Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Birds Aren't Really There...Are They?

Published:  April 2nd, 2013
In The Shadow of Blackbirds
By: Cat Winters
Amulet Books
ISBN-13:  9781419705304

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.


     The year is 1918 and the entire world seems to have gone mad.  Between the chaos and utter destruction of World War I (The Great War) and a deadly outbreak of Spanish Influenza that is killing millions of people, everyone is desperate to believe in something more.   Mary Shelley Black is just like everyone else, feeling the hardships of life to their fullest extent, with her Dad being sent to jail and having to move in with her Aunt in another state.  Her only consolation is the letters she receives from her first love, Stephen, who is away at war.  But when she's at his family's photography studio and his ghost shows up beside her in a 'spirit' picture, Mary Shelley is devastated.  When things begin to not add up in regards to his death and the events before it, and Stephen himself begins haunting her, Mary will stop at nothing to find out the truth behind what happened to the boy she loved.  Even if it means being thrown into a deadly situation, where she may not walk out alive...
     So, I went into this expecting a straight-up paranormal romance book, at least from the synopsis.  What I got instead was historical fiction, with a major suspense plot and a tragic romance.  Mary Shelley Black is a stubborn, witty, intelligent teenager who doesn't believe in spirits really - until she experiences one at a seance she goes to with her Aunt Eva, after being struck by lightning!  And then when Stephen shows up in her picture she's devastated.  It definitely wasn't hard to sympathize with her, especially since she refuses to play the victim and does everything in her power to solve the mystery of his death.  The shining thing in this novel though, were all the historical details.  The photographs definitely added something to the story, but the author's rich descriptive language made it so that I could picture everything in my mind.  This could be kind of unnerving, what with the streets full of dead influenza victims and a horrific war going on.  Also, I felt like I was really walking the city streets with Mary when she finally gets out.  
     My favorite scene was the heartbreaking one at the hospital for wounded soldiers.  It broke my heart in half, but was entirely realistic in a way I didn't think possible.  The relationship of Mary with her Aunt Eva is antagonistic, tentative and truly volatile because of their warring personalities - that said, they are unfailingly loyal to each other.  When her Eva sees that the opium addicted guy she kind  is crushing on harassing Mary (bordering on hurting her), she boots his ass to the curb! :)  When Mary is struck by the lightning, the scene where she is outside of her body was so creepy it gave me the shivers.  The way it changes her and forces her to think unscientifically definitely provided for some interesting character development.  The rambling from Stephen about the 'bird' attacking him had me convinced this was going to transform into a paranormal romance at any second.  So when it was revealed what was really going on, it surprised me for sure (but in the best way).  Probably the most disturbing character in this book was Stephen's spirit photographer brother, Julius.  He's so focused on making money off the pain of others, plus his interactions with Stephen (beating him up, destroying his photographs) should make you hate him as a reader who gets to see the badness in him.  But he has a charm that kind of ensnares the reader alongside Aunt Eva, until he begins to go off the rails.  
     My only complaint would be the slow pace for the first half of the book.  And also, didn't they ever eat anything other than onions?  Yeah, they thought they'd drive off the flu.  But seriously, I got almost as much description of onions as anything else!  Enough to drive me kind of bonkers anyways.  The twists and turns of this book, along with the wonderfully drawn characters and the descriptive prose combined to make it one of the best books I've read so far this year.  I highly recommend it to fans of historical fiction, romance, and suspense who want something fresh and set in an era often ignored in favor of others (i.e. Civil War, WWII, etc.).  

VERDICT:  5/5  Stars

**No money or favors were exchanged for this review. This book is now available in stores, online, or maybe even at your local library.**

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