Book Reviews: Simply Powerful Words From Local Writers

Nov 22, 2023 at 3:23 pm
Book Reviews: Simply Powerful Words From Local Writers

Talented writers don’t have to say a lot to say a lot. Louisville’s been home and training ground for experts at producing riveting epics and fantasies of luxuriant prose, but consider the value of some different reading experiences. Thrillers where action and plot and character all take sudden, sharp turns. Short stories that are linked into a complete rich world like a novel, but with realistic frayed relationships and hopes cut short. And in even more nimble acrobatics for minimizing verbiage, pages of poetry with creative meter, rapid-fire shifts in phrase, and illustration to add impact without words.

An example of each of these has just come from local creatives. The timing’s perfect timing for holiday gift-giving or to stockpile for your own cozy enjoyment in the upcoming winter.

Call the Dark by J. Todd Scott (Thomas & Mercer; 390 pgs., $16.99)

It’s easy to discern the effect of simplified sentences in the latest from this veteran thriller writer. In Scott’s hands, Spartan language conveys cold challenges. A killer’s practiced efficiency, for example. Or the brutality that nature sets out as table stakes for survival while a blizzard overtakes Appalachian wilderness.

This is hardly a case of the author feeling obligated to keep his sentences below some expectation of reader sophistication. Scott has his revolving cast of chapter-viewpoint characters describing everything from mobility issues for veterans to contemporary location-tracking technology to legendary cryptids of West Virginia. But much of this novel (a bit too much? Your mileage may vary) is a gradually interweaving fistful of chase scenarios that make shocking demands of resourceful opponents.  

The author makes careful choices for when and how he treads into a fringe-theme of psy-ops research. He has near-innocents in thrall to the power-hungry who have interests in defense/security but also in exploiting human-medical potential. A stronger part of this read comes from dynamic shifting in and out of bucolic local lore among those whose frigid day-to-day snowglobe is the main setting for the violent intrusions. A sense of inevitability accrues along with the action’s momentum, revealed by the warning of one wizened man of the woods: “Out here, we’re all wolves now.” But neither he, nor those either under his care or in his gunsights, can be responsible for the mortal howls “made only worse by the dozen or hundred or thousand answering calls from Black Mountain.”

Mama Said by Kristen Gentry (West Virginia University Press; 280 pgs., $19.99)

“[T]he first time you’d cursed to your mother. As soon as the words hit your ears —proof that you’d birthed them ­— something inside of you broke. But this break reinforced rather than weakened, like the sway needed to keep bridges standing.” There are a lot of first times in this story collection of young-adult cousins trying to make some already-tamped-down dreams, and sometimes even reliable enjoyment, happen in their lives. What gets in the way? Plenty enough in poor Black households in and around Louisville—for example, two middle-age mothers in the depths of their addictions. Pregnancies and complications. Child-rearing demands at the same time that men are throwing up emotional or financial roadblocks…or simply leaving the scene. And the drugs—bringing multiple flavors of chaos: “While your mother gets ghost with sleep that stretches for days, Dee gets gone ghost, floating around West End corners, alleys, and boarded-up houses.”

Gentry’s language choices enhance subtleties and realizations in these stories. Her character dialogue (and internal monologue) provides shortcuts to inform on secret sharing; stubborn hopes raised, fought for, and thwarted; and life’s regular flow of miscommunication and random repercussions. She dispenses with context as part of giving us lived-in knowledge of her scenes and characters (for example, the word “jump” appears without context that it’s a passive-aggressive threat from a depressive person). Similar choices for short, cut-to-the-quick phrases as points of leverage for characters’ choices, and the masterful handling of shifts in and out of second-person narrative—these are just part of why I’m looking forward to more from this author.

Ethereality and Bones: A Collection of Poems and Art by Matthew Moore (Curbside Publishing; 120 pgs., $16.99)

This combination of mixed-media art (primarily graphic blocks framing human figures cropped from vintage photography) and semi-confessional verse has focus and frequently lands its punches. Some of the subjects here convey the union of tragedy with irony and/or randomness (“how a roll/of the die/might be/disguised/as decisions”). But the heart of this collection goes beyond bitter and slamming slam-the-door-on-adolescence insights. There’s vulnerability (“and please don’t mistake/my distance as cold/you see, the nature of things/can be cruel and indifferent/and i thought it best/to protect myself”) and assessment of the compromised consequences of freedom, as in “beef lo mein and booze,” one of his most-direct pieces.

In multiple poems here, Moore cuts away the kudzu of personal regrets. The collection gradually shows the regret letting loose of its companion—yearning:

“life slips quietly/through trembling hands/unable to recall

what exactly was i waiting for/when anything was possible?”