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review 2020-06-04 21:30
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her - Melanie Rehak

I read this in college and it opened my eyes, on finding a copy on our first venture out this past weekend in a second hand shop I figured it was time to give it another go since I've read a few of the original Nancy Drews now.

 

 'Girl Sleuth' traces the history of the 'Nancy Drew' series from its genesis in a memo from the Stratemeyer Syndicate to the cultural momentum Nancy Drew had achieved by the end of the 20th century. The focus is on the original author of the series, Mildred Wirt Benson, and editor Harriet Adams Stratemeyer who shepherded the series and, infamously, revised the original books and claimed sole authorship for decades. 

 

The story is a fascinating one. It is very hard to feel sympathy for Adams, but Rehak does a fine job on Adams' background and restrictions and the hardships she faced as a woman in a man's industry. Benson, on the other hand, was an amazing woman who would be noteworthy even without her having ghost-written Nancy. A journalist, pilot and - though she refused the title - feminist who paved the way for many after her.

 

I would have liked there to have been more discussion of the racism and classism inherent in the books written in the '30s and '40s. How much was present in the Stratemeyer outlines that Benson couldn't deviate from, written by Harriet and her sister for the most part, and how much did Benson add? Rehak goes straight into the era when the books needed to be revised. Those images, stereotypes and ideas were a part of the times, but they were not mandatory. Did Benson ever make a statement of regret? Did Adams? 

 

Still a good read for those of us who can't get enough.

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review 2020-05-31 21:05
The Chessmen of Doom, Johnny Dixon #7 by John Bellairs
The Chessmen of Doom - John Bellairs

When Professor Childermass' brother Perry dies, he leaves the Prof ten million dollars and his landed estate in Maine. The catch, of course, is that he must spend the summer at the remote country estate with no paid help. Naturally, the Prof is up to the task, but invites Johnny and Fergie to join him. The letter informing the professor of his brother's death comes with a riddle that comes back to haunt the professor. It speaks of pallid dwarves, dead eyes, and hairy stars. What does it mean?

 

This book is the usual absurd Gothic nonsense I love from Bellairs. The estate is not only large it is filled with "worthless" statuary and books imported from Europe, features a personalized tomb and statue by the front door and a 300ft memorial column - that you can climb up - for General Herkimer of the American Revolutionary War. There's also an observatory, among other things. I wish Bellairs had spent more (read: any) time describing what the boys discover in the house instead of glossing over it. I felt the lack, though child-me filled the mansion with all the Victorian trappings I longed to find in my '80s ranch. Stone Arabia and Lake Umbagog join General Herkimer as real references moved into Bellairs' world, along, of course with some recently stolen ivory chessmen from the British Museum.

 

Need I go into the plot? A nefarious person plans on ending life on Earth as we know it with the use of ancient, dark magic and ineffectually tries to scare the Prof and the boys from the estate so he has a clear path. He might as well have employed an unnecessarily slow dipping mechanism when he lures the gang out onto the lake. I did love the detail that Professor Roderick Random Childermass and his brothers Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker and Ferdinand Count Fathom were all named after heroes of Tobias Smollett's novels by their literary parents.

 

'Chessmen of Doom' makes up for its plot - stretched over a year to little purpose - with such details.

 

Johnny Dixon

 

Next: 'The Secret of the Underground Room'

 

Previous: 'The Trolley to Yesterday'

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review 2020-05-29 21:26
The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost, Johnny Dixon #4 by John Bellairs
The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost - John Bellairs

This is the first, and only?, direct sequel in the 'Johnny Dixon' series, and it may be why I remembered not liking this one as a kid. Most of Bellairs' work can be read independently, but 'Revenge' jumps right into one of Johnny's patented freaky dreams. An old man threatens Johnny, saying he's done his family a wrong, and that the ghost of Warren Windrow still roams. Warren Windrow is the 'Sorcerer' whose bespelled skull caused so much trouble last time.

 

Of course, Johnny doesn't tell anyone about the dream. This series. They either keep supernatural events a secret because they're embarrassed, or they disbelieve each other. Johnny starts sleep-walking and acting ornery, and has strong visions of saloons and gambling dens. Eventually, he becomes comatose and even an impromptu exorcism attempt by Father Higgins doesn't help.

 

As a kid, this one left me a little confused. I didn't read these in order so the abrupt revenge-plot left me in the dark. Also, with Johnny out of the picture we have the Professor and Fergie on a multi-day expedition to the Windrow estate to find ancient magical talismans (straight out of the Bible) that may be Johnny's last hope. 

 

The saving grace of this book, as with many others of Bellairs, are some genuine horror elements out of nowhere that keep a reader off guard, and the period details that evoke midcentury American boyhood and, in this case, Gold Rush-era California. 

 

Johnny Dixon

 

Next: 'The Eyes of the Killer Robot'

 

Previous: 'The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull'

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review 2020-05-20 21:37
The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb, Anthony Monday #3 by John Bellairs
The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb - John Bellairs

Miss Eells purchases a suspiciously cheap antique oil lamp and unwittingly sets off yet another doomsday countdown. Well, to be fair, it's not a doomsday countdown, it's just a countdown to giving an unscrupulous woman god-level powers. No biggie.

 

I still don't like how Anthony Monday and Miss Eells became supernatural detectives, but this book is so spooky and spectacularly gruesome that it charms to this day.

 

The lamp, of course, was stolen from an elaborate tomb. Once lit, Anthony and Miss Eels begin to be stalked by an entity with a cobwebby face and lives are lost. Add in an appearance from Ashtaroth, winter sports, and the most interesting chamber of commerce mixer ever devised, and you have a swell mystery on your hands.

 

Anthony Monday

 

Next: 'The Mansion in the Mist'

 

Previous: 'The Dark Secret of Weatherend'

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review 2020-05-10 20:55
The Doom of the Haunted Opera, Lewis and Rose Rita #6 by John Bellairs and Brad Stickland
Doom of the Haunted Opera - Brad Strickland,John Bellairs

Brad Strickland finished this based on an outline left by John Bellairs after his death. It features a lot of classic Bellairs' charm and my personal favorite of Edward Gorey's artwork for the series - the back cover features Lewis' nightmare where headless Opera patrons surround him and Rose Rita. Strickland does a remarkable job here.

 

Doing research for a local history project brings Lewis and Rose Rita to the abandoned New Zebedee Opera House located above the Feed & Seed downtown. There, Lewis discovers some sheet music making up a lost opera, "The Day of Doom", hidden inside a piano and runs off with it. This is despite a ghost warning him of he who would be "King of the Dead". Rose Rita is surprisingly skeptical about the ghost, even when Lewis challenges her on the weird shit they've been through together and apart over the last couple of years.

 

It tuns out that the pages Lewis rescued were hidden from the sinister Henry Vanderhelm to prevent the opera from being performed. It makes up a grand spell that could enslave the dead and doom the living. Unfortunately, New Zebedee has been cut off from the outside world and the adults have already been taken in by the spell of the Opera. Without Uncle Jonathan or Mrs. Zimmerman and with the other New Zebedee magicians vanished, what can two plucky kids do?

 

As I said, Strickland does a good job here. He expands a little on the world of New Zebedee and attempts to explain why so much weird goings-on focus on their small Michigan town. I liked the inclusion of more witches and magicians as well. This was spooky and dosed with a little satire of high-brow culture.

 

Lewis & Rose Rita

 

Next: 'The Specter from the Magician's Museum'

 

Previous: 'The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder'

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