The Year of ShadowsFeatured
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.
Middle Grade fiction and I don't usually get along, which is funny considering their covers are the cutest things EVER. I am one of those people easily swayed by pretty covers and I just can't help clicking that "To Read" button on Goodreads. What can I say? I have ZERO self-control. You should also know that I do not do Horror. Like, at all because I am a total scaredy cat who's afraid of her own shadow. I sleep with a teddy bear and everything. But anyway, for The Year of Shadows I knew I had to give it a try because a) Legrand is pretty awesome and I like her style b) Dat cover, yo. You will notice this is how I select most of the books I read, which is not always as fail-proof as I'd like it to be. Unfortunately, Awesome Author does not always equal Awesome Book. But in this case, it totally does. The Year of Shadows tackles issues that I was surprised to see in a Middle Grade novel... and it does it so well.
The novel follows Olivia Stellatella, a kid who's dealing with way more than anyone should have to deal with at her age. Her mother has left Olivia and her father, which causes a strained relationship between them. Her father's failing Orchestra has left them severely in debt, causing Olivia, her grandmother and the Maestro himself to move into the very old Emerson Concert Hall. It doesn't even have a shower. The horror. To make matters worse, Olivia has school troubles, and you can just imagine how all of these things combined can make for a very bitter kid. She's not very kind to the Maestro even though he is obviously dealing with his own demons, the two friends that she does start to make, she pushes away, and she is kind of a brat. As Mr. Potato Head would say, "That ain't no happy child."
But the thing about Olivia is that you can't help but feel for her situation. At times, she is a frustrating character because you want her to just open up already and give people a chance. But at the same time, I understand why she's a loner and why she despises Emerson Hall and blames it partially for her mother's departure. She's a depressed, lonely kid just trying to survive when she discovers the ghosts haunting Emerson Hall. Through a few uncanny friendships, you can see Olivia's' growth as she slowly allows herself to heal. Or rather, she allows the friendships of the ghosts and her two friends to heal her.
Speaking of Olivia's friends, Henry and Joan were fantastic. The one thing I sometimes miss when hanging out in YAland is the dynamic of friendships, because with YA, there is usually such a strong focus on romantic love. But I loved how Henry saw beyond Olivia's facade and was there for her even when she pushed him away. I loved Joan and how she was all about getting involved with causes. Then there was also Igor, the cat, who Olivia may or may not have talked to in her head, dreamy Richard Ashley (fetch me my fainting couch!) and Olivia's grandmother. These characters were adorable and I was so happy that Olivia had them.
My favorite setting would have to be The Happy Place, a coffee shop run by Mr. and Mrs. Barskey. (My Personal Happy Place generally involves my couch, ice cream and watching Pitch Perfect over and over while thinking of ways to then incorporate Pitch Perfect jokes into every conversation I have. A-ca-believe it! But I digress...) With its bright vibrant colors with equally colorful personalities of the couple that owned the establishment, it provided a much-needed ray of sunshine considering how depressing The Year of Shadows can be. And it definitely had its dark moments when Olivia and Henry started "sharing" with the ghosts and learning about their pasts. Topics such as murder, The Great Depression and war are delicately presented in a way that was not overwhelming, but never lacking in severity. Mr. Worthington's story tore me up inside. WHY, CLAIRE. WHY? ARE MY TEARS TASTY?
Legrand also did a fabulous job with her descriptions, making Emerson Hall easily come to life in my head. But I especially loved the ones with the music:
"It's a strange feeling, when you hear a good piece of music. It starts out kind of shaky, this hot, heavy knot in your chest. At first it's tiny, like a spot of light in a dark room, but then it builds, pouring through you. And the next thing you know, everything from your forehead down to your fingers and toes is on fire. You feel like the hot, heavy knot in your chest is turning into a bubble. It's full of everything good in the world, and if you don't do something--if you don't run or dance or shout to everyone in the world about this music you've just heard--it'll explode." - The Year of Shadows ARC, page 183
And the descriptions went so well with the beautiful illustrations, which were not finished in my ARC copy. Pro Tip: Totally get a paper copy of this instead of reading the ebook if you can. From the chapter headings with Igor to the bordered page numbers, The Year of Shadows is all-around wonderfully crafted. I'm once again reminded why Middle Grade is often so special, because you don't always get these cool extras in YA or even Adult fiction.
Overall, The Year of Shadows, is a fantastic novel with endearing characters, delicious descriptions and a captivating plot, making this one of my favorites of 2013. While aimed for the Middle Grade audience, it holds a complexity that will compel readers of all ages to flip pages late into the night.
The Cutest, Grumpiest Heroine
What I Liked:
My second favorite aspect of The Year of Shadows is definitely the heroine. Olivia Stellatella is a delight, but which I mean she is a seriously grouchy, cynical kid. She may be young, but her life has been hard and it's getting more difficult by the time. First, her mom abandoned her, then her dad got completely caught up in trying to save the orchestra for which he conducts, and now her family (Olivia, The Maestro (Dad, though she never calls him that because he made mom leave), and Nonnie (grandma)) has moved into the concert hall, living in two little rooms and making do with the makeshift kitchen. Olivia hates that she's had to move here, worries that they won't have enough food to eat, and shops at the thrift shop. Even worse, she knows that, if the orchestra's ticket sales do not improve, it's done after this season, meaning they'll be even worse off because of The Economy. In other words, if this were a movie, Olivia would be played by either a young Winona Ryder or Christina Ricci.
Actually, that comparison is pretty accurate too. Much as I try to resist going too crazy with comparing books to other books or movies, I can't resist this time. There are a lot of parallels to Casper but with some of the creepiness of Beetlejuice, but, of course, with some magic totally unique to Legrand's vision. The ghosts are by turns horrifying and friendly. The shades pretty much reside in Creeptown, USA and Legrand's Limbo is haunting.
Now, let's go back. Remember how I mentioned that Olivia was my second favorite? Well, my favorite is Igor. He's this cat who adopts Olivia, though she might tell you it happened the other way round. Olivia fancies that he speaks to her, and imagines that his voice sounds very like Cary Grant. Igor's such a cat, with his helpful suggestions like this one: "I know what will make you feel better. Petting me. Better yet, asking for permission to pet me" (211). How can anyone not love a cat that just might talk like Cary Grant? Also, I credit Igor with getting the kids through everything and teaching Olivia how to love. He convinces her to give people another shot and nudges her in the right direction with his knowing cat ways.
Another aspect I adore is the music. In Claire Legrand's bio, it says that she "was a musician until she couldn't stop thinking about the stories in her head." Her love of music really shines in The Year of Shadows. Her descriptions of letting music wash over you are lyrical and moving. The dynamics of the band too are so apt, especially the depiction of the trumpet player. It's wonderful when authors can work in some of their real life passions, because that emotion seeps into those sections in a way that really shows.
The ghost story element is well done, especially for the intended audience. With each ghost, there's a little miniature story arc full of action and adventure, followed by a scavenger hunt of sorts, and what kid will not be all over that? I did have some minor quibbles with the way some of the logic worked, but, for the most part, I was able to sit back and enjoy the story.
What Left Me Wanting More:
Themes of family and friendship are also highly prevalent in The Year of Shadows. Though I think a lot of the right notes are struck here, I don't think they're held quite long enough or played with enough emotion. Legrand does a nice job establishing the friendship with Henry and Olivia, but their lunch table friend Joan comes and goes as is convenient in the story. Similarly, Henry never comes to any sort of realization about his bullying friend, though it seemed like that would be one of the impending plot points. With family too, resolutions seemed a bit too smooth and sudden, with the awkward moments skipped or glossed over. This might be a plus for younger readers, but I was hoping for those emotional wallops. Also, we're sort of left hanging on what's going to happen to Olivia next, and I'm wondering if she's going to be okay.
The Final Verdict:
Claire Legrand's sophomore novel features lovely writing, both sassy and creepy ghosts, and a heartwarming tale of learning to let people in. The Year of Shadows is an excellent read for middle grade readers and for older readers who enjoy new twists on ghost mythologies.