The Year of Shadows, by Claire Legrand (Simon and Schuster, Aug. 2013, middle grade), is by no means the least of these, which is to say I liked it lots.
Olivia is angry, scared, and miserable. After her mother left, things feel apart, and now she and her father, and her grandmother, are stuck living in the backstage rooms of a decrepit concert hall. Her father (distant, depressed, unkempt and unhelpful) still dreams of leading his orchestra to heights of fame and financial stability, but Olivia doesn't want any part of her father's hope--she's too busy blaming him for her miserable circumstances (with some reason).
Then she realizes that on top of everything else, the hall is haunted. And some of the spirits are friendly ghosts, who need her help to pass fully into death, and some are chaotic forces that bring danger to both ghost and girl. With the help of two classmates who practically force friendship at prickly Olivia, she begins to help the ghosts...a scary process that involves letting them into her mind, so that she can share their memories.
But in the meantime, the concert hall is literally falling down, and time is running out for both the ghosts, and for Olivia's family.
And once again, I embarrassed myself by sniveling on the bus ride home. And once again, I realize while writing about a book that it had illustrations--quite nice and atmospheric ones--that utterly passed me by because I was so busy with the words. Which I guess is a compliment. (I am very sorry, illustrator Karl Kwasny. I did notice the cover though, and like it lots, as do my target-audience boys).
So in any event, it's a rather dark book, but not so dark as to render the reader melancholy for any length of time. One must bravely soldier on (at the beginning, in particular) through depressing bleakness, but gradually, as the story builds in complexity and more characters and twists of plot and zesty little details are added, it all gets lighter (though never what one would really call light)...and crescendos with a big emotional burst. (At which point I give up fighting against musical metaphor, because after all musical metaphors are woven into the book--the program of orchestral music for each month is very deliberately chosen by the author!). By the end there have been friendships made, and Olivia and her father are on track to build a better relationship (although I think he will always be a weak read as far as parenting is concerned....he has a habit of putting the music first) and things are better for the ghosts and stuff (that's me avoiding a spoiler).
So, if I had a slightly Gothically leaning 11 or 12 year old girl who played the violin* on hand, I would leap to press the book into her hands. But anyone who enjoys a good ghost story, in which grimness is mixed nicely with both dead and living warmth, might very well want to give this one a try.
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher for Cybils consideration
*because that's how I hear Olivia's theme; no offense to other instruments intended....although now I'm thinking maybe she's clarinet...tricky....