Review of the Day: The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book by Kate Milford
The third law of library science, as stated by S.R. Ranganathan, says unequivocally, “Every book its reader”. Not “all books for all readers” but rather the idea that for each reader out there, there is a book. There are books on my library’s shelves that are built to suit the widest swath of readers imaginable. There are also books that would appeal only to the tiniest slice of the greater population. Yet in both cases, we purchase and provide the materials. In my own experience, I find that my favorite writers acquire a passionate and distinct cult following over time. As each of their strange, wonderful books get released, so grows their readership. Kate Milford slots neatly into this particular category, thanks in large part to a singular commitment to her fantastical world. With every additional novel she sprinkles her pages with callbacks, references, hints, clues, and more. The overall feeling is that you’ve been given a glimpse at a great and glorious puzzle box, and it’s yours to try to solve. Yet her latest book The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book is notable in large part because while it is “A Greenglass House Story” you can come to it cold with no repercussions. It’s a novel, and a short story collection. It’s a story, and a mystery, and a puzzle. There are clues scattered throughout the text, but will you be fast enough to identify the villain of the piece? Will you even want to, preferring instead to just go along for the ride? It’s as if all of Ms. Milford’s skills have at last come together to produce her magnum opus. I’ll tell you true – there’s not a soul alive I’ve handed this book to that didn’t get sucked into it. Every book has its reader. It just happens that this book’s reader is you.
The rain isn’t stopping. Not anytime soon anyway, and the denizens of the Blue Vein Tavern are getting restless. For days they’ve been trapped together, but very little has been said. All that changes on the night that someone makes a proposal: Why doesn’t each guest tell a story to amuse the others? Each night one or two stories are told, but it’s not all fun and games. Some of these guests have things to hide. Some have secrets. And most don’t realize that in a lot of these stories there are clues to be found. Will these tales be enough to save everyone if the waters don’t stop rising? And who’s behind it all? If the Canterbury Tales were filled to the brim with magic and mystery, you couldn’t find a better collection than what Milford has produced here.
When I was a kid, I found a copy of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express at my school’s sixth grade Scholastic Book Fair. Immediately I was enthralled by the premise. A group of seeming strangers boards a train. They’re unable to leave, and, somehow, a murder is committed. But how? It was delightful to watch detective Hercule Poirot untangle the lies and secrets that the guests of the train would use to cover for one another. I got a bit of a sense of that in this story as well. But instead of trying to find a murderer, you’re instead trying to figure out what each person’s story truly is. You don’t even know that that’s what you’re looking to do when you begin, though. Like me, you probably just think you’ll be enjoying some short stories. You do, but then things start to add up in strange, unnerving ways. And that’s when the fun kicks in.
Long ago, folktales were particularly prized by children’s librarians. We had an almost undue sway over the publishing industry in this regard, so year after year more and more folktales were added to our 398.2 sections. It couldn’t last, of course. These days you’re lucky if you can find five genuine folktales produced in a single year. Now imagine if you were able to find fifteen completely original stories. Imagine still that those fifteen were all housed in a single book. It all makes me wonder what skills a person needs to accomplish such an act. Does Ms. Milford think about structure when she writes her stories? The tales mimic different forms, after all. One is a riddle-based tale. One, a story about outwitting the devil. There’s a story about ghosts and a story about a sentient house and at least two fairytales besides. Some are incredibly long and some no more than a couple pages, but almost every one serves a purpose when it comes to the overarching storyline (the sole exception to this being the Captain’s tale “The Storm Bottle” which appears more of hat tip to Milford’s most faithful fans than anything else). You begin to wonder how Milford could have begun to put this whole thing together. Did the stories come first or the characters in the inn? Did she write down the stories and then weave a single character between a whole bunch of them? And how is she capable of inserting such gorgeous language on a continual basis in each tale?
My daughter is nine and has just started to read middle grade novels on her own. Having loved The Westing Game, I thought this book might be a natural fit as well. Clearly I’ve an affection for books with large casts and secrets, and happily my kid feels the same way. She’s a sensitive reader, though, and one night I heard a wail erupt from her room. I went tearing upstairs, convinced she’d seen an apparition or had a bad dream, only to find her with book and flashlight in hand, having reached the end of Chapter Sixteen. With tears in her eyes she begged to know if a certain character would turn out okay. Would be saved. The book makes no guarantees, but I could at least say that someone was trying to save her. Maybe they’d succeed. Maybe they’d fail. We never know, but I like the idea that they succeed. She required a lot of comforting, asking repeatedly if she’d be okay. I’ve never seen her have an emotional reaction to a book she was reading on her own quite like this before. Did I tell her the truth? Sorta. But it is significant what a potent reaction this book can have on a young reader. Reactions you might not expect or look for.
It’s a good book that you finish, think about, and then flip back to the beginning to read again. And Milford rewards these rereads. The entire book is sprinkled with clues and little hints of what is to come. Now I was a big fan of the original Greenglass House. In that book, one of the characters (Milo) is reading this book to himself continually. In the back of this book, Milford writes a truly impressive faux “Note About the Clarion Books Edition” of The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book. She produces an impressive pedigree for the book, explaining that the story collector Phineas Amalgam probably got one story or another from a variety of different sources. My favorite part of her note is when she mentions that in her research, Milford found “a manuscript version of Raconteur’s dated 1932,” where the stories were in a slightly different order. “I’ve restored the 1932 order for this version.” Nice touch.
My favorite story in the book is “The Devil and the Scavenger.” It’s a story where a girl, who may not be all that she seems, gets something from that devil that makes you more afraid of her than him by the story’s end. My daughter’s favorite story is “The Coldway” because there is romance in it. But the best story in the book might be the last one, “The Crossroads”. Because it is in that story that Ms. Milford puts every character and every lesson and every beat. It’s the story to round up all the other ones, and it is imperative that the author stick the landing. Milford, I think you know by now, does stick it. Sticks it hard and when my daughter finished the book, she was no longer worried for one character or another. The ending is deeply satisfying, even if it’s not entirely happy for all the characters. Still, you’d be hard pressed to think of another way it could finish. All I know is that when you read that last sentence, your fingers are already turning the book back to the front so that you can read it all over again and figure out its secrets once and for all. This is the book for the clever children out there. The mystery lovers. The fantasy freaks. The ones that like puzzles and the ones that don’t know what they like, they just need it to be smart. It’s smart. Smart enough for them and smart enough for you. Best that you discover it for yourself and see just what I mean.
On shelves now.
Source: A galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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