Off the Shelf: A Review of The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

On the day that the news broke about the shooting in Orlando, I thought about the state of the world that we live in, and my heart wanted to break. I picked up The Steep and Thorny Way and delved into the last few chapters I had remaining. Usually, reading serves as an escape for me, a way to leave the horrors and tragedies of this world behind me just for awhile and run away to someplace new. But I didn’t pick up The Steep and Thorny Way to take me someplace new. It’s not that kind of book. This book is a reminder that atrocities such as racism and homophobia are not just an embarrassing part of our past that can be swept under the rug of history. The cruelty that stems from these ideas still exists, and our society must constantly combat them with beliefs rooted in equality and love. We’re making progress, but we still have so much further to go.

As usual, Cat Winters delivers a narrative that not only focuses on social injustices, but also transports the reader back in time to experience these issues through the eyes of the characters. The Steep and Thorny Way gives us Hanalee Denney, a biracial girl in Prohibition-era Oregon, who is trying to seek justice for her murdered father, Hank Denney, whose ghost now haunts the street where he was killed. Joe Adder, a teen boy convicted of accidentally killing Hank, also knows what it’s like to be “different” in their town of Elston. Joe claims that it wasn’t him that killed Hanalee’s father, and that the true criminal is now married to Hanalee’s mother. “Uncle Clyde” has plenty of secrets to hide, and when the story of Hank Denney’s death starts to unravel, Hanalee and Joe have to protect themselves from the prejudices propagated in their small town by the Ku Klux Klan.

Readers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet will be delighted to draw together all of the parallels in this retelling, but they will also find that this story has a unique twist and will keep you guessing until the very end. Certainly, writing about the kinds of prejudices faced by the characters in this book had to be tricky, but their story is one that needs told, especially in this day and age when hate is still prevalent. Winters does a masterful job and bestows upon her readers the ingredients for overcoming hate: bravery, hope, and love.

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“Hate doesn’t even begin to describe what’s happening. (…) People in this state are controlling who can and can’t breed, Hanalee. They’re eradicating those of us who aren’t white, Protestant, American-born, or sexually normal in their eyes. They’re ‘purifying’ Oregon.”

Summary (via Goodreads)

Scene: Oregon, 1923.

Dramatis personae:

Hanalee Denney, daughter of a white woman and an African American man

Hank Denney, her father—a ghost

Greta Koning, Hanalee’s mother

Clyde Konig, doctor who treated Hank Denney the night he died, now Hanalee’s stepfather

Joe Adder, teenage boy convicted of accidentally killing Hank Denney

Members of the Ku Klux Klan

Townspeople of Elston, Oregon

Question: Was Hank Denney’s death an accident…or was it murder most foul?

A thrilling reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep and Thorny Way tells the story of a murder most foul and the mighty power of love and acceptance in a state gone terribly rotten.

1920s Oregon is not a welcoming place for Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man. She has almost no rights by law, and the Ku Klux Klan breeds fear and hatred in even Hanalee’s oldest friendships. Plus, her father, Hank Denney, died a year ago, hit by a drunk-driving teenager. Now her father’s killer is out of jail and back in town, and he claims that Hanalee’s father wasn’t killed by the accident at all but, instead, was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him—who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather.

The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she needs is to ask Hank himself, a “haint” wandering the roads at night.

Things I Liked:

I did something with this book that I’ve never done before. Five pages into reading it, I sat the book down, picked up my phone, and texted all of my reader friends that THIS was a book that they needed to get their hands on. Seriously – five pages. That’s all it took, and I was hooked.

Everything about this book feels authentic, from the setting and the characters right down to the language. Cat Winters does make mention in her author’s note that she had to tread a delicate line when it came to authentic yet offensive terms and labels, but that she really wanted to reflect how people from the 1920’s would have actually described Hanalee and Joe. “There are some words, however, whose power to hurt and belittle goes beyond the need for historical accuracy,” she says, and those words are not included in The Steep and Thorny Way. I don’t think anyone should shy away from this book due to the offensive terms because if you or your child are uncomfortable with the terms used, then likely it’s because you don’t agree with the terminology and can therefore converse about why terms like that are considered offensive and shouldn’t be used.

Things I Didn’t Like:

You’re not going to find me complaining about anything here. This book is too important to nitpick at little details.

Overall Rating:

It’s a hard concept to comprehend – a person wanting to harm someone based simply on his/her skin color, religious beliefs, sexual preferences, etc. – if you’ve never been the victim of it yourself. The world can be a brutal, horrific, violent place for those that are deemed “different” from the norm. Hanalee provides the reader with a realistic outlook on the cruelty she and so many like her have experienced. I’m sure many of us would like to believe that this time period is vastly different from our own, but we still see so many crimes against humanity committed by those filled with evil and hate in their hearts. The Steep and Thorny Way will push readers out of their comfort zones, awaken a thirst for justice, and inspire the fight against discrimination. Prepare yourself to feel ENRAGED while reading. Take note of WHY you feel that way. Then, always remember Laurence’s words to Hanalee – “Don’t ever let them make you feel small.”

Cat Winters is masterful at her craft, blending history, mystery, and a dash of supernatural into every story. The Steep and Thorny Way will replay in your head long after you’ve closed the covers, and with a message as important as this one, that’s a good thing. This book receives a perfect score, 5/5, from me for being a beacon of hope in a really dark time. I hope I live to see a world that one day puts hate behind us and embraces equality for all.

Also, I look forward to shaking her hand and thanking Cat Winters for this book at this year’s Ohio River Festival of Books, the book festival presented by the Cabell County Public Library. Yet another reason why I love my job is getting to be involved in this fantastic event that highlights both national and local authors, and I’ve been ecstatic ever since I found out that I will get to meet the woman who has had such a profound impact on my love of both reading and writing young adult fiction.

“Do you hope to get married someday?” he asked.

“As long as I don’t fall in love with a man the wrong color.”

He exhaled a steady stream of air through his nostrils. “I think love and wrong are two deeply unrelated words that should never be thrown into the same sentence together. Like dessert and broccoli.”

 

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Check out my Waiting on Wednesday post for The Steep and Thorny Way prior to publication

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Off the Shelf: A Review of Paper & Fire by Rachel Caine

I was blessed beyond measure to receive an advance read copy of Paper & Fire from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

You can read my review of the first book in the Great Library series, Ink and Bone, by clicking here.

As someone who grew up with an immeasurable amount of love for books and reading, I remember the fiery passion with which I first devoured Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. To this day, it is still one of my favorite books, and I think the reasoning for that is because it sends a message…a message that Rachel Caine clearly communicates throughout the Great Library series as well: If you take away a person’s right to knowledge, you also take away their freedom. Nothing could ever be more effective at controlling a population.

I share Ink & Bone with everyone that I possibly can. It’s my go-to recommendation for young adult readers in the library. It’s a book that I feel very strongly about, and that I know will have a lasting impression on my life the way Fahrenheit 451 did. When I received the ARC of Paper & Fire, there was nothing that could hold me back from jumping right in, desperate to see if it lived up to the glory of book one. At the same time, I had one of the most demanding projects of my grad school career thus far due, but even that couldn’t stop me. I read the book from my phone in snippets of stolen time whenever I ate lunch, whenever I used the restroom, whenever I was fighting sleep, etc. This book absolutely lives up to the first one, if not surpasses it in greatness.

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Summary (via Goodreads)

With an iron fist, The Great Library controls the knowledge of the world, ruthlessly stamping out all rebellion, forbidding the personal ownership of books in the name of the greater good.

Jess Brightwell has survived his introduction to the sinister, seductive world of the Library, but serving in its army is nothing like he envisioned. His life and the lives of those he cares for have been altered forever. His best friend is lost, and Morgan, the girl he loves, is locked away in the Iron Tower and doomed to a life apart.

Embarking on a mission to save one of their own, Jess and his band of allies make one wrong move and suddenly find themselves hunted by the Library’s deadly automata and forced to flee Alexandria, all the way to London.

But Jess’s home isn’t safe anymore. The Welsh army is coming, London is burning, and soon, Jess must choose between his friends, his family, or the Library willing to sacrifice anything and anyone in the search for ultimate control…

Continue reading Off the Shelf: A Review of Paper & Fire by Rachel Caine

Off the Shelf: A Review of Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Fair Warning — Spoilers Ahead!

The back cover of Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

The back cover of Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

You see the back cover of this book? Did you read what it says? Do you believe that these will be the events that transpire within its pages? Well, DON’T. This book is a LIAR.

 

After finishing this book today, I tried to step away for awhile and examine the book as a whole, but I just couldn’t get past the disappointment that consumed me as I closed in on the final few chapters and realized that there wasn’t enough book left for anything to actually happen. Nothing. Zilch. NADA. This absolutely kills me because I had such high hopes for this book. My to-read list is a mile long, so when I want to immerse myself in a book, I’m extremely picky about which one I choose. The goodreads description of Dorothy Must Die interested me enough to add it to my to-read list, but when I happened to stumble across the Epic Reads site and saw how much hype and promotion they were giving this book, I figured it had to be something worthwhile. I ordered a copy for our Young Adult section, and I was also the first patron on the hold list. The day this book was catalogued, it was MINE, and I couldn’t wait to jump right in.

A little background on me: I LOVE retellings. Give me a fractured fairytale, and I’ll be a happy girl. My first NaNoWriMo project? A really poorly put together novel set in a fantasy world that combined characters from fairytales and classic lit, including the Wicked Witch from Oz. Another fun fact? I’m actually not-too-distantly related to Judy Garland through the Gumm family (I did enjoy the not-so-subtle homage in Dorothy Must Die’s main character’s name being Amy Gumm).

 

Things I wasn’t a fan of: 

What do I NOT love? Well, when it comes to this book, frankly, a lot. I had such high hopes for this one, and those hopes crashed harder than Amy’s trailer-ride into Oz. The biggest disappointment was expecting to see Amy take on the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and the Lion individually to take back their gifts from the wizard, and instead, I got an entirely different story. *SPOILER* – Amy isn’t told she has to take out the three henchmen before she takes on Dorothy until the END of the book. You read that right! The WHOLE book is spent mainly focusing on Amy’s arrival in Oz, her training with the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked to kill Dorothy, and her infiltrating the staff of Dorothy’s palace so that she can kill the ruby-shoed princess. Sure, she encounters the other characters, but nothing is said about having to take out Dorothy’s biggest supporters until AFTER Amy flubs up her assassination attempt at the very end. Seriously?! You tell me on EVERY site’s book summary what her mission is supposed to be, and then she doesn’t learn that mission till the end? Sure, maybe I didn’t realize this was going to be the first book in a series, but what are you going to do now? Devote one book to each character Amy has to kill off? In that case, Dorothy will NEVER die.

Other things I don’t enjoy include overly blatant foreshadowing and giving readers flashing neon arrows, as if we’re not smart enough to figure things out ourselves. Paige is guilty of telling, not showing. Such as when Amy is met by the mysterious Pete the gardener in an ever-moving maze. He lays the foreshadowing on pretty thick to where it reads almost like, “Dorothy and Glinda HATE this maze. They pretty much NEVER come here. They are SCARED of it. Now that it knows you, it will remember you and help you, Amy. Oh, you want to know why I’m telling you all of this? BECAUSE SOMEDAY YOU MIGHT NEED TO USE IT.” Do you really have to make it that obvious? Although, of course, much like the rest of the book, nothing happens and Amy doesn’t end up using this maze…so, unless it shows up somewhere in one of the sequels, this scene was pretty much useless.

Speaking of Glinda, where is she? She’s introduced once in Amy’s first few hours in Oz, as she sees her from a distance. After that though? She briefly makes an appearance towards the end. Sure, we get to see this twin sister of hers that happens to be Wicked, but I would figure she’d be a much larger character. Also, if she’s so close to Dorothy, then why isn’t she part of Amy’s mission? Glinda as a whole just seems underdeveloped and underutilized.

The last thing that tended to bug me was the way the author sexualized Dorothy to make her a villain. I 100% believe that female villains can be both attractive and evil, and frankly, those are the villains I enjoy. But Dorothy? It seems that most every bit of description had to be about her appearance – from her cleavage hanging out to the ruby red slippers turned f*ck-me stiletto boots. The only image I get when I picture this version of Dorothy are the show-some-skin, Leg Avenue Dorothy Halloween costumes. It simply makes me cringe because it comes off as overly cheesy. Make her every bit attractive as you want, but if that’s the only thing she’s got going for her, then the character is just going to fall flat. Yes, we do get to see some of her twisted cruelty (which I will give credit, is one of my favorite parts), but not nearly enough background or development to make me feel anything except disinterest in the character.

 

Things I enjoyed:

I’ll admit this is list had few and far between, but the book did have some redeeming qualities. I do like a fresh take on Oz. The world building was clear and intriguing, and it added to the overall mood. I did like the twisted portrayal of -most- of the familiar characters like Tin Woodman, the Lion, and especially the Scarecrow. When the depths of Dorothy’s cruelty involving her former head handmaid was unveiled at the ball, that was the highlight of the book for me. It was creepy enough to make my skin crawl, and that was when I finally felt an emotional connection to the characters. The casual nods to L. Frank Baum’s text and to the movie were a nice touch and not overly in-your-face.

 

My Predictions:

Unfortunately, I do predict this series will drag out Amy’s “mission” for several books, to spend time focusing on her taking out each of the supporting cast before going after Dorothy. Will I read them? Likely not. It’s sad, but I don’t even care to guess what will happen in the rest of the series because I was just so unattached to the characters.
My Rating:
2/5 Library Cards

I considered 2.5 to be generous, but I’ve taken my time putting this post together, thinking that eventually my opinion of the book would improve. Nope. Didn’t happen. I’m stepping away from it, clicking my heels together, and wishing I was reading a better book. Maybe next time.

*EDIT* – Found this image floating around Facebook today, and I’ve deemed it “What Actually Should Have Happened in Dorothy Must Die“.

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