A Pony For Jean : Joanna Cannan

A Pony for JeanA Pony for Jean by Joanna Cannan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a reason I practically fainted when I found this in the pound shop and that reason is this: A Pony For Jean is a stone-cold classic, rich and evocative and unapologetically ponyish and it should be in the hands of anyone who is interested in ponies, children’s literature, or those curiously timeless stories that bubbled up in the 30s; stories of girls and families who survived troubling times simply by being themselves to the utmost and most emphatic ways.

Forgive me for being disjointed, but books like this are history and Cannan is a pivotal figure in the world of pony stories. She was one of the first (perhaps the first? I’m not sure) to write from the individuals perspective, stepping away from that Black Beauty-esque point of view, and stories sing of practical and foolish and passionate and realgirls who just burn from the page with presence. And of course, she was the mother of the Pullein-Thompson sisters, and delivered one of my favourite ever quotes where, upon the birth of Diana and Christine, she was asked “Are your twins normal?” Her delicious reply was, “Good God, I hope not.” What is there not to love about this person?

A Pony For Jean is one of those awful books that will give you the impression that the world is like this, that this is what it does, and if circumstance conspire and your rich cousins are just rich enough, you too will end up with a pony of your very own. It’s the stuff to scar you for life. It’s perfect.

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A quickening of the heart : life as a book collector

I had a bit of a lovely moment the other day. I found a clump of the books that I collect, and I bought them all because it was one of those rare occasions where I could actually afford all of them. And now, several days later, I’m still riding that wave of delight that only comes when you find the thing you love and are, due to circumstance and the twists that life gives you, able to make that thing your own.

Book collecting is a curious thing. I have been doing it for long enough now that I’m able to walk into a bookshop and scan the shelves within minutes. The books that I collect are distinct enough in cover and spine to make themselves known to me, and if they’re not there, then it’s a different sort of visit. One where I wallow in familiar names and new ones, and maybe take something different home. But if they are there, then, it’s something quite perfect. The heart quickens, and you tell yourself to stay calm because, inevitably, you won’t be able to afford the one you’d like.

But sometimes the stars come together, and you’re able to take one or more home. And that moment of connection is such a potent and precise kind of energy that I suspect, were it able to be harnessed, would power a thousand cars for a thousand days. The thing is, you do not collect stories without having a story of your own. Each book that you collect, each title that you invest yourself in, each author that you find a little bit more about yourself, becomes part of your own story.  And so, when you find these titles in the shop or a new book by that author that you’ve been collecting, there is a little part of yourself located in the finding. You find yourself, and all of the other selfs that you’ve ever been.

There’s a parallel here for any sort of collection; that sense of knowing the story of each thing and how and when it came into your life, but it always feels a little bit more powerful for me because I collect books and books are powerful things. Books endure, and have done so in a fairly recognisable form for centuries. I suspect, for example, if you were to place a 1990s brick phone against an Apple Watch and presented both to an individual from the 1600s you would have substantial difficulty in persuading them that they were the same thing. But a book, with its recognisable form and shape and intent, has that coherence pretty much whenever, wherever and however you find it.

I keep returning to that notion of the finding, for I am as fond of that as I am of the having. The finding is the chase, you see, and it is a rather beautiful thing. Being a book collector means that you have that peculiar need to just check a bookshop that you’re passing, or to pause when you are on holiday somewhere to pop in a bookshop that you’ve never been to before. You learn to accept that books may make themselves known in the most inopportune of moments; when you are walking back to the train station after a conference, or indeed backpacking across a country on the other side of the world. This is what it is, this integration of the find into your life.

That’s what book collecting does; it slides away from that semantic precision of ‘collecting’, redolent as it is to me of Boy’s Own trips to the Amazon and butterflies pinned in tragic horror to cases, and instead becomes something rather more embedded. Something closer. Something lived, lived and learnt.  Something felt. Something felt deep down inside of you, where feelings lose their precision and instead become raw and un-edged and indescribable things. That’s where book collecting lives, there.

 

The Three Jays Against The Clock : Pat Smythe

The Three Jays Against the ClockThe Three Jays Against the Clock by Pat Smythe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been aching for a reread of Pat Smythe’s pony books for quite some time, and so, dear reader, when I found a copy of The Three Jays Against The Clock in the bookshoop I clutched it to my chest and practically skipped all the way home. It’s difficult, sometimes, to understand the place that a series can hold in your hearts but for me, these Pat Smythe books were everything. They were full of that intense detail that only the small and ponyish child can wallow in and they were never that easily available so they became something of the Chalet School of the pony world, to be read and devoured on those fleeting moments when they appeared back in the world.

Much of these fleeting appearances stem, I suspect, from the fact that they were not as brilliantly rendered as some of the pony books that were in the world at that time. And there were a lot of pony stories making their presence felt, from the Pullein-Thompsons through to Ruby Ferguson. Pat Smythe is no P-T sister, and I’ll take that critique and live with it, quite happily because I don’t think that’s the space that she ever should be considered in. Smythe has this habit of being most practical with her work; a conundrum is introduced, a cliff-hanger posed, but then we are all sorted and back with the ponies and jumping clear rounds. And I love that, God, I love it so much. You can’t remotely consider these as high literature but you can absolutely worship at their altar of readability.

So this is the second in the series, and it’s resolutely Blytonian in its furious efficiency and blunt style. The Jays decide to go on a pony trip, calling in every now and then to let Pat know that they’re alright. They inevitably run into problems on the way, and a lot of Useful Pony Knowledge is imparted with not the least hint of subtlety. We learn how to make string from a ball of hemp (seriously, even typing that sentence sounds like witchcraft) amongst a thousand other pieces of information ranging from how to walk a course to why you should never judge a book unless you’ve read it. It’s delightful. It’s resolutely of its time at certain points, but then you read these sorts of books with an awareness of the differing – and by no means appropriate – cultural standards of those times.

One final thing to note is that this book contains one of my absolute favourite sentences at all time:
“Nuts,” said the simple child simply. . And if ever a sentence captured style, and the thrust, and the sheer lovable frankness of these books, then I think that this may be that sentence.

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Little Liar : Julia Gray

Little LiarLittle Liar by Julia Gray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Julia Gray is quietly producing some of the most complex and challenging books out there, and Little Liar is a spectacular addition to her canon. I’m fascinated, really, by books that do not do what you expect of them nor what you think they should, and this is one of those books that quietly and determinedly does what it has to do in its own way and pulls you in with every step it takes. I have time for books that do that, and I have such time for books that do it well.

Nora, the narrator, is a liar. She has told lies before, about many things, but one lie in particular starts to change everything. Like a pebble dropped in water, there are ripples and aftershocks that reach farther than Nora can imagine. Her new friendship with the rich, unpredictable and talented Bel is impacted; her world changes. And choices, inevitably, have to be made.

I devoured this. I’m not sure the ending quite delivered on what I wanted it to be, but then I’m not sure something like this can ever do what you want it to do because of the nature of the beast. I’m also not sure the title is the best one, and I have concerns about it being overshadowed by more visible titles. I say these sorts of things because the story here is so very good that I do not want that to happen. It’s precise, pained, and beautifully crafted, and every now and then Gray has the skill to throw in a minute that makes you genuinely gasp. And I did, and can I tell you how rare that is? To physically pause and gape at a book and have that moment of full body reaction?

Little Liar is a complex book full of complex characters and it’s often unattractive, dark and challenging. There’s a level of bravery in that because nobody can easily, nor coherently, be rooted for and nobody gives you those (so often impossible or ripe with cliche) moments of fictional happiness. But then, do you have to root for somebody in a book? You can root, perhaps, for the way that a book makes you feel; the way it may bring you to the edge of your senses and block out the world beyond it; the way that you can’t describe it in one sentence; or, perhaps, the way that you are genuinely part of this world and at a loss for what will happen next but knowing, knowing that you can’t stop reading?

I can root for that.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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What Lexie Did : Emma Shevah

What Lexie DidWhat Lexie Did by Emma Shevah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked this. Shevah is one of those authors whom I’ve been aware of for a while but never got quite round to reading; suffice to say, she’s a joy and this is a solid and richly told story of family fit to put alongside the work of Hilary McKay, Jacqueline Wilson and Susie Day.

‘What Lexie Did’ follows a lie that spirals out of control in that way that lies can and so often do. Lexie is best friends with her cousin, Eleni, who has a heart condition, and has looked after her all of her life. Their friendship is one of delicious intimacy and all consuming-closeness, again in that way that early girl friendships so often are, but all that is tested after Lexie tells her lie. It ends up pulling the family apart, exposing tensions between her parents and Eleni’s parents, Eleni and Lexie, Lexie and everyone, and everything goes horribly wrong. She knows she has to tell the truth – but where? When? How?

Shevah’s got this lovely richness about her work, and I was very pleased to see that she’d spent some time ensuring the honesty of writing about a Greek Cypriot family. It pays off; this is a book that’s thick with identity and loveliness. Shevah also deserves plaudits for her handling of the adults; they’re realistic and sympathetically drawn. I liked this a lot. It’s a genuine, heartfelt and rich book – and any book that has a cinnamon cake recipe at the back of it is a good book by me.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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The School by The Sea : Angela Brazil

The School by the SeaThe School by the Sea by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is great. It bounces along in that determinedly vivacious sort of way that Angela Brazil does (“Girls! Girls Everywhere!”) and then completely forgets about plot and has a natural history interlude that goes on for about three hundred pages, before plot reasserts its ugly head and everything gets resolved and sorted out in about five pages. It’s a joy, really, this ridiculous and beautiful and furiously of its time book, and I devoured it.

Deirdre and Dulcie are bosom friends, in that bosomy sort of way that Brazil did so well; one is slender and one is stout, one is picturesque and one is a redhead who is “somewhat obtuse” and a new girl has been put into their bedroom for the new term. Crisis! Inevitable tensions! Moreso when the new girl has lived in Germany and can speak fluent German!

Published in 1914, this book is very much of a particular time and bent. Angela Brazil had such a lengthy and prolific career that she wrote across two world wars (how awful that is, to have experienced that sort of thing twice…) and her work changes quite dramatically in my opinion. The first world war is greeted with a sense of wild patriotism, where the girls hunt out spies and knit socks and all that sort of thing, but the second? That’s a quite different story; the girls are secluded from the world in countryside mansions and asked to believe in themselves. The books look inward, I guess, as opposed to outwards. The visible acts of patriotism in WW1 shift to some sort of internal stiffening of ones resolve. And so, The School By The Sea does engage in some distinctly complex social dialogue. More complex than I think the book quite realises; Gerda is frankly bullied by some of her compatriots before the truth is revealed and the truth itself ties into some typical themes and tropes of Brazil that I won’t spoil here. Suffice to say, there’s a subtle challenge presented towards a blanket anti-German sentiment and that’s interesting to me because I’ve not seen it elsewhere in her work. That nuance of understanding identity.

And, on another note, the opening to this is iconic. Forgive me for copying the first few lines below, but it’s really rather something and speaks of Brazil’s new blueprint for the genre:

“Girls! Girls everywhere! Girls in the passages, girls in the hall, racing upstairs and scurrying downstairs, diving into dormitories and running into classrooms, overflowing on to the landing and hustling along the corridor — everywhere, girls! There were tall and short, and fat and thin, and all degrees from pretty to plain; girls with fair hair and girls with dark hair, blue-eyed, brown-eyed, and grey-eyed girls; demure girls, romping girls, clever girls, stupid girls — but never a silent girl. No! Buzz-hum-buzz!”

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The Children At Green Meadows : Enid Blyton

The Children At Green MeadowsThe Children At Green Meadows by Enid Blyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes Enid Blyton could be rather brilliant. I picked this up in a second hand bookshop the other day as a treat to myself. I had a vague memory of the title and, what’s more, I had the odd ache for something simple and rich; a Blyton of the most Blytonian sort, where the bad guys get what’s coming to them and the morals are bluntly rendered and the world is forever sunlit. The Children At Green Meadows delivered all that and more. It is a delight, and it kind of put me back together a little bit.

The family at Green Meadows is having difficulties. Granny refuses to sell their ancestral home, and Father is invalided, which means that Mother is having to keep everything going. Things change though when a new block of flats opens nearby and the inhabitants realise that they can’t keep pets there. These pets, inevitably, find their way to Green Meadows and everything spirals from that point. It’s a book of wish fulfillment and sudden, sharp emotion (particularly in the subplot of Father who has been invalided after an act of mysterious Great Bravery).

Sometimes Blyton could be rather brilliant, and she is very much that here. The story bowls on in a gloriously rich and blithe sort of manner; everything and everyone is lovely, and even though horrible things may happen, lovely things subsequently happen, and she gets that desperate urge for a dog, so much that you may even come to imagine that faithful companion. There’s some blunt moralising, as there is with much of Blyton’s work, but here it’s a justified bluntness and I rather appreciated the point that she makes. This is lovely, and it’s a perfect introduction to Blyton and, indeed, reading itself. I often talk about how Blyton is furiously readable and this is the perfect example of it. There’s not one inch of The Children At Green Meadows that feels flabby.

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