Thursday, October 22, 2015

Review - In the Shadow of Blackbirds

In the Shadow of Blackbirds
by Cat Winters
Date: 2013
Publisher: Amulet Books
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 258
Format: e-book
Source: library

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.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

This book was part of the Big Library Read 2015. I'd seen the book on a few blogs back when it was released in 2013, but hadn't gotten around to checking it out. It's the sort of book I usually end up enjoying. It's mainly historical fiction, but with a dash of the paranormal. While I did enjoy it for the most part, it did have its weaknesses.

Please, dear author, I want some more...

The setting is really what makes this book work. Mary Shelley Black is a sixteen-year-old girl, the daughter of a jailed shopkeeper and a dead physician, who goes to live with her young aunt in San Diego near the end of World War I. It's the height of the Spanish Flu pandemic, and fear and death are everywhere. It was interesting to see how people reacted to what was going on: young men dying overseas in the trenches, and more young people dying at home from a mysterious illness. The home remedies that people employed seem almost laughable to us today... but when faced with such a deadly disease and even the doctors at a loss as to how to help their patients, people were trying anything they could think of to ward off the germs: burning sulfur, eating onions, bathing in onions... Combined with the smells from the crematoriums working overtime, the world must've smelled like hell itself.

This book kept me guessing, too. It's quite the mystery, and I didn't really see some of the twists coming. After Stephen's ghost comes to Mary Shelley, begging her for help, she tries to find out what happened to him so that his spirit can rest. My theories as to what really happened changed a few times as I was reading the book, which I liked; nobody wants to see the conclusion or the twist coming from miles away!

I also liked that there were no implausible romances, love triangles, or insta-love. The only real romance is between Mary Shelley and Stephen... which, because one of them is already dead, is somewhat limited.

It's all a matter of taste...

My main issue with this book is the characters. They're not always that consistent, and sometimes sound way too modern for 1918. At other times, their speech comes across as scripted, as if the author tried to get a little too poetic or was trying too hard to make a point. I also had a difficult time connecting with the characters. Aunt Eva is somewhat annoying, though Mary Shelley doesn't seem to notice. Stephen is okay, though I feel like we needed to know him a little more in the "before" period. There are flashbacks and reminiscences, but because we never get to meet him in real time until after he becomes a ghost, there's a lack of emotional connection with that character. I didn't even feel Mary Shelley's grief the way I thought I should. Her attitude was almost like, "The boy I loved and probably would have married is dead. Oh, well. Guess I'd better go find out what happened to him." Yes, she is so distraught at one point that she halfheartedly attempts suicide... but it's like watching her go through all this from such a detached perspective that it's hard to get emotionally involved as a reader.

The characters I did like were the injured boys in the convalescent home. In only a few pages, they engaged me far more than some of the main characters. At times, I wanted to be reading their stories rather than the main one! It's too bad they were just a peripheral part of Mary Shelley and Stephen's story, because they were pretty interesting.

Let's get technical...

The writing in this book is technically okay, for the most part. It's told from the first-person point of view, which makes me wonder why I didn't feel more of an emotional connection with Mary Shelley. I still can't figure that out. It may be that she's just one of those characters that I didn't click with; other readers may have a completely different opinion of her.

The verdict...

This is a well-plotted story that should appeal to fans of historical fiction as well as paranormal romance. There are some graphic scenes, so I would probably recommend this one to older teens.

Quotable moment:

"We can be terrible to one another." I dug my cheek deeper into the pillow. "And do you know the oddest thing about murder and war and violence?"

"Oh, Mary Shelley, please stop talking about those types of things."

"The oddest thing is that they all go against the lessons that grown-ups teach children. Don't hurt anyone. Solve your problems with language instead of fists. Share your things. Don't take something that belongs to someone else without asking. Use your manners. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Why do mothers and fathers bother spending so much time teaching children these lessons when grown-ups don't pay any attention to the words themselves?"

Premise: 4/5
Plot: 4/5
Characters: 3/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing: 3/5
Editing: 4/5
Originality: 4/5
Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 3.63 out of 5 ladybugs


  1. i know a lot of people love this book for its setting and the time period so that alone fascinates me

    1. Yes, that part was definitely interesting! I haven't read that many books set in this era yet, though I know there are a few out there.

  2. I saw this one at the ebook library read thing too. I missed it though.

    My grandparents were babies when most of this happened, so it would be interesting to read just for the history. I like the mystery angle too and I need some paranormal in my reads.

    I'm sorry that the dialogue was weak. I understand what you mean about not feeling the grief. I don't like sad books, but I'm annoyed when I should be feeling something and I don't.

    I'm glad you mostly liked this one.

    1. I had one set of grandparents who would've been young children at the time of this story. My grandmother's mother was trained as a nurse, though I'm not sure if she was still working as one in 1918, since she would've been raising her family. I wonder what her perspective on the whole pandemic was... (She died about a decade before I was born, so I never got to meet her and ask her about any of her interesting experiences!)