Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: THE YEAR OF SHADOWS by Claire Legrand

Olivia Stellatella is having a rough year.

Her mother left, her neglectful father -- the maestro of a failing orchestra -- has moved her and her grandmother into his dark, broken-down concert hall to save money, and her only friend is Igor, an ornery stray cat.

Just when she thinks life couldn’t get any weirder, she meets four ghosts who haunt the hall. They need Olivia’s help -- if the hall is torn down, they’ll be stuck as ghosts forever, never able to move on.

Olivia has to do the impossible for her shadowy new friends: Save the concert hall. But helping the dead has powerful consequences for the living . . . and soon it’s not just the concert hall that needs saving.
I... I'm sorry, I need a moment. I'm still working through all my crazy, flaily feelings over this book. If any of you have read The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls and were worried that Ms. Legrand might not be able to live up to her smash debut, worry no more! Though Shadows isn't on the same level of freaky horror as Cavendish it excels in the same gothic, touching, heartfelt tone as its predecessor.

The star of the show is Olivia Stellatella, a half-Italian self-professed "freak" with no friends, a broken family, and a home that barely counts. Olivia's mom took off without a word a year ago, and her father, the conductor for the local orchestra, moved the family (Olivia, his mother Nonnie, and himself) into the back of the concert hall to save money. Already reclusive on principle, Olivia becomes downright surly as she pushes away friends and retreats deep into her sketchbook.

I loved Olivia. I loved every second of her. She's as prickly as a porcupine with a light case of rabies, but in spite of her attitude (really, because of it), I adored her. Kids deal with loss in strange ways. Some act out. Some cling and whine. Some work extra-hard to keep those they have left close. And some, like Olivia, throw up walls and disappear. She is ombrelina, the little shadow, flitting across the upper scaffolding of the hall.

Usually, I'm pushing for the action to start, but I was blissfully content in Olivia's head. I wanted to learn more about her moods, her thoughts, her family. That being said, when the action does start, the book gets really, really good. Olivia, it seems has been watched by a quartet of ghosts. Once they decide that she and a boy from her school, Henry, are trustworthy, they reveal themselves and ask for help. They have lost their memories of life and cannot find their anchors, precious mementos of their lives hidden somewhere in the concert hall. Without them, they cannot hope to move on to being truly dead and will become tasty prey for the shades, ghosts that have become irrevocably stuck between worlds and despise both humans for being alive and ghosts for being one step closer to life.

What a story! As much as I adored Olivia, the rest of the cast of characters are delightfully varied and interesting. Freckle-faced and seemingly perfect, Henry is part of the cool crowd, gets perfect grades, and is delightfully finicky. I can't remember the last time I read about 1) a popular kid with red hair and freckles, 2) a boy who's the more finnicky one, 3) a popular kid who gets perfect grades. It's the little variations that make characters surprising and appealing. On top of his surprises, Henry is obsessed with music and a genuinely solid friend even in the time before Olivia admits that they are friends.

Even more delightful are the ghosts Olivia and Henry help. The spokesperson of the quartet is Frederick, a kindly gentleman who takes the lead by virtue of his being older than Jax and Tillie (in people years, not ghost years) and his ability to speak. Jax and Tillie are children near Olivia and Henry's age who are unable to see or hear each other, though they often speak at the same time and say nearly the same things. All three ghosts' stories, when we learn them, are tragic in their own ways, but none were as tragic as that of the fourth ghost, Mr. Worthington. The oldest of all the ghosts, Mr. Worthington has degenerated so far that he can barely speak. Even the effort often makes his ghostly jaw crumble and fall to the floor. Mr. Worthington, with all his sweet and kindly ways, is also my favorite.

Really, I could talk about the characters and what they mean to me all day long. Though at times I hated him for his behavior, I also felt for Olivia's father, the Maestro. I both pitied and adored Olivia's grandmother, Nonnie, who wears scarves day and night to cover her shaved head. There's Joan, the precocious activist who comes and goes depending on how badly she's scared by the ghosts. There's Igor, who sounds like a droll Cary Grant in Olivia's head. (For the best reading experience, do read Igor's lines with Cary Grant's voice. It's hilarious.) And then other character flit in and out as needed, such as Richard Astley the trumpet player, Mr. and Mrs. Barsky, who are both delightful in their own ways, etc. etc.

I could talk about this book all day. Shadows is, in my opinion, a quieter story than Cavendish but also much deeper. I loved the details Ms. Legrand put into everything she writes. The mythology behind ghosts vs. shades and how each come to be, the mystery surrounding Olivia's mother (which I guessed but was no less heartbreaking for the guessing), the various heartbreaks of every character, the intertwining of art and music (I marked pages to look up the pieces mentioned which I never do EVER), EVERYTHING. You want amazing little details? The different breaks in the story are marked with a fermata, which is the musical symbol for hold or pause.

Hum this while reading. It fits.
Some of you may still be unconvinced. Maybe you're comfortable with your adult or YA literature but are secretly unconvinced that anything middle-grade could ever interest you. That's fine. Be silly if you want. I respect your right to be a snobby dunderhead. And if you do read Shadows and don't like it, that's totally fine, because you tried. But I will say that I was floating on a book high after I finished Shadows. And I will say that it made me truly emotional at least twice, which is somewhat of a feat. Any book that handles loss and longing as beautifully as this book deserves to be read.

Points Added For: ALL THE CHARACTERS (but especially Igor and Mr. Worthington), depth, the exquisite handling of loss, the different references to art and music throughout the book, Olivia's attitude, Henry's quirks, etc. etc. ad infinitum.

Points Subtracted For: Not a thing. Not a bloomin' thing. No wait, the fact that Ms. Legrand doesn't have another book I can read RIGHT NOW.

Good For Fans Of: Exquisite portrayals of loss and longing, ghosts, music, prickly loner characters, Cary Grant.

Notes For Parents: There are ghosts, there is a (failed) seance, there are tense family moments. Otherwise, it's all hunky-dory.

Note: I received an e-galley of this title from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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