How It Happened by Michael Koryta: A great thriller to kick off your summer (and/or a Russo novel gone awry)

How it HappenedHow It Happened

by Michael Koryta

Hardcover, 368 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2018
Read: May 29 – 30, 2018

The rain had tapered off overnight and given way to a gorgeous day, the sky and sea competing for the deepest blue, a light wind pushing off the water, temperature nearing eighty. The air was scented with ocean breezes and pines and held only the faintest trace of humidity. A quintessential Maine day, more suited to July than May.

If you weren’t looking for a drug addict and self-confessed murderer, it would be a day to treasure.

This is one of those that comes down to the set-up. Because it’s executed practically flawlessly, and if you’re in for a penny, you’re in for the whole pound — and it’s a heckuva ride. You won’t want to get off until the end, and then you’ll be able to breathe for the first time in seventy pages or so. If you’ve read Koryta before, you have an idea what things’ll be like — and you’ll be right. If you’ve not read him before, you probably will make arrangements to familiarize yourself with him soon after finishing this.

So, what is the setup? FBI Agent/expert on eliciting/evaluating confessions from criminal suspects, Rob Barrett returns to the small Maine community of his childhood summers to investigate a missing persons case/potential double homicide. After weeks of work, he finally gets a seemingly reliable confession from Kimberly Crepeaux to what happened to the missing young people. It’s a harrowing confession, I have to say — I’ve read novels with less tension than her recounting of what happened that night. Kimberly is a drug addict, jailhouse snitch, and all-around unreliable person — everyone in town knows this. But Rob believes her (and you will, too).

But there are a couple of problems. Problem one: Mathias Burke is the man that Kimberly says is the murderer. Mathias is a go-getter of a young man, and has been since he was a kid — the dictionary might as well feature his picture under “industrious.” No one in town can believe anything Kimberly says about the way he acted that night — even the non-criminal aspects of it. None of it is characteristic of him. Problem two: the bodies aren’t where she says they were. In fact, they’re found miles away and seemingly killed in a different fashion, with the fingerprints and DNA of someone not Mathias Burke present.

So much for Kimberly’s confession — and Rob’s career. He’s shipped out to a field office in Montana, probably for the rest of his career.

But Kimberly sticks to her story, and convinces the father of one of the victims, Howard Pelletier, to believe her (and fear for her safety from Burke). Howard’s wife died when his daughter, Jackie, was young. He became the most devoted single father in history, and in time, she reciprocated. The story of Jackie and Howard would be enough for a novel, were it not for the murder. Howard’s insistence that Rob pay attention to Kimberly again and his need for answers brings Rob back for one more try at finding out how it happened.

Pretty good hook, eh? And like I said, once it’s set, Koryta reels the reader in just like the seasoned pro he’s become.

A strange thought occurred to me this weekend: this could very easily have been a Richard Russo novel — I’m not sure who the protagonist would’ve been — maybe the cafe owner or something. But Rob, returning to his childhood stomping grounds (however temporarily), Howard and Jackie would’ve easily have been fixtures — ditto for Mathias Burke (and even Kimberly, come to think of it). Mathias would be a major player, really — not the protagonist, but a lead character for sure, his troubled youth, his Horatio Alger-ish work ethic/success story, the way that this silly FBI interloper messed up his life, etc. The tangled lines connecting all these people would be seen more clearly, and traced back a generation or two, making everything more complex. Actually, the more I think about this, the more I want to see Russo write his take on these elements. Anyhow, this isn’t a Richard Russo novel — this is a Michael Koryta novel. So, it won’t be anywhere near as funny, the psychology will be presented in starter light, the tension level will be much higher, and the sense of right and wrong will be much less murky.

A knockout of a read — a great thriller to kick off your summer with.


4 Stars2018 Library Love Challenge

Rise the Dark by Michael Koryta

Rise the Dark
Rise the Dark

by Michael Koryta
Series: Mark Novak, #2

Hardcover, 400 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
Read: September 13 – 14, 2016

“If you gave Charles Mason the mind of Nikola Tesla,” she said, “you would find yourself with Eli Pate. Or so he thinks.”

I’m really kind of annoyed that Eli Pate was described this way, because I’d pretty much came up with that comparison a page or two earlier, and thought it’d be a clever thing to say.

But first . . .

Markus Novak is continuing the hunt for his wife’s killer — and he’s starting to make progress, real progress for the first time. Far more than anyone else has in years. Markus’ prime suspect has just been released from prison, so the detective now has full access to him. I think it’s safe to say that the methods he uses aren’t endorsed by anyone. Not only that, but he’s utilizing sources that there’s no way he would’ve trusted before his experiences in the cave in the last book. Still, there’s no way he’s prepared for where the investigation takes him.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Sabrina Garland is kidnapped in an effort to force her husband to do the unthinkable. The way these men come together — with plenty of ghosts from Markus’ past, results in a taught, tense thrill ride. To say more about the plot would be to ruin the thing, if you ask me, so we’ll just leave it here.

I really don’t like most of the plot devices used here — in any of the interweaving storylines. At least, I typically don’t like them — but Koryta pulled them all off. I bought them in the moment, and will still defend Koryta’s use of them (even if I feel like a hypocrite as I’ve thought about the book over the last couple of months or even as I write this). I wish I could be more specific here, but I just can’t.

The one exception to my plot problems is everything relating to Markus’ uncle.

Where plotwise this infuriated me (while entertaining me, I need to stress), on the character front, I really enjoyed this. Most of the criminals involved were interesting and well-drawn. Markus, his new allies and his uncle were so well done. I really liked where Markus went emotionally and psychologically here. Kortya has created a great character here, and I hope we see more of him.

I’m not going to rate this one as highly as I did the previous novel, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think people should read this. Everything that has Koryta’s name on it should be given a chance. In almost anyone else’s hands, this novel wouldn’t work and you’d see me trying to complain about it without giving things away. But Koryta pulled it all off, it works and leaves you wanting to return to this world.


3.5 Stars

Last Words by Michael Koryta

Last WordsLast Words

by Michael Koryta
Series: Mark Novak, #1

Hardcover, 420 pg.

Little, Brown and Company, 2015

Read: September 7 – 8, 2015

There’s part of me that still hasn’t gotten over the fact that Koryta stopped writing Lincoln Perry novels, enough so, that I’ve only read 2 of his stand-alones. But I was intrigued by the idea that he was starting another series featuring a P. I. It took about 3 seconds of reading the Publisher’s Description to see that this was going to be pretty different than any other P. I. series around.

This book centers on two men haunted by their pasts and a pair of deaths that happened on the same date, a few years apart — coincidence? That depends who you ask.

Our P. I. is Mark Novak, who works for a group of lawyers trying to clear men on death row. Before she was killed, his wife worked for them, too. She was killed during an investigation, after a fight with Mark. No one has come close to catching her killer. It’s understating things to say that before Mark met Lauren, his life was a mess, and she helped him get things together. Without her, things are starting to fall apart for him.

Ridley Barnes never really fit in anywhere or with anyone in the small Indiana town of Garrison, except the caves nearby. Something about the caves calmed him, centered him, gave him a purpose — he knew those caves better than anyone alive. So when a teenage girl gets lost in them, he’s the perfect candidate to lead the search. And then, when he recovers her body, but can’t account for his time during the search, or really remember where he found her, or where he’d been at all — he suddenly becomes the top suspect in her murder. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict or even arrest him, but for some small towns that kind of thing is just a formality. He was convicted almost immediately in the court of public opinion, and has been even more ostracized than before. More than a decade later, Ridley just wants to know what happened — if he killed the girl, he’s willing to do the time. If he didn’t, he’d like to have his name cleared.

This is not the type of thing that Innocence, Inc. does. They take on convicted murderers clients, not suspects. Especially not suspects in very cold cases that will never go to trial. But Mark’s boss sends him to do a preliminary investigation anyway, mostly to keep him busy. Mark isn’t exactly welcomed to Garrison with open arms, people just assuming he’s there to clear Ridley, and not quite believing him when he says that he isn’t.

Mark commits a few missteps right out of the gate, which turn public opinion against him even more. But something has flipped a switch in his brain and he’s not going to let go until he gets some resolution for the girl, clears his name from the problems he’s caused, and demonstrated to his boss that he can be trusted still/again. Not necessarily in that order.

That’s a very sketchy overview of the set up. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like that before. If you were to draw the plot as a map, it’d look like some deranged roller coaster — tight corners, backtracks, loops, big dives into darkness. Unlike an actual roller coaster, I was able to get through this without losing everything I’d eaten since February.

Koryta tells this story with his typical skill, you can tell that he’s built Mark Novak to last a few novels. There’s more of his story that needs to be told than is here, and the character can be used in different settings. Unlike just about everyone in last years’ Those Who Wish Me Dead — which I thought was great — I don’t think there was a single character in that novel that I could see being interested in for another novel. Ridley is almost as complex, and you want him to get the answers he needs just to get a little peace (most of the time — there’s a time or two where you don’t mind him suffering).

Garrison, IN is pretty much every small town in mystery/thriller fiction, and its citizens are pretty much stock characters. On the whole, neither the town nor the people feel that way. Which is entirely due to Koryta’s skill and Mark’s voice.

And then there’s the cave, or caverns — I’m not familiar enough with the geology to nail the distinctives between the two. There’s a strong sense of place, of foreboding, of danger to it. Especially in Ridley’s mind, the cave is almost a Byronic character — dark, mysterious, dangerous, yet attractive. Yes, there was a time or two I was glad to be reading about the cave in a very wide and open room.

Oh, sure, and it’s a real handy metaphor for the depths of the human mind, psyche, soul, etc.

This is a very well constructed mystery novel, the writing is excellent, the characters are keepers, you can almost feel the winter air — really, there’s very little to not rave about with this. It’s pretty clear what book 2 holds, but I’m really not at all sure what a third would bring. But I’m eager to find out.


4 1/2 Stars

The Best Novels I Read in 2014

I somehow failed at this exercise last year, but I managed to pull it off for 2014. Phew, starting the year off with one in the Win column! Before we get to The Best of, if you’re really curious, here’s a list of every book I read in 2014.

While compiling the best, I started with what I’d rated 5 stars — just 11 novels. I could take just the best 10 of those — piece of cake, right? Wrong. There were titles I expected to see there that weren’t, and a couple that I was surprised to see listed. So I looked at the 4 and 4½ books — and had a similar reaction.

Now, I stand by my initial ratings — for honesty’s sake as much as laziness. But I did put some of my lower rated books in the best, knocking some 5-star books out. They might have been impressive workds, doing everything I wanted — but some of these others stuck with me in ways the 5’s didn’t — emotional impact, remembering details/stories in more vivid detail, that sort of thing.

Eh, it’s all subjective anyway, so why not? I did try to account for recency bias in this — and pretty sure I succeeded, but I may owe an apology or two.

Later today, I’ll post the Honorable Mentions list and the Worst of List — as well as what I’m looking forward to most in 2015. The Day of Lists, apparently. With one exception, I limited these lists to things I hadn’t read before (it shows up in the Honorable Mention post). Enough jibber-jabber, on to the Best Novels I read in 2014:

(in alphabetical order)

Red Rising (Red Rising Trilogy, #1)Red Rising

by Pierce Brown
My Review
This was exciting, compelling, devastating, thrilling, and occasionally revolting. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve recommended this one to this year.
5 Stars

Skin Game (The Dresden Files, #15)Skin Game

by Jim Butcher
My Review
It almost feels like a cheat to put this on the list, but I don’t know if any of the books since Changes would’ve made a year end list, so it’s not like Butcher/Dresden owns a spot here. I laughed, I got pretty darn misty a time or two, I’m pretty sure I audibly reacted to a victory also. Best of this series in awhile.
5 Stars

The Girl With All the GiftsThe Girl With All the Gifts

by M.R. Carey
My Review
This probably would’ve gotten 5-star rating from me if it hadn’t had to overcome genre/subject prejudice. Still, freakishly good.
4 1/2 Stars

Robert B. Parker's Blind SpotRobert B. Parker’s Blind Spot

by Reed Farrel Coleman
My Review
Coleman knocked this one out of the park, erasing the bad taste that his predecessor had left, and making me look forward to reading this series in a way I hadn’t for years. As good as (better in some ways, worse in others) Parker at his best.
5 Stars

Those Who Wish Me DeadThose Who Wish Me Dead

by Michael Koryta

My Review
Not the best Koryta book I’ve ever read, but something about this one has stuck with me since I finished it. Solid suspense, exciting stuff.
4 Stars

Endsinger (The Lotus War, #3)Endsinger

by Jay Kristoff
My Review
I knew going in that this was going to be a. well-written, b. brutal and c. a good conclusion to the series (well, I expected that last one, expected tinged with hope.). It didn’t let me down. I admit, I shed a tear or two, felt like I got punched in the gut a couple of times and didn’t breathe as often as I should’ve while reading. Such a great series.
5 Stars

The Republic of ThievesThe Republic of Thieves

by Scott Lynch
My Review is forthcoming
Can’t believe I haven’t finished this review yet — it’s 80% done, I just can’t figure out how to tie the paragraphs together in a way to make it coherent and (I hope) interesting. A lot of this book is a prequel to The Lies of Locke Lamora and yet there was genuine suspense about those parts. Lynch had a big challenge introducing us to a character here that had achieved near-mythic status, and she ended up living up to expectations. Just a gem of a book.
5 Stars

The Winter LongThe Winter Long

by Seanan McGuire
My Review is forthcoming
Again, I’m not sure how I haven’t finished this review yet. McGuire takes a lot of what Toby’s “known” since we met her (all of which is what we’ve “known,” too) and turns it upside down and shakes the truth out. Every other book in the series has been affected by these revelations — which is just so cool. There’s also some nice warm fuzzies in this book, which isn’t that typical for the series. McGuire’s outdone herself.
5 Stars


by R. J. Palacio
My Review
Heart-breaking, inspiring, saved from being cliché by the interesting narrative choices Palacio made. Yeah, it’s After School Special-y. So what? Really well done. I have no shame saying this kids’ book made me tear up (even thinking about it know, I’m getting bit misty-eyed).
5 Stars

The MartianThe Martian

by Andy Weir

My Review
Very science-y (but you don’t have to understand it to enjoy the book); very exciting; very, very funny. Only book I’ve recommended to more people than Red Rising — I think I’ve made everyone over 12 in my house read it (to universal acclaim). Not sure why I haven’t made my 12-year old, yet.
5 Stars

Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta

Those Who Wish Me DeadThose Who Wish Me Dead

by Michael Koryta

Hardcover, 388 pg.
Little Brown, 2014
Read: June 21, 2014

Once Koryta left Lincoln Perry behind and started writing stand-alones, I read one and never got around to the rest — but something about this one drew me in (and it doesn’t look like my typical suspense preference) — and now I’ve got to find time to go back and pick up the three or four I’ve missed. It was just so good.

The elements are all here: characters, plot, pacing, setting. As cliché as some of the characters may be in theory, they really aren’t that in Koryta’s hands — the 13 year-old murder witness, the scarred (emotionally and physically) hero firefighter, the survival expert being pushed beyond his limits, the hapless federal Marshall, the troubled teens on the wilderness survival course, the pair of killers who are possibly creepier and deadlier than Breaking Bad‘s Salamanca Cousins. All of these are drawn sensitively and realistically.

The first couple of chapters were enough to keep you reading, but that’s about it — set up the story, establish the main characters, typical stuff. But it takes almost no time at all to go from that to shut-off-the-phone/ignore-the-wife-and-kids exciting. Gritty, fast-paced, visceral, with a strong sense of character and realism. Exactly what you want in this kind of book.

I don’t know if this particular bit of Montana actually exists — but Koryta gives you a strong enough sense of place that it might as well. From the Serbins’ home, to the trail the teens travel, to Hannah’s look out tower, to the mountain the bulk of the action takes place on, I feel like I could hop in the car, drive a few hours and be right there in the midst of them. Not now, during fire season, obviously — don’t need that level of realism.

Koryta has so many opportunities to drown us in details about the backstory of the characters — which is not to say that he doesn’t give us enough to get to know these people. But most authors would’ve given us a lot more about the history of everyone — particularly Ethan and Allison. He hints at things, the characters are still acting in response to what’s gone on before these events, but we’re only told a bit more than we need to know. His restraint is commendable, and only adds to the immediacy of the action and the pace.

From the point where Koryta kicks things into high gear to the gut-wrenching climax, this is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that delivers exactly what it promises — action, suspense, and as much entertainment as you can squeeze into just under 400 pages. How good was it? Just writing this up has whet my appetite for a re-read.


4 Stars