Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Greenglass House by Kate Milford (2014)

Milo, who was adopted from China as a baby, lives with his parents in a smugglers inn called Greenglass House. During his Christmas vacation, he and his family expect the inn to be vacant, so they are shocked when, one after another, guests keep arriving. Amidst the crowd, Milo links up with the cook's daughter, Meddy, who teaches him to play a roleplaying game that allows them to spy on the suspicious behavior of the guests, all of whom have ulterior motives.

Many elements contribute to the overall strength of this book. Chief among these is the setting. Greenglass House is an old, intriguing place with its own history, secrets, and possible ghosts. It is described with such detail that the reader begins to wish she could be snowed in along with the characters. Also wonderfully interwoven into the plot are a series of folktales and stories, some of which Milo reads in a book, and others of which are told by guests of the inn. Each of these stories could be excerpted to stand alone, as most are presented in their entirety, but they also deepen the larger story by revealing characters' motivations, secrets, and connections to one another.

The author takes a real risk with this book by purposely failing to mention a key truth about one character until very late in the story. Though the reveal is a big surprise, it also makes a lot of sense and becomes very obvious once the truth is known. Depending on how much the reader likes genre-jumping surprises, this could be received with mixed reactions, but it does seem to work well within the context of the story and makes the climax of the book that much more exciting. Most mystery readers are accustomed to last-minute surprises anyway, so they will probably enjoy discovering a twist.

Greenglass House is a lovely contemporary read-alike for The Westing Game, but it is also very much its own creation, with unique characters and a distinct style. In the sea of largely mundane middle grade titles published in 2014, this one is a surprising gem worthy of much praise. (Indeed it has been placed on the long list for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.) Recommended for mystery lovers and game lovers ages 9 to 14, particularly as a read-aloud.

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