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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Review: IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS by Cat Winters

Title: In the Shadow of Blackbirds
Author: Cat Winters
Pub info: Amulet Books, 2013; 387 pp
Genre: YA ghost story / historical 

Second up on my list of TBR books this year is Cat Winters's debut novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds. I finished it up in about 48 hours.

Goodreads summary:
In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?

Featuring haunting archival early-twentieth-century photographs, this is a tense, romantic story set in a past that is eerily like our own time.

Status: Finished 1/25/14

My impressions:
I love a good historical novel, and I love a good ghost story. In the Shadow of Blackbirds succeeds on both levels. On the realistic side, there's the suspenseful, horrifying true stories--the harrowing Spanish flu pandemic that claimed millions of lives worldwide in 1918, and the devastating conflict that claimed millions more and changed the face of warfare forever. You'll be immersed in that world: fearing to leave your home without your protective mask; eating onions and garlic to ward off the sickness until your sweat smells of them; chilling at the sound of the ambulance sirens, praying they don't come down your street; afraid to read the papers for fear of seeing another young boy's name on the lists of the war dead. Cat Winters's writing, told from heroine Mary Shelley Black's point of view, plants you front and center in 1918. Her research seamlessly interweaves with the grief and stories of real people. In that way, it reminded me of Laurie Halse Andersen's Fever 1793, a story of the yellow fever pandemic in the eighteenth century.

But this isn't just a tragedy. The grief that swept the nation that year fed the Spiritualism craze, and both laypeople and scientists flocked to seances, seeking confirmation of life after death. When the dead start speaking to Mary Shelley, this already gripping tale takes on a new layer of horror, and the mystery deepens. Can her true love's brother really photograph the dead? Does the answer lie in the letters and mementoes of a dead soldier? Is Death really just waiting for Mary Shelley around the next corner?

I was pulled into this story from the start, and the further in I sank, the faster it yanked me along, like a runaway train. Sprinkled throughout with period photographs, this gripping, suspenseful novel chills with its verisimilitude. In the Shadow of Blackbirds is fantastic. 

  • a finalist for the YALSA 2014 Morris Award 
  • a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013

About Cat Winters:
Cat Winters was born and raised in southern California, near Disneyland, which may explain her love of haunted mansions, bygone eras, and fantasylands. She received degrees in drama and English from the University of California-Irvine. She lives in Portland with her husband and two children. This year, she will  publish The Cure for Dreaming (Amulet Books, Fall 2014), another early-twentieth-century paranormal tale. And, like Stefan Bachmann (see the last review), she's a contributor to the upcoming YA horror anthology Slasher Girls & Monster Boys (Dial, 2015).

Online: Visit Cat's website here, and the website for the book here. Connect with her here on Twitter.



To follow my progress as I bulldoze my way through a stack of 51 to-be-reads this year, search for the tag 2014 TBR Shelf. Read all the reviews here.


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