Pony Club Secrets and For Sale or Swap
I am going off on a bit of a detour here, as For Sale or Swap, although in print, is so only in Australia, but I do have a perfectly good reason for talking about it here: it is an extremely good book. But why, oh why, is it not in print in the UK? My other review title, Mystic and the Midnight Ride, is also by an Antipodean author, Stacy Gregg. For Sale or Swap leaves it standing, and yet Mystic and its fellows are the ones in print in the UK.
The only reason I can think of for For Sale not being in print over here is that its background is very obviously Antipodean. From the opening scene, with the Christmas barbecue, you know you're not in England. Mystic puzzled me. The cover has been re-done for the UK market, with ponies from South Cambridgeshire Equestrian Centre, and so I was expecting an English read. As I was reading, various things didn't quite chime right: Pony Club grounds? The Paced and Mannered event? I knew I wasn't in England, but I didn't know where I was, and so I was confused. From my point of view, a book being set somewhere that isn't England isn't a problem. I grew up on Rutherford Montgomery's Golden Stallion and Elyne Mitchell's Silver Brumby books. There was never any issue about where the books were set: I was expecting something foreign, got it, and enjoyed it. Be a bit more upfront about the books' New Zealand setting, Harper Collins. It isn't a problem.
Stacy Gregg: Mystic and the Midnight Ride
Harper Collins, £4.99
That is not to say that I didn't enjoy Mystic: I did. The book is part of what will be an eight part series: Mystic and the Midnight Ride is the first of them. Its author, Stacy Gregg is a fashion journalist who rode in her youth, and has started riding again now she is writing for the pony market. The book's heroine is Issie, whose pony is the grey Mystic. He is written out of the book pretty early on, but reappears in what seems to be the obligatory nod to the fantasy genre that many pony books now seem to think they need in order to appeal. (I will have a lot more to say about this in a future blog). Issie refuses to ride any more, but then she is asked to take on Blaze, a badly neglected pony, and she does. There is some well-described rehabilitation, a deeply unpleasant and over-indulged rich child, shenanigans with Blaze's former owners and the obligatory competition at the end of the book.
This is a pony book that will give the reader what she is expecting, and it does it well. It's a good, well-paced read, but I get no sense the author is trying to do anything new with the genre, or explore how her characters develop or react with each other. Alyssa Brugman's For Sale or Swap is an entirely different animal.
Alyssa Brugman: For Sale or Swap
Random House Australia
(available through Booktopia or Fishpond: beware vast delivery charges, more reasonably through ebay if you're lucky)
Alyssa Brugman captures the stresses and strains of being a teenager keeping a pony on a shoestring brilliantly. The book (part of what is now a series of five) opens with Shelby being given the Most Improved award, which "meant you used to suck but now you're slightly better." She won't even get this unless she pays her Pony Club dues, but she knows how difficult things are for her parents ("she didn't want to ask her mother and see that strained, despairing look that she always got when Shelby asked for money") and so she doesn't ask. Shelby's pony, Blue, is not a thing of beauty. She keeps him on unused land near to her home, and struggles to keep him. Her riding, she decides, would improve if only she had a better pony, and so she swaps Blue for the beautiful chestnut Maxshine Celtic Copper. The new pony however is not chestnut: the chestnut washes off. She is grey, and she is stolen. She is part of a scam. By then it is far too late to get Blue back and Shelby is left with no pony at all.
I liked the way the plot then twisted and turned without going exactly where you'd expect. I liked the changing relationships between Shelby and her friends Erin and Hayley, and I liked the way Shelby reacts to the world around her: and it is a world in which adults are a normal part. In many children's books, adults are not present at all, or else one dimensional figures floating around on the periphery of the children's adventures. Real life is not like that. Real life has the mother who is in charge of the ponies, not the daughter; the instructor who gets things wrong; the unsympathetic policeman. What I like about this book is the way it takes a framework that is utterly realistic, and works within it. No one appears to anyone in a dream; no pony turns into a unicorn. It's a normal world, and it's observed so well.
So, Random House, please publish this book: not because it's about ponies, but because it's good. It would be good if it were about football. It would be good if it were about golf. It's good, so let Britain have it.