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Karen Brenner
Appaloosa Sky
At only eleven years old, Ginny Spangler is left orphaned after a horse theft gone bad. As Ginny grows from a self-reliant young girl to the fiery matriarch of a sprawling Texas ranch family, she passes on her resiliency and bold spirit to her nieces, Scottie, Rory, and Georgie O’Brien – sisters that are growing up with a distant mother and a fun-loving but troubled father. Even as little girls, the O’Brien sisters know they must solve their own problems and take charge of their own lives. Without parents to rely on, the sisters look to their Aunt Ginny for support and to the fictional Nancy Drew for a role model. “What would Nancy do?” becomes their secret battle cry as they learn to help each other through the thrilling ups and tragic downs of adolescence and early adulthood as they find love, experience loss, and raise their own families. After passing decades and family rifts set the women on divergent paths, the grown O’Brien sisters learn that their beloved Aunt Ginny is in danger and their family ranch is headed for destruction. They once again channel their childhood refrain, "What would Nancy do?" as they reunite to rescue Ginny from her abusers and save the ranch. But their mission is no merry heist. The peril is real, and the consequences have the potential to shatter their family entirely.
In this sweeping debut novel, Brenner, co-author of two previous nonfiction books on positive dementia care, delivers an intergenerational family saga mirroring Brenner’s own experiences in a “family who raised horses and holy hell.” The action centers around Ginny Spangler, only eleven years old when her father is presumed killed, by the Texas Rangers who had been frisking him. After the death, Ginny escapes on her late father’s horse to Oklahoma, where she is taken in by a woman named Gussie and her hired hand, Catfish. After that mythic opening, the novel chronicles Ginny’s marriages and descendants, including her three nieces and two sons “as different as chalk and cheese,” and the shared traumas and romances of North Texas life.

Tracking multiple story lines and character arcs over decades, Appaloosa Sky jumps in time by a decade or more each chapter, with Ginny first being introduced in 1944 and, less than halfway through the novel’s pages, appearing in 2018. The story is jam-packed: A marriage, a death, and a miscarriage all unfold within a four-page stretch early on, and readers are given just half a page to digest this before a new character is introduced. The family history is exciting and surprising, its incidents told with wit and persuasive detail, though the approach denies readers interiority.

The story promises and delivers on action, humor, and romantic intrigue, all written with warmth and sincerity. Not every reader speaks like North Texans, whose speech is filled with “cain’t” and “hoss,” but every reader will understand the novel’s wild freedom of open spaces and its portrayal of the comfort that comes with a caring, proudly untamed family. As Catfish tells Ginny, “Sometimes in life, it’s our turn to be the one who needs help. Other times, it’s up to us to be the helpers.”

Takeaway: This wild family saga will appeal to adult readers looking for romance and intergenerational struggle on the plains of Texas.

Great for fans of: Sandra Brown, Larry McMurtry, Jane Smiley.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: B+