Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sound Bytes

Originally Published at Freshly Ground on May 29th, 2009

I've been inundated with stuff to listen to and read lately, so here's a quick summary with my recommendations.

Firstly, I was very excited to get an advance review of Jack Kincaid's latest release, a short story called The Church Grim. This is a dark yet comedic horror story, masterfully crafted for both wit and chills. Kincaid uses the same stylistic techniques that worked so well for Hoad's Grim, including his creepy, dissociated narrator's voice and the voice talents of James Keller and Julie Hoverson. Once again, a fantastic piece of speculative fiction and an impressive audio production. Highly recommended, and at 40 minutes or so, a good way to get a feel for Kincaid if you haven't listened to Hoad's Grim already.

Another short podcast that I recently completed - and which also throughly entertained my staff, who have no choice but to listen to whatever I choose to play in the workshop - was The Takeover, by veteran podcaster Mur Lafferty. This zombie comedy clocks in at a little over 2 hours, and features a star-studded cast including Christiana Ellis and JC Hutchins. I can't say much about this without spoiling the story, but suffice to say that if you like zombies or just like to laugh at zombies, or just like to laugh, this is brilliant.

I've finished up several complete podcast novels in the past couple of weeks, and I'm not sure that I'll get to review all of them, so here's my quick star rating on those I've made it through:

The Call of the Herald, by Brian Rathbone: 4 Stars. Fantasy, first in a trilogy. Meticuloulsy constructed world, takes a little bit to get into the story but is satisfying for its buildup. Full review will follow.
Earthcore, by Scott Sigler: 4 1/2 Stars. Action/Sc-Fi. This is one of the world's very first exclusive podcast novels, now available as a print edition as well, and it set the standard for podcasts to follow. Excellent story and production values.
Nina Kimberley the Merciless, by Christiana Ellis: 4 Stars. Fantasy Comedy. NKTM is hilarious, it really is. Featuring an imbecilic king who thinks he's Don Juan, a pacifist dragon, and our eponymous hero who would rather be off questing than leading her people back to their former glory, NKTM is good, solid entertainment. My favourite line, as the bumbling King Francis tried to squeeze into his armour: "I must be light and uncucumbered!"

I'm currently listening to two more podcast novels, including the second book in JC Hutchins' Seventh Son trilogy, and the Failed Cities Monologues by Matt Wallace. I'm also hooked on JC Hutchins' new podcast novella, Personal Effects: Sword of Blood.

And I must throw a big shout of thanks out to all these authors, and to the crew at for all the hard work they put into bringing these books to greedy little me.

In terms of reading, I've been getting into the work of bizzaro fiction author Jeremy C Shipp over the past couple of weeks. You can check out some of his short stories online: Camp, Trout, and Dog. Not for the squeamish, however. You have been warned. I'm also reading his rather twisted but intriguing novel, Vacation, and I'll be posting a review of that shortly.

That's all for now. If you have a podcast or an audiobook that you'd like to direct me towards, please feel free to leave a note in the comments. Thanks.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Review: "Nocturnal" by Scott Sigler

Originally Published at Freshly Ground on May 21st 2009

In the brave new world of the podcast novel, it takes something special to be called a classic. Nocturnal by Scott Sigler is just such a rare creature.
Scott Sigler was among a very small group of writers who literally pioneered the Podcast Novel format, releasing his first book, Earthcore, in 2005. At the end of that podcast there is a very interesting Q&A with Mark Jeffrey, which provides a snapshot of both how small the audiobook market was at the time, and how Sigler envisioned it growing into the creature it has become - and that creature continues to grow.

Nocturnal is Sigler's third podcast novel, and it is a masterpiece of action horror. What starts out as a police procedural detective novel with a paranormal element quickly morphs into a gruesome and electrifying monster story, and from there into an action rollercoaster that would put John Woo to shame.

You'll forgive me if I slip, but I tend to recall Nocturnal as a movie rather than a book. The action and the imagery have seared into my skull, all chiascuro shadows and arcing blood lit by guttering streetlights and gunfire.

Sigler's dark alternate San Francisco is a place of fear and tension, haunted by unseen monsters, remorseless gangsters, ruthless vigilantes, corrupt cops, and a psychotic schoolboy with a god complex. Through this morass of murder two cops face the challenge of trying to solve the murders that have started to plague the city, only to find a conspiracy that even the SFPD doesn't want them to uncover.

This stuff is addictive. I personally neglected family, friends and more important things like writing my own novel to listen to this book. Sigler gets his teeth into your soft, tender flesh and shakes, not letting you go until he's wrenched you through the increasingly brutal and bloody story of the Nocturnals. And he pulls no punches whatsoever. Where Hollywood would turn away or save the day, Sigler just continues to rip shreds, and it is fantastic.

Not for the light of heart, I must emphasise. Nocturnal is R18 on every scale, for language, violence, torture, and even on a conceptual level. Yes, I squirmed more than once. But the payoff is so worthwhile, and nothing in this book is wasted. Every act of brutality, every murder, every fight, every explosion serves a valid and crucial purpose to the story. At the same time, Sigler can do subtext and complexity as well as he does action. I do not understand how Dan Brown sells more books than this guy. Brown is nothing next to Sigler.

Sigler's writing is also a pleasure to listen to, his dialogue sharp and his prose as witty as it is tight. He carries a vast cast of characters, voicing each with confidence and consistency. As usual, I cringe a little when a grown man puts on a woman's voice, but if I could do any better, I'd have some grounds to complain. I can't, so good on you Scott for giving it your all.

The audio production is clean and professional, relying almost entirely on Sigler's voice to carry the story. I can only recall one location that was augmented by a creepy harpsichord music track, and that really stood out for its oddity. As I've said, Sigler is a clever writer and a powerful performer, and thus requires little in the way of bells and whistles to bolster his efforts.

Again, for a free work, this is just brilliant. It is said that Sigler doesn't have fans; he has junkies. I just finished Earthcore today, and I still have four podcasts by Sigler to listen to. The future is bright.

5 Stars.

Nocturnal is an instant classic. Available as a free podcast download through iTunes and Podiobooks. Swing by Sigler's site for more info on this modern literary maestro, one of the true pioneers and energetic advocates of this great artform.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Review: "The Zombie Chronicles" Book 1 - Escape by James Melzer

Originally Published at Freshly Ground on May 14th 2009

Here's a podcast you can really get your teeth into.

James Melzer
is one of a new breed of writers who are finding success by eschewing the traditional methods of shopping a manuscript to agents and editors, and are instead puffing out their lungs, warming up their vocal chords, and releasing their works into the wild - in the form of free podcast downloads.

As you know, I've been going on about this for a while now. As anyone who follows me on Twitter will know, I'm pretty much obsessed with podcast novels at the moment.The Zombie Chronicles - Book 1: Escape has continued to feed this addiction. This is storytelling with bite.

I had my reservations, as I greatly fear all the cliches that are associated with zombies. Zombies have gone so far into the laughable in the past twenty-odd years that it's a he!! of a job trying to make them scary again. Somehow, Melzer has written a zombie book that at once encapsulates all those worn-out tropes and injects the zombie genre with a new lease on life.

(Ah, will the puns never end?)

From the first chapter, I was grabbed by the freshness of Melzer's writing, his wry wit and the way he pulls a middle finger at all the stale baggage that zombies bring with them. Despite the title, this is no 28 Days Later. Without wanting to bring any spoilers to the table, I think it's safe to say that Melzer has single-handedly reinvented the zombie genre, while never abandoning everything we love about zombie stories - decaying flesh, the lust for human meat, brains exploding under well-aimed headshots.

TZC brings unexpected twist after twist, none of which have any place in the story you think you're listening to. But Melzer pulls it off with style, wit and lots of disintegrating sinew. I almost panicked when iTunes wouldn't give me the last chapter. Desperate measures were taken to hear the last part of this book, I guarantee you.

If you're into zombies even a little bit, you must listen to this podcast - or buy the book, when it comes out later this year (full disclosure - I get nothing from promoting any of the podcasts I review. I just dig that these guys and girls are so cool about it). If you like a good action story, or anything with a twist, this is also brilliant.

The audio quality is faultless. Melzer pulls off his voices without any problem, and has chosen not to clutter up the soundscape with effects. I think that if a podcaster/audio producer has the means and the ear to do good music and effects, and it doesn't cut drastically into their available timeframes, and that if adding M&E really fleshes out the world, then they ought to do so. But if a writer embarking on the huge task of recording a podcast feels they don't have the means or the skills to do this well, I thank them for not ruining an otherwise good production with a subpar effects track. It's nice to just appreciate the writing and the performance for what they are.

(To those podcasters who do put in the effort and do it well, keep up the good work. I love it all!)

I highly enjoyed this podcast. What it may have lacked in substance, it made up for in plot twists, gunfights, and exploding heads. Having said that, I felt close enough to all the characters to really want to root for them, although I was never really sure if I could trust anyone at all. Fantastic stuff.

TZC gets a solid 4 1/2 Stars out of 5 from me.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Review: "Jack Wakes Up" by Seth Harwood

Originally Published at Freshly Ground on May 7th 2009

To celebrate Seth Harwood's novel Jack Wakes Up being released into bookstores across the USA this week, I took it upon myself to listen to the entire podcast over the past two days and throw out my thoughts on it.
Jack Wakes Up is a bit of a step away from my usual cup of tea, being a crime novel and not in the slightest bit fantasy, horror, or science fiction. But it stood out to me, as crime fiction goes, in that the protagonist was not a cop or an ex-marine, but rather a washed-up actor.

Jack Palms has been on the wagon after his drug- and alcohol-fueled fall from grace some years earlier, which saw his marriage fall apart under the watching eyes of the public and the media. He's now cleaned himself up but is completely broke. A dodgy character from his past life entices him into doing one last big drug deal to set himself up for a while and make a new start.

As Jack gets drawn deeper into San Francisco's shady underworld, however, things quickly go from bad to worse.

Jack Wakes Up would fall somewhere between Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and 2 Fast 2 Furious, were it to have been a film. There are drug deals, murders, gun fights, car chases, betrayals, and strip bars - everything you expect from a high-octane, fast-paced action story.

This was fun to listen to. In the world of action storytelling, JWU was an invigorating tale, a cracking good yarn with plenty of good laughs thrown in. If my impression is that this was perhaps a bit lighter than Harwood intended, it's only because last night I also finished listening to Scott Sigler's Nocturnal, which completely blew me away (and will be reviewed very shortly, I promise). By comparison, JWU was good relief.

The audio production was clean and uncluttered. Harwood obviously made a choice not to use any sound effects (or if he did, they were so well done that I didn't even notice them), and relied on his own delivery to carry the pace of the story. There is no music or atmos in the soundtrack apart from chapter breaks, but I don't think the production suffered for this at all. The writing itself is tidy and precise, and Harwood's diction is mostly faultless (apart from the occasional stumble which hasn't been edited out), so following the story is never an issue.

I played this podcast through my computer speakers in a busy workshop, and was very rarely either a) unclear as to what was going on, or b) suddenly aware that I had lost the thread. I was kept engaged throughout the reading, even with distractions, and always felt like I knew what was going on and where the characters were. This is a testament to Harwood's writing and delivery, since this podcast is really just the author reading his own story, with all the passion he can muster.

Nice one.

Overall I rate Jack Wakes Up at 4 Stars.

Recommended to anyone who likes a good gangster or crime story, or a bit of action. Jack Wakes Up is complete at 19 Chapters, plus a Q&A with Seventh Son author JC Hutchins, which is both entertaining and informative.

You can listen to the first chapter here. The rest of the podcast can be found at Harwood's website, totally free. The book is also available in US bookstores and online.

While we're talking about Seth Harwood, he has posted a really helpful video about how to go about recording a podcast, which I also recommend for the three minutes it'll take you, if that sounds like something you might be thinking about.

Jack Wakes Up is available from, and can be found in bookstores across the USA.