Kelly J. Ford's novel Cottonmouths captures life in backwoods America like a fish in a frying pan. Ford takes her young, raw, flailing characters and rakes them over the heat of a high-octane plot until their vulnerable insides sizzle on the page.

When Emily Skinner drops out of college and returns to Drear's Bluff, a small town in the Ozark region of Arkansas, she finds her best friend Jody Monroe raising a child by herself. The single mom lives on an old farm and leases an outbuilding to meth-cookers in order to make ends meet. That Emily, a closeted lesbian whose sexuality disturbs her conservative parents, is in love with Jody adds even more heat to an already explosive set-up.

The results are thrilling. The only hangups occur when Ford uses Emily's internal voice to recapitulate plot points, as though the reader needed to be reminded of major developments. These narrative reminders are unnecessary given that Ford is such a strong writer. Her prose is sharp and lyrical, rendering the South--and outdated attitudes--with uncompromising candor, though such honesty doesn't preclude sympathy for the many small-town characters caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and resentment. Ford's writing fully shines when addressing young, forbidden love and the way it torments her protagonist: "The craving came on like a fever, as if a coal had been stoked within and blurred the edges of reasonable thought." It's a love that burns and breaks and leads to dangerous places. Cottonmouths grips the heart and doesn't let go. --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author

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