Monday, July 08, 2013

Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

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I received this book for free from Amulet Books in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat WintersIn the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters
Published by Amulet Books on April 2nd 2013
Genres: Historical, Thriller, YA
Source: Amulet Books
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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.

It excites me so when I come across a novel that shows me there can still be books that thoroughly stand out from any other in its originality and outstanding story-telling. I can not even believe that In the Shadow of Blackbirds is Cat’s debut novel!

What I love most from this book is how, through impressive research, Cat achieves an exceptionally poignant historical atmosphere from a time that saw through so much death and horror. The fall of 1918 had not only the highest death toll from the Spanish Flu which killed over 50 million people (some sources even say up to 100 million), but it was also in the throes of the first World War. Having been fascinated by an epidemic flu that, even to this day, is seen as unusual without a known origin, I have fell upon surprisingly few books on the matter, so I was instantly drawn to this novel. And I’m highly impressed with the level of realism and drive it endorsed in showing us exactly what people were going through in those god-awful days. From frantic – but in a way necessary – beliefs in thrifty home remedies; to face masks that hides you from the world – and you to it; to the number of bodies being picked up like garbage every evening. We’re brought into a time that was, in the best of descriptions, gray.

Not only do we see the horrors of this invisible killer, we’re also in the midst of Word War I. This, too, is full of unbelievable sadness. Cat is not afraid to show us the real ugly truths. Through the eyes of Mary Shelley – an innocent 16 year old girl – we experience the longing that comes from having a loved one at war, and we see the grim consequences of this war during her visits to the recovering veterans’ ward when we meet soldiers who have been irreversibly damaged; not just physically, but mentally. And that is what In the Shadow of Blackbirds is really about: the fragility of the mind. Even while reading, you’re forever questioning what is real, and what isn’t.

Throughout, Mary becomes such a compelling character that I found myself easily lost in the ways she’s seeing this bitter world. She despises the masks that she sees as the face of an unflinching villain. She digresses, at least to herself, from the new “patriotic” ways, believing what her father was saying about doing what is right instead of what’s safe. She finds bravery when she has nothing else. Furthermore, I loved the side characters who, no matter how small the role, had great impact in the story, insuring their memorability.

When Mary Shelley’s sweetheart starts haunting her, this turns an already bleak story into one that is positively eerie. There could not have been a better atmosphere set for a plot such as this. Along with hair-raising scenes that range from cryptic to horrific, the book includes several grim photographs that make its eeriness even moreso. Plus, when you think about the real surge of spirit photography from a desperate time with desperate mourners, the book doesn’t stray very far from reality. Cat simply takes history and turns beliefs into actuality.

Cat Winters was immediately added on my “auto-buy” list upon finishing the last page. Her talent is proven undeniable in this unique, well-researched, and evocative novel that is In the Shadow of Blackbirds.

Also, isn’t it odd that I was reading this book while sick with the flu? *looks around warily*


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Canadian blogger, wife, mother, coffee lover, and sarcastic at heart! She has had a love for all things bookish since before Amazon and eReaders existed *le gasp*. You can also find her organizing tours and other fun things at Xpresso Book Tours.

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30 Responses to “Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters”

  1. Amy

    This sounds really awesome!! I think I would love it! Fabulous review babe, and I hope that you feel better soon.

  2. Mary @ BookSwarm

    I’ve read some amazing reviews for this book! Is it bad that I didn’t pick it up because the cover does absolutely nothing for me? I do love that it’s set in WWI, just because that’s a time period I don’t see a lot in YA.

  3. Nick

    This book has received nothing but praise. I love your description of the atmosphere, Giselle. I need to check if my library has a copy or not. The main character sounds so realistic. I can’t wait to meet her. Plus, the author seems to really have done her research when it comes to the history and world-building.
    Fabulous review! Definitely checking this one out!

  4. Siiri

    I think it was one of your WoW’s if I’m not mistaken. I love the sound of this as well and I’m so glad it rocked your socks off! 5 stars are for brilliant books and if YOU say it was brilliant, then I sure believe you. I’ve seen how hard it is to impress you. It sounds like a mind-fuck book and emotional as well. I’m not a fan of historical books, but the way you describe it totally makes me want to purchase this baby. Thanks for sharing hon!

  5. Jasprit

    I’m so glad that you enjoyed this too Giselle, I’ve been meaning to start my copy ever since I got it but keep getting distracted by so many other things. I love how Cat has really gone the extra mile to make this book appear so realistic! Fab review Giselle! 🙂

  6. Aneeqah

    Seriously, I was blown away by this novel as well! Can I just say amazing and be done with it? Haha, but seriously. Cat Winters’s prose is so gorgeous, and her writing is so sophisticated that I was also shocked that this was her debut. She’s totally on my auto-buy list as well. I loved the atmosphere in this novel, and I thought it was perfect for the events that occurred. And speaking of said events… creepy just barely begins to cover it. Gah, I just have so much love for this book.

    Lovely review, Giselle, I agree with everything that you’ve said!! I can’t wait to dive into Cat Winters’s next novel.

  7. Aman

    I’m not much of a historical reader, but Giselle, I loved you review! You described the book so beautifully and now even I want to give it a try.

  8. Jen @ Pop! Goes The Reader

    I cannot wait to read this novel. I started it about a month ago but became distracted and unfortunately have yet to finish it. I will say that what I did read was absolutely beautifully and utterly enthralling, though. Like you, I was shocked to find that it was Winter’s debut novel, as it displayed an authority and complete grasp of the plot and characters that made me undeniably envious. I absolutely love historical fiction, and from what I have read of In The Shadow of Blackbirds, it’s the genre at its finest.

    This was an absolutely wonderful and insightful review, Giselle 🙂 Lovely work!

  9. Kristin A.

    I loved aspects of this book but it wasn’t a complete winner for me. Although I really love the attention to detail. Cat Winters definitely did her research about that time period. Great review.

  10. Carole

    Hi Giselle, I just noticed this review and wondered if you would like to link it in to the current monthly collection of books that people loved on Carole’s Chatter. This is the link There are already over 25 great books linked in that you might be interested in. It would be super if you came on over. Cheers

  11. Micheline D

    I’ve been dying to read your review on this one (no pun intended o.O) Giselle & it was worth the wait! SO far I’d been seeing a lot of love for this one but I didn’t want to let my high hopes get out of control…but I am officially PUMPED to read this book now! I sounds brilliant, creeptastic and I love the time-period it’s set it. You comment on how thorough the author’s research seems to be really intrigues me too! Thanks for the insight Giselle 🙂

  12. Megan K.

    I’ve been hearing nothing but fab things for this one, so it’s promising that you loved it too. Even though historical fiction isn’t really my thing, this is one book I’m actually going to buy and read. The creepiness is attractive as well. 😉 Lovely review, chickie!

  13. Amanda

    Yay I’m so glad you ended up loving this, Giselle! I agree with basically every point you made here. It was SUCH an incredibly well-written and meticulously researched book. And I really like that Winters chose to focus on a time period that isn’t focused on very frequently. This is definitely a breath of fresh air to the YA historical fiction genre. 🙂

  14. Mara A.

    I ADORED this book! It was one of those that I had no clue where it was going to go in the end. Would it be just downright weird? Or the world’s awesomest mystery? When I finished reading it, I still wasn’t entirely certain how I felt about it, it left me so disturbed yet pleased at the same time. I had to actually sit down and really think about my opinion, and those are the sort of books that I end up loving the most. So this definitely made to my favorites list.

  15. Aylee

    Oh Giselle, this is so exciting that you ended up loving this one so much! Because it’s a surprise that you would, knowing how you felt about another popular histfic book, Code Name Verity. So that you loved this one so much speaks volumes to how truly good it is!!

  16. Mel@Thedailyprophecy

    I’ve been excited about this book for a while now and boy, I’m now eager to run to the store to get a copy (in my case it’s actually more: buy it on TBD :p) This book sounds SO good. I love the fact that the author did such a good job in research and I’m a fan of books about plagues <3 Great review!

  17. Alexa Y.

    You’ve convinced me that I ought to give this one a try! The premise really creeped me out when I initially heard of this book, and that cover terrifies me. But I love how you were able to say that it seemed authentic, the way the author pulls details from history to infuse into her story. I’m very curious now!

  18. Christina (A Reader of Fictions)

    Oh man, you read this when you had the flu? Did you get yourself some garlic or whatever they were carrying around to fight the infection? :-p

    Also, YAY for you loving this book. I thought the writing was just gorgeous and the history and just awesome all around.