Saturday, 12 October 2013

Review - Angels of Clover Farm by Virginia Shirt


British rescue/mystery story set on a horse sanctuary. Sally and husband Adrian run Clover farm, although soft-heated Sally has turned the place into something of a sanctuary for abused and unwanted horses. A group of pony mad kids spend all their spare time at the farm, helping out and riding the ponies. The farm has money problems and the story starts with Adrian urging his wife not to buy another pony from the auction she and the kids are going to. Not surprisingly however she can’t keep her promise and ends up bringing home a neglected and sickly skewbald filly whom they christen Angel. The arrival of the pony sparks off mystery and danger for Sally, Adrian and the children. What is the secret behind Angel’s pedigree? Who is the mysterious stranger lurking around the farm? And will solving these mysteries be enough to save the farm from financial ruin?


The blurb for this book advertises that it has been “written for horse lovers by a horse lover.” This hits the nail right on the head. It is indeed a story for those who love horses, rather than seeing them as a ticket to winning prizes, or some sort of social status symbol – a vibe which sadly seems to come across in many a modern pony story. However this book goes back to the heart of the true pony story - the relationship between people and ponies. The characters care deeply about horses and are prepared to make sacrifices to help them. They also care about each other and empathise with each other’s respective problems. There are plenty of good messages and role models here for young readers to absorb.

Although lacking the style and polish of some of the more experienced pony book authors around at the moment, I feel it is far more sincere and heart-felt than most. If you want a book which gives you a feeling of faith in the goodness of humanity, or one will which simply leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling, then this is book for you.

I really like the main character Sally who comes across as sympathetic and believable. As an adult reader I identified strongly with her and her problems. Having a mixture of adult and younger characters and their various issues gives the book more depth and ensures it will appeal to adults as well as children. However, because this obviously is a story aimed at children, I am not sure that having the main viewpoint from the adult perspective is wholly successful. I wonder if younger children would have a little trouble relating to some of Sally and Adrian’s issues. I also think that the children in the book were not as fleshed out as the adult characters. I feel that making one of the children in the group the main protagonist rather than Sally herself may have perhaps worked a little better in terms of it being a children’s story.

But there is still a lot for children to enjoy here. As well as being a rescue story, this is also something of an adventure/mystery and there is plenty for young readers to get their teeth into, with mysterious strangers skulking around, nefarious plots to uncover and stolen ponies to rescue. The author has blended these excitements into the rescue/pony care side of the story, making the plot fast paced enough to hold the attention of easily bored children without losing the underlying message of caring for animals.

Some older teens and more demanding younger readers will perhaps find the story-line and characters a little simplistic. People and issues are black and white with no shades of grey. There are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ here and nothing in between. There also don’t appear to be any teen characters for this age group to identify with. Of course this means our story line is not bogged down with many of those tedious teen plot stalwarts such as mawkish romances and the like which can sometimes detract from the plot if not handled well. And as the book appears to be aimed at the younger end of the teen and pre-teen market this is not a huge problem.

All in all, the book is a pleasant, fairly undemanding read for those who like a traditional pony story with a bit of adventure thrown in. It will suit a good range of readers, although I think will appeal best to younger teens/pre-teens and horsy adults who dislike the current crop of ‘style over substance’ teen pony stories. I’d also recommend the book to parents who are a bit wary of the possible unsavoury content (drugs, sex, etc) which seems to be creeping insidiously into even pre-teen pony books nowadays. There is nothing of that nature in this book.  It is wholesome enough for the most stringent parental scrutiny without alienating its young readers by being preachy or dull. Unlike many modern pony stories we also have important male characters here, both adult and child, so this is eminently suitable for young male pony lovers too.

I would rate this book as 3 horseshoes (GOOD)

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Sunday, 21 July 2013

Review - Joe and the Lightning Pony by Victoria Eveleigh


Book 2 in the Joe series which began with Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe.  Joe is now happily settled in his countryside home with a dog and pony of his own. He has grown up a lot since first moving there and even gets on a lot better with his younger sister Emily, as both of them join the local pony club and Emily gets a pony of her own. Joe discovers that Lightning is excellent at mounted games and he determines to get into the Pony Club team for the Prince Phillip Cup. The only downside to his happiness is that he knows he will soon outgrow Lightning. But he consoles himself with the knowledge that when Emily outgrows her own pony she will move on to Lightning and so the mare will stay in the family - enabling him to get a larger pony on which to fulfill his riding ambitions. But then a tragedy changes all their plans and it looks like Joe may have to choose between keeping his beloved Lightning and pursuing his ambitions…


As readers of the blog and website may recall, I reviewed the first of this series a little while ago and although I thought the book was very good and well-written, I never really warmed to the character of Joe. Because his 'spoilt brat' attitude did improve towards the end of Book 1 I was interested to see if I found him more likeable in this second instalment. The answer is a resounding yes! Joe has grown up a lot and learnt to take responsibility for his life and its problems instead of blaming those around him. He has become pro-active in overcoming problems instead of just moaning about them, which makes him more like the pony book heroes and heroines of my youth. I also like the fact that he and sister Emily have begun to get on well together and there is a nice little dynamic going on between them as they practice gymkhana games together. However although the author has made Joe more likeable in this book it is not as if a magic wand has been waved and he has assumed a completely new identity. At the beginning of the book he is still not perfect and traces of the old Joe show through - as with his jealousy of Emily when she gets her own pony and makes great strides with her riding and he is no longer the 'horsy expert' of the family. This makes his eventual improvement much more realistic. His imperfections make him a real rounded character but are no longer overwhelming the plot.

The character of Emily is also much more rounded out and given more prominence in this instalment. Indeed her story sometimes takes centre stage. I feel this is a good thing as it will help those little girl readers who prefer identifying with a female than male character. Sadly for me, Mum, whom I felt could have been developed as a very interesting character (and someone for us adult readers to identify with) is not used as much in this book. Her sub-plot with the horse sanctuary also seems a bit under-used and undeveloped. I’m hoping we see more of her in the last book in the trilogy.

So much for the characters, but what about the book itself? This story is just as well-written and interesting as the first instalment. Once again Victoria Eveleigh has provided a detailed and realistic backdrop to the story, this time that of mounted games and the Prince Phillip Cup. Strangely, there are not many pony stories which actually concentrate on this particular disclipline and it was very interesting to read about the training, such as learning to vault, and the various tactics for the different games, as well as the actual procedure for getting to the finals of the Cup. As with book 1, this is authentic and comes from real knowledge of the subject.

Some readers had complained that book 1 in the series  was a little slow, and felt more of a set-up to the series proper. This book however is a lot more fast paced with more excitement and a lot more tension and trauma. The action really gets going! It also has a lot more traditional pony story horse content with Pony Club, riding practice and the like taking prominence.

I still feel like Joe leads something of a charmed life, as his central dilemma is solved fairly easily. But perhaps we can put this down to the (possibly) magic horseshoe! As I read through the book I was at first a little disappointed that the magic horseshoe sub-plot seemed to have disappeared but there is a very neat little twist at the end which brings the horseshoe right back into focus. It will be interesting to see how Joe’s most ambitious horseshoe wish is fulfilled in the last book of the trilogy! 

In summary, in Joe and the Lightning Pony the author has taken a good start to the series and developed it further into a page turning and highly readable second instalment. Any concerns that I’d had in book 1 about the character of Joe and the lack of tension have been swept aside in this book. It has everything needed for a great traditional pony story and will keep readers of all ages entertained.

I'm also making this my latest website 'star read' - see home page of website.

Read more, make comments or vote on the book on the chat forum review section

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Review - The Black Loch by Patricia Leitch

SUMMARY OF STORY: (some spoilers)

Kay and her cousins Sara and Edgar travel to the highlands of Scotland to stay with their Uncle Vincent at the ancestral family home of Deersmalen. Their fathers, both brothers to Uncle Vincent, had quarrelled with him years before and rarely visit. In fact it is the first time Kay has been there. Once there they meet the imposing black bearded Uncle Vincent, the enigmatic ghillie Fergus and his mysterious large grey dogs, and their cousins Jamie and Shona and Caroline. Everyone there is struck by how like Uncle Vinent Kay looks and she is puzzled as to how much fuss they make over her black hair. Kay soon falls in love with the place and quickly becomes friends with Shona and Jamie, as the trio ride about the moors on their Highland ponies. The more studious Sara gets on well with older cousin Caroline. But Edgar is not interested in countryside pursuits and feels completely left out of things.

When a mysterious camping trip to a nearby loch is arranged in which only Kay is invited, Edgar persuades his Aunt Sadie to let him come too, much to everyone else’s consternation. The secretive nature of the trip is revealed when a huge and beautiful horse appears from the depths of a loch. Kay is told that the family have been guardians of the horse for centuries and she is the latest in the line of guardians, due to her black hair. Kay is overwhelmed by the horse’s magical presence but the more prosaic Edgar thinks the horse should not be hidden away where no-one can see him but given to a zoo or to scientists to study. This makes him even less popular with the others. Edgar’s lonliness and isolation increase, culminating in a disastrous meeting at a birthday party when, in a bid to get some attention, he tells an unscrupulous big game hunter about the existence of the horse. When Kay finds out that the horse is in danger, it is up to her and Jamie to save him.


On the surface this is a fairly simplistic fantasy/holiday adventure story. It is very readable and quite gripping but the plot is fairly basic: children going off to stay in a new and exciting place for the holidays, the heroine discovering a beautiful fantastical ‘water horse’ who is then placed in danger by unscrupulous villains who want to make money out of the creature. The characters are not created with a huge amount of depth or introspection either. So why do I consider this a classic fantasy story?

For me what raises it from the ranks of an ordinary story are both the sense of atmosphere the author evokes and the hidden depths and themes the story contains.

The most obvious message in the book is the importance of keeping wild animals free and untamed as opposed to exploiting them for human entertainment, money or even scientific knowledge. The Water Horse may be a magical being, but it is also a wild creature. Although it allows Kay to touch it, there is never any sense that it can be tamed. It is clear that this is not a normal domestic horse and cannot be treated as such. Kay realises that its beauty and power are in its wildness and freedom and the fact it stands apart from civilization:

“It was a being from a lost age, proud, powerful and alien to the petty confusion of our living.” (page 70)

But there are those who cannot see something wild and free without wanting to capture it and bend it to their will, like Buffy the hunter. Or probe its secrets with scientific eyes, like Edgar. It is clear that Edgar doesn’t feel the magic of the horse at all, referring to it banally as “an absolute whopper” and enthusing about how much a zoo or scientist would pay for it. This contrast in attitude reminds me of Dolphin Summer by Monica Edwards in which a wild dolphin forms a bond with a girl who only wants to appreciate its beauty and wildness, whilst others want to shove it in a marine theme park and make money out of it. You can almost feel the exasperation of Leitch and Edwards, at the way greed (for either money or knowledge) blinds people to beauty and magic.

Yet the water horse is not just symbolic of wild animals threatened by the greed and banality of humanity, it is also a symbol for Scotland itself, the real Scotland of tradition, mystery and wildness, as opposed to the tourist ideal of the place which bedecks a million tins of shortbread. Once again the desire to exploit for money – in this case for tourism - threatens the true nature of the place.

It is obvious that the author loves the Highlands and she perfectly recreates the atmosphere of the place, it’s uniqueness, the sense of mystery and magic which envelops it. There is a just ever so slightly magical air running through the story which begins when Kay glimpses one of the Grey Ones, only to be told she is seeing things. Fergus’s piping of the seals heightens this magic and of course the culmination is the unforgettable first glimpse of the water horse. The mystery element also grips the reader as we ask ourselves: what is the significance of the mysterious dogs, why is Kay’s hair colour so important, what caused the brothers to quarrel?

The atmosphere is heightened by Letich’s writing, which is lyrical and mesmerising in places. This is one of the best written of all her books: only in A Dream of Fair Horse and some of the 'Jinny' series, is this quality of writing bettered.

But at the same time, the book avoids the fate of many fantasies which become so airy-fairy and divorced from reality that we cannot really believe in them. Scotland may be beautiful and mysterious but it is a real place and in this story there is a strong rooting in reality, with squabbling children and the mundane day-to-day arrangements of life, such as the preparations for the birthday party, contrasting with the more magical side of the story. Patricia Leitch also gives us a glimpse of the sometimes unpleasant, non-magical side of Scotland with the driving rain and the mud and cold that Kay experiences on her trek to the loch. In this, and in many other ways Leitch goes out of her way to contrast real Scotland with the tourist ideal. She pours gentle scorn on the touristy attitude of the character of Angela, who decks out the halls in tartan, ties ribbons on the stag’s heads and makes everyone wear kilts. The dichotomy of the Scotsman who has encouraged this attitude for the sake of tourist money but at heart is saddened by it, is represented by the contrasting attitudes of Jamie and his father. Jamie is shocked that kilts will be warn by ‘Sassenachs’ at the party, but Uncle Vincent is more circumspect: he placidly dons his full regalia and plays the pipes, knowing that keeping the tourists happy will enable him to keep his ancestral home.

This contrast between these two types of Scotland is seen best in the party in which these disparate worlds collide. This is in turn best summed up by one of the stand-out moments in the book, when Buffy, doing party tricks to please the crowd, lassoes Jamie. There is a battle of wills between the pair which also represents the battle between the real Scotland with its legends and traditions and those who would like to turn the place and everything in it into a sort of theme park to amuse the masses. A similar contrast appears in the Patricia Leitch ‘Jinny’ story, The Magic Pony, in which Leitch argues against the modern world which would force the gypsy woman Keziah to die in a hospital when her culture dictates she should die in her own home. It is clear that Patricia Leitch feels strongly about such matters and hopes her readers will feel the same.

Although there is little in the way of character introspection, this is not to say that the characters are dull and two-dimensional. In fact the author shows great insight into human behaviour in the way the character of Edgar is handled. Although he betrays the family secret of the water horse, he is not portrayed as an out and out villain. In fact we even feel somewhat sorry for him. He is completely unsuited to the lifestyle of Deersmalen and is completely isolated from the other children. It soon becomes clear that the children’s failure to include Edgar in their adventures or show any sympathy for him sets off a chain of events which leads to the water horse being put in danger. The children are made to realise that is their actions as much as Edgar’s which have caused the situation.

“You made Edgar betray the water horse, the voice of my conscience accused. If you had been nicer to him this might never have happened.” (page 143)

Is this a horse story? Some say no, but I don’t agree. It may not contain the traditional elements of a pony story such as gymkhanas, schooling and the like but for me this is a classic horse rescue plot. The horse in question may be unique and magical but it needs rescuing as surely as any unwanted nag bound for the knackers, or valuable racehorse threatened by thieves. And how can anyone say a book which has at its heart and soul such an amazing horse, not be a horse story? Whatever the Water Horse may be in terms of symbol and metaphor, it is still a horse. Not your normal everyday horse, to be sure, but – unlike the completely alien carnivorous water horses in Maggie Steivater’s The Scorpio Races for example – this creature is all equine. Its behaviour is completely horse-like, whinnying, blowing air through nostrils in greeting, and even bucking off Kay when it becomes irritated, just like any other self-respecting horse! Although magical, this is not one of those sparkly unicorns or glittery flying horses which populate may a children's pony story today: just as Leitch bases her fantasy scenario in reality so too her fantastical being is also a real horse. In many ways the story is very much like the classic American wild horse plot in which a lone character battles to keep a stallion wild and free whilst others attempt to capture and tame him.

In summary this is a story that can be read on many levels: as a cracking fantasy adventure, a unique horse story, a celebration of the beauty of wild animals and a plea to let them live free - or even as a study of Scottish culture. This I think gives the book a wide-reaching and lasting appeal and makes it a classic.

I would award the book 5 horseshoes (EXCELLENT)

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Monday, 10 June 2013

Review - Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe by Victoria Eveleigh

This is the first book in a new trilogy about pony-loving boy Joe. It is aimed at the pre-teen to younger teen readership. The other books in the series include Joe and the Lightning Pony and Joe and the Race to the Rescue (not yet published).


Joe is dismayed when he has to move away from his home town and all his friends to live on a farm in the country. He finds the countryside boring and takes his frustration out on his family, especially his little sister, and spurns the attempts of the local children to befriend him. Although he has ridden before it is his younger sister and mother who are really pony-mad – he feels that it is not much use continuing with his riding in such a predominantly female world. His mother’s desire to re-create her youthful pony days leads to her buying two unsuitable ponies. Coloured cob Lady is hard to control and Lightning has navicular and can only be ridden very lightly. After Joe’s mum has a bad accident and his sister loses her nerve, nobody wants to ride the ponies! When Joe finds a lucky horseshoe in the garden he is encouraged to wish on it by the Romany woman Nellie. Not really believing , but feeling that he needs some help to improve his lot, he makes his wishes. But is it magic he needs or a change in attitude to make his situation improve?


This is a well written and very readable traditional story. There is a lot to like here and quite a few elements which set the book apart from the run of the mill modern pony story.

The fact that the author has chosen a male lead character is admirable. There are few male leads in modern pony stories, and I have heard many complaints from mothers of pony-mad young boys about this. Victoria Eveleigh has also added in other content which will probably appeal to male readers, such as the martial arts sessions and the technical aspects of shoeing. The book also touches briefly on the problems that boy riders face in a predominantly girly world as Joe asks “Who’d made the rule that only girls should be keen on riding…how could men become jockeys, showjumpers, mounted policeman or anything to do with horses if men didn’t ride?” (Page. 19.) But female readers needn’t worry, all the elements of this traditional pony story will appeal. And there are also plenty of female characters for girls (including grown-up girls!) to identify with.

I also like the various interesting side-elements which are woven into the main plot. Its nice to see gypsies/Romanies portrayed in a good light instead of as the usual clichéd villain! The martial arts element is also interesting, especially the spiritual side of things, regarding harmony and good energy, which I didn’t really know much about. Victoria Eveleigh manages to provide all this background detail without making it ponderous or dull – a very difficult feat. This is not just a few lumps of description bunged in to bulk the book out a bit, but information that is interesting in its own right and important to the story.

The author has added a clever touch of ambiguity with the lucky horseshoe sub-plot. Nellie the Romany tells Joe how to use the horseshoe to make wishes, but there is more to her character than the reader's preconceived notions of gypsy magic. She also gives a lot of practical advice to him about changing his attitude to life and those around him (as does the martial arts teacher), so we are never really sure if, when some of his wishes do begin to come true, if it is because of some sort of magical spell or his own behaviour. We suspect the latter but we are never really quite sure. Also a lot of his wishes don’t come true – will they in later episodes of the story – or were some of them just too ambitious or greedy? We don’t yet know until we read on further into the series. By this ambiguity Victoria Eveleigh has artfully managed to add a slight sprinkle of fantasy into the proceedings which will interest fantasy fans but will in no way turn off those who dislike it.

The characters in the book are well drawn and three-dimensional. I particularly like that there are interesting adult characters. One of my favourites is the Mum. Eveleigh creates a great sub-plot in the grown up pony-mad girl trying to re-create her childhood love affair with ponies and struggling to re-enter that world. After being considered the horsy ‘expert’ by her family, Mum realises she really knows little about keeping a pony or handling one, something I’m sure many adults in the same situation have experienced. The Romany Nellie and the farrier Chris are also very interesting characters. Even the minor characters, such as the Aikido instructor, who uncomfortably uncovers Joe’s selfishness, add extra elements to the story.

The author displays her knowledge of horses well in explanations of horse ailments such as laminitis and navicular, and also of the handling of the ponies in the story. Young readers can pick up much useful information here and it is delivered, not in a didactic, dusty old textbook way, but comes naturally from the words of Chris and Nellie. Nellie in particular offers up some good advice in showing that humans must try and think about how horses are feeling in order to be able to handle them correctly and kindly. An excellent message to pass onto young readers.

My only real problem with the book is that I don’t feel much empathy or connection with the character of Joe. This is not because he is a boy. Some of my favourite pony books have boy heroes and I thoroughly empathise with the extra problems which plague horsy boys. However Joe is to me just not a sympathetic character per se. He is surly, self-absorbed, unfriendly, unkind to his sister (who is certainly not the archetypal annoying little sister seen in many children’s books) – in fact he is a bit of a brat. Yes, he does improve somewhat throughout the book and I do get that the author is making him fairly unpleasant at the start so that he can be redeemed throughout the course of the novel. And I also think that the way he improves when he is made to see it is his attitude rather than external circumstances which are causing his problems is extremely well done. However for me the damage has been done and I never quite warm to the character. I don’t mind an unpleasant character if they have a reason for their behaviour such as terrible parents or a traumatic experience – in fact there is a lot of interest in seeing such characters struggling to overcome their problems and learning to integrate into society. However I just don’t get why Joe is so awful. Yes he has had to leave his friends behind and start a new life. But this and the fact he doesn’t have internet access for a couple of weeks are hardly events of tragic proportions and you’d expect him to start getting over himself in a few days. He really has it pretty good. His parents are decent and supportive and seem to be fairly well-heeled middle-class. People in his new home put themselves out to welcome him, even though he spurns them. Plus the fact he disdains that he has been handed on a plate the dream of many pony-mad but pony-less youngsters – to live on a farm and have ponies of their own – may not endear him to such readers.

However one does not have to love the main character to enjoy the story, and it certainly did not spoil my enjoyment - especially as there are plenty of other interesting characters in the novel. Also, as Joe does improve throughout the book, it is hoped that he will be a much more likeable character in the second and third book of the trilogy and so this small gripe may completely disappear. I’d also be interested to hear what other readers feel about Joe – sympathetic or annoying? Please let me know!

The fact that Joe faces little in the way of real difficulties, does lead me to another minor point. I realise this is personal taste, but I'd like a little more tension in the story. Joe really has things far too easy. He has good parents with no money worries. His move to a new home is hardly a terrible trauma – he doesn’t suffer from the usual ostracization of the newcomer by the local kids – in fact, as I mentioned above, they go out of their way to try and include him. There just happens to be a Aikido class nearby and his potential new friends are members. He bemoans the fact that boys are not welcomed into the girlish world of ponies but he hasn’t really suffered because of this, and the reader doesn’t feel that it really bothers him that much. If you compare him to a similar fictional boy who likes horses, Aiden in Sheena Wilkinson’s Too Many Ponies, who is bullied mercilessly by other boys for his love of ponies, Joe has really nothing to complain about. The problems with the ponies themselves also seem a bit too easily solved. There is no real worry about what will happen to them. To my mind Joe is one boy who doesn’t need to wish on lucky horseshoes as he has a pretty good quantity of luck on his side anyhow!

To be fair, the undemanding, un-melodramatic tone of the story is quite normal in a younger reader’s pony book and the lack of any real tension does not make the story dull or uninteresting, far from it. (In fact in some ways it is a refreshing change from many modern pony books which have an inordinate amount of ridiculously unrealistic events crammed in them to disguise the fact that they are actually poorly written and shallow.) But, for me, if Joe’s problems were just a bit more high-stake this story could have been even more gripping.

In summary, a very good read in many ways and suited to a wide readership. Both girls and boys of the target age will find interest in the story. Its adult characters and added depth of detail will appeal to the older reader. The fairly gentle traditional story will suit most readers, but those who like a little bit of bite in their reading material may feel themselves wanting slightly more tension. However I can guarantee that this book will be a much better reading experience than the average modern pony story. I look forward to reading the other books in the series.

I have rated this book as 4 HORSESHOES – VERY GOOD

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Sunday, 9 June 2013

Guest Blog by Tintin: Review - Chasing Dreams by Maggie Dana


It is very hard to believe we are now up to Book Five with the Timber Ridge Riders.

Each book manages to be re-assuringly familiar as we return to the stables, but with each volume we learn more about the place and its inhabitants, human and equine.

With each review that also means that I have to praise the series solid consistencies. It gets harder and harder to do this and maintain any pretence of originality. The structure of the books remains an inspiringly solid and durable skeleton on which to build the flesh of a story and a strong foundation which can bear new characters easily.

Each book in the series is, however, refreshingly different. This one is very much focused on the interplay of the characters. Angela the villain is very much centre stage in this book. Any fleeting glimpse of reform we had in the last book is well and truly blotted out in this one. This is absolutely first class villainy.

The centre piece of this event is a hunt chase competition in which Kate is placed in a pair with Angela. They win, but only because Angela has cheated. Kate reveals this causing Angela to thirst for revenge. There is both horse story and school story here.

At the same time, if this story were not enough, Kate’s father returns from South America threatening to totally disrupt her life at Timber Ridge. We also have a new character in Angela’s likeable little sister who becomes lost on the mountainside and has to be rescued by Kate and her horse, Tapestry. The rescue is particularly thrilling.

The author sets a lot of hares running in this book, particularly relationship wise, so there is plenty of action left yet at Timber Ridge, which is good news for us fans. There is also the potential growing for a very bad mis-understanding between the two main characters, Kate and Holly.

The book is very fast paced. I read it on the Kindle for P/C application and when I read this I narrow the screen as the full screen is so wide it makes me feel like one of those lizards with eyes pointing in different directions. Due to this there are no page numbers so when I got near the end I could not believe it. The book really does keep you reading as you want to know what happens next.

A joy to read.

Read more and vote on the book in the ponymadbooklovers forum review section

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Guest Blog by Tintin: Book Review - Wish Upon A Horse by Maggie Dana

This is an absolutely marvellous book. It is very hard to believe that we are actually up to No.4 in the Timber Ridge series. It is fully up to the standard of the other three. Timber Ridge books are consistently almost as good as the sisters at their best, and I cannot praise more highly than that.

“Wish Upon a Horse” is basically an exciting story of show jumping and has more than enough action in, and outside, the ring to keep those who dream of success at this game happy. It is, however, also so much more.

To me the strong spine on which the great charm and effectiveness of the Timber Ridge stories rest is the well constructed central core of characters. Not only is each character individual, well drawn, interesting and believable, but they fit together as a group which facilitates the creation of a huge variety of convincing dramatic scenes and scenarios.

The start of the book is perhaps a little slower than the other three, but as this is a well developed series it allows those who are perhaps coming in new at book 4 to familiarise themselves. For us established fans it just builds up the sense of curiosity as to what they will do next and there is a certain comfort factor in just being a "fly on the wall" at Timber Ridge.

I will try hard not to give away too much, but as a lot of the thrills and charms of the book are in the situations that is not too easy.

Basically Kate has the money she made from her film riding and is wanting to buy a horse. Though this is quite a large amount of money she soon finds it does n’t go far.

Through a couple of scrapes she secures the (eventually) beautiful mare Tapestry. This is a lovely story and a lot happens before the two of them can stay together. Readers of the other stories will not be surprised where Tapestry came from, but there are still plenty of surprises about her. The romance with the film star continues as does the bickering with Angela the villain. There is a really good twist in the story with Angela which surprised me, which will probably surprise other readers even more. There is also a well drawn encounter with the darker side of show jumping.

Readers will be pleased that the distinctive humour of these books is still in place.

Timber Ridge is in many ways very contemporary (also very US) and I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the cultural and techno stuff, but it rang true to me. Also it did n’t alienate me (middle aged, British and techno phobe) and was totally natural and integral to the story.

Well worth reading.

Two personal notes.

Firstly, though I read this on Kindle I will be getting an actual paper back edition. I do not often buy books as artefacts, but this series is so nice I want a matching set. The art work is good. Even better the books have a good size and feeling for handling and the print size is great for reading.

Secondly, I LOVED Pardner. I could picture him – just my sort of horse! Although he only had a cameo role can he come back? The sort of horse who won’t let you down in field or stable. The ladies were very unkind about his looks and I think he should show them up. Perhaps his own book would be too much to ask?

You can vote for the book on the ponymadbooklovers chat forum reviews section

Monday, 20 May 2013

Book Review - Too Many Ponies by Sheena Wilkinson

 This was an exciting review for me for a number of reasons. First, because the author's earlier pony novel Taking Flight was one of the best I have read in recent years and I was really looking forward to reading her first pony book for younger reader, but also because I was in the enviable position of being able to read and review the book before it was in the shops from a proof copy and was asked to provide a quote for the book cover. It was nice to be a part (albeit an extremely little part) of the publishing process. Plus the author has very kindly thanked the users of the website/readers of this blog for their support in the acknowledgments section of the book. So thanks for the thanks Sheena!

But enough of the blether and here is the actual review.....


Lucy keeps her pony stabled at Rosevale, a horse sanctuary run by her friend Aiden's dad (who is in fact Declan of the author's earlier novels, Taking Flight and Grounded!) The children, although dissimilar in character - Lucy brash and outgoing; Aiden quiet and cautious - are friends, united by their love of horses. However when the pair move up into the comprehensive school things begin to change. Lucy is drawn to the glam (but shallow) world of the posh stables frequented by the horsy girls she meets at the school, whilst Aiden is bullied for his love of ponies.

When an eccentric newcomer to the district organises an eventing competition, Rosevale decides to put together a team in order to try and win much needed money. But the strain of the competition causes more problems. Aiden finds his small store of confidence ebbing away and begins to lose his nerve, whilst Lucy becomes so wrapped up in the idea of winning and looking good she forgets the true purpose of the competition and puts a pony in danger. Can both children overcome their problems in time for the big event? Or is disaster just around the corner?


Sheena Wilkinson’s earlier pony novels, Taking Flight and Grounded, were aimed at the young adult market. Both were compelling page-turning reads, full of gritty realism. When I found out a few months ago that the author was writing a pony story for younger readers I was happy to hear it, as that particular niche in the market is sadly over-populated by third rate pony stories and desperately needs more well written, intelligent novels to offer to young pony mad readers.

Too Many Ponies certainly lived up to my expectations. Ostensibly it’s a fairly standard competition type plot in which a team of riders go through the usual trials and tribulations of preparing and then taking part in a big event. However there is plenty of meat on the bare bones of this plot which will get young readers thinking at the same time as they are enjoying the story. Although not quite as gritty or psychologically complex as her works for older children – which is to be expected given the younger readership the book is aimed at - this story is certainly full of realism and depth. It tackles serious issues such as bullying and losing confidence in oneself. The competitive element is also tempered by the backdrop of the horse sanctuary where most of the story takes place – this gives a nice rounded view of ponies as not just winning machines, but living creatures which need care and love - and thus prevents the rather hard-nosed, unsavoury attitude which can overtake many a competition plot line. The writing itself is of a high quality and superior to most books in the genre. It is easy to see how Sheena Wilkinson is one of the few writers of equine fiction to appear on the ‘mainstream radar’ and win awards.

But for me the real excellence of the book is provided by the two superbly drawn main characters. Like the author’s first horse novel, Taking Flight, the book follows the fortunes of both a male and female lead character. First of all brownie points to the author for once again giving a male prominence in a pony story. This is something that is sadly rare in a modern pony book, especially one for younger readers. I have had more than one parent complain to me that there is not much on offer nowadays for their male horse-mad children. Too Many Ponies however, with its excellent male character Aiden, will appeal to boys as well as girls.

Again, as in Taking Flight, the male lead Aiden is actually more sympathetic and likeable than the female. Aiden is a great character and both girls and boys will warm to him immediately.
His character is wrapped up in the whole issue of masculine identity. Unlike America, where riding is actually seen as highly masculine (and rightly so considering the element of danger involved!), in the UK ponies have always been considered mainly the province of the female species. This has been exacerbated in recent years, with the preponderance of fluffy, glittery stories about magic ponies and the equally female fashion for dressing up ponies in colours to match outfits (a fashion that is actually amusingly castigated in Too Many Ponies). This can be a big problem for male horse-lovers, whose favourite past-time may even be considered cissy. Too Many Ponies delves into this dilemma as Aiden becomes bullied at school for his love of ponies and is dubbed 'My Little Pony Boy', with the brilliant metaphor of a pink pony (the symbol of all that is girly in ponies and pony books) causing devastating damage to his ego. The bullies’ assault on Aiden’s masculinity is compounded by his own worry that he is a coward, as he begins to lose his nerve for jumping. In the book, he must overcome both these external and internal obstacles to prove that he can be a real boy and love ponies at the same time. This battle provides much of the interest of the story.

The character of Lucy, although less sympathetic than Aiden, is perhaps more complex and her storyline more subtle. Whilst Aiden has a lack of confidence in himself, she has rather too much and is in danger of turning into the sort of brash unfeeling teenager I have seen in many recent pony novels, in which winning or looking good on your horse seems to matter more than the horse itself. Near the beginning of the book she feels exasperated by the fact that keeping her pony on a rescue farm means that she is constantly reminded of the fact that ponies are being hurt and mistreated. She wants to bury her head in the sand and forget these problems and just have fun with her pony. She is drawn to the rather shallow but ostensibly fun and glamourous lifestyle of the stables at Sunnyside Farm where the girls, led by the deliciously snotty Jade, are colour co-cordinated with their ponies and won’t even allow pony-less children into their club. When Lucy extols the virtues of Sunnyside to her parents, her mum replies that it “sounds revolting” and hopefully the reader will agree!

Very cleverly the author has made Jade the sister of one of Aiden’s bullies. As Aiden’s confidence in himself is undermined by the bullies, so Jade and her friends also threaten to exacerbate Lucy’s own slight faults of selfishness and shallowness, and turn her into something akin to a pony book anti-heroine. The idea of winning the riding competition in order to raise money for the sanctuary becomes lost in the desire to win for its own sake. Lucy becomes more selfish and risks her pony’s health and the team itself in order to give herself a chance to shine. With a lesser author this might turn us off the character, but Sheena Wilkinson has dropped enough little clues into the story so that we realise there is enough good left in Lucy to redeem her. We root for her growing realization of her faults and her eventual salvation, just as we root for Aiden to regain his confidence and overcome the bullies.

The character of Erin is also a very interesting addition to the cast. She is something of a foil to Lucy, being the actual archetypal heroine of the pony novel: pony-less but pony mad, not overly brash and kind. In making her a minor female character and Lucy the main, the author has gone a little outside the comfort zone of a traditional pony book, but her innovative move works really well. The reader recognizes Erin’s worth and compares her to Lucy. And knows that Erin should be Lucy’s friend and role model rather than the obnoxious Jade - who represents all that is bad in a horsy girl (and indeed in horsy novels per se).

However despite the depth of the characters and their problems in Too Many Ponies, this does not mean the story is at all slow or ponderous. The pace is fast enough to keep readers interested throughout and the story intriguing enough to keep those pages turning. There is plenty of varied equine action: rescued ponies, cross country training and the competition itself. The fact that many of the problems of the two children are universal (bullying, lack of confidence, making wrong decisions) will ensure that the book will also appeal to readers outside of the genre, and like the author’s previous equine stories I think this one will also gain prominence outside of the pony book genre.

If you have already read Taking Flight and Grounded there is also another reason to read this book - you will be pleased to re-acquaint yourself with the character of Declan who appears here in a supporting role as Aiden's father. Although, as I said earlier, because it is aimed at a younger readership it may not have the complexity of those novels, it has enough depth and is well written enough to be read by the same age group as those who enjoyed Declan’s earlier adventures. Sheena Wilkinson has avoided making the book too babyish or simplistic, or of under-estimating the intelligence of her young readers. And just as older readers will be able to appreciate Too Many Ponies, so will it’s younger readers be able to move on to Taking Flight and Grounded as they grow a little older, and will enjoy finding out the background of the character of Declan.

For me, this is certain to be one of the best pony stories of the year for younger horse-lovers. Given the tendency for many authors of modern pony stories to take the easy route and spice up a hastily cobbled together story with a thick masking-coat of glamour or sensationalism, there are precious few pony books being written now which tell a traditional pony story in an interesting and thoughtful way, whilst at the same time keeping readers turning the pages, eager to find what happens next. Sheena Wilkinson has achieved this feat. For this age group certainly, there aren’t too many pony stories around as good as Too Many Ponies! And unlike many books in the genre today, the book will appeal to both girls and boys. A highly recommended read for all.

I would rate this book as 5 horseshoes - EXCELLENT

You can vote for the book and read comments on the ponymadbooklovers chat forum review section

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Book Review - If I Won a Pony by Eve Paege


Leo is amazed when she wins first prize in a pony magazine competition – a real life pony! Instead of the posh, expensive ponies she is offered, she falls in love with a scruffy neglected pony at an auction. She persuades the magazine editor to buy No Name as she calls him. After cleaning and tending the pony she finds out he is good looking, friendly and a good ride. But if things seem too good to be true they usually are: when Leo finds out No Name’s true identity she realizes his life may be in danger and she sets off to rescue him at all costs…


From the 1990s onwards, traditional style pony stories seemed to almost disappear. For younger readers, fluffy unrealistic stories about magic ponies, unicorns and the like, dominated. For older children the scenario was even worse, as style over substance books with poor moral values and scenarios which were in some ways just as unrealistic as the fantasy pony stories flooded the market. It seemed that the traditional pony book had all but disappeared - these new books celebrated winning, looking good and having the latest gear rather than caring for your pony and your friends. Even drugs, sex and the celebrity mad culture seemed to be infiltrating this once-wholesome genre! However, I am glad to say in the last couple of years, traditional pony stories seem to be making a come back. (Why this is so is a matter for separate discussion, but it does gladden the heart of a reader brought up on them)

If I won a Pony is firmly in the mould of the traditional pony story. It contains all the stalwart plot strands of the old pony stories, from winning a pony in a competition, to rescuing a neglected animal, to saving a pony from the knackers. It also celebrates a lot of the good values that the older pony story used to expound: I like the way that the heroine chooses a scruffy unwanted pony rather than the expensive and glam ponies she has lined up in front of her. I also like the way she goes to a huge amount of trouble in order to save her beloved pony. Her rather naughty tendency to lie to people to get her own way is eventually punished, but her remorse and caring attitude are rewarded in the end. These are great messages to be passed on to young horsy readers.

Something that also really strikes me as being reminiscent of the traditional pony stories (and indeed the old holiday adventure stories of Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome and the like) is the independence of the child characters and the fact that they exist for the most part in a world without parents. This is perhaps not realistic in today’s society of ‘helicopter parents’ hovering over their kids night and day. But it does highlight the fact that children can be independent, can think and do things for themselves without relying on their parents all the time. Perhaps this is as much an alien concept for many of today’s kids as the fantasy worlds they seem to like reading about! Perhaps the freedom of the children in this story will only be seen as an escape for the young reader from what must be quite an oppressive atmosphere, rather than something they could actually aspire to. But it does show there is an option for thinking and doings things for yourself. Another good message which this book conveys.

It is quite a tricky proposition for an author to combine a traditional type story and traditional values with a style modern enough to keep today’s children interested. Eve Paege has managed to inject such a fast pace into the story that even easily bored readers will be swept along. There is plenty of horsy action and scenarios in the story from auctions, to schooling, to hacking, to competitions, to horse rescue, people rescue… and lots, lots more! The author has packed a lot into this book and again this will encourage easily distracted young readers to keep on turning the pages. For the older/adult reader this will perhaps be a little too frenetic and I must say all that galloping about the countryside left me a bit exhausted! I would have perhaps liked a little more character depth and development, but I realize this is personal taste, as I am always drawn to more introspective novels. And of course younger readers do not want too much soul-searching and the like clogging up their story line. The author has I think managed the mix of traditional and modern just right to appeal to her target audience.

I do really like the underlying humour of the book, which has some great comic characters such as the pink-obsessed journalist and the wig-wearing ‘PC Plod’ character, who reminds me a little of Mr. Goon in the old Enid Blyton mystery stories. This light-hearted tone again will appeal to the modern young reader.

In short, this is a good combination of traditional plot lines and values within the framework of a modern, light-hearted and fast–paced story. It will appeal most to children of the pre-teen and early teen age group, and is I feel especially good for encouraging easily bored and reluctant readers to pick up a book. It will also suit older readers who love a rollicking pony adventure story without too much introspection.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Book Review - There Must be Horses by Diana Kimpton


Abandoned by her feckless parents, Sasha has been passed from foster home to foster home, never fitting in anywhere. She is not surprisingly a troubled girl who finds it hard to express her emotions or relate to people. The only thing which seems to bring her out of her shell is her love of horses. After being thrown out of yet another foster home she is packed off to stay with Jo and Beth Turner for a temporary stay until a more permanent home can be found. She is overjoyed to find that the pair live on a horse rescue farm. There she also meets Meteor, an abused horse who has lost his trust in humans, and she feels a close affinity with the horse and his situation. For the first time Sasha has found somewhere she really feels she could belong. But she fears that her continuing emotional problems will mean that both she and Meteor will have to leave the farm forever….


Until now, Diana Kimpton was best known in the world of equine fiction for her Pony Mad Princess series. These are nice enough light-hearted stories and better written than the average book of this type. However as they are aimed at very young readers, they do not contain enough real depth to keep the attention of older children or adult readers.

However There Must be Horses, her first pony book aimed at older children is a completely different proposition; a more serious and darker story entirely. This really is an excellent read, which will appeal to all ages, and it is so well written that it just flows off the page. I would say I could not put it down, except I was reading this as an e-book on my laptop. (Someone will have to come up soon with the equivalent phrase for digital books !)

Unlike the lightly humourous Pony Mad Princess series, this story was much more serious, tackling some fairly gritty issues. Our heroine Sasha has been abandoned by her drug addict/alcoholic mother and has been passed from pillar to post until she feels she belongs nowhere. Equally, the book’s equine hero Meteor has been so abused and mistreated that he has ended up hating humans. Too many modern pony stories do not ask their young readers to think at all. However this story really explores what life must be like for a girl in Sasha’s situation. Thankfully most young readers will have loving and stable home lives, but this book portrays a different world and gives the reader a chance to understand this world and feel compassion for those trapped in such a situation.

Despite dealing with such important and weighty topics, Diana Kimpton has expertly avoided turning the novel into some sort of dreary morality tract or sermon. The story really is gripping. Our heroine may not be doing anything as glam as competing at Badminton or Wembley, but we are just as swept up in her world. Will Sasha ever get the loving home she deserves? Will Meteor ever trust humans again? Will the pair be parted forever? Because the stakes are higher – it is their life rather than just a question of whether they will win a rosette or not – this makes the story all the more powerful. I just had to keep reading to find out what happened.

Another reason we are gripped by the story is the character of Sasha herself. Diana Kimpton has created a superb multi-layered and also sympathetic character in Sasha. It would be easy to make the girl, with her behavioural problems and emotional coldness, unlikeable or unsympathetic, but as soon as we hear Sasha’s voice (the first person narrative was chosen wisely) we immediately care about her and feel empathy for her situation. And especially, as horsy readers, when we find out she also loves ponies we are bound to be on her side! Despite her faults, when we see her growing closeness to Meteor we know she is a good and caring person at heart. As an older reader I could not help feeling a rather maternal sympathy for Sasha and I think younger readers will feel a close affinity on a more equal level. Seeing Sasha overcome her very real problems may help youngsters cope with their own. After all, feeling that you are isolated, that no-one understands you and that you don’t fit in are common emotions experienced by teenagers.

This close sympathy with the heroine creates a strong emotional response to the book. There are plenty of ups and downs as Sasha (and the reader) are really put through the emotional wringer. This is quite ironic, considering that Sasha is dubbed as ‘emotionally frozen’ in that we feel with her the full gamut of emotions from joy and hope to misery and despair.

But this is not just a book about human lives and problems, it is at heart a real old-fashioned pony story. For me, the best pony stories have always been those which celebrate the bond between human and horse, and which show how this relationship has the power to transform lives. Sasha and Meteor’s close bond is integral to the story and it is indeed the love Sasha feels for the horse which changes her own life. The themes of horse rescue, and that of redemption of a character by their involvement with horses are certainly not new, but here they have been given a new slant in the way the author has drawn close parallels between the situations of both Sasha and Meteor. Because the reader can see the similarities in the situations of girl and horse, it can make one think deeply about how animals are treated, and how their problems may be a result of circumstance and abuse, rather than just a labelling an animal a rogue or a problem horse (just as Sasha has been labeled a problem child). I feel that youngsters will have a much more empathetic view of horses, as well as people, after reading this book.

In the main this is a realistic and quite down-to-earth novel. There are however a few times when suspension of disbelief is required somewhat. Meteor’s at times rather Lassie-like behaviour and his sudden (dare I say it meteoric!) rehabiliation were slightly unrealistic and melodramatic. But as this is a children’s book such plot devices are not out of place, and in fact they were also quite useful in heightening the emotional tension of the story. On the whole I felt the book had very few even minor flaws.

For me, this has to be one of the best pony novels I have read this year. It has all the ingredients needed for a superb pony story: a great sympathetic character, a bond between girl and horse, emotional depth and an intelligent exploration of deeper issues. It also shows a compassion for both human and animal which can be sadly lacking in many modern children’s novels and inspires good values without being boring or preachy. I really hope that the author will continue writing for this age group as I think she is making a real contribution to the genre.

You can read more and vote on the book on the chat forum

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Guest Blog by Tintin: Book Review - The Most Horrible Pony by Lynda Kelly

Thanks to our guest blogger 'Tintin' who will hopefully be reviewing a number of books on here in the future. Here's his take on the first book in the Amy and Clown series by Lynda Kelly - The Most Horrible Pony:

"It has to be said, before anything else, that this is a very accurate title. Clown is a truly dreadful horse and his misdemeanours are marvellously and vividly described. He puts off his rider, runs away, refuses to be caught and bites as well as being able to undo the bolt to his stall. He also does all these intermittently in such a way as to lead both reader and rider into a false hope that he might have reformed.

He is very like a horse in the Army before the war who gained himself such an infamous name by similar behaviour he was still being talked about over 50 years later. Like the military horse Clown also has the annoying habit of behaving perfectly when anyone important is about. Clown’s awful behaviour and the fact that he has been saved from the slaughter house makes it quite a shock to find he is only five rather than an elderly horse “steeped in vice”. It is quite original to have what s almost an equine “anti-hero”.

Amy, the young girl who is the heroine of the novel, is Clown’s exasperated, yet doggedly determined rider. She lives on a working farm with her mother and father, younger brother Liam (and his ever growing tribe of imaginary creatures), dog Tess and two cats. The farm and its work are nicely depicted as are the dynamics of the family which become even more interesting when an eccentric aunt comes to visit. There is also a nice crowd of riding school children and their ponies.

Amy has just received Clown when the story starts and all the ponies have more attractive characters than his (I particularly liked Gordon, the patient Highland Pony). Clown, however, does have an aptitude for mounted games.

The book has a truly memorable horse and interesting likeable characters. Not least among its charms are the sketch maps which help us to enter a complete and believable world. Well written and with good values (a central motif is about loyalty to, and understanding of, friends and family who can be annoying – not to mention a horse who can be very annoying) the book deserves to be popular with its target audience. The author has set herself a hard standard to keep up to.

With all this to praise it is almost superfluous to speak of the plot. The story is a variant of the missing race horse cliché, but because of the strengths described above this is carried off convincingly. The author also pulls off the difficult trick of starting the story by dropping you in the middle of the action.

Worth reading!"

You can read more  and vote on the book on the chat forum

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Film Review - Flicka 3: Country Pride

This is my first attempt at a film review! Perhaps not an obvious choice for me, as I have rather an obsessional tendency to view films or read books in series order and it is not in character for me to watch the third instalment of a film series first! However, last night, as I was perusing the pages of a new film streaming service for which I have a free trial, I came across this and thought I'd give it a go.

In the film cowboy Toby (Clint Black) arrives to work as temporary yard manager at a struggling stableyard owned by the recently widowed Lindy (Lisa Hartman) and her teen daughter, Kelly (Kasey Rohl). In exchange for wages Toby is boarding a number of his horses at the stables whilst his own ranch is being repaired after a fire. One of these horses is the titular Flicka, a feisty black mustang. Since her father's death Kelly has lost interest in horses and has become withdrawn and insecure, but she soon bonds with Flicka, who also inspires her to start riding seriously again. When a member of the team training at the yard for an upcoming three day event is injured, Kelly steps forward to take her place. However rich girl Stephanie is jealous of Kelly's riding prowess, and of her growing friendship with good-looking male team member Briggs. Her jealous antics result in her rich mother taking her horses away from the yard. At the same time Lindy's trainer also jumps ship to a new stable and sets up a new team including Stephanie. Briggs decides to stay with Kelly and the pair cobble together a team with a new girl at school and a local teen groom, also persuading Toby to act as their trainer. The oddball team set off to the three day event aiming to prove they can compete on equal terms with their richer more priviliged rivals.

The Flicka film franchise, beginning in 2006 was originally based on Mary O'Hara's book My Friend Flicka, which had previously been made into an excellent film back in the 1940s. It was clearly time for a re-make but for some reason a number of huge changes were made. The young male hero of the original book and film was transformed into a teenage girl and Flicka herself was transformed in colour to black, obviously a hue associated more with that 'magnificent beast' the horse! Mercifully they at least kept her a mare! As I mentioned earlier I have not watched the re-make, mainly as I felt it was a travesty to tamper with such a classic book and film as the originally. However it was a surprisingly successful film, especially when released on DVD, spawning two further sequels.

Flicka 3, unlike the first instalment, does not suffer from any comparisons with the original. It actually bears no resemblance to that story at all. Like the Black Beauty TV show of the 1970s, the only similarity is the name of the horse. Instead, it is a fairly stock horse film aimed mainly at teenage girls, including the obligatory horse competition, teenage angst and first romance.

It's actually not a completely terrible film, despite including almost every equine film cliche known to man and beast and having more cheese than Wallace and Gromit could shake a stick at! I must admit I had to suppress a shudder as the intro titles came up and Flicka was described as a 'magnificent creature'  - an epithet few who have had anything to do with real life horses would ever use. And of course there was the usual rearing, pawing the air and neighing constantly by our equine heroine to endure - behaviour which of course must be displayed by such a 'magnificent creature' but which I have rarely seen in reality. The characters too are fairly stereotyped - the rough rugged cowboy with a heart of gold, the pretty but nasty rich girl, the heroine with natural riding ability. Like a lot of American horse films, it also suffers from slight over-sentimentality. The acting is moderate but adequate, typical of the made for DVD fare this so clearly is.

A quite glaring fault for anyone horsy watching the film is the 'dumbing down' of the equine side of things, obviously utilised to include a mainstream less-horsy audience as well as the horsemad teen viewer. The training for the three day event for example is ludicrously simplified, especially when the cowboy hero takes over as trainer. I had to giggle as he miraculously turned the hopeless riders into dressage stars by simply having them trot around to a country and western song! It is world's away from the realism of for instance the eventing film International Velvet, and while no-one would expect a more family orientated mainstream film such as Flicka 3 to go to such lengths of realism, a little input by someone who actually had experience in training and competing would not have gone amiss!

However despite the aforementioned faults, the film, like all good traditional pony stories, offers some good values. The heroine, although a bit wet, is sympathetic and easy to root for. The message that hard work and dedication to a cause will enable the less fortunate to compete on equal terms with those who are priviliged and rich, is a good one in this modern world where riding is becoming an increasingly elite and shallow past-time. The team of outsiders - the rough and ready cowboy trainer, lowly groom, social outcast speccy girl, etc - compete on an equal footing with the snooty rich team. The competition ending is actually not badly done at all, with realism tempering the usual totally schmaltzy and unbelievable Hollywood finale.

In short this is a fairly innocuous film with nothing much to offend, and including some good messages for youngsters. It will certainly keep younger horselovers happy enough. It offers very little in the way of psychological depth or profoundity and is certainly no classic. For older watchers or those with more horsy experience it will fill in an hour or two and give a few unintentional giggles.

Next up on the film agenda, and linked to this film, is the chat forum film club viewing and discussion of the original Flicka film My Friend Flicka and the first in the first in the newer Flicka series. The two films will be compared and it will also be interesting to see if there is any link to Flicka 3.

To join in with the film club discussion click here

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Review - Pony in the Dark by K. M. Peyton

To tie in with the author of the month feature we are having on the website and chat forum, I am reviewing a book by this month's chosen author, K. M. Peyton. it took me a while to choose what book to review. In the end I decided upon this one a) because it was aimed at younger readers and we don't have many book reviews for younger reader's books on the website b) the main protagonist is male and there is a distinct lack of younger reading level pony book aimed at males c) it is short and wouldn't take long to read! I'll let you decide which of these 3 reasons influenced me the most! Whichever the reason, I'm glad I chose this title as it is an excellent read for all ages. 


This is an historical story for younger readers, set in the early 20th century and centered around the theme of pit ponies. Tom lives on the isle of Shetland in Scotland where his father is a crofter who also breeds Shetland ponies. He falls in love with Storm, a friendly black Shetland foal, and the pair grow up together. When the inevitable time comes for his father to sell Storm Tom is heartbroken, especially when his friend is destined to become a pit pony. Later he visits his Aunt and Uncle who live near the pit where Storm is working. He is overjoyed to see his old pal and is pleased that he is being treated well and has a loving handler, but he is still saddened that the pony has to be stuck in the darkness, never to see the light of the sun. Tom is now of an age to choose a job and he wonders if, instead of going back home to become a crofter or fisherman, he should become a miner so that he could stay near Storm and live with his Aunt and Uncle who don’t have a son of their own. While he is pondering what to do however he learns there has been a terrible accident at the pit. He rushes there to see a stretcher being carried out with a lifeless pony lying upon it, and is devastated to discover it is his beloved Storm...


Although this book is aimed at younger readers, (being part of the ‘Young Corgi’ imprint which also features K M Peyton’s Paradise Pony and The Scruffy Pony), it is about as far from the fluffy glittery pony stories of fairy ponies and magic unicorns which are usually offered up as fare for the younger pony book reader. Instead it treats the young readers as intelligent, does not talk down to them and indeed presents life – including some unpleasant aspects – in a matter of fact way. This at times uncompromising attitude does mean that the book is unsuitable for very young readers or the ‘bedtime story’ age group. If you are looking for a pony book to read to your pre-schoolers, this is not it. However for those around age 8 upwards it is ideal.

The story provides real information for young readers, such as how life was like back in the day when children were expected to work from the age of about 13 or 14 and gives the readers a chance to compare their lives with those of the children in the book. It also paints a very detailed picture of a pit pony’s lifestyle. It actually explores some quite complex themes which will get children thinking. For example how the lives of both the pit ponies and the working class folk are paralleled, neither of them having much of a choice in their lifestyle:

“But [the men] can choose!” Tom cried, “The ponies can’t!”

“Perhaps. But it’s as your uncle says – you choose the mine or you choose to starve. There’s no alternative around here.”

(Page 73)

Possibly some of this will go over some children’s heads but I think it preferable to treating all younger readers as if they are half witted. I feel that a child reading this book will get so much more out of it than just a good story.

But, as with all the author’s works, a good story is still at the heart of the book. You are immediately drawn into the world of Tom and Storm and root for them throughout. Will Storm escape the mines? Will Tom also end up there? Will Storm survive the mining accident? It is an emotional story. Even an old fart like this reviewer had to have a quick blow on the old hankie when Tom goes to comfort the injured Storm. Perhaps because it is aimed at younger readers the book does not go down the usual 'working pony treated cruelly' route. In fact Storm is treated very well down the mines and is loved and respected. Although the young reader is not sheltered from reality in this story, the book - rightly so - does not dwell in detail upon anything too unsavoury or overly upsetting. The gentle plot twist in which Storm’s terrible accident actually brings about a happy conclusion is very neat and the resulting happy ending is appropriate for the younger age group. The author may have asked the reader to face up to some harsh truths of reality but has rewarded them with hope and happiness.

Because of the complexity of theme and background, and because of the author’s writing skill, this book will also appeal to much older children and indeed adults. Although the writing is obviously more simplistic than in some of the author’s books for older children or young adults, it never sounds babyish and the characters are all well drawn and fairly three dimensional. It is a very short book and perhaps you will find yourself wishing for more, but it will keep you hooked. In fact I even learned quite a lot about pit ponies that I didn’t know, such as how the pit ponies were clipped and shaved because of the heat down in the mines, and that the miners also used Welsh Cobs.

The story does not have many of the traditional elements of the pony book. There are no gymkhanas, riding lessons or adventures on horseback. It may not therefore appeal to those who only like these sorts of pony stories. It does however have that most important element of the good pony story – the bond between the hero or heroine and their pony. Tom’s devotion to Storm is never questioned and even though he doesn’t ride Storm or take him to shows, they have a partnership just as close and special as any pony club girl and her equine friend – perhaps even more so.

For me the book also has a personal touch as it is set partially in my old stamping ground of the North East of England and even mentions my home town of Sunderland (which does not feature in many works of literature I can tell you!) The North of England was still big mining country when I was a child. Friends had fathers who were miners, and there were even some pit ponies still working! It is good to know that the pit pony is a thing of the past in this country, but sad that the communities which relied on mining were all decimated with the eventual closure of the pits. This historical story is very real for me.

One last reason I like the book is that there are precious few pony books for younger children with male heroes. If you are a young boy who loves horses, there really is not much on offer. This story though is ideal. Of course this does not mean that girls will not enjoy the story too, and I would recommend it to both boys and girls.

For me this is the perfect pony book for younger children of around 8 upwards, but especially precocious or easily bored readers. Parents, if you want to choose a book for your child which will make them think as well as entertain them and allow them to run the full gamut of emotions, this is it. For those who would rather wrap their children in cotton wool and protect them from all realities of life, then go out and buy one of the myriad fluffy ‘magical pony’ books on offer. However your child will be missing out on a fantastic story and an opportunity to learn a lot at the same time.

I would rate this book as 5 horseshoes (excellent).

The review is also available on the ponymadbooklovers chat forum review section where you can vote on how good you think the book it. You can add comments there or here, whichever you choose.