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: 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.

Read This: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I will give any book a chance if the author owns a DeLorian. And Ready Player One, by uber-geek Ernest Cline, did not disappoint.

If you don’t know already, RPO is set in the not-too-distant future, where most of humanity works, plays, and shops in a virtual reality simulation known as the OASIS. Meanwhile, the real world is pretty much falling apart due to pollution, an endless Recession, and general neglect–people live in “stacks” of trailers, little hillbilly skyscrapers. And then one day, the reclusive man who created the OASIS (Steve Jobs-stand-in Jim Halliday) dies and leaves his fortune to the first person who can solve the puzzle he’s cleverly hidden within the OASIS. Enter teen hero Wade Watts, a poor kid from the wrong side of the stacks, whose vast knowledge of 80’s video games and trivia may help him reach his goal before the evil corporate goons who are trying to get there first.

The story has been described as “Willy Wanka meets the Matrix,” but to me it was much more like a geeky Da Vinci Code. The frenetic pacing is there, and the narrative is driven by the hero solving seemingly complex riddles.

Ah, but the love is in the details. For anyone who grew up playing Atari 2600 or Commodore 64, while listening to RUSH, this book is a welcome reminder of why the 80’s were so damn cool. Zork. Monty Python. WarGames. Adventure. Blade Runner. Pac-Man. Back to the Future. Pizza arcades, for God’s sake! What happened to our pizza arcades?

It’s no wonder someone like Ridley Scott snatched up the film rights. But it’s going to be a copyright nightmare to get all the players on board. Can’t wait to see this one in a theater with my kid.

Oh, and for those who have not yet read it, take some time and brush up on your 80’s video game history by clicking the links below.


Read This… Koko, by Peter Straub

Found this novel staring at me from the shelf of a used book store about a year ago. I picked it up, saw it was a first edition, and decided I had nothing to lose at the discounted price of $2.50. As I walked it to the counter, a single playing card fell out of the middle of the book, where, I assume, someone had marked a page. Only later did I come to discover how disturbing an omen this was.

My only exposure to Peter Straub (excellent Slate interview here) before this book was through his collaborations with Stephen King in the Talisman saga. I feel a little sad that I’ve found him only now. It’s been too long since I’ve fallen in love with a book. And I’m smitten with this one.

Koko is my favorite kind of story–a quest that brings together mismatched characters who would never befriend each other under normal circumstances. It’s a tale about adults coming together to face a demon they thought they left behind years ago. In this way, it reminds a bit of King’s IT, another great story that sticks with you. Three Vietnam veterans (a lawyer, a doctor and carpenter) reunite to track down a serial killer who they believe was part of their platoon during the war. This killer has been going around offing people connected to their unit and leaving a souvenir in their mouths–a regimental playing card with the word “Koko” written on it.

Like the best novels written in the 80’s and 90’s, it’s a big friggin book, clocking in at 560 pages. Long enough to get lost in the story of these men and their hunt for a killer.

Straub’s writing is wonderful. Through scenes of mundane human existence he explores universal themes of redemption, grace, the nature of evil and forgiveness. In this way, his narrative–often revolving around cooking and writing–reminded me of John Irving more than King. But he also understands suspense and horror like King. I have to say I’m also humbled by the recognition of the research Straub must have done for this book–half of which is set in Saigon and Bangkok and Vietnam–especially when I consider this was done in a world before the Internet.

In the end, Straub’s alter-ego reflects on listening to good jazz in a tent in Vietnam. “We heard fear dissolved by mastery,” he thinks. The book is about applying this thought to life. And it’s something I intend to do as much as I can.

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