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.

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!

Just Finished Reading…The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock

Holy shit! You gotta read this motherfuckin book!

I was lucky enough to get a galley of The Devil All The Time and actually read it in March, but now that it’s coming out soon (July 12) you can read it, too.

Here’s the gist: A handful of smalltown folk grapple with the notion of what God wants for them and their kindred, how much prayer and faith effect their day-to-day business. Characters include a man who gave up everything to God by warring in the South Pacific, only to return home to find a paradise he can’t hold onto no matter how much he prays; a latent homosexual and his wife who collect strange men on a cross-country killing spree; a fire-and-brimstone preacher and his wheelchair-bound cousin; a corrupt sheriff and his prostitute sister.

The prose is…wonderful. Parsed down to the basics in a way I thought only Cormac McCarthy could pull off. Brutal. Unrelenting. Several times I found myself thinking “you can’t do that!” and Pollock just does and it works brilliantly.

I think some will read this as a validation of atheism but, for me, God was pulling the strings for these characters all along, leading them toward each other for that ultimate confrontation at the end.

There is a shifting of perspective throughout, a kind of hyper omniscient point of view, that was a little jarring at first but something I came to accept quickly.

I want to direct this movie. Will someone please give me a bunch of money so we can make that happen?

Just Finished Reading… The Stolen Child

I love fantasy but I’m feeling a bit burned out from all the awful vampire/werewolf/alien books, lately, and have been searching for some new re-imagining of a forgotten legend that has not been played out. I found it in The Stolen Child. I guess I missed out on the whole zeitgeist for this thing as just about anyone I mention it to has already read it. Someone gave it to me as a gift and I read it immediately.

The story is inspired by Yeats’ melancholy poem about the creepy changeling myth and it manages to capture its essence and tone for some 300 pages. It begins as young Henry Day fights with his mother and “runs away” into the forest to scare her into paying attention to him again instead of doting over his twin sisters all the time. There, he is captured by a tribe of changelings, faeries that can alter their appearance to look like human children. One of the changelings switches places with Henry and the rest of the book is told in alternating chapters from their different perspectives as they search for their true identities.

Perhaps I brought too much of myself into the book as I read, but I also felt as though the story was a bit of an exploration on that time in a man’s life when he is forced to put his childhood aside and become the man he must be. For each of us, there is a time when we realize the darker nature of the world and are forced to either find our place in it or lose ourselves to it.

Blah blah blah, psychobable, right? Whatever. The story is great. And, better, it’s something new. Read it.

Just Finished Reading…The Last Child

I’m finally caught up on my John Hart, having finished his most recent crime novel, The Last Child. I was introduced to his work by a nice editor at St. Martin’s last year and thought it would be a cool learning experience to read his three books in the order they were published, beginning with King of Lies, to see if I could watch him grow as a writer. I thought maybe I could pick up some tricks along the way.

The Last Child, when you really get into it, is not one mystery, but three, which slowly unravel from the core narrative which is the search for Alyssa Merrimon’s killer, a search that is conducted by her twin brother, Johnny, age 13. What Hart does here is counter to what most mystery authors do. Instead of bringing his threads together as the novel progresses, these separate mysteries (who abducted Alyssa? who kidnapped a second girl? what’s up with this black man who speaks to God?) actually pull further and further apart until you realize they have very little to do with each other, in the end. Or, maybe they are all linked in some metaphysical way. The end product is a more mature story than anything Hart has attempted before, and the one that reads most true.

As in real life, there is no tight, happy ending. Not everything is connected. Or has to be. Sometimes we move from one tragedy to another. I think what Hart is going for here is the idea that grace, in the end, will win against the forces of darkness. And I can get behind that.

Like all Hart’s novels, it’s crazy hard to put down. He’s perfected his pacing and structure over the course of three books. Can’t wait to see what’s next.

Just Finished Reading… The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

A memoir about love and murder as told by a chimp? Yes, please, I thought when I first heard about Benjamin Hale’s debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. What I imaged and hoped for was an adventure story in the vein of Conquest for the Planet of the Apes or something. Some cross-country journey from the point of view of the world’s first speaking chimpanzee. A forbidden unrequited love. What it’s like to be an alien in a world of men.

And, all that’s there, in some form. But, that’s not what this book is about. This book is about language. Language as philosophy. Language as love. Language as evil. Language as grace. It is not about the moment Bruno becomes self-aware (through language) but about the process of becoming self aware (through words, words, words). Learning to think is a process, after all.

The book, itself, treats language as a commodity. It is beautifully written, the words streaming through your head, gently, in time. But, only if you have the lexicon to keep pace. This, of course, will limit the novel’s appeal to a wider audience. But maybe that’s okay. Bruno, himself, would care little about how many readers he reached so long as the ones he did enjoyed the show.

The hardest leap for any reader, though, comes with the story of Bruno’s love for Lydia, the scientist (partly modeled on primatologist Jane Goodall) who rescued him from the Lincoln Park Zoo. For, that love is decidedly not unrequited. And this central narrative owes much, I think, to Nabokov.

Hale, as a writer, delights in allusions to great works of literature and popular culture, throughout. Planet of the Apes is there, of course, but also and mostly, Pinocchio (for who is Leon Smoler, Bruno’s best friend, if not a present-day Stromboli?). If I’m not mistaken, I also caught references to The Twilight Zone and (perhaps) Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.

I loved the book but I wanted more whimsy. This is a fun idea. But it is seldom fun. It’s too busy being serious. Will I recommend it? Yes. But not to everyone.

Perversely, I really want to see this adapted for cinema. Spike Jonze would make this sing.

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