by Kate Milford
Clarion Books, 2014
Greenglass House is a children's novel aimed, approximately, at ages 10-15, although it is also likely to appeal to older readers. It is fairly complex, and is best for strong readers.
Milo lives with his parents, the innkeepers at Greenglass House. It is a quirky and very old building, best described as a Victorian mansion, although it is unclear when or where the book is set (yes telephones, no internet; some cars, but more boats). Greenglass House is primarily used by smugglers sneaking their wares into the nearby city, and Milo and his parents are familiar with, and slightly entangled with, the local underworld.
But that's not supposed to be the case on Christmas break... Milo is somewhat annoyed when a man shows up on the first day of break, with no clear plans to leave any time soon. His is distracted from his annoyance when another person shows up, and then another... soon the inn has an unexpected five guests for the holidays, and they have to call in their cook and housekeeper to help... and soon Christmas is looking disturbingly crowded. And chaotic, because whatever these people are here for, it isn't rest and relaxation.
Avoiding spoilers, it is sufficient to say that all these various people are here on various personal mysterious quests, some of which conflict with each other and all of which are maintained in great secrecy until Milo unravels them.
This is an excellently well-plotted story, and is full of unexpected twists and turns. It is a little slow to take off in the beginning, but becomes engaging before long, and is well worth reading. It does have some oddities that may put off some readers, unfortunately. The first is that normal homelife at the inn is ridiculously twee. Milo lives a life of picturebook Christmases, drinking hot chocolate or hot cider in front of the fire every 15 minutes, with snow and sledding and warm mittens. The second is an oddly childlike world; for example, the socio-political situation is based around smugglers doubling as the political resistance, smuggling bulbs and seedlings to thwart the evil Deacon and Morvengarde catalog company.
Which all works well together, actually. But it doesn't quite fit -- the story isn't overwhelmingly twee, and the characters aren't parodies. This is a very solid story with relatable characters, that just happens to have bright threads of fairytale-like silliness woven through it. It comes across as a combination of The Westing Game and Joan Aiken's fairy tales.
Overall, I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes light fantasy and twisty mysteries, with the caveat that it is a children's book, and may not appeal to Serious Adult People. If you are looking for a book for your kids, this is a great one, but it does have some serious vocabulary (e.g., The Raconteur's Commonplace Book is an important MacGuffin), and I'd say it takes about 60 pages to really get into the swing of the story, so patience is a virtue.
There is one sequel currently in the works, Ghosts of Greenglass House; intriguingly, reviews indicate that it has almost exactly the same basic plot and setting, replayed one year later. A movie based on the first book is currently 'in development', although very few details are available.