Book Review: The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

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I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

There is a troubling undercurrent rumbling beneath the surface of the town of Elston, Oregon, and it’s particularly troubling for Hanalee Denney, a sixteen-year-old daughter of an African-American man and a white woman. Hanalee’s dad Hank was murdered last Christmas by a drunk driver, Joe Adler, and a few months later, Joe is out of jail and back in town. To add to the grief his return is causing Hanalee, the Ku Klux Klan is breeding fear and hatred across Elston in their attempt to “purify” Oregon of everyone who isn’t white, Protestant, American-born or heterosexual. Hanalee’s friends are abandoning her one by one, and her father’s alleged murderer is suddenly claiming that the man who actually killed Hanalee’s father is the town doctor who tried to save him and who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather. Does Hank Denney’s ghost, or a “haint” hold the answers Hanalee is so desperate to find? And will she be able to solve the mystery and to cope with the devastating results that she finds?

 

My readers probably know by now that I believe that it’s impossible for Cat Winters to ever write a bad book. “The Steep and Thorny Way” is definitely her best book to date – and the darkest. I’ve been known to spend hours in front of a Cat Winters book and finishing in a day. The same happened when I started “The Steep and Thorny Way” – thankfully, it was a weekend so I didn’t have to go to work. The novel is gripping. It’s devastating. And it’s honest and real. The emotions are very, very, real.

Winters’ fans know all about her talent to masterrfully convey the atmosphere of a setting in writing, and in “TSaTW” the reader can’t help but feel as though they are also a part of Elston, Oregon of the 1920s. Unfortunately, that setting has little beauty in it. It is very scary to think about the fact that the travesties described in the novel occurred less than a hundred years ago. Every page is saturated with despair and sadness of those times and thanks to Winters’ writing talent, the reader feels them as much as the characters. Hanalee, Joe and their  families are devastated by what is happening in their town, but they are the kinds of characters that don’t give up. Hanalee, for instance, is fully aware that there are few good things awaiting her in the future if she stays in Elston, but it doesn’t deter her from pursuing her dreams of becoming a lawyer. She is kind, smart and compassionate, despite all the atrocities American laws and Elston society put her through on a daily basis.

The novel is marketed as a retelling of “Hamlet” – one of my favourite works of Shakespeare. In a way, it is – you can see it in certain passages and characters. And of course, the murder most foul of the novel initially seems to parallel that of “Hamlet”. However, nothing is ever what it seems in Cat Winters’ books, and “TSaTW” is no exception. Given the setting, I knew that the solution to the mystery was not going to be a happy one – plus  “Hamlet” is a tragedy for a reason. It was, however, nothing I expected it would be and all the more devastating for it. Winters uses paranormal elements as plot devices quite a few times in her books, but they are only there to further highlight the devastation and the hatred that was a big part of those times. “The Steep and Thorny Way” uses these scary elements in a manner similar to “Hamlet”, but other than that, the fear we feel in this book comes from the villains that were very real. There is little need for additional fantasy elements – history provides us with enough source material for antagonists. Hanalee and Joe are in constant danger because of who they are – a biracial girl and a homosexual young man. Ku Klux Klan, eugenics and general prejudices not only prevent Hanalee and Joe from living carefree lives, but they make them constantly fear for their very lives. Things are somewhat better today than they were back then, but diseases like racism, xenophobia and homophobia are unfortunately still a very big part of our society. And this is why we need diverse books like “The Steep and Thorny Way” – to remind us that these disgusting things occurred not so long ago and that prejudice and discrimination are something to be fought on a daily basis.

“The Steep and Thorny Way” is emotional, gripping and absolutely amazing. I cannot wait for my next Cat Winters! My rating is 8.5/10. Once again, my only issue with Cat Winters’ books is the lack of sequels!

 

Favourite quotes:

“Hate is a powerful demon that worms its way into the hearts of fearful men”.

“I think love and wrong are two deeply unrelated words that should never be thrown into the same sentence together. Like dessert and broccoli.”

“Candlelight cast such a delicate beauty. It flickered with emotions and warmed one’s skin and soul”.

 

Recommendations:

You might like “The Steep and Thorny Way” if you liked:

“The Diviners” by Libba Bray

“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare 

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

 

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Book Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

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Would you be surprised if I said that I bought another Cat Winters’ novel only a few days after finishing “The Cure for Dreaming”? If you’re anything like me, I doubt it.

It’s 1918 and the US is facing one of the hardest times in its history. The country is on the brink of collapse from the Spanish Influenza and the First World War. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black is one of the lucky few who hasn’t been infected. However, her pacifist father is labelled a traitor and taken away. Mary Shelley is forced to go to Oregon to live with her favourite aunt Eva and wait until either they both die or something good occurs. Unfortunately, Mary Shelley’s childhood friend and sweetheart Stephen Embers who is just as fond of science and photography as herself, has enlisted and left for Europe, leaving Mary Shelley and aunt Eva with his half-brother Julian, who is addicted to opium and is either trying to defraud people by capitalising on the new spirit photographs craze or genuinely believes that he can connect his clients with their departed loved ones via the power of a camera.

One night, Mary Shelley is struck by lightning, but miraclously comes back from the dead. A few nights later, the Embers’ receive devastating news about Stephen, and strange things begin to happen around our heroine. Why is she the only one who can hear her dead friend’s distress? Why does he visit her at nighttime and why does he look so afraid? And what is so terrifying about the shadows of blackbirds?

 

“In the Shadow of Blackbirds” is Cat Winters’ debut novel that I picked up after being enchanted by “The Cure for Dreaming”. I’m pleased to report that this book is just as hauntingly beautiful and captivating as Winters’ sophomore novel. You can tell that the author genuinely loves writing about the time period and is thorough. I’ve read the book on an electronic device, but I would love a physical copy – the black-and-white “spirit” photographs make the story even more layered. Not that it needs it – Winters’ writing is very good at submerging the reader into the tragic atmosphere of the 20th century war- and disease-torn America. I absolutely loved how the author has entwined the plot of the story with the real historical events without shying away from the difficult topics like loss, war and PTSD. I don’t know much about the latter, but I’ve experienced many books where the writers gloss over mental illnesses or even glamourise them. “In the Shadow of Blackbirds” does the opposite, which makes the storyline even more haunting and tragic.

Since photography is a very important plot device in this book, I’ll use the analogy of the kind. As an amateur photographer, I know that a truly good photo can’t be just “pretty” or “shot from a good angle” – some might give you some leeway one way or the other, but it generally should be both. “In the Shadow of Blackbirds” is a novel that is both – atmospheric and beautiful writing might not always be enough to make a good book amazing, and thankfully, the storyline and the characters are also very strong points. Mary Shelley, Aunt Eva, Stephen, Julian and other secondary characters feel real (which is saying a lot, since some of them are.. well.. somewhat dead!), and the story has kept me engaged until I turned the last page of the book. I genuinely didn’t see the ending coming and the novel has been (excuse my pun) haunting me for the last week.

I’m really glad I chose to read “In the Shadow of Blackbirds” over a weekend, because I spent hours with my eyes glued to my screen, immersed in the story. And unlike “The Cure for Dreaming”, I didn’t feel that the book warranted a sequel – it was just the right length! I cannot wait to read Winters’ retelling of “Hamlet”! My rating for “In the Shadow of Blackbirds” is 8.5/10.

 

Favourite quotes
“When faced with the worst horrors the world has to offer, a person either cracks and succumbs to the ugliness, or they salvage the inner core of who they are and fight to right wrongs”.

“We wouldn’t even have wars if adults followed the rules they learned as children. A four-year-old would be able to see how foolish grown men are behaving if you explained the war in a child’s terms”.

“We were all survivors – every last one of us who limped our way out to the sidewalks that afternoon and spit in Death’s cold face”.

 

Recommendations
You might like “In the Shadow of Blackbirds” if you liked:
“The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak
“17 & Gone” by Nova Ren Suma
“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

Book Review: Lair of Dreams (The Diviners, #2) by Libba Bray

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I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. My review for the first book in the series can be found here

 

Warning – this review contains spoilers

After falling in love with yet another book by Libba Bray in 2013, I spent the last two years yearning for the next installment and needless to say, I was thrilled when NetGalley approved my request for the ARC of “Lair of Dreams”.

The book picks up sometime after “The Diviners”, and our Evie O’Neill is now a radioshow celebrity, with a title “America’s Sweetheart Seer”. On the surface, she seems po-si-tu-te-ly thrilled with her new role, but as always, nothing is ever as it seems with Libba Bray’s books. Her fallout with “Unc” Will and Jericho isn’t helping anybody, and only Theta and Henry can see that. Or, and Sam Lloyd can too.

Life might be a party for Evie O’Neill but it’s completely opposite for the working class of New York. Not only are they faced with racism and xenophobia every day, but they are also becoming victims of a mysterious “sleeping sickness”. People just seem to die in their sleep and they never wake up. Since The Diviners are the current “trend”, they don’t have to hide anymore, but not everybody is so accepting of their abilities. Can they, with all the obstacles facing them, defeat the sleeping sickness or will they, too, fall into the lair of dreams and become mere ghosts of the New York City? Or will their past get them before they can even try?

 

I’ve waited for “Lair of Dreams” for a long time, and I’m happy to say that it sucked me in from the very first page. However, unlike “The Diviners”, which I read for 9 hours straight and finished in a day, the second installment took me a few days. Firstly, it’s quite a long book, even longer than “The Diviners”. Secondly, and I never thought I’d say this about a book by Libba Bray, “Lair of Dreams” felt long. Several pages’ worth of description added to the overall spooky atmosphere of the series, but there were times when I wanted to get to “the good stuff” faster. Fortunately, the pace picks up about 50% in, and it soon becomes clear that this book serves as a set-up for the third and fourth installments – which is excellent news, although I wish I didn’t have to wait another two years! But that’s the trouble with falling in love with a series – waiting is part of the package.

Was “Lair of Dreams” just as scary as “The Diviners”? No, but that’s not to say it was a boring ride. The villain wasn’t Naughty John’s level of creepy, but they were more compelling and just as interesting. One thing I’ll say for sure – I was quite scared to go to sleep every time I put the book down before bed!

I’ve said in my review of “The Diviners” that the atmosphere might be the best part of the book, but the characters are a close second. The good news is, Libba Bray spent quite a bit of time re-introducing us to most of our favourites and giving us more of their backstory. The most elaborate ones were Henry’s, Will’s, and Sam’s. We learnt a lot about them and the questions I had at the end of Book 1 were answered, to an extent, but now I have even more questions! Sam Lloyd, you said it – “Every time we get one answer it leaves us with twelve new questions”.

We are also introduced to a new member of The Diviners crew – Ling Chan, a half-Chinese half-Irish science aficionado who forges a close friendship with Henry and helps him find his old lover, Louis. I quite enjoyed reading her chapters and I’m looking forward to more of her interaction with other characters. Reading about the racism she faced was not pleasant at the slightest, but we should all remember – “we have rights as human beings“. History doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but let’s hope we can incorporate that quote into our daily lives and remember it well.

I do have one issue with character chapters in this book – my favourite characters from Book 1 had very few chapters. While Evie still remained the protagonist of the series, Memphis Campbell had only five chapters, if that. Based on my previous experience with Libba Bray’s books, I’d say that this means he’s going to die, and that would be absolutely awful! I loved him and his relationship with Theta, but given the ending of “Lair of Dreams”, the bliss might be short-lived. That’s what I want from the next installment – more Memphis and Isaiah! And the mystery of Blind Bill to be solved. And many other mysteries to be solved. And The Divinevengers to take down the new Big Bad and live to tell the tale. All of them.

“Lair of Dreams” was one of my most anticipated books of the year, and while it wasn’t as amazing as “The Diviners”, it was a great set-up to the big finales! I give it a rating of 8/10.

P.S.If you don’t want to know a major spoiler, please skip the next paragraph:

SPOILER The best thing I learnt from “Lair of Dreams” isn’t that Sam Lloyd is a better man than we gave him credit for. Nor is it that Uncle Will Fitzgerald is much more shady than I thought. It’s that I finally have confirmation that “The Gemma Doyle” series and “The Diviners” series take place in the same ‘verse! Read “Lair of Dreams” to find out more. END SPOILER

 

Favourite quotes

“For dreams, too, are ghosts, desires, chased in sleep, gone by morning. The longing of dreams draws the dead, and this city holds many dreams”.

“And dreams are like a library card, if you will, that provide access to this great archive of shared symbols, memories and experiences”

“We are a democracy, sir, and Diviners are evidence of that democracy and of the proof that all men and women are created equal. For these gifts have been given in equal measure to people of all races and creeds, regardless of sex, whether rich or poor”

 

Recommendations

You might enjoy “The Diviners” series if you liked:

“The Greaty Gatsby” by F. S. Fitzgerald 

“Daisy Gumm Majesty Mysteries” by Alice Duncan

“The Cure for Dreaming” by Cat Winters

“Supernatural” TV series

 

Have you read “The Diviners” series? Do you love Libba Bray as much as I do? Please let me know in the comments! 🙂

Book Review: The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters

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This is my first Cat Winters book. I found it when I was looking for books like Libba Bray’s a few months ago.

Olivia Mead’s rebellious ways of being a suffragette and reading gothic novels aren’t welcomed in Portland in 1900. However, that doesn’t stop her and her friends from fighting for women’s rights. On the day of her 17th birthday on Halloween, Olivia attends a performance by a magician named Henri Reverie and his pianist sister Genevieve. She volunteers to be the subject of Henri’s hypnosis and the magician astonishes the audience by his performance. The next day, however, Olivia’s conservative father confronts her about being a suffragette and employs Henri to remove these thoughts and inclinations out of her head. Henri, however, gives Olivia a great and terrible gift instead – to be able to see the people of the world for who they truly are while being unable to speak her thoughts out loud. Despite her father’s and her suitor’s efforts to deter her, Olivia is even more determined to speak her mind and enters into a dangerous alliance with the illusionist who is not at all what he appears to be. Will Olivia, Henri and their friends be able to change the world? Or will her spirit be broken by the anti-feminist Americans?

 

I had two problems with this book. Firstly, it was too short. Secondly, it doesn’t have a sequel.

Yes, it was that good. Cat Winters’ atmospheric and bone-chilling writing had me glued to my Kindle from the first page onwards. I devoured “The Cure for Dreaming” in six hours, only getting up to get snacks! Last time I was this into a book this much was when I read Rachel Hawkins’ “Rebel Belle”. The way Winters weaves the story of Olivia against the world is gripping and haunts the reader long after she puts the book down. The amount of detail is staggering but in no way overwhelming to the reader. On the contrary – it only adds to the creepy factor and will give you goosebumps. Because this is a horror story.

It would be unfair to any girl who’s ever had to fight for something to call it anything other than a horror tale. A young member of the suffrage movement has the whole world against her, and people like her father do their best to put an end to her rebellion. What used to be the reality  for many girls only a hundred years ago seems terrifying for women today, and I hope that a hundred years from now, the sexism in today’s society would seem just as terrifying and unbelievable to women who aren’t born yet. Writers like Winters, who cleverly use literary devices to illustrate the dangers of misogynistic societies in their books are important. As an example, Olivia’s father hires Henri to make it difficult for his daughter to talk about controversial topics and to silence her on the subject of feminism. Henri, however, hypnotises Olivia to instead see the world as how it truly is, which can be argued to be a metaphor of how women used to be, and still are, frequently become victims of gaslighting when it’s convenient for men in their lives. By making Olivia see the ugly nature of the people, Henri accomplishes the opposite of Olivia’s father’s wishes. Instead of curing her of her dreams, he just makes her even more determined. The even scarier element of his hypnosis is that Olivia cannot express her anger – instead, she must say “All is well”. This is terrifying. Removing a chance to say NO is terrifying to any woman.

However, this story is not all dark and depressing. Olivia’s friendships with her female friends is great – I love reading stories where women support each other, like warning you that a cute rich classmate is a creep and a sexual predator, or like raising money for your dream to go to college. And I surprisingly enjoyed the brief romance between Olivia and Henri – and I most certainly loved when the third part of the love triangle turned out to be a lot creepier when Olivia got her powers! The best thing was, however, that Olivia did at the end manage to make a difference. Again, Cat Winters’ genius allegoric use of paranormal was wonderful to read.

So, yes, this book is scary. And it will make you angry and frustrated. And possibly afraid of monsters in your dreams. But it’s so damn good. And definitely not my last Cat Winters – can’t wait for “The Uninvited”! My rating for “The Cure for Dreaming” is 8.5/10 – I do wish it were longer!

 

Favourite quotes

“I just think he’s a snob, that’s all. And snobs are only fun in Austen novels”

“No one should ever be silenced. Not you. Not me. Not any other woman or man. Please, open your eyes and see, we’re all on the same side. We’re all being treated as second-class citizens. Why are you just sitting beside your husbands and fathers and accepting this rubbish?”

“Females are raised to become rational, industrious, fair and compassionate human beings. Males are taught to sow their wild oats and run free while they’re able. Which gender is truly the most prepared to make decisions about the management of a country” Do you want a responsible individual or a rambunctious one choosing the fate of our government?”

 

Dreamcast

Olivia Mead – Troian Belissario (I know she’s too old to play a high schooler but she’s just so good at being the leading feminist lady)

Henri Reverie – Jake T. Austin

 

Recommendations

You might like “The Cure for Dreaming” if you liked:

Any book by Libba Bray

“The Fall” by Bethany Griffin

“A Mad, Wicked Folly” by Sharon Biggs Waller

“Dracula” by Bram Stoker

Have you read any Cat Winters’ books? What are your favourite books about suffragettes? Do you have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments!