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Book Review: Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk

Cyd’s here with our first fall book review of the much-anticipated new middle grade novel by Newbery honor-winning author Lauren Wolk!

“Surely there has never been a better time to read about healing, of both the body and the heart.” –The New York Times Book Review

Depression-era Maine – 1934

After Ellie’s family loses almost everything they own, including their home in town, they are forced to start over in the untamed forests of nearby Echo Mountain. Unlike her sister, Ellie finds comfort in her new home. She welcomes the freedom and discovers a natural connection and love for the mountain and the creatures that share it. But the joy she has discovered is short lived when an accident leaves her father in a coma. An accident that she has accepted the unearned blame for. 

Ellie is determined to bring her father back. Listening to her heart and following her instincts, Ellie will make her way to the top of the mountain, in search of the healing secrets that a woman known only as “the hag” is known to possess. Her journey to find a cure for her father leads her to discover that help can come from surprising places.

Newbery honoree Lauren Wolk is a master at painting vivid pictures of people and places. Her young heroine, Ellie, is a remarkable character. Ellie’s kindness and innate understanding and empathy for the people and creatures of Echo Mountain, her trust in herself, her willingness to do whatever needs to be done – make her a great role model. I think young readers will find themselves engrossed in (and uplifted by) her character. This book is filled with positive messages that transfer to our current times.  Messages about community, openness to learning, how people respond differently in hard times. One of Ellie’s strongest character traits is her acceptance of people as they are – without judgement.    

I highly recommend this book. Echo Mountain is a page turner that I had a hard time putting down and couldn’t wait to come back to!  There are a few scares along the way, but the overall tone of the book is positive and thought-provoking for a young reader.

The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

Guinevere has spent the last three years in a convent, preparing for her marriage to Britain’s High King.  The daughter of a Southern king, she has never met her husband-to-be.  The young King Arthur, famed throughout the land for his defeat of the Dark Queen and banishment of magic, and the great sorcerer Merlin, from the city of Camelot and the lands surrounding it, is a beacon of hope, his glorious city on the hill only the beginning of the peace and civilization he plans to build.

But peace comes with a price.  And magic always fights back.  Even as Camelot flourishes, dark things in the woods beyond its borders bide their time, waiting, watching, and taking back what they can.  And as magic creeps back over the land, and Merlin exiled, there is no one to protect Arthur from its hidden threat – no one but Guinevere, who is not at all who, or what, she seems.

The Guinevere riding to Camelot to be wed is not the same girl was sent to the convent to become Arthur’s bride.  This Guinevere is something else – something dark, and magic, something that revels in the forest, and the fresh air, and in freedom.  Sent in secret by Merlin to rule at Arthur’s side, even Guinevere is not entirely sure of her true, whole purpose.  What she does know is that Arthur is everything – light, bright, steady hope – and she will do anything to keep him safe, even if it means revealing her true nature.  But as she becomes more entangled in Arthur’s world, she begins to see that she is not the only one hiding.  Secrets, lies, and magic knot together until she cannot even be sure of her own past.  Will Guinevere be able to remain true to herself and her king?  Or will she lose herself along the way?

When I was a kid, I spent many, many hours with Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and all his knights.  I scoured the library shelves for tales of the noble boy king, imagined elaborate scenarios in which everyone lived (except maybe Mordred, because get out of here, you creep), watched The Sword and the Stone over and over again, actually wore out my cassette tape of the original Broadway recording of Camelot (did you know that Richard Harris, Professor Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies, also starred as King Arthur in 1967’s Camelot?), and couldn’t get enough of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series because it meant that it was all really, really real.  It’s also true that as an adult, I definitely have not outgrown my fascination with magical swords and sleeping kings, and absolutely cannot be trusted in a bookstore that has any Arthurian fiction face out.  So, when I saw that Kiersten White was writing a new series centered on Guinevere (who is usually kind of helpless and needs a lot of rescuing, but, to be fair, she’s probably really distracted by the impossible love triangle she’s stuck in) I couldn’t put The Guinevere Deception on hold fast enough.  A King Arthur story where Gwen is magical and a fighter and does a ton of rescuing herself and also, oh yeah, is a changeling?  Yes, please!  All the pieces are here – Merlin, Camelot, Excalibur, the Lady of the Lake, Mordred, Lancelot, even Ector and Kay – but Kiersten White pulls all the threads of the tale together into a story that is exciting, fresh, and has more than one twist in store for even the most devoted of King Arthur fans.  If you’re as nuts about Camelot as I am, or just enjoy a great fantasy read, this is a great one to curl up with on one of these long end-of-the-year evenings.  You know, while listening to your new, downloaded original Broadway recording of the Camelot soundtrack that can never, ever wear out (#sorrynotsorry, family).  Perfect!

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

When Zachary Ezra Rollins, the son of a fortune teller, was a boy, he found a door.  It was painted on an alley wall that was frequently covered with graffiti and then whitewashed over, but not on that day.  On that day, there was a door.  A intricately painted door with a bee, and a key, and a sword, and a golden, shimmering doorknob.  A door that he knows, deep down, leads to somewhere, someplace, maybe somewhen else.  A door that he chose not to open.  The next day it was gone, and he has always wondered what would have happened if he had not walked away from it, leaving it unopened.

Now Zachary Ezra Rollins, still the son of a fortune teller, is no longer a boy.  A game theory graduate student in the lull between semesters, he discovers a book on a shelf in his university library.  A book of unknown age and murky origins, that does not seem to quite belong to the library that houses it, that tells the story of a pirate and a girl, a labyrinthine underground library and its acolytes and guardians located on the shores of something called the Starless Sea, and doors that lead to it, some found, some lost.  It also contains, three stories in, the tale of his own painted door.  The door he did not open.  And in the back of the book there is an image of a bee, a key, and a sword.

Puzzled, Zachary Ezra Rawlins checks the book out (not without difficulty), and takes it back to his dorm.  He reads it all, and then reads it again.  And again.  And wonders if he is entirely sane.  He begins a search for the book’s origins, finding that it was donated to the university with a few other books from a mysterious Keating collection.  As he hunts for more clues, he stumbles onto a photo of a woman and her dance partner from a literary charity’s masquerade ball in New York – a woman wearing a necklace with a bee, a key, and a sword.  Discovering that this year’s ball is being held that weekend, Zachary borrows a mask from his friend Kat, packs a suit, books a hotel room, and boards a train into a future that, if fate and luck are on his side, will hold a second chance – and a second door.

Fate, time, love, stories, storytellers, art, and magic all collide in this lush, gorgeous novel that is so much more than a book.  A love letter to books, libraries, paper, the written word, and all those who keep stories alive, The Starless Sea is a stunning follow-up to author Erin Morgenstern’s blockbuster first novel, The Night Circus (don’t worry, the books are completely separate from one another – no need to read one before the other!).  Best savored slowly with tea and baked goods, this is a book to wander through slowly, leaving plenty of time for delight and wonder at all the magic within its pages.  If you’ve ever investigated the back of wardrobe, closet, or a cluster of close-set pine trees for your own door, yearned to step into the pages of a story, or felt like book characters are your kindred spirits, this book is absolutely not to be missed.  Grab it from the library and get ready to lose yourself in literary loveliness.