Elisabeth: The Princess Bride

Fine. I’ll review this, but I won’t like it, and I’ll complain about it the entire time, because apparently What A Waste Of Potential is my biggest problem. Too bad I am not a teacher and can’t torture children by going on at length about their wasted potential, like I can with this book!

Elisabeth: The Princess Bride, Austria-Hungary, 1853, Barry Denenberg, 2003.


First of all, the illustration on this cover is awful. Elisabeth, or Sisi, really was a famously beautiful woman, and the existing photographs of her show this! Why is the painting of her on the cover making her look like a disgruntled schoolteacher who resembles her own horse? Especially since practically this entire book and almost all of Sisi’s social capital rested on how beautiful she was! Seriously!

Second of all: This book is impossibly short! It clocks in at just ninety pages of story! You can’t tell me that Laurence Yep got approval to write an incredibly long story about Lady Xian, but Barry Denenberg got only ninety pages to blow through a story about a misunderstood monarch who is a bang-on perfect subject for a YA novel about royals? She literally has everything: incredibly difficult expectations placed on her without the framework to deal with them, a whirlwind mistake romance, anorexia and stress disorders, and the unreasonable expectations of beauty and femininity! This is tailor-made for a really good YA novel and THIS is not it. I should write it, I’d do a better job.

We open the book in July at Possenhofen, Sisi’s childhood home, where her older sister Helene is being summoned to Vienna by their aunt Sophie–the Archduchess of Austria and mother of Franz Joseph, the Austrian emperor. Now, Helene has long been picked out at Franz Joseph’s eventual bride, and their mother is dead-set on this, and her father doesn’t give a crap. I get a very strong Mr. Bennet vibe off of Sisi’s father–he doesn’t seem to care too much about his children’s futures, and is more concerned with dicking around at home. But as usual, we are expected to think that Sisi’s mother is awful and controlling for wanting to arrange her daughters well, and Sisi’s father is wonderful because he’s so indulgent. I already hate this book.

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I feel like I say this about every Sunfire book, but: this book is a trainwreck. The only difference is that each book is a trainwreck in a new and different and exciting way. On the plus side: there is no plus side to this book. I didn’t even learn anything. (Although to be honest, the bar for “learning” from Sunfire novels is really, really low. It’s like saying you learned something from reading a billboard. We should all know this stuff already.)

Diana, Mary Francis Shura, 1988.


This book is the same age as I am and used to belong to the library of Gardiner Middle School in Oregon City, and I don’t know what’s more horrifying: the fact that this book only cost $2.75 American new (books used to be so cheap!) or the fact that this was considered good reading material for 13-year-olds. Also hilarious: the front cover. Diana is wearing a rhinestone tiara and carrying a fan that looks like it came out of a Vegas drag revue, and giving the viewer a look that’s equal parts confused and smug. You can tell of the two dudes on the cover who she’s going to end up with, though, because she’s embracing the Daniel Boone cosplayer and the hat-wearing dandy on the right looks mildly perturbed.

The premise of this book is that Diana is the daughter of a wealthy fur trading family in New Orleans just as the Louisiana Purchase has been transacted. The city is in turmoil, but because Diana is a teenager, she really has nothing useful to offer to anyone and so she goes to a party with her parents and meets up with her friend, Violette. At this party (literally we’re only on page 6 and introducing one of the love interests, so this book clearly does not mess around) she meets David LaPointe, a handsome blond French aristocrat. He’s very shy, so they dance together a few times and Diana gets all bent out of shape because he’s being weird, and then he confesses that he’s seen her driving around town in her father’s carriage and fell in love with her at first sight. (I am not feeling great about David.) She’s super taken with this, though, and the next day Violette comes over and they gossip about him, and then he invites Diana to go driving again and for tea.

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Oh my God, this book is awful. It’s so atrocious.

Do I really have to go into more detail than that? OK. But you will regret it. (Or if you are awful like me, you will enjoy the evisceration of a book.)

Megan, Vivian Schurfranz, 1986.


I thought I had read every Sunfire novel before, but this one must have escaped me or not been part of my library’s collection or something. I know for sure I would have read it if I had had access to it, because the girl on the cover is wearing an enormous white fur hood and I would have been There For That at age 13 or whatever.

The basic premise of this book is “1980s girl transported back in time to 1860s.” OK, that’s not the actual premise, but it may as well be, because everyone in this book would be exactly at home in 1986, the publication date, and no one acts anything like someone in 1867 should act. Not one person. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so awful. We will start with the name Megan, which was not at all common ANYWHERE in the 1850s, partially because it was a nickname for Margaret for the longest time and partially because it just wasn’t popular. You know when it WAS popular? THE 1980S. I had a quick browse through some data that covered about 90,000 women’s names in the 1850s, and you know what was on there in the top 700 names? Besides the obvious ones? Permelia, Sophronia, Jerusha, Melvina, and Hulda. You know what WASN’T? MEGAN.

Okay, the actual premise of this book, apart from being an excuse for me to complain, is that Megan is the daughter of a man who has been sent to Alaska immediately following the Alaska Purchase in order to be the government liaison for the United States there. So he is a bureaucrat, basically, but it specifically says on the back cover that Megan “gives up a life of luxury in Washington, D.C.,” which is great except no one in her family actually acts like it. In one of the worst cases of “sure, whatever, it’s fine” that I have EVER seen, Megan’s mom is A NURSE. A nurse who WORKS OUTSIDE THE HOME. Oh my god. Nurses in the 1860s who weren’t battlefield nurses were definitely lower-class and poor women who didn’t have any other way to feed their families, and there weren’t even any nursing colleges until the 1880s! Nursing was a low-class, low-status job, and the wife of a Washington DC bureaucrat WOULD NOT HAVE WORKED ANYWAY. She just wouldn’t have. There is no way around this. This is the epitome of one of those books that says way more about the time it was written in than in the time it’s set.

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It’s finally time!!! I hope you guys have been waiting with intense anticipation for these books, because I certainly have.

Amanda, Candice Ransom, 1984.


In case anyone is unfamiliar with the Sunfire series, you are in for a REAL TREAT. These were a series of romance novels published by Scholastic in the 80s, which basically paved the way for all teen historical romance of the following two decades. They’re extremely derivative and often very unimaginative, and they almost all follow the same exact formula: very pretty young woman in interesting historical period is forced to choose between two attractive suitors. Frequently there is also some kind of interesting conflict forcing her hand as well. If you have never experienced these books as a teenager, you’re missing out on the absolute crack-like addictiveness of them, and we probably sound insane because being quite honest: they are not great books. But they are intensely nostalgic and frequently hilarious, and they are the reason we have so many actually-excellent YA historical books. They sold like hotcakes.

Unfortunately, they were deemed to be trash almost immediately, and consequently they can be hard to find! Lots of libraries trashed them (including my childhood library, much to my extreme disappointment, because I would have gladly taken them off their hands. I probably took them out about twenty times each in my youth anyway) and they can be hard to find in used bookstores as well. Luckily, that is why we can buy used books online, so I can bring you all of these delightfully stupid joy. And on a side note, this book once belonged to “Jami Conley” as a birthday gift from the Mackinaw PTO, and she wrote her name in it several times including “Jami – n – Jason” in true 1980s fashion. It’s amazing.

Anyway, one of the things these books pioneered was “young women during interesting historical periods” as a plot device. This one is the first in the series, and it’s about the Oregon Trail, and here I will pause to ask why this is not a popular theme for adult books like it is in children’s books! Why? There could be so many interesting stories! Like this one! And while I’m at it, check out the cover. Amanda looks like a CHILD, is wearing what looks like frosted lipstick, and you know she’s going to end up with the rough-and-tumble Western guy because they’re walking together on the cover. God, these books are great.

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I know this book is older than most of the ones I do, but I was absolutely obsessed with this book as a kid (why? Who knows) and I found my old copy and couldn’t let it go.

Constance: A Story of Early Plymouth, Patricia Clapp, 1968.


Look at that cover. I wouldn’t say it was a masterwork of art, but hey, my copy says “4.95” on the back cover so clearly we weren’t dealing with an absolute bulwark of the literary world.

Now, my copy of this definitely says “10 Up,” and I read it when I was ten or so, but…wow, this was an awfully big step from most of the other stuff I was reading at that age! And while I’m sure I could understand it just fine, I definitely did not Get It because there is a lot of kissing, relationship tangles, and political infighting in this book that just flew straight over my head. Why did I like it so much at ten??? The world will never know.

I think in particular the great strength of this book is that it’s not about the voyage of the Mayflower and the landing on Plymouth Rock. I mean, it happens, obviously, but the emphasis is on what happens next which almost never happens. It’s kind of like how there’s lots of YA books about the Civil War, but none about the Reconstruction period, or lots of books about the Revolutionary War but none about the years afterward. But I think it’s particular important in this story, because usually the narrative around the Pilgrims is “they landed on Plymouth Rock, plenty of them died, Squanto saves them, they had Thanksgiving while wearing buckle hats, and then we skip right to the Salem Witch Trials.” Duh, there was a lot of stuff in the meantime that gets glossed over! But this book does a great job of going into some detail.

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Impetuous: Mattie’s Story

I will never, ever, ever learn. These books are tragic and they’re all the same!

Impetuous: Mattie’s Story, Jude Watson, 1996.


This book has a lady dressed in suspiciously well-cut and ladylike men’s clothing, including FRINGED PANTS. Unforgivable. So you know that right away this is a Girl Dresses In Dude’s Clothes kind of story, and it’s going to involve a shoddy romance plot at some point as well. Realistically that’s all you need to know, but I’ll go through with it anyway.

I already know I’m going to hate it when Mattie is one of those horrible YA protagonist who’s all “I hate frilly feminine things!” and packs herself up to move to California by herself at sixteen. I normally don’t like to critique how historically realistic these books are, but this is not. It’s just not. No 16-year-old girl who was as gently raised as Mattie is said to be would sail to California, by herself, with no escort, before the Civil War. This is already appalling on zillions of levels. But okay. Whatever. So Mattie and her older sister, Ivy, opted to go to that mining town and become miner’s brides, although it’s never fully explained why a 16- and 17-year-old girl wanted to do so in the first place. But whatever, they’re there, and Ivy is “a newspaperwoman,” and Mattie does odd jobs hauling….stuff in a wagon? But she doesn’t even own her own so she just borrows them from friends to haul stuff? This is all so weirdly and poorly explained.

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Standing in the Light

Here is an interesting example of a long-forgotten genre: the Captivity Narrative!

Standing in the Light: The Captive Diary of Catherine Carey Logan, Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania, 1763, Mary Pope Osborne, 1998.

catherine logan

Captivity narratives are stories, basically, about white people being captured by non-white people, and how harrowing and terrible their experiences are. They were insanely popular in America, both before the Revolution and well after it, until nearly 1900. Generally, they involve a lot of religious themes and ruminations on the “alien” nature of the Indians, the goodness of God, the desire for redemption, and so on. There’s a lot of scholarly literature on this topic, because they’re incredibly fascinating and say a ton about what societies value and the way they view themselves and “others,” but some captivity narratives cross the line into being not only factually incorrect, but downright cruel.

Traditional captivity narratives were proto-thrillers, real page-turners, and frequently involved romantic themes, religious themes, heroic rescues, pretty much everything you’d need for a major bestseller. It’s no mistake that a lot of crappy romance novels were on the same premise—beautiful white woman abducted by virile Indians and learns to love them—it sells a lot. Standing in the Light is sort of a junior example of the genre, and it’s equal parts icky and well done. I’m a little reluctant to call it “great” across the board, but let’s get into it.

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Grace of the Wild Rose Inn

Do you remember how the 1920s book in this series was bizarre and poorly-written and a mess? This one is worse, if you can believe it.

Grace of the Wild Rose Inn, Jennifer Armstrong, 1994.

grace wild rose

I mentioned before how there’s a book in this series set in about 1899 or so, and it’s about one of the zillions of MacKenzie daughters who wants to go to college instead of getting married, but I couldn’t lay my hands on it so for the time being (and hopefully, for all time) this is going to be the final book in this series. And thank goodness, because it really goes out with a bang. And not a good one.

On a semi-interesting note, since there’s a relatively short (temporal) period between the 1920s book and this one, we get the interesting situation of the mother in this one being the girlfriend of Drunky Bob from the last book. If you don’t commit every one of my reviews to memory (and why not?), in Claire of the Wild Rose Inn, she has a younger brother Bob who is a hopeless sodden drunk at the age of sixteen (!) and knocks up his girlfriend, Hope, during the course of the book. That pregnancy results in the protagonist of this book, Grace, and Hope is “Mrs. MacKenzie.” I feel like one of the downsides to having a romance series about the daughters of this line  is that they’re constantly marrying out of the family and screwing off to Other Stuff, so instead of being a story about mothers and daughters it’s a story about aunts and nieces. Which isn’t bad! It’s just that for a series that’s based on how special this one family is, it irritates me that they’re constantly marrying out. (Maybe the book I missed was a tour de force that eliminated all my problems with this series. But I doubt it.)

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The Hired Girl

I don’t usually review new books here, but I’m going to do this one now because I thought it was fantastic, and hey, things are slow right now, so why not?

The Hired Girl, Laura Amy Schlitz, 2015.

the hired girl

Now, I’m not going to recap this one, since it’s so new I don’t want to give away any of the details, but I’m going to do a short review of it in general. Laura Amy Schlitz won the Newbery Medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! and a Newbery Honor for Splendors and Glooms, so her pedigree is already fairly well established, but The Hired Girl is a bit of a departure from all this. It’s set in 1911, and it’s targeted at the 11-14 age group, but it plays pretty heavily on some themes in literature and art that may go over the heads of younger readers. But for someone like me, reading it as an adult, it’s fascinatingly well-done, though I don’t know how I would have taken it as a 13-year-old.

Joan Skraggs, the titular hired girl, is a fourteen-year-old girl in Pennsylvania, living with her semi-abusive father and three sloppy older brothers, none of whom respect her. She’s been doing the household work since her mother’s death years ago, and she’s exhausted from doing a ridiculous amount of heavy labour by herself without any sort of compensation or a kind word from anyone. She’s had to drop out of school, and finds solace in reading her three books over and over again. When her father burns her books, Joan decides that’s the last straw, and takes the little bit of money her mother left her in secret and runs away to Baltimore to become a hired maid at six dollars a week.

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When Christmas Comes Again

It’s December and officially the Christmas season, so let’s do the two Christmas-themed Dear Americas! This book differs from most of the others in several ways, but it’s still interesting and well-done.

Book: When Christmas Comes Again: The World War One Diary of Simone Spencer, New York City to the Western Front, 1917, Beth Seidel Levine, 2002.

simone spencer

In order to write a novel about a girl involved in the army, she had to be quite a bit older, so Simone is seventeen at the outset of the novel (compared to the average Dear America protagonist, who is eleven, twelve, or thirteen, and very occasionally older). This is also one of those rare DA novels about a wealthy, upper-class girl—the vast majority of them focus on girls who are poor or middle-class, I would assume for relatability reasons among the majority of readers. Actually, very interestingly, another one is A Time For Courage, which also takes place in 1917, in a strange coincidence that I think was probably not intended.

Anyway, Simone is “society” indeed, thanks to her incredibly wealthy father, and a bit bored of things. She doesn’t know what she wants to do after graduating high school, but now since war has just been declared, it adds an “exciting” bustle to things. Simone’s mother is French and owns a chapelier, or hat shop, because she was bored to tears and refused to sit around doing nothing and presumably, being society all day. Simone’s mother was a humble girl in a bake shop in Paris when her father met her, and Simone has grown up on stories about Paris and true love, fate, etc., which is going to come back to be important.

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