Tuesday, June 30, 2015

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

This book kept jumping off the shelf at me. I stumbled across it three times, in two different libraries, in two different states, and finally decided it must be meant for me. I started flipping through it when I got home, and became very excited when I saw it was illustrated with vintage photography, much like Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which I loved.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds is set in 1918, after America entered WWI, and at the height of the Spanish flu epidemic that killed anywhere from three to six percent of world’s population. Mary Shelley Black is sent to San Diego to live with her aunt, and is pulled into the world of spiritualism and séances that so pervaded society at that time. Desperate, grief-stricken people were looking for answers anywhere they could find them, and became the perfect prey for frauds and shysters.

When Mary’s childhood sweetheart’s brother begins capturing photographs of supposed spirits, she assumes they’re also fakes. But when someone close to her dies suddenly, and begins appearing in photos of her and even whispering in her ear from “somewhere beyond,” she has to rethink everything. All she wants to do is make sure this person can find rest. But as things escalate she realizes she may be in over her head.

The first few chapters were slow-moving, and the writing felt a little stiff, but by the fourth chapter I was interested, and by the sixth I was completely hooked. I wouldn’t exactly classify this book as horror, but there were certainly points that gave me cold chills. Reading it after midnight might not have been the best idea, but once I got past the first half-dozen chapter I absolutely could not put it down. It’s been a long time since a book had me that tightly in its clutches. Just hang in there long enough, and I think the stiff writing becomes a non-issue.

The dark, slightly morbid historical setting was perfect for this story. Every now and then though, some turn of phrase would jar me and I’d be thinking, “That is NOT how they’d talk in 1918.” But the plot was so gripping and fast-moving it didn’t bother me too much. The author does an amazing job of seamlessly working in both the devastating effects of the flu pandemic, and the horror of the worst war the world had ever seen, into the very personal story of Mary and her aunt. And most important of all, it had a satisfying ending.

There was a little bit of physical romance between Mary and her sweetheart in two scenes – what sometimes is termed “necking,” but it was far from graphic and in both instances was over quickly. As far as cursing goes, I only remember two instances of profanity, both of which almost made sense in context – one coming from a shell-shocked soldier, and the other from the villain. I may be forgetting a third instance, but either way it certainly wasn’t pervasive. A warning though, if you’re very sensitive to suspenseful and/or scary novels, this may not be the best choice. I have pretty high tolerance, and I got creeped out once or twice.
As soon as I finished the book, I went online to see what else Cat Winters has written, and to read up on the Spanish Influenza pandemic, which was fascinating to me. I haven’t enjoyed a YA novel this much in a very long time, and I fully intend to buy it, reread it, read more by this author, and pray for a sequel… Please, Ms. Winters? I’ll buy it, I promise.

Some of my favorite quotes:

What type of world are we living in if we're destroying books?

Surely, though, I must have stolen into the future and landed in an H.G. Wells-style world - a horrific, fantastic society in which people's faces contained only eyes, millions of healthy young adults and children dropped dead from the flu, boys got transported out of the country to be blown to bits, and the government arrested citizens for speaking the wrong words. Such a place couldn't be real. And it couldn't be the United States of America, "the land of the free and the home of the brave." But it was. I was on a train in my own country, in a year the devil designed. 1918.

We live in a world so horrifying it frightens even the dead.

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