Dawn Of Love #2: Wild Prairie Sky By Cheri Michaels

How could she fall in love… with a young man as wild as a mountain lion and as free as the prairie wind?

I’m a big fan of Scholastic’s Sunfire series- in which orphaned teenage girls have to choose between two suitors while dealing with historical disasters and occasionally-anachronistic feminist ideals, so I was all-in on this rival series from Archway/Pocketbooks, featuring some of the largest hoop skirts ever imagined on its covers.

And although I did not like this one as much as most of the Sunfires I’ve read, it still has a lot to recommend it.

The Plot: The reader joins the plot in progress, as 15-year-old Betsy Monroe and her older sister, Willa, guide their team of oxen and covered wagon west, three weeks after the death of their parents.

Although younger, Betsy is the feisty and determined tomboy, claiming to be the best shot in their hometown back east, while 17-year-old Willa is quiet and reserved, content to be bossed around by her younger sister. Seeking to join a wagon train at Fort Kearny, Nebraska to follow through on their parents’ plans to claim a homestead in Oregon, the sisters meet arrogant teenaged frontiersman (frontiersboy?) Charlie Freeman along the way, and Betsy is annoyed to find that he will be one of the scouts with the very wagon train they intend to sign on to!

Michaels doesn’t skimp on the details of death and disease that await the pioneers on the long journey west: cholera epidemics, dangerous river crossings, men crushed in wagon accidents, children who wander away from the train, never to be seen again.

And of course along the way Charlie (a ladies man whose reputation precedes him) and Betsy constantly verbally spar with each other, so the whole train knows that they are secretly in love, L-U-V.

The story is pretty much what you expect, but there are some interesting choices along the way- Betsy is not only spirited and daring, she also proves to be the best at fording the livestock at dangerous river crossings, earning the respect and admiration of the men leading the train,  but also requiring her to work harder than any other woman in the party. She’s also beautiful, and an accomplished flirt. I mean, gee whiz, is there anything Betsy Monroe can’t do?

For weeks she had driven her ox team like a man, never complaining and never asking for a lick of help. But had anyone bothered to ask her if she would like to go hunting buffalo? Of course not. She was too frail to do anything so exciting. But not too frail, she though rebelliously, to drag six oxen over half a continent.

Charlie does rescue Betsy from being trampled by a rogue buffalo a few pages later… but he reacts to this (and every subsequent) situation with such good humor and lack of chauvinism that it’s obvious he and Betsy are made for each other.

Which leads to the major difference in tone from the Sunfire counterparts- the romance here is straight-up sexy, such as a description of Charlie’s rippling pecs that actually includes the word “nipple”.

The heat gets turned up even more after Willa marries a widower en route and moves into his wagon, leaving Betsy with the choice of dumping her wagon and most of her possessions on the side of the road and joining them… or taking Charlie into her wagon for the remainder of the trip.

Earlier in the book the wagonmaster had spoken frankly to the sisters about the hardships of pregnancy on the journey, much to Willa’s horror:

“Sometimes it’s them just you age comes through best- too old to die young, too young to die old. Providing, that is, that neither o’ you is expectin’”

“Babies?” Willa gasped in embarrassment.

“My sister and I aren’t married,” Betsy said.

“My experience,” Captain Meeker said, “is that babies don’t always know who’s married and who isn’t.”

Captain Meeker knows of what he speaks, as Betsy and Charlie almost admit the feelings that they are feeling as the train celebrates with a dance upon reaching the Continental Divide:

She felt his long fingers gently stroking her cheek and lifting her chin up. She closed her eyes and felt the hot crush of his lips against hers. A warm rush of pleasure threatened to melt her bones to tallow, and she clung to him for support.

“Don’t let go of me,” she whispered. “Ever.”

She grinned to herself. She’d kissed other boys before, but she counted Charlie’s as the first REAL kiss of her life. Her first real kiss, she thought, and already she’d become an addict. A terrible addict who was going to fall down and roll in the dirt in fits if she didn’t get another kiss soon.

Pretty hot stuff for the 1840s.

Of course, COMPLICATIONS arise when Betsy is gossiped about by a jealous romantic rival (who is then promptly swept to his death down a set of rapids at the next river crossing), keeping the young couple apart and amiably bickering all the way to Oregon.

There is also an Indian attack, followed by a mountain fever epidemic, which nearly kills Willa, who makes it through to announce that she’s pregnant, leaving Betsy wondering exactly what she is going to do when they finally arrive in Oregon. Live with her sister and her family? Set off for a city with her new BFF Kitty Taylor? Will she ever confess to Charlie how she really feels about him?

The last is resolved when the raft with her wagon on it capsizes as they make the final crossing at the Deschutes River- yup, Betsy is almost home free when she sustains a head injury and is swept downstream. Only Charlie continues to search for her, and…

They quarreled happily all the way back to camp. It was going to be a wonderful marriage, Betsy told Willa later, if she and Charlie didn’t star a war first.


Ok, not quite, author Michaels also includes a two-page “Historical Note”, which both explains that in real life “Heading west was seldom a woman’s idea” and:

By all accounts, far more Indians were killed by whites than the other way around, and the slow, steady, and brutal war waged against the Indians for their lands is one of the saddest notes of our history.

Which doesn’t really jive with the only Indians we meet in the actual story, which consists of a trio of scammers who “kidnap” Betsy and then “ransom” her back for her horse and Charlie’s shirt (hence the appearance of Charlie’s nipple) and some women who come into the camp to trade, then turn double agents, leading the men back to the camp to attack the wagon train.

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To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie By Ellen Conford

For Sylvie, movies weren’t just stories. They were a way out.

A few years ago I reviewed Conford’s And This Is Lauraand recalled it as pleasant, but largely unremarkable. So I was surprised to find Sylvie a much more sophisticated piece of work, with a sympathetic hard-luck heroine (who is infuriating nonetheless), an ambiguous ending (in which maybe she doesn’t learn all the obvious lessons) and a real eye for detail in a specific time and place.

The Plot: It is also pretty blunt about the situation 15 year old Sylvie Krail is in as the novel opens. Practically an orphan (she is rumored to have an alcoholic mother in an asylum near Rochester, NY), she is on her third foster home in the New York City suburbs, and it’s the third one that she’s had to fight off the lecherous advances of various “uncles”. So, in the spring of 1956, she’s been saving her babysitting money for three years, hatching an elaborate plan to escape to Hollywood where she will be “discovered”. Continue reading

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Kiss Me, Creep By Marian Woodruff

Is Richie really a creep- or is he someone Joy can love?

So, this seems as a good a time as any to talk about how this blog got its start: in the summer of 2011, I acquired a large lot of Wildfire romances, and posted the cover of Superflirt on Facebook, because… well, obviously.  That turned into a featured cover-of-the-day, highlighting the best and weirdest Wildfire, First Love and Sweet Dreams had to offer, which eventually turned in to a weekly review, which a year later turned into this blog.

In conclusion, it may take a while, but apparently I do eventually get around to fulfilling all reader requests. Sometimes it just takes, like, seven years.

The Plot: …Is extremely slight. High school seniors Joy Wilder and Richie Brennan have been like oil and water since their first meeting, when Joy and her family moved from Seattle to picturesque Piper’s Point. Continue reading

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Seventeen & In-Between By Barthe DeClements

At seventeen, things aren’t so simple anymore…

I got a number of requests for the final book in DeClements’s series featuring Elsie Edwards, as she evolves from gross 5th grade pariah to a beautiful but emotionally scarred high school student while dealing with a neglectful mother, bratty younger sister, absentee father, and newfound popularity with her male classmates picks up halfway through Elsie’s junior year of high school.

While the middle-reader Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade pretty much solved all of Elsie’s problems by putting her on a starvation diet (and successfully escaping from a kidnapping attempt….), DeClements added more nuance when telling the story from Elsie’s point of view in its YA sequel How Do You Lose Those Ninth Grade Blues? And like its predecessor, this one benefits greatly from Elsie’s point of view, as an imperfect heroine with no easy answers.

The Plot: While Elsie had successfully overcome some of her insecurities and established a relationship with hunky senior football player Craddoc Shaw, the astute reader might have already been thinking that Craddoc wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. Continue reading

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My Darling, My Hamburger By Paul Zindel

Senior year isn’t the end of high school- it’s the beginning of Life!

This week’s reader request comes from literally my oldest friend, who sent me an Instragam  screen shot with the caption HAVE YOU SEEN THIS????


(Also I am counting that as a “request”)

Background: I have a vague impression of Paul Zindel as an author whose YA work became extremely dated in the 20+ years between its publication and my becoming a YA myself: too aggressively zany, too much casual drinking, too many parents threatening to make you join the Army, too much wrestling with too many vague existential questions. There is also the fact that by the time I had gotten to my freshman year of high school, teachers of a certain age were embracing the fact that standards had relaxed enough that COOL and EDGY novels such as Zindel’s The Pigman were now allowed as part of the curriculum (Catcher in the Rye was another), without considering that anything being taught as part of the curriculum was automatically deeply uncool, and also I already read The Pigman when I was like 11, so I really lacked enthusiasm about Making A Poster To Illustrate The Themes…

Sorry, slipped into Annoying Autobiographical Pause-mode for a second.

(…but are we really cultivating and love and appreciation for literature by making us all pretend to have a TV talk show about Alienation?)

The Plot: Which despite all that, I actually do love Zindel’s work and his disaffected 1970s Staten Island teens- I still think about John and Lorraine every time I’m headed for the Goethals bridge and see the exit for Victory Boulevard. Continue reading

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Give And Take By Tricia Springstubb

New loves… old friends… Does growing up mean choosing between them?

gave and take

This is a recent reader-request, but also a book that I’ve picked up probably 20 times in the past two years, before rejecting it and throwing it back on the pile. Dell’s Young Love imprint doesn’t have the best track record, including both some of the best and worst titles reviewed here…

And this is yet another one where the cover art and jacket-copy doesn’t do justice to the actual content. In fact, this is on my short list for “most misrepresented”.

The Plot: While it does nominally have to do with the changing relationship between long-time friends (one popular, one dowdy) because of BOYS, the changing points of view manages to empathize with every single one of its characters, including douchey boyfriends, Bitter Divorced Moms, and even ex-middle school bullies, all in prose that is constantly colorful and occasionally poetic. Continue reading

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Teenage Marriage: Coping With Reality By Jeanne Warren Lindsay

If you know a married teenager, you will know someone who will read Teenage Marriage: Coping With Reality

Did you overdose on Valentine’s candy? Well, no fear, I am here with the antidote!

Although, to be honest, this book isn’t the trainwreck the title and some of the chapters (“5. People Are Not For Hitting”, “11. Sex Starts In The Kitchen”) would have you hope.

I suspect the publisher really didn’t believe that this tome was going to stop and make teens seriously consider running off and getting married; nor was it going actually help those high school marriages that were already in trouble. This seems more like a cynical sell to schools and libraries to fill out their social-problems quota, a book of cited statistics for 10th graders doing their English class debating unit or 12th grade policy papers (“Pro: The Age of Marriage Should Be Raised to 21”).

Despite this, I can’t really find much fault with the very generic advice in the book. It tells you to talk about finances and division of household labor, which is a good idea for couples of any age. It isn’t even very dated, taking a modestly progressive viewpoint that husbands doing their share of cleaning and childcare should be a given.

Some Highlights: 

One young wife was shocked to find her husband ‘s mother cooked beans in a different way than her mother did. To make it worse, her husband thought his mother’s beans tasted the best. His wife did not agree.

So, yeah, your basic bean-drama. The whole thing is pretty much on this level. Continue reading

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