Do or Die Cowboy by June Faver

Book – Tyler Garrett is the middle son of a big ranch tycoon. Both of his brothers have ranching in their blood and that is all they have ever wanted to do. Tyler, on the other hand, has music in his head and in his heart. After yet another argument with his father about what he should do with his life he packs up his horse, dog, and truck ready to hit the road for Dallas. There, a close friend will help him record his first CD and audition for a reality singing competition TV show.

On his way out of town, he meets Leah Benson and her daughter Gracie who are on their way to their Grandma’s ranch. It is clear to him that Leah and Gracie are running from something or someone in Oklahoma. Ty, your typical good person, decides he can spare a few days before heading to Dallas, to help Leah and Gracie who are down on their luck.

June Faver is a more recent author to me and I am excited to say that I tremendously appreciate her writing. She does not delve into the intimate bedroom scenes one comes to expect in romance novels. She does, however, have the right mix of romance, energy, mystery, and relatable characters which make me eager to read the next story in the Dark Horse Cowboy series.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Book – Helen Franklin is not happy with her life. She’s worked hard not to be; she is atoning. An English expatriate, she works as a translator in Prague and has only a few friends. When one of them is given a mysterious package of documents by an elderly man working on his memoirs, he spirals into paranoia and fear, dragging Helen with him. Who is this person Melmoth who appears in so many historical writings? Is she a myth or a bogeyman, or is she truly the witness to all humanity’s wrongs, Helen’s included?

I first read Melmoth the Wanderer, the 19th century gothic novel that served as the inspiration for Perry’s new one, on the sunny patio outside my college library, so I was primed to love this book. This is a lovely modernized echo of the original story. In this version, Melmoth is a woman, a lonely creature who longs for someone as broken as she is to keep her company. Told in the fine gothic style of nested narratives – one character reading a story written by another character, which contains a story told to them by a third party – we meet a variety of Melmoth’s potential companions throughout history, from a sixteenth-century nobleman to a young German boy in Nazi-occupied Prague, to Helen’s own tragic history.

Although the story is all about guilt and atonement, and whether or not some things can be atoned for, it’s not as bleak as that makes it sound. There is also a great deal of compassionate humanity and people being better in spite of themselves. I’m happy to report that I loved this book exactly as much as I expected to, and I’m looking forward to whatever Sarah Perry brings us next.

A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

Book–Amateur comic book artist and high school student Jess Wong is painfully, unhealthily in love with her best friend Angie. Jess is content to obsess over Angie secretly until Angie enters into a relationship with Margot Adams, a beautiful student from the nearby posh boarding school. Naturally, Jess thinks Margot is no good for Angie, but is this just sour grapes on Jess’s part or is Margot really bad news? When tragedy strikes at an off-campus party and everyone is a suspect, Jess must face up to what really happened that night. Or must she?

This is a dark, twisty thriller, like Pretty Little Liars meets Gone Girl meets The L Word. The book is split in two parts: the beginning is told in first person from Jess’ POV and the end is made up of police interviews and third person limited POV following multiple characters. This allows Lo to build up the tension without giving it all away too quickly. If you enjoy A Line in the Dark, you might also like twisty young adult books like We Were Liars and Last Seen Leaving.

Version Control by Dexter Palmer

Book–Set in the near future, Palmer’s novel follows Rebecca Wright, a thirty-something recovering alcoholic, and her physicist husband Philip. Philip has been working fruitlessly for many years on a causal volatility device (in layman’s terms, a time machine), and as far as he knows, has not been having much luck. Meanwhile, Rebecca has been having a nagging sense that something is not right; the president is not the right person, her friends’ personalities aren’t quite right, her life isn’t what it should be. Palmer has an interesting take on time travel that, without spoiling anything, powers much of the narrative. For me, the attraction of this book was the depiction of the near-future society, where the president delivers personalized messages to each citizen and cars drive themselves.

While the main character is not, in my opinion, likeable, she is very real and flawed. Palmer’s views on race, gender, marriage, and technology are very much on display here and, regardless of whether you agree with them, they are certainly interesting to read about and only occasionally preachy. Version Control is a perfect sci-fi and literary fiction blend sure to appeal to fans of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.

Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Book–Oliver Ryan, famous children’s book writer, and his loyal wife Alice, who illustrates his books, have a seemingly happy life until one night, after a very good dinner, he hits her, leaves, then comes back to beat her into a coma. The rest of the book is like peeling the layers of an onion. Nugent jumps around in chronology and in viewpoint, each character giving their take on Oliver, their past with him, and why he did it. From his harsh upbringing in a Catholic boarding school, to a fateful summer in France, to his current success, the reader gets more insight into Oliver’s character and motivations with every chapter. By the end, the reader should understand why he did it. Whether you find him sympathetic or a monster is up to you.

Like many books with this structure, it can get a little repetitive. We read tellings of the same scene from so many viewpoints that the details can wear thin by the second character’s take. Also, the story is full of too-convenient coincidences that stretch belief. Nevertheless, I read it in one sitting and found myself sucked in to Unraveling Oliver the way the best domestic thrillers suck you in. While I still found him absolutely monstrous at the end, I could see a different reader coming around to find him at least pitiable, if not sympathetic. This should appeal to people who like the recent spate of compelling Girl novels (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, etc). If you’re looking for your next read, try B. A. Paris’ Behind Closed Doors, or, in fact, any of B. A. Paris‘ domestic thriller novels.

The Deepest Secret by Carla Buckley

Book – How far would you go to protect a family member?  “The Deepest Secret” explores that loyalty on various levels.  Tyler would like nothing more than just be a normal teenager, but unfortunately he suffers from Xeroderma pigmentosa (XP).  This is a rare condition that makes sunlight and artificial UV light fatal.  He can only leave his house at night and only go to those areas where neighbors have complied with requests to use special light bulbs.  His mom, Eve, is understandably over-protective to the point that her concerns annoy some neighbors and Tyler’s teachers. By being confined indoors during the day, Tyler wants to observe how normal people live. So under cover of darkness he spies on his neighbors through their windows and takes photos of them.  Tyler’s sister, who is slightly older than him is rebellious and feels neglected and his Dad only comes home for the weekends commuting from a job to help cover all the medical expenses.

When the 11 year olf daughter of Eve’s best friend in the neighborhood disappears and is found dead, distrust flows freely among the neighbors.  It seems that the resident families have many secrets and aren’t above false accusations and cover ups.

This is a psychological thriller high in family drama. The story would make a great choice for a book club.  This would appeal to fans of Jodi Picoult, Lisa Scottoline, and the book Defending Jacob.

Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

Book— At scholarship student Jordan Sun’s elite, arts-focused boarding high school, getting cast in the school musical isn’t just a fun diversion–it’s a make-or-break-your-career proposition. After she gets passed over for the musical the third year running, Jordan gets some hard advice. For an alto 2 like Jordan, the deepest register for female voices, there just are not many parts, leading or otherwise, in musical theater. Shortly after, Jordan hears that there is an open spot in the Sharpshooters, the most prestigious a capella octet on campus, and decides to audition. The only catch? The Sharpshooters is an all-male group. Can alto 2 Jordan be just the tenor the Sharpshooters need?

Redgate’s characters, especially the Sharpshooters, are a diverse, tight-knit bunch and it’s a pleasure to see Jordan become a member of their little family. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy this story because I know next to nothing about music and even less about a capella, but I needn’t have worried. Noteworthy should appeal equally to music neophytes and music buffs. If you like realistic, well-drawn characters, high school stories with a dash of romance, and stories exploring gender, you’ll definitely want to read this book. If you enjoy this one, you might also enjoy the manga series Ouran High School Host Club, which has a fairly similar premise (girl cross-dresses and gets in with a popular club of boys at a prestigious school) but a sillier tone.

This Is Us (2016)

TV Series – Currently in its third season after first airing in September 2016 – this show still has not lost momentum. After reading all the hype, I decided it was worth watching an episode to see what all the buzz was about. It didn’t take long for me to fall in LOVE with central characters Kevin, Kate and Randall – siblings of the same age and their parents, Jack and Rebecca. Told from shifting perspectives and from the present to the past, we see each one’s trajectory, and what lead them to be the person they are. As when the siblings were young, their stories intertwined with one another, it also does with them in adulthood. The show’s title – This Is Us couldn’t be more apropos, as it reflects characters or life situations we can relate to. The series touches on topics such as:  struggles with weight, fears, race relations, emotional trauma, death, marriage, alcohol and drug, abuse.

The show is definitely an emotional heavy hitter.  Nevertheless, sit down with a box of Kleenex, a chocolate bar, tea and enjoy the journey with this family.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Book – The summer of 1976 is the hottest in recent memory, and Mrs. Creasy has disappeared from the Avenue.  Grace and Tillie, both aged ten, are determined to get to the bottom of the case, but secrets run deep in their little suburb, and the more they investigate the mystery, the further they find themselves drawn into their community’s shared and troubling past–all starting with the long-ago disappearance of a little girl.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a hard book to categorize; it doesn’t really fit well into any type of mystery I know.  It doesn’t feature much actual detective work, and while we the readers learn the full story of What Happened through flashbacks, most of the characters do not.  As such, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep might better be considered as a work of literary fiction or coming-of-age story with mystery elements.

I think that my own vague feeling of letdown at the end of the book was a result of trying to force it to fit a more traditional mystery mold, but the fact that I made it to the end at all is evidence of its good points.  The author’s voice is compelling, and the novel’s themes are deep, exploring community, memory, scapegoating and the ways that fear and guilt can twist human behavior.  As a fan of ensemble stories, I enjoyed the large cast of complex and not-always-likeable characters.  As a whole, I found it a sufficiently intriguing debut novel to have hope for the author’s sophomore outing.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

Book – Samuel Hawley and his daughter, Loo, are always on the move. Each time they settle into a new place, Hawley sets up a shrine in their bathroom to honor to his late wife, who drowned when Loo was a baby. Finally, when Loo is a teenager, Hawley decides to try to give her a normal life at his wife’s seaside hometown in Massachusetts. When Hawley competes in the local Greasy Pole Contest, he takes off his shirt to reveal a body riddled with scars from bullet holes. As Hawley and Loo’s latest stop becomes “home,” Hawley reflects on his past and the incidents that led to his scars. Loo begins to reach out to a few of the people in the town and as she matures, she learns about the secrets that bind her and her father. This book is a unique look at family bonds, guilt, sacrifice and the impact of our decisions and how they can ripple through generations.