Wednesday 17 October 2012
Review - The Pony Detective Series by Belinda Rapley
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