Book Review: Greenglass House

Another week, another middle grades book under the bridge. It is true: I seem to read almost nothing but middle grades book these days. You’re just going to have to take my word for it that I have much wider interests in literature than middle grades books. However, between curriculum-writing for seventh and eighth grade language arts, homeschooling a seventh grader, and Eamon’s book club, I spend perhaps half my reading time reading books appropriate to middle grades, which usually means written specifically for them. (Occasionally, at this age, they read up to Animal Farm, Tuck Everlasting, or even Ender’s Game, but that comes more when they reach high school. If kids this age read classics, it tends to be adapted classics, which is why I have graphic novel versions of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Les Misérables on my TBR.)

Cover image from Amazon.com

If you have a middle grades child, then this blog has probably been helpful to you over the past few years and will continue to be so for another 1.5. If you don’t… Well, the value in The Starving Artist, I think, has always been a combination between entertainment and aggregate information. All these books go into the archives, and if you want recommendations for literary fiction or philosophy or something, you can click on a button or two (or search) or follow a rabbit trail—into the past or the future—and get there around whatever I’ve happened to write about this month or year or life stage.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford is the first book in a limited series. (It might even still be going.) Considered a middle grades mystery, the first book, at least, is also perfect for the holidays, filled with snow and presents, hot cocoa and family, strangers and smugglers and nautical intrigue. Wink, wink. This first book, too, is enjoying enormous popularity, several awards, and is a New York Times Bestseller. Published in 2016, it was followed up by Ghost of Greenglass House, Bluecrowne, The Thief Knot, and The Racounteur’s Commonplace Book. From what I can tell, they form a nontraditional series, with the first two novels in chronological order, the next two stories based in the same world, and the fifth a book which appears in the series itself. (In book one, Milo is reading it and some of the tales relate to what is happening.)

This is exactly the kind of middle grades book I would pick up off the bookshelf, at least as an adult. It looks nice, has all those awards, a lyrical title, and a pretty good hook on the back. It is a mystery, a Christmas story, is about cooky characters and sailors and friendly criminals, about a twelve-year-old boy living in an eccentric inn at the top of a hill in a port town. It has themes of adoption, role playing games, friendship, family, and growing up. (It also has another category, but to disclose it would be to destroy the ending for you.) Milo’s a smart kid. He deals with a little OCD and some shyness and inflexibility, but he’s got a lovely family and a holiday season with the inn all to himself. Or does he? A normal-looking man with crazy socks arrives and he won’t at all be the last unexpected Christmas guest, not by a long shot.

And yet, despite the awards and the fans, I didn’t love this book. There were a few things standing in my way and I’m finding it’s not easy to spell them all out. Alright, what can I say for sure? I am not into role playing games, so that element got a little lost on me. It would be an interesting introduction to someone, or a quaint addition for someone who used to… I don’t know. I never have played an RPG in my life, and my son, who does, didn’t seem to find some sort of kinship here in the book. Not that I have to be interested in every subject that a book covers, but I felt a little out of place, like when a book is really heavy on the sports or something. I’m also not sold on the vocabulary and writing style, especially for a middle grades reader. This seems like the type of book to me that adults or librarians would get more excited about for kids than the kids for themselves. (Like A Series of Unfortunate Events.) It does speak up to tweens, which is good, but when your kid is a reluctant reader, it can be difficult because one, the vocabulary is advanced and two, the structure is clunky. I often wonder if my experience with how a lot of these books read is just because I am reading them aloud. I don’t read them all aloud these days, but I did read this one aloud, and it was difficult. My eyes were constantly having to loop back, my tongue turning over the awkward turns of phrase. In other words, it was far from fluid. Not a plus, especially in this context. Also, like most mysteries I have read or seen, the plot depends an enormous amount on coincidence and luck. In the case of this book, I would say way too much for my enjoyment. I also can’t quite place my finger on where I am in space and time, which does bother me. It feels like a real place, but I’m not given enough context to land in a genre, let alone a subgenre with its location and time. (This is a common complaint about the book, and Milford has created a fake website acting as the Nagspeake home page. This site is more confusing than helpful.)

Many of the other unimpressed call the book “boring,” but say it has plenty of atmosphere. This seems accurate, to me.

Perhaps one of the biggest issues of this book is the moral ambiguity. I mean, the difference between a good guy and a bad guy in this book is basically the difference between who you know and who you don’t, who is nice to Milo and who is not. Or something even more convoluted. While using a smugglers inn as a backdrop does pose both problems and intrigue (and even though this was one of the most compelling bits to me as my ancestors may have actually owned a smugglers inn), it’s one that Milford doesn’t really get around. There is no regard for the law. Quite the opposite. Cat burglars are portrayed as cute, friendly young women, smugglers as dashing, daring, humanistic heroes, and the regulatory people as homewreckers and cold-blooded killers. Milo spends most his time snooping around, breaking and entering, and eavesdropping. While it feels like this story is innocent and light, even homey, it’s more a moral confusion. There’s worse out there, but I did find it distracting.

So what did I enjoy? The story itself. And the characters. And definitely the twists at the end, which all good mysteries should have. Yet, I say all of these things reluctantly, because despite the interesting story, it didn’t sparkle for me. Despite the characters, Milo is the only one we get to really know (besides the house). And despite the ending, there were some loose ends. Maybe they were less loose ends than a need for a more focused main plot. There were so many things going on in this book, I’d be hard pressed to tell you the main thing that the protagonist had to accomplish. And I’m not sure everyone’s going to be pleased with the big twist. I liked it. It has been done before. And it made sense and it might be the one thing that really hooks the younger fans.

It sounds harsh, I know. There was so much to love that I really wanted to. (Similar to The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, I found myself double-disappointed when a book that should have been so me ended up being a magicless chemistry.) It’s one of those books that I know plenty of people are reading and enjoying right now. You can find copies at your bookstore, at your library (if you were allowed to visit either in a pandemic) and on Christmas lists. In fact, that is what I would recommend this book for: holiday reading. If you are intrigued, then save it for the month of December. It will be more nostalgic and appropriate as a Christmas story. Hand it to a middle grades student on Christmas vacation and let them enjoy it without having to read the whole, darn thing aloud. Provide plenty of hot cocoa and some crazy socks, and–if they’re not too picky–you might just have another Greenglass fan on your hands.

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