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.