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'The Year of Shadows' is more than just a ghost story

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The Year of Shadows by Claire Legrand

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'The Year of Shadows' by Claire Legrand is a ghost story you won't forget. Each of the ghosts haunting the old city concert hall have a story to tell, and Olivia and her friends are about to hear all of them.

Olivia is furious. Her mom left her dad, the orchestra he conducts is failing, they lost their house, and now she, her father and her frail grandmother are squatting in the city concert hall. Olivia blames her father for tearing apart their family just to hold onto a failing dream of an orchestra that's falling apart faster than the run-down concert hall.

Living in the concert hall turns out to be even worse than Olivia thought -- it's haunted. Trapped in the hall, the ghosts need help to move on before the city council destroys the old building. If Olivia wants to help her ghostly friends and avoid becoming homeless, she must find a way to save the concert hall she hates. But she soon finds out that there are other, more sinister forces than "her" ghosts in the old hall -- forces that would like nothing more than to destroy the hall and everyone in it.

Rather than being simply horrifying, this ghost story explores the tragedy and loss. Even the mindless "shades" are revealed to be more sad than scary. The more simplistic, younger voice of MG fiction handles tragedy in a stark, unpretentious way that somehow hits harder emotionally. You get to know each ghost, get attached to them as characters, and then they "move on" and die.

It's hard on Olivia as well, who is attempting to come to terms with the fact that her mother left her family. Although she wants to help her ghost friends, she feels the same fear of abandonment. While it has its creepy moments, 'The Year of Shadows' is a ghost story that is very much about dealing with loss rather than about things that go bump in the night.

As a protagonist, Olivia is very angry. She's angry at her mom for leaving, her dad for "making" her leave, the musicians for being a bad orchestra, her friend Henry for being smarter, the ghosts...It's a long list. Sometimes Olivia's anger comes out as creativity. Other times, her anger turns into sarcastic wit. She also appears to be depressed, cycling through angry vs. depressive phases. She's dealing with things no middle school kid should have to deal with. Since her father is so obsessed and neglectful, it falls to Olivia to provide for herself and her grandmother.

One of the most satisfying things about 'The Year of Shadows' is Olivia's reconciliation with her father; or rather, her lack of reconciliation with her father. You might expect the book to wrap up with a warm, tearful reconciliation. While Olivia resolves to keep working on forgiveness, she admits that it's hard, and that she doesn't know if she can. The ending is hopeful but not Hollywood. This book handles some pretty deep issues for Middle Grade, and it handles them honestly. The point is not to teach a moral to kids; this book assumes they're smarter than that. You can find a message in 'The Year of Shadows,' but this MG novel doesn't lecture.

It's not all dark, however. Olivia has a sarcastic sense of humor, and some of the other characters are witty and humorous. 'The Year of Shadows' is character-driven, carried by a strong first-person narrative, a small but memorable cast of main characters, and some very extensive character development. There's suspense, but the plot isn't action-oriented. Rather, it's told in different episodes with the ghosts, life at the hall, and the concert season of the orchestra. Music lovers will like the clever touch of separating different sections with fermatas. 'The Year of Shadows' is also organized not into parts or books, but into different sections of a symphony. A concert program is included in the back of the book.

'The Year of Shadows' is a must-read for anyone who enjoys MG fiction. Readers who enjoyed Claire Legrand's 'The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls' may be disappointed (or perhaps relieved) to find that 'The Year of Shadows' isn't a pure horror story. It deals with more common fears like losing jobs, loved ones, or home, or of not having friends. In some ways, that might make it the scarier book.

Either way, both books are 5-star material. Even though they are so different in character, they have been consistently excellent in writing style, character development, and unique plotting and storytelling. Claire Legrand is an up-and-coming MG author. Bookmark her name; you'll want to read whatever she writes next.

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