Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 21-30)

Reading Through Nancy Drew Books 21-30

I have loved Nancy Drew for years, but will rereading the entire series of the yellow hardback books hold up to my memories? Join me as I find out! Read part one here and read part two here.

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Book 21: The Secret in the Old Attic

Secret in the Old Attic

Well, Nancy sure does love to search through attics. Another story about an apparently haunted house that has hidden rooms, allowing thieves to sneak in undetected? The series is only 21 books in, yet this feels like at least the third time this particular premise has been used, making The Secret in the Old Attic remarkably forgettable. And that’s even with the weird sub-plot involving a stolen silk formula, created with the use of black widows.

Ned Note: I have no idea why Ned was missing in this book until he conveniently burst into someone else’s home sometime after midnight, just in time to save her from certain death, because he wanted to “see Nancy.” After midnight. Without calling.

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Book 22: The Clue in the Crumbling Wall

Clue in the Crumbling Wall

Book 22 tries to make up for the unoriginality of its predecessor by apparently cramming in every mystery-like idea the author could think of. In this story, Nancy must find a famous dancer who disappeared ten years ago, or the dancer will lose the estate she inherited. The estate is, of course, a replica of an English castle that just happens to be down the way from where Nancy lives (along with all those other abandoned estates right where she lives…). It has towers, ruined gardens, a cloister, and something hidden somewhere in the walls! Nancy also gets to do a lot of travel by boat, so she can (as usual) experience things like near death when struck by passing boats. This story certainly seems to have more action and violence than many of the other books. I could not decide if it was exciting or just over-stimulating.

Ned Note: I loved how Ned was missing from the story because he was in South America for a school assignment. It’s always so inconvenient when your homework forces you to travel out of the country, isn’t it?

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Book 23: The Mystery of the Tolling Bell

Mystery of the Tolling Bell Book Cover

I was starting to wonder if the Nancy Drew books were deteriorating in quality or if I was just feeling grumpy. But finally the pace picks up! This story has an exciting beginning with Carson Drew being kidnapped and Nancy almost drowning while investigating a local legend about a ghost who sounds a bell before sending rushing water out from a cave. The premise feels more original than many of the others, and the case is a bit more complicated, with various villains engaged in different crimes. I’ll keep on reading after this one!

Ned Note: Ned finally reappears! He does useful stuff! He saves Nancy’s life while the police office he brings with him does nothing!

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Book 24: The Clue in the Old Album

Clue in the Old Album Book Cover

Book 24 is one of the stories that has not aged particularly well. Nancy tries to track down a gypsy violinist, who is the missing father of a young girl she has met. However, though Nancy keeps telling everyone that, “Most gypsies are good people,” the depictions given of many does not make it seem like the author really believes that. The mystery is also not that engaging. I would give this one a pass.

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Book 25: The Ghost of Blackwood Hall

Ghost of Blackwood Hall Book Cover

The premise for book 25 is so wild and incredibly unbelievable, that it’s actually really good? The mystery begins with Nancy trying to trace jewel thieves who have tricked a woman by pretending to be the voice of her dead husband. Soon, this mystery leads Nancy to another one, involving a number of working-class girls who have been duped/hypnotized into leaving their wages in the woods to support a fake orphanage. Several villains operating from various locations (including New Orleans) give Nancy an excuse to travel, while also making this mystery seem a bit more complicated than some of the others.

Ned Note: As usual, Ned is missing until the last possible moment, when he arrives just in time to save the day. Well, better late than never, Ned.

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Book 26: The Clue of the Leaning Chimney

Clue of the Leaning Chimney Book Cover

Book 26 provides a solid mystery when Nancy investigates the theft of a rare Chinese vase, as well as the disappearance of a Chinese man and his daughter five years ago, when they visited the United States. Nancy’s detective work is thrilling, but sadly, though the book tries to depict Chinese culture as beautiful, there are moments when the author’s word choices come across as racist. It does at least provide multiple admirable Chinese characters, who are knowledgeable collectors or skilled artists.

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Book 27: The Secret of the Wooden Lady

Secret of the Wooden Lady

Nancy helps her father with a case involving the missing deed to a ship his captain friend wishes to buy and, in the process, discovers a tie with the thief who broke into Bess Marvin’s house. A mystery about a long-lost ship, pirate treasure, and star-crossed love should be exciting. However, most of the book is just Nancy futilely trying to capture trespassers on the ship, while repeatedly being captured or knocked out. Why no one sets a guard on the ship is beyond me. Definitely not one of my favorites.

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Book 28: The Clue of the Black Keys

Clue of the Black Keys Book Cover

A professor goes missing at an archaeological dig, and one of his colleagues turns to Nancy Drew for help. This is another one of the books that has not aged well. The lore about ancient civilizations in Mexico appears to have been made up, and the series has been getting too weird in recent books with things like dolls that contain poison and, now, a legend about a silver frog that contains a substance that apparently will destroy the world. It’s too sensational.

Ned Note: Ned spends most of the book being jealous that Nancy is solving a mystery for a handsome young professor. Oh, Ned.

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Book 29: Mystery at the Ski Jump

Mystery at the Ski Jump Book Cover

I don’t know. I just was not feeling this one. Nancy discovers a ring of thieves who are stealing mink furs to sell, trading fake stock, and stealing and selling random items. She also gets involved with a handsome young man who is seeking to reclaim the inheritance stolen from him by his uncle. Nancy does a lot of traveling to try to track the gang of thieves. The biggest highlights are the revelations that Nancy apparently can ice skate like a professional and she’s a good enough skier that she recently won a novice competition. I am not sure when she finds time to practice all these skills.

Ned Note: Ned’s big moment comes when he stops Nancy from trying to pick up a trap in the snow. He also executes a ski jump better than Nancy’s. Ned is never better at Nancy at anything (no one is), so, while I wanted to appreciate his skill and intelligence, I was mostly just confused.

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Book 30: The Clue of the Velvet Mask

Clue of the Velvet Mask Book Cover

A group of thieves known as the Velvet Gang breaks into fancy River Heights parties and steals silver and jewels while the guests dance away. There is plenty of excitement in this one, and the trail Nancy takes to solve the mystery is convoluted enough to keep up reader interest. The main villain is incredibly obvious, however, so it is sort of baffling that Nancy does not suspect him more. This book is one of the stronger installments in these middle volumes, however.

Melisande by E. Nesbit

Melisande Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: Melisande
Series: None
Age Category: Children’s
Source: Library
Published: 1901

Summary

At her christening, the princess Melisande is cursed by an evil fairy to be bald forever. Still, Melisande grows up good and loving. Then she is offered a wish and, to please her mother the queen, Melisande wishes for golden hair that grows an inch a day and twice as fast when cut! Now Melisande has a new problem.

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Review

In Melisande, E. Nesbit presents a fairy that still feels fresh and modern. Cursed at her christening by an evil fairy, the princess Melisande later wishes for hair that grows an inch a day and twice as fast when cut. Thus starts a mathematical problem that soon stymies the whole kingdom. How can they keep Melisande comfortable when she has so much hair? And what in the world are they going to do with all that hair once they cut it? Readers will delight in this story that cautions them to be careful of what they wish for.

What I loved about Melisande (aside from the mathematical angle) is that, though it relies on some familiar fairy tropes, it also feels free to play with them. At the start, readers learn that the king and queen specifically do not hold a christening party so no one can be accidentally overlooked, and thus offended. What happens is they offend everyone. This is the start of their dilemma when an insulted fairy curses the baby with baldness.

But the story does more than showcase Nesbit’s familiarity with fairy tales, and her sense of humor in alluding to them. It also presents Melisande as active and admirable. From the start, Melisande is admirable because she is kind, not because she is beautiful or because she is rich. She only wishes for golden hair because her mother desires it. And, once she experiences the fallout from that wish, she still thinks of others, using her hair to help the kingdom and her other mishaps to prevent violence and war. All this is while the Prince Florizel is trying to think of a way to stop her hair from growing so he can win her hand in marriage. She is not just waiting around for him. Melisande is keeping busy.

Lovers of fairy tales will delight in Melisande. It keeps some of the familiar parts of old tales, such as the true love between the prince and the princess, while adding aspects that keep the story feeling contemporary. How Florizel solves the riddle of Melisande’s hair will keep readers guessing. But it might well be Melisande who wins readers hearts over with her kindness.

4 stars

The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo

Beatryce Prophecy Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Beatryce Prophecy
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

One day, a girl appears at the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. She cannot remember who she is, but the king wants her dead. Brother Edick wants to help the girl, but the head of his Order does not. So the girl sets out with a goat and an orphan boy to try to find her way in the world. She only hopes that she will be shown the way back home.

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Review

The Beatryce Prophecy is, I suspect, one of those books beloved by adults, but perhaps not as much by children. The book takes on an almost fable-like feel, one created by the flatness of the characters and the generous repetition of ideas, phrases, and thoughts. The moral? That Words Are Important, of course. For some readers, any story about the power of stories is an automatic gem. For my part, however, I found the story veering a little too close to self-indulgent. I can see this one being a contender for many awards, but more because I think adults will find it Important and not so much because children will be lining up to read it.

My feelings towards The Beatryce Prophecy are, I must admit, very ambivalent. While the plot is not particularly original, the characters are winning, and I think many a reader will fall in love with Jack Dorey, Brother Edick, and, of course, Answelica the goat. The titular character, Beatryce, is beloved in turn by all the characters, but it must be admitted that she exhibits the least personality (which is saying something in a book where pretty much no one has a personality). Readers are supposed to take it for granted that she is special because she can read, and that she is intelligent because her mother and her tutor say so. Why Beatryce should be treated like an angel because someone taught her to read is beyond me–she just happened to be rich and lucky. And Beatryce, in fact, does not make any intelligent decisions during the course of the book. But because love prevails and other people love her, it doesn’t much matter–they keep saving her from herself.

The slow pacing and the repetition of words, phrases, and thoughts also weigh the story down. Listening to a long ramble about the demon goat Answelica at the opening almost made me put the book down. Fortunately, however, the book is short, so I figured I could try to power through. This did prove a little more difficult than I had imagined, since nothing much happens in the book–the bulk of it really does come from the repetition. Three phrases are often needed just to describe something like the sky or someone’s thoughts that they are afraid. While this is soothing at time, I do think repetition is often most effective in smaller doses.

Finally, the ending of the story proves confusing–if one thinks about it too closely. The trouble comes from revelations about Beatryce’s mother that make her one of the most rounded characters of the book, though she barely appears except in flashbacks and through other people’s memories of her. However, readers do learn that her husband died years ago, that she allegedly thinks her children might one day take the throne (maybe the reason she saw that they were all educated), that she is proud of her family’s bloodline, and that she (again allegedly) is classist and would not be amenable to marrying someone of common birth.

All this makes Beatryce’s mother intriguing and fleshed out. But. In a story where everyone else is flat and pretty much divided into Good and Not So Good–what does that make her? The story wants to make her Good. But she’s too complex for this type of tale. Her pride and her apparent ambition (in a story where ambition for the throne is coded very negatively) suggest that she should be on the Not So Good Side. So why does the book try so hard to make her seem wonderful? Just because she is Beatryce’s mother? It’s a knotty problem and one that the book closes with unresolved.

I do think that there are readers out there who will love The Beatryce Prophecy. The types of readers who love romantic tales of old, who enjoy knights and ladies, who dream of going on medieval adventures. I also realize that these types of readers are probably less abundant than the ones repeatedly bringing humorous books like Dog Man and Wimpy Kid to the top of the bestseller lists all the time. But I do think it’s worth pondering whether this book has more kid appeal, or more adult appeal. To me, it seems like a book that will be most beloved of adult readers who already love everything Kate DiCamillo writes.

3 Stars

The Princess Rules by Philippa Gregory

The Princess Rules by Philippa Gregory

Information

Goodreads: The Princess Rules
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1988, 1991, 1992 (collected in one volume 2020)

Official Summary

Princess Florizella may live in a classic fairy-tale world, but she’s no ordinary princess…

These three stories were originally published under the titles Princess Florizella, Princess Florizella and the Wolves and Princess Florizella and the Giant.

They were originally dedicated to her daughter but have been reimagined in this edition which she has dedicated to her grandchildren.

“Princess Florizella was friends with some of the princesses who had studied the Princess Rules, and behaved just as the Rules said they should. Florizella thought their hair was lovely: so golden and so very long. And their clothes were nice: so richly embroidered. And their shoes were delightful: so tiny and handmade in silk. But their days bored her to death…”

Instead, Princess Florizella rides her horse, Jellybean, all over the kingdom, having adventures of her own…

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Review

Philippa Gregory presents three feminist princess stories in this new volume collecting three previously published works: Princess Florizella, Princess Florizella and the Wolves, and Princess Florizella and the Giant. Each story is unconnected, but follows the adventures of Princess Florizella, who happily breaks all the Princess Rules to make friends, have adventures, and even save the kingdom. Fans of works such as The Paper Bag Princess or The Princess in Black will find another unquenchable heroine in Princess Florizella.

Princess Florizella introduces the titular heroine, who refreshingly decides to do what she enjoys, rather than following the dictates of society. While all her princess friends spend their days primping, napping, and barely eating, Florizella speaks her mind, rides on her horse Jellybean, and eats whatever she wants. When her parents ask her to go to a ball where a prince will choose his bride, Florizella goes, not to contend for his hand, but to have fun with her friends. There might be a message in about having others appreciate you for being yourself, but, really, I think the story is just meant to be in good fun, and to give some ironic digs to classic fairy tales.

Princess Florizella and the Wolves is arguably the weakest of the three stories. In this one, Florizella finds some wild wolf cubs and decides to raise them in secret in her room. The resulting chaos leads her parents to believe that she is under a curse and needs to be rescued by a prince. Florizella again defies gender roles and refuses to be rescued, but it is a little hard to root for her in this story because, well, she has a pack of wild wolves under her bed and that is just not going to work out for anyone. Maybe some children will find it funny, though.

Princess Florizella and the Giant expands the world a little as Florizella sets out to rescue a town from a giant. The giant, of course, turns out to be rather misunderstood and just in need of friendship. Again, one could read some sort of moral into this about not judging others by appearances and always trying to be kind, but the stories are so silly that attempting to make them into a life lesson just feels wrong. If parents really want these stories to teach something, however, they at least get to point at Florizella as a confident girl who does not feel the need to do anything just because everyone else is.

Altogether, this is a pretty fun collection that is a great choice for readers transitioning into chapter books. The stories are witty and Florizella’s feminist flair will appeal to modern readers who enjoy fantasy and fairy tale worlds, but who want their heroines fierce.

4 stars

Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 1-10)

Book One: The Secret of the Old Clock

It’s hard not to love the mystery that started it all. In The Secret of the Old Clock, readers are introduced to Nancy, an attractive, rich, and popular eighteen-year-old who enjoys helping her lawyer father with his cases. A chance encounter leads her to suspect that a rich bachelor left a second will to his fortune, and she begins tracking down his relatives to uncover more clues. This story establishes many of the later traits of the series, such as Nancy’s curiosity and resolve, her involvement with Carson Drew’s legal work, and her ability to ingratiate herself into the lives of random strangers so she can solve mysteries for them.

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Book Two: The Hidden Staircase

Who doesn’t love a classic haunted house mystery? In her second case, Nancy answers a friend’s plea to discover the truth behind the ghost frightening her relatives. At the same time, Nancy begins to investigate a railroad case her father is working on, and the threats he is receiving as a result. This is a fun mystery that includes all the staples such as hidden passages, disguises, and good old-fashioned sleuthing.

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Book Three: The Bungalow Mystery

Nancy’s third mystery gets a little wilder than the previous installments. This time, Nancy suspects that the guardians of a girl she met while on vacation are not what they seem. As usual, her mystery ends up being connected with a case her father is working on, though the odds of such a connection are slim indeed. Readers will need a healthy helping of credulity to enjoy this story, but that is true of most of Nancy’s mysteries.

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Book Four: The Mystery at Lilac Inn

This is arguably one of the weaker installments of the series. The motivations of the villain are a little unbelievable, as is her bizarre method of revenge. A series of coincidences ends up connecting two disparate cases Nancy is working on, and she ends up solving the mystery largely by stumbling into the villains instead of by actively sleuthing. The plot is also a bit redundant, recycling elements from previous books such as a capsized boat, a storm, and a haunted building.

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Book Five: The Secret of Shadow Ranch

Shadow Ranch is one of the most popular Nancy Drew books, and for good reason. This story takes Nancy out West, where the author delights in creating a deeply atmospheric setting full of old cave dwellings, square dancing, and horseback riding. The accuracy of this depiction may be suspect, but it is fun, and the setting is furthermore tied to a romantic story involving the doomed love between an outlaw and a sheriff’s daughter, which gives the story a sense of historical depth. This installment is also notable for introducing Nancy’s best friends George and Bess and for name dropping Ned, though Nancy will not actually meet him until book seven. All this, combined with a fast-paced plot and hint of romance with Dave the cowboy, makes Shadow Ranch one of the best Nancy Drew mysteries.

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Book Six: The Secret of Red Gate Farm

The Secret of Red Gate Farm throws a new, tantalizing mystery Nancy’s way as she tries to figure out why a mysterious saleswoman was so reluctant to sell Bess a bottle of perfume, as well as whether or not the “nature cult” on Red Gate Farm is truly what it seems. As usual, Nancy manages to solve the case when no one else can simply because she is incredibly lucky. The bottle of perfume, the man she meets on the train, the strange job advertisement her friend answers, and the cult–they all happen to be related! But, though the plot is unbelievable, it is still entertaining. I enjoyed something new since three of the last five books included haunted properties.

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Book Seven: The Clue in the Diary

Book seven is most notable for the introduction of Ned Nickerson, soon to be Nancy’s steady boyfriend (for the next few decades!). It is fun to see the usually composed Nancy start to blush and get nervous around Ned, who quickly proves himself a valuable asset to the sleuthing team. Nancy deserves someone who is interested in and supportive of her work, and she gets that in Ned, who gamely runs errands for Nancy and is always willing to lend a hand. There’s also a mystery involving two missing persons, a suspected arson, and mail theft, but, it is not one of the stronger plot lines in the series.

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Book Eight: Nancy’s Mysterious Letter

Book eight is not known for being one of the stronger installments of the series, but I admit I heartily enjoyed this mystery. Nancy mistakenly receives a letter addressed to another Nancy Drew, who has inherited a fortune in England. Now, Nancy must find the other woman before she is swindled out of her money. The story is essentially a comedy of errors, with Nancy tracking down two individuals, and always arriving at their former location just as they have left. There may be little mystery here, since Nancy knows exactly whom she seeks. But I enjoyed the chase nonetheless.

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Book Nine: The Sign of the Twisted Candles

Book nine is certainly one of the stronger mysteries of the series. Nancy arrives at an inn to investigate rumors that the old man who lives there is being kept as a prisoner in the tower by the innkeepers. In the process, she discovers an ancient feud that also threatens to estrange her from Bess and George. A gripping plot, combined with richly-drawn characters, secret compartments, and plenty of danger makes this a thrilling story.

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Book Ten: Password to Larkspur Lane

Password to Larkspur Lane continues a strong streak for the series. An injured messenger pigeon leads Nancy to two related mysteries, one involving a strange wheel of fire at her friend’s grandparents’ house and one involving a missing woman. Nancy does some solid sleuthing, piecing together some fairly tenuous clues to arrive at the truth, before attempting a daring rescue escape, complete with disguises, angry guard dogs, and airplanes. The series needs more stories like this!

Natalie Portman’s Fables by Natalie Portman, Ill. by Janna Mattia

Natalie Portman's Fables Cover

Information

Goodreads: Natalie Portman’s Fables
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

Natalie Portman retells three classic tales, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse.”

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Review

Natalie Portman’s Fables is a welcome update to three classic stories: “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse.” Portman writes these fables for a new generation not only by adding more female characters, but also by inserting some more contemporary morals, such as eating healthy and being good to the environment. However, despite good intentions and charming illustrations, Natalie Portman’s Fables ultimately falls flat due to the sometimes almost unreadable verse.

Rhyming couplets are difficult for anyone to write with skill, and, sadly, Portman does not show herself equal to the task in this book. She encounters common difficulties with the medium almost from the start, forcing rhymes by writing nonsense or adding in lines that do not flow naturally from the current information and plot points given to the reader. She also fails abysmally to keep any sense of meter for the entire book.

These fatal flaws are evident in the very opening of the first tale, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” where Portman begins by referring to a number of collected animals as “townsimals,” but then, two lines later, seems to refer to all the animals as “apes” as in, “They cheered to find out who was the greatest great ape,” for the sole purpose of rhyming with “grapes.” The verse does not improve from there, with the fable containing lines that vary erratically from 10 to 11 to 12 syllables.

Even when Portman keeps her syllable count consistent, however, the meter is sometimes off. Readers who hoped to have this book as a read-aloud for young children will be stymied by verses such as:

“Tortoise took her sweet time, but enjoyed every step.

When she passed the finish line, the townsimals wept.

‘We never thought a poor, burdened, old reptile

Could outpace a winner, mile after mile.””

“The Tortoise and the Hare” in Natalie Portman’s Fables

The sense of rhythm in lines such as these is so completely lacking, that one wonders how an editor could not have begged Portman to do some revision.

Aside from the excruciating verse, the book is charming enough. Readers will likely be delighted to see that Portman worked to make the fables more equal in gender representation. She also adds some morals of her own to the tales, showing the three little pigs to be poor homeowners, not only because they are too lazy to build a good home, but also because they are slovenly, addicted to junk food, and wasteful. Ultimately, however, the best part of the book may be the illustrations, which have a pleasing, old-fashioned feeling appropriate for the subject matter.

Natalie Portman’s Fables has a sound premise and could have been a defining book for today’s young readers, whose parents undoubtedly would have welcomed some more inclusive tales. Unfortunately, however, the verse is so poorly written that most probably will not want to read this book a second time.

3 Stars

The Invisible Chimes by Margaret Sutton

The Invisible Chimes

Information

Goodreads: The Invisible Chimes
Series: Judy Bolton #3
Source: Library
Published: 1932

Summary

When Judy Bolton meets a strange girl who cannot seem to remember her own name, Judy is determined to find out her identity. At first, she wants to help the girl she has named “Honey.” But Honey was found in the company of thieves. Could it be she is not telling the truth about her past?

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Review

The third book in Margaret Sutton’s Judy Bolton series continues the adventures of teenage Judy as she attends high school and solves mysteries in her spare time. In this episode, Judy meets a mysterious girl who seemingly cannot remember her identity. Judy names the girl “Honey” and is determined to figure out where she comes from, so she can notify the girl’s presumably worried parents. As with the previous books in the series, the mystery is rather formulaic and thus easy to solve. However, that familiarity is part of what gives the series its charms. The Invisible Chimes will delight readers who enjoy serialized mystery stories like Nancy Drew.

For me, serialized mystery series like the Judy Bolton books are comfort reads. They follow a predictable pattern and often present mysteries that rely on incredible coincidences, meaning the protagonist can wrap up two seemingly unrelated cases at once, by the end of the book. So far, the Judy Bolton books have followed this formula, allowing Judy repeatedly to connect people and places that ought not to be connected at all. It’s a little unbelievable, of course, but it’s also comforting to know that, by the end of the story, everything will be resolved. Families will be reunited, lost property restored, and justice done. Sometimes one just needs a book where everything comes out all right.

This series is also fun because Judy is not a static character, but one who grows over the course of the series. She’s still in high school in book three, but so far she has already moved towns, changed schools, integrated herself into elite society, and caught the attention of two men, both of whom are subtly vying for her affections. While Judy’s personal life does not get as much attention in this book as it has in previous installments, readers can rest assured that she will continue to face personal problems that make her come to life as a protagonist.

The Invisible Chimes is well worth a read for those who enjoy books of this nature. And the best part is that there are over thirty more books to come! So readers who enjoy Judy can continue to watch her grow up and take life head on.

4 stars

An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott

Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott

Information

Goodreads: An Old-Fashioned Girl
Series: None
Source: Owned
Published: 1869

Summary

Fourteen-year-old Polly Milton visits her friend Fanny Shaw in the city, where she is impressed by Fanny’s fashionable lifestyle. However, she also feels that Fanny and her friends judge her for her “countrified” manners and clothing. Over the next six years, Polly keeps visiting the Shaws, until the day she moves into the city to earn her living as a music teacher. She realizes that many of the Shaws’ old set will no longer speak to her, since she is now a working woman. But when the Shaws face financial adversity, Polly will be there to help teach them that a loving family is the greatest wealth of all.

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Review

Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl will feel familiar to fans of Little Women. Once again, Alcott chronicles the coming-of-age of a young woman who realizes that riches do not equal happiness, and who finds her own contentment in serving others and forming part of a loving family. Alcott’s vivid characters, however, with their many foibles, prevent the story from becoming sickeningly sweet or overly didactic. Instead, what readers get is one girl’s personal journey made utterly engrossing by the way in which Alcott tells it.

Even though centuries may separate readers and the protagonist Polly, Polly’s worries about wanting to fit in, wanting to be appreciated, and wanting to be admired, still ring true. Her journey thus becomes a journey that readers can not only go along with, but also one that they can use to reflect on their own. An Old-Fashioned Girl will appeal to fans of Alcott, but also readers who enjoy a good, old-fashioned story where the drama is limited, but the characters make everyday moments feel just as interesting and important.

Some readers may feel put off by Polly’s values. She remains dedicated to dressing and living simply even as she witnesses the extravagances of her rich friends. She also thinks it wrong to flirt for fun, because she could end up hurting a man who takes her advances seriously. She believes it is important to love and support her family, and she values those relationships more than she values her own comforts. For some modern readers, Polly may seem like nothing more than a prudish, subjugated girl who does not know how to have fun. Behind the outward gestures like simple clothes, however, is real conviction. Polly knows who she is and what she wants. She does not need her friends or high society to tell her how to be happy because she already is.

Alcott’s work makes it clear that, even in her day, there was some concern that outward appearances were taking precedence over true happiness and that people, worried about keeping up with their neighbors, were actually making themselves miserable. Even if readers do not agree with Polly that avoiding unnecessary expenses and keeping house for their brother can help them discern what they truly value, the main idea of looking inward for contentment instead of chasing the latest fads can still ring true. An Old-Fashioned Girl thus combines a delightful story with a thought-provoking question, “What really makes us happy? And do we have the courage to chase it, even when society will laugh at us for it?”

5 stars

Movie Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Movie Shoes

Information

Goodreads: Movie Shoes
Series: Shoes #6 (companion to Ballet Shoes)
Source: Library
Published: 1949

Summary

The Winter family has been having a rough time ever since dad’s accident. Rachel hopes to get a part in a ballet to help earn money. Tim just wants to be taught piano by a famous pianist. And Jane? She’s known as the plain, untalented member of the family. So when Aunt Cora invites the family to California, Rachel and Tim are somewhat distressed about losing their chances in England, but also hopeful the can become stars in America. But it’s undesirable Jane who lands the lead role of Mary Lennox in a movie adaptation of The Secret Garden.

Review

Noel Streatfeild is perhaps best known for writing the story of the Fossil sisters in Ballet Shoes, but she also published a number of other children’s books, many of them renamed with “Shoe” titles later to capitalize on the success of the Fossils. Movie Shoes, for instance, was originally titled The Painted Garden. However, aside from a small appearance by Posy and Pauline Fossil, the book is only related to Ballet Shoes insofar that it features, like many of Streatfeild’s books, children aspiring for careers on the stage.

Movie Shoes feels a little more realistic, however, because it focuses on Jane, the acknowledged “plain” one of the three Winter children, and the only one not to demonstrate a remarkable talent for the arts. Jane’s family view her as ill-tempered and disagreeable–but no wonder! Her parents seem emotionally distant and the children’s nanny keeps reminding Jane that not everyone can be talented, but everyone can be good. Perhaps Jane’s family could not stand her, but I found her the most interesting character in the book, especially when contrasted with her older sister Rachel (who has a tendency to be overly proud of her skills) and Tim (whose main delight is playing pranks).

The story becomes really interesting when overlooked Jane lands the starring role of Mary Lennox in a film adaptation of The Secret Garden. Her family immediately dismisses her, saying she cannot act, and Rachel begins to get jealous. However, the fact is that Jane landed the role because her ill temper so remarkably matches that of Mary at the beginning of the book. So the challenge for Jane becomes to find a way to not be disagreeable–something for her that seems almost impossible. (But, again, who can blame her when her family will not even support her the first time something incredible happens to her?) Her attempts at personal transformation are what gives the story its heart. She’s not just trying to become famous. She’s trying to become a better person.

Aside from Theater Shoes, which relies too heavily on retelling the plot of Ballet Shoes, I have immensely enjoyed all of Streatfeild’s Shoes books. She has a real gift for characterization, as well as for illuminating the lives of children trying to start their own careers, usually on the stage. Movie Shoes was yet another delightful read for me. I hope to read more of Streatfeild soon!

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More Shoes Books

The Haunted Attic by Margaret Sutton

The Haunted Attic

Information

Goodreads: The Haunted Attic
Series: Judy Bolton #2
Source: Library
Published: 1932

Summary

The Boltons move into a new house, reported to be haunted, and ]udy is determined to solve the mystery before her Halloween party. But can she and her brother be brave enough to deal with the spirit who walks the attic?

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Review

The Haunted Attic continues the adventures of teenage sleuth Judy Bolton, a heroine who originally appeared in the 1930s, as a sort of counterpart to Nancy Drew. However, unlike Nancy, Judy is known for aging over the course of the series and her books have been noted by fans as being somewhat more socially conscious. The Haunted Attic provides fans of serial mystery stories with a comfortably predictable pattern, while engaging them with an emphasis on Judy’s social and familial relationships.

Part of the charm of the Judy Bolton books so far is that Judy spends a lot of time interacting with her brother Horace and her physician father, as well as worrying about her friends and school life. This book sees Judy navigating the perils of a new high school. While she longs to fit in and be popular, she makes enemies of a mean girl early on, and finds that her friendship with one of the town’s richest girls is causing jealousy. While Nancy Drew seems to be universally loved by all, Judy’s experience of high school is so awful that she begins to wonder if she should leave. This adds a bit of realism and relatability to a book that otherwise can strain credulity with its romantic mystery elements.

Also notable is the book’s attempts at social commentary. Judy clearly longs to be popular and to move in the upper-class set. However, she simultaneously does not hesitate to call out that set when they say things that disparage the working-class girls at the mill. Still, Judy has to work hard to uphold her own ideals when she realizes that associating with the mill girls could mean losing her friends at school. Her beliefs threaten to clash with practice when she has to decide whom to invite to her Halloween party.

While trying to be a normal high school girl, Judy is, of course, also determined to solve the mystery of her haunted house. In this respect, she does seem a little more passive than Nancy. She lives in the house in question, so basically all she needs to do is make a foray into the attic now and then, and question the chief of police about what he knows. Her brother Horace actually ends up solving the bulk of the mystery, which is disappointing.

Still, the Judy Bolton mysteries are a pleasant read. The mysteries so far have been easy to solve, following neat patterns where several seemingly unrelated problems are ultimately shown to be part one of overarching case. Readers will solve the clues long before Judy, but there’s something comforting about knowing the formula and watching Judy try to figure it out, too. I’ll definitely be ordering book three from the library.

4 stars