How It Happened by Michael Koryta


"I will not tell you how it happened but it is all wrong."

Years ago, I discovered Michael Koryta through his supernatural driven thriller So Cold the River. I instantly devoured his other paranormal suspense novels including The Cypress House and The Ridge. I was especially impressed with the way Koryta allowed his character's development to drive his narratives, even when they were filled with suspense that could have easily dominated the story. When I got the chance to read and review his latest effort How It Happened, I enthusiastically accepted.

Rob Barrett is an expert and finding the truth. As an FBI investigator, he is well known for extracting confessions from hard-to-crack suspects. He's recently returned to the rural seaside community that he was raised in to help find the truth behind the brutal murders of two young residents. Barrett's past includes lingering questions about his mother's untimely death years ago, the harsh upbringing by his verbally and emotionally abusive grandfather, and an unwavering commitment to discovering the truth.

Kimberly Crepeaux is not known for her honesty. With a rap sheet of teenage pregnancy, heroin addiction, and numerous stints in prison, her reputation around town couldn't be worse. It comes as no surprise to anyone who knows her when she is arrested again, but what she has to say this time stops everyone in their tracks. Kimberly tells the story of her involvement in the gruesome murders of the two young townspeople. A night of drug fueled joy riding turned dark when their car stuck a girl. Terrified of the consequences of their actions, the group brutally killed the car-stuck girl and her boyfriend and dumped their bodies in a nearby pond.

Despite her troubled reputation, Barrett believes Kimberly when she describes that night. She speaks with a sincerity or regret and shock at her actions. There is a haunted glimmer of anguish behind her tired eyes. Barrett is quick to accept the confession as fact and hinge the investigation and his entire career upon it. This is the break the case needed. This is the source of closure to two grieving families. This is how it happened. But suddenly it isn't. The pond is searched and the bodies are not there. An anonymous tip quickly leads to the discovery of the bodies some 200 miles away. Desperate to save his professional reputation and ease the disappointment of his home town, Barrett rallies to find the truth of how it happened.

On first glance, How It Happened is vastly different from the previous novels by Koryta. Gone are the supernatural elements that permeated those earlier works. Instead the characters in this novel are haunted by events that are all too real. I was immediately intrigued by the gruesome confession that Kimberly provides. The novel opens with her words, providing a chilling prelude to the dark and suspenseful events that follow. By setting the novel in Barrett's home town, Koryta allows the character to gain layers of depth from interactions with people from his past and flashbacks to his childhood. The novel deftly layers the mystery with contemplations on grief, addiction, reputation, and small town relationships. How It Happened is destined to be a must-read this summer, and serves as a legacy cementing achievement in Koryta's already stellar career.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 20)

A Higher Loyalty by James Comey


I recently read a news article about the top bestselling books of this year. It turns out that the majority of these books have one thing in common, Donald Trump. Love him or hate him, you can't deny that the American President dominates the news like none before him. We can't seem to get enough of him. In A Higher Loyalty, one of the most anticipated books of the year, fired FBI Director James Comey reflects upon his years of public service and his encounters with President Trump that would ultimately end his career.

Beyond the scandal and outrage surrounding his role in the investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails and his unexpected firing, I really wasn't familiar with James Comey. Throughout the book, Comey builds a portrait of his commitment to the higher institutions of government. His early days as a lawyer saw him soon working under the New York Department of Justice. His encounters during this time served as a foundation for his views that no one is above the law. When the New York DOJ learned of Martha Stewart's insider trading, Comey was quick to push for a criminal trial.

As the Deputy Attorney General under President George W. Bush, Comey continued to campaign for truth and justice. Specifically, when he learned of the questionable interrogation tactics that would later be classified as torture, Comey went against the wishes of the administration to fight for better practices under the law. He would ultimately be proved to have been on the right side of history in this instance.

The highest profile and most controversial era of Comey's public service came during his tenure as FBI Director. He was surprised that the Democratic President Obama would hire someone who served a Republican administration, but Comey was hired for his independence from politics, not his loyalty to a specific party. The unprecedented nature of the 2016 election saw Comey face the largest challenges of his professional life. The investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server to conduct official state business was one of the biggest talking points of that race. When Comey announced that the investigation was being reopened just a few days before the vote, he did so because he believed the American people needed to know. He describes institutions like the Justice Department and FBI as holding a "reservoir of trust". By being open about the ongoing investigation, he hoped to maintain that trust.

There's no doubt the main draw of this book is to read Comey's perspective on his interactions with the President and his firing. Most of what is written about these moments has already been made public through Comey's statements to congress. In comparison to his interactions with the previous two administrations, Trump's attempts to pull in the FBI Director to his inner circle at the White House are very alarming. If what Comey claims is true, it seems clear that the current administration did not see a need to separate the FBI from the politics of the presidency. History will ultimately judge this situation and show if Comey's firing was truly an obstruction of justice. Having read about his life in his own words, I'm still not entirely sure what that judgement will be. There is no denying that Comey is a fascinating, if a bit problematic, figure who deserves to be heard and recognized.

For more information, visit Amazon and Goodreads.

(2018, 19)

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James


Idlewild Hall in Vermont is a boarding school for troubled girls. It is a dreary place that has become home to the kind of girls nobody else wants to deal with. This type of establishment is commonplace in the 1950's. An odd cross between school and psychological asylum, Idlewild has become a dumping ground for the girls who won't end up getting the kind of help they truly need. Amongst the halls of this sad place, a group of students ban together for support and refuge. But their sanctuary is threatened. It is threatened by the internal turmoil that lies just beneath the surface of each girl. It is threatened by the strict rules and discipline of the staff of the school. And perhaps most frighteningly so, it is threatened by the ghost of Mary Hand.

The year is 2014 and reporter Fiona Sheridan is about to stumble upon the biggest story of her career. the long vacated and dilapidated Idlewild Hall has just been purchased by a private buyer who intends to renovate and reopen the school. All viable businessmen agree that restoring the Idlewild property is a losing venture, but the owner is adamant that the school function again. Fiona is determined to dig deeper into the mysterious owner.

Through alternating chapters, Simone St. James tells the story of the girls who inhabited Idlewild and Fiona's investigation into the school's reopening. We quickly discover that there is more to the halls of the institution than meets the eye. The students tell the story of Mary Hand, a local girl who was said to have died on the property long before the school was built. We also learn that Fiona's sister was killed and left on the grounds of the abandoned property. A scorned boyfriend has been in jail for the murder, but Fiona has always posited that something more was afoot. Could the local legends of a ghost on the property have something to do with her sister's death?

The Broken Girls hits all the right notes for a solid thriller. The combination of a decades old murder case and ghost story instantly drew me in and left me riveted through the final page. I'm not usually a fan of the overused tactic of alternating time periods from chapter to chapter, but St. James deftly uses the technique to slowly reveal her story and creates an ever building sense of suspense and dread. St. James expertly takes the "less is more" approach to conjuring the horror elements of her story by only giving short glimpses and subtle hints to Mary Hand's presence in both past and present portions of the story. The terror that my imagination summoned from this lack of information about the ghost was far more frightening than anything that could have been described.

The best fiction is built not upon the premise of the plot, but on the characters who inhabit it. St. James weaves a deep thread connecting the past and present characters in a way that is both believable and satisfying to her narrative. Through the students at Idlewild, we see how a system abandoned the people who were in dire need of help. Whether facing the trauma of domestic life or the horrors of war, the girls were ultimately left to fend for themselves and made more susceptible to the fancies of a supernatural entity. In the present day, Fiona's dealing with grief and small town politics highlight the struggle of a woman in a male dominated field. Add in the spooky atmosphere of the small Vermont town, and St. James has a real winner here. It is still pretty early in the year, but I'm almost certain The Broken Girls will end up being one of my favorites.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 18)

The Girl in the Spider's Web by David Lagercrantz


"Personally, I've got this thing against men who harm children and women, and that makes me dangerous."

There's no denying the cultural and commercial success that Steig Larsson's Millennium Trilogy gained. Beginning with the stellar The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson's series placed a spotlight upon violence against women and featured the game-changing protagonist and titular "girl" Lizbeth Salander. Tragically, at the time that the books were reaching their success, Larsson passed away, leaving plans for a fourth and fifth novel abandoned. After a much publicized legal battle between Larsson's family and domestic partner, author David Lagercrantz has taken on the role of continuing the story of a character who re-defined a genre.

For the most part, Lagercrantz does an admiral job at faithfully honoring the world that Larsson depicted. The Girl in the Spider's Web begins with someone hacking into the US NSA mainframe and accessing files that could be detrimental to world security. We quickly learn that that someone is none other than the punk-goth hacker Lizbeth Salander. Who else could be responsible for such a high-scale and technically difficult hack?! Salander has uncovered evidence of

The novel also sees Mikael Blomkvist face the struggling print industry. As the lead reporter and co-owner of the Millennium Magazine, Blomkvist feels a personal responsibility to bring a high-profile piece of investigative journalism to help boost sales and notoriety. Leads have been thin, but Blomkvist is optimistic about his recent contact with a noted professor. The professor is renowned for his advancement of artificial intelligence and promises to give Blomkvist a scoop that could bring the entire industry to its knees. They just have to survive long enough to see the investigation to fruition.

True to form, The Girl in  the Spider's Web offers a complex and darkly tinged plot full of cutting-edge technology, suspenseful twists and revelations, and the edgy characters we have come to expect. Like the previous novels, the novel takes a bit of time to establish the interwoven story elements, but it quickly kicks into action about 15% in. While Lagercrantz never pushes the characters to the shocking and graphic places that Larsson did, he still does a fine job at continuing their story. I was delighted to be able to read a continuation of both of them. The novel is definitely different from the trilogy that preceded it, but Lagercrantz hits enough of the established beats to satisfy readers of the earlier novels. I'm definitely looking forward to reading more about Salander and Blomkvist in the next novel.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 17)

What Unites Us by Dan Rather


The 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump seemed to usher in a new era of division amongst the American people. President Trump has become known for his unfiltered, off-the-cuff remarks that leave many within the country feeling alienated and offended. Our country has always featured differing ideas and been the better for it, but now it seems like there are is only my side and your side. We seem to have lost the in between space. At a point in history where Americans seem more divided than ever, legendary newsman Dan Rather seeks to discover What Unites Us.

You'll probably be surprised to find out that little of Rather's book focuses on criticizing President Trump. Rather has been a vocal critic of the President on his Facebook account, but true to the title of the book, Rather focuses more on finding constructive ideas to get the country back to a place of civility and productivity. In fact, I'd argue that both Rather and the President want to "Make America Great Again." The only difference, is that Rather argues for a return to the ideals that have always made the country great while still allowing for scientific and social progress.

The book is comprised of several detailed essays that each follow a similar structure. Rather focuses on a single topic (anything from patriotism to inclusion) providing historical context based upon his years as a reporter, comments upon the evolution of that ideal throughout history, and ends with suggestions on how we can return to the basis of that idea today. He includes many personal excerpts that highlight his own reconciliation with some of the topics he writes about. As a child of the south, Rather had his own evolutions in regards to racial equality and sexual orientation. He recognizes that not every person will come to the same conclusion in the same ways, but the tide of social progress inevitably moves forward.

Regardless of political leanings and opinions, What Unites Us is a collection that all readers will be able to relate to and find value within. Rather and his writing partner Elliot Kirschner have assembled a collection of ideals and beliefs that are both extremely relevant to our current political climate and timeless in their relation to the morals that America has always cherished. The writing is never preachy. Instead, each essay attempts to start a national conversation about the things we as the American people hold dear to us. Hopefully, this book is the tipping off point for those conversations to begin across our nation.

For more information, visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2018, 16)

Friday Flicks: Ready Player One


Ernest Cline's Ready Player One rocked the literary world with a killer combination of 80's pop culture references, relatable characters, and a clever adventure story. The novel had such a broad appeal that a movie version was inevitable. Enter Stephen Spielberg, a director who built his career making the kinds of films that Cline's novel holds in such a high regard. Despite the status of cultural icon, choosing Spielberg to direct a big-budget sci-fi/action movie was a seemingly risky idea. He may have built his career on the epic scale movies that Ready Player One was destined to become, but he has focused more on smaller budget, historical films over the last ten years. Still, if anyone was up to the task of making Ready Player One into a hit, Spielberg was still a pretty safe bet.

Like the book, Ready Player One revolves around Wade Watt's journey through the Oasis to capture Halliday's Easter Egg. It is the 2040's and Watts is living in the slummy stacks, a towering collection of run-down mobile homes. At this point in history, man has explored every piece of earth and nearly depleted all of the natural resources. People largely take refuge in The Oasis, a virtual world that was crafted and governed by the genius James Halliday. When Halliday dies, he reveals that an easter egg has been hidden within the codes of his world. The finder of the egg will take complete control of The Oasis.

Beyond that premise, the book and film version of this story take very different directions. While both stories see the characters facing three challenges to ultimately reach the egg, the book and movie challenges are completely different. In the novel, the challenge are more about the mind than physical acts. Because film is a visual medium, Spielberg elects to make his challenges involve physical tasks and visually unique settings. Smartly, the film broadens its appeal by making references that are more widely known than the specific video game and Dungeons and Dragon lore. To be fair, keen eyed viewers will still spot several references that were mentioned in the novel, but there are more nods to different pop culture icons that there were in the book.

I'm usually not a fan of movies that stray too far from the book, but Ready Player One ends up being an exception to that rule. With Cline co-writing the screenplay, the film maintains the spirit of the novel while offering a fun and visually dazzling experience. For his part, Spielberg proves doubters that he still has the ability to make the kind of movies that have been missing from his filmography for the past 10 years. I'm happy that I can now enjoy both the movie and book for the wonderful and unique pieces of pop art that they both are.

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