Reviews With Lilah: Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein

I gave this one three stars on Goodreads because Lilah (age 9) loved the first one and was happy to return to some of the same characters. There’s also a plotline about banning books that, while simplistic, spurred a good conversation about censorship. But the sequel lacks the charm of the first book, has fewer puzzles to solve, and suffers from a less compelling plot, all of which makes the flat characters and lack of character development harder to ignore.

Kyle Keeley and his friends are enjoying the fame they attained in the first book, but all across the country, kids are complaining that it’s unfair and they could have done better. Mr. Lemoncello decides to organize the first Library Olympics to pit carefully selected students from various parts of the US against Kyle and his teammates in a series of challenges, with college tuition as an incentive to win. The most memorable competitor is Marjory Muldauer from the Midwest team, a snotty know-it-all with the Dewey Decimal System memorized, determined to take down Kyle and friends. Meanwhile, Charles Chiltington and his mother are trying to take control of the fantastic library and make it boring.

There are too many contestants (32) and too many games (12), and the fun is simply stretched to the breaking point. In the first book, Mr. Lemoncello is the Willy Wonka of books; in the second book, he was so over-the-top that he annoyed me (but not Lilah). The Olympics kicks off with a book cart relay race, which wasn’t particularly fun to read about, and progresses to a few interesting games along with others like paper airplane folding and video games that fell flat for me. A couple of the games are just summarized. Very few of the contestants have any real presence in the book, so I’m lost as to the reason for including so many. One character from the first book is abruptly removed. There are some ridiculous plot twists at the end to wrap things up neatly, if somewhat predictably. 

There is an emphasis on banned books and freedom of expression that partly overcomes these disappointments, however. And the portrayal of books and libraries as fun places is always a good thing. Lilah wants me to write that the book was really fun, and she’s in the age range for it, so perhaps I’m overly critical. But there are middle grade books I love reading aloud, and others I can’t wait to be done with, and this was the latter.

We will definitely be checking out Flora and Ulysses, which plays a prominent role in this book.

Source disclosure: This book was received as a gift.


Reviews With Lilah: PIPER GREEN AND THE FAIRY TREE by Ellen Potter




My first encounter with Ellen Potter’s writing was with her delightfully whimsical Olivia Kidney series, so I was interested to read this series geared toward early chapter book readers. It follows Piper Green, a second-grader who lives on Peek-a-boo Island in Maine and takes a lobster boat to school. Once island children reach eighth grade, they head off to boarding school on the mainland. Piper’s older brother has just made that jump and she misses him so much that she insists on wearing his monkey earmuffs. Every single day. Piper’s new teacher does not appreciate this, and Piper decides she simply won’t go to school. While she is hiding from her mother, her neighbor, Mrs. Pennypacker, tells her all about a fairy tree in her yard. If you leave a gift for the fairies, they will leave a gift for you.

Piper is a delightfully authentic little girl, just trying to cope with change to the best of her ability. Skipping school isn’t an act of defiance; it’s simply the best option she can come up with when her teacher tells her not to come to school wearing her beloved earmuffs but she can’t bear to take them off. Adults around her discuss the seriousness of her action, but they are also wonderfully supportive and understanding. The remote island, the fairy tree–it’s all very magical, and by the end, Piper will have found a way to enjoy second grade, with some help from fairies and her family.

Lilah and I were both charmed by the story, enhanced by Qin Leng’s sweet illustrations, and immediately turned to the sequel.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.


Lilah and I were both eager to see what Piper is up to this time, and it’s a doozy. Piper is such a realistic little girl, not perfect, but not mean-spirited, and she sometimes makes big mistakes. When she has a run of good luck, she starts to worry that bad luck will soon follow, and it does, in the form of a new student who is allergic to the class rabbit, Nacho. Piper adores Nacho, so she decides to loathe the new girl, Camilla, and tells her a horrible story that their teacher is actually a witch. (“Oh, Piper,” Lilah said at this point. “That is just not okay.”) Her parents make her apologize (while sympathizing with how much she misses Nacho – that’s something I love about the adults in these books – they listen) and the fairy tree helps her in an unexpected way.

The magic of the remote island setting (Camilla lives in the lighthouse) is charming, and the fairy tree provides a touch of the supernatural without giving Piper solutions to her problems outright. She lives in a supportive community (the lobster boatman who takes the children to Mink Island to school every day has a wife who sends baked goods for them every morning, for example). Her parents don’t just yell at her when she behaves…well, like a child. They listen and understand (though note that they still made her apologize when it was called for) and try to help Piper deal with her emotions. She’s navigating childhood the best she can, and she’s charming while doing it.

Lilah and I might have liked this second book in the series even better than the first, and we look forward to more.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

Reviews With Lilah: THE ISLAND OF DR. LIBRIS by Chris Grabenstein


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I read this one to Lilah immediately following ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY, and the initial comparison is not great. WHERE ARE THE GIRLS? Like LEMONCELLO, this one is clearly geared toward the boy reluctant reader, but where LEMONCELLO had a couple of girl characters who actually did things, this one has Maid Marian and Pollyanna, who are really window dressing, and the little sister of Walter, Billy’s new friend. Right, the plot. Billy goes with his mom to live at a cabin by a lake for the summer while she works on her dissertation and she and his dad have some time apart. He is horrified to learn there is no television and he manages to break his iPhone. Oh no! He will have to resort to reading the gorgeous books in the locked bookcase! (I realize I’m abusing sarcasm at this point, but that’s the effect this book had on me.)

He reads one of the books and hears some strange sounds coming from the island in the lake. Hercules has come to life on the island. And he’s not the last. The Three Musketeers (and D’Artagnan), Robin Hood and Maid Marian (and, unfortunately, the Sheriff of Nottingham), Tom Sawyer, and Pollyanna quickly follow. Oh, and Jack, the guy with the beanstalk. Lilah and I both really enjoyed the scenes of the characters from different books interacting, actually. And the premise! What a premise. Execution was middling, but I’m giving it three stars for a fabulous premise and the scenes where Hercules has joined the Merry Men (and Billy’s promotion to Sir William of Goat – trust me, it’s hilarious).

Why is all this happening? Dr. Libris, the owner of the cabin is conducting a study of dubious ethical quality (seriously, how did he get funding for this? must be from an evil conglomerate). He thinks Billy’s imagination makes him a great candidate. Billy’s imagination brings the books to life with theta waves pseudosciencebabble. This is very cool, but Billy’s friend Walter is also able to bring characters to life (not even characters from books – a character from his Magic: The Gathering knockoff game) but only while on the island. Even the bully brings a video-game character to life from the cheat guide he carries around. I had a problem with this internal consistency. Why make such a big deal out of the locked bookcase if anyone can bring any character from any written material to life by standing on the island and reading? Dr. Libris’s experiment notes were rather intrusive to me as well.

Billy meets a Mean Kid who is the archetype of bullies everywhere. No nuance here. This kid shows up to create false suspense while Billy and Walter have their adventures. Alyssa, Walter’s little sister, is actually a lot of fun, but she’s barely in the book. They fob her off on Pollyanna to babysit. So that’s what you do with girl characters. Have them babysit. Anyway, Billy also cooks up a ridiculous PARENT TRAP kind of plot involving pretending that Billy has fallen off a cliff) when his dad visits the island. This is utterly ridiculous and distracting. Dr. Libris finally shows up to do a mad-scientist kind of rant and then fly off in his helicopter.

Still, the scenes with the various characters interacting are magical and fun, and there’s a lot to like here, even with all this infuriating mess.

Source disclosure: Lilah received this book as a gift.

Reviews With Lilah: ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY by Chris Grabenstein



This homage to CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY is clearly geared toward the boy reluctant reader, but Lilah and I thought it was fun. Alexandriaville hasn’t had a public library in twelve years, but its most famous citizen, game creator Luigi Lemoncello, is about to change all that with a state-of-the-art library built in the old bank building. To celebrate, he’s inviting twelve twelve-year-olds for an overnight library lock-in so they can preview all the wonders within before the official opening. Our hero is Kyle, who is not much of a reader, but who loves games (board and video) and decides to enter the essay contest for the overnight stay when he’s grounded from his own video games. The lock-in seems like the perfect workaround.

When the party is over the next morning, the kids are given the option to participate in  extra festivities: figure out how to exit the library without using the front door. Clues will be provided. Most of the kids decide to participate. There’s one Mean Kid who will obviously be the archenemy of Kyle. Or, rather, of Kyle’s team, because he gathers kids to work together. Lilah is a very cooperative child, and we both liked this aspect of the book. The clues the kids work through to find the way out are fun and interactive.

Were the characters really complex? No. Was the plot riveting and unpredictable? No. But Grabenstein captured the elements of whimsy and magic that I loved in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, and Lilah and I had a great time reading this. At the end are clues to a final puzzle and lists of all the books mentioned throughout the story.

Source disclosure: Lilah received this book as a gift.

Reviews With Lilah: THE CURIOUS CAT SPY CLUB by Linda Joy Singleton


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Lilah and I read this chapter book, the first in a series, over just a couple of days. We had trouble putting it down.

Lilah’s assessment: “Come on! It’s about kids who rescue cats! That’s awesome!”

The narrator, Kelsey, is having a rough time. After her father lost his job, she had to move from her house to an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. So she lost her beloved dog, Handsome. She still gets to visit him at her grandmother’s house, but it isn’t the same. She is a bit obsessed with Becca, one of the popular girls, but Kelsey is more or less invisible. Her path crosses with Becca’s when she helps Becca catch a runaway zorse (from the animal sanctuary Becca helps her mother run) and they hear kittens meowing pathetically from a dumpster. They are unable to open it themselves, and Becca runs for help. The only help she can find is super-nerd Leo Polansky, but he manages to use some physics to pry open the dumpster and rescue the kittens. The three become unlikely friends, caring for the kittens in a disused shed at the animal sanctuary. They decide to find the horrible person who dumped the kittens and raise money for kitten supplies by finding lost pets (and there are a LOT of lost pets in town).

The good: I really liked the emerging friendship between three very different kids who probably would never have even talked to each other without the strange circumstances throwing them together. Their dedication to helping animals was also commendable. Singleton also makes a point of discussing ridiculously lax animal welfare laws (when Kelsey assumes the bad guy will go to jail, Becca explains that the laws mean that isn’t true), which are worth talking about. The group has a really strong sense of justice, and they place the welfare of the animals above their own petty disagreements. The mystery was very well-plotted, and each member of the club contributes in a way fitting to his or her strengths (I especially enjoyed brilliant but socially awkward Leo’s contribution via a drone he builds).

The bad: Really, nothing too bad here. I was afraid that Lilah would be too upset by a person tossing kittens in a dumpster to die to even read past the first chapter, but a reassurance that they were fine kept her going. Kelsey’s obsession with Becca is a little weird, but they become genuine friends. There’s some weird “romance” kind of thing with Becca and Skeet, who bullies Leo. I found Becca’s unwillingness to believe Skeet was a jerk to be unrealistic. I also was perplexed by the way the three pretend not to know each other at school. Sure, they don’t want anyone else to know about the kittens, but couldn’t they at least sit together at lunch? Say hi? Other than these minor quibbles, this was an enjoyable read for both parent and child.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.



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Look at that cover. Isn’t that an awesome cover? And it’s a sentient gargoyle who cooks delicious vegan food! I love Gigi Pandian’s Dr. Jaya Jones series, so this new series, centered on an alchemist and herbalist, should really be a no-brainer for me. But I can’t do it. I give up. After two weeks of putting this aside to read everything else available, from a ridiculous book about getting rid of clutter to the backs of cereal boxes, I’m letting this one go. At halfway through, I should care about at least one of the characters, and I should care how the story ends, and it’s extremely rare for me to put aside a book without finishing, but I just can’t keep going anymore. I don’t care who killed the guy. I don’t care what Zoe decides to do with her life.

Zoe Faust is a former alchemist who moves to Portland to start a new life. But when she unpacks the crates she had shipped from Paris, she finds a gargoyle. Who talks. And is an excellent cook. He needs her help deciphering an ancient scroll. Okay, I’m intrigued. Then a teenager breaks into her house, a dead body turns up on her doorstep, and she’s a suspect because although she’s over three hundred years old, she’s stupid enough to tell the police that she “smelled poison,” which is part of the “herbal sensitivity” we hear about CONSTANTLY. She also constantly makes smoothies and reflects on how attuned she is to the sun. Really, it’s a wonder I made it halfway into this book. It’s excruciating.

And that’s it! I feel so free now that I’ve stopped trying to read this!

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

Summer Reads: COP TOWN by Karin Slaughter




The sexism and racism in this book are seriously disturbing, but it takes place in the Atlanta Police Department in the 1970s, so they’re unavoidable. Maggie Lawson’s uncle and brother are also cops, but that doesn’t help her standing in the APD much. She does her brother’s laundry and endures patronizing comments and physical violence from her uncle. When her brother’s partner is shot, she knows there’s more to the story, but she’s stonewalled by the sexist cops. She’s mentored by Gail, who’s endured far worse than Maggie has in her tenure as a cop. Maggie in turn will mentor clueless Kate Murphy, a widow just starting as a cop. Women are not welcome in the APD. “The only reason they were in uniform was because the federal government had bribed the city with grants to hire them. The women weren’t exactly told to lie about their duties, but the grants dictated certain guidelines that the Atlanta Police Department was not going to follow–mixed assignments being primary among them”

Besides the rampant sexism, the department is racially segregated. Slaughter has set COP TOWN at the time Maynard Jackson is the first black mayor of Atlanta and “had finally managed to push out the old chief of police. Commissioner Reginald Eaves had taken over around the time of the Edward Spivey trial, which made a bad situation unbelievably worse. Eaves didn’t seem to care. He was on a mission to break the white power structure that had controlled the Atlanta Police Department since its inception.” What inspires racial unity on the force? Women. “As far as Maggie could tell the only thing the black and white male officers could agree on was that none of them thought women should be allowed in uniform.” As a bonus, there’s also rampant homophobia and a big dose of anti-Semitism.

Kate is incredibly naive when she starts work.

‘We’d better hurry before the colored girls get here.’

Kate glanced at the curtain splitting the room in half. She sounded horrified. ‘It’s segregated?’

‘They change back there. They can’t wear their uniforms to work.’


Maggie felt her eyes narrow. She couldn’t tell if this doe-eyed look was an act or not. ‘You ever talk to a black person in Buckhead don’t have to come through the back door?’

To say that Kate and Maggie get off to a rocky start would be an understatement, but as they are shut out of the hunt for a cop-killer, they team up to follow leads the men refuse to acknowledge, risking their jobs and their lives to find a little bit of justice. Slaughter knocks this one out of the park. It’s gritty, well-researched, and realistic. She perfectly evokes a horrifying, ugly, gritty time in Atlanta without flinching once. This is a tough read, but a worthwhile one.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

Reviews With Lilah: The Lulu series by Hilary McKay


Lilah and I really enjoy Lulu, a seven-year-old girl who loves animals. This early-chapter-book series features a different animal in each entry, with Lulu’s good intentions causing mayhem that’s resolved by the end. It’s a bighearted series, and though Lulu is naive, she means well, and she cares deeply about animals. Information about animal care is included in the books, and Lulu does her research so she can effectively care for each new kind of creature. The charming drawings by Priscilla Lamont are always sweet and often hilarious.

In LULU AND THE HAMSTER IN THE NIGHT, Lulu rescues a neglected hamster from a “big girl” at her school, Emma Pond, who (like everyone) knows of Lulu’s animal rescue efforts and offers the hamster to Lulu. Since the alternative is Emma releasing the hamster into the wild, Lulu takes the hamster and immediately begins his transformation by improving his living conditions and conditioning him to accept kindness from humans. In the middle of this socialization process is Nan’s birthday. What Nan wants for her birthday is a slumber party with Lulu and her cousin Mellie. Nan doesn’t like hamsters. And she has three cats. But Lulu is reluctant to leave Ratty at home, so she sneaks him to Nan’s, disguised as a present. But Ratty escapes, leaving Mellie and Lulu to track him down before the cats do and without Nan finding out.

I enjoy reading Lulu stories out loud, and this was no exception. Lilah and I laughed quite a bit during this installment, which has the girls trying to find a way *inside* a wall, a suspicious neighbor calling the police, and trying to act casual around Nan despite their panic. The birthday party for Nan is lots of fun, with both the girls and Nan using their imaginations to create a memorable occasion. Lilah and I give this one all our thumbs up.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

LULU AND THE HEDGEHOG IN THE RAIN has Lulu rescuing a wild hedgehog swept down the gutter by a heavy rainfall. Mellie expects Lulu to keep the hedgehog as a pet, but Lulu explains that she’s a wild animal. She makes a shelter in her garden and puts out food, but one day, the hedgehog starts trying to dig into the neighboring garden. The problem is that Charlie, who lives next door, never remembers to shut the garden gate, so Lulu is worried that the hedgehog will come to harm. And what if the hedgehog wanders into the garden beyond? She recruits several neighbors to join her Hedgehog Club, and they divvy up tasks to keep the hedgehog safe but still wild. When everyone else eventually loses interest, all the work falls to Lulu, but she perseveres.

Lulu is passionate about helping animals. She volunteers to take on extra chores to enlist her neighbors’ cooperation to protect the hedgehog, she reads up on hedgehogs in a book from the library and uses this knowledge to discourage the New Old Lady from putting out bread and milk, which make hedgehogs sick, and she doesn’t attempt to keep the hedgehog confined, no matter how much she worries. Lilah and I both enjoyed this book.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

Reviews With Lilah: THE THIRTEENTH MYSTERY by Michael Dahl




Lilah and I read this one together, not realizing it’s third in a trilogy, but we weren’t at all lost and very much enjoyed it. We were both ready to go back and read the first two (OUT THE REAR WINDOW and TO CATCH A GHOST).

Nerdy Charlie Hitchcock and former bully Tyler Yu work together to solve the disappearance of Abracadabra, the founder of the Hocus Pocus Hotel, but soon Tyler disappears during a mystifying magic trick! Charlie is convinced he can find a way to the hotel’s hidden thirteenth floor and solve the mysteries.

This is a fun read, and the diagrams explaining the magic tricks are a huge part of the appeal. Lilah is fascinated by magic tricks, so the explanations for how the illusions worked were loads of fun. Tyler and Charlie are a fun pair: very different, but working together as an excellent team. There’s plenty of suspense and mystery, and the resolution had us cheering. Highly recommend this middle-grade chapter book series.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

Reviews With Lilah: CUPCAKE COUSINS by Kate Hannigan



Cousins Willow and Delia are fourth-graders, too old to be flower girls. Unfortunately, Aunt Rose sees things differently, and has chosen poofy pink dresses the girls hate. In an attempt to get assigned a different job in the wedding, they bake their little hearts out.

Lilah and I both enjoyed this one, including the dessert recipes included. The girls are good-natured and they work together well. The family interactions are a lot of fun, and serious issues like job loss are touched on, but not in a heavy-handed way. Their creative approach to solving the “problem” of being flower girls makes for some funny moments.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.