Journalist. Palindrome. Writer.

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James Renner is an award-winning journalist, and author of True Crime Addict, the definitive book on the Maura Murray disappearance. He also hosts the podcast, The Philosophy of Crime. In 2019, he founded The Porchlight Project which raises money for new DNA testing and genetic genealogy for Ohio cold cases. In May, 2020, James Zastawnik was arrested for the murder of Barbara Blatnik, thanks to the work of genealogists funded by the Porchlight Project.

Read This: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

Charles Yu has blown my mind. Moments ago I finished his strange novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. I was told it was a story about time travel. And it is. In a way. But at the same time it has nothing to do with time travel. In fact, I’d argue there is no time travel in the book.

The narrative is the tale of Charles Yu, a Charles Yu who supposedly lives in an alternate universe in which “science” has been substituted with “science fiction.” Everything that can exist in science fiction, exists in this world: emotive computer programs, time machines, futuristic sidekick dogs. And one day, thanks to a time machine, Charles Yu meets Charles Yu and becomes stuck inside a time loop. Inside this time loop, Yu writes a book titled, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

The book is meta on a new scale.

But Yu’s idea of time travel is even more trippy when you get down to it, because in this universe, time travel does not require a DeLorean. Here, all you need is your mind. To travel through time is to alter your perception of time. With Déjà vu, we seem to be able to remember the present. Yu poses: if we can remember the present, why can’t we re-experience the past?

And that’s what we do everyday. We re-experience, that is we travel to, the past in our minds, replaying our most heart-wrenching memories over and over again. And sometimes we get stuck in a loop of our own making, reliving our mistakes when we should be embracing the anxiety and the unknown of our futures.

It is a tone poem. It is an exploration of the almost cosmic bond between the destinies of fathers and sons. But it’s also a fun riff on science fiction stories.

In the end, what the book is to me, I think, is a close representation of how our consciousness lives somehow outside the flow of time and only understands its passage when it tries to describe it.

“It collapses onto itself, like the present,” writes Yu, “which only appears when you think about it, like the text of a book.”

Read This: Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving

A John Irving novel is a different sort of animal. His books usually delve more deeply into a character than I’m used to. Most times the narrative is simply about the life of a particular character, some times from conception to death (Garp). His books take time to read, at least for me. And the stories don’t seem much like strict narratives as they do a series of experiences. But I love every minute of it, even if it’s heavy lifting.

Irving always teaches you something. You can guess that, in life, he’s a curious type of guy and loves to share the insights that he’s gleaned from close study. In Last Night in Twisted River, he teaches about such seemingly detached subjects as logging, fine cooking, and, of course, the mechanics (and importance of) writing. Like in many Irving tales, there is much loss here but always grace, too.

This novel, to me, seemed like a return to the themes of Garp (my favorite Irving story), like an older artist coming back to an early style to show us what he’s learned in the years since. On the surface, it is the story of a man and his son on the run from a murderous North Country cop. But, like Garp, it’s also about how to navigate a life full of accidents. It’s truly wonderful and I already miss spending time with Danny and Ketchum and the cook.

I ear-marked a passage that I really love and wanted to share. It’s from near the end, but doesn’t give anything away. Here it is:

“We’ve been an empire in decline since I can remember,” Ketchum said bluntly; he wasn’t kidding. “We are a lost nation, Danny. Stop farting around.”

Just Finished Reading… Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

There’s nothing I love more than being surprised by a story. It doesn’t happen that often anymore. Movies, books, music, even the good ones, mostly are about what you expect when you’re getting into it. Every once in a while, something still surprises. And when it happens, I smile for weeks.

Await Your Reply is surprises all the way down. Being from NE Ohio myself, I had heard of this Dan Chaon character. An unassuming man quietly writing books in my back yard, teaching at Oberlin. I thought he wrote high-falutin’ stuff, American-family-distopia stuff. I don’t know who told me such lies. To be honest, I was finally moved to pick up one of his books because I’m desperately looking for fellow authors to “blurb” my debut novel. But I knew I was going to love this story from the synopsis.

Forget jerk-off elitist literary fare, this is a noir thriller written well. We are treated to three stories, told in alternating chapters. Each focusses on a character in search of an identity: a twin tracking his insane brother into the wastes of the arctic; a young man learning identity-theft from his estranged father; a demure young woman trying out a new life on the run with her former teacher. All great stories on their own.

And then, they begin to come together…

I’m not going to ruin anything about this read. You simply have to pick it up.

Await Your Reply is an exploration of what makes up our identity. And if we’re nothing more than compilation of memory, what do we become when we invent different histories? Can we ever truly reinvent who we are?

Just Finished Reading… At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

A group of scientists discover something alien frozen in the wastes of the South Pole; the idea is so overused, it has gone past cliche and into the realms of Metafiction. But it all started with this creepy story by Lovecraft, written in 1931 (unless you count the final pages of Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, written in 1838, where Poe’s story bleakly hints at the land of the Old Ones.) At the Mountains of Madness is the inspiration for The Thing, the first X-Files movie, and countless episodes of The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits.

I had been aware of the story, and had a vague understanding of Cthulu cult, Old Ones, and Shoggoths, for some time, as they are name-dropped by just about every sci fi author or director of the last 50 years. I had been saving my introduction to Lovecraft for the appropriate moment and I figured I’d finally dive in before seeing this year’s The Thing prequel. It was perfect timing. There might not be a better story to read in NE Ohio during a gray and cold October.

The story, some 70 years old, still holds up. The language is archaic at times but this adds to a sense of period and place and is just a lot of fun to read. Pretty straight-forward plot: a group of scientists journey to the South Pole only to find a previously undiscovered mountain range with odd square-shaped buildings jutting from the peaks, suggesting some intelligent beings once lived there. Except, according to the present ground samples and glaciers, the buildings, if that’s what they are, must have been built millions of years before humans.

Not to ruin it for you, but eventually the scientists’ curiosity gets the better of them.

One structural novelty that would not get by editors today is the constant build-up by the narrator of what we’re about to read. Almost every chapter begins with, “I dread the things I’m about to share with you, but it’s important I share them so that no one else ventures to the South Pole.” Readers have no patience for that sort of throat-clearing today. Which is a shame, because it really adds some cool suspence.

If you haven’t already, check it out before the snow sets in.

Just Finished Reading…And Another Thing, by Eoin Colfer.

I LOVED the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a kid. All five books in the trilogy. Discovering the story of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Trillian, and Zaphod Beeblebrox, was an almost magical moment in my adolescence. Life changing. I knew it was something special from the moment two dangerous missiles honing in on the heroes’ ship were inexplicably turned into a whale and a potted plant. Ever since, I made sure to scan the shelves of the bookstore, wishing I might find a sixth book in the series. Even after Douglas Adams passed away, in 2001, I couldn’t help but continue looking. He was the sort of guy who might release yet another book after his death.

Turns out I was half right.

At the time of Adams’ death, he had begun to plot out another novel. From those notes, Eoin Colfer, wrote And Another Thing, which I somehow missed until I found it on a bargain bin at the Borders closeout sale in Cuyahoga Falls.

There’s a lot that’s good about this book. Colfer captures the absurd whimsy of Adams nicely, especially in the first 100 pages. Once again, Arthur and Ford must escape planet Earth before it is destroyed (once and finally for all) by Vogons. They are reunited with Trillian, as well as Trillian and Arthur’s emo daughter, Random, and, eventually Zaphod Beeblebrox, who is one head lighter than last we saw him. The crux of the story involves a colony of humans settling on a new planet and how, with the aide of Thor, Arthur and crew try to save them from the last wave of Vogons.

The middle, however, takes a long diversion into the POV of the colony’s leader as he interviews candidates for their new God and loses a little steam for a bit. Also, if I’m reading a Hitchhikers book, I want me some MARVIN! That depressive robot, my favorite character, was no where to be found. Sure, Adams killed him off in So Long And Thanks for All the Fish, but in a world of time travel and improbability drives, it’s not too hard to write him back in. If you can bring back Wowbagger, you can bring back Marvin!

Still…it was wonderful to return to the Heart of Gold and to see Arthur and company again. If you’re a fan, it’s definitely worth the read.

The Man from Primrose Lane now available for pre-order.

My debut novel, The Man from Primrose Lane is now available at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble online.

Here’s the description:

In West Akron, there lived a reclusive elderly man who always wore mittens, even in July. He had no friends and no family; all over town, he was known only as the Man from Primrose Lane. And on a summer day in 2008, someone murdered him.

Four years later, David Neff is a broken man. The bestselling author of a true-crime book about an Ohio serial killer, Neff went into exile after his wife’s inexplicable suicide. That is, until an unexpected visit from an old friend introduces him to the strange mystery of “the man with a thousand mittens.” Soon Neff finds himself drawn back into a world he thought he had left behind forever. But the closer he gets to uncovering the true identity of the Man from Primrose Lane, the more he begins to understand the dangerous power of his own obsessions and how they may be connected to the deaths of both his beloved wife and the old hermit.

With a deft and singular blend of suspense, literature, and horror, The Man from Primrose Lane boasts as many twists and turns as a roller coaster. It’s a spellbinding journey of redemption and a reflection on the roles of fate, destiny, and obsession when it comes to matters of the heart.

Reserve your copy today and I’ll send you a cookie or something.

Just finished reading… Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

I’ve been trying to mix up my reading list a little so I can tackle some classics in between pop culture must-reads. I read somewhere years ago that one of Stephen King’s favorite stories was an old gothic yarn called Rebecca and so I went to the used bookstore around the corner and asked for it. A woman looking through paperbacks a few feet away stopped what she was doing and looked at me. “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” she said.

A very odd thing to say to a stranger in a bookshop. Turns out it’s the first line of the novel. And like the woman in the shop, I think that line and many others from this book will haunt me for a long while.

Some call it a ghost story, this tale of a young woman who meets a rich and sad windower on vacation and follows him home to his mansion estate. But it’s just as easily interpreted as an exploration of psychology, of the narrator’s own paranoia and psychology. Is it the ghost of Rebecca, the dead wife, who haunts the narrator or is it her own growing insecurity? The book is full of mood and tone and just great writing and the last hundred pages almost seem to catch fire and collapse around the reader in successive twists and turns as the great Manderley estate, itself, quickly comes undone.

And any writer who can make rhododendrons so sinister is quite good at what she does.

Just Finished Reading…The Long Tomorrow, By Leigh Brackett

Every once in a while, you visit a used bookstore and happen across a forgotten classic. In May, I drove through the little town of Kinsman, Ohio, on my way to Pymatuning to sit in a cabin and finish a novel that won’t be published for some time. A used bookstore has slowly eaten away most of the other businesses in town and now occupies several storefronts around a convenience store/soda stand. Near the register I noticed a shelf devoted to an author I’d never heard of. Turns out Leigh Brackett is a local legend, a woman from California! who moved there with her husband and wrote scifi novels in a house down the street.

Brackett, I learned, also wrote several screenplays. Big stuff. Rio Bravo. The Big Sleep. And, the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back. I picked The Long Tomorrow up because I thought this was such a beautiful cover. See more Brackett covers here.

I’m glad I did. The book is just wonderful, classic scifi. It begins in Pymatuning, 100 years after a nuclear war has destroyed every city on earth. In Brackett’s world, it’s the Amish and Mennonites who survive the apocalypse. One day, a precocious boy, Len, and his cousin, Esau, come across a radio, a forbidden piece of technology that may have come from the last remaining city. The object kicks off the adventure as Len and Esau set out into the territories in search of the truth.

Like all good sci fi, the story is compelling even as the bigger themes develop in the writing. Visit a used bookstore and get a copy for yourself!

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