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Fiction Reviews of 2016 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Winner and Honor Books

Fiction Winner

hardinge_lie treestar2 The Lie Tree
by Frances Hardinge
Middle School, High School    Amulet/Abrams    378 pp.
4/16    978-1-4197-1895-3    $17.95

Everything in this audacious novel is on the cusp or in limbo, setting up delicious tensions and thematic riches. The time is nineteenth-century England just after Darwin’s theory of evolution has thrown the scientific world into turmoil; the setting is the fictional island of Vane, between land and sea; the main character is a fourteen-year-old girl caught between society’s expectations and her fierce desire to be a scientist. Faith Sunderly regards her intellectual curiosity as an “addiction”; “There was a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry. They were supposed to nibble sparingly when at table, and their minds were supposed to be satisfied with a slim diet too.” But when she discovers that her naturalist father has brought the family to Vane to escape rumors that he faked his most famous fossil discovery — and, subsequently, when he is found dead and only she knows that it was not suicide, but murder — she gives in to her curiosity. Faith, now keeper of her father’s secret “Lie Tree” (a mysterious plant that “feeds on human lies…and in return it bears fruit that give visions of secret truths”), begins using the increasingly powerful Lie Tree to self-induce dangerous trances she hopes will reveal the identity of her father’s killer. It’s heady stuff; but Hardinge maintains masterful control of the whole complex construct: everything from the sentence level (“The boat moved with a nauseous, relentless rhythm, like someone chewing on a rotten tooth”) on up to the larger philosophical and political (i.e., feminist — the revelation of the book’s villain is…a revelation) questions. A stunner. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the May/June 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Honor Books

hiredgirl_210x300star2 The Hired Girl
by Laura Amy Schlitz
Middle School   Candlewick   392 pp.
9/15   978-0-7636-7818-0   $17.99
e-book ed. 978-0-7636-7943-9   $17.99

In 1911, spirited fourteen-year-old Joan, the only girl in a family of three boys plus a verbally abusive father (her weak-of-constitution mother has died), musters her courage and leaves her rural Pennsylvania home for Baltimore, the final straw being her father’s burning of her few precious books. Once in the city, and with no real plan for survival, Joan is fortunate to be taken in by a kindly, well-to-do Jewish family, the Rosenbachs. She’s employed as their “hired girl,” acting as assistant to longtime (and grumpy) domestic Malka and serving as the observant family’s “Shabbos goy,” performing household tasks forbidden to Jews during the Sabbath. Over the course of the story, Joan, wide-eyed and open-hearted: meddles in the eldest Rosenbach son’s love affairs (luckily, it all works out); very ill-advisedly attempts to convert the family’s young grandson to Catholicism; makes something of an enemy of the lady of the house; and falls helplessly in love with the Rosenbachs’ younger son, an artist who persuades her to pose for him…as Joan of Arc. The book is framed as Joan’s diary, and her weaknesses, foibles, and naiveté come through as clearly — and as frequently — as her hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The pacing can be a little slow (she doesn’t even get to Baltimore, where the bulk of the story takes place, until almost eighty pages in), but by the end readers feel as if they’ve witnessed the real, authentic growth of a memorable young woman. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

stead_goodbye strangerstar2 Goodbye Stranger
by Rebecca Stead
Middle School   Lamb/Random   289 pp.
8/15   978-0-385-74317-4   $16.99
Library ed. 978-0-375-99098-4   $19.99   g
e-book ed. 978-0-307-98085-4   $10.99

The main narrative in this new novel from the talented Stead (When You Reach Me, rev. 7/09) follows seventh-grader Bridget Barsamian, who nearly died in an accident when she was eight. A nurse’s comment that she “must have been put on this earth for a reason…to have survived” confounds her still; Bridge’s eventual, happy discovery of that reason is believable and moving. Stead’s intricately crafted story (so many connections, so much careful foreshadowing) explores various configurations of love and friendship, and the book’s two other narrative threads fittingly involve Valentine’s Day. In one, Bridge’s new friend Sherm writes (but doesn’t send) angry letters to his beloved grandfather, who has left Sherm’s grandmother and whose birthday is February fourteenth. The other, told in the second person and set entirely on that upcoming Valentine’s Day, follows an unnamed high schooler agonizing over her betrayal of a good friend in order to win points with a bad friend. (Readers will appreciate the cleverly dropped hints to her identity, whether they catch them the first or second time through.) Bridge’s narrative involves her longtime friendship with Tab and Emily, which suffers setbacks (but endures) as the girls find themselves at varying points on the interested-in-dating spectrum; feminism, mean girls, and platonic boy-girl friendships are just some of the issues raised. Much of the plot deals with some (underwear) selfies that go viral; opinions abound, but Bridge’s mom’s is the most compelling: “Your body is yours…Especially your body, Bridge. You earned it back.” The handing-down of advice and wisdom from older girls and women is a welcome theme throughout the book and far too rare in female coming-of-age stories; it’s just one of many reasons this astonishingly profound novel is not your average middle-school friendship tale. JENNIFER M. BRABANDER

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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The 2016 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winners and honors were announced — via video for the first time! — on June 2nd, 2016. For reviews of the picture book and fiction winners and more, click on the tag bghb16.

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