Archive for May, 2011

It is a very sad fact, but the truth is, my massive geek-freak obsession with K. M. Peyton stems from the fact that she writes about horses/ponies/racing. Now, you must understand that this line of literature is very limited; oh yes, there are a billion trillion betting themed thrillers where men with guns chase trainers and jockeys, trying to sneak information/money from them. And then, on the opposite scale, there are thousands of stories about little Hannah and her fat pony Ginger who waddle around being annoying and well-behaved. So you must forgive my Peyton love, for she is one very rare author; she understands horses and normal people, and writes wonderful stories that flow so naturally without having that ‘try hard’ edge to them which so many authors struggle to shake off. When you read her, you are unaware of style, or even words. It all just floats off the page and grabs you. I’m sure that I could read any one of her books in a sitting without even noticing.

I’m probably a bit too old for some of her books now (most of her novels are aimed at 13/14 + teens), but I fancied some good old-fashioned nostalgia so went for a Peyton spree on Amazon. The first I’m going to review is one I have never read before, and, there’s no need to panic… there isn’t a hoof or tail in sight.

Quick Overview

The novel begins with a brief note from the author which explains how, although authors constantly write about times/places/situations they have never actually experienced, they often fail to cast their own experiences into words:

‘…it occurred to me what an awful waste of material not to write a book set in a very special period with which I am perfectly familiar. So, after all this time, for better or for worse, here it is.’

Hence, the novel is set in the Second World War and concerns Josie, a pretty sixteen year old who is evacuated out of London to live with her Aunt in the country. Of course, the country turns out to be anything but boring, Josie falling in love with kind and loving Jumbo, who cannot join the RAF as he dreams because of a motor cycling accident which has left him with just one leg.

It is all very obvious, from the outset of Jumbo and Josie, that brother Chris, working away as a RAF fighter pilot when they first meet, will be the nail in the coffin of their budding relationship. We know before he enters the scene how handsome he is, how all the girls ‘fall from the trees’ for him. And soon, of course, Chris comes home and Josie is enveloped in an impossible, heartbreaking romance, with a man whose life is no longer his own. Whose days are numbered by the terrifying play performed recklessly, daily, in the sky above.

Whilst this side of the story felt familiar and predictable, Peyton saves the tale from flat-lining with her ending, which is surprising; surprising in many respects because it leaves you cheered (you will have to read it to see what I mean. You, after all, might not be cheered at all. It’s that sort of clever, multi-dimensional ending.)

The title is a wonderful one, easily summarising the theme of love, happiness, and youthfulness; emotions amplified by the backdrop of war. A war which demands passionate relationships, because, after all, there is no time to wait around. No time to sit and wait for the ‘one’. Soul mates are frequently found, the desperation of living life on a thread encouraging belief.

The title also reminds me of a beautiful section where Chris, flying his plane out to battle in the early morning sun reflects on the laughable game of war. The blue sky, the sun rising; men killing one another whilst the world turns; always indifferent to their bizarre charade.

It is a beautiful and wonderful story that will make you hate the little brats on Facebook who moan about girlfriends/ boyfriends/ their lives etc. It made me want to send them all to war, and that’s never a nice thing to do, after all.

A Picture Portrait

Josie, Jumbo and Chris’s lake: the backdrop for Chris and Jumbo’s blissful childhood later, ironically, becomes the place they will both meet Josie, whose presence eventually tears the brothers apart. It also stands as a symbol for the perfect English idyll, something worth fighting for in the great war.

Spitfire and Hurricane: described often throughout the novel as dragonflies (a lovely piece of imagery which clashes beautiful with the mechanical nature of the machine), the fragility and relative new-ness of aeroplanes and flying made the battle of the skies all the more alien and terrifying.

My Favourite Review…

Is written by Val Randall for Books for Keeps, an online children’s book magazine. The whole review can be found here: http://booksforkeeps.co.uk/issue/162/childrens-books/reviews/blue-skies-and-gunfire.

‘As all three characters struggle with the strength of their feelings and the wounds of betrayal and loss, Peyton conveys with frantic clarity the hothouse of emotion generated by the immediacy of war. When both soldiers and civilians alike are on a taut wire stretched thinly between life and death, the rules of emotional engagement are, of necessity, distorted. The dichotomy within the title perfectly represents the tensions of this novel – a disturbing but richly evocative narrative which illustrates the human cost of war.’


If it wasn’t for the fact that I have already moved onto my next Peyton novel, I probably would have nothing to moan about. Sadly, though, I have, and my fault lies with the character of Josie. She just isn’t given quite enough time to develop fully, is slightly one-dimensional and puppet-like. For instance, as the novel opens she is shown as a tough young girl, standing up to her mother and arguing. Later, however, none of this feisty nature appears to exist, she is just a tool lost between the two brothers. It is only in comparison to Tessa, heroine of my current read, that this fault came to light….forgive me K.M, I’m still your biggest fan!



3.5/5 Stars


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Not Moving Even One Step

The rain falling too lightly to shape
an audible house, an audible tree,
blind, soaking, the old horse waits in his pasture.

He knows the field for exactly what it is:
his limitless mare, his beloved.
Even the mallards sleep in her red body maned
in thistles, hooved in the new green shallows of spring.

Slow rain streams from the fetlocks, hips, the lowered head,
while she stands in the place beside him that no one sees.

The muzzles almost touch.
How silently the heart pivots on its hinge.

Taken from Jane Hirshfield’s 1997 collection, The Lives of the Heart, ‘Not Moving Even One Step’ is one of my favourites, partly because it’s beautiful, and partly because it’s about a sad old horse. A lot of the poems in this collection are about nature, and the idea, absorbed from the natural world, that things are as they are, that there is not always a lot to be done to change events/our selves, loves, lives etc. The natural world, although we can observe it, and attempt to capture it with words, remains separate from us, unconcerned by our obsession. This creates a conflicting irony throughout Hirshfield’s poetry, one that the poet is completely aware of: as she absorbs nature and attempts to pin it down with words, her personal world framed by the natural world, the natural world remains apart, refusing to bend its will, it cannot, it is an impossibility. Yet despite the author’s awareness of this fact, she continues her struggle. This is demonstrated beautifully in ‘Leaf’:

Large as two hands together,

still cupping rain,

yellow of amber stripped lightless,

scent of cold leather.

Nameless, one of ten thousand,

lifted without complaint or hope

to this painted table,

neither envelope or letter.

Almost nothing. Yet before you,

words lie down in envy and silence,

switch their tales,

bury their damp, dark snouts between paws.

I love how the whole argument of this poem is eventually defied by the final metaphor. Mere words, unable to encapture the beauty of the simple leaf, are compared to sulking dogs; an ironic comparison, as it forces the leaf and the inadequate words together inside the category of natural world. Words are unable to match the beauty of the leaf, and yet find themselves a part of that sphere. Hence, the author demonstrates how the tensions between nature and written word are overpowering, one lost in the other through the miss-judgement of the author’s hand.

This idea is one which is re-worked again in ‘Not Moving Even One Step’. The horse is a part of the field, they are one of the same, it is described as his ‘limitless mare’…‘maned in thistles, hooved in the new green shallows of spring.’ The rainwater washes over him; he is absorbed by his surroundings. His refusal to move, despite the conditions and the fact that his history is one entwined with an idea of movement, freedom and travel, is suggestive of despair, or of some secret thing for which he must ‘wait’ (l. 3). Moreover, this refusal to move also removes our human connection with him as a vehicle, an animal to carry us forward, a traditional beast of burden. It re-signifies him instead as a lover, mourning his lost mate who ‘stands in the place beside him that no one sees.’

Ironically, the horse is now re-burdened with another human fantasy, one that imagines him to love and mourn as we do, the author reflecting onto him human emotions and capabilities. The final line ‘How silently the heart pivots on its hinge’, more realistically refers to our own human hearts moving in sympathy to what we imagine the horse to feel, rather than his own heart pivoting on the memory of his missing mate. In this respect Hirshfield has turned full circle throughout the poetic process, removing human burden from the horse by ironically re-aligning him with human emotion; proving that nature, poetry and words cannot help but inter-mingle due to the weakness of our own human understanding.

My Favourite Review

The poet Rosanna Warren has said: ‘Hirshfield has elaborated a sensuously philosophical art that imposes a pause in our fast-forward habits of mind. Her poems appear simple, and are not. Her language, in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature…. Clause by clause, image by image, in language at once mysterious and commonplace, Hirshfield’s poems clear a space for reflection and change. They invite ethical awareness, and establish a delicate balance.’

….and the Hungry Mind Review put it beautifully when they say:

‘[She] writes for readers who have lived a little- that is to say a lot; who have lost and grieved, and know how painful the capacity to love can be.’

Not even a tiny, little, incy-wincy bit of criticism could pass from my lips. Hirshfield writes simple, effortless, perfect, human poetry that is just so lovely to read.



4/5 Stars

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