CALL ME MEAT

We were on our way to a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game, having a bite to eat in a Hollywood diner before heading out.

“Now listen,” said Craig Modderno, a freelance journalist who, I had learned from sometimes head-shaking experience, could get me into the craziest situations at the most unexpected times. “We’ve got to wait a few more minutes.”

“Why?” I demanded, suspicious of what Modderno might be up to.

“We may have a guest coming to the game with us,” Modderno replied. “I don’t know if he’s gonna show up. But let’s wait a few more minutes and see.”

Greg Henry, the blond-haired, square-jawed actor who was a favorite of director Brian DePalma (Body Double, Scarface, Casualties of War) and I grumbled a bit but we agreed to wait.

A few minutes later in walked Modderno’s guest, Marvin Lee Aday, better known to the world and the fourteen million people who had bought his iconic Bat out of Hell album, as Meat Loaf.

Meat Loaf, in town for a movie, turned out to be a huge baseball fan. He couldn’t resist an evening at Dodger Stadium even if it was with three strangers. He sat down with us for a few minutes, very much at ease considering he had just met us (Modderno had interviewed him in the afternoon).

He wanted to take his car out to Elysium Fields in South Central Los Angeles. It was agreed that I would ride along with him. He was behind the wheel of a big rental sedan as we headed south, chatting away about some awful film experience he had recently endured while I’m thinking to myself, What do I call a guy named Meat Loaf? Meat? Loaf? So I asked him.

“Call me Meat,” he said with a grin.

And Meat it was, although I still fumbled self-consciously every time I said it.

Driving to the stadium, I prattled on about the irony of meeting him. I told him I’d just driven across the country from Toronto. On the way, I’d cranked up Bat Out of Hell, squinting hard, hoping to see paradise by the dashboard light, fighting off the demons I thought I’d left behind but soon realized had snuck into my Mustang and were travelling with me.

Bat Out of Hell, I told him, had helped keep them at bay.

To his credit, Meat took my babble in stride and did a great job pretending he hadn’t heard variations on this a few thousand times since the release of the album.

For a singer and actor often described as larger than life, Meat was surprisingly lowkey. He was big, no question, but certainly not overwhelming, and when we got to the stadium, he went largely unrecognized. Only the stadium manager, when Modderno introduced us, seemed to know who he was.

The four of us sat in the bleachers, doing what you do at a baseball game, drinking beer, eating hot dogs, shooting the breeze, and, oh yeah, occasionally watching the game. I don’t recall much of what we talked about, but hearing of Meat Loaf’s death at the far-too-young age of 74, I remembered the ease and the laughter, four guys together on a warm Los Angeles evening, enjoying the simple pleasure of each other’s company.

Three die-hard baseball fans and a Canadian, sitting beside the guy who had kept away the demons chasing him across the country, working to get his head around calling him Meat.

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TO SIDNEY, WITH LOVE: REMEMBERING SIDNEY POITIER

My lasting memory of Sidney Poitier as the news came of his death t the age of 94, is of him making an entrance at a birthday party in Malibu for the producer Jerry Weintraub.

This was a party overflowing with famous people. Johnny Carson, Neil Diamond, Jacqueline Bissett, James Caan, the guest list went on and on. Never before had I rubbed shoulders in one place with so many Hollywood celebrities getting drunk.

Yet even in that glitzy crowd, Sidney Poitier stood out. Taller than just about anyone else present, powerfully handsome, movie star charisma on full display as he moved gracefully through the crowd with his wife, the actress Joanna Shimkus.

Years before, I had spent time with him and Harry Belafonte as they promoted Buck and the Preacher, a western they had done together. After the first director, Joseph Sergeant, was dispatched, Poitier had taken over to make his directing debut.

Poitier and Belafonte had known each other since they were young men together at New York’s American Negro Theater. In fact, Poitier’s first break as an actor came after Belafonte failed to show up for a rehearsal and Poitier replaced him. A producer happened to see the rehearsal and that led to Poitier’s Broadway debut and subsequent movie career.

Discussing their first film together, the two stars displayed an easy rapport, although Belafonte was the more loquacious, Poitier much more reticent and guarded. It was the heyday of the so-called blaxploitation films and he did not like any idea that Buck and the Preacher might be lumped into that category.

The movie didn’t do well with either audiences or critics, but it ushered in a series of curious directing assignments (a trio of Bill Cosby comedies) and starring roles in forgettable dramas (A Warm December, The Wilby Conspiracy).

When he attended that Jerry Weintraub birthday party, he had not been on the screen for over a decade. The trifecta of groundbreaking hits that made him Hollywood’s first black superstar—In the Heat of the Night; To Sir, with Love; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—were far behind him.

Yet it didn’t matter. That night in a sea of stars, Sidney Poitier shone.

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WUNDERKIND MEETS LEGEND: REMEMBERING PETER BOGDANOVICH

Avidly listening to the legendary director Otto Preminger in his Detroit hotel suite in 1971 as he recounted acerbic tales of an old Hollywood slipping into the sunset from the man who had made such classics as Laura and Anatomy of a Murder, we were interrupted by a knock on the door.

A moment later, a somewhat unprepossessing young man wearing horn-rimmed glasses glided into the room. Peter Bogdanovich was anxious to meet one of his film heroes, and Preminger, beaming at the attention, was delighted to meet Bogdanovich. At that time, the 31-year-old former film critic, and Orson Welles pal, was Hollywood’s hottest and most adored young filmmaker thanks to the critical adulation showered upon his second feature, The Last Picture Show.

It was an amazing moment to witness, Old Hollywood coming face-to-face with the New Hollywood. I don’t recall much about their conversation, but I do believe the word masterpiece was tossed back and forth a time or two.

Standing together in that hotel suite, Preminger at the tail end of his long career, could shake hands with the future; Young Bogdanovich, at the beginning of his, had a closeup view of the movie past he at once revered and wanted desperately to replace. There is always the new gun in town. Back then Bogdanovich was the new gun, but as Preminger could have told him from personal experience, it wouldn’t last.

And it didn’t.

During the years I lived in Los Angeles, I would occasionally spot Bogdanovich browsing through the bookstore at the Beverly Center or poking around Book Soup, the iconic Sunset Boulevard book emporium. He was alone, way down on his luck at that point. If anyone other than me recognized him, they gave scant sign of it.

When the news came of his death at the age of 82, he was probably better remembered as the psychotherapist in The Sopranos than he was for The Last Picture Show or any of his other films.

But as I tend to do these days, I paused to remember another time sticking stubbornly to hazy memory: that morning in a Detroit hotel suite when the wunderkind met the legend.

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WEST SIDE CRYBABY

Steven Spielberg’s beautifully reimagined West Side Story succeeds in doing what the musical has always done to me—turning me a sobbing emotional wreck.

Tears-streaming-down-my-face wrecked. For-god’s-sake-it’s-only-a-movie wrecked. Please-don’t-turn-the-house-lights-on-at-the-end wrecked.

Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant score has only to swell majestically as Tony meets Maria on that iconic fire escape and I’m in tears. I would like to think that this happens because as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more sensitive and emotional. This blubbering in fact has been going on since 1961 when as a kid I first saw the movie version of the Broadway hit. It happened every time I played the motion picture soundtrack album. I’ve seen a stage production twice, losing it both times.

I remember discussing the emotional hold West Side Story had on me with Larry Kert who was the original Tony in the 1957 stage production. Kert laughed and said he felt much the same, despite the number of times he had played Tony. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the musical, once described Kert as “laughing, bubbling, and deadly funny,” and that’s also my memory of him during an early dinner before he went off to Detroit’s Fisher Theatre where he was performing in the musical of Two Gentlemen of Verona. He was still slightly miffed that he had been passed over for the movie.

Years later, I talked to Robert Wise, the director of the movie (or rather co-director with Jerome Robbins) about what went into the casting. By that time, he said, Larry Kert, at the age of 30, was deemed too old to play the teenage Tony.

One afternoon, sitting around his Beverly Hills office, Wise, using notes he had taken at the time, talked about the jaw-dropping range of actresses and actors they had looked at searching for the right Tony and Maria. Ironically, given the power of the music, no one seemed concerned that almost none of the actors auditioned could sing (as it turned out, everyone was dubbed, anyway).

Jill St. John “is lovely,” Wise wrote in his notes, “but she doesn’t seem like Maria” (no kidding!). Jerome Robbins pushed for Carol Lawrence who had originated Maria on Broadway, but eventually it was decided that at the age of 25, she, like Larry Kert, was too old. Elizabeth Ashley was also in the running for a time.

Twenty-one-year-old Frankie Avalon was considered for Tony. Russ Tamblyn came close but didn’t get it (he ended up playing Riff, leader of the Jets). Tom Skerritt was thought to be too old. Richard Chamberlain gave a good reading “but looks and voice too mature,” thought Wise. George Hamilton, Burt Reynolds and George Segal were all auditioned, as was Robert Redford (they liked his reading) and, briefly, Jack Nicholson.

However, the actor Wise was most enthusiastic about for a time was a newcomer named Warren Beatty. Wise looked at Beatty in footage from Splendor in the Grass, the movie he was shooting at the time with his girlfriend, Natalie Wood. “And the minute she came on the screen,” Wise remembered, “we said, ‘Hey, that’s our Maria.’” Beatty was passed over in favor of another young newcomer, Richard Beymer who had appeared in The Diary of Anne Frank.

West Side Story on Broadway became a game-changing theatrical phenomenon. The movie is regarded as a classic that won ten Academy Awards. It was a huge hit in 1961. Everyone flocked to see it.

In 2021, sixty years after the release of the first film, sadly, no one is flocking to see Steven Spielberg’s recasting of West Side Story. I could be slightly prejudiced, but you will not see a more gorgeously mounted movie at the movies this year. Yet no one seems to care. The adults the studio was counting on to come to the film have not shown up, scared off, the thinking goes, by the continuing nervousness over the pandemic.

But there I was in a theatre on the opening weekend, swept away by that iconic music, those powerful performances, the transporting dance numbers, desperately holding everything in…

Until the fire escape.

Damn that fire escape! Damn that music! Damn Tony and Maria! Damn the silly, overwhelming romanticism I should have long ago ditched, but never could.

That was it. I lost it in the dark. Tears for a lifetime of memories, so moved, and yet embarrassed that at my age I am still crying at the movies.

Forever the West Side crybaby.

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The Old Man and the Chair

It was falling apart, my chair. My forever office chair. The hours I have spent in that chair! I’ve written most of the Sanibel Sunset Detective novels sitting in that chair, written four Milton mysteries and two Priscilla Tempest mysteries (the first of which, Death at the Savoy, arrives in April).

The chair has been part of me for so many years, I hated to part with it. The chair and me were falling apart together. The decision was made to keep me (for the time being at least), but it was time for the chair to go.

For my birthday, my wife, Kathy, devilish romantic that she is, has bought me a new chair. So yesterday, I carried the old chair, the chair that has seen me through thousands of writing hours, I lugged it out to the curb.

Frankly, I didn’t think much more about it until later in the evening when I happened to glance out the window. There was my chair, my buddy for so many years, sitting forlornly in the rain. It looked absolutely lonely and miserable. As I peered out the window, intense feelings of nostalgia swept over me. What had I done to my chair? I felt terrible.

A couple of hours later, my neighbour, Kent Doney, emailed me. Kent and his father, Jack, are longtime faithful Sanibel Sunset Detective readers. He had been out walking his dogs when he spotted the chair drenched in rain.

He pointed out that Sotheby’s recently had auctioned for close to two million dollars, the chair Ernest Hemingway sat in writing The Old Man and the Sea. Never mind that Hemingway did most of his writing standing up and a search of the internet yielded no sign of any such sale, in my delirium I began to think that, potentially, I had thrown, thousands of dollars out to the curb.

When I informed Kathy of my concern, she gave me one of those looks that have become all too familiar: a combination of skepticism and headshaking disbelief. At times such as this, Kathy speaks to me very calmly and very slowly: “Ron…leave…the chair…where…it is…”

Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist going out in the rain one last time to say goodbye to my chair. “You’ve been a great chair,” I said to the chair.

This morning my chair was gone. Picked up during the night. Off to a new home, I hoped.

I wonder if the new owner will ever know that he is sitting on thousands of dollars.

Potentially…

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WHAT ROSALIE LIKED, EVERYONE LIKED

When I phoned Rosalie Trombley, at the time one of the most powerful figures in the music business, I did not expect her to agree to talk to me.

Writing for the Windsor Star, I had been something of a thorn in the side of CKLW, the 50-thousand-watt Windsor AM radio station where she reigned as the widely admired—and feared– music director. Rosalie did not just play the hits on Detroit’s number one top 30 music station, she made the hits.

To my surprise, she agreed to talk for a profile I was doing on her for what was then Weekend Magazine. Although she was something of a legend within the music industry, she was not exactly a household word. Which was just the way she liked it.

In those days, the late Sixties, early 1970s, CKLW was in a unique position. An accident of geography gave what would otherwise have been a local radio station, entrée into the huge Detroit market and into the heart of the American Midwest If you listened to the Big 8, as the station called itself, you would never have known it originated in Canada. For its millions of listeners, CKLW was a hard-driving Detroit juggernaut.

This was the heyday of AM radio and the station had adopted the much more music format originated by a California disc jockey named Bill Drake. Drake rightly divined that young listeners wanted lots of music, not disc jockey banter. Rosalie had become one of the most fervent and successful disciples of that philosophy.

An attractive 33-year-old, her blond hair done in a bouffant, it was not hard to imagine Rosalie as a 1950s teenager from Leamington, Ontario, dancing to Frankie Lymon and Bo Diddley records on CKLW. She admitted that at the time she had little more than any normal kid’s interest in the hits of the day.

But after she arrived at the radio station as a parttime switchboard operator, she was moved to the music library. Soon the station manager asked her to “do the music.” The rest is radio broadcasting history. Some people have great natural singing voices. Rosalie had an intuitive knack for picking hit records.

Among her achievements at CKLW, she gets credit for exposing Bob Seger to a national audience, making Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking “What’s Going On” a hit, and attracting national attention for Elton John when she added “Bennie and the Jets” to her playlist.

By the time I talked to her, however, CKLW and Rosalie were under the gun to play the 30 per cent Canadian content demanded by the fledging Canadian Radio-Television Commission. I wrote a great deal about the station’s determination to do everything it could to circumvent the new rulings. They even tried to preview short Canadian song clips on the popular AM station, then play the whole song on the lesser FM station and call it Canadian content.  

Writing about this sort of conniving did not make me popular at the station. I can’t imagine Rosalie thought a whole lot of me. Nonetheless, she went along with the interview. We talked in her cramped office. She was guarded at first but not unfriendly, and eventually quite candid about her job and her reputation for toughness. “The only thing I care about is my station,” she pronounced.

Despite CKLW’s disdain for the content regulations, it is generally accepted that Rosalie’s championing of Canadian performers such as Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, and the Guess Who helped to introduce them to American audiences. Because of her influence on Canadian music, the news of Rosalie’s death yesterday at the age of 82, brought more attention than she ever got during her most dominant years at CKLW.

And while Rosalie might not be all that happy to hear this, thanks to her, I got to write my first magazine piece. That opened the door to a career as a freelance magazine writer in Canada and the United States.

Rosalie helping yet another Canadian act.

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The Forgotten Comedian: Remembering Mort Sahl

When I encountered him, Mort Sahl was opening at The Top Hat, a Windsor, Ontario nightclub better known for take-my-wife-please comedians than it was for Sahl’s cutting-edge brand of satire.

At that point, in the early 1970s, the Montreal-born Sahl had fallen out of favor, taking his gigs where he could get them. Which was probably how he ended up at the Top Hat. This was the guy who had shocked America in the Eisenhower fifties with his acerbic, take-no-prisoners humor, who had been on the cover of Time magazine who, along with Lenny Bruce, had revolutionized standup comedy. Now here he was sitting around in the afternoon before he opened, predicting that the audience was not going to get his humor.

Nonetheless, he rattled away, practically nonstop, much as he would that night, pulling humor and insight from the day’s headlines, impressing with his intelligence and uniquely critical view of the world.  I’m not sure whether it was the energy he expended in his afternoon performance with a reporter or the sparse crowd that showed up for his show, but when he got onstage wearing his usual open-collared shirt and V-neck sweater, he seemed deflated, waving around the trademark newspaper he always brought to his performances, but just going through the motions.

And he turned out to be right. The audience that night didn’t get his humor. My pal Ray Bennett, a fellow reporter who also saw Sahl’s show, remembered him ranting about the Warren Commission Report on the Kennedy assassination to the point where not only wasn’t it funny, it was mostly lost on a Canadian audience.

When the reports came of his death Monday at the age of 94, I must say I was caught by surprise. I hadn’t thought of him for years, the forgotten man of comedy. Most people I talked to about his death didn’t know him at all. Yet there would be no Dave Chappelle or Joe Rogan or any of the other envelope-pushing comedians around today without Mort Sahl. “Comedians have to challenge the power,” he once said. “Comedians should be dangerous and devastating.”

And because he was, they are.

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The Legend Was a Lady: Remembering Martha Henry

To be honest, I didn’t know quite what to make of Martha Henry when I first met her on the set of White Light, a movie that I had written and was co-producing. After all, this was…Martha Henry! Even back then she a legendary stage actress who, either by circumstance or inclination, had made herself available for few movies. Here she was doing our little thriller. I could hardly believe our good luck, but how to…well, respond to her.

I needn’t have worried. The legend turned out to be a down-to-earth, no-nonsense professional—who smoked a lot. As I got to know Martha over the next weeks, a couple of things struck me: her total naturalness when she stepped in front of a camera, a naturalness, I was quickly learning, not necessarily the strong suit of many actors faced with a camera.

The other thing that struck me is how lovely she was. For some reason, I had thought of her as a brilliant actress, but older and—dare I say?—rather plain. Instead, I found myself mesmerized by this strikingly beautiful woman. Nothing on a movie set appeared to perturb her. She did what she was supposed to do, on time and without complaint—although in retrospect she might rightfully have lobbed a few expletives in the direction of the script and the guy who wrote it.

White Light didn’t amount to much but Martha was wonderful in it. She deserved so much better than the movie we surrounded her with. But I had such a lovely time with her, aglow with the pride of having gotten to know her, accompanied, I have to admit, by a bit of a crush.

Years later, I saw her at Stratford in a production of Long Day’s Journey into Night in which she played the morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone. I was reminded all over again of just how good she was—brilliant! The Canadian theatrical legend once again in flower!

Hearing of her death, I was overwhelmed, sadly thinking back to those days on the set of the little movie in which she shone so brightly. The world knew the theatrical legend. Briefly, I befriended the delightful woman.

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Final Curtains

With Michael Caine, circa 1975

This past week Silverview, the last novel by the great John Le Carré arrived on my doorstep. Earlier, I saw No Time To Die, which—spoiler alert!—may very well be the final James Bond movie. And now word has come from London that Michael Caine at the age of 88 is retiring from acting.

Pondering these—for me, anyway—seismic events, I was struck by the realization that Le Carré, Bond, and Caine all have been part of my life ever since I was a kid. In their various ways they served as escape routes out of my humdrum small Ontario town youth. I owe a lot to them.

The glamour and the exotic locales of the Ian Fleming Bond novels, followed by the first three Sean Connery films, enthralled me. The books and the movies seemed so off-limits, a forbidden door I dared not open. Naturally, I couldn’t wait to get pry it open— sneaking in to the Capitol theatre in order to see Dr. No, the first Bond movie. The opening words of Casino Royale, Bond’s debut, are hardwired in my brain: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.”

 I stumbled upon David Cornwell, who wrote under the pseudonym of John Le Carré, in 1963 when he published his groundbreaking The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I was immediately caught up in its dark, “atmosphere of chilly hell,” as J.B. Priestley called it, the burnt-out case that was the novel’s protagonist, Alex Leamas. I’ve devoured Le Carré novels ever since. Some were better than others, of course, but I’ve stuck with him over these long decades as he seemed to go on forever. Until, suddenly, so sadly he exited last December at the age of 89.

The secret agents who occupied the dark international spy world fascinated me back then, obviously. That fascination led me to my second-favorite novelist of the era, Len Deighton, and his nameless hero in Deighton’s 1962 novel, The Ipcress File. In fact, Deighton’s 1966 Billion Dollar Brain was the first hardcover book I ever bought. It cost $4.65. I still have it.

From there it was a short hop to Michael Caine who personified the cool imperturbable spy renamed Harry Palmer for the novel’s film version. I’ve admired Maurice Micklewhite aka Michael Caine ever since. He has made over a hundred films, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them all—well, okay, almost all—the very good (The Man Who Would Be King, Get Carter, Educating Rita) and the horrible (Jaws 4: The Revenge, The Swarm).

During my years as a journalist whenever I was asked about my favorite interview, I would always mention Michael Caine. I first met him late one night while he was shooting a movie atop a Hollywood hill. During the many times I’ve talked to him, he was always a lively, humorous interview, one of the few actors who actually seemed to enjoy talking to journalists, perhaps confident in the knowledge they were never going to give him a bad review. I know of no one who ever did. I’m not sure which I will miss more, Michael Caine on the screen or Michael Caine sitting down for a conversation.

The new Bond movie runs two hours and forty-three minutes, nearly twice as long as Dr. No. It tries to jam everything into itself—homages to the earlier movies (the Aston Martin, the Dr. No-like finale, a Hans Zimmer-channeling-John Barry/Monty Norman score); an unrequited love story; a heavy-handed, convoluted plot anxious to make it all very important when it isn’t.

After seeing the latest installment, I had to reluctantly agree with what Phoebe Waller-Bridge, one of the many writers who toiled on the hodge-podge script, observed of Bond: “…It’s a life none of us would ever want, if we’re honest. We don’t want to go put a bullet in someone’s head to sleep with people and have martinis. It’s a kind of fantasy nightmare.”

 You can’t help but suspect producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson have turned in the keys to the Aston Martin, polished off the last shaken martini, and decided to go out with a final $250 million blast. If No Time to Die isn’t the end of the Bond franchise after twenty-five movies, it certainly feels like it.

The other night, I crawled under the bedcovers, eagerly settling in with Silverview, overwhelmed suddenly with a sense of sadness and regret. This was it. Le Carré’s books, the Bond movies, Michael Caine performances, they were at their end.

 Then what of the guy who had followed them so loyally from adolescence into old age? Could he be far behind? The math, depressingly, said he couldn’t be. But I could still smell the scent and smoke and sweat of a casino at three o’clock in the morning. For now, there was no time to die. Not until I finished the Le Carré.

Ron Base’s latest novel, The Sanibel Sunset Detective Saves the World is now available. Click HERE to order your copy.

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Writing in the Time of Covid

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09CLR7T11

If you are a writer, a worldwide pandemic leaves you with little choice but to do what writers are supposed to do and yet try to avoid—write!

In the past two years, hunkered down in Milton, Ontario, unable to travel or even go out to a movie, I’ve certainly gotten plenty of writing done. I’ve had time to complete two Sanibel Sunset Detective novels, a Milton mystery, as well as finish the first two installments for a new series of mysteries set at London’s iconic Savoy Hotel, co-authored with my longtime friend, Prudence Emery, who actually worked at the Savoy for five years.

Outside the tiny bubble in which my wife Kathy and I have existed, the world has been thrown into chaos. Millions have died; millions more have become ill. How does a writer writing what are designed as entertainments deal with this sweeping reality?

Well, I’ve dealt with it by sending poor Tree Callister out to save the world. Sort of. What else can a hero, even an unlikely one like Tree, do in a vulnerable time such as this?

One of the benefits of being a writer is that you are able to leave reality behind and jump through the looking glass into a world that you have created and where you are in control. That’s been particularly true over these many months. I’ve been able to get away not only to Sanibel Island, Florida, but also to London, England and live in a legendary luxury hotel. I’ve even exercised control over my life in Milton, something I’m not otherwise able to do.

As I finished The Sanibel Sunset Detective Saves the World, I considered finally leaving Tree to fend for himself. After all, what do you do with a hero after he has saved the world? But then late the other night, as he usually does, Tree came calling. He has another adventure in store. What can I do but once more follow him through the looking glass, filled with curiosity about what he’s going to get up to this time?

You can download a copy of The Sanibel Sunset Detective Saves the World... HERE.

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