This review and others are posted at Read, Rinse, Repeat.
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. People drape themselves in garlic and onion to ward off the flu, and I can't help but wonder what commonly-held beliefs we have today that will be debunked ten, fifty, or one hundred years from now. If you don't make a habit of reading the author's notes, you should do so in this case. I was particularly interested in how much of this time period was fact or fiction (yes, I should probably already know this!), and it's clear that Winters' research was thorough and meticulous. I got a kick out of a restaurant that served "liberty steaks," because no one wanted to be associated with German-sounding hamburgers. It brought to mind the ridiculousness of "freedom fries" shortly after 9/11. Remember when we were all supposed to be angry at the French? The more things change...
The book is enhanced by the inclusion of old photographs at the beginning of each chapter. Some illustrate the impact of the influenza epidemic. Others are haunting (or haunted?) depictions of possible ghosts. Or maybe they're just a trick of the light. Chapter 13 shows four people seated around a table with their hands resting upon it. It also shows what appears to be a ghostly hand reaching up from the ground to grip the table. Depending on your belief in ghosts, this photo may have a major spook factor.
In the Shadow of Blackbirds crosses over various genres: romance, historical fiction, paranormal, and suspense. All are done well, but my favorite was Mary Shelley's romance with the doomed Stephen, portrayed in flashback. It is sweet and passionate and filled with longing. It's easy to see how Mary Shelley could be consumed by Stephen, both in life and in death.
Do you believe in ghosts? I don't, but Cat Winters makes me WANT to believe.
Note - I received an ARC from the publisher for review.