There is a gun at the centre of two very different, but powerful, novels.

In Nino Ricci's novel Sleep, you are waiting for that gun to go off from the moment the main, incredibly unlikable, character finds it. In Elizabeth Crook's Monday, Monday, the gun goes off in the first pages, leaving the main, much more likable, character emotionally and physically scarred. 

Sleep

Ricci's novel is ostensibly a story about a man whose life falls apart as he deals with a debilitating sleep disorder. 

David Pace is an academic and best-selling author who starts falling asleep at dangerous times, including while driving down a freeway with his son in the back seat.

He keeps his condition a secret while popping an increasingly toxic cocktail of powerful drugs.

I say "ostensibly," because the sleeping disorder is an excuse for a self-proclaimed "insufferable narcissistic prick" to trash his career, marriage and relationship with his son. The sleep disorder awakens "a darkness that had run through him like a death wish."

When Pace discovers his late father's Beretta, made in a Nazi-commandeered factor, he becomes obsessed with the instant "just before the hammer strikes, when the gun is still all potential, poised at the balancing point between intent and loss of control."

The sleep disorder, the drugs, the guns and his graphic descent into depravity are all about that balancing act. 

Ricci has written a spare, tense novel that puts the reader in the uncomfortable, almost distasteful, position of witness to Pace's dangerous dance on that thin tightrope.

It is a dark but gripping read that does not let up. 

Monday, Monday

Elizabeth Crook's novel Monday, Monday has moments of the same dark intensity, but she lets her readers up for air.

The book starts with Charles Whitman opening fire on students from the clock tower at the University of Texas in 1966.

In real life, the former marine murdered his mom and wife before killing 14 people and wounding 32 others from high above the university plaza that August day.

In this fictional world, he shoots Shelly in the chest and she almost bleeds to death on the scorching pavement. Two strangers, Wyatt and his cousin Jack, rush to help her. The sniper shoots Jack. Wyatt drags Shelly to safety and holds her tight to staunch the blood:

"He seemed to be melting into her.… His knees on either side of her walled out the world … his bare feet were like the feet of stone pillars in the grass beside her. She felt he wouldn't allow her to die, as if he breathed for them both."

Shelly and Jack both live, but are irreparably damaged. Shelly and Wyatt fall deeply in love. The problem is, Wyatt is married with a child. The decisions the three make over the course of the affair affect them, their children and grandchildren. 

Crook brings the physical and emotional pain in and out of focus over the next 40 years. She puts a microscope up to the most intimate moments, then pulls back to give beautiful and heartbreaking broad strokes to the lives of all three main characters and the families.

Crook examines big questions: What makes a hero? What makes a family? How do you make peace with a traumatic past?

Each character has their own journey to search for answers to those questions, and Crook leaves room for readers to wrestle with the questions as well.

The story is heartbreaking at moments, but Crook does weave in some comic relief by the end to offset the emotional intensity.

Ultimately, you can cover your scars and hide your secrets but as one character says, we all are accountable for our own actions and will have to one day "end up answering" for them.