Tag Archives: debut novel

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (2011)

They took me in my nightgown.
Thinking back, the signs were there — family photos burned in the fireplace, Mother sewing her best silver and jewelry into the lining of her coat late at night, and Papa not returning from work. My younger brother, Jonas, was asking questions. I asked questions, too, but perhaps I refused to acknowledge the signs. Only later did I realize that Mother and Father intended we escape. We did not escape.
We were taken (p 3).

It’s 1941 and Lithuania has been occupied by the Soviets for the last year. On June 14th, in the dead of night, the NKVD (the public and secret police of the Soviet Union acting under Joseph Stalin) round-up Lithuanians deemed troublesome.

Fifteen-year-old Lina, her ten-year-old brother, Jonas, and mother have twenty minutes to pack before they are led from their homes and sorted into overcrowded boxcars at the train station. Separated from their father, the family begins the long, cruel journey to Siberia.

For most Lithuanians, the boxcar is a tumbrel whose executioners are interminable hunger, pernicious guards, disease and freezing weather. Labeled thieves and prostitutes, those captured must rally together if they are to survive and maintain their humanity.

Desperate to learn of their father’s whereabouts, Lina passes on her art work – sketches and wood carvings – hoping they will reach the prison in which he is detained. It is how she captures the truth the Soviets hope to conceal from the world.

Gripping from the outset and fluid in its telling, I couldn’t put this one down. While it felt like my heart was in a vice throughout, a budding romance provided some levity and hope midway. Intermittent flashbacks to Lina’s life in Lithuania also provided a respite from the horrors of the NKVD and illumiated the reason her family was targeted.

An excellent book. Between Shades of Gray has received a starred review in Kirkus.

I also recommend:

The Chemical Garden Trilogy: Wither by Lauren DeStefano (2011)

I fall asleep and have horrible dreams of sad girls with exquisite eyes, gray vans erupting with butterflies, windows that won’t open. And everywhere girls, tumbling from trees like orange blossoms and hitting the earth with sickening thuds. They crack open (p 111).

In the future, society is broken into two classes. The First Generations are old but very healthy. They were the first to benefit from genetic engineering – immune to diseases like cancer and other ailments like asthma.

The second class of people are descendants of the First Generations. They are the cursed. Males die at 25. Females at 20. Some of the First Generations experiment on the young trying to find a cure. Others are pro-naturalists, believing humanity is doomed to die out and those who remain should be left to live peacefully.

This has led to an underground market trading in young girls. Sixteen-year-old Rhine is caught by a group of Gatherers and sold to a doctor, Vaughn, bent on finding a cure to the genetic disease that will otherwise claim his son, Linden, who is 21.

Rhine becomes one of Linden’s three wives, desperate to escape the mansion that has become her prison and return to her twin brother in Manhattan, with Gabriel, a house attendant Rhine finds herself increasingly attracted to.

But it won’t be easy with Vaughn constantly watching and with his cold lab in the basement where Rhine can only speculate on what experiments are taking place.


Whither is another dystopia amid an influx of similar works in the wake of The Hunger Games. It’s strength is in its writing, but the setting and some of the story is less stable.


Linden cannot be as ignorant as our narrator would have us believe. That he didn’t notice the other girls were shot when his brides (even in the process of being drugged!) noticed and that he didn’t wonder why the girls were kept like prisoners if they were willing applicants, is absurd. Even if he was ignorant of his own captivity, how could he be so deluded about the rest of the world (of which he has traveled)?

Also, DeStafeno’s version of the future didn’t jive with me either. If the polar ice caps have melted and other countries are undersea, how can Manhattan be above water?

So, all that aside, DeStefano does some good character building. Life inside the Governer’s mansion feels creepy and beautiful. The romance is a little stereotypical but I like that Rhine never seems to completely buy in to either boy.


Clearly, this is the beginning of a trilogy but this one could also stand on its own and I like that too. And I have to hand it to the book’s designer. Very eye catching and pleasing.

If you enjoyed this, try:

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2011)

Every new year Mother visits
the I Ching Teller of Fate.
This year he predicts
our lives will twist inside out (p 4).

In 1975, ten-year-old Kim Hà, her mother and her three brothers celebrate the New Year, praying for the safe return of their father missing these last nine years from the South Vietnam Navy. In beautiful verse, Lai tells of the family’s decision to flee Saigon aboard a deserting Navy ship, their rescue by an American ship and the family’s decision to strike out for America to start a new life.   

Hà is a vivacious, spirited girl who carries this heavy story with humor and veracity, bringing to life the beauty of her country even in wartime. Spats with her brothers, anger at being treated unjustly by schoolmates in Alabama and a desire for sweet things will have readers of all backgrounds relating to and cheering for her.

Inside Out and Back Again received a starred review in Kirkus. Read other reviews: Fuse #8, Bookends, Pipedreaming, and Sherry’s Book Reviews and Tidbits.

If you enjoyed this, you must read:

Stolen by Lucy Christopher (2010)

You saw me before I saw you. In the airport, that day in August, you had that look in your eyes, as though you wanted something from me, as though you’d wanted it for a long time. No one has ever looked at me like that before, with that kind of intensity. It unsettled me, surprised me, I guess. Those blue, blue eyes, icy blue, looking back at me as if I could warm them up. They’re pretty powerful, you know, those eyes, pretty beautiful, too (p 1).

Gemma is sixteen years old when she is approached, drugged and stolen from a Bangkok airport while on vacation with her parents. She is spirited away to the Australian outback by Ty, a handsome man nine years her senior.

Stolen is written in letter form by Gemma to Ty after her physical imprisonment is over. At the outset, Gemma is desperate to get away. Believing herself to be near some sort of civilization, she attempts to run away twice. Ty lets her because there is no place to go.


Her first attempt is on foot and short-lived. She climbs a tree and discovers:

There was nothing but sand and flatness and horizon. I used the branches to turn myself around, grazing my leg a little on the rock. But there were no buildings on the other side, no towns… not even a road. It looked the same on that side as it had looked near the house. Long, flat emptiness. I wanted to scream, probably the only reason I didn’t was because I was worried you would hear me. If I’d had a gun, I think I would have shot myself (p 66).

That night, she ends up bitterly cold and searching for a way through a fence Ty constructed. Only to be found and brought ‘home’ by Ty.

Ty then takes her on an outback expedition to catch a camel. He intends to use the camel’s natural immunity to snake venom to create an antibiotic, should they ever need one. All the while, Gemma hopes for rescue and remains alert for a chance to escape or signal help.

Her second attempt at escape involves the manual transition car Ty used to bring her to his house. Ty, thinking Gemma could not possibly drive it, surrenders the key, in hopes of convincing her that escape is futile. She fares better than he expected and gets away. But miles later, the car gets stuck, and Gemma proceeds on foot. As the heat and dehydration wear her down, and she is once again ‘rescued’ by Ty.

There is a changing point in the novel. It involves Ty’s artistic sensibilities, the vulnerability he exhibits (read: manipulation), and the gentle manner her treats Gemma with (when he’s not allowing her to be torn apart by the brutal environment). I like to think it also involves Gemma’s prolonged isolation with only Ty to converse with and the painful, weakening damage her body sustains during her abduction and her attempts to escape.  

But Gemma’s attitude toward Ty changes. She begins to understand him, making it harder for her to hate him. She goes so far as to feel tenderly for him. But her captivity ends before anything changes in their physical relationship.

I believe LizB is absolutely right when she writes, “part of what makes this book Award worthy is the discussions that will result.” I’ve seen varied reviews (some linked to below) and none of them fully encompass how I felt about the book.

For example, the setting and language are beautiful, complimenting each other in sparsity and hidden depths.

Yet the characterization… While Gemma resonates with me, Ty does not. Ty is described by some as humane (because he doesn’t rape her – what an odd distinction) but he was nothing more than a monster to me, ever. That he is broken makes him no more pitiable than a monster like Voldemorte. His actions determine my empathy and I have none for him.

Some say the lack of physical abuse allowed the reader to develop Stockholm Syndrome along with Gemma. hum. I thought Ty was very physically abusive, from the moment he drugged her and tossed her into the trunk of his car to the times he let her wander off on an escape attempt. He bosses her around verbally, makes her paint him and enter his twisted art… all in stark contrast to the beauty he is attempting to capture. He is ugly.

He wore Gemma down physically so he could break her mind. That he didn’t use his fist or his penis to do it is irrelevant.

For example, even as he promises to release Gemma to civilization after 4 months should she choose to go, he forebodes, “I can never let you go (p 235).”

I can understand how Gemma transforms her feelings. She is trusting, impressionable and desolate. She is manipulated, mentally and physically. She was stalked and studied.

As a reader, I was removed from those feelings. Rather, I read in trembling anticipation, my breathing short and sharp. It was a painful, heart-breaking thing to watch Gemma succumb.

Read other reviews: Bookalicious, A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, Persnickety Snark, and Wondrous Reads.

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (2010)

I shoved the compass into a side pocket of the satchel, then made my way to the back of the last car. Being a paying customer this time, with full-fledged ticket, I didn’t have to jump off, and I knew that the preacher would be waiting for me. But as anyone worth his salt knows, it’s best to get a look at a place before it gets a look at you. I’d worn my overalls just for the occasion (p 3).

I’m feeling a whole lot better about Keeper and Dreamer being passed over by the Newbery committee. I was surprised and aghast when my two front-runners weren’t given a nod, but after finishing Moon Over Manifest, my anger is quelled.

What a beautiful, quiet book! It is 1936 and Abilene Tucker is sent by her father to live in Manifest, Kansas for no good reason she can think of. After years of living a nomadic life, scrapping through during the Great Depression, Gideon Tucker decides it is not the life for a young lady.

Feeling abandoned, Abilene goes in search of answers; a reason why her father sent her to this quiet town where he spent only a short time in his youth. What she finds is a cigar box with trinkets belonging to a boy named Jinx and letters dating from 1918 and written by a soldier named Ned. She also crosses paths with a Diviner, Miss Sadie, who sheds light on the meaning behind those trinkets and letters. Through them, Abilene connects with the town of Manifest in a way she could have never predicted.

This story tackles heavy topics like intolerance, prohibition, poverty, and war with a muted elegance. Little discoveries keep the plot moving. Cliffhangers abound! Abilene’s desire for her father is palpable. The denouement will evoke tears of sorrow and joy.

What did the committee have to say about it?

“Vanderpool illustrates the importance of stories as a way for children to understand the past, inform the present, and provide hope for the future,” says Cynthia K. Richey, committee chair for the Newbery (SLJ).

All Unquiet Things by Anna Jarzab (2010)

Carly wasn’t just my girlfriend; she was my best friend. She changed my life. The shy, anxious, and lonely boy I used to be had grown confident because of her; I began to see value in myself because she saw value in me, and if all I had to do was ignore who she was becoming, well, that was something I was willing to do (p 126).

Neily is a boy lost. Dumped by his girlfriend and first love, Carly, in a very public way, he needs closure. Carly opted for Adam Murray, the pinnacle of Brighton Day School’s rich and brilliant student body, and his fast and loose friends. A year later, Neily finds Carly murdered. There is a trial and a conviction. A man is in jail. The only problem is that Audrey, Carly’s cousin and best friend, is convinced it’s the wrong person – and not just because that person is her father.

Audrey and Neily make an unlikely pair, but the two set out to learn what really happened to Carly.

This is a brilliant book. It sucked me in immediately. In retrospect there was a lot of information to plow through, a lot of characters, and a lot of relationships. But it was clearly and cleverly revealed so I never felt overloaded with its complexity. A strong contender for a Printz!

Read other reviews: A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea CozyBewitched BookwormsLucid Conspiracy, and The Compulsive Reader

Across the Universe by Beth Revise (March 2011)

I am as silent as death.
Do this: Go to your bedroom. Your nice, safe, warm bedroom that is not a glass coffin behind a morgue door. Lie down on your bed not made of ice. Stick your fingers in your ears. Do you hear that? The pulse of life from your heart, the slow in-and-out from your lungs? Even when you are silent, even when you block out all the noise, your body is still a cacophony of life. Mine is not. It is the silence that drives me mad. The silence that drives the nightmares to me (32).

This is a review of an advance reader copy received by the publisher, Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Group.

This book was sitting on my shelf for a while until a coworker asked, “Have you heard about Across the Universe? The buzz is that this book will do for science fiction what The Hunger Games did for dystopia.” Wow! Big words for a first novel.

The back jacket tauts it as Titanic meets A Brave New World. The author calls it Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap in space.

So, I picked it up and dove in. Now, full disclosure. I don’t usually enjoy science fiction. In fact, I can’t even name a YA sci-fi book that I’ve really enjoyed (does When You Reach Me count?). So, here we go.

Amy is seventeen years old and facing a life-changing decision. Does she allow herself to be cryogenically frozen and packed aboard the space ship, Godspeed, with her parents (one a bio-genetic researcher and the other a top-tier military officer) for 300 years so they can colonize a new earth light-years away? Or does she remain on Earth with her aunt and uncle?

When she chooses the first, she expects to be woken upon landing on Centuri-Earth, or the new earth. Elder is a sixteen-year-old boy aboard Godspeed and its future leader when Amy is found awake and trashing for survival inside her water-filled tube, 49 years prior to arriving at Centuri-Earth. Someone unplugged her and left her to die. They would have been successful if Elder hadn’t found her. Three other passengers weren’t so lucky.

The authorities on Godspeed have developed a new system of order since the Plague wiped out much of the human population generations ago. Separated from her still-frozen parents who are essential to the mission, Amy, labeled non-essential cargo, is quickly considered a problem by Eldest, the ship’s current leader.

As Amy comes to understand this new society, its rules and its disturbing practices, she fights for control. Her parents cannot be woken early but someone is sabotaging the cryo level. Can Amy unlock the secrets of Godspeed before her parents become victims or before Eldest decides she’s not worth the risk and disposes of her?

Across the Universe is as much a dystopian novel as it is a science fiction novel. In fact, the more intriguing aspects of the novel involve the dysfunctional society that has developed on this space craft, Godspeed.

Everything mundane about this world involved descriptions of the ship (and Eldest’s uneven gait – I get it already, the man’s crooked/skewed). The diagram on the inside covers were sufficient (I mean, it’s not Middle Earth). And the claustrophobia Revis conveys with Amy running until she hits metal, the recycled air and the odd animals were perfect.

But let’s start at the beginning. I was intrigued by Amy’s dreamlike state while in cryo but most of Elder’s initial chapters were pretty slow. Even Amy’s early experiences on Godspeed predicted a lot of the plot that later unfolded, with only a few twists and complications I didn’t foresee (and some that remain unanswered). And really, how much could she throw into this book? Everything but the kitchen sink, apparently. And while a lot of it worked, the novel slumped in sections.

It was fascinating to contemplate what would happen to a group of humans removed from the rest of society and Earth (like a high-tech adult version of Lord of the Flies)… though I kept asking myself how these people survived without gravity. I couldn’t help myself. I tried to suspend disbelief but Revis took time explaining how the passengers got nutrition, raised life stock, etc. and I wanted more technical explanations for long-term survival in space. (I could see how Revis was influenced by the likes of Jeanne Duprau, Mary Pearson, and Huxley.)

Overall I wasn’t as blown away as others seem to be, but I was entertained, especially after the book hit its stride (around page 125 – the novel hits almost 400 pages). Revis definitely makes you feel the despair of being trapped, limited and in a situation out of your control. Easy one to booktalk, too (though I can already see some objections to the sex within).

The writing was good. Not great. Is it a good YA novel? Yes. Good. Better than a lot, though it is a mashup of several. Will it have adult crossover appeal? Some, but I’m not putting it up there with The Monstrumologist, Octavian Nothing or, in terms of sales, The Hunger Games. But I could be wrong. The marketing is definitely there.

Characters like Harley and the Doc kept me interested. Amy also had her moments. Now, while I haven’t read The Hunger Games, I have read Twilight and I just don’t see this book having that kind of mass market emotional appeal, though I think it will be well received as a crossover sci-fi book.

Read other reviews:

Write About Now

Thoughts on the first chapter:

Good Word Editing

An interview with the author, Beth Revis:


Matched by Ally Condie (November 30, 2010)

I sort and sort and sort until there is no data left for me. Everything is clear on my screen. I am the one who makes it go blank (p 33).

Cassia has just turned seventeen and, like every seventeen year old in the Society, she is nervous about her Matching. As in Lowry’s Newbery-winner The Giver couples are based on compatibility. Algorithms based on personal habits, interests and genetics are used to determine your life mate and optimize healthy offspring. Cancer, colorblindness and other genetic faults have been eradicated thanks to the Society.

But when Cassie’s name is called, the screen is blank. When she is finally matched with her best friend, Xander, she is releaved. Until her datapod shows someone else as her Match, the enigmatic Ky.

There are hints of other dystopian works here, shadows of Logan’s Run (starring Michael York) with a termination date (albeit much later in the Society) to dispose of the aging. Equilibrium (starring Christian Bale) also forbade “artifacts” that challenged the Authority and controlled it’s population using pills. Food is strictly monitored in the Society, more so than in Lowry’s The Giver. There is a watchfulness reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984.

Though these and other comparisons exist, Matched is a solid, comprehensive read, if often circuitous and wordy in driving home it’s points. Condie should rely more on her (sometimes) elegant passages to convey feeling rather than reinforcing them with drab, explanatory sentences after an exchange made them apparent for all but the dimmest readers.

Take, for example, the quote above and another on page 88,

I always enjoy those few seconds in the theatre before a showing, when all is dark and I am waiting. I always feel a drop in my stomach-wondering if, when the lights of the showing come on, I might find myself completely alone. Or wondering if the lights won’t come up at all. I feel like I can’t be sure; not in that first moment. I don’t know why I like it.

Reading into this even a little, we see that the Society maintains it’s hold over citizens by keeping them preoccupied with the mundane, though Cassie has an inherent curiosity that needs only a little push. (Enter Ky.) But Condie explains this, redundantly, later. So, like many other teen novels so close to excellence, this could be trimmed by about a third.

There appears to be a war going on outside the Providence, of which we have limited knowledge. It seams clear that a sequel will take us there.

There are a few weaknesses in the plot. Cassia’s situation is, in many ways, the result of a Society experiment carried out by one Official for kicks and giggles. Just for fun. As an aside. There is no urgency or malice here, the way there is in many other dystopian novels, like Caragh O’Brien’s Birthmarked.

But perhaps this is its strength. The Society appears so much less malicious than other dystopian governments that action seems foolish. Cassia only sees the cracks when the Society shows them to her. Even her family members, especially her grandfather and father, who see the faults and question, do not act but as pacified.

With so much of their lives controlled, is seems incongruous that so many of the interactions between Ky and Cassia go unwatched. I was expecting a more formidable ending. Then again, I wasn’t expecting a series. But, as Ky and later Cassie observe, the Society seems to be cracking.

Read other reviews: Persnickety Snark, The Compulsive Reader, Kirkus (starred review)

Mistwood by Leah Cypess (2010)

She looked like a deer poised for flight, her slim body taut in an incongruous gown, her face sharp and still. Then she turned and was gone, and Rokan dropped back into his pillow, limp with relief. She was going to do it. She was going to watch over him. Best of all, his biggest worry had just ceased to exist. She didn’t remember what happened last time, the real reason she had fled to her woods (p 61).

Isabel is the Shifter, a thing of fog and mist living in her wood. She can shift into a cat, a wolf, an eagle or turn her skin to stone. But when the King calls on her, she must answer. She is bound to protect the throne, an impulse she cannot ignore.

So, when Rokan approaches her, she could evade him but doesn’t. He ties a bracelet around her wrist to bind her and ensure her aid, for her last assignment did not end well.

Mistwood is full of political intrigue, conniving characters and usurpers. Isabel, with little memory of her life outside the woods, recalls information intermittently as needed. But will it be soon enough? Who is trying to kill Prince Rokan and why? More importantly for Isabel, why can she not shift within the castle walls? What happened to her ten years ago that she retreated to her woods wounded and crying?

This is a good read that will keep you on the edge of your seat and awake well past your bedtime. The action begins immediately and the reader is putting the pieces together with Isabel.

The book’s flaw is that it is so focused on the unraveling mysteries, that it fails in two other important areas.

First, it fails to adequately develop the romance between Isabel and Rokan. I applaud subtlety but this was practically muted and I didn’t quite feel Isabel’s decision at the end was justified, especially considering the second failure.

Cypess does not expound upon the larger political scene. There are vague hints about what is happening outside the King’s castle but not enough to fairly say one man would rule better than the other. We have only Rokan’s opinion that Kaer (the rightful King) would have failed the kingdom.

So, in terms of quality, I would rank it below books like Graceling or Fire by Kristin Cashore but above books like Gone by Michael Grant or Need by Carrie Jones.

Cypess is a first-time author so a William C. Morris Debut Author nod may be in her future.

Plain Kate by Erin Bow (September 2010)

Plain Kate was thinking of witches. How in bad times people were more eager to buy her objarke, but also more likely inclined to take a step back, to crook their fingers at her when they thought she wasn’t looking, or when they were sure she was. How they wanted the witchcraft to protect them, but how they looked too for a witch to blame. It didn’t matter that there was no magic in her blade, people saw it there. They saw witchcraft in her skill, witch marks in her mismatched eyes, her bad luck, her long shadow (p 19-20).

This is a review of an advance reader copy received at ALA Annual from the publisher, Arthur A. Levine, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.

Plain Kate is a carver’s daughter. As such, Kate had a carving knife “before most children might be given a spoon” (p 1). When her father dies, Kate is left with little but her talent and her ucommon looks which makes her an easy target in a witch hunt.

When a stranger comes into town offering Kate an attractive trade, her world changes. Linay is a true witch and will grant her heart’s desire… in exchange for her shadow, for he knows “a lady who lacks one” (p 24).

Without a shadow Kate flees her home and takes up with the Roamers, a band of nomads who will accept Kate if she can successfully contribute to their group. Through her wanderings, Kate learns of Linay’s plans for her shadow and the story of a true witch woman wrongfully burned.

A coworker of mine (and children’s book author) brought this title to my attention, saying it was getting a lot of buzz for its language. The opening chapters are, indeed, poetic and smooth. But I found the writing inconsistant. While I read eagerly at the start, I finished languidly.

Kate’s closest companion during the story is a talking cat, whose personality is a delight. But in terms of fantasy, I felt little connection to the world Bow created. Nothing like I feel when I read Kristen Cashore or Garth Nix or Neil Gaiman.

Like Abby the Librarian mentions, it seems a lot happens to Kate, rather than because of her. The cover is attractive (the final book will include embossing and matte film lanination) and so I hope it will go out. I would reccommend it but doesn’t seem like a contender to me. I’m eager to read what others think. Will it be on Mock Printz 2011 lists? Will it be shortlisted for the William C. Morris Debut Author award?

Read more reviews: The Zen Leaf, Chick Loves Lit

* UPDATED AUGUST 30, 2010 *

Here are some snipits from our mock Newbery group discussion:

  • We all had some trouble with the ending. What exactly was going on there? It didn’t seem clear.
  • Some disagreement about Kate. Is she a wet noodle or is she strong. Some argued that she struck out on her own (a big decision for a lone women in that setting), found a place for herself to live and ultimately joined up wtih the traders to escape death. Others say she was swept along and didn’t seem active.
  • The intensity and peril of Kate’s situation was in complete contrast to the lyrical, poetic language that set a mellow pace.Some loved this. I found it harder to enjoy.
  • Why does Kate drop the knife at the end of the book? The knife metaphors are so important in the story… a knife can cut both ways – friend/foe (regarding the Roamers and Linay).
  • This will appeal to Hunger Games fans.
  • (p 305) The songs is a beautiful metaphor for story and how it changes over time… how story changes when it chages hands.
  • Loved the concept of magic as an exchange of gifts and how a witch cannot lie.