Karen Russell's third collection, "Orange World and Other Stories," beckons like a will-o'-the-wisp across the bog, with eight crisp stories that will leave longtime fans hungry for more.
Since her debut more than a decade ago, Russell has exhibited a commitment to turning recognizable worlds on their heads in prose so rich that sentences almost burst at the seams. Her third collection is no exception, and its subjects — forgotten pockets of violent American history, climate-related apocalypse, the trials of motherhood — feel fresh and urgent in her care. Russell takes an expansive view of history, excavating past horrors and imagining the contours of real terror on the horizon. In "The Prospectors," two society-savvy gold diggers must fight their way out of a haunted ski lodge without attracting the wrath of long-dead Civilian Conservation Corps men killed by an avalanche on the job. Even within the framework of her ghost story, Russell remains attuned to the performances women mount in order to survive the threat of male violence: "People often mistake laughing girls for foolish creatures," cautions the narrator. "They mistake our merriment for nerves or weakness, or the hysterical looning of desire. Sometimes, it is that. But not tonight." In "The Tornado Auction," a widowed farmer risks it all to return to his calling — rearing tornadoes on the Nebraskan plains — over the protests of his three grown daughters. "I saw, I understood, that in fact I had always been the greatest danger to my family. I was the apex predator," he muses after a terrible accident, exhibiting the guilt and regret of a loving father who nevertheless finds it difficult to change his ways. While the title story, "Orange World," offers a chilling — and insightful — depiction of motherhood as a real-life devil's bargain, it dips a toe in the realm of schlocky and crude horror uncharacteristic of Russell's other work. The result is mixed even though the story retains Russell's hallmark narrative strengths: a narrator who butts up against the edge of her own expectations and a strange, uncanny world that yields a difficult solution to a familiar emotional problem. "Rae admits that she is having some difficulties with nursing. ...There is no natural moment in the conversation to say, Mother, the devil has me."
"Orange World" is a momentous feat of storytelling in an already illustrious career.
(Russell will speak and sign her book at 7 p.m. Monday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Information: bookpeople.com.)
Clever misdirection and a chilling finale
A first date takes a sinister turn for a troubled young woman in Wendy Walker’s third psychological thriller, "The Night Before."
It’s the day after Laura Lochner’s date with a man she met online, and she hasn’t returned to the Connecticut home of her sister, Rosie, her brother-in-law, Joe, and their little boy, Mason, where she’s been staying after a bad breakup. Rosie fears the worst, but Joe advises caution. After all, Laura is an adult and can have some fun, right? But Rosie has a bad feeling. Laura won’t answer her phone, and Rosie only has more questions after poking around online for info on Laura’s date, Jonathan Fields. Rosie eventually calls the police, and events begin to cascade like dominoes. Interspersed with Rosie’s attempt to trace Laura’s movements and get a handle on the guy she went out with is Laura’s first-person account of the actual date as well as enlightening snippets of sessions between Laura and her therapist. Laura’s is the most compelling part — a tormented, often prickly piece of storytelling by a woman carrying the pain of a horrible event that happened in high school and feelings of abandonment by a father who always seemed to love Rosie more. Laura’s desire to be loved is all-consuming, but her conviction that she is not worthy of love is heartbreaking. She sees subterfuge in nearly everything Jonathan says and does. Meanwhile, Rosie must come to terms with some ugly surprises of her own as she digs into their past. As the timelines inevitably converge, Walker’s clever misdirection paves the way to a truly chilling finale, and she has plenty of insightful things to say about the blame placed on women by society and themselves for the idiotic, careless and sometimes downright evil things men do.
Walker's latest is twisty and propulsive.