Anne Digby Trebizon books, this one made a conscious effort to get away from that but without subverting or mocking or generally being negative about GO traditions.  Victoria Eveleigh isn’t Elinor M Brent-Dyer or Enid Blyton or Patricia Leitch, but this isn’t a bad book at all.  And the Kindle version was going free!