Margaret

I wanted to hate this book so badly but I just couldn’t. Who knows, maybe I just had a particularly good week, but as stupid and ridiculous as this book was (and trust me: it was) I couldn’t hate it as much as I hate most of the Sunfire books. (I.e., enjoyable hatred.)

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Margaret, Jane Claypool Miner, 1988.

This book came out the year I was born and has a sticker on the back that says “PRICE 25¢” and I have no idea when it dates from. But at one point this book also passed through the Book Rack (locations in Arlington and Richland Hills, Texas) and cost $1.25 there. Check out this cover—Margaret is a spoiled, naïve little girl, but it’s impossible to hate anyone who wears a hat so jauntily with an expression of such clueless self-satisfaction. Also, her outfit bears a suspicious resemblance to the American Girl, Addy’s school outfit (and as I Googled this I discovered they changed it and now it’s not as cute anymore! WTF, this is what happens when Mattel just fucked up everything), just look at it!

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Anyway, look at the other men on the cover: there’s a hayseed wearing a suspiciously sharp-looking blue shirt and jeans and suspenders; and a nattily-dressed youth in a striped tie and straw boater, and he and Margaret are embracing in the bottom corner and gazing into each other’s eyes. Now normally this is a giant honking clue as to who the main character will end up with, but I suspect not in this case because usually the richer the guy is, the more of a douchebag he is. Let’s see.

Margaret here is the wealthy orphaned daughter of a Chicago family, who’s grown up with her aunt and uncle in the lap of luxury. But she’s decided (and it is never fully explained why) that she wants to dump all of that and become a schoolteacher in Nebraska. Also not fully explained: how she found out about this town, how they came to offer her a teaching position, any of this. Whatever, it’s not really important, clearly, because by page 13 Margaret is off on a train to Nebraska. Ridiculously, apparently she spends only “eight hours” on the train between Chicago and Nebraska, which is blatantly stupid because it takes longer than that right now in 2016 to go between Chicago and Omaha. In 1886 that would definitely not be an eight-hour trip. I’m so confused.

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Audacious: Ivy’s Story

It’s okay, after this book there’s only one left in the series and we can put these tragic books away. But rest assured: out of all of them, this one is by far the one that made me go “WTF?” the most. By a long shot. And that is saying something, considering all the others have not exactly been classics of English literature.

Audacious: Ivy’s Story, Jude Watson, 1996.

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The “plot” of this one (if plot isn’t too strong a word—we might alternately go with “vaguely thought-out premise” for the same idea) is that Ivy Nesbitt, the sister of Mattie Nesbitt (in the last terrible one of this series I reviewed), is a sad, sad, sad, sad, sad, sad and lonely, oh so lonely, broken spinster-woman. At the old, old, old, extremely elderly age of eighteen. It’s OK if you just threw up your hands and made a face at the computer. That’s the face I made at the book the whole time I was reading it.

Ivy and her sister are from Maine, where after the death of their parents they made a stab at keeping the family farm, but it eventually failed. They had no money and only a maiden aunt left, so they headed off to become miners’ brides after seeing the “Brides Wanted” ad. Ivy spent the whole time weeping and wailing and sobbing because of her broken heart, though. She had been in love with a boy, Jamie, her whole childhood, and everyone thought they were going to get married one day until they went for a sail, got lost in the fog, and had to spend the night on an island alone with no chaperone. Jamie then decided he wanted to be a sailor and left just after that, which meant everyone in their town was convinced that he’d Had His Way With Her and then fucked off. In fairness, that’s a pretty reasonable assumption.

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Jessica

This book, like all Sunfire books, is more or less bizarre, but one of the most bizarre things is that on the back cover, the Indian guy is wearing blue jeans. And on the front cover, he’s the whitest-looking Indian guy I’ve ever seen, he looks like Scott Baio, complete with a 1980s shag cut and a ponytail. Not sure if that’s better or worse than Jessica’s poufy ponytail.

Jessica, Mary Francis Shura, 1984.

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Like all the books, Jessica has two men fighting over her love, but since one of them is an Indian guy you know automatically he’s not going to win. This book was published in 1984, you just know he isn’t going anywhere. Unfortunately, she hooks up with an asshole, but that seems to be the way of all these books, so hey, whatever.

Jessica lives in Kansas just after the Civil War, with her father, stepmother, and two younger brothers. She’s being courted sort of half-heartedly by a guy named Roy Blanding, who is really bland. (Never say these books lack subtlety.) She’s complaining about how her parents don’t treat her like an adult while she heads over to the new neighbours, Will Reynolds and his pregnant wife, to bring them a basket as they’ve just moved in. They’re from Chicago, and are extremely rude to Jessica, and Will tells her to fuck off because they don’t need her running around telling them what to do, and get the fuck out because he knows everything, blah blah blah. He has known her for ONE MINUTE. And claims that they don’t need charity. How rude.

Later that week Jessica is wandering through town reflecting on how Indians don’t kill more than they can eat, as you do when looking in shop windows, and I would like to introduce her to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and yes they did because they were just people, not saints. But this is the 80s, and the Magical Indian trope is in full effect, and this is foreshadowing because: never let it be said that these books are not SUPER SUPER SUBTLE. CAN YOU HEAR HOW SUBTLE THEY ARE?????

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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.

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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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Diana

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.

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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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Megan

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.

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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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Amanda

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.

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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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