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.

Meet the new book: It Came from Ohio!

So remember that part in The Man from Primrose Lane where the cop encounters a half-man/half-frog with a spark wand on the back roads of Loveland, Ohio? Believe it or not that’s based on a real incident that occurred near Cinci decades ago. The true story of the Loveland Frog appears in my new book, It Came from Ohio! which you can now pre-order by clicking the picture (that’s the Frog on the cover).

It Came from Ohio! is a collection of 13 short investigations I conducted into famous Ohio legends. There’s the story of the Portage County deputies who chased a flying saucer into Pennsylvania, an expose of an elite secret society that owns a private island on Lake Erie which they staff with underage European girls, and other oddities like jealous ghosts and canibalistic mutant children.

The book will be released in October as a paperback and an ebook for all formats. Just in time for Halloween!

Read the Introduction at Barnes & Noble!

Skip This: The Clan of the Cave Bear, By Jean M. Auel

I don’t give up on a book easily. I can count on one hand the times this has happened. But this book and I have come to a parting of the ways. And this is sad, because I really wanted to like this book.

I’ve always been curious about The Clan of the Cave Bear. I love the idea of setting a sweeping epic story during the time of cavemen. And the covers for this series by Jean M. Auel are absolutely beautiful and practically call to readers, promising adventure within. On a recent trip to Manhattan, I found an old paperback copy at The Strand which was autographed and figured it was finally time to dig in.

The writing is fine. Utilitarian in places, but the pacing and flow and economy of words is polished. The story, itself, begins well enough– a Homosapien girl loses her tribe and is adopted by a clan of Cro-Magnons on the great steppes of the Mammoth fields. But as interesting a world as Auel creates, I practically had to force myself to read on. Three hundred pages in, it began to feel like work. Why? This story has no ticking clock. Her protagonist, Ayla, is not given a goal or mission, other than to try to fit in–or not–as a member of the Clan. As a reader, we don’t really know why we’re reading, other than to understand Auel’s theories on Ancient society. There is simply nothing driving the narration.

To me, this book read as an experiment by a great historian to write a novel in order to get other people as excited in the things she studied as she was. And, given the success of the book in the 80’s, it worked. But it didn’t work for me. Unfortunately.

Aussie’s RadioNational Airs In-depth Interview

Check out my in-depth interview about the influences behind The Man from Primrose Lane. (download available).

 

American writer James Renner is a journalist and true crime specialist. So it’s no surprise that a true crime journalist is the hero in his new novel, The Man from Primrose Lane. But that’s pretty much where the novel’s relation to reality and conventional narrative ends.

The Man from Primrose Lane is a novel with a significant plot twist at its centre, one that we can’t possibly reveal without giving the story away.

Watch This: Prometheus

Typically, this space is meant for book reviews but after seeing Prometheus last night I feel compelled to say a few things about the new Alien story, written mostly by Damon Lindelof. This discussion will be SPOILER-rific, so maybe go see the movie first, then come back and read.

LAST WARNING, SPOILERS AHEAD.

First of all, I need to correct some things you may have read in Lisa Schwarzbaum’s review in Entertainment Weekly.  As a writer, myself (though still very green and naive), I get pretty upset when a well-read critic mis-understands the finer points of one of my stories. If you read Lisa’s review, you come away believing that Prometheus doesn’t have the balls to back a specific religion as the protector of humanity. She also weirdly refers to the aliens as “directors” instead of “engineers” but I digress.

Prometheus clearly endorses Christianity. You kind of have to be blind to miss this. The lead, Elizabeth Shaw, carries a cross (literally) through the film. The spaceship lands on Christmas Day. There’s even a scene where robot David washes the feet of his creator. If you went to Sunday school, you couldn’t miss this.

Why is it important? Because Christianity might be the whole point of the bigger story that Lindelof and Ridley Scott have set up, here.

We learn early on in the film that the “Space Jockeys,” the very tall super humans who seeded life on Planet Earth (through *ahem* messianic self-sacrifice) all died out around “2,000 years ago” when there was some discussion about destroying the humans they had created. Anything important supposedly happen on Earth about 2,000 years ago? Oh right, people started worshiping Jesus as the “son of God.” Imagine if the robots we eventually create suddenly began to believe they were created by this superior being who promised them eternal life? We might get mad but more probably, we would think something was wrong with their circuitry. A glitch. And we’d want to fix them. Perhaps by scrapping their model and starting over.

If you miss the Christianity connection, which many reviewers did, you miss the whole subtext of what’s going on between the Space Jockeys and humans. And humans and robots.

Having some time to think about it, here’s what I think happened with the Space Jockeys. Their leader heard about this Jesus thing and freaked the eff out. Decided it was time to wipe humanity out with those weaponized alien vases. But one Space Jockey had second thoughts. Let’s see what becomes of this Jesus thing, it thought. And so it opened up some canisters, releasing aliens on its own kind, before sealing itself in the cryogenic pod. It wanted to wait until humans came for it, to see if they had evolved into the graceful and kind race that Christianity promised.

Except, when it’s finally awaked by the humans, what is the first thing it sees? A fight. The humans have come this far but are still fighting with each other. The experiment was a failure, after all. The right decision all along was to wipe out humanity.

A bummer, sure. But one that makes a lot more sense, in context.

Read This: Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Confession: This book falls outside my comfort zone. It does not have monsters or time travel or time traveling monsters. There were a couple reasons I picked it up. 1. Megan and I have the same agent (the tenacious Julie Barer). And 2. That goddamn cover. Geez that’s a great cover. So I read the first short story (this is a collection) with not a little trepidation. But it was the last line of that story (Housewifely Arts, which was included in The Best American Short Stories) that forever made me a fan of Megan Mayhew Bergman‘s writing: “What maniacs we are — sick with love, all of us.”

There are several themes explored in this collection of stories. Love sickness, that’s one. Humanity’s place in nature, that’s another. Also: Survivalism; Responsibility; That unknowable thing that makes a place a home. I kept the book on my bedside table, reading it slow, a story at a time, before bed. I fell asleep to lovely writing, the best way to go out, for something like a month.

It strikes me (and I’m guessing better critics saw this) that Mayhew Bergman is a woman’s answer to Jonathan Franzen– something the literary world has been searching for in response to his alleged machoism. She and Franzen explore the same themes and, at times, journey down the same trails. For instance, the title story is about a young woman who lives on a swamp with her father, who believes an extinct bird might live nearby. One day, an older man arrives, and pays them to help him do some bird-watching in the swamp. I actually pictured Franzen in this role, looking for his goddamn warbler, Mayhew Bergman as the young woman.

Like Franzen, her writing is about the nuances of human interaction and how silly it all is in the face of Nature. Like Franzen, there is much subtext here. But what makes Mayhew Bergman’s writing different is her sense of dignity and grace in place of derision. There is hope here.

Besides the two I’ve already mentioned, my favorites in this bunch are the two survivalist stories: Yesterday’s Whales (about a clueless prep-school grad who wants the human race to die out… and his response to his wife’s pregnancy) and Artificial Heart (set in the year 2050, about a young woman who must take care of her fisherman father, whose mechanical heart won’t stop beating, even after all the fish in the sea have died).

Pick up a copy, put it by your bed, and enjoy at your leisure.

The Truthiness Behind The Man from Primrose Lane

I like to blend the boundaries of fiction and real life in my novels, rubbing it so thin a reader begins to question the very nature of reality.

Some people, upon finishing The Man from Primrose Lane, have been inspired to Google-search some parts of the story before promptly freaking the fuck out when they realize how much of a novel about serial killers, time travel, and frog monsters really happened.

I’ve hidden dozens of easter eggs inside the book (and I will never reveal them all). But here are a few choice oddities. Click on the pics to jump down the rabbit hole:

Yes, an Ohio recluse, living under a fake name, with a large sum of money in savings, was found dead in his house and no one knows who he was.

Yes, Mansfield, Ohio, is home to Elektro the Robot and his fellow automatons.

Yes, a Loveland policeman really fired his gun at some kind of Frog Monster.

Yes, Ronald Mallet’s time machine is real.

Yes, the Cuyahoga River does catch fire.

Yes, the first paragraph of Episode 13 is from a true crime book I wrote in 2006.

Read This: The Wind Through the Keyhole, by Stephen King

I finished reading the last page of The Dark Tower series on a flight into Bangor, in 2004. I cried. I had come to know Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah, and Oy very well over the course of my teenage years it was like losing a friend. The ending is so complete I never thought I’d chance to see them again. But you can never say never with ol’ Uncle Steve. He’s got a lot of tricks in his bag, that one. This is just to say I was quite happy to hear he’d written another novel set in the Dark Tower universe.

The Wind Through the Keyhole fits, chronologically (though, chronology in the DT world is not what it used to be) somewhere between books 4 and 5. Roland and his ka-tet have just left the Emerald City and are heading along the path of the Beam toward Calla Bryn Sturgis when their precocious four-legged companion, the billy-bumbler, Oy, begins to act skittish. The animal senses a “Starkblast,” a super-storm that will shortly freeze the surrounding countryside. They seek refuge inside an old building and there, to pass the time, Roland tells them the story of the time he and his pal Jamie went in search of a shape-shifter that was killing lots of folken years ago. But there’s more. Within that story of the hunt for the shape-shifter, we are treated to a fairytale about a boy named Tim who must go on a perilous journey to save his mother’s eyesight. It’s a story-inside-a-story-inside-a-story, the Inception of the Dark Tower saga. And it fucking rocked my socks off.

One little spoiler for longtime fans: we get to see the man in black again, in all his evil glory.

I’ve said it before and I stand by it: King is at his very best when he’s writing about the Dark Tower. There are no boundaries to that world because it’s an entire universe he’s created within his head, a universe of King stories. It’s King at his most free.

Read This? Bloodman, by Robert Pobi

My favorite perk of being a published writer is getting advance reader copies of novels. For an avid reader, it’s like a secret peek into the future. So I was excited to get down to Bloodman, by Robert Pobi, before its scheduled May 15 release. But damned if I know how to review it.

It’s a murder mystery, okay? Let’s start there. The main character is this hard-wrung dude, Jake Cole, who is like a profiler-savant, a Rain Man of crime. He can look at a violent scene and recreate the killing in his mind. Oh, and his body is covered in a tattoo’ed passage from Dante’s Inferno, a tattoo he never remembers getting. Cole’s father is a brilliant painter who is losing his mind. The book begins with Cole’s return to his father’s house on Long Island just as a Cat-5 hurricane is bearing down….just as someone begins to skin the residents of this quiet beachfront community.

So, good, yes? Yes. But… for me (and this is coming from a lifelong dark-Horror fan) some of the violence crossed the line. There’s a skinned kid. Hard shit to read. But most troubling to me was the love story at the center, between Cole and his wife. She likes for him to choke her during sex. Hard enough to bust blood vessels in her eyes. Not cool. Even if it’s consenting adults.

And yet, I couldn’t put it down. And that, in the end, is my litmus test for books. I love the way Pobi treats the hurricane as a character of its own, it certainly builds suspense quite well as it nears shore. While some of the dialogue between the lovers doesn’t quite ring true, the description of each scene–especially any scene involving art–is beautifully rendered. And the ending was truly shocking. A difficult thing to pull off anymore.

A Modern Day Crucible

A group of teens hijacked a murder investigation in a rich suburb of Cleveland, in 1990. An innocent man almost went to prison and a killer went free. Here’s the true story of the death of Lisa Pruett.

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