Review: Jessica Burkhart - Canterwood Crest, Take the Reins

Jessica Burkhart - Take the Reins (Canterwood Crest, 1)
Simon & Schuster, 2009, $6.99 (UK price variable)

Jessica Burkhart's website
Canterwood Crest's website

The exclusive girls' school which has elite riding on the curriculum is something that's taken off a bit in recent years, in America, at any rate. America's comfortable with its private schools: in the UK, we're not. Or at least, even if we're perfectly happy to send our children there, we're not happy to see such establishments as the setting for children's literature unless it's suitably dressed by fantasy or distanced by geography, thereby absolving us for the need to feel squeamish about the public v private debate. So, we've had Lauren Brooke's Chestnut Hill series, and Stacy Gregg's Pony Club Rivals, both set in exclusive boarding schools in America. They're now joined by Jessica Burkhart and her Canterwood Crest series, set in yes, an exclusive girls' boarding school in America.

I have to admit I was all prepared not to like this. I'd assumed that it was, like the Lauren Brooke series, a publisher's construct, but it's not. The author, Jessica Burkhart, exists. She wrote the first book before she was out of her twenties, and the series now numbers 17 published titles.

In the first book, Taking the Reins, Sasha Silver, and her horse, Charm, are due to start their first term at Canterwood Crest. Sasha is understandably nervous about this leap into the unknown. She's ridden, and won, before, but only at a local level. Canterwood Crest is a whole new thing. Sasha has to get used to new surroundings, new people, and new ways of doing things. She has to have her riding tested to see if she's good enough to get into the school teams, and once that's happened there's pressure on her to proceed to the next level, as well as considerable pressure to succeed academically.

There can't be a school story in existence without a villain, and Canterwood Crest has one in Heather. Heather is, of course, extremely rich, extremely well horsed, and extremely capable. She's also determined that Sasha won't challenge her place in the school, or her chance of qualifying for the Advanced team. Yes, the way the Heather situation works out is a tad predictable, but Heather isn't a cardboard villain, and both we and Sasha can see why she is the way she is. One of the things that really won me over to the book was the insights we get into Heather.

The author has a brilliant ear for teenage dialogue,and teenage obsessions - in Sasha's case, lip gloss. Goodness, that girl has lip gloss. By the ton. For each situation, there's a lip gloss. I did , I have to say, like that about her. It reminded me of Ruby Ferguson's Jill and her forays into lipstick: there's the same sense of innocence; of light experimentation with the adult world. In the first book at least, there aren't any dark, deep, teenage horrors. There are parties, and baking, and friends: Canterwood isn't only for equestriennes: the book's given interest by Sasha's room mate, and her hopefully soon-to-be boyfriend, neither of whom are horsey.

This book is, of course, about a privileged set of characters whose only real problems are, in the scheme of things, relatively minor. The plot's predictable  but the way the book gets there makes you smile. It's all good, escapist fun.

My page on Jessica Burkhart

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