Okay, sometimes the books I receive to review end up being a bit of a lucky dip in that I get titles I wouldn't ordinarily read, and Brigadier and the Spirit Pony, by Marga Jonker is most certainly one of those titles. That being said, in the spirit of fairness, I will offer a review as free as possible from my usual biases.
Firstly, I'm not a horse-mad preteen – the age group Jonker's book is most likely aimed at. It's quite clear from the get-go that Jonker knows a lot about the correct care of horses, down to the minute details, (as much as I know about horses, having grown up around a horse-besotted family member). So if you've got a young girl (or boy) in your family of around 10 to 12, who's nuts about horses, then this may well be the book they're going to read in one sitting.
We meet Gabi and Alex, sisters who are dealing with the fact that their estranged father Ben has just come sailing back into their lives. He couldn't be more different from their mom (who has custody), and after years of not seeing them regularly, Ben's understandably awkward – though to give him credit, he tries really hard.
In fact, to give daddy kudos, he's willing to schlep a horsebox containing Gabi's prized horse Brigadier along with them when they go for a stay in a holiday house on an estate situated in the Harkerville forest. But what Ben doesn't at first admit is that his new girlfriend Val will be there too. Awkward. Alex is a bit of a brat, but she does have some redeeming qualities (and reminds me awfully of what I was like at her age).
I'm not going to give exhaustive plot details for fear of spoiling, but we do have some adventure time involving an outride in the forest. We meet a kooky landlady who believes she communes with the forest spirits, and the crazy ex-wife overreacts to The Thing that happens. There's a whiff of a love interest and suggestion of supernatural elements... and there is the solving of a mystery. Not all quite on Nancy Drew level, but still mildly entertaining. Not enough spirit pony, if you ask me.
Granted, I did feel near the end that there was too much chaos with the addition of a prayer group (it felt a bit contrived), so the ending was a bit more complicated than it should have been with the addition of those extra characters and actions, thereby robbing the story of some of its impact, and my feelings are also that mother dearest overreacted a bit too much (there was a scene involving a camera which seemed an odd plot twist – I mean why care so much about what's on Ben's camera when there are bigger issues at stake?) So yeah, those were the two things I didn't buy so much.
I feel if some of this near the ending could have been streamlined, and maybe if the author had dug a little deeper with the development of the Big Adventure We Won't Go Into Depth About, the tension could have been a bit more twisty and stronger, which is what I felt this story needed.
Overall, this is a light, horsey read, and I'd quite happily pass this on to the age group I've mentioned. Gabi's a great character in that she is so level-headed when in a stressful situation, and I think she's a great lead character – a resourceful young woman who pretty much handle herself when she's in trouble.