The Raconteur's Commonplace Book, by Kate Milford

It's disconcerting, in this time of social isolation, to find oneself trapped in an inn by a flooding river with a crowd of strangers. This is how The Raconteur's Commonplace Book (Clarion, Feb 23, 2021), the latest fantasy by Kate Milford set in the fantastical town of Nagspeake, begins. Although happy to be back in Nagspeake, I felt twinges of social discomfort, and I also felt a bit uncertain about my ability to keep all the characters straight, exactly as I would in real life.

But of course, this inn, and these people, are not at all like real life. They have strange secrets, pasts that haunt them and desires that drive them, and here they are trapped together in Nagspeak, where the "laws of nature" are more like suggestions, easily ignored. To pass the time while the rain keeps falling, they take turns telling stories.

The stories are rich and strange. Some I loved, some liked, but all hooked me in one way or another with their magic and fear and hope and sadness, and choices both good and bad. The writing is lovely, and all the stories made vivid images in my mind. I now want to go back to re-read all the other books, because these stories pick up on, amplify, or simply reference many things from the earlier books; having read this, my experience of the other books will be enriched. And then I'll read this again, knowing more about the storytellers (and able now to keep them straight in my mind), and the stories will be even more replete with interest and meaning.

Though the book is a series of linked stories, it's not a short story collection per se. The links between the stories and the bits between the stories, where we spend time with the people telling them, are strong enough that the book tells a whole story with people you end up caring for (albeit with lots of bits I'd like to know more about!). So if you aren't really a fan of short stories, do not be put-off!

The book is marketed for middle grade readers (9-12 year olds), but it might be hard to get them past the beginning, what with the large number of grown-ups milling around inside the inn. There is one young girl, but she's not an immediate point of view character. That being said, kids in that age range are just as likely to enjoy magical stories of twistiness and interconnections as anyone else.

My final thoughts:

--I would not be at all surprised if this book won awards.

--I would not be at all surprised if its young readers remember it for the rest of their lives (like how I remember Joan Aiken's short stories, first read when I was 8-10, a train of thought that leads me to recommending Milford's books to Aiken fans....)

--As well as big magical descriptions (ships and buildings and ice tunnels etc), Kate Milford is generous with descriptive details of small, particular things in her books and I enjoy them lots. Very few writers take the time to include small hand-carved albatrosses, for instance. The intersection of little carved animals and card houses was one of my favorite bits.

--I thought it was a lovely book.

Here's what I really thought (most of my very realest thoughts come to me as food metaphors):

Reading this book was like sitting down with a box of gourmet chocolates, each sumptuously crafted, each decorated with a little flourish of some sort, and each with a slightly different, slightly complicated flavor, and going mad and eating them all at once and not regretting it because it was wonderful but also sort of thinking that taking it more slowly would probably have been best while also thinking that an even bigger box would also have been nice...


  1. Sic transit The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. As much as I liked Aiken, I could never get anyone to read her. Glad you enjoyed this one-- perhaps you need to reread WITH a box of chocolates!

  2. You had me at "where the 'laws of nature' are more like suggestions." This sounds like a terrific book! Thanks for telling me about it. It's going on my TBR list.

  3. Oooh, this sounds like I must find it soon, and it sounds like it will get me to finally read the rest of the Greenglass House books, which I haven't gotten to yet. (One of those weird things where I keep intending to and then keep going off in a different direction, despite knowing that I'll like them.)


Free Blog Counter

Button styles