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Archive for April, 2021

Book Review: The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Cover of the book "The Good Sister."

Summary:
Fern and Rose are fraternal twins. Rose is smart, driven, and Fern’s protector. Fern doesn’t understand the world and so Rose has protected her, ever since they were small. For example, Fern didn’t understand that they spent every day in the library one year when they were little because they were homeless. Just one example of the many ways their mother failed them. In fact, Fern even became a librarian, she remembered that year so fondly. It’s a good thing she has Rose. When Rose struggles with infertility with her husband, Fern hatches a plan to repay Rose for being such a good sister. She’ll get pregnant and give the baby to her. But of course, not everything goes according to plan.

Review:
Sally Hepworth writes psychological thrillers starring casts of women in Australia. Sometimes they feature larger casts of women and other times it’s a couple of women pitted against each other. This is mostly the latter category.

I had my suspicions about the mystery early but thought that must not be it because it was so simplistic. I am sorry to report – it was indeed it. Some psychological thrillers lean a bit too heavily on the trope of – one person in this world is “crazy!” and did unpredictable “crazy!” things and there is no helping them because they are just so “crazy!” so let’s lock them up. I’m not a big fan of this trope for two reasons: 1) people are more complex than that 2) it’s a bit of a cheat to the reader because then things can happen that are unpredictable and make no sense. However, I get it that it’s a trope in psychological thrillers and am usually willing to give it a bit of a pass. In this case, however, the reader is told this character probably has Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder. There’s a character who has told their therapist all about them, and that therapist hypothesizes that this character might have one of these two illnesses. Everyone else in the book just accepts this and moves on. I am not saying people with these personality disorders never do bad things or hurt others, but the same can be said of all types of people. Plus, the character’s actions aren’t made out to be about them as a person but rather a symptom of their illness. It reminds me of how Schizophrenia used to be treated in literature. This character doesn’t even get the decency of having the state investigate their mental health or a clear diagnosis. It both unnecessarily maligns two of the most maligned types of mental illnesses and creates an entirely two-dimensional character.

Then there’s the representation of Autism. From the beginning, it’s clear that Fern is Autistic (I am not using person-first language as many in the Autistic community prefer claiming the word as a part of who they are, rather than as an illness), but she is depicted in such a stereotypical way that it hurt to read. For example, constantly bringing up how she doesn’t like to look people in the eyes and belaboring the point at random times when she might make eye contact. Her sensory episodes felt as if they were written by someone outside of her body rather than by her – problematic since it was written in the first person. The whole first half of the book has a lot of anti-Autistic sentiment, including wondering whether or not Fern could actually be capable of raising a baby. Are these reversed at the end of the book? Somewhat. But to me the damage is done by wondering about it in the first half.

So why am I still giving this book three stars? I have to admit that it was a page turner – I had to know what happened to Fern and the baby growing inside her. I couldn’t stop reading until I knew. The energy of must-find-out that is needed in a thriller was there, even if I was disappointed by the characterization, representation, and ultimately found the solution to be a bit flat.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 320 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Cover of the book "Winter Counts."

Summary:
Virgil Wounded Horse does his best to find his way making a life and a living on the Rosebud Indian Reservation (the Lakota people) in South Dakota – newly sober from alcohol, the legal guardian of his teenage nephew, and working as a hired vigilante. When heroin finds its way onto the reservation and directly impacts his nephew, he finds himself working to stop the threat of the cartels to his people alongside his ex-girlfriend.

Review:
This is simultaneously a wholesome and gritty thriller. Wholesome in that Virgil’s commitment to his sobriety, his family, and his people is full of honor and family values in the face of so many challenges. Gritty in that there are colorful depictions of violence as Virgil does his vigilante work and pursues the cartel. In a way it reminds me of Breaking Bad in the early seasons – someone doing something outside of the law for his family – only it’s outside of the law to stop the drugs, not to make them.

There was a lot I enjoyed here. The different setting and voice for this gritty mystery kept me engaged in a genre I’ve read a lot in. The mystery is solid. I had my suspicions but I didn’t have everything figured out before the end. So, yes, it’s not quite as simple as an outside cartel but it’s not a super obvious answer either. I also really like how the ex-girlfriend becomes such a key part of the story. Virgil listens to and respects her, even when he doesn’t immediately agree with her, which was so refreshing to read. I similarly like that we come into Virgil’s life after he’s already sober. This allows the book to explore him putting his life back together as a sober person and dealing with some really tough shit – demonstrating that things don’t get easy automatically just because you’re sober. I appreciated very much how thoughtfully the author shared his Lakota culture with the readers while simultaneously respecting what aspects of it need to stay private and sacred. As a person who has the Sioux Chef book, I appreciated so much the inclusion of Indigenous cuisine via an Indigenous chef and food truck coming to the reservation.

While I wouldn’t call the depictions and discussions of violence gratuitous as they are necessary to the plot, they are graphic. I thought it never went further than it needed to. However, it is important for potential readers to know they are there. There are discussions of off-scene cartel vengeance and rape of women and underaged girls. There are on-scene descriptions of fist-fights and gun fights.

Those who like grittier thrillers and either want a unique setting in the genre or want a mystery investigator who is sober will enjoy this read. I hope we’ll see more of Virgil in the future.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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