Dear Ms. Kenneally,
Having enjoyed the three previous Hundred Oaks books, I was happy to have the chance to read and review this one. I’m pleased to say that it did not disappoint, and Racing Savannah was an enjoyable reading experience. Set several years after the previous books in the series, it features a new set of characters, and like the previous books, it is easily read as a standalone.
Savannah Barrow is a high school senior who has just moved to Franklin, Tennessee, where her father was offered an irresistible job training horses at Cedar Hill Farms. Savannah, who also loves horses, has ambitions to become an exercise rider, which she feels would be a much better career opportunity than working behind the scenes. She meets Jack Goodwin, the son of Cedar Hill’s owner who’s running the operation himself as a one-year test, after stopping a prized horse that had spooked and bolted. It soon becomes clear that Savannah is able to get through to the high-strung Tennessee Star, and that both she and Jack are very much attracted to each other. With social and financial disparities, family expectations, and the fact that Jack is her boss, there seems to be quite a lot to keep them apart.
Savannah comes from a low-income, working class family. Her father, while very good at what he does, is not educated, and this has limited his career prospects. Her mother died young several years earlier after battling late-stage breast cancer, and the uninsured Barrows were left with crushing medical debts. Her father now has a pregnant girlfriend, and money is extremely tight; since they are new to Cedar Hill, he does not want to rock the boat in any way, and expects the same of her.
Savannah’s dreams are bigger, and when opportunities come her way, she is happy to grab them – including the possibility of training as a jockey. She hopes to achieve a more secure life for herself and hopefully for her family as well, not wanting her soon to be born sibling to grow up with free lunches and second-hand clothes. The possibility of being more ambitious academically doesn’t really occur to her at first; nobody in her family has graduated from high school and the idea of college seems completely out of reach, something for people with money and more choices than she has. Savannah is generally suspicious and mistrustful of rich people, whom she feels are playing by a different set of rules, abusing their privilege or simply unaware of it.
The challenges that the Barrows are struggling with – lack of formal education, consequent financial difficulties and fewer career opportunities, almost insurmountable medical debt – are unfortunately all too common and I felt that they were realistically portrayed. I read in the author’s note that like Savannah, your own background was far from affluent, and your goal was to show that it is still possible to set ambitious goals and achieve them, and it certainly comes through.
In some ways, Racing Savannah is similar to the first book in the series, Catching Jordan: both Savannah and Jordan are teenage girls trying to make their mark in a male-dominated athletic field, and both are more used to having male friends than girlfriends. Jordan, however, comes from an affluent background and is in a leadership role as a quarterback and team captain, while in Savannah’s case, the roles are the more standard romance dynamic of poor heroine/rich hero. The levels of sensuality in the two books struck me as comparable as well, with some (relatively brief) scenes happening on the page and some off it.
The details about training and racing horses were well-integrated into the story. While I can’t speak as to the plausibility of two seventeen year olds being given the responsibilities that Savannah and especially Jack have, I was able to buy into it in the context of this story. Readers more familiar with horse training and racing might feel differently. The high school parts of the book worked for me, and Savannah’s friends, Rory and Vanessa, were very well-drawn secondary characters.
Not everything worked for me, however. I realize that a single narrator is very common in YA, and that this is how this series has been written as well. But while Savannah was an engaging and often entertaining narrator, I felt that this book could have benefited from some of Jack’s perspective as well. With only Savannah’s point of view available, some of Jack’s less fortunate decisions seemed designed to introduce tension into the plot rather than seeming organic to the character. There was a point where I actually wondered if there was another hero waiting in the wings, as you was the case in some of your previous books.
One of the things I appreciate about the Hundred Oaks series is that it is only loosely connected – no sequel baiting or past characters being inserted into the stories unnecessarily. The characters in all the books attend the same school, but there aren’t always links between them beyond that. This was mostly the case in Racing Savannah as well, with the exception of a wedding scene that featured several past characters a bit too prominently for my liking.
My final complaint is that the villains were very one-note: a rich family whose members – primarily the men – abuse their power and privilege in various ways. I would have liked a bit more subtlety there.
In all, Racing Savannah was a well-written novel with an engaging heroine. The issues I listed above were enough to bring down the grade a bit, but not enough to stop me from enjoying it. For me, this is a very solid B.