Book Review: Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race

Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library book #3
by Chris Grabenstein

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure, mystery

After a grand escape game and a library-fied version of the Olympics, Mr. Lemoncello brings his favorite 12-year-olds (though I’d guess some are probably 13 by now) a game that sends teams on a much grander adventure–across town in bookmobiles and across states in his banana jet. But trouble is afoot when Kyle’s team uncovers evidence that Mr. Lemoncello plagiarized his very first game. Will his newly honed research skills be enough to clear his hero’s name?

After loving the first book in the series and enjoying the second one as well, this one didn’t seem quite as good in the end. The required suspension of disbelief is much higher in this one, both because these kids are allowed to take private jets to other states and even NYC without any real adult supervision, and because my past observation of most of the kids just being over-the-top knowledgeable was ramped up in this one. Not only do some of these kids know just about every juvenile book ever written, plus have an extensive knowledge of the Dewey decimal system that they can mentally search whenever needed, but now some of those same kids know vast amounts of information about historical events and figures like the Wright brothers’ first flight. It’s all just a bit too much to swallow.

I did still like the puzzles and riddles along the way, though. I enjoy being able to solve some of the clues along with the kids, though that was certainly lighter in this one. The more of these grand-scale games Mr. Lemoncello dreams up, the bigger they seem to have to be, which is somewhat understandable from a fiction stand-point, but seems like it’ll be difficult to sustain. And strangely, while the game itself is grander, the prize is…considerably less so, though that might just be from an adult’s perspective.

The mystery that came up in the latter half of the book and stalled the great game was interesting, as it was quite the reflection of the way the general public will believe nearly anything if they’re given a convincing enough presentation, no matter if the facts back it up or not. Parts of the mystery were predictable, parts not so much, and in the end, while I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I did the first two, I know that the things that brought it down the most for me are going to be more noticeable to an adult than the age group the book is meant for. My 10-year-old daughter loved this book as much as the previous two, and I think it’s safe to recommend it for kids around 8-12.

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Book Review: Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics

Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library book #2
by Chris Grabenstein

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure, mystery

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the first book in the series, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.

After their big win in Mr. Lemoncello’s escape game, Team Keeley is challenged by basically every kid in the country. They all want their chance at stardom (starring in commercials for Mr. Lemoncello games) and are unhappy that the contest was so localized. So Mr. Lemoncello grants them their wish, because hey, that means he gets to create more games! The top teams in each region of the country are chosen and invited to Ohio to compete for full college scholarships–against Kyle’s team. The only problem is that Kyle isn’t so sure he’s up to the challenge this time.

After the pure fun I had with the first book, I knew this wouldn’t be able to be quite the same. For one thing, it’s not so much with the escape room aspect anymore. There are puzzles involved in the games, but it’s not nearly the same as it was in the first book. However, it’s still a fun read, and even has a bit of mystery. So while I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I did the first book in the series, it was still good.

For all the similarities to Willy Wonka in the first book, this had even more. Including a particular bit that I guessed at from early on, comparing a character to a role in Roald Dahl’s book. Even still, though, the book did keep me guessing a bit as I waited to see if I was right. And unlike the “justice” in Wonka’s world, it’s nice to see some of the “bad” kids have a change of heart by the end of this book.

In my review of the first book, I mentioned that it was unrealistic how much knowledge some of these kids have–Kyle is about the only one who doesn’t come across like he lives and breathes books and studying. That was much more noticeable this time. Still overall, it’s a good book, fun for kids, and I continue to recommend it for kids around 8-12 and for parents, especially those who like games.

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Book Review: Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders

Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders
A Woman of WWII Mystery #1
by Tessa Arlen

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Historical cozy mystery

Newly trained Air Raid Warden Poppy Redfern takes up her post in the small English village of Little Buffenden, where an American Air Force airfield is about to open. The airfield could make this otherwise quiet hamlet a target for an air raid, but the Germans aren’t the only danger to Little Buffenden; trouble is much closer to home when two women are murdered only days apart. When suspicion is cast upon the Americans at the airfield, distrust for the “friendly invaders” surges in Little Buffenden. Poppy begins to investigate while continuing her duties as warden and trying not to end up as the next victim.

This book was all sorts of great! The descriptions made the story come to life, and though there were quite a few characters from the village and neighboring airfield involved, the author did a great job of helping me keep them all straight as I got used to them. Poppy had a wonderful mixture of spunk, loyalty, compassion, and intelligence, with a little quirk thrown in (it’s not that strange to have the main character of the novel you’re writing pop into your head with observations or admonitions now and then…or so I’ve heard).

I really liked the feel of this small town in 1942 England, where they’ve been at war for much longer than their American allies, not to mention more directly affected. The things the Air Force men take for granted, like having sugar and beef readily available, were luxuries to the locals. The attempts made by Poppy and her grandparents to help their fellow villagers see the Americans in a different light showed the great wisdom of this family. And though there are some bumps along the way that were a little frustrating, the American pilot that works with Poppy, Griff, was one of my favorite characters. Also, I’m not a dog person and don’t normally care much about dogs in fiction, but Bess was pretty great.

I would classify this as a cozy mystery–it has all of the earmarks. I had guessed who the murderer was much earlier than I normally do, but I wasn’t quite certain, and the reveal was still done really well. However, the book does probably have a little more description of violence and disturbing images than you’d normally find in a classic cozy mystery. That’s not to say that it’s very much–it didn’t bother me at all, and I don’t have a very high tolerance for some of that kind of thing–but enough that I thought it was worth mentioning if I’m classifying it as “cozy.” All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience this book provided and would recommend you give it a try if either of the genres interest you. There’s a second book in the series so far, which I’m looking forward to reading.

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Book Review: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library book #1
by Chris Grabenstein

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure, mystery

Game-lover Kyle Keeley is desperate to win a spot in the overnight sleepover at the new, state-of-the-art local library. The library was designed by his hero, Mr. Lemoncello, who created pretty much every board game and video game Kyle loves. When the overnighter turns into a lock-in (literally), Kyle and his fellow 12-year-olds have to figure out how to escape.

My 10-year-old daughter convinced me to read this book, and by convinced I mean pushed, cajoled, and pestered me until I got to it. She loved it and was sure I would too. She was right! It’s a quick, mostly simple read, and once the lock-in part started up, it was the most just pure fun I’ve ever had reading a book.

Once morning comes, the kids have to find clues and solve puzzles in order to try to escape and win the big prize. The story is basically Willy Wonka meets escape rooms, which is right up my alley. But even better, it’s an escape room played in the entire 3-story (plus the basement) library! I was seriously jealous. Mr. Lemoncello is a really entertaining character, and the kids have distinct personalities, for the most part. I will say that the knowledge base for some of these kids was pretty unrealistic, but it didn’t really bother me. It was just too fun!

I think something else that is important, since the book is written for kids, is that my daughter is a huge fan. She’s read the first 4 books in the series and was ridiculously excited to find out that a 5th one came out a few months ago. I’ll really enjoy continuing this series and being able to talk to her about the books as I go. I think this is a great book for kids around 8-12, and for parents too, especially those who like games.

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Book Review: The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne

The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne
by Elsa Hart

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical mystery

Cabinets

London, 1703–Cecily enters the house of famous collector Barnaby Mayne. In a circle of men who store and display wonders of the natural world, Mayne has the largest collection around. Cecily simply wants to use his cabinets to put identifications to her own small collection of pressed plants. Instead, she gets embroiled in a murder mystery when Sir Barnaby is slain. Though one man admits to the crime at the discovery of the body, Cecily uncovers too many inconsistencies to believe his hasty confession. Finding the truth will prove even more difficult than finding any particular item in the cabinets of Barnaby Mayne.

I was initially drawn to this book because of the cover, but I wondered if it might turn out to be a slow, dusty read. While there were a few small spots that dragged when cabinet contents were focused on now and then, overall, I didn’t have a problem with the pacing. The main characters were the highlight of the book, and the mystery itself was engaging.

Cecily is a strong, independent woman who has endured much in this world where women are not expected to participate in the affairs of men. There is also Meacan, who was a childhood friend of Cecily’s, though the two lost touch over the years. Meacan has been employed at Sir Barnaby’s house, and the two make quite the pair as the investigation picks up. For as much as I liked Cecily, Meacan was an even more interesting character. I certainly hope we get to see a lot more of her in the future, compared to the smaller role she had overall in this book.

I had a few theories about who the real murderer was and why, and even about why the confessor would admit to a crime he didn’t commit. While my initial guess on the latter turned out to be true, I had no clue about the murderer, even up to the reveal. Overall, it seemed to me like no one really had much of a motive for the murder, even though just about everyone seemed to have the opportunity. Looking back, the clues were mostly there, but meager enough, and stretched far enough apart, that I wasn’t exactly kicking myself for not solving it.

The writing and descriptions, as well as the dialog, gave the book just the right historical feel without bogging down the story. There is plenty of intrigue in the lives of both Cecily and Meacan to make them characters you want to follow into a series, and the ending definitely hints at more to come, though I see no specific indication that this is the first in a series. I certainly hope it is. My only real gripe is that the entire first chapter seemed completely unnecessary to me. I don’t really understand why it was needed. If it was simply to give us a glimpse at a character that would come into play more later, the scene could have gone a whole different way that would play into the story in this book a lot more. Otherwise, though, I think mystery lovers, especially those who like historical fiction, will enjoy this book.

Thank you so much to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me a copy of this book to review!

Find out more about The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne
Publication date: August 4, 2020

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Book Review: When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Middle grade mystery, sci-fi

When You Reach Me

When she got the first note, Miranda was able to convince herself it was just trash–it wasn’t necessarily meant for her and didn’t mean anything. The second one couldn’t so easily be dismissed. Then she begins to unravel a mystery that involves her once-best friend, the crazy man on the corner, and a break-in where nothing was stolen. Can Miranda put the pieces together in time to prevent a death?

I am so glad I decided to see what this book is all about. Though it’s for a younger audience, it intrigued me when I saw it on a fellow blogger’s Top Ten Tuesday list a few weeks back. It was such a great read! I liked the book’s feel of living in a big city in the 70s, which was based on the author’s own childhood. The mystery was seriously engaging, and even the chapter titles were wonderfully themed!

The chapters are mostly short, some as short as 2 pages (on my Kindle, so probably less in a book format), which kept the story moving, even when a lot of the earlier chapters covered backstory that brought the reader up to date on the “present time.” Also, the main character’s mom is practicing to be on the game show The $10,000 Pyramid, and most of the chapter titles are themed around that (ex. “Things That Burn”), which is also explained well enough in the story that younger readers, who wouldn’t know the show at all, will understand it too.

I had my theories about who wrote the notes, going back and forth between 2 people before deciding on one. When the big reveal happened, though I suspected most of what was revealed, it still left my breathless for a moment. It was so well done!

I will say that I think Sal was maybe a bit more mature in his thoughts and decisions about friendship than makes much sense for a boy his age, but other than that, I loved everything about this book. I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys a good mystery, with some time travel thrown in. It is middle grade fiction, but I don’t think it the younger audience makes the story any less readable for adults.

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Self-Publishing Spotlight: The Treasure Map

Do you like…

  • …portal fantasy?
  • …stories of rebellion against tyranny?
  • …people standing up for their faith?
  • …books that take place at Christmas time?
  • …dangerous adventure stories with a message?
  • …magical maps?

If you answered yes to 1 or more of these questions, consider checking out The Treasure Map.

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Jack is a 10-year-old boy ready for a joyous Christmas vacation, but as punishment for a poor report card, he is tasked with cleaning out his family’s long-forgotten attic. Inside, he finds a chest with a treasure map and a letter that transports him to another time, place, and existence.

Jack finds himself living the life of a young man named Niko, an enemy of the State of Ariel, a martyr of the Faithful, sentenced to die during the Independence Day celebrations. When an earthquake strikes, Niko finds the opportunity to escape, discovers a guide known only as the Elder, and teams up with a group of the Faithful to change history.

About Tyler Scott Hess: Tyler Scott Hess is a believer, writer, and author of the new novel The Treasure Map out November 4, 2019.

Trained in the business world, uplifted in the church, and dedicated to the craft of writing, Tyler has spent years sharing his thoughts on the world through an ever-increasing collection of novels, including the holiday classic, Christmas in Pineville.

Tyler grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where he graduated from Oregon State University, before moving down to southern California, where he also graduated from Calvary Chapel Bible College. After working, marrying, and beginning to raise three children, he moved back to Oregon with his family.

He is a lifelong disciple of Jesus Christ and seeks to emulate his favorite storytellers, such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Treasure Map was self-published by Tyler Scott Hess in November of 2019. It’s available on Kindle (and is currently on Kindle Unlimited) and as a paperback. You can read reviews on Goodreads or Amazon. Or see my review here.

Self-Publishing Spotlight: Hope Is a Dangerous Place

Do you like…

  • …small towns with dark secrets?
  • …mysteries about missing people from 75 years ago?
  • …teenage sleuths?
  • …stories where the setting is as much a character as the people?
  • …seeing revival?
  • …tornadoes?

If you answered yes to 1 or more of these questions, consider checking out Hope is a Dangerous Place.

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Award-winning author Jim Baton believes revival is coming to America. This is what it might look like–

Seventy-five years ago, fifteen-year-old Hope McCormick disappeared. To remember her, the newly incorporated town was named “Hope.” When high school friends Kelsey and Harmonie begin looking into this unsolved mystery, they discover that someone will do anything to make sure the town’s secrets never come to light. Which neighbors are allies, and which face masks a violent enemy? And what will it take for their struggling town to fulfill its original destiny of hope?

About Jim Baton: Jim Baton (pen name) has spent the last 20 years living in the Muslim world, where he’s been involved in a variety of peace and reconciliation activities including interfaith dialogue, training elementary through university students in peace principles, and bringing Christians and Muslims together to pray.

Jim also speaks internationally on the peacemaking themes he’s presenting through the thrillers he writes. These books contain a depth of understanding regarding the roots of the Christian and Muslim conflict, how to bring healing to Abraham’s broken family, how to combat terrorism with non-violence and love, and how to become a true peacemaker.

Hope Is a Dangerous Place was self-published by Jim Baton in February of 2020. It’s available on Kindle, where the price has been discounted for the month of April, and as a paperback. You can read reviews on Goodreads or Amazon. Or see my review here.

Book Review: The Dandelion Killer

The Dandelion Killer
by Wanda Luttrell

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian mystery

Dandelion

When a town socialite is murdered and a 55-year-old mentally handicapped man is found with her dandelion pin, the police take him in for questioning, only for him to escape their grasp. It’s up to his best friend and sister-in-law of the victim, Elayna Evans, to try to prove his innocence before the police re-capture him. She has problems of her own, though, as someone seems to think the victim left something with Elayna before she died. Maybe she’d be wise to stay away from the investigation, but Elayna can’t leave her friend’s fate in the hands of the police…or the real killer.

I enjoyed this book overall. I think my favorite thing was the characterization of Jayboy, the mentally handicapped man. The mystery took some interesting turns, though there was a good deal of predictability in it too. I liked the added pressure of the rising river that threatened to flood the town.

The chapters generally alternated between Elayna’s POV and Jayboy’s POV (always 3rd-person though). Watching Jayboy’s progression through being suspected of murder, then escaping, and then where he goes from there, which I won’t say, was one of the more engaging things about the book. The repetition that I noticed in the author’s style was was prevalent throughout these parts too, but seemed a lot more natural.

Elayna herself was all right as a main character, but she began to grate on me a little. For one thing, there was the repetition I mentioned, which came out a lot in her thoughts about the murder and about her absentee husband (who had taken off one day and was gone for 10 years, but she refused to move on). She also was a bit too wishy-washy for my taste.

There’s a character introduced part way through the book who was another favorite of mine. His story has a unique angle to it, if not a little awkward and coincidental. He’s the main place that the Christianity comes into this book, though to be honest, I don’t know why he had to be a pastor. It seems pretty common in these kinds of books, but it’s not like everyone who has a strong faith has to be a pastor. I did find it weird that his full name was pretty much always used, both in narration and in dialog.

As for the mystery itself, I don’t want to be too specific about the ways that it was predictable, because that would give away a lot of the ending from early on. But it was almost like the author tried to make it less predictable by setting up the narration in a way that we get used to, and then changing it on us without us realizing it. However, I don’t know if that was intentional, or just something I read into it. And there’s a New Age angle that feels so against the tone of the book, and I think it’s mostly there as a vehicle for the Christianity.

One of my favorite things about the book was this one scene in a restaurant that was newly opened by the pastor mentioned above, where there was a guy singing a song that was described but not named. From the description, I knew the song was “The Touch of the Master’s Hand” by Wayne Watson, which is a favorite of mine. So that was pretty cool. Overall, I’m glad I read it (though it wasn’t the first time–I was given this book by a sibling and read it a few times after I got it, but that was at least 15 years ago), and would recommend it to people who enjoy Christian mystery books.

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Book Review: Hope Is a Dangerous Place

Hope Is a Dangerous Place
Hope Trilogy #1
by Jim Baton

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian mystery, suspense

A recent transplant to the small town of Hope, Colorado, high schooler Kelsey already knows that there are certain families who hold a lot of power in town. When a journalism assignment leads her, her best friend, and the class loner to dig into the origins of the town, they find an unsolved mystery. A teenager disappeared 75 years in the past, and when the town was incorporated not long later, it was named as a memorial to her. What Kelsey discovers is that all of the towns oldest and most powerful families were potentially involved in that mystery. And someone doesn’t want the past dug up.

The prologue drew me in from the beginning, making me wonder how the premise could tie in with what was set up there. Though I found the characters a little weak, I was intrigued and wanting to know more about the mystery. And then I hit the wall at the end.

The mystery of Hope’s disappearance was a slow burn, but was interesting enough to drive the story up to a point. From almost the first point that Kelsey and Harmonie began to look into the disappearance, they were targeted in increasingly dangerous incidents. It certainly seemed like something really bad happened all those years ago.

Kelsey, unfortunately, does not make a very interesting main character. She’s all over the place in regards to Christianity. She seems to be a believer, and even has some insight for her pastor father who goes through some rough times. Yet she’s also belligerent and doesn’t seem to care about the language she uses. She also doesn’t seem like a high schooler in a lot of ways. Other characters aren’t much better–many of the male characters are chauvinistic to the point that I had to keep reminding myself this was set in 2020, not the 1990s or earlier. I think some of this might be because this book is clearly setting up the fictional town for a revival, and showing why it needs it, but it’s still strange to me.

I don’t want to seem like it’s all negative, though. Though Kelsey is the main character, there are several large side characters that I felt were stronger.

As for the wall I mentioned…the book ended right as a huge puzzle piece was going to be revealed. I felt incredibly let down, and at first thought maybe the book was just missing a few pages. Originally, I thought the story goal was not resolved at all, which is a huge no-no. Even in a series, trilogy, etc., each individual book often has its own internal story goal. I thought that goal was something that I won’t state to avoid spoilers. But I did wonder after I’d had some time away from the book if the story goal was actually something else that was resolved, albeit in a somewhat anti-climactic way. However, if that’s the case, I think it could have been written in a way to make the unresolved plot not seem like it was just about to be resolved, only for the book to end. The upside, though, is that if does leave the reader wanting more.

I know many don’t like books with such cliffhangers, but for some, just knowing it will end that way in advance can help a lot. So you’ve now been warned. At this point, it’s difficult for me to recommend the book without knowing the outcome of the trilogy. I’ll be interested to find out how the story continues when the next book comes out, and I’ll be steeling myself for another major cliffhanger.

One final note: As I touched on above, there is a decent amount of language in this book, at least for a Christian book. I know Christian authors often have to decide which way to go in this regard–I’ve had this internal debate myself. But the amount used in this book doesn’t seem like there was any uncertainty on the author’s part, and the fact that the apparently Christian main character swore quite a bit really puts me off.

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