Wednesday, 17 October 2012
SUMMARY OF SERIES:
The series comprises of 4 books:
1. Moonlight Star of the Show
2. Scout and the Mystery of the Marsh Ponies
3. Puzzle the Runaway Pony
4. Phantom One Last Chance
This is a series aimed at the slightly younger pony-mad readership (I think middle-grade in the USA) in which the four horsy heroines combine their equine exploits with solving pony-related mysteries.
Rosie, Mia, Alice and Charlie are all best friends who keep their ponies stabled at Rosie’s parent’s farm. When they hear that Moonlight, a local star showjumping pony has gone missing they decide to turn detective and find the missing jumper. Alice must also overcome her show ring nerves if she is to have a chance winning the Fratton Cup. This forms book 1 of the series.
In book 2 the girls find a mystery much closer to home when Scout, the pony Alice is supposed to have on permanent loan is suddenly claimed back by his eccentric owner who had formerly promised Alice could keep him forever. The girls must investigate the mystery surrounding this sudden change of heart so that Alice can keep her beloved pony.
In book 3 the girls find not one but two mysteries. Phantom, a highly valuable horse, has disappeared. But why does his young owner seem strangely reluctant to help them find him? Also a mystery pony, muddy and neglected, appears on the scene. Can the four find his rightful owner? Meanwhile Charlie is agonizing over her pony Pirate who is now far too small for her. She needs a bigger pony but can’t bear to part with him. A scary haunted building and an obnoxious girl at a nearby posh stable also adds to the excitement and may be clues to the mysteries.
In book 4 in the series, Charlie has decided to loan out Pirate but can’t find the perfect owner. Her new loan horse Phantom is also proving hard to handle and doesn’t seem to like her. After a bolting incident and an injury, she is banned from riding him. But a secret diary may have the answer to his rehabilitation. Can Charlie help Phantom and learn to bond with him before her parents decide to send him away? Meanwhile there is an unhappy orphan girl to contend with and some strange goings on at the stables. Plenty to keep our four heroines occupied.
REVIEW OF SERIES:
Modern pony series seem to fall into 2 categories – those which rely on gimmicky settings, celebrity glamour or even sex and drugs to spice up the story. There is usually little substance beneath the glam veneer, which seems to have been laid on thickly with a trowel in order to distract from the fact that the plots are almost non-existant, characters are often stereotyped cardboard cut-outs and the horses themselves simply winning machines with little or no personality. These stories are also full of unlikely situations and characters which young readers, although they may be initially attracted to by the novelty factor, in the end cannot really relate to them. Then there are those books which are a modern re-make of the old traditional pony stories in which the heroines care about their horses and can have fun without wearing the latest designer gear or winning at Badminton! These are books whose main excitement comes from well-worked plots and have characters that their readers can relate to and understand. The ponies are real and integral to the story. I am glad to say this excellent new pony series falls into the latter category.
To write a pony story which is appealing to the modern generation, but which still maintains the spirit and values of the traditional pony novel is no easy task. Older pony stories, despite being perhaps more stylishly written and with greater depth, may be too slowly paced, have too much description and extraneous content for the modern young reader. Today’s author must construct a very simply written, tightly focused and fast-paced story which almost but not quite conceals any hidden depths of plot, character and perhaps even an exploration of certain themes and issues. To me it seems almost like mixing in the dreaded veg with tasty but unhealthy food in order to get kids to eat their greens! Of course many authors simply don’t bother with these hidden depths, which makes for shallow books of little substance or real interest. This series however has got the balance just right. The books are written in a bright and breezy, fun and simplistic style, which makes them very easy to read. The characters and situations are also simply drawn and not too complex and the mystery element adds excitement for the easily bored reader. However there is actually quite a lot more depth and substance to be found in the stories than may be appreciated at first glance.
Children have always found stories about solving mysteries exciting, and the fact that each book in this series is shaped around a particular mystery adds an extra element of excitement and interest to the stories. Perhaps the mysteries aren’t quite of an Agatha Christie complexity, but there are enough twists and turns along the way to keep the pages turning. These are not Famous Five type exploits of missing diamonds and master criminals and the like but are more believable (and of course horse-related) mysteries such as missing ponies, mystery horses and conniving horse dealers.
But unlike some so called horsy mysteries or adventures where the ponies seem to fade into the background as the young adventurers set off looking for clues and other excitements, in these books the equine characters remain at the forefront. Not only because the mysteries themselves are related to horses, but because each book also deals with a particular horse-themed problem which the girls must face. Nerves, out-growing beloved ponies, bonding with difficult horses – these are just a few of the issues explored and give the books that extra depth.
As mentioned above I feel that many modern pony stories in their efforts to provide ever more exciting scenarios do not feature characters or situations that the average young reader can really relate to. Not so these books. The four main characters are all likeable and realistic and are diverse enough so that the reader is bound to relate to at least one of them. They include the laid back slightly lazy Rosie who enjoys hacking and messing about with her pony best: the always well-turned out Gina who loves showing, the slightly nervous Alice who must conquer her fears in order to pursue her love of show jumping, and the fun-loving and sassy Charlie. In this way the author has provided something for every type of pony-loving girl and has taken the pony book back to the time when the heroine was just a normal girl, exactly like the readers of the books, rather than some celebutante or riding child-prodigy. These kids do not leap five foot walls or perform perfect half-passes, but they do have fun and share friendship and the problems of everyday life.
What I love the most about these books however, is that the relationship between the girls and their horses is always at the heart of the stories. This is something that is sadly lacking in many a modern pony story. Almost all the girls who read these books love horses, they may be interested in glamour, celebrity or exciting adventures, but they can get these from mainstream books. What they want most from pony stories are horses, and a reflection of the bond they feel with the horses they own or ride. In the Pony Detective series, there is plenty of excitement, mystery and the girls compete at shows, but at the heart of all this is their love for their horses. Even Poppy, the top showjumping girl, is upset more at the actual loss of her beloved pony than with the fact she won’t be winning without him. Particularly touching is the love Alice feels for Scout and her distress when she may lose him, and also the growing bond that Charlie begins to feel with the temperamental Phantom as she learns to understand him. Horse welfare and happiness is a key theme in these stories.
The author is an experienced horsewoman, BHS instructor and has worked with horses all her life, so provides a solid authentic horsy backdrop with none of the dreadful bloopers some readers have spotted in other modern pony stories. There is also a small illustrated section at the back of each books with simple hints and tips for young riders, which is a nice touch.
Looking at the stories separately, the first one is the most simplistic and perhaps least gripping of the series but it makes a decent job of introducing the characters and their world. It is certainly worth reading as an introduction to the series. However, from the second book onwards the series really picks up pace as the mysteries become more complex and twisty and the characters of the girls – and their issues - are more deeply explored. The mysteries also become inextricably linked with the lives and problems of the girls themselves. My particular favourite is the second book in the series in which the mystery is the most personal and most realistic and has perhaps the most emotional impact. I also really like the sub-plot of the last book in which the kids actually take time and effort to try and understand an unlikeable and temperamental horse, rather than just condemning him as too much trouble.
To me this is the perfect pony series for today’s young reader. It balances the modern fast paced and chatty style which appeals to modern readers, with old-fashioned values and realistic characters and scenarios which all horse-lovers can relate to and enjoy. I don’t know if the author is planning any more in the series. I certainly hope so as there is a definite need for more decent modern pony series in the market today.
You can read more and vote on the series on the review section of the chat forum
Saturday, 6 October 2012
Catnip paperback edition, 2012.
SUMMARY OF STORY:
The 7th book in the Jinny at Finmory series.
In this instalment in the series (which can be read alone but will be appreciated more if the other books are read too) the young heroine Jinny is looking forward to many happy days riding her beautiful Arab mare Shantih on the wild and magical Scottish moors and beaches of her home at Finmory. But, after jumping Shantih over a dangerous obstacle which causes her horse to go lame, things begin to go wrong. The vet does not seem to be able to cure her or even find the direct cause of the lameness.
After weeks of being unable to ride her beloved pony and feeling terribly guilty for causing the problem in the first place, Jinny is determined to find someone else who can help. When she hears there is a riding school in a nearby town she goes there in the hope that the woman who runs the place can give her some advice. But when she arrives there she finds the place is a filthy dump and the ponies are overworked and underfed. She is particularly drawn to Easter, an extremely old grey mare who must have been a beautiful show pony in her youth. Jinny realises that she must come up with a plan to rescue the pony from the terrible life she leads and give her a peaceful retirement.
Meanwhile she is also drawn into helping the mysterious old gypsy woman Keziah who has been taken to hospital but wants to return to her beloved moors where she can die in peace. Soon Jinny realises that the fates of Keziah, Easter and Shantih are all inextricably bound up together.
Having grown up with the Armada paperback editions of the Jinny series, I was pleased when I heard it was being re-published by Catnip. I was recently asked by them to review their latest reprint in the series, The Magic Pony, and here is my review of that particular edition.
For me, this is a magical story in what is perhaps the best series of pony books ever written. Certainly it is one of the most popular, with generations of readers of all ages drawn to the fascinating and mysterious world of Finmory and its ponies.
At the heart of the series’ popularity is the character of Jinny. If you are a pony mad youngster (or were one once!) Jinny is an embodiment of everything you will feel about horses, growing up and the sometimes stifling and confusing world around you. The reason for Jinny’s success as a character is that she is amazingly realistic, especially compared to some of the stereotyped two-dimensional creations in many children’s books. Nor is she one of those unreal creations - a mixture of child riding prodigy and designer clad model – which seem to be appearing with alarming frequency in modern pony stories. No, she is a real person with real good qualities and real faults, which teenagers, (or indeed anyone who has ever been a teenager), can relate to easily. Her imperfections can sometimes be irritating and at times the reader may dislike her as much as love her, but this only serves to make her more realistic and in the end more sympathetic (for who likes a perfect know-it-all?) And if the reader is honest they will perhaps acknowledge similar imperfections in themselves!
In this story both her good and bad points are highlighted. Shantih’s lameness is caused by Jinny’s stupidity and thoughtlessness. Anyone who has done something without thinking and caused a loved one pain in doing so will understand Jinny’s sense of guilt and recrimination. But just as doing things without thinking is one of Jinny’s worst faults, so her compassion and bravery are her best qualities. When she faces up to her fears to both help Keziah and rescue the ill-treated pony Easter, her actions show that all of us, even with our own faults and imperfections, can achieve something in life by showing courage and kindness in helping others.
As well as a great central character in Jinny this story has everything integral to a fantastic pony story. There is excitement and danger as Jinny attempts a daring rescue of Easter. There are realistic problems to overcome which children can relate to, such as getting into trouble at school (for doing horsy stuff instead of homework!) and an annoyingly perfect older sister to contend with. There are emotional ups and downs, from sadness and fear to exhilaration and joy and wonder. And there is of course that element which is integral to any proper horse story – the love of a child for a horse. If you are tired of stories in which the horses are treated as soul-less winning machines, then you will love this story of a girl who genuinely feels a bond with horses, and experiences that special magic which only a relationship with a pony can create.
The characters are all three dimensional and believable and the world of Finmory is brought to life in such a way that generations of readers have longed to live there themselves. But despite being at heart a very realistic story, there is also a thread of fantasy which runs through the book, as the power of the mysterious Red Horse and the magic of the old woman Keziah adds an extra dimension. Unlike many modern pony stories, this fantasy element has not been shoe-horned into the book in order to appease the modern Harry Potter/fantasy-loving generation, but is integral to the plot, and in fact to the series as a whole. It is a strangely down to earth and believable magic which seems to be as much a part of the Scottish moors as the heather and stones themselves. A down-to-earth quality coupled with magical moments is what makes this series so unique and so appealing.
Another amazing quality of all the books in this series is that they appeal to adult readers as well as children. I have read the books as both child and adult and if you enjoyed the series as a child, you will find a different level of enjoyment and interest when reading it as an adult. You will appreciate that the book is superbly well-written, with a style and grasp of language uncommon in children’s books. You will also realise that there is a great emotional and depth to the stories in which important issues are explored at a deeper level beneath the story itself. One of the main concerns of the book is that of ageing and coming to terms with death. Throughout the course of the book Jinny is forced to confront mortality for the first time:
"... for it was not only Keziah who was dead , not some strange, special thing that had happened to her alone. This dying was a common thing, it happened to everything that lived; some day all her family would die, Jinny would die and even Shantih." (Page 196)
The ageing human Keziah and pony Easter are paralleled cleverly, as is Jinny's mission to make their last days pleasant. However although this theme is explored in a thoughtful manner, it is blended seamlessly into the story itself without becoming too heavy or boring for younger readers. I also like the fact that things are not always laid out in black or white, or over-simplified. The character of Brenda who runs the awful riding school would have been a mere evil stereotype in the hands of a lesser writer. However, the book instead explores how she started out as a pony mad girl just like Jinny and ended up in her terrible situation through circumstances. She has hardened her heart to the horse's suffering but is still seen to have compassion and guilt at their plight, shedding a secretive tear over Easter. One again, perhaps this complex exploration of a character will be more appreciated by the older reader, but I do think even younger readers will pick up something of the nuances and it may make them think a little.
For horse-lovers of any age this series stands far above the multitude of mediocre pony stories out there. I have read thousands of horse books in my time and can honestly say that these are amongst the best pony stories I have ever encountered. Each time you read the story you will find something new and exciting so that these are truly books you will want to read again and again.
Lastly, a quick word about the Catnip editions themselves. These are quality paperbacks with excellent printing and very attractive cover art, featuring a beautiful new cover model who is equally as stunning as the original Arab from the old Armada covers.
The Magic Pony is the first of the Catnip reprints I have read and I was very happy to read in the Editor’s Note that the book has not been revised but contains the original text. This was a great decision by the publishers as the book has not aged at all and if anything, because the author was ahead of her time in many of her views on the environment and alternative lifestyles, it is perhaps even more pertinent to the current times than it was when written. It also means that the original style of the book has not been adultered by clumsy updates and editing as in so many reprints.
These editions are therefore an excellent choice for both new readers of the series and anyone thinking of replacing their tatty old copies of the books.
You can read more and vote on the book on the review section on the ponymadbooklovers forum
An interesting article on the REAL Finmory on the If Wishes Were Horses blog