James renneR

Journalist. Palindrome. Writer.

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It’s My Birthday. Here’s a Story.

Posted March 30th, 2014.

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What is EXPEDITION Z?

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I’m part of the debut lineup of authors for an exciting new venture. It’s a new app called StoryShift, where readers help shape the narrative of genre stories. Think Choose Your Own adventure, only the story is being written as you read!

It seemed like the perfect platform to try out this idea I’ve been thinking on for a while about a young cadet who is sent on a mission into forgotten lands, 20 years after the zombie apocalypse.

StoryShift is available as a FREE app just about anywhere you get apps. Or you can click on the link and read it online.

My story is titled, EXPEDITION Z.

I haven’t been this excited in a project for a long time. This is something new and fresh and the kind folks at Evil-Dog Games were cool enough to let me be a part of it.

Get the app. Read the story. VOTE! And let me know what you think!

Posted March 3rd, 2014.

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Read This: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

a-visit-from-the-goon-squad-cover

A handful of stories have changed my life and every time I find one I worry that it might be the last.

These are stories that inspired me to write better or to look at the world differently or to look at myself differently. The first was Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. Later came Cloud Atlas and Garp. I just finished a new one: A Visit from the Goon Squad. I was so taken by this novel that, halfway through, I had the university bookstore order a bunch of copies so I could teach it in the Fall.

What’s it about? Like the other books that fall into this category, it depends upon the reader. On the surface, it’s the story of several people’s lives and how they intersect with each other through a span of forty (or so) years. But, it’s also about: music; writing; love; compulsion; obsession; destruction; time; grace; insanity; sanity; city life; blondes; sex; regret; empathy…

Each chapter is from the point of view of a different character, someone you’ve met in passing in an earlier chapter. And each chapter is told in a different voice, or style (including second-person and power-point). Most of the people we encounter are caught in orbit around two people: Sasha (a young kleptomaniac) and Bennie (an aging music mogul). Though, it could be said Bennie finds himself in orbit around Sasha, too (I suppose he’s Jupiter).

The novel is structured like an album, complete with A and B side and chapter titles that gives us the feels of good song titles. Music (and art) is a thread that weaves these stories together, after all. There are harmonies and dissonant cords. You get the picture.

There’s just so goddamn much meat on the bone. The only thing I can think to compare it to is Ulysses. But it’s not that pretentiously dense. It’s accessible (I think). There are enough allusions and connections and themes to get lost in for a long time.

In the end, this is a book that does an impossible thing: it approximates the elegant complexity of life, and how our path veers off course in mundane moments, and how we are all kept on notice by the goon of time.

Posted February 23rd, 2014.

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Read This: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

night filmThe premise of this story is pretty amazeballs: What would happen if David Lynch’s daughter committed suicide (or was murdered…) and Mikael Blomkvist took up the case? Essentially, that’s Night Film, the second novel by Pessl. Disgraced journalist (is there any other kind these days?) Scott McGrath is kicking around Manhattan trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life after having been sued by Stanislas (you can’t spell “stanislas” without “satan”) Cordova over a bad piece of writing. McGrath suspects Cordova, a reclusive film auteur who has driven a few actors insane, may be doing naughty things to children on his palatial estate. When Ashley, Stanislas’ daughter, is found dead, McGrath becomes obsessed with proving she died because of her father’s dark habits.

The novel is about the journey and how McGrath figures out the mystery. Like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this journalist teams up with a willful and strange young woman who is attracted to the silver fox. Also on their team is Ashley’s former beau, a troubled young man who just can’t stand still. But the story is also a noir novel about film noir, a meta-study of the tropes of the most bizarre filmmakers, people like Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowski or Dario Argento. If you’re a film buff you’ll love it.

There are some cool scenes in here. My favorite was McGrath’s drug-addled run through Cordova’s film studio, where sets from his old movies have been preserved for all time. And the creepy Oubliette sex club on Long Island.

Generally, I enjoy long books (this one’s 600 pages). But it felt 75 pages too heavy, especially toward the end.

Speaking of the end, holy smokes! It was as sovereign, deadly, and perfect as one of Cordova’s films.

Posted January 26th, 2014.

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Read These… Horns/NOS4A2

So I got on a little Joe Hill kick this Halloween. Seemed appropriate. I read Heart Shaped Box and really liked it. And found Horns at an estate sale. Then my wife read it in like a day and made me. And NOS4A2. What a cool title, right?

First of all, Hill is thankfully not a “Stephen King-light.” Like his father, Hill loves putting ordinary people into extraordinary situations, and you can tell he’s studied his old man’s writing enough to pick up some of his tricks (calls-backs, magic words, etc.). But Hill’s background as a successful comic book writer informs his novels and gives them a different voice. A funner voice. Earnest, but self-aware.

Horns is about a young man who wakes up with devil horns and the ability to compel people to admit their deepest, darkest secret. It’s a mystery. The guy’s girlfriend is dead and he’s the main suspect and now the horns give him some leverage in the investigation. It’s also a surprisingly touching (and honest) love story. A novel as sweet as it is depraved. I’m still thinking about two scenes in particular. One involves a tree house that may or may not exist and an alien figurine sitting inside.

Just published is NOS4A2, about a vampire of sorts that lives off the souls of the kids he abducts and hides away in Christmasland. It was a fun ride (pun intended) and had the tone of an ambitious graphic novel. This one is very King in concept (with references to Pennywise and others) but its execution is more organized. There was probably an outline. King is jazz. Hill seems to need the sheet music for now. Which is not necessarily a critique.

I dug both these adventures. But there was one thing that bugged me a bit. Both novels propelled to a climax that wasn’t really a climax, one act too soon, which gave that last part the feeling of a really long epilogue. I suspect he’s experimenting with pacing and reader expectation. Interested to see how that develops.

Posted November 14th, 2013.

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Read This… Inferno, by Dan Brown

I loves me some Dan Brown. I do. Not because he’s a great writer. He isn’t. But because he is a great storyteller. When I get together with my writer friends (picture us playing poker like on Castle or something) we snicker and chide Brown because he’s a bit of a hack, the kind of writer who never met an adverb he didn’t like. I don’t think he even really knows what being a “good” writer is all about. But, in the end, what the hell does that matter? He’s made more money than any writer ever.

I love reading Dan Brown not for the subtle prose, but for the structure. He’s perfected a structure for storytelling that manipulates the reader into thinking they literally cannot put the book down. He ends each chapter with a little cliff hanger and he’s always teaching you new things, always leaving a bit of the mystery in his back pocket. I study Dan Brown’s writing not to be a better novelist but to steal his structure for use in my nonfiction works. I try to learn from Dan Brown so that my true crime books are palatable for a reader who loves novels and has never read nonfiction before. It’s a wonderful structure for a real mystery.

I took Inferno on vacation with me last week. It was, literally, a beach read. And I think it’s probably his best work to date. It’s certainly a more literary novel than The DaVinci Code. With a bit of whimsy, Dan Brown takes all the tropes he invented with The DaVinci Code and Angles and Demons and turns them upside-down. In this story, Robert Langdon has lost his memory. He wakes up with no memory of the last 48 hours and must piece together his own history as he tries to solve the riddles of a man obsessed with Dante’s Inferno. Kind of like The Hangover. But more Florency.

But with Dan Brown, the mystery usually serves as a device to introduce the reader to a new idea that Brown thinks is really cool. Anti-matter. Jesus’s kids. Blah, blah, something to do with mind control. In Inferno, Brown teaches us about overpopulation. And what we learn is fucking scary. Like, depressing, why take the time to finish the book, scary. Seems we’re probably not going to survive the next 100 years because people are having too many babies. The Big Bad of Inferno is going to release a new virus to “cull” the population if Langdon doesn’t stop him in time.

Without spoiling the solution, Brown took a BIIIIIIIIG risk with the ending of this one. In hindsight, I think it’s possible this is a novel with no resolution, that rare story where nothing is actually accomplished, but you still feel satisfied somehow. The ending of Inferno changes the world in which Langdon exists. Permanently. I’m very curious to see if Brown has the cajones to address this new world in following Langdon adventures or if the repercussions of Inferno will be ignored the way the Kenny’s death gets ignored in each new episode of South Park.

I’m giving him an extra star for guts this time. Well done.

Posted August 12th, 2013.

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Read This: Joyland, by Stephen King

Ever since completing the Dark Tower saga, I get a sense that Uncle Steve is just having fun. His post-Tower books stand on their own the way his early books did. They are less referential, less meta, more earnest. It’s like watching a music legend walk into a corner pub and start twinkling the keys because, hell, he wants to.

Joyland is a simple tale well told. A young man, heartbroken for the first time, works at a beach-front amusement park during a summer in the 70′s and happens upon a mystery. And maybe a ghost. King’s last book for Hard Case Crime, The Colorado Kid, remains my favorite mystery novel of all time. But Joyland is probably the better story.

What’s fun is how King paints the feel of the park during a certain summer. I could hear the creak of the boards on the old Spin, the sound of the waves outside Devin’s bedroom window. And there’s the fascination with the world of the carny, complete with its secret language, which we are treated to. And the haunted house. And the psychic. And the murders…

This is a beach read set on a beach. Tailor made for now. Take it on vacation!

Posted July 21st, 2013.

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Read This… Travels, by Michael Crichton

I think I first saw the cover of this book when I was about 13 and the mystery of it grabbed me even then. It’s a hard to find book. Not as popular as Crichton’s works of fiction. But I happened upon a copy a few weeks ago and devoured it in two days.

Travels is the story of Crichton’s life from Harvard medical school to internationally acclaimed author of Sphere and Jurassic Park. But what makes it more than a jerk-off self-important autobiography is how Crichton talks openly and honestly about his search for truth and meaning in life. His adventures– and misadventures– span the entire world and beyond, venturing into the realm of metaphysics and transcendental meditation.

We travel with Crichton to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and witness the disintegration of his marriage. We venture into the jungles of Africa to visit the last wild gorillas with him. He takes us meditating in the California desert, and introduces us to a talking cactus. Crichton spent his life researching the edges of humanity, the fringes of what we are capable of. At times, what he finds is disappointing. But I was left with more of a sense of how we are all connected to each other, possibly on a quantum mechanics level, even.

Reader beware, this nonfiction book pushes the boundaries of believability at points, especially toward the end as Crichton begins to see auras and discovers he might be possessed by a few demons.

But it was a hell of a ride and everything I had hoped it could be. And I have a profound respect for the writer, now. Not just for his economy of words but for his gall to be so honest with his readers.

Posted June 9th, 2013.

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Crazy eBook deal on The Man from Primrose Lane

For the next few days, you can get The Man from Primrose Lane on your Kindle, Nook, or other eReader for only $3.99.

Here’s what some GoodReaders are saying about it:

“I totally adore books that keep me guessing, that keep revealing new things to me along the way, and which aren’t completely predictable. And a book that ends in such a way that makes me glance back at the beginning with a smile, and a promise to myself that I’m going to read it again?”

“…and so i was just reading along, doodley doodley doooo and then wait WHAT???”

“What an arresting, addictive little genre-tapdance, this novel. It’s a matroyshka doll of a story masquerading as lit-fic murder mystery, which manages to combine the plot set-ups and Big Bads of a dozen or more X-Files episodes were they to mate with some random police procedural with more “realistic” intentions (already a stretch, I know, but you seriously have no idea the stretchy).”

“The Man from Primrose Lane will hook you from the first sentence”

“It’s always neat to see a magician testdrive a new bit of stagecraft, rather than yanking the same old rabbits out of threadbare hats, sawing the same lady, stepping into the same locked cabinet only–yawn–to disappear, yet again. But the more lasting wow is in the patter, the performance, the shinola surrounding the gag and sidetracking our attention. Renner left me spellbound as much in the confident bark of his narrative voice, the sly puzzlebox structure of his telling, the pop and whistle of the book’s baroque play with themes of obsession as with mere trickery.”

Pick it up on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Apple’s iBookstore

Posted May 14th, 2013.

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Why I Can’t Be An Atheist

I wish I had that luxury.

That’s what I tell people now, when they ask me if I’m an atheist. I don’t mean it to sound condescending or flippant. I really do wish I had the luxury of doubt that atheists have. I wish I could forget what I experienced in Key West in 2008.

I’m a journalist. My purview is true crime. I’ve written several articles on unsolved murders, met with Death Row inmates, spoken to families of missing women. The story I’ve spent the most time on is the unsolved abduction and murder of Amy Mihaljevic. She was ten years old, my age, when a well-dressed man took her from the Bay Village shopping plaza on October 27, 1989. Her body was found a couple months later in an old wheat field in Ashland County.

Over the years, the FBI has compiled a “Top 25” list of suspects in the case, many of whom I’ve interviewed by now. In 2008, I learned of a man named Dean Runkle, who was once a teacher in the small Cleveland suburb of Amherst. On that Top 25 list, he would be the man at the top.

Runkle is an interesting suspect for many reasons. At the time of Amy’s abduction, he lived two roads away from where her body was found. He was driving the same make and model of Pontiac sedan that took Amy away. A witness to the abduction picked him out of a lineup of 30 people. We know he had an inappropriate relationship with one of his middle school students. By the time he appeared on my radar, he had quit teaching and had fled to Key West, where he lived in a homeless shelter for a few months before finding a minimum wage job.

Compelled to meet every suspect in the case, I flew to Miami on my own dime. I rented a car and drove down through the Keys. When I got there, late that first night, I stopped at the Wendy’s on the north side of the island. Back in Amherst, Wendy’s was where Runkle liked to take his “special” students after school. I figured it was worth checking out.

That was the first time I heard the voice.

It announced itself like a thought, like the voice of my conscience. What are you doing here? You’re wasting your time. What are you doing in Florida while your little boy is home without a father?

I took it as doubt. My own doubt. A bit of myself questioning whether coming to Florida was a good idea. But we know the sound of our own conscience, don’t we? This sounded different. Angry. Mean.

You think you’ll just walk in and find him at Wendy’s? The first place you stop? You’re pathetic. You’re wasting your time.

Still, full of these doubtful thoughts, I did go in. I looked for him in the crowds, eating dinner, but he wasn’t there. I returned to the car and the voice was gone.

I spent the next day searching for Runkle. I showed his photograph to people along the main road near Hemmingway’s old house. Some people recognized him as the old man who sometimes played ragtime piano at the corner bar. Yes, that’s him. Runkle had a piano at the school in Amherst and sometimes played ragtime for the kids. He kept the piano not too far from the cot he had set up in the closet off his classroom.

I knew I was close. But nobody had seen Runkle lately. And nobody knew where on the island he lived.

Finally, I visited a church on the eastern side of the island. It was dinnertime and the deacon was serving food to a line of about fifty homeless people. I showed Runkle’s picture around. One man suggested I talk to a fellow named Mr. Frisby. “If anyone knows your guy, it’s Mr. Frisby. He’s been here forever.”

They called him Mr. Frisby because he was always on the beach, tossing a Frisby to himself. That’s where I found him. “Do you know this man?” I asked.

“Sure,” said Mr. Frisby. “That’s my buddy Dean. He used to look out for me. Good guy.”

“Do you know where he is?”
“Probably at work.”

“Where’s he work?”

“Wendy’s.”

The voice returned as I neared the Wendy’s. Louder this time, almost as if it was an AM radio broadcast and my mind was the tuner and we’d just come through a tunnel.

Leave him alone. Go back to your family. Dean didn’t do it. You’re wasting your time.

This time I went straight to the register. “Is Dean Runkle here?” I asked.

“He should be,” the woman behind the counter said. “He’s the manager. But he called in sick, today. First time in like ever.”

“I’m an old friend from Amherst,” I said. “Can you tell me where he lives?”

She went to check his work documents. No luck. “He never put an address on his paperwork,” she said. “But I think he lives somewhere on the Northeastern corner of the island.”

I drove that way. But time had become an issue and there was just too much island to search. If I didn’t leave for Miami in the next thirty minutes, I would miss my flight home. Despondent, I pulled up to a stop sign and parked the car for a moment.

For the first time in many years, I sent a message out to the universe. Call it a cry for help. Call it a prayer, because that’s what it was. Help me, I asked. If I’m supposed to meet this guy, help me. Amy, if you’re listening…

At that moment, Dean Runkle walked in front of my car.

I pulled through the stop sign and parked on the curb. I jumped out of the car and yelled, “Hey Dean!” He stopped and turned and I jogged over to him. There on the street corner we spoke for several minutes and he told me some things that only implicated himself more in the murder of that little girl. Eventually, he ended the conversation and walked away. But I managed to get a picture of him. I needed that picture. Because… who the hell would ever believe that story when I got home?

I’m a smart guy. I’ve written some books. I believe in evolution. I’ve studied physics. I respect a few great scientists who are vocal atheists. They are the men who say, condescendingly, “What is your proof? Show me some proof that there is a God.”

Be careful what you wish for, is what I think.

I’ve experienced proof of the power of prayer. And that voice that turned on like a radio broadcast at Wendy’s… That teasing, degrading voice. I’d like to doubt that, I really would. I don’t want to believe that demons are real.

This is a story I’ve told a few times over the years but never published. I guess I feared what it would do to my credibility as a journalist. Or what my atheist friends might think of me. I know it sounds crazy.

But it happened. It happened just like that.

As far as a specific religion, I believe there is truth in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In Buddhism. In just about anything outside Scientology. Probably everybody got a piece of it right. I take my son to Christian Sunday School because I’ve benefitted from enough grace to believe that the young carpenter from Nazareth was a little more than human.

All I know for sure is that there is more going on than science alone can explain. It’s only called Faith when there is no proof so I don’t know what I’d call it. But I do know there is something… more.

Posted April 21st, 2013.

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