Kentucky Novelists Delivering the Goods…

Gwenda Bond and Jenny Keifer are stretching well beyond reality with their respective new novels

Feb 16, 2024 at 3:47 pm

By T.E. Lyons

…and then some. Are you ready to accept some extremes? Here are two significant contributors to the Ohio Valley’s literary scene today. These women writers are stretching well beyond reality with their respective new novels. An intention found in both seems to be overwhelming the reader—not with epics, but within modestly scoped entertainments. These are genre works that might break through—but they’re certainly not aimed at a literary mainstream.

Gwenda Bond’s published output, and her active participation in literary initiatives and non-profits (e.g., co-founding the Lexington Writer’s Room), have bounced around in very entrancing style. Her brand-new novel “The Frame-Up” (Del Rey; 352 pgs., $18) bounces around all by itself: the cavalcade of short chapters is full to bursting. Everything from dialogue exchanges tensed by power plays, to fascinating facts about world-class painting and its remora-like underworld of forgeries. This is an art-heist thriller with a modicum of supernatural/paranormal elements—written with characterization and prose such as found in the more literate of modern genre romances.  

There are inner and outer circles of outlaw heroes, villains, and—because this is a caper—the marks, who may turn out to be not such obvious dupes by the time all of the plot twists play out. And flirtations are threatening to catch fire in more than one direction. Naturally the potential mates are not all “on the same team.”

The author gives us complex “family-building” (consider it a parallel to fantasy writers’ world-building) that sets up a deft-but-gradual playout of a theme about rebuilding long-sullied relationships. That, plus clever use of the art appreciation/marketing/security matters, are the most admirably accomplished facets of this rough gem. Bond will be in conversation with Erin Keane at Carmichael’s (2720 Frankfort; Monday, February 19 at 7 p.m.

You don’t need to check an events calendar to find Jenny Keifer—she’s owner of Butcher Cabin Books (990 Barret; And now she has her debut novel to place on her store shelves.

“This Wretched Valley” (Quirk Books; 304 pgs., $18.99) has some time skips, mostly owing to framing devices—but the heart of this tale is a tightly focused roller coaster that more-or-less continually accelerates, driving the central characters toward and then into a mysterious hell.

Does this not seem like the stuff of hundreds of pages—especially when the main setting is not terribly far off a rural Kentucky highway? Much of Kiefer’s achievement is in how she fashions a mundane wayside that can also be the portal of cosmic catastrophes. It’s a concept capable of bewildering, and of bringing both awe and fright, when handled by visionaries (say, William Blake). But also consider how it’s handled by hands unknown, as in the real-life Dyatlov Pass Incident).

After the non-spoiler introduction that there are no known survivors of a quasi-academic expedition to find undiscovered landscape features, deliberate expository chapters assemble the souls who’ll be taking their tents and ropes and cell phones into the wild. Soon the ambitious semi-pro climber is reaching new heights—but repercussions of insufficient planning and (maybe) pure happenstance leave her and her supportive companion dangling a paltry few feet from safety. From there, it isn’t long before someone has a concussion—and yet they’re not the only one unsure of what they’re seeing or hearing, or whom they can trust.

Many exquisitely squirm-inducing turns follow. Note, though, that there’s also a steady (occasionally gushing) stream of gory moments. This unrelenting tale is single-minded—but hardly simple-minded.