Sunday, June 28, 2009

Podcast Novel Review: "Lost Gods" by Drew Beatty

I love a good supernatural urban fantasy, and I also love a good old-fashioned grifting story. It's rare to see the two genres cross, and I wasn't sure that it could possibly work. But after listening to the first chapter of Drew Beatty's Lost Gods, I was left hoping that such a wonderful hybrid creature could indeed exist.
I was not to be disappointed. Lost Gods starts out on a very low key, but it consistently cranks up the stakes as the story progresses. What begins as the story of two shady characters who share a dark secret planning a con that will set them up for life evolves into a struggle between ancient and (almost) forgotten powers, that threatens everything we know and love. Without wanting to step into spoilerville, I can say that this story delivered a whole lot more punch than I was expecting, and did so in clever, unexpected, and thoroughly well-thought-out ways.

Beatty maintains a relaxed grip on his prose and dialogue thoughout, rarely breaking a sweat as the fate of the characters and, finally, all of us, is thrown into the swirling chaos that he creates. His narration is likewise laid-back and unhurried, which makes for easy and pleasurable listening. Beatty's confidence with his work and with the mic shows through in a well-presented audio production that any amateuer podcaster ought to be proud of.

Lost Gods is equal parts dark supernatural thriller, grifter tale, and black comedy. The final chapters wind up towards some of the best twists I have come across in storytelling for a long time, particularly in podcast novels. For sheer "I-never-saw-that-coming" value, this is a winner.

I rate Lost Gods 4 Stars out of 5, purely for it's dry and original entertainment value. Fantastic stuff.

Complete at 21 Chapters, Lost Gods can be found at Podiobooks.com, and Drew Beatty can be found on Twitter or at either of his homepages, LostGods.ca, where readers can also download PDF chapters, and drewbeatty.com, where Drew keeps a blog and updates on the podcasting world (Hat Tip: Ron Earl thanks for picking up the linky foible). There is a book version of Lost Gods in the works too; check out Beatty's homepage for more details.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Podcast Novel Review: "Chasing the Bard" by Philippa Ballantine

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to meet a couple of awesome people at a little library in Dannevirke, in the frosty Tararuas, about three hours north of Wellington, New Zealand. Podcasters Tee Morris and Philippa Ballantine were surprised that I made the drive when there were opportunities to catch them in Wellington, but it may come as no surprise to anyone with a two-year-old and a busy family life that getting away on the weekend is sometimes easier than doing things during the week. Thus, the drive to Dannevirke. Ah, road trips.

Philippa Ballantine is New Zealand's only podcaster (that we know of - yell out if this is a misconception, please), and she is also now rightly referred to as "Award-Winning Novelist Phillippa Ballantine", in light of her recently being presented with the Julius Vogler Award for her podcast novel Chasing The Bard.In order to fully prepare for this meeting, I started into CTB in earnest. I was dubious at first, always having been more of a fan of dark, gritty sword-and-sorcery fantasy than the fairy kind, but I was quickly disabused of my preconceptions.

Ballantine writes fantasy that is enchanting and compelling, weaving the multiple worlds of the fey and human together with grace and skill. The fantastic realm that lies but a breath beyond our own is composed with delicate crafting, Ballantine's worldbuilding carefully disguised as setting and character. And when the need arises, Ballantine can turn to the dark and brutal with as much skill as she writes of charm and love.

The story is based loosely around the life of the great Bard, William Shakespeare, whose destiny is wound together with the immortal faerie realm and its epic struggles that span the rise and fall of entire human civilisations. To say more would be to spoil the grand, intricately woven tapestry that is the plot, and I wouldn't do that to you. Suffice to say that the blend of historical detail and fantastical elements makes for a well-rounded and deeply satisfying story-telling experience.

Soundwise, I was hugely impressed by CTB. I had started into Ballantine's previous work, Weaver's Web, a little earlier, but had to put it aside because the audio levels were too low to easily hear over the speakers in my workshop. WW is now instead slated for iPod listening sometime soon. Accordingly, I was pleased to hear that the mastering of CTB was greatly improved, and ultimately could not fault the production. While narrating and voicing many of the female characters herself, Ballantine also employed additional voice talent (including Tee Morris) for some of the parts, which lends a sense of theatre and realism to any podcast drama. The podcast also features music, atmos, and enough sound effects to augment the story without overwhelming it.

Call it cultural cringe, but I was not expecting a lot out of this podcast, and I was pleasantly surprised by just how accomplised a production a fellow Kiwi could put together. Apparently the people handing out the Julius Voglers thought so too, as did the Parsec Awards commitee: CTB has been nominated for Best Speculative Fiction, Long Form, and I wish Philippa all the best in that competition too.

I'm going to give Chasing The Bard the full 5 Stars, and not just because we both live in Wellington. This is historical fantasy that deserves to be listenened to.

And just in case you were wondering, I'm now listening to Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword, by Tee Morris - and so far, it's just brilliant.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Beware the Invasion

In only a few hours now, an Invasion is going to be unleashed.

I can't say what it will be, our only warning comes from the disturbed genius known as Melzer.

Mur Lafferty tried to get the message out, but they got to her first.




So now we can only lock our doors, load our shotguns, and hope that living on an isolated island at the bottom of the South Pacific will be safe from the horror we can only imagine.

(Apologies to you poor souls who live much closer to the actual Invasion. I'll be thinking of you as the news feeds drop out, one by one.)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Book Review: 'Vacation' by Jeremy C. Shipp

It's hard to say what you should expect of this book, because no matter what you go in thinking, Vacation will defy you.
I first discovered the work of Jeremy C. Shipp when I chanced upon his short story Camp via the mystery that is Twitter. Upon reading this story, I was immediately aware that here was a talent unlike any I had read before. Shipp has a unique and profoundly disturbing voice, one that at once repels the reader and forces them to keep reading, no matter what. Reading Shipp is a bit like watching torture: You know it's awful but you just can't seem to turn away, even though it's you that's being tortured.

This is just the sort of layering that Shipp brings to his work, and he does so with a tight sparsity of language, his prose almost poetic but at once too delicate and too brutal. I immediately sought out more of his work, and gobbled it up hungrily.

Of all his short stories and flash fiction, my favourite remains the creeping and murderous Dog, a coming-of-age tale that is as bloody as it is haunting.

So when I saw the opportunity to read and review Shipp's novels, I jumped at it. I finished reading Vacation a couple of weeks ago, but it has stayed with me long since. Wrapped up in a story that traces the main character's awakening to the harsh realities of the world he lives in, Shipp threads philosophy and sociology together with a scathing deconstruction of modern consumerism and the Western world's self-inflicted blindness to the suffering of the rest of the planet at our expense.

At turns surreal and frighteningly real, Vacation challenges the reader to deny that they are in fact living through the same drug-addled haze that Bernard Johnson has been until the time he goes on his own Vacation. Utopia disintegrates into dystopia, and Johnson is thrust into a dark world where life is worthless, minds become the puppets of guerrilla warlords, and the grand illusion of the world he knew is ground to dust.

Vacation is a provocative stream-of-conscious monologue. Shipp stretches the boundaries of the form with care and precision, twisting the point-of-view to his own purposes, more often deluding and deceiving the reader than elucidating, and in this way, draws his style together to complement both the themes and the plot. Vacation is a story that tells of one man emerging from the haze of his past into the bright and painful harshness of the truth. Chapter by chapter, Vacation becomes clearer, crueler, and ultimately draws the reader down into the inescapable fact of the sheer falseness of our existence.

It's hard to describe Vacation in any of the usual ways, as it is not satisfying or compelling in the traditional sense, yet it demands to be read, and it demands that you put it down understanding yourself perhaps better than you did when you picked it up.

And remember, this is a fictional novel, not a self-help motivational piece. Shipp has succeeded where so much fiction fails; he has fleshed layer upon layer of meaning into a fantasy to the point that it is more real than our own realities, yet he does so through a lens that is both distorted and blinding.

I think I enjoyed this book, although enjoyed may not be the best word. I know that I am glad I read it, although glad may not be the best word either. I seriously recommend it, and that is the best way I can put it.

Take it away with you on Vacation, and you may not come back the same - if you come back at all.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Crescent: The Novel, and Phil Rossi's Cover Me Competition

Phil Rossi's Crescent: The Book Launch is Coming (mp3 Promo Link).

On July 9th, the print version of Phil Rossi's awesome Sci-Fi Podcast Novel Crescent will be released on Amazon.com.

Rossi is harnessing the power of his wired-in fanbase to slam the Amazon Charts by encouraging everyone to purchase a copy of Crescent at the same time, 1pm EST, on July 9th.

In yet another example of how this pioneering group of authors are taking the publishing world and reinventing it, Rossi is also running another competition (I honestly don't know how he finds the time!) called RossiCoverMe.

By following Phil Rossi on Twitter, you can have the opportunity to submit suggestions for songs from which Phil, who is also a brilliant musician, will choose one to record a cover version of. His efforts to date have been pretty damned impressive, including a fantastic version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.

The current theme is NIN - Nine Inch Nails. I personally am waiting for the now legendary rendition of Sympathy for the Devil that Rossi is rumoured to play.

Go Phil!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Warning: The Dark has been Unleashed

Today is the official release date for JC Hutchins' Personal Effects: Dark Art in US Bookstores. My copy is shipping from Amazon very shortly, and I can't wait to get my hands on it and sift through all that mystery goodness - oh, and to read it, of course.

If you've been living under a rock for the past few months and don't know what PE:DA is all about, start by watching this video by the author:



And if you're not already, then you should be listening to the exclusive Prequel Novella, Personal Effects: Sword of Blood.

Hutchins is also regularly updating his site today as PE:DA marches up the chart, with an all day online party. If you're in the US and can get to a bookstore, go grab your copy and email JC a photo of your with your book, so he can add it to the growing page of happy fans.

But there's another very important thing to remember here: For a few years now, writers like JC Hutchins, Scott Sigler, Mur Lafferty and others have been entertaining their growing fanbases by releasing their work for free as podcast novels. Creating anything as involved as an audiodrama takes a huge amount of effort, energy, time and passion, and all of this for virtually no reward in the short term. Getting a book deal is more than just a payday for these writers - it's a vindication. It's proof that the fans who are so willing to gobble up their stories for free also want to see these writers succeed, so that they can put their day jobs aside and focus, full-time (instead of at between 10pm and 3am), on writing more great stories to entertain those fans.

That's what this is all about. There is a nut here to be cracked, and it's not just about Hutchins, or PE:DA. It's about showing the publishing world that there is some good to be acheived by relinquishing their greedy clutches on writers' material, and adopting new business models that make the most of today's wired society.

I know that I wouldn't be writing this blog had it not been for my stumbling across the free (and stunning) Audiobook Drama Hoad's Grim by Jack Kincaid late last year, and I wouldn't have bought PE:DA either, because I never would've heard about it.

Hutchins et al are at the forefront of a revolution of published fiction as we know it. We'll look back on these heady days in years to come and be inspired by their vision and their sacrifice.

This is the future of fiction, folks. Make yourself a part of it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Monday, June 8, 2009

The First Real Post: Podcast News and Happenings

The most exciting thing I have to report is that on Saturday I took a drive up to the Tararua District Library in Dannevirke, to attend a talk given by Podiobooks co-founder Tee Morris and award-winning Podcast Novelist Philippa Ballantine, another proud Kiwi. The talk was more of a discussion to promote the offerings available at Podiobooks.com, but it was great to meet in person and shake the hands of such visionary pioneers of the art form. It was an intimate affair, there being about 5 people in the audience and cups of tea on hand, so it was a great opportunity to have a chat.

In particular, we had a good talk about podcasting microphones and what a prospective podcaster needs to be aware of if they're looking at investing in it. I have a couple of projects that I'm thinking about launching as podcasts, so it's nice to get opinions from the coalface. I like the look of the Rode Podcaster at this stage, on anecdotal evidence. My other option is Seth Harwood's preference, the H2 Zoom USB Recorder. Decisions, decisions.

Tee was also interviewed by Chris Laidlaw on Radio New Zealand on Sunday morning, and the interview can be found here.

In other news, it's only a couple of days now until JC Hutchins' new Horror-Mystery-Social Experiment Personal Effects: Dark Arts is released. The future of fiction is here. More than just a book, PE:DA takes the reader more places than the author even takes his main character, providing clues in the forms of phone numbers that readers can call, websites they can visit, and characters from the book with blogs and Twitter feeds to follow, as even darker secrets than those in the book are unravelled. I haven't read PE:DA but I will be keen to get my hands on a copy as soon as is humanly possible.

James Melzer has also thrown out a warning: There is an Invasion coming. Look out for zombies, I suspect, keep your shotgun handy, and aim for the head. Or should you? Given the twisted ending of his first book, Escape, I wouldn't necessarily be sure that it's the zombies we should be most afraid of.

Also, if you're not already, you should be following Jenny Hudock on Twitter, and checking out the poems she's dropping regularly on her website. It's great stuff.

Sound Check

Welcome to the Podagogue.

I have made the Big Call, and decided to start a new site where all my ruminations on the world of Audiobooks, Podcasting and other Fiction can live.

My main blog, Freshly Ground, will continue to titillate the tastebuds and chew over the food-related issues of the day, or week, or whatever, but my new obsession with Fiction I Can Listen To will now be the bread and butter of The Podagogue.

This was not an easy choice to make. I even ran a poll to get a feel for the audience.

But ultimately, I think I was confusing the foodies, and making the Sci-Fi fans hungry. If there are two things you don't want beating down your door, it's confused foodies and hungry geeks.

So again, welcome to the Podagogue!

I'll start by reposting all my previous reviews here, and I'll continue to link here from Freshly Ground when I post a new review.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Review: "Call of the Herald" by Brian Rathbone

Originally Published at Freshly Ground on June 4th 2009

Call of the Herald is the first part in Brian Rathbone's Dawning of Power Trilogy. The complete trilogy is available as a trade paperback; so far, only the first part is in audio format, and this available free from Podiobooks.com.Call of the Herald tells the tale of Catrin, a young girl thrust into a life of legend and prophecy when the quiet world she knew is changed forever.

Rathbone builds a haunting, immersive land of fog and mystery, meticulously building towards the unraveling of that world as the chapters unfold. He writes with care and attention to the finer details of Godsland, his fantasy world, and the characters that inhabit it. Listening to this audiobook, I was hungry for a bit more pace, but when Rathbone does bring on the action, he does so with the same refined skill and grace with which he has constructed his world. Without the methodical buildup, the climactic sequences would have seemed hollow. This is the fine art of world-building at its best.

The audio production is clean and clear. Rathbone never misses a beat in his crisp narration, and lets the prose carry the flow of his characters' voices. He has also chosen, for this recording, not to use any effects, music, or ambience, so the work relies very much on both his delivery and the weight of the writing for its effect. On this subject, Rathbone has a very soothing voice, which may at times be more relaxing than is good for the listener's focus. More than once I found I had to skip back because I had been lulled away from the story by the gentle timbre of Rathbone's voice rumbling away in my ear.

Call of the Herald took a bit of time to get into, but I was rewarded for sticking with it. The story finds its pace about halfway, and is unputdownable once it really gets going.

Overall, this is a fine effort in the fantasy genre, and I would have to give it a confident 3 1/2 Stars out of 5. I'll be looking forward to hearing future installments of the trilogy, and if the books were to cross my path I'd probably get my hands on them, if only to see if they read differently in my head without Rathbone's crooning voice to carry the words.

One thing I will say is that, unlike almost every podcast novel I've listened to, Rathbone doesn't plug his own site at all, which, while refreshing, is a shame. It is only tonight, as I skim over his site, that I see there are maps of Godsland for readers to look at, which would have made the listening experience a lot clearer. Maps are a critical part of the fantasy genre, and it is a skilled writer indeed who can write fantasy without recourse to a map in the front of the book - it's also one of the things we fantasy fans gobble up hungrily. It is a credit to Rathbone's writing that I made it right through Call of the Herald without ever seeing these maps, and never felt lost. Maybe a quick word in the intro or sign-off to check out the website for maps and artwork would have enhanced my experience of the audiobook.

Well done, Brian, on a great book and a fine audio production. Looking forward to your next offering.