Jan 29, 2009

Take the Reins: calling to the horse lover in every tween fashionita's soul.

Take the Reins
Canterwood Crest #1
by Jessica Burkhart

A few months ago I had a weird urge to find something akin to Gossip Girl meets Thoroughbred, and if this book was aimed toward young adults instead of middle grade readers, this would have been it.

Okay, here's the synopsis, because two previous posts including the exact same synopsis is not enough:

When Sasha Silver and her horse, Charm, arrive on the campus of the elite Canterwood Crest Academy, Sasha knows that she's in trouble. She's not exactly welcomed with open arms. One group of girls in particular is used to being the best, the brightest, and the prettiest on the team, and when Sasha shows her skills in the arena, the girls' claws come out.

Sasha is determined to prove that she belongs at Canterwood. Will she rise to the occasion and make the advanced riding team by the end of her first semester? Or will the pressure send Sasha packing?

In a lot of ways, this book reminds me of The It Girl, the spin-off of Gossip Girl. Only it's not a product placement machine, because I'm pretty sure the goal of The It Girl is to make every girl who can't afford Manolo Blahniks by the time she's 15 feel ratty and poor. Canterwood Crest has one foot in this socially upscale boarding school world, and one foot planted in a horse stall. This series is the flighty, catty social structure of rich teens slamming into what's supposed to be the responsible and sentimental background of horse ownership. You'd think some serious issues would pop up because of this, but lucky for us horses and the social elite are well-versed in each other.

Sasha is the new girl at Canterwood Crest, recently plucked out of her public middle school because her local riding instructor determined that she had little else to teach her. Luckily for Sasha, Canterwood Crest is also rigorous academically, otherwise I'd think that her parents are easily led and all she wants to do with herself is ride. Sasha immediately starts off on the bad foot, letting her spooking horse (Charm, who I keep mentally picturing as a gray when he is actually chestnut, and I think I have the racehorse Silver Charm to blame for this) get away from her and cause an accident with Heather, the resident antagonist. Because of this mishap, Sasha has more or less painted a target on her back, and Heather is shooting for her big time. Matters are not helped when Heather finds out that Sasha is a fairly accomplished rider, and she feels threatened when Sasha makes the intermediate team with most of the other characters in the book.

Thus starts the pranks. Heather is sort of intense about being a bitch, and these pranks go from fake accidents to switching stalls to sabotage to mind games. All you need to know about how intense Heather is occurs when Sasha walks into Charm's stall and finds her friend Callie hunched in the corner of the stall whispering about how Sasha should really look after her tack. Because I guess Heather has a history with tack sabotage. Sasha has a lot on her hands here in terms of a girl antagonist, but now we will focus on Zac Efron.

There is a boy in this book, because you have to remember that this series is a hybrid. Our Thoroughbred characters never gave boys the time of day because they literally had no room in their brains to ponder anything other than horses. For books like The It Girl, there is nothing but boys, competition over boys, and family dysfunction that usually occurs because of a boy. For Canterwood Crest, there is room for both boys and horses. This might sound shocking, but dear Sasha is probably the most normal twelve-year-old, horse obsessed rich girl I've ever read about. She watches tv, she comprehends wearing clothes that are not ready made for barn work, and she gets the basic concept of a crush. And she has a thing for Zac Efron, so when a Zac Efron look alike comes bounding along she's stumbling all over herself. They have a film class together, and by the joy of arranged seats they get to know each other in a youthfully bashful sort of way.

The book reaches its climax with two events: a winter dance (wherein the Zac Efron look alike dances with Sasha) and the test for the advanced team. The results are the most predictable thing about the book; I don't need to repeat them here because if you've read a horse book you know what happens. However, the results for the seventh grade advanced team are a means to setting up the rest of the series. Catty girls have to mix with the responsible girls to become teammates...not friends. I'm actually more interested in the rest of the series than I ultimately was with this book because I think the concept of nice girl and the antagonist girl having to work together to produce a good team result hasn't exactly been done before (at least successfully) in a middle grade horse book. Typically, the two characters are always pitted against each other in a tired recycled plotline that leads up to a final show, and I have a hope that this will be a breath of fresh air in that if they're ultimately encouraged to act as a team then they'll focus their pissy relationship outside of the ring, which has to be more engaging at this point.

  • I've said it before about first time authors: expect craziness. This book was low on the crazy factor, in that there wasn't any definite plot point that felt sticky to me. However, there did seem to be an unnecessary amount of scenes. Such as the section when Paige's mom goes on and on about rearranging their dorm furniture, culminating in the decision to move their beds five inches to allow more space. It's like...well, yeah. You could press the beds right against the wall, but then why are we talking about this? What's the point? That was my main question for a few areas of the book.
  • A lack of pertinent description is probably my big question mark throughout. Much of the description is done well, but then when it comes down to action I'm left feeling little to nothing, leading me ultimately to rereading a scene to figure out what the hell just happened. Consider: before the lone horse show in the book, Sasha finds the groom holding Charm, who is not moving. Sasha has a little moment of panic about this when I was wondering what her deal was. Groom holding horse, horse not moving. Is the horse on the ground? What is going on? Lots of horses just stand there, so when Sasha runs up in a panic about things after a description of Charm standing still...I'm totally lost. As it turns out, Charm's mane was chewed up and his braids were ruined, resulting in Sasha simply buzzing his mane off in a rush. And that was it.
  • I like Sasha. She doesn't come off as totally superior to Heather in all ways imaginable, which is one of my big problems with horse books in general. Heather is given reasons to act the way she does, and while those reasons are slightly predictable, at least there are reasons. In terms of riding, they feel fairly equal to me on that front, which is another plus.
  • Equal character development. Most of the time, I always feel like horse books focus too much on the one main character and the horse. Jessica spends time giving character to Callie, Paige, and even the dorm adviser. I really appreciated this.
  • A few typos. Nothing hugely problematic, but noticeable.

Okay, to sum up: I liked it. I guess that's obvious when I don't post a full recap. As a horse book, it's better than a good portion of middle grade books out there. As a cliquey Gossip Girl sort of book, that isn't my area of expertise. The only thing I can say there is that it thankfully did not try to sell Manolo Blahniks to seventh graders.

That said, I'll be looking out for the next one.


Jessica Burkhart said...

Thank you, Mara! I was a little (okay, a lot) worried. Whew. :) But thanks so much for giving it an honest review.

Bookworm said...

I got a copy last week and can't wait to begin--it's like this book were made for me! *happy squeals*

Mara said...

Honesty is the best policy! That's usually what I strive for around here. I am very much looking forward to the next book in the series.

Molly said...

I'm glad to hear that it's not a case of the Good Character being superior in the ring - or just slightly inferior, but she'd totally be better if she had all the advantages the Bad Character has. The whole thing about "Bad Character is used to being the best until New Character comes around" grates because it's been done so many times, and ALWAYS with unbearable Good Characters, so if you say Sasha is palatable, I'm in.

The sabotage stuff sounds like the stuff that was done in Ashleigh's Hope and a few other tangentially Thoroughbred related books (which may or may not have been written by Joanna Campbell, because seriously, EVERY horse book from that company had a TB logo stamped on it no matter what).

You know, just once, I'd like to see the Good Character not end up with the Cute Boy. Just for shits and giggles, I'd like to see CB end up with some random background girl instead of the Good Character. (Or the Bad Character, only then he leaves her when he discovers her true BADNESS.)

Sounds like one I'll look for at my library, though. It's worth a shot, and it sounds like a foundation to what could be a new and different series.

Jessica Burkhart said...

Thanks, Bookwork!

Totally works for me, Mara. And I hope you like book two. :)

Thanks, Molly!