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In the Shadow of Blackbirds Hardcover – April 2, 2013

4.3 out of 5 stars 195 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Gr 8 Up-The year is 1918. World War I is killing millions of boys abroad, and the flu pandemic is killing millions of Americans at home. People are increasingly desperate, looking to Spiritualism and folk remedies to help them speak to dead loved ones and survive the flu. After her father is jailed for anti-Americanism, Mary Shelley Black, 16, must go live with her aunt in San Diego. There she is confronted with memories of her first love, Stephen, who is away at war. She is also forced to face Julius, Stephen's bully of an older brother who is making a fortune as a "Spiritualist Photographer," a photographer who can capture ghosts in images. She also meets Mr. Darning, a man with a broken heart who is trying to prove that Julius is a fake. After Mary Shelley learns of Stephen's "heroic" death, she is visited by his suffering ghost. His spirit is delusional and scared, and Mary Shelley suspects there is a terrible reason he's not at rest. Did Stephen really die on the frontline? How are Julius and Mr. Darning involved? Winters deftly combines mystery, ghost story, historical fiction, and romance. The character development is not deep, but the excellent pacing and deliciously creepy descriptions of Spiritualism more than make up for it; the story and setting are atmospheric and eerie. Black-and-white photos are scattered throughout the book, giving context to the time period.-Laura Lutz, Pratt Institute, New York Cityα(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Winters’ debut ropes in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, WWI shell shock, national prejudice, and spirit photography, and yet never loses focus from its primary thesis: desperation will make people believe—and do—almost anything. Mary Shelley Black, 16, has been sent to live with her aunt in San Diego, a city crawling with gauze mask–wearing citizens fearful of catching the deadly virus. Loss is everywhere, which means booming business for spirit photographer Julius, the older brother of Mary’s true love, Stephen, who is off fighting in the trenches. Stephen’s death coincides with Mary suffering electrocution, an event with strange aftereffects: Mary sends compass needles spinning, can taste emotions, and begins to see and hear Stephen’s ghost, in torment over the maniacal “birdmen” that tortured and killed him. Mary believes his spirit will rest when she uncovers the truth about his death—a truth more horrifying than most readers will expect. A scattering of period photos, including eerie examples of spirit photography, further the sense of time and place, but the main event here is Winters’ unconventional and unflinching look at one of the darkest patches of American history. More than anything, this is a story of the breaking point between sanity and madness, delivered in a straightforward and welcoming teen voice. Grades 9-12. --Daniel Kraus

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harry N. Abrams; First Edition edition (April 2, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 141970530X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1419705304
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (195 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #819,834 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
The thought of a widespread health disaster is enough to terrify me, even today, where medicine and science is at its most advanced. Cat Winters' debut standalone is set during 1918, the year of the infamous influenza outbreak, and the final moments of the First World War. It is a horrific period of time - one that is difficult to truly forget, despite having taken place nearly a century ago - and an aptly atmospheric setting for In the Shadow of Blackbirds.

It is evident that Winters did her research here (as consolidated by the brilliant author's note). With gauze masks covering three quarters of the face, public health warnings and signs littering the streets, and coffins spilling out of undertakers' homes, the so-called Spanish Flu is disturbingly ever-present throughout this book. It's a time when crowds were to be avoided, spitting was unacceptable, and coughing and sneezing were sure signs of something awful. Even kissing was discouraged, lest any level of intimacy or physical contact aid in the spread of the disease. Winters uses this setting wonderfully and with skill to build together a vivid picture of the paranoia and fear heightened during this time. There is a distinct and fitting bleakness to the story, further aided by the war effort and its contribution to the death toll.

It's in this time of confusion and sickness that we meet our young protagonist, Mary Shelley Black. Her childhood friend and sweetheart is the latest victim of the war, with his death and unexpected appearance in a spirit photograph creating the basis for the plot. Séances, unexplained phenomena and ghostly apparitions flit in and out of the reality of Mary Shelley's life, adding an appropriately chilling paranormal edge to the story.
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Format: Hardcover
In the Shadow of Blackbirds is as haunting as the cover suggests. Mary Shelley is sent to live with her aunt in San Diego after the United States is under the grip of the Spanish influenza. Her father is sent to prison, and her mother has already died. Her father hopes that the warm, fresh San Diego air will keep her safe from illness, however she quickly finds that there is more than just the flu to be worried with.

I've recently discovered I have a bit of a special place in my heart for historical YA and In the Shadow of Blackbirds was eerily fantastic. Mary Shelley is smart gal with a lot on her plate. As if worrying about contracting the flu wasn't enough to worry about, Mary Shelley can add a near death experience to her plate, and now a haunting from a childhood friend. She's stuck trying to figure out what is going on, who she can trust and not coming across as completely insane.

This book had absolute style. The cover is amazing. Mary Shelley's spirit photo with her goggles and the eerily aged filter pulls you right into the story from the beginning. Dispersed throughout the book are other photos from that period. Workers with masks, news articles, warning flyers keep you in the moment of this book.

The pacing slowly builds up to a fantastic ending that is one of the most intense scenes I've read in a book. I can't recommend this book enough.
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Format: Hardcover
1918 is a scary time in American history. We are at war with the Germans, a people portrayed as closer to animal than human, while at home, we battle an outbreak of the deadly Spanish influenza: "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." Mary Shelley's father is one those arrested, and she's shipped off to live with her Aunt Eva in San Diego as a result. She soon learns that her first love, Stephen, was killed in battle. Mary Shelley can't escape her grief, in no small part because Stephen visits her as a ghost. His family lives nearby, and his brother, Julius, is a self-professed spirit photographer. He makes a killing (sorry) selling ghostly portraits of the deceased to their loved ones. Mary Shelley believes he's a fraud, and she wants to expose him, believing that the only thing Julius truly captures is the hope of grief-stricken people who have lost loved ones to war or disease. Aunt Eva, on the other hand, is a believer.

When I first read the synopsis of the book, I had no idea how the title might tie into the story. Maybe it was a metaphor? The answer (or a piece of it) becomes clear about a third of the way through, and it sends Mary Shelley down a dangerous path to uncover the truth.

Winters creates a fantastic atmosphere of fear. It seems that death is lurking around every corner, and Winters' descriptions of overrun funeral homes, ambulances with day-long waiting periods, and people with gauze-covered faces to ward off germs capture the feeling perfectly. Mary Shelley is cautious, but not paranoid, while Aunt Eva is in full-on panic mode.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I really thought I was going to fall in love with this book as everyone else seemed to do. But I knew from the firs twenty or so pages that I wasn't going to. I will admit, the story and writing got better as it progressed by leaps and bounds; I was worried that I was only going to give this one star at the beginning.
The main problem that I had with this story was that there wasn't the feel of being "old". When I read good historical fiction, there seems to be a tone throughout the book, whether it's the description, the writing, or the voices of the characters. This book didn't have that at all. The only way I knew it was set in 1918 was because the main character, Mary Shelley, kept saying so or it said it in the letters. She sounded like a teenager of the day that was just plopped into 1918.
I didn't really like any of the characters. I wasn't invested emotionally in them and didn't really give a damn about them.
The author went overboard with trying making Mary Shelley quirky. For one, she was named Mary Shelley (and I never understood why they didn't just call her Mary), had her mother die in childbirth just like Mary Shelley's mother did, and was an inventor/curious/girl-ahead-of-her-time. I didn't buy it. She was just a bland character who had a thin back story that tried to make her unique.
Also the love story aspect was just blah for me. The letters that the love interest, Stephen, wrote were so obviously written by a woman author who thought that this is the best way for a man to write romantically to his love. But it didn't work and I was just thinking "Oh, for God's sake" when reading the letters.
I think that if Victoria Schwab wrote this, it would have blown my mind, and that's really all I could think of when reading this as my disappointment grew.
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