Book Review: Mr. Lemoncello’s All-Star Breakout Game

Mr. Lemoncello’s All-Star Breakout Game
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library book #4
by Chris Grabenstein

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

If Kyle Keeley and his team thought the previous Lemoncello game was big, they haven’t seen anything yet. The next competition Kyle’s hero has dreamed up will be broadcast live on national television! And the winners will get to choose one from their team to be the host of a new kids’ game show, while the rest of the team are the first contestants. It’s game on as Kyle is up against his nemesis Charles Chiltington and some other competitors that will be tough to beat.

These books are beginning to become a bit formulaic, which is probably not good for this type of book. Kyle almost can’t compete for some reason, and then he can. Kyle/his team stops normal game play to solve some side mystery/issue. Spoiler: Kyle/his team wins almost by default because all or most of the other kids/teams were disqualified or gave up or joined Kyle’s team. Considering how much I loved the first book, I want to continue enjoying this series. But it’s starting to become repetitive and just silly. I did like the game, putting the kids into their own fictional stories in a way like holodecks work in Star Trek shows. Who of us hasn’t wanted to be able to do that? I still miss the more escape room, puzzle-y nature of the first book, though. There was a tiny bit of that again here, with 5 locks to open per team, but the puzzles, riddles, etc. that gave the codes were a lot lighter this time around.

I really appreciated that the game forced the kids (or at least Kyle) to see the “bad guy” in a new light. I only wish a little more had come from that. The thing that bugged me the most as I read this book was the dialog. I don’t know if this is new to this book, or if I simply didn’t notice it before, but all of the kids seem to talk the same way, in a particular format that I began to find grating. I won’t take the time to explain what I mean, because it seems really petty, but it happened enough that it started to bring the rest of the story down for me. And seriously…the TV-star kids were just over-the-top silly and ridiculous in their shticks.

I wonder if maybe they wouldn’t feel so formulaic if I wasn’t reading through them so quickly. It’s hard to know. I also want to stress that this book is meant for kids around 8-12 years old, and the things that bother me may well not be noticeable to them. My 10-year-old daughter loved this book as much as the previous ones, and I think that’s important to remember.

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February in Review

I read 11 books last month, which was only 1 less than last month, but the total page count was about 1/3 of what I read last month. Apparently I read a lot more short books this month!

Here are the books I read in February:

Awake and Alive to Truth by John L. Cooper (5 / 5)
The Orchard House by Heidi Chiavaroli (3.5 / 5)
The Cat Who Saw Red by Lilian Jackson Braun (5 / 5)
Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race by Chris Grabenstein (3.5 / 5)
Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (3 / 5)
Trapped at the Bottom of the Sea by Frank E. Peretti (4 / 5)
The Secret of The Desert Stone by Frank E. Peretti (3 / 5)
The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom with John & Elizabeth Sherrill (5 / 5)
John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as retold by Gary D. Schmidt (2 / 5)
From this Moment by Kim Vogel Sawyer (3 / 5)
Mr. Lemoncello’s All-Star Breakout Game by Chris Grabenstein (review pending)

This list includes 2 ARCs and 2 re-reads. My favorite book from February was The Hiding Place. I finished 0 series, continued 3 series, and started 1 series. My ever-changing short list of to-be-reads, as well as a flag for the book I’m currently reading and an ongoing list of those I’ve read and posted about can be found here.

I’m also keeping my Goodreads page updated with a more extensive list of to-be-reads. Despite my almost too-long TBR list, I’m always looking for more to add. Feel free to offer suggestions of your favorites or just recent reads you enjoyed.

Book Review: From This Moment

From This Moment
by Kim Vogel Sawyer

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Christian fiction

Jase is a new youth minister at a small church in an even smaller town in Kansas. Recently moved from San Antonio after his fiancee died, he’s struggling with anger and doubt in his Christian walk. Kenzie is ten years removed from her Amish heritage, leaving the community when she learned how the grace of Christ could free her from the rules and regulations of her family’s religion. She’s been thinking more and more about her family, though, and the darkness they’re still lost in. Lori is a young woman who was emotionally and verbally abused by her father as a teenager. She uses food as a coping mechanism when she feels lonely or inadequate, despite knowing that it’s pointless and wishing she could stop. Jase, Kenzie, and Lori are each searching for answers from God, and when Jase moves to Kansas, he’s welcomed into the friendship that Kenzi and Lori already have. With each other’s help, the three just might find their answers.

Through the first half of this book, I didn’t really understand what it was meant to be about. Part of that is because the official synopsis is atrociously inaccurate and misleading. But it’s also because it really took a while for things to get going. And actually, in the end, it turns out the book really was about what I saw in that first half– these characters each struggling with their doubts, uncertainties, and questions about God and their faith. There were parts of the story that I liked, that I thought came together well in the end, and parts that fell flat for me, or that I questioned why they were included. Overall, it was a decent read, but not a stand-out for me.

The storyline I related to the most was Lori’s over-indulging in times of extreme emotion, good or bad. I haven’t had an abusive past like hers, but over-indulgence is an issue I have struggled with in the past, though not to the degree that she does it. I really liked the way Kenzie’s story shaped up too, after wondering what it had to do with anything for a while near the beginning. Jase’s storyline is the one that I was least connected to, partly because I’ve not experienced loss like that, but also partly because the decisions he made really bugged me. There is a 4th perspective in this story too, which I felt was wholly unnecessary. I couldn’t help but compare it to the previous book I read by this author, which also included 4 perspectives. But where it worked in that one, it just seemed pointless in this one. I’m not sure what the pastor’s perspective added, nor did I feel like it was particularly resolved.

If there was one cohesive lesson this story seemed to bring out, it was the benefit of allowing others to share your burdens. Each of these four people was originally struggling alone and seemed to only see a turning point when they opened up to a fellow Christian about their trouble. Actually, that’s not really true for one of them (I won’t say who), but perhaps it’s just that I wished he/she had let others help him/her along the way. And on a related note, Kenzie really drove me crazy at some points. How can you say “God will provide” and then refuse all of God’s ways of providing? If a really specific incident hadn’t happened, she absolutely would have stayed in the same place, spinning her wheels, still waiting and hoping for God’s providence. (You ever heard the one about the guy sitting on the roof of his flooded house, refusing to get in the boat or helicopter because he knew God would save him? Yeah, she’s kind of like that.)

So in the end, this is not a book I would choose to read again. However, I think that my issues with it will likely not be shared by most others. If you are looking for a Christian book where romance isn’t the main plot and where the author ties multiple storylines together into one story where God’s hand can be seen, this might be a good book for you.

Thank you to Netgalley and WaterBrook & Multnomah for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: The Secret of The Desert Stone

The Secret of The Desert Stone
The Cooper Kids Adventure Series book #5
by Frank Peretti
read by the author

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian adventure

Dr. Cooper is summoned to a country in Africa to investigate a giant stone that appeared overnight, separating the country’s new dictator and his army from other parts of the population. The stone is miles high and wide, so the big question is, who put it there? When Dr. Cooper and his teenage kids, Jay and Lila, end up stranded on the other side of the stone, will the locals be welcoming or try to harm them? Will they discover the secret of the stone before the dictator loses his patience with them?

This installment of the series didn’t have quite the excitement of previous books, but it still had its moments. I think the best thing about the story is that it sort of brings Romans 1:20 to life. (“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”) I may have already said too much, in regards to avoiding spoilers, but I really appreciated the simple faith and thirst for more understanding about God exhibited by “primitive” people in the story.

I think one of the things that bothers readers most about these books is the unrealistic nature of things that happen. I like that Peretti isn’t afraid to explore what could happen, even while we know things like this don’t really happen much in modern times. Still, he paints an interesting and entertaining picture.

One final note–I listened to the audiobook specifically so that I could hear it read by the author. I love how he did roles like Mr. Henry and even his small role in the movie Hangman’s Curse, and I figured the book would be that much better in his own voice. It did not disappoint! I will most likely listen to the rest of the series this way too.

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Book Review: Trapped at the Bottom of the Sea

Trapped at the Bottom of the Sea
The Cooper Kids Adventure Series book #4
by Frank Peretti

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian adventure

Frustrated by her father’s lack of willingness to discuss her late mother, teenager Lila insists on leaving Japan, where Dr. Cooper is teaching about his work, and going back to the States. But on the way, her plane is hijacked and crashes over the ocean. While she is trapped at the bottom of the sea in an air-tight weapons pod, Lila’s dad and brother try to find her before it’s too late.

This book was quite a departure from what the series has been up to this point. Instead of uncovering secrets in Dr. Cooper’s capacity as biblical archaeologist, it’s more a straight race against time to find and save Lila. I liked it, though, maybe more than the one before it that had been my favorite so far. I liked the adventure and excitement, the ways that Lila tried to keep herself from panicking in the pod and tried to save herself, and the descriptions of the tiny islands in the South Pacific.

Though the heavier supernatural elements that came about in the previous books weren’t here so much, it was still clear God was involved in the story from start to finish. This book has led me to realize that the series is basically a modern-day parallel to certain biblical accounts and truths. It’s as if Peretti started each of these books by asking himself, “How would these certain verses of the Bible look if they happened today?” This one, for example, has shades of the story of Jonah (not subtly so either). It’s a solid addition to this middle-grade series.

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Book Review: Crocodile on the Sandbank

Crocodile on the Sandbank
Amelia Peabody #1
by Elizabeth Peters
read by Susan O’Malley

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Historical cozy mystery

As a female during the Victorian era in England, Amelia Peabody is ahead of her time. Unmarried and independently wealthy, she has no need for a man or most of societal conventions. With a passion for Egyptology and a thirst for adventure, she decides to travel to Cairo, taking into her company along the way a young woman whose reputation has been tarnished. Amelia gets the adventure she’s looking for, and more, when a missing mummy begins to terrorize the women.

I was not a huge fan of this book for the most part. Amelia’s attitude, which is the main thing that most other readers seem to love, just irritated me most of the time. Her haughtiness and aggressiveness was just too much. I listened to the audiobook, and the reader did such a good job infusing the 1st-person narration with arrogance and disdain that it only added to my dislike for Amelia. Add to that the mystery being a bit light–took a long time to get going and was mostly easy to solve–and Amelia’s disdain for Christianity, and it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable read for me.

There were parts of the book that I found interesting–the descriptions of excavation and archaeology in those days, as well as travel by the dahabiyas (luxury boats) on the Nile. However, by the time I was halfway through, I’d decided I wouldn’t continue the series after the first book. Now that it’s been a few days since I finished it, I think I may give it another try. The next book is set somewhere around 6 years after the first one, and it looks like many things will be different. As for this first book, though, I do think others might appreciate it more than I did, so if it sounds interesting, be sure to check out other reviews and consider giving this book a try.

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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: The Cat Who Saw Red

The Cat Who Saw Red
Book #4
by Lilian Jackson Braun

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Cozy mystery

Former crime reporter Jim Qwilleran starts a new diet just before he’s made the newspaper’s first ever gourmet reporter. In typical Qwill fashion, he immerses himself in the culture by moving into a boarding house where the owner is a gourmet chef and requires all boarders to have some sort of connection to food. Part of the reason for moving there (okay, maybe most of the reason) is that Qwill’s old flame lives there, and when she disappears, he starts to question if foul play is involved. Still, she’s always been flighty, as Qwill knows well enough. Then a houseboy vanishes, and Qwill kicks his investigation into high gear.

My experience with this book is probably a bit tainted by the fact that I’ve read it before, many years ago. It’s actually one I remember most from whichever ones of this series I read when I was younger. So that being said, I really liked the story and the mystery, even though I was pretty sure I knew what was going on the entire time. Because even with that past experience, I couldn’t quite decide for sure if my theory was correct or not. In the end, the mystery was interesting and maybe even a bit more sensational than normal for this series.

I always enjoy the antics that the cats get up to, and this book was no exception for me. Qwill even has a bit of a scare involving them, and it’s very touching to see his reaction. One particular side character amused me quite a bit too, even down to a comical description of the car that he drives. I only wish there would have been more of him. Overall, this was an entertaining read that I do believe beat out the previous to be my favorite in the series so far. I would recommend this book for fans of the classic whodunit & cozy mystery genres.

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Book Review: The Orchard House

The Orchard House
by Heidi Chiavaroli

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian drama

After a difficult childhood, Taylor is adopted by her best friend’s parents. But sisterhood is not all it’s cracked up to be, and Taylor ends up leaving home at 21 with the determination to never see her family again. However, when informed 18 years later that her adopted mother is going through treatment for cancer, she returns home. But what starts as a brief visit turns into something more as old wounds are re-opened and this make-shift family struggles to make sense of present struggles. That’s when Taylor and her sister stumble across a story that captivates them and helps distract from real life. In the 1860s, the death of a soldier sparked a friendship between the soldier’s sister, Johanna, and Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. This friendship, and the life and marriage of Johanna, were hidden away for 150 years, to be discovered by Taylor and Victoria just when the story could most affect their lives.

I spent the first half of this book uncertain about a lot of it. Two different storylines had to be established–both the past and the present–and the present one covered several years in a few chapters. Even when the story slowed down and started unfolding in the present day, I struggled to get into it. Taylor’s adolescence had turned her into a confused, broken woman, and she essentially second-guessed her decisions, thoughts, emotions, and reactions every step of the way. And I questioned often what the past storyline had to do with the present one. It was a slow build, to be sure. It did pick up in the second half, but for a while, all I could think about was how terrible each of the characters seemed to be, in one way or the other.

The main thing that I really liked about the story was the way the Christian message was presented. While some reviewers found it “too religious,” I spent at least half the book wondering how on earth this had been labeled as Christian. But the slow build I mentioned earlier can also be applied to the way the main characters learned to first believe in and then trust in Someone bigger than themselves. Though in the end, I felt the “conversions” and overall Christian message were a little light, I still liked the way they shaped up.

There were some things in the book that confused me, and I re-read some passages more than once trying to understand. As an example, Louisa was said to have 2 sisters, but over the course of time 3 were mentioned–Anna, Nan, and Amy. However, Anna and Nan were the same person, and while the author did seem to realize we needed that explanation (I certainly did), it didn’t come until after the sister was referred to by both names at least once. There are other things that confused me too, but fortunately there was less of this in the second half too.

I think that people who love Louisa May Alcott’s books, or at least have read one or more of them, might enjoy this book. Though Louisa herself is only a small part of the story, her books and lasting effect on future fans are prevalent themes. I’ll admit to having a different view of a particular aspect of Little Women than the author (or at least than the main character), but as fiction, it’s certainly open to interpretation. If you’re looking for a light Christian read, this is not it. It’s full of drama and covers some dark topics such as abandonment, abuse (both physical and emotional), and betrayal. If you like time-split novels and stories about finding “home” or families trying to piece themselves back together, you might enjoy this book.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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January in Review

I read 12 books last month, which is on the high side for me. Though I do think my monthly numbers should be a little higher overall from here on, since I’ve started listening to a few audiobooks a month. I’m glad I managed to figure out how to make use of idle time and which types of books work best for me in audio format!

Here are the books I read in January:

Maus by Art Spiegelman (5 / 5)
The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien (4 / 5)
A Noble Masquerade by Kristi Ann Hunter (3 / 5)
The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas & Jennifer Graham (4.5 / 5)
The Haunting at Bonaventure Circus by Jaime Jo Wright (2 / 5)
Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders by Tessa Arlen (5 / 5)
Anne of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (4 / 5)
The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson (5 / 5)
There I Go Again by William Daniels (5 / 5)
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein (4 / 5)
When Twilight Breaks by Sarah Sundin (4 / 5)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (5 / 5)

This list includes 2 ARCs and 2 re-reads. My favorite book from January was There I Go Again. I finished 2 series, continued 2 series, and started 3 (short) series. My ever-changing short list of to-be-reads, as well as a flag for the book I’m currently reading and an ongoing list of those I’ve read and posted about can be found here.

*One of the re-reads involved listening to the author read a few chapters of his book every night live on Facebook/YouTube to beat the quarantine blues. I count it the same as listening to an audiobook.

I’m also keeping my Goodreads page updated with a more extensive list of to-be-reads. Despite my almost too-long TBR list, I’m always looking for more to add. Feel free to offer suggestions of your favorites or just recent reads you enjoyed.