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Book Review: Odds on Death by Graeme Roe

Odds on DeathWhen I saw this in the specials bin it ticked the boxes: murder and horse racing in a UK National Hunt setting. Thrillers, however, are not renowned for character development – not that that impacted on the sales of The Da Vinci Code, however I found because of it I enjoyed this book as little as I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code.

By the end of the book I knew as little of the character and thoughts of protagonist Jay Jessop as I did at the beginning. Nor did I know what he and his wife looked like – I guess that is a nice challenge for my imagination.  In fact the only person in the book who seemed less one-dimensional than the others was jockey Amanda who rates a physical description in the novel. I suspect that because I’m female I’m more interested in learning more about the characters than male readers. I’m guessing guys will think this novel is great just the way it is.

The story starts off fast with two murders, includes a kidnapping, and a threat to Jay’s amazingly rapid rise up the horse training ladder. It stays fast. Like the Cheltenham Gold Cup it goes at a cracking pace. In parts that pace is too fast. Within paragraphs the action jumps from one location to another, which isn’t ideal. I’d prefer such a break in location to be marked with a new paragraph.

This book is the second in a series of four (to date) Jay Jessop Racing Mysteries by Graeme Roe. I do hope the first one, A Touch of Vengeance, gave more of a back story to the main characters than this one did; there’s a sentence here and there about their pasts, but Dick Francis gave his characters a lot more depth and creditable back stories. I suspect Roe is far more interested in the plot than the people in it.

So I’ve been rather damning about this book, but, you know what? I’m going to hunt out the first in the series. Not just to satisfy my mind about any character development and back story, but there is one standout about Odds On Death which gives it a real authenticity: horse racing. Graeme Roe is a former National Hunt jockey and horse trainer and it shows in the way he writes about life in a National Hunt yard and on the racecourse. He knows horses, he knows the industry, he’s ridden the courses his fictional jockeys and horses race on.

These days he runs a corporate communications company, and I suspect that has an impact on the way he writes. There’s the ‘Who, What, When, Where, How’ those of us in the industry learned was the basis of every media release, and that’s been used to good effect in this book. Plenty of information clearly and cleanly provided. The lack of character development and description lets this book down though; I read 371 pages about men and women who could, often, have been interchangeable and were, finally, just words on a page.

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Hellooooo, muse!

A few days ago I heard of an equestrian short story competition which closes in a couple of months’ time. Regular readers of this blog – hah! All two of you! – will realise I haven’t written either a short story or blog post here for ages. I’ve had a painful start to the year, losing my Mum over Christmas, and my muse simply threw up her hands dramatically and flounced off. For the last five months I couldn’t so much as write ‘bum’ on a wall. 

However … the short story competition has piqued my interest. Back in the 1980s I used to write horsy stories and had them regularly published in The Horse Magazine under various noms de plume (I didn’t want to seem too greedy, having half a dozen stories published per year under my own name). It’s been a while since I’ve been in the saddle, holding the reins and riding a horsy plot. So I got thinking. And plotting.

I’ve had for a while ideas for a story – or novel – set in a fictional town in NSW in the 1950s. I have misplaced the notebook I wrote them in, so I can truthfully say I’ve lost the plot! The competition meant a bit of a rethink around some of the elements I’d scribbled down for my novel. And oh bliss, the muse came back (a little frustrated with me, and nagging me to pull my finger out and keep it out), and I had a plot. I also had 6,000 words to play with, which gave me plenty of scope for character development and action. So I wrote. And wrote. I have a first draft for the competition. It’s 5,997 words. I had to edit it down to get under 6,000 as the muse was shouting loudly at me and distracting me.

Obviously I can’t publish it here as it may (oh, I hope!) get selected on a shortlist for the competition. If it doesn’t, you’ll see it here. If it wins, you can buy it on Amazon, with proceeds going to charity.

Back to editing now…

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Book Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

the scorpio racesIf I told you that the most exciting novel I’ve read this year is about man-eating water horses, and is actually written for the young adult market, what would you think?

I loved The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater so much I have read it twice in the space of a month. The first time I raced through it, devouring it, unable to put it down; the second time was a more leisurely read, appreciating the language, the characters, the nuances. I was swept into Stiefvater’s very convincing world of the island of Thisby, somewhere, it seems, off the Atlantic coast of Ireland.

For me the mark of a compelling novel is one that leaves you breathless at the end, believing wholeheartedly in the plot, the characters, the location; while I am reading it, I live in that world. Sometimes it takes me a few days to pick up another novel if one has made such a huge impact on me. The Scorpio Races is one of those books. It doesn’t matter that it was written for the teen market and I was out of my teens more years ago than I like to think about. A good novel is a good novel.

Here’s the official blurb on the novel from Maggie Stiefvater’s website:

“It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.

Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.”

Both Sean and Puck  – well-developed, finely-drawn characters – tell the story in the first person, in alternating chapters. This works superbly as I don’t think the book would be as engaging if it was in the third person or simply with one narrator and one point of view.

Thisby as a place is believable. Windswept, stormy, isolated, and the chosen land for the capaille uisce, the water horses, to emerge from the surf in October. Leading up to the Races there is a festival which Stiefvater makes more realistic with the invention of November Cakes, the island’s sweet delicacy. They don’t exist in the culinary world, but Stiefvater kindly provides the recipe for her creation at the end of the book. I sense some inbreeding in some of the characters, and Puck makes an observation that the eyes of the tourists are much closer together than those of the island people. It all adds to the reality of the world Stiefvater has created.

The capaille uisce themselves are drawn from legend and mythology. Stiefvater’s animals look like normal horses, but prefer a bucket of blood to a bucket of grain.  (It’s a lovely touch when Stiefvater talks about the pong of the water horses’ manure. Imagine a dog turd the size of a horse dropping-!) They are responsible for death and violence; they kill men for food, they are apt to view normal horses as a meal rather than a mate. There is savagery in their portrayal, but Thisby is such a place that Puck and Sean speak of the water horses’ behaviour in a matter-of-fact way. These people are island born and bred; they have grown up with death. Having said that, the horses, in their way, are nicer than some of the humans in this book.

This is a book with timelessness – the action could have taken place any time in the last forty or so years. There are no mobile phones, no computers. Few people on the island drive cars. The mainland, which calls a siren song to young adults looking for work or something more exciting, is only accessible by a ferry journey of several hours.

Had this book existed when I was a teenager, I suspect it would have become my favourite – well-thumbed, read over and over again. Pony book lover that I was, this is unlike any pony book I ever read. I’m not sure that it quite makes it into the pony book category, but blurs the categories between horses and fantasy.

My verdict? Bugger the vampire books – read this instead.

(I read this book on Kindle from Amazon).

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Book Review: Heroines on Horseback by Jane Badger

Heroines on HorsebackI fell in love with horses when I was eight, and this led me into a world of adventure, of gymkhanas, show jumping, champion horses and rogues, nasty rivals, girls who were given ponies, girls who lost ponies,  and most of all dozens of beautiful ponies and horses. Yes, I had  discovered pony books – in particular,  pony books from the post-WWII era.  I loved them. I still do, I’m not ashamed to say, and have retained most of my childhood collection and even *blush* added to it from time to time when a title by a favourite author has become available. I’m a big, horse-loving kid at heart.

So I was delighted to get my hands on the new release Heroines on Horseback – The Pony Book in Children’s Fiction, by Jane Badger. It’s a MUST for anyone who read pony books as a child.

Jane Badger lives in the UK, and is the world’s leading expert on this genre of fiction. She blogs about pony books, she reviews them, she sells them – find out more here.  If all you remember about pony books is the Pullein-Thompson sisters or Monica Edwards you may be stunned to know there are more than 700 authors referenced on Jane’s site, and thousands of books from the superb to the indifferent.

Heroines on Horseback looks at the evolution of horsy fiction for children from the days of Black Beauty (tissues, anyone? Just the mere thought brings a tear) through to modern series such as The Saddle Club with its soap-opera cliffhangers and standalone books such as the excellent and dark The Scorpio Races (I’ll be reviewing that soon too!), and touches on the horrible reality that these days pony books have pink sparkly covers that may belie the fact that what’s inside is worth reading. At the book’s heart is the period from the 1940s to the 1970s when the British pony book was at its height, selling a middle-class rural idyll fantasy to its pony-mad readers.

Jane is an objective and analytical writer. She reviews both authors and illustrators in this book. I’ll touch on illustrators first as illustrations can add to or detract from a pony book. Grab a copy of a pony book produced up until the 1960s and you’ll probably find it studded with illustrations. As a test, see if the horses in those illustrations match the horses described in the book itself!  Jane tells which ones don’t… you do wonder if the illustrators bothered to read the book they were illustrating very closely.

Older pony books were blessed with artists such as Lionel Edwards contributing beautiful artwork. Anne Bullen’s delicate ponies with their elegant dished faces graced several of the books on my shelves and I used to try and copy her style in my own teen drawings. Mary Gernat’s flowing lines were more timeless; you can look at them today and not date them to the 1950s and 1960s. What a joy to see so many illustrations from pony books reproduced throughout Heroines on Horseback!

Now Jane doesn’t review all 700 authors in this book!  She does, however, review the work, the style and the plots of some of the more popular including:

  • Josephine, Christine and Diana Pullein-Thompson, the prolific trio of sisters whose styles were quite individual in terms of language, characters and story style itself. Josephine more or less taught me how to ride by proxy before I even sat on a horse at age 11! I had read so many of her books I clambered aboard muttering “heels down, toes up, hold the reins in a bridge etc etc”. She was the most educational of the three, particularly with her Noel and Henry series in which the characters train their own horses.
  • Monica Edwards, with her well-drawn families and their horses in the Punchbowl Farm and Romney Marsh series. I confess to not having read much Monica Edwards; I suspect the school library didn’t have any when I was young, or I hadn’t found them if so.
  • Ruby Ferguson’s Jill books, written in the first person with a wicked flash of humour. You can’t help but like Jill with her all-absorbing love for her pony Black Boy, her best friend Susan and her nemesis cousin Cecilia.  Jill ages through the series and when she is finally offered a job with horses settles for the secretarial college and horses as a hobby, much to the disgust and disappointment of Jill’s readers.
  • Mary Gervaise and her G for Georgia series. I loved this series as a child as Georgia is not your typical horsey heroine. She’s frightened of horses and through the series gains confidence in herself as a person as well as a rider. Horses aren’t all-encompassing in this series; there’s not a gymkhana in every book and the stories are as much about Georgia’s relationships with her friends and family as with her pony Spot.
  • Judith Berrisford’s Jackie series, another I haven’t read for forty years and according to Jane I’m not missing a great deal if I don’t re-read them. Re-use of plots if not actual pages of text with the Berrisford books is not unusual! Jane Badger describes them as comfort reading. All I can remember is Jackie and her pal Babs getting into all kinds of strife.
  • Gillian Baxter, one of my personal favourites, who wrote her first first novel Horses and Heather when she was fifteen. My favourite Baxter books, the Bracken House trilogy, are about Roberta (Bobby) Morton and her chestnut mare, Shelta. There’s a hint of romance in a couple of her books as they are aimed at a slightly older teen audience (12-16 year olds). Romance in pony books was often frowned upon by the publishers (they took a dim view of Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s Pony Club Camp when it was clear Noel and Henry fancied each other. Noel is female, by the way).
  • K M Peyton, whose Flambards books I adored and still do, even though they are not strictly ‘pony books’. Fly-By-Night and Sweet Rock however, are, but in typical Peyton style it’s not all warm and fuzzy happy families.  Her 1999 book Blind Beauty skims on the edge of pony bookness, being set in the racing world, but it’s a delight. And a tearjerker. You have been warned.
  • Patricia Leitch – including her Jinny series, written in the 1970s and providing readers at the time with a modern pony book and a modern family to which to relate. Heroine Jinny gradually tames and trains the ill-treated and wild mare Shantih throughout the series; I loved the interaction between Jinny and her friends and family, her mistakes, her hot-headedness and goodheartedness as much as her struggle to understand Shantih and her need for the mare to love her back.
  • Monica Dickens and her Follyfoot series. I have left my absolute favourite until last! These are not typical pony books; the first in the series, Cobbler’s Dream, was written for an adult audience in 1963 to highlight the cruelty horses suffer at the hands of man; and to raise awareness of the life – or otherwise – a working horse can expect after retirement. Cobbler’s Dream was the basis for the popular Yorkshire TV series Follyfoot, on which subsequent books in the series were based. The Follyfoot books aren’t as violent as Cobbler’s Dream; they are written for children and young adults but not dumbed down; they still feature horses who have been mistreated, and never does Dickens preach or talk down to her audience. Her characters are believable, her humour wry, her understanding of horses beautifully captured in these books.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Dozens of authors are discussed including a few who aren’t British, among them Mary O’Hara, Marguerite Henry and Elyne Mitchell.

So what happened to the golden reign (or indeed rein) of the pony book? Through the 1970s and certainly by the 1980s pony books were regarded as elitist. How many families could afford to buy their child a pony and cover the ongoing expenses? Pony books from the post WWII era were typically about middle class families who lived in the country or moved to the country, and often the didn’t have very much money (this is all relative… not having much money often meant for some fictional families they only had one housemaid, or a daily cleaner). Times had changed. Girls still loved horses but the world of the 1950s and 1960s books was one a million miles away and no longer relevant. (And pony books were usually read by girls; there were occasional boys as lead characters but pony books traditionally had girls as their stars.)

The pony book has evolved from its golden heyday (hay day… can’t resist another pun!).  There are still some good books being written, but pony or horse books now have to compete with vampires, fantasy and being saddled (oops! Sorry.) with pink sparkly covers.

If you remember the pony books of your childhood, buy this book. It’s a must. It’s the definitive reference guide and will make you look on some of the books you read as a child and vaguely remember with more knowing adult eyes.  It may make you want to start collecting pony books all over again, chasing down that elusive out-of-print book to make up the final book in a series.

Jane will ship this book anywhere in the world – I’m in Australia and mine arrived within five days, and was read cover to cover in one more!

Finally, if you are after reprints of vintage books, Heroines on Horseback is beautifully published by Girls Gone By Publishers, who are reproducing some classic girls’ fiction from the golden age including Monica Edwards’ books.

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Cobbler’s Dream by Monica Dickens – book review

Anyone who starts reading Cobbler’s Dream expecting to find themselves in the world of tv’s Follyfoot (the 1970s YTV show was inspired by the book) is going to face a harsh reality. Yes, it’s about a rest home for horses and the dysfunctional group of people who work there, but this book wasn’t written for children, unlike Dickens’ later works based on the tv show (Follyfoot, Dora at Follyfoot, The Horses at Follyfoot, Stranger at Follyfoot). Familiar names are there though: Dora (a much chunkier, horsier girl than the tv version), The Captain (the Colonel for television), Slugger and Ron Stryker.

Dickens had strong humanitarian involvements and at the time of writing her 1963 book Cobbler’s Dream she was an active supporter of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Cobbler’s Dream explores cruelty and sadism; images in the book are intended to shock the reader and raise awareness of the plight of mistreated animals.

For example in the first chapter a man and girl visiting the Farm meet “a farmer’s horse stolen out of a field, ridden all night by a gang of boys with a piece of wire in his mouth for a bridle, and left torn and bleeding in a gravel pit with half his tongue gone.”  The girl looks sick when she learns this. The man is merely keen to move on and get to the pub for dinner. Dickens is pointing out the way society conveniently ignores that which is unpleasant to it.

The title of the book refers to a champion show jumping pony, Cobbler’s Dream, who is rescued in Chapter 2 by his groom Paul. The pony’s twelve-year-old owner has beaten the horse severely, enough to cause blindness in one eye. The family who own the horse intend to sell him to the knackers; Paul steals him and finds his way to the Farm. (In Cobbler’s Dream, the home of rest for horses is simply ‘the Farm’; the name Follyfoot was coined for the tv show and subsequent books.)

If there is cruelty, there is also sentimentality. This book uses plenty of hooks to engage the reader’s emotions, not least a scene where Paul finds a horse locked in a narrow shed, standing on a solid pile of manure with its head sticking out the roof: “‘Oh God.’ His heart was flooded with a surge of rage and pity so intense that he clenched his fists and stood there for a moment trembling, his eyes closed against tears. When he opened them, the hollow, suffering eye looked into his, and he knew that the horse was his child, his treasure, his dearest care.”

This can be an uncomfortable novel to read for animal lovers; man’s inhumanity to animals is described in more detail than in the successive books in the Follyfoot series. Despite one of the main characters being twelve years old (Callie), Cobbler’s Dream could give a twelve year old reader nightmares. As adolescent and young adult fiction, however, it ticks idealistic boxes and is a powerful reminder that we as a species are responsible for the welfare of others. Almost fifty years after initial publication, it provides a view of Britain that has long gone: pit ponies, circus horses, horses who work for a living pulling carts and vans. For the mobile phone generation, or readers graduating from The Saddle Club, this could prove to be a hard novel to get into, but it’s worth persevering. The characters are well-drawn and where there is darkness there is also light just a little further on.

Cobbler’s Dream is an episodic novel; there is no galloping towards a big climax, instead there are a series of peaks and troughs, of struggles and successes, of horses lost and horses saved, the final episode involving the title horse himself.

The Farm is also the saviour of unwanted people who, like the horses, end up calling it home: Paul, Callie and her mother Anna. All Dickens’ characters develop over the course of the book as we learn more of their back stories; there is no long description when we first meet them, their stories are woven effortlessly into the narrative. They have no compunction about breaking the law to save an animal, either. Both Paul and Callie steal horses to give them a better life at the Farm. The human story lines work around the animal ones and resolve by the end of the book.

Uncomfortable it can sometimes be, but Cobbler’s Dream is compelling reading. Dickens writes beautifully; at times economical, at times with that wry touch that makes you smile and admire her craft as a storyteller.  Her love of animals and her knowledge of horses makes this an authentic book with a lot more depth than her Follyfoot series which followed.

Cobbler’s Dream is currently out of print but you may find it online on eBay or second-hand booksellers – or even your local church fete or jumble sale. Other titles in the Follyfoot series are being progressively reprinted; it remains to be seen if Cobbler’s Dream is considered too ‘adult’ to be reprinted as a children’s book.

For more information on the Follyfoot books and TV series visit The Follyfoot Forum or fan tribute site.  This book review first appeared on The Follyfoot Forum in January 2012.

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Felix Francis and the Dick Francis brand

Buying Dick Francis booksI remember buying my first Dick Francis paperback. I was in Swane’s bookshop in downtown Sydney, an Aladdin’s Cave long since gone. I was twelve years old, in school uniform and feeling guilty and embarrassed about looking for books in the mainstream, grownup section of the shop.

I was a horsy girl, and until then had been satisfied with the efforts of the Pullein-Thompson sisters, Mary Gervaise, Patricia Leitch and other books aimed at horsy teens. I was also a kid who read well beyond her age, and was a keen follower of the racing world, aided and abetted by my grandfather who’d put on bets for me at the Saturday races.

Pulling down Dead Cert (because the name sounded as if it were in the horse-racing genre), my eyes lit up. I all but salivated. This was just what I had been looking for!

I bought the book and promptly hid it. I read it only in private, worried that my mother would see me reading something aimed strictly at adults. I devoured it despite it not being the strongest murder mystery plot in the universe. It had been written by an ex-jockey (and I, being me, had a crush on one or two apprentice jockeys at the time, pretty boys they were too before age and wasting diets ravaged them) and I was delighted to think that a jockey could be so literate as to write a thriller novel like this one.

Dead Cert was Dick Francis’ first book, published in 1962, a few years after he had retired as a jockey. A week or two later, pocket money topped up and coins foraged from behind the sofa cushions, I headed back to Swane’s for more and bought Enquiry. The artwork on the cover was risqué so I had to cover it with clear plastic and put a sticker over the topless woman!

By the time I bought his most recent, High Stakes, a month later I’d told Mum what I was reading and she too got stuck into Dead Cert. From then on I happily and publicly collected all the Dick Francis books and to this day have the entire collection, in hardback and paperback. (See this resource here by a fellow Francis fan for a full list of novels and a synopsis of each.)

I was even lucky enough to meet Dick Francis years later at a book signing and have a brief conversation about writing while he scrawled on the flyleaf of his latest hardback for me. In the interim years Dick Francis had been a big influence on my own writing style – I spent my teen years writing truly awful horse racing novels that thankfully never saw the light of day. Not that the awfulness was Dick’s influence, that was entirely my own work.

Graham Lord in his unauthorised biography of Dick Francis (Dick Francis A Racing Life) asserts that the books were actually written by Dick’s wife, Mary, who was always recognised by Dick as doing much of the research on the books and ‘contributing to the writing process’. Dick left school at 15; Mary had degrees in French and English and worked for a publisher in her younger days. While this rumour was denied heartily by Dick’s publishers when the bio was released (and it’s since been confirmed by Dick’s son Felix that his parents co-authored the books), I suggest you make up your own mind. In fact, get yourself a copy of Lord’s book as it makes fascinating reading and his dissection of some of the prose and phrases familiar to Francis fans (i.e., “He sketched a farewell”) is priceless. You’ll find the book on eBay, Amazon, etc as it’s out of print.

Whether the author was Dick himself, Mary herself, or Mary putting into prose Dick’s plots and characters, the books have a consistent style and turn of phrase until Mary’s death and the first book released five years after that, Under Orders. For me, the character development is stronger too in the earlier books – that could be coloured by my teenage delight at reading grown-up thrillers!

Under Orders was eagerly snapped up by fans who thought that Dick, devastated at the loss of his beloved wife, had stopped writing for good. It features characters familiar to Dick Francis fans – private investigator Sid Halley and his family, who had featured in previous Francis novels. However, supporting character Rear Admiral Charles Rowland behaves very much out of character, dropping the f-bomb in front of a woman; in the first Halley book (Odds Against, 1965) the very proper Admiral would not even say ‘damn’. The writing style itself is slightly different to earlier Francis books too. It’s subtle, but if you know your Francis well you are aware of it. Dick’s younger son Felix Francis is thanked for his contribution on the dedication page, and for this longtime Francis fan it’s clear he had a strong hand in writing the book.

Since then Dick and Felix, a former school teacher and Dick’s manager, have co-authored four books: Dead Heat, Silks, Even Money and Crossfire. By the time Crossfire was published the writing style of the duo was more akin to classic Dick Francis books but the books for me weren’t in the league of the Francis classics from the early days. Dead Heat is the one I most enjoyed from these four, with a chef as the lead character, followed by Even Money (the first time I’d empathised with a bookmaker!).  They are still enjoyable, but my test of a book is how soon I re-read it, and I haven’t re-read any of these four yet. The voice is slightly different, too. As with Under Orders, it’s subtle, but it’s there; some sentences appear beleaguered if not stilted.

Dick Francis died at the age of 89 two years ago today at the time of writing this post, leaving a legacy of fast-paced novels, villains with improbable names and plots both strong and on the weak side; well-researched thrillers that were set not only deeply in the racing world but on the fringes, with horses in the foreground or sometimes well hidden in the background.

What would happen now? Was Crossfire the last Dick Francis ever?

No. Felix has stepped up to the plate, releasing his first solo “Dick Francis novel” last year, Gamble.

Gamble doesn’t enjoy the tightest plot in the world, and the character development is a little on the thin side, conversation between the characters stilted on occasion. I’d figured out the hero’s girlfriend was ill long before he did. When Our Hero Nicholas misses a vital clue near the end of the book I felt an urge to shout out a pantomime-ish “He’s behind you!”. Or words to that effect. I was disappointed, overall.

Reading Felix’s first solo effort, I’m made aware that any “Dick Francis” book of the past certainly included the man himself in plot development to say the least, if not character development. Dick as a jockey with little education may have heavily relied on his wife or son to turn his ideas and rough drafts into readable reality; every Dick Francis novel a true collaboration. There’s something a little lacking in Gamble, but I’m curious to see if the next Felix Francis is an improvement. One would expect Felix to put his own stamp and voice on the brand; hopefully the confidence gained from acceptance of his first solo effort will see the next novel rollicking along like the 3.30 at Newmarket.

According to the official website the next novel features a tv racing presenter as the lead character and will be published later this year.  Expect a review of it here.


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Captivating. Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears

Foal's BreadI’m a fanatical reader. A fast reader. A reader who gobbles books, burps and looks for more. I am an insult to authors because they spend months if not years writing a book and I whizz through it with unseemly haste.

Last Christmas, however, I received a book I salivated over, took my time with, savoured. I made the glorious pleasure of reading it last for a week. Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears totally captivated me.

Mears is an Australian author; she hasn’t been hugely prolific but what she has published is magical and Foal’s Bread is probably her best to date. Heartbreakingly Mears suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, and writing this novel, her first in sixteen years, has taken her a long and laborious time.

Foal’s Bread, as the name suggest, is about horses. Specifically, it’s set in the years before, during and after World War II in northern NSW, on the high-jumping show circuit. High-jumping was banned in the 1950s but before then it wasn’t uncommon for riders to set their horses at obstacles seven feet high or even more. It was a spectacle, and part of carnival folklore now consigned to history along with the freak tent.

The heroine is equestrienne Noah Childs, who marries fellow high-jumper Roley Nancarrow. Noah is looked down on by Roley’s family but she’s tough mentally and physically. She has to be… for Roley gradually loses the use of his legs, and the dynamics of family and love change as a result, as do the dreams Noah and Roley have chased for years.

Mears has done her research extraordinarily well. She has caught the authentic language of the era, the slang, the drawl, the cadence, the very fabric of people living in the bush and in country towns in the mid twentieth century. You can smell the dust and grass, the sweat on the horses’ necks , the stench of beer at the bar at the local pub, the parched earth soaking in a thunderstorm. Her writing soars like a horse heading for an eight-foot jump – it has the freedom that she physically doesn’t.

This isn’t a sweet love story; it’s a harsh love story, a tough love story, with occasionally cruel images. It’s enthralling. Read it. You’ll have an exhilarating ride.

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The First Unicorn

When journalist Nicola Jenkins heads up to her uncle’s farm, she finds the scoop of a lifetime galloping on top of a hill.

Author’s note: Back in the 80s and early 90s I had quite a nice little earner writing horse stories for a magazine. Given that the readers were often horse-crazy girls well under sixteen, the only thing that ever got mounted was a horse (unlike some of the stuff I’ve written since!). This story is one of the less saccharine ones, and doesn’t rattle on about dressage tests, one day events or show ring competitions. It was first published in The Horse Magazine in 1990, but I’ve reworked it slightly. And yeah, only the horses get mounted. Sorry! CS
Nicola saw the gate ahead of her and braked with a sigh of relief. It had been a long drive from Sydney and she was too tired to take much notice of the high brick house and intercom at the gate, which were way out of place this far out from town. The nameplate said “Tom Jenkins” and “Darius Stud Farm”, and that was all Nicola cared about. The glaring “Trespassers will be SHOT!” sign she totally ignored, since she wasn’t really a trespasser. Continue reading

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