Stacy Gregg: Pony Club Rivals
I haven't read a Stacy Gregg since I reviewed Mystic and the Midnight Ride in eek, 2008. Have I really been doing this that long? Mystic was the first in the Pony Club Secrets series. I liked the book, but didn't like the fantasy. The Auditions, which is the first in a new series, Pony Club Rivals, is blessedly completely free of the weird and wonderful.
It's set at the Blainford All-Stars Academy, in Kentucky. This is a senior school for talented equestrians from all over the world. Entry is by competition. Stacy Gregg covers all geographical bases by having her heroine, Georgie, hail from England, setting the school in America, and having characters from Europe and New Zealand as well. Georgie's mother, Virginia Lang (yes that gave me pause for thought too) died when she had a fatal accident eventing. Georgie is determined to be an eventer like her mother, and go to Blainford, as her mother did. Needless to say, or there would be no series, she makes it.
As the school is fee paying (Georgie's mother had fortunately set up a trust fund before she died in order to pay the fees), the school has its share of label-holics. There, however, any similarity to that other horsy school series, Chestnut Hill, ends. Move over, Chestnut Hill, for this is an infinitely better piece of work. Labels are not the be all and end all of the book: here the focus is on riding. Blainford is hyper-competitive, and students are regularly chucked off the course. Georgie's first test will come just a few weeks into term: not only does she have to contend with the rest of the pupils, but she has an entirely new horse to contend with. She has to ride a school horse as her father could not afford to send her own pony, and so Georgie has to ride Belladonna, the daughter of the mare on whom Georgie's mother was riding when she was killed.
There have to be villains in a pony book (though having said that, Janet Rising manages to do very well indeed thank you in her latest, Prize Problems, with only the smallest of appearances from Pia's nemesis Cat, and even then she's Doing Good), and of course the ones here are the obvious targets, the rich label-obsessed girls. However, it is a sad fact that such groups do exist in most schools, and Stacy Gregg paints her characters with a reasonably broad brush: Georgie's romantic interest, James, is transported to and from school in his parents' private jet, and he's a perfectly decent individual.
There is plenty of riding content here: the school concentrates on all disciplines, and I mean all. There's Western riding, and everyone has to have a go, which is certainly interesting when the dressage bods have their turn. Having to do all disciplines means the book is not focussed on one to the detriment of the others, and this keeps the interest up. This book is a straight down the line pony book: dripping with horses and ponies, and not a whiff of fantasy. It's believable, and although the plot isn't bursting with surprises, it keeps you turning the pages. It's the best school-and-pony series I've read.
A small geographical quibble: one of Georgie's friends is described in living in Northampton, where the family has a 1,000 acre estate. Now I live fairly close to Northampton, and you would be very pushed to fit a 1,000 acre estate into its vast housing sprawl. Northamptonshire, the county, yes. 1,000 acres there wouldn't be a problem, but solidly urban Northampton itself? Hmm, no.
I can't leave this review without a mention of the cover. WHY the twinkly-dink stars? WHY?