Sunday, March 29, 2015

Book Review: Greenglass House

For my final entry in Middle Grade March I return to a familiar author, Kate Milford who also wrote the The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands set of books. As far as I can tell, this book is set in the same world as those two and her novellas (the style of the stories within stories matches up and I haven't seen Milford say it isn't) but this book is standalone so a newcomer can come in easily (or someone like me who really needs to do a massive re-read of this whole collection!).


The Greenglass House by Kate Milford, illustrated by Jamie Zollars



It's winter break and Milo is looking forward to spending a quiet Christmas with his parents in Nagespeake and is quite unhappy when their routine is broken by the arrival of several strangers. This isn't entirely out of the ordinary, Nagspeake is famous for it's smuggling and his parents run a discreet inn in the former house of the most famous smuggler of all time but even for them this is an odd lot of guests. They all come separately and all say that it was a spur of the moment, think nothing of it choice when it's obviously anything but. So Milo, egged on by Meddy who has come in from town to help with all of the extra guests, decide to do some snooping to figure out just what secret about this house people are looking for.

As I seem to say every time I talk about Milford's books, I truly love her word-crafting and it really stands out as a unique style amongst all the books I read. And, as seems to happen every time, I didn't think to grab any examples of the book while I had it so I can't be as precise about it as I would like which is an ironic shame. To put it simply, all authors care about what words they use but most of them try to make them unobtrusive, to not remind the reader that this is a book in front of them but Milford does, she shows the characters' thoughts and then guides the reader into thinking other things about the settings and situations that the characters within the story would never have come up with. She's careful with tone and overall mood, much more so than the current style of middle grade/young adult writing and it almost gives her books a fairy tale like flair to them. And every time I read her books I almost want to confuse her of creating too safe, too quaint of a world, where smugglers bring in silly things like ballpoint pens and seed bulbs, and every time there's a sharp rebuttal from the book, a mention of smuggled weapons and an explanation of a very strict customs committee, that reminds me that no, this is a complicated world but that part does not matter here. Very rarely do you get a feel for the setting beyond the characters' immediate lives, especially outside of high fantasy or dramatic science fiction, but Milford has included just enough that it feels like there are two worlds in this story, the larger world and the world of the Greenglass House.  

I did have two problems with this book, thankfully they aren't deal breakers for recommending it but still sufficiently large enough to annoy me. One is that Milo and Meddy play a role-playing game while exploring the house, it's not a full-fledged larp but they create some characters, some backstory, and then map out the house, that part was fine if a bit complex for something a pair of kids to think of on their own. My problem is that Milo is introduced in the first few pages to be someone who worries a lot, someone who likes things to be just so and is grumpy about change, I am exactly the same way so the idea that he could just ignore that and not have it leak over into his character was unbelievable. His character does slip a few times but never in that way and I would have liked to have seen that, I felt like Milford didn't get just how important routine is to that kind of person and what kinds of situations it takes to break that. I like his character otherwise, he was very easy to connect with because of his faults and I liked that he's an adopted, Chinese character and how that's only a part of his life, although Meddy came off a little flatter I will admit that's a symptom of the story only diving deeper into her character at the very end.

My other problem is that the eventual villain of the story was not a very satisfying on. On the one hand it made sense, the story had sufficiently convinced me that none of the other characters were the ones who were sabotaging things and meant other characters harm but the villains motivations were just, too fictional for me. In real life life is strange, my family's motto is practically "fact is stranger than fiction" but whenever something weird happens (in your personal life or the news), you file it away in your mind as "this happened but it's not the normal thing to happen" so it's still surprising. Therefore, in fiction we still expect a modicum of realism unless the story has telegraphed that this is a time when non-normal events happen and happen often which just wasn't the case here. If this had been Milford's other books then I would have expected strange things since they had more fantastical settings but even that wouldn't have solved my problem here, the villain is motivated by petty revenge and it just didn't come off well. Thankfully this only occupies the very end of the book but it still left me a bit grumpy (it also doesn't quite explain why there were so many guests at the same time, at least half of them are connected but several other people aren't and it's a bit odd in retrospect).


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