Janet Rising: Team Challenge
(The Pony Whisperer Series 2)
Hodder Children's Books, 2009, £5.99
Team Challenge is the second in Janet Rising's Pony Whisperer series. The whole idea behind the series is that Pia can hear what horses and ponies are saying, but only as long as she is touching the little statue of the horse goddess, Epona, which she found when out on a ride. I reviewed the first book, The Word on the Yard, a few months ago, and liked it. I was wondering quite where the series would go after Pia's quite spectacular horse whispering efforts on TV - Pia, Pony Whisperer - the Film? - but I needn't have worried. The action this time has switched to the yard, and to Pia and her friends' efforts to win the Sublime Equine Challenge. This is a competition for a team of four, each of whom must do one discipline from a choice of dressage, cross country, show jumping and Wild Card (where anything goes).
I liked this one even more than the first: it's a wildly entertaining read, which I thoroughly looked forward to picking up so I could read the next chunk. I love the humour; and in particular I like the main character Pia (which is a major help, I suppose). She has a wry way of looking at the world which I find makes me smile. The ooh-nearly romance between Pia and James stays that way, with a major plot twist at the end making me very keen to get the next in the series. I'm also keen to know how Pia's mother's latest no-hoper works out - will the poor woman ever meet someone halfway decent? And will Pia's father get tired of the moneypit he left Pia and her mother for?
The huge strength of these books, I think, is that you really want to know what happens next. Those characters have got me. The adults are drawn just as well as the teenagers, and the ponies are really well done too. I particularly enjoyed the the pony Tiffany's thoughts. She is one of those ponies who sees a monster round every corner:
"I don't really do dressage, as you know, AND it turns out I have to wear a noseband, which is the final straw and - ooh, WHAT'S THAT? Oh, it's OK, it's just a burger carton -"
which you can just imagine, can't you, if you've ever had anything to do with a pony like that.
There was one point in the plot, though, when I did begin to have major quibbles: Pia's friend Dee suggests they use a ouija board so her grandfather can advise the team from beyond the grave. In my own dim and distant teenage past, I had friends who used these and were upset for months, and I am completely spooked by the whole idea, so I was worried about whether I was going to have a big internal maternal panic wondering quite how to give this book to my daughter and bring up the subject of ouija boards. Was I going to send her pell-mell into trying it because I'd over-egged the warning, or then again if I'd underdone it, knowing how sensitive my daughter is to horror - 3 weeks' nightmares after "Are you my mummy?" in Dr Who - would we have broken nights and an even more tempestuous girl than normal...... Janet, how can you DO this to me?, I thought.
Fortunately, Pia and her friends are spooked by the whole thing too, and I think, on balance, if I was reading this I'd feel worried by the idea, and not inclined to try it. I just hope it's enough to put teenage readers off. I did wonder why it made an appearance in the book, as it does appear quite random, to quote my daughter. Maybe Pony's readers are having a break from ponies and dabbling in the supernatural.
Apart from this, this is an excellent read. I think Janet Rising's about my age (apologies, Janet if you are in fact in your 30s), so I wonder if she, like me, just about hung on the gate waiting for next month's issue of Pony in the early 1970s, agog for the next Caroline Akrill instalment. Janet's books have the same humour and energy as Caroline Akrill's, and I am having an excellent time enjoying something written with humour. Roll on episode 3, Runaway Rescue, out next month.
A final word about the covers: I suppose Hodder did one photo shoot for the covers, and now we're stuck with them, but that is still a bay HORSE on the cover, and not a pony. I don't think even Photoshop can sort that one out.
Sharon Siamon: Wild Horse (Mustang Mountain series)
Egmont, 2009, £5.99
This is another of those books I'd pre-judged before I'd even opened the cover. "Blimey," I thought. "Three wholesome American girls on the cover. Saddle Club rides again." Not that there is anything wrong with wholesome American girls, or wholesome girls of any other nationality: it's just the way that sort of cover tends to make you expect a plastic world filled with girls who never get spots and always lurve each other, which if you spent your time ferrying teenage girls about as I do, you would know they do not. And they get spots.
The cover is, of course, very often nothing to do with the author. This book is part of the Mustang Mountain series, which is new to the UK, though it's been about in its native Canada for a while now. It's about three girls, Alison, Meg and Becky and their adventures in Wyoming. It's book number 4 of a 10 book series, but was the earliest one I could find when out and about in the rocky wildlands of the Grosvenor Centre, Northampton, waiting for the girls to finish shopping in New Look.
The strapline on the cover: Find adventure at every turn up on Mustang Mountain - makes you expect that this is going to be a non-stop charge through cliff hanging episode after episode, but it's actually far more about the girls' characters and how they develop than toe curling adventure. Alison is the child of rich and demanding parents. She thinks they hate her - but do they? Did they manoeuvre her into visiting Cousin Terri-Lyn in Wyoming for her own good? Or do they really dislike her as much as she thinks? It's the ambiguous nature of plot lines like this that make this book better than the common run: frankly, you could argue the toss either way, though Alison's relationship with her parents is undoubtedly problematic.
Alison, Meg and Becky have gone to visit Cousin Terri-Lynn in Wyoming for ten days. Alison's parents have sold her dressage mare, Duchess, and Alison has sworn not to ride ever again. Of course, she does, but Alison's toppling from her mountain of righteous resentment is believable.
I assume the other girls' characters emerge more in the earlier books: this one is very much focussed on Alison. It's an enjoyable read, though, and it's always fascinating to see how things are done elsewhere: I learned plenty about wild horse auctions, and I'm intrigued enough by the series to search out more.