The inner landscape of Florida

Writing gives us a chance to explore. Since moving to Florida, that’s meant close encounters with alligators, beaches, police cars, rooftop bars, concert halls and wall-to-wall tourists with traffic to match. In six years, I’ve made it a mission to distill those encounters into a series of books.

As we head into fall, I thought it time to take stock of where I’ve been since washing up on the Gulf Coast. To abuse a lyric by the Grateful Dead, it hasn’t been a long trip, or an especially strange one. But it has resulted in a wealth of material that’s yielded two crime series, a standalone novel and two short additions to the roster of nonfiction works.

As Julie Andrews famously sang, here are a few of my favorite things.

Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, my newest novel, Born Under a Bad Sign, follows two young people as they fight for their dreams, and their lives, in one of America’s most turbulent decades—the Sixties.

My first mystery series, set in a fictional version of Sarasota, Florida, features former police detective turned real estate agent CW McCoy and her struggles with clients and crime. The series consists of four titles, with (fingers crossed) a fifth on the way. Here’s a brief rundown:

Peak Season. Life at the beach can be murder. Forced to shoot a fellow police officer, CW McCoy surrenders her gun, her badge and her confidence to take refuge in Southwest Florida. But even in paradise, violence finds her like a divining rod.

Tourist in Paradise. When a gunman mistakes Candace McCoy for a wealthy visitor, the former detective faces her biggest challenge yet: Is the violence the start of a full-blown war on tourists? Or are the attacks a smokescreen for an even greater threat?

Curb Appeal. While showing a mansion on Florida’s tony Spanish Key, CW McCoy discovers the naked body of a rival real estate agent, a bra wrapped around her neck. As the deception and bodies mount, CW must uncover the truth about her friends, her lover and a serial killer bent on murdering fellow agents . . . before she becomes a victim herself.

Permanent Vacation. In the luxurious resort town of Spanish Point, sea levels are rising. So is the body count. Both threaten the real estate industry, and its agents. Including Candace McCoy.

My other crime series, the one set in Northeast Pennsylvania, features a defrocked journalist by the name of Brinker who becomes an agent for an assassin. Frequent trips back home provided new material but most of it comes from memories of my days working for the daily newspaper.

Mr. Mayhem. Sued by his publisher for libel, Brinker is reduced to promoting trolley tours of crime scenes. The tour business is dying. There aren’t enough murders to draw a crowd. A good serial killer would help.

Mr. Magic. Brinker has lost his magic. The ad agency’s CEO wants him to ace the competition. His former girlfriend wants him in detox. And as rival advertising executives disappear, an ambitious state trooper wants him in jail. If this keeps up, the PR whiz who turned a serial killer into a national brand may have to vanish himself.

Fans of science and true crime might enjoy the nonfiction works. In addition to Finding Woodstock, a collection of essays and photos about the impact of the 1960s on all of our lives , those books include The Spirit of Swiftwater, the story of vaccine pioneers in the 20th century (University of Scranton Press) and Riding with the Blues, a behind-the-scenes look at the Sarasota Police Department.

The books are available on every platform and in virtually every format. Check out the Amazon author page for details.

Burning down the house

It was 1967 and I was a junior in high school, hanging out at the music store after school, trying to learn that slippery instrument called the electric guitar. Across the street sat a record shop, a narrow sliver of a building with a record player in the back where the regulars could listen to LPs before buying them.

Decades before I would create the character of guitarist Hayden Quinn in Born Under a Bad Sign, I pushed aside the curtain that divided the rooms and heard a sound that set my head on fire. Nothing—not Cream, not the Who, not the Yardbirds—prepared me for that assault of Jimi Hendrix. The drums roared, the bass thundered, and the guitar cried with an agony and rage I never could have imagined.

And then there were the lyrics.

“I have only one burning desire,” Hendrix sang. “Let me stand next to your fire.”

With Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums, the Jimi Hendrix Experience blazed onto the scene with 11 songs on “Are You Experienced” that spoke of the distorted reality of love, confusion and mania.

At that time, the market was dominated by the swirling studio work of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the cheerful vocals of the 5th Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away” and the jazz organ of Jimmy Smith. Hendrix arrived like the Big Bad Wolf, blowing away our rigid notions of pop music like a house of straw.

He played like a man possessed. Unlike anyone before him, and unlike few after—Joe Satriani, B.B. King and the late Roy Buchannan come to mind—Hendrix made the guitar sing. He made it weep. He let it cry out in joy and pain.

His image became as outlandish as his music.

Hendrix mimicked the tortured soul of Vietnam-obsessed America during his Woodstock rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He played louder than loud as he jacked into a wall of amps, picked a Stratocaster with his teeth and set his axe on fire, wailing away in headband and psychedelic clothes.

Assessing his influence has been difficult, although books by Mitchell and Redding have helped. There have been many packages of Hendrix’s hits. Some have offered us a solid look at his fierce style, like Ryko’s “Radio One.” Some have smacked of exploitation. Others, like the four-disc “Lifelines, The Jimi Hendrix Story,” attempt through interviews and excerpts to shed light on that unquenchable fire.

Fifty years after he brought down the curtain on Woodstock, Hendrix remains the benchmark. He is to rockers what Charlie Parker is to jazz, a musician’s musician who shattered boundaries few could even see. Born in Seattle in 1942, Hendrix’s flame burned short but fierce.

He got his first guitar after his father returned to the projects one day to find his son wailing away on a broomstick. After a stint in the Army, Jimi rose from obscure backup guitarist for the Isley Brothers to rock’s standard-bearer. Three years after he exploded onto the pop scene, on Sept. 18, 1970, he died in his London apartment.

For those of us who struggled to learn his moves, his leads proved fascinating and difficult. Each time I played the war whoops that begin “Purple Haze” I felt the soul of a man consumed by demons. Here was a mortal creating the most liberating music I’d ever heard. We tried to copy it but we never found the cool spot at the center of the flame.

The closest I’ve come is with the music of Hayden Quinn, a tribute to the scorching work of the original.

Hendrix died a lifetime ago, but his music still burns. Fifty years after I first heard you, Jimi, I have only one burning desire: let me stand next to your fire.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

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Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Woodstock

By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half-a-million strong. Minus one. I never did make it to Yasgur’s farm. For a former musician, that counts as a cardinal regret, although writing the novel Born Under a Bad Sign has enabled me to travel back in time for a visit.

The author at Bethel Woods

Years ago, I did tour the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the calm and far less crowded tribute to the legendary festival in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. The center nestles on a hill overlooking the original location of the stage. The site features an amphitheater and museum containing historical timelines and a psychedelic bus. The area is surrounded by dense forest bisected by a two-lane macadam road, with fields and post-and-rail fences bordering the road. A green and pleasant land.

Aside from the museum and a plaque at the bottom of the hill, the land hasn’t changed much in 50 years.

From the start, the farm proved an unlikely place for a concert. There were no services within miles. To get there, you drive past abandoned summer camps whose cabin roofs have buckled with time and weather. The nearest town boasts a Walmart, a Super 8 motel and a dog track.

So why did the organizers, including promoter Michael Lang, choose a dairy farm in southeastern New York State to stage a rock festival? Because there was nowhere else to go. In 1969, the town of Wallkill, New York, feared the crowds and other venues didn’t pan out. With less than a month before the August 15 starting date, Lang scouted a farm near the town of Bethel. There, he writes in his book The Road to Woodstock, he found a kindred spirit in its owner, Max Yasgur.

Unlike Orwell, the fictional rock band in Born Under a Bad Sign, my group wasn’t famous enough to play Woodstock. But our drummer, John McAllister, had a pickup truck and an extra ticket and asked if I’d like to go.

I was set to start college in a few weeks—Penn State was on a term system and incoming freshmen were required to report a week early for orientation, which put move-in day a few hours after the close of the festival. It was raining at the site, and already there were reports of crowds and mud. So I did the safe thing: I went to college and, vowing never to look back, have spent most of my life doing that.

Until now.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

_____________

Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrate Woodstock with free ebook

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the iconic music festival, my collection of essays Finding Woodstock is now free. The ebook contains twelve reflections on the music and mores of one of the most turbulent and liberating decades in American history. Each essay is accompanied by the author’s photography.

A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the book provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

You can download a free copy of Finding Woodstock from Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other ebook retailers. Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

 

 

 

 

 

Where the heart is

For Elizabeth Reed, the primary character in the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, photography is more than an art. It’s a calling. Elizabeth wants her camera to do more than interpret or preserve. She wants to plumb the soul of a person or place. For her, taking pictures is a spiritual act.

As the novel opens, Elizabeth struggles through her last summer before college. She needs to decide whether, after graduation, she will return to help run the family farm, settle in a distant city to practice law or abandon both options by continuing to follow guitarist Hayden Quinn and his band around the country like a groupie with a Nikon.

She wants to do it all (all except the groupie part) but photography has become her first love, and the place she feels compelled to explore is her home in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Minisink Valley. At the center of that home is the magnetic pull of the Delaware River.

Working as a stringer for the local newspaper allows her to expand her skills and subject matter. It also gives her a wildly exciting feeling for which she’s developed a craving—seeing her work in print.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, the period in which Born Under a Bad Sign takes place, news photographers would have used the gear Elizabeth chose, a rugged 35 mm cameras more affordable than exotic brands like Leica or medium-format models like those manufactured by Hasselblad. Her bag would have contained two camera bodies and lenses with at least three focal lengths: wide-angle (28 mm), normal (55 mm) and telephoto (135 mm or larger).

Elizabeth started with a Nikon F Photomic T body. Introduced in 1965, the camera was a TTL model, meaning it metering light through the lens rather than requiring the photographer to use a handheld meter—essential to capturing anything that moved. To the body she added a telephoto lens for portrait and distance work, a motor drive shooting four frames per second to capture action and an electronic flash unit for indoor subjects.

That made for a heavy rig. The camera body weighed 24 oz., the lens 14 oz. and the motor drive 10 oz. for a total of at least three pounds. Bolt to the body one of the early Nikon electronic flash units (affectionately known as potato mashers) and you have a slab of glass and metal that could easily serve as a defensive weapon.

Elizabeth carried smaller cameras for specialized work. She had a rangefinder with a fixed lens and view finder that did not look through the lens. The Konica C35 would have been a logical choice. It offered a 38 mm, f/2.8 lens. A lightweight unit compared to the Nikon, the camera clocked in at 13.4 oz. And while she couldn’t see or compose directly through the lens, rangefinders didn’t use a mirror to direct light into the viewfinder. That made for a smaller, quieter and somewhat unobtrusive camera.

Elizabeth also carried a Kodak Instamatic 100 with a built-in flashgun that took a peanut bulb. Unlike the Nikon, the Instamatic offered fixed focus, aperture and shutter speed. Her father bought it 1963 for $16. It still worked, and was compact enough that Elizabeth could carry it in a pocket. The 126-format film was smaller than 35 mm but the camera would shoot print or slide film, which made it a good backup when she needed stealth.

Which, as a photojournalist, you might sometimes need.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

_____________

Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sympathy for the devil

Guitarists of my generation know Robert Johnson through the song “Crossroads” by the British rock group Cream. Theirs is a cover of Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” which purportedly describes the day that Johnson traded his soul to the Devil for the ability to play his axe.

He was the inspiration for Hayden Quinn, the guitarist who sparks awe and rumor of his own unholy alliance in the new novel Born Under a Bad Sign. More on that later.

Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1911 and died in 1938. In those short years, he developed a reputation as one of the finest blues guitarists of all time, mastering the instrument so quickly that contemporaries accused him of having some otherworldly help.

Writers differ on how the legend began. Some, pointing to the lyrics in “Cross Road Blues,” say that Johnson stood at the crossroads not to trade his soul but to hitch a ride. Others say Johnson brought his guitar to a crossroad near a plantation at midnight to meet a large black man who granted him mastery of the instrument. Still others believe the guitarist, seeking solitude, fueled suspicion by practicing in the quiet of a graveyard.

Some of the characters in Born Under a Bad Sign see a similar pattern in Hayden Quinn. As facile as Eric Clapton, as inventive as Jimi Hendrix, Quinn fuses rock, blues, jazz and classical music into a cry of rebellion and pain. While his performances burn and records sell, that obsessive devotion invites rumors of his own compact with Lucifer.

It also plays the devil with his relationships with women, a fact the book’s principal character, Elizabeth Reed, discovers a little too late.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

_____________

Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big battle for a little island

The battle over the Tocks Island Dam, one of two major events in the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, took on a new and dangerous front in 1969 when the U.S. Army Corps of engineers advertised houses for rent in several New York City newspapers.

The Corps had begun buying and condemning property for the dam and now those empty houses and farms stood vulnerable to vandals. Renting those structures along the Delaware River, the dividing line between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, would provide income for the government.

It also would create a conflict as explosive to locals as the Vietnam War.

At first, all looked peaceful. The feds called the renters flower children. They called themselves river people. They settled by the Delaware to grow crops and lead an alternative life. Angry at being displaced from their homes by hippies they viewed as decadent, the locals called them squatters.

By the early 1970s, that anger boiled over. Buildings in the squatter encampment burned. There were reports of drive-by shootings of windows and the killing of farm animals and pets.

The Corps finally acted. In September 1971, armed U.S. Marshals bulldozed six houses and a pup tent in an effort to clear out the trespassers, according to The Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa. A legal battle ensued. In November 1973, a judge gave the river people 30 days to vacate. When they didn’t, in February 1974 about 90 U.S. Marshals staged a predawn raid to evict the 65 squatters who remained in the area of Shawnee-on-Delaware, on the Pennsylvania side of the river.

Steve Drachler, a colleague of mine at the Record, served as the pool reporter for the removal operation. He said that despite local hostility toward the squatters, their eviction by heavily armed U.S. Marshals was surprisingly peaceful.

“It was a very emotional moment, watching as these families, and a number of singles, were taken from the homes they had occupied. As soon as the people were removed the bulldozers began knocking the buildings down.”

Their experience, and those of the residents whose homes were condemned, form the backbone of Born Under a Bad Sign. The novel is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

_____________

Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All things must pass

Some bands will do anything for a break. Ours happened on Saturday, June 22, 1968, in the tiny Pennsylvania town of Wind Gap.

Ohio Express concert poster

That chance plays out in a pivotal scene in my new standalone novel, Born Under a Bad Sign, a chronicle of the struggles of a group to play what we now consider the granddaddy of all outdoor music festivals in America—Woodstock.

First, some background. In the mid-1960s, fellow high school student Chip Decker formed a band called the Beaux Esprits (beautiful spirits), with Chip on bass and lead vocals. The other members of the band were co-founder Bob Dittman on rhythm guitar, John McAllister on drums and me on lead guitar. Later we added Joey Raynock on keyboards, succeeded by Gene Gorse on the Hammond B3 organ, and a pair of singers, Ron Oney and Don Chase.

Not wanting to sound like fops, we changed our name to the Seeds of Time (not much of an improvement) and later to Shagg. We took the name from the long-pile carpet that was popular in the late ’60s, not from the British euphemism for sex. Luckily no one who booked us recognized the connotation.

What they did recognize was rebellion, a spirit I harnessed for the two principal characters in Born Under a Bad Sign—photographer Elizabeth Reed and guitarist Hayden Quinn.

My first guitar

Back to Shagg. In the beginning, we played popular music. But bythe end of the decade, a lot of mush clogged the airwaves, songs like “Crimson and Clover,” by Tommy James & the Shondells, “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred & His Playboy Band (another unfortunate name) and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” by the people who would almost singlehandedly ruin a decade of music, the Bee Gees.

While still programming commercial music, we admired a less saccharine sound. Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” sat at the top of the charts, as did “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones and Joplin’s “Piece of my Heart.” We tuned into music that foretold the hard blade of metal to come, embracing the dexterity Deep Purple and the heavy slog of the Vanilla Fudge remake of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

Like Quinn, we championed the holy trio of havoc—Cream, Hendrix and the Who. We played numbers that were aggressive and loud, complex pieces heavy on improvisation and wailing guitars. The sound was fun, and as musicians it enabled us to stretch. But the kids couldn’t dance to it, and at many of our gigs, people just wanted to dance.

We played any place that would hire us: bars, frat parties, high schools and an underground speakeasy called the Hobbit Hole. Our snobbery limited the audience. So when the opportunity came to play the cavernous building called the Hullabaloo Club as the opening act for the Ohio Express, we jumped. Like the Monkees, the band was a creation of recording executives and promoters, an ersatz group that represented the penultimate in the most mindless sound of the times—songs for the preteen market dubbed bubblegum music.

Our job was to warm up the crowd for a band who’d hit the Top 40 hit with the vapid “Yummy Yummy Yummy” (their version of the song reached No. 4 and No. 5, respectively, on the U.S. Pop and UK Singles charts.) We’d cut our teeth on the Kinks and the Doors and knew we’d blow the imposters off the stage.

That confidence evaporated the minute the Ohio Express ran through its sound check.

The musicians didn’t play bubblegum music. They played the real thing. Their version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” seemed effortless. So did the other numbers. To a bunch of kids struggling to reproduce the music of their heroes, the Express sounded unbelievably good.

Undaunted, we took the stage and, as the crowd burst through the doors, I plugged into the lead guitarist’s Vox, a small amp like the ones the Beatles used, and cranked the volume knob to ten, where it stayed through our finale, the Who’s “I Can See for Miles,” its lines snapping toward a spectacular crash.

As we stumbled off the stage, the Express took its audience to a place we never would—to preteen heaven on a string of hits.

After the concert, in the warm, moist night by the loading dock, the now very real musicians of the Express leaned against their flower-painted VW bus and gave us the unvarnished version of success. Over long necks they complained about how studio musicians had recorded their first album. As the touring band, they were locked into a contract for the next few years. Yes, life on the road stunk and they wanted to play music more complex than “Beg, Borrow and Steal” and the forthcoming “Chewy Chewy.” But the money was good and this was their best shot at fame.

That was a sentiment we understood.

Then they packed and drove into the night. We headed to the Wind Gap Diner.

Shagg lasted another year. College, family and jobs replaced the music. The Ohio Express played out in 1973. Disco replaced bubblegum. The Hullabaloo Club went the way of disco. I think the corrugated steel building later became a blouse mill before those jobs migrated overseas.

All things must pass, but do they have to pass with such regret?

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

_____________

Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

War invades the home front

July 1969 saw the landing of the first humans on the moon. It was a brief time of celebration in a decade of conflict. And chief among those conflicts was the war in Vietnam.

That is the world the characters inhabit in my first standalone novel, Born Under a Bad Sign, a world I knew only too well.

Like one of the book’s principal characters, the guitarist Hayden Quinn, I was of draft age and the Selective Service was hunting for conscripts. Jim, my roommate in college, pulled #3 in the draft’s lottery. I drew #4. We’d heard a rumor that every number south of 130 would wind up in Vietnam. To a pair of kids who’d only handled a rifle in target practice, the news was not encouraging.

Meanwhile, protests spread across the nation. At our university, students marched on a laboratory used as a Naval testing facility. Someone firebombed the ROTC building. Demonstrations became violent. On May 4, 1970 at Kent State University, the Ohio Army National Guard fired on students, killing four and wounding nine.

Jim was called to his physical. If I remember correctly, he rode a bus to a nearby town and took his physical in a gym. While he finished his last term that spring, I headed to Manhattan for an internship at Flying magazine. I felt my life was on hold. Everyone said President Richard Nixon would end the draft. With graduation approaching, the order couldn’t come soon enough.

Finally it did. I was never called. But until those orders came through, I kept a weather eye on the news.

Each night, Americans watched footage of soldiers and civilians, the wounded and the dead, in an endless march across television screens and into our souls. Through protests and coffins, the war had invaded the home front. Even for those immune to the draft, there was nowhere to hide.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

_____________

Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

Good Vibrations

Born Under a Bad Sign, my novel of the turmoil of the 1960s, is garnering positive reviews from the people who witnessed one of the book’s central conflicts—the damming of the Delaware River.

From Stephen Drachler, the pool reporter covering the eviction of the squatters from the Tocks Island project, comes this account of the work:

Jeff Widmer’s Born Under a Bad Sign is his best novel. It is a rich telling that combines the real-life history of a river valley between Pennsylvania and New Jersey with the struggles of a community caught in the vice of a government eager to buy their properties for a controversial dam and other forces eager to take advantage to fill their bank accounts.

Love. Death. Intrigue. Squatters. Fear of a potential repeat of the massacre at Wounded Knee. And a story of a young woman rapidly learning about love and life in the turbulent ‘60s. It’s a gripping and poignant tale that takes full advantage of the author’s home-grown knowledge of the region. I should know, since I was there, too, as a young journalist reporting on the events of the period.

From Mina Hamilton, who with Nancy Shukaitis led the charge to save the river, and their land:

This is a fast-paced, compelling novel with an unusual twist. It’s set in a pristine valley threatened by environmental disaster—flooding by a proposed dam. The author deftly draws us into a young woman’s soul-searching regarding allegiance to her family’s home and community or to the lure of a quirky musician. As she ponders, we meet a host of unusual characters. And the plot zips along as we experience families torn-asunder, squatters evicted. Even murder lurks.

Some of this novel’s feisty characters and colorful events are loosely inspired by the legendary, decades-long battle against the Tocks Island Dam—here dubbed the Fox Island Dam. This book is strongly recommended both for folk who still remember the battle against Tocks (a battle that was ultimately successful), as well as for anybody up for an intriguing summer-reading adventure.

Whether you want to curl up by the fire or head out to camp under the stars, take Born Under a Bad Sign with you. Guaranteed: A fun (and at times distinctly scary) romp and a nostalgic peek back at the ‘60s. I just hope Jeff Widmer is up for writing a sequel.

And from a reader who just liked the book:

I’ve enjoyed each of Jeff’s books, but I consider this his best yet. I was completely drawn in to the characters and to the real history of the story, and not only was I unable to put it down, I ended up shifting my old nail-biting habit back into high gear! I very highly recommend this book!

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. You’ll find the companion, Finding Woodstock, a collection of essays and photos about the era, at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.