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Book 3, Blair's Nightmare - A boy and his enormous dog
This is my least favorite book in the series, and sadly, it's also the last one I read, so I didn't end the series on a high note. It still wasn't a bad book though, just an okay one.

Basically, Blair keeps getting up in the middle of the night, insisting there's a giant dog that keeps visiting him. It turns out he's telling the truth; it's not a dream after all, and the enormous dog is soon named Nightmare. Hence the pun in the book's title.

Much of the book revolves around the dog. Things such as who Nightmare's former owner could possibly be, where he came from, and how he got there are all things the kids wonder about, and get answers for. Then there's the problem of keeping the dog safe, feeding him, and making sure the parents don't find out about him.

There's two subplots. One involves a bully, Pete Garvey, who is made out to be a real threat to David, before he begins to change and takes a genuine interest in the dog. He finds himself over at the Stanleys' house a lot, helping out with things, while David continues to distrust him.

The other subplot involves escaped convicts. While there's a lot of talk about the convicts, and Janie gets her start in Kid Detective work (before taking a larger role in book 4, Janie's Private Eyes) trying to learn about them, their role in the plot is rather strangely handled. Yes, they do eventually show up, but I have to say it was one of the oddest and least exciting encounters I'd ever read. The criminals in books 2 and 4 were far more of a threat and more interesting. And without giving away anything, let's say that the dog is involved with the convict subplot as well.

The thing is, I'm just not that interested in the dog. I'm not a fan of "animal" stories, and this is pretty much one of them. The escaped convicts were a subplot I'd have liked to see more of, and they were pretty underused. The Pete Garvey subplot dominated the story otherwise, and I found it okay.

Really, if it weren't for the characters and some good moments with them, I simply wouldn't have liked this book. The story just didn't get my attention that much. The characters salvaged it, however, raising my opinion of this book to "average".
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Book 2, The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case - five kids locked in a room, chaos ensues
The Stanleys are going to Italy for a year! The first chapter tells us this and gives us the reason. Then they make an effort to learn the language, and once there... they meet lots of people, visit a lot of places, and the plot goes nowhere while we spend Twenty Minutes With Jerks. Or no, not twenty minutes- half the book.

Of the characters we meet in Italy, only two are important (besides the kidnappers), and one of those is an Australian boy Amanda develops a crush on, while he ignores her. When Amanda receives a love letter written in Engrish purporting to be from the boy, she follows its instructions into the waiting arms of kidnappers, as David and the younger siblings chase after her, only to get nabbed as well.

It's ironic that once the characters stop traveling around a lot and instead are locked in a room, that the story itself actually gets moving. But that's when the story gets a great mixture of suspense, excitement, and humor with a touch of character drama, and becomes a lot more fun.

David and Amanda try to keep little Esther and Blair from being aware of the seriousness of the situation. But Janie quickly steals the show. She actually learned more Italian than the other Stanleys, and quickly gets to showing it off, having long conversations with the kidnappers and translating back and forth between them all. She even translates Esther's whines for better food. But once she realizes how serious the situation is, she calms down... slightly. She chooses not to translate the word "morto" when Amanda is forced to write her second ransom letter in English, realizing how much it would upset her.

And Amanda is upset, especially since her rich dad is not really a big part of her life, and she's afraid he won't be able to give them the money. Her usually grumpy, "the world sucks and so do you" demeanor shatters and David can tell she's not being herself.

But Janie won't stop coming up with escape plans, while David plans instead to play to the kidnappers' emotions and get them to care about the kids and see them as human. In the end, both their plans work... in unexpected ways.

Ultimately, this book is fun, once it actually gets started. Start on page 100 (out of 215) and you're good to go.
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Book 1, The Headless Cupid - fun Slice Of Life story about... the occult?
David Stanley suddenly has a Strange Girl stepsister move into his life. She dresses very unusual and is very unapproachable, not wanting to interact with the family, until one day she opens up and lets David and the younger kids (who are 4-6 years old) join in on her love of the supernatural and specifically, the occult. She will train the "neophytes", as she calls them, in the ways of the otherworldly.

And she does, in scenes that are both interesting and funny, mainly due to how the other characters react to it. It's all new to them, and let's not forget, David's younger siblings are preschool to first grade age in this story. So when they're given ordeals they must pass, such as going through an entire day without touching anything metal (including silverware!), or going through an entire day being as silent as possible and giving no more than a three-word answer to any question, they react in sometimes hilarious ways.

Not allowed to touch silverware? Try wearing a giant mitten to hold it in! 6-year-old Janie's solution gets the attention of their dad, but she comes up with an explanation that he simply accepts. 4-year-old Blair simply eats with his hands. Dad is driven to exasperation from the chaos.

Need to use a stolen item to construct a ceremonial robe? Well, how about dad's tennis sock? Janie hides it in her mouth and spits it out when the coast is clear.

Eventually, the kids are allowed to take part in a seance and summon a spirit, which turns out to be apparently the poltergeist who previously haunted the house. Oops.

Now things are being broken, rocks are being thrown, and Amanda's mom, who believes in ghosts, is terrified.

The seance and poltergeist part doesn't take place until 2/3 of the way in the book, which I find to be disappointing. While I enjoyed watching the kids go through Amanda's rituals, especially due to the noob way they botch it at times, it still took up a huge chunk of the book. By the time the mystery was occurring, there were only 70 pages left out of a 220 page book.

Still, the events are fun to read, and it's basically a light-hearted Slice Of Life story about, well, the occult. Who'd have thought such a thing would get written? This book is a fun curiosity and worth checking out.
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Book 4, Janie's Private Eyes - fun character makes for fun storytelling
Janie's Private Eyes is the last book of the Stanley series, and it heavily features one of the two Ensemble Darkhorses, Janie, the talkative now 8-year-old know-it-all.

Janie has a good amount of book smarts regarding detective work, and excitedly rushes ahead and does her own amateurish investigations. Janie is a great character, a lot of fun, and really makes the story work.

The narration, like before, follows David, the older brother of the Stanley household. David uses the convenient plot device of blending his school project (learn things about the town and interview people) with his investigation into the dognappings. But Janie's insistence on trying out her ideas, snooping her own way, and rushing ahead to where she thinks clues are, ends up frustrating him.

This creates a contrast in how he and Janie go about their investigations - David does things the "traditional" way, asking questions and so on, but Janie tries all sorts of things, such as setting up a tape recorder to secretly record a conversation where she thinks an important one might occur. It would have been fun to see the story follow Janie during these moments, as reading about what she did after the fact, while funny, also makes her crazy investigating techniques and goofy attempts to spy sound more interesting than David's straightforward "ask questions, try to figure things out" method.

The story holds up very well, partly due to the plot twists, tension from having semi-former bully Pete Garvey (who still doesn't get along well with David) as a partner on the school project, and fun character moments. Janie steals every scene she's in, period. There's even a fun part where the kids, while spying on a dog they suspect will be dognapped soon, end up being taken to a police station by a suspicious cop. While there, as David and Amanda try to save face and explain away what they were doing, Janie ends up blabbing so much that she soon gets questioned separately, and ends up cracking up everyone in the station. The kids are let go, and when David has to return to the station to get back Janie's notebook, he witnesses the cops laughing riotously at the recording of Janie's questioning.

Janie's Private Eyes is a fun mystery, helped along by its colorful characters, but mainly its title character, the show stealer.
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