Monday, June 7, 2010

SO COLD THE RIVER - Michael Koryta

FIRST LINE: "You looked for the artifacts of their ambition."

Eric Shaw is having a run of bad luck in life: disgraced in the movie industry, separated from his wife. Now he's in Chicago making "video life portraits" for people's weddings, graduations and especially funerals. During one of the showings at a funeral, Alyssa Bradford approaches Shaw to investigate her father-in-law, Campbell Bradford, in order to create a documentary of his life. The family doesn't know much about their billionaire patriarch's early life in his home town of West Baden, Indiana, so Shaw travels there to uncover the mystery. The only artifact Alyssa Bradford can provide Eric is a very old bottle of Pluto Water Campbell Brandford has held onto for years. This mysterious bottle of murky, smelly water pulls Shaw straight into the depths of West Baden's tumultuous past, a past that is about to rock the foundation of the present.

I have to start off my review of this book by admitting to those who don't already know: when I hear the word "paranormal" my response is to wrinkle up my nose and move on. And if you add the word "horror" in the mix, it's very likely I'll run, screaming. Therefore, when one of my all-time favorite writers said he was writing a "paranormal horror" novel, the word devastation came to mind. I'm the original "Doubting Thomas." But this was Michael Koryta we were talking about. Much like Robert Crais, I'll give what he writes a chance because he's proven himself. I can't guarantee I'm going to like it, but I'll give it a chance.

I didn't like it. I relished it. From the very first sentence, "You looked for the artifacts of their ambition," I savored this 500-page masterpiece. I'm sure that sentence comes across as gushing, but you have no idea how amazed I was to literally fall in love with this book. I was completely convinced that I would be giving up one of my favorite writers, that he was going in a direction that I wasn't willing to follow. Very few writers have accomplished the fete of convincing me to let go of my grip on reality. I want my stories firmly planted in the believable, the provable, the REAL. Koryta didn't convince me to let go, he made me let go. He pulled me into the story and made it the reality, much the way he did for Eric Shaw:

"'That a place would hold a memory of the dead, I could believe,' Eric said. 'Hell, I have to believe it, with the experiences I've had. But the idea of a ghost, of anything that can actually affect things in the world, I cannot buy.'"

SO COLD THE RIVER gives birth to a diverse cast of characters from the troubled Eric Shaw to the quirky Anne McKinney to the misguidedly devoted Danny Hastings. In typical Koryta style, none of the characters fit into a simple black or white, good or bad, category. Each character has his/her own unique depth and dimension. Each character has his/her own unique voice and perspective, which makes Koryta's choice of 3rd person limited an effective approach for his sixth novel. His ability to seamlessly flow in and out of each character's voice, maintaining each's authenticity enhances the fictional world he's crafting.

Koryta's overall writing style has always been something I've admired, but it's never been stronger than in SO COLD THE RIVER. The beauty of the language, the flow of the dialogue. It's clean and it's concise. That may sound like an oxymoron for a 500-page novel, but it really isn't. This is a 500-page novel that doesn't last long enough because the action of the plot continually moves forward, unlike many long novels that have pockets of idleness so the author can try to include fancy style. Koryta's conservative style demands that every word work to further the story and deceive the reader. My four hours on the plane with SO COLD THE RIVER felt like four minutes; ironic considering the passage of time plays a prominent role in the plot:

"The train had seemed faster than anything to her that day, dazzling in its speed. There were race cars that went faster than the train, though, and planes that went faster than the cars, and rockets that went faster than the planes, but what still blew them all away was time itself, the days and months and the years, oh, yes, the years. They went faster than anything man had the capacity to invent, so fast that for a while they fooled you into thinking they were slow, and was there any crueler trick than that?"

The final element of SO COLD THE RIVER that made this "paranormal, horror" novel work for Ms. Doubting Thomas was the respect Koryta paid the setting of his story. Growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, he was aware of the grand hotels and the mysterious springs, but his meticulous research emanates from his writing as well:

"'...Pluto wasn't the devil. He was the god of riches found in the earth, found underground. That's why they named the company after him, see? Thing my father always found amusing was that in the myths all Pluto was in charge of, really, was keeping the dead at the River Styx before they crossed it to be judged. So Pluto was essentially an innkeeper. And what followed the water in this town?'"

Weather takes on a role that crosses between setting and character; again, Koryta stays faithful to his Midwest setting but empowers the weather in all its beauty and volatility. Mother Nature regularly provides mortals lessons that everything isn't always provable and believable. In SO COLD THE RIVER, Michael Koryta provides that lesson.

There are very few writers young, old, experienced or novice who possess the skill and willingness to branch beyond what is comfortable and safe. Michael Koryta is no longer a great crime fiction writer. Michael Koryta is a great writer - period. And maybe, just maybe, he played his own inspiration for one of the characters in this novel:

"'...I busted my ass right up until the last second of my high school career. But basketball, it was not my game. And I came to understand that. I had this real high grade average, which was supposed to be like a compliment to my game, right? Well, that changed. I refocused. Got an academic scholarship and then a degree and then a master's, and now I'm closing in on the doctorate. I am good at what I do, right? But it's not playing ball. That's not quitting, though. That's changing. That's growth.'"

SO COLD THE RIVER is available tomorrow in hardcover from Little, Brown (ISBN: 978-0-316-05363-1). It is also available on audiobook narrated by Robert Petkoff.

**Note: For those, who like me, may conjure images of gratuitous violence and gore with the classification "horror," SO COLD THE RIVER does not contain any of that. Were I classifying the novel, I wouldn't classify it as such. If you're looking for that gratuitous violence and gore, you won't find it here. If that is what might prevent you from reading the book - you won't find it here, hurry and go get your copy!

**Note: While I was reading an advanced copy of the novel, it was not provided to me with the intention of a review. I received this copy, as did all attendees, at the Michael Connelly/Michael Koryta interview at Bouchercon 2009. If you have further questions about my acquisition of the book, feel free to contact me via email.

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caite June 7, 2010 at 3:28 AM  

I usually have a similar reaction to any book involving the label 'paranormal', so I am impressed how much you liked this onebehalia. Sounds like a winner.

lisa (the little reader) June 7, 2010 at 5:55 AM  

i'm definitely intrigued... i've never read any Koryta, but your gush gush review has me interested.

Julie P. June 7, 2010 at 7:26 AM  

Wow! I just started this last night and I'm loving it. Only about 150 pages in, but I intend to find some major time today to read it!

I was lucky enough to attend a panel/reading that featured Michael Koryta during BEA week. I was totally impressed!

To be honest, your review is fantastic. AND I dread writing my review now. Did you know there's a radio show with him on Wednesday?

S. Krishna June 7, 2010 at 9:23 AM  

Wow, so glad you enjoyed this one! I got an audio of it from BEA, but I'm wondering if it might be better in print.

Jenn's Bookshelves June 7, 2010 at 9:52 AM  

I cannot wait to read this one! I met Michael & his publicist at BEA, both genuinely great guys! They had a few nice things to say about you as well! I did toss around your name a few times while I was definitely benefited me a few times. Your like a rockstar!

bermudaonion June 7, 2010 at 10:16 AM  

I'm reading this book right now and I'm loving it so far. It's my first experience with Koryta's work but if the book is as good as I think it will be, it won't be my last!

Kay June 7, 2010 at 10:32 AM  

Jen, you wrote a really compelling review. You are so talented in that way. I have not read any of Kortya's books, but I have already pre-purchased this for my Kindle. Looking forward to it. And....anything paranormal or horror does NOT send me screaming, so that is actually a plus for me to a certain extent. Lovely, lovely!

Rural View June 7, 2010 at 11:00 AM  

What a wonderful review! My normal reaction to paranormal or horror matches yours, but you have my attention so I will definitely put this on my ever-growing list.

le0pard13 June 7, 2010 at 12:55 PM  

I'm looking forward to this one, Jen. Can't wait. Thanks very much.

Beth F June 7, 2010 at 9:12 PM  

I have this on audio -- and was a bit thrown by the horror at the beginning of your review- But I'm now okay -- we aren't talking creepy. I like paranormal.

Jen Forbus June 8, 2010 at 6:04 AM  

No Candace, definitely not creepy! I think you'll enjoy it.

Amy June 9, 2010 at 1:46 AM  

Very very much looking forward to this book! Especially after this fab review!

Heather August 28, 2010 at 6:43 PM  

just finished reading this novel, my first Koryta, and really enjoyed it. Your review is well written, wish mine was half as good!

Jen Forbus August 31, 2010 at 8:42 AM  

Thanks Heather! So happy to hear you enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping by to share. I always love to hear from folks who have read the books!

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