Kaptara: Finest Pulped Space Comedy

kaptara-coverKaptara, Volume 1: Fear Not, Tiny Alien

Written by: Chip Zdarsky
Art by: Kagan McLeod
Published: December 23rd, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Fantasy, Pulp, Adventure, Comedy
Format: Graphic Novel
Length: 128 pages

Kaptara is very weird and very funny. Both come with the territory when Chip Zdarsky is at the helm, but Kaptara makes Zdarsky’s work on Howard the Duck seem downright traditional. At a basic level, Kaptara is a foul-mouthed piss-take version of classic pulpy sci-fi adventure stories, but it also features a diverse cast and bizarre, gorgeous art.

When the ship Kanga is sucked into a strange anomaly in space, it crash-lands on Kaptara, an alien planet full of hideous monsters and dangerous locals. The Kanga’s crew is separated and some of them are gruesomely murdered, but one man – a bio-engineer named Keith – manages to escape with his life despite his penchant for sarcasm and cowardice. Although Keith initially resists the call to adventure, it isn’t long before he’s on a mission to stop a villain named Skullthor from overthrowing the Earth.

Kaptara is laugh-out-loud funny throughout, but Zdarsky also lets a few poignant moments peek through the silliness. Keith is a misfit who feels like he doesn’t fit in back home, and he doesn’t fit in with his crew, either. After he crash-lands, Keith meets a new band of weirdos and misfits who all seem far more comfortable in their skins than he could ever be, and I’m sure he’ll do a bit of learning and growing as he adventures on Kaptara.

The book has a bit of everything thrown into the mix, including several foul-mouthed characters who feel somehow anachronistic even though the setting is a futuristic alien planet (where they’ve probably had swearing for millennia). There’s even a little murder mystery to keep things interesting.

I loved Kagan McLeod’s character designs and art throughout. The world of Kaptara is full of vibrant colors and strange creatures that look like nothing I’ve ever seen. “Cat tanks” are the primary mode of transportation on Kaptara, and if you’re picturing elephant-sized hairless cats with smushed faces and convenient tank treads, you have the right idea.

I’ll probably read anything Chip Zdarsky writes at this point, but it’s nice to know that he delivers more often than not. I’m looking forward to reading more about the strange world of Kaptara, and definitely recommend picking up this first volume.

REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound | Comixology

Girl vs. Ash: Darla’s Story by Mike Mullin

DarlasStoryCover-HighResDarla’s Story by Mike Mullin

Published: February 2, 2016
Publisher: Mike Mullin
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction, Apocalypse
Format: Audiobook
Length: 1 hr and 35 mins

Darla’s Story is a novella that provides a bit of back-story for a character in Mike Mullin’s Ashfall trilogy. I haven’t read the trilogy, but the author meant the novella to stand alone as a complete work, so I read it with that in mind.

I instantly liked the fact that this story features an Iowan farm girl as its main character. I also liked that it doesn’t take place in a far-flung dystopian future. Instead, it occurs immediately after an apocalyptic volcano eruption (with a real-world basis!) covers the entire US in falling ash. Midwesterners and the mid-apocalypse aren’t common tropes in YA (at least not the books I’ve read), so I found the novelty intriguing.

The story follows Darla and her mother as they work to survive in the aftermath of the eruption. Theirs is very much a contained apocalypse, focusing as it does on the minutiae of day-to-day survival for two people stranded in the country. Luckily, Darla is mechanically inclined thanks to her late father’s influence, so she’s one of the best people to get stuck with in an apocalypse. As soon as the eruptions stop, she starts fixing necessities like the water pump and her tractor.

Ultimately, volcanic ash is the primary antagonist in Darla’s Story. Interpersonal conflict only comes into play very late in the action, and it’s really just a complication in Darla’s fight against the endless ash-fall.

To be honest, a little man versus nature went a long way for me. After a few chapters of fix-it work, I was impatient for a more personal conflict. I wanted something to happen that might push Darla out of her bubble.

When the outside world does finally intrude on Darla’s life, it feels more like a frustrating inconvenience than a dire misfortune. In fact, a lot of the stakes in this story feel strangely low. Despite the apocalyptic setting, Darla is both capable and determined, and it never seems like she is in immediate danger.

I think a lot of my impatience with this story stems from the fact that it really does only function as a prequel to a larger work. If Darla’s Story was a screenplay, this novella would be maybe 90% of the first act. It’s everything leading up to the part where Darla finally leaves her ordinary world and goes on a quest. The problem is that Darla can’t get to that point here because the meatier action happens in the main trilogy.

Even though I feel like Darla’s Story doesn’t actually work as a standalone piece, I enjoyed the character and setting. Reading Darla’s Story was enough to piqué my interest in Ashfall, but I’m not sure it’s a great starting place for the overall series. It probably works better as a way to fill in back-story after you’ve read the main series.

As for the audiobook, I thought the narrator was perfect for the character. I’d definitely recommend listening to Darla’s Story in audio form if you do pick it up.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the author.

Amazon | Audible | Barnes and Noble

It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Bream Gives Me Hiccups

Bream Gives Me Hiccups & Other Stories by Jesse EisenbergBream Gives Me Hiccups by Jesse Eisenberg

Published: December 1st 2015
Publisher: Audible Studios / Brilliance Audio
Genre(s): Comedy, Short Stories
Format: Audiobook
Length: 4 hrs and 28 mins

Bream Gives Me Hiccups is actor Jesse Eisenberg’s debut short story collection. Although it doesn’t feel like a vanity project, it is definitely a little derivative. Eisenberg’s work is in the same wheelhouse as Woody Allen’s short fiction, and doesn’t always fare well by comparison.

Most of the stories in Bream Gives Me Hiccups are slight comic riffs on a premise. The joke is oftentimes spelled out in the story’s title. When these shorter pieces are good, they deliver some of the best laughs in the collection. When they’re bad, they’re almost entirely forgettable.

Included with the short pieces are two longer stories that appear at the beginning and middle of the collection. The title story, “Bream Gives Me Hiccups”, is one of the best in the collection. The second long piece, “My Roommate Stole My Ramen”, is easily the worst.

One thing Eisenberg does to set himself apart from Allen is make his characters seem like real people with emotions. He only succeeds intermittently, but when he does, the stories are particularly good. Allen is by far the better writer, but the characters in his fiction were always held at arm’s length.

Section I, “Bream Gives Me Hiccups”, is framed as a series of restaurant reviews by a nine-year-old. Each review quickly devolves into a rundown of the main character’s life and troubles – with his divorced parents, his best friend, and the kids at school – and the result is both hilarious and affecting.

Section II, “Family”, mostly consists of a series of extended jokes from the perspectives of Eisenberg’s family members (real or imagined). There are a few standouts here: “Separation Anxiety Sleepaway Camp” is an absurdist exploration of childhood neurosis, and “My Nephew Has Some Questions” is by far the best example of Eisenberg committing to the game of a joke.

Section III, “History”, is all bits and no characters. I remember laughing once or twice at this section, but the stories didn’t leave much of an impression. Also, the joke in “Marxist-Socialist Jokes” is that they’re all non-jokes, which is just annoying.

Section IV, “My Roommate Stole My Ramen”, is where this collection went off the rails for me. In a series of letters to her high school guidance counselor, a spoiled freshman rants about everyone and everything in her life. There isn’t much of a narrative arc, and the main character doesn’t learn or grow by the end of the story. Eisenberg doesn’t appear to have any sympathy for this horrendous character, so it’s hard to understand why this story spends so much time with her. The end result is both tone-deaf and misogynist.

Section V, “Dating”, lands with a thud. I wasn’t particularly entertained by four variations on a bar pick-up, and found this section completely skippable.

Section VI, “Sports”, was also pretty lame. “Marv Albert Is My Therapist” is only mildly funny if you know who Albert is. “Carmelo Anthony…” is slightly entertaining because the Eisenberg character is completely delusional about his “pickup game”.

Section VII, “Self-Help” brings in some much-needed darkness with “Smiling Tricks” and “If She Ran Into Me Now…”, both of which feature delusional and/or downright psychotic main characters. It also helps that neither story overstays its welcome.

In Section VIII, “Language”, the best story is “My Spam Plays Hard to Get”, in which even scammers don’t want to steal from Eisenberg. “Nick Garrett’s Review” has a fairly obvious twist, and the remaining stories are unremarkable.

Section IX, “We Only Have Time for One More”, just feels unnecessary.

So, to summarize, although there are definitely worthwhile stories and the occasional bright spot in this collection, the second half almost sinks under the weight of unpleasant characters and unremarkable stories.

It’s a shame, because I really enjoyed several of the stories and wish the overall collection was that consistently good. However, I’m still willing to recommend picking up this collection because of the handful of truly great stories. I’d also recommend picking up the audiobook version so that you can hear these pieces performed by the author.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, but I actually listened to the audiobook version from Audible. Go figure.

Amazon | Audible | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

Empty Inside: The Beauty, Volume 1

The Beauty Volume 1The Beauty, Volume 1

Story By: Jeremy Haun & Jason A. Hurley
Art By: Jeremy Haun
Published: March 16, 2016
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Horror, Thriller, Mystery
Format: Paperback
Length: 164 pages

The Beauty Volume 1 has one cool idea and not much else: there is a new sexually transmitted disease that makes you beautiful. If you contract it, you become young, thin and pretty within minutes. The only apparent side effect is a constant low-level fever, so people go out of their way to get infected. It isn’t long before half the population has The Beauty.

There are factions who object to The Beauty for political and religious reasons, but the real problem is that people with The Beauty are starting to spontaneously combust and nobody knows why. When a woman combusts in public, two police detectives (one of them infected) try to find an explanation. They face opposition from government officials trying to cover it up and a shady pharmaceutical CEO who just wants to make a profit. The story turns into a by-the-numbers conspiracy thriller/mystery after only a few pages.

One of my biggest problems with The Beauty is that I didn’t care about the main characters at all. They are generic pretty people who only want to Solve The Crime And Stop The Conspiracy. Neither of them has an identifiable personality and their dialog is basically interchangeable.

The villains get slightly more characterization and/or back story, if only because we see them doing things that aren’t necessarily related to the case at hand. That doesn’t mean their motivations are clear, however.

One villain wears a skull mask and eviscerates his victims to show that he’s obviously a very bad dude, but his appearances in the story are all gore and no tension because his actions feel utterly impersonal.

When I finished reading this volume, I had to check to find out if it was a mini-series or an ongoing title. It felt like a complete (if underdeveloped) story, so I wanted to know if my instincts were correct. It turns out that it is an ongoing series even though the sixth issue wraps up a lot of threads and ends with a note of finality.

One thing I did like about The Beauty was the art. It has a clean, realistic style that emphasizes the absurd horror of spontaneous combustions. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t give the art much to work with, so the book feels slight and generic.

After reading so many disappointing comics with boilerplate stories and undeveloped characters, it’s starting to feel like a problem with the medium. There are exceptional writers like Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky and Brian K. Vaughan working in comics, but the ability to fully develop a character in a few panels seems like a rare talent.

Unfortunately, The Beauty doesn’t deliver on the clever idea at its core because the characters are personality-free and generic.

DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound | Comixology

Wrong-Headed: Noggin by John Corey Whaley

NogginNoggin by John Corey Whaley

Published: April 8, 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 45 minutes

I wanted to like Noggin more than I did. It has a clever premise, it’s definitely funny, and it delivers on more than one genuinely touching moment. Unfortunately, despite everything the book does right, I just wanted to wring the main character’s neck after a certain point. During one scene late in the book I actually grimaced in horror at his stupidity.

Travis Coates starts out with a lot of sympathetic qualities. Noggin opens as he awakens from a surgery to attach his severed head to a donor body. In his former life, Travis was a sixteen-year-old kid with inoperable cancer. When it became clear that he was going to die, he volunteered for an experimental program with a chance to save his life.

The program worked, but that catch is this: five years passed while his head was cryogenically frozen. He’s still mentally sixteen, but his friends are in college and his parents lived with the grief of his loss for years.

That mental age ends up being Travis’ biggest obstacle. Everyone else has grown up and moved on, but he’s still petulant and selfish and unwilling to let go of the past. When he discovers that his best friend and girlfriend didn’t wait around for him to come back, he proceeds to blow up their lives and friendships with his behavior.

Travis spends most of Noggin trying to win back the love of his former girlfriend, Cate, who is now five years older than him and engaged to another guy. It’s obvious from the start that Travis’ quest is a huge mistake. He’s going to fail, and when he does, he’s going to ruin his relationship with someone he claims to love.

There’s probably a way to tell this story that would make it feel like Travis and Cate are star-crossed lovers, but I never found myself sympathizing with his wish to win her back. He just seemed like a pathetic asshole. His self-delusion lasts for so long and goes to such extremes that I lost all patience for his idiocy.

Travis is exactly the sort of “nice guy” who just won’t take a hint, and the Cate is so forgiving that she just keeps giving him the benefit of the doubt. When Travis makes a completely boneheaded “grand gesture” near the end of the book, Cate actually forgives him… and then a few chapters later he ignores her feelings yet again. I groaned aloud.

Honestly, I’m not sure I believe that Travis learns anything over the course of the book. Instead, it feels like he just decides to blame everyone else for not understanding what he’s going through.

Although I might be willing to give John Corey Whaley’s books another chance, I’m glad I’m done spending time with Travis Coates.

DISLIKED IT

Amazon | Audible | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

Millennials Love “Real Books” and Other Generalizations

millennials love books

Over at Mashable, MJ Franklin declares that he is “a millennial, and (he) will never give up reading real books“. If you were wondering, he defines “real books” as the paper-and-glue sort, not those filthy ones-and-zeroes people keep locked up in their e-readers. Audiobooks don’t even enter the discussion, so his post is already inadequate as far as I’m concerned.

At the heart of Franklin’s thesis is a study of “300 university students in the U.S., Japan, Germany, and Slovakia” that reveals how millennials, the internet’s favorite generation, say that they prefer physical books to digital ones by an overwhelming margin. The study focused on the students’ medium of choice for textbooks, but Franklin repurposes the statistic as a generalization about the state of books, and not for the first time.

I’m technically a millennial, although I’m at the top of the cut-off, so I exist in that uncomfortable middle-ground where I’m old enough to side-eye the newest whine/rant but young enough to get lumped in with bullshit trends. Even still, from an anecdotal perspective, I feel like I’ve definitely seen evidence of this particular trend in my life. My parents love their e-readers, but many of my peers seem to prefer physical books. Also, I won’t deny that I love physical books. Anyone who has seen my apartment knows that for a fact.

When Franklin says that he recently bought a new shelf to house his “to-read” collection, I had to laugh, because I have five bookcases full to overflowing with “to-read” books. I keep buying physical books even though I ran out of space years ago. I don’t think the demand for hardcovers and paperbacks will go away any time soon.

It’s fair to say that I agree with some of the sentiment behind Franklin’s post, but I don’t agree with his conclusions. He portrays the choice between physical books and ebooks as a pitched battle, as if only one format can survive and Your Loyalty Will be Tested. It’s a strangely petulant and exclusionary stance.

It doesn’t help that I’ve never been able to relate to people who like to write in the margins of books. I shudder at the thought of ruining a book by writing in it, and I thoroughly hate it when I buy a used books only to discover writing in the margins. I’ll admit that Franklin’s love of marginalia didn’t really improve my opinion of him, but I suppose if that’s how he likes to read, who am I to stop him?

That’s really the main point, though, isn’t it? How does my enjoyment of audiobooks and ebooks interfere with Franklin’s appreciation for the printed page? The answer is that it doesn’t, not one bit. Every reading format has positives and negatives, and they can (and should) co-exist.

Audiobooks are great for times when I want to keep my brain occupied during a mindless or repetitive task like driving, exercising or washing the dishes. I love audiobooks, but I would never sit down on the couch and listen to one unless I was doing something else at the same time.

I definitely love physical books as objects, especially when they have a cool cover design. I also feel like reading the printed page  transports me into a world of my imagination like nothing else. Problem is, I hardly ever have the time to sit down and do nothing but read for more than half an hour or so. I can maybe squeeze in a chapter or two of reading during my lunch break, but I finish books faster if I listen to them during my commute.

Ebooks are by far the most convenient medium. I’ve read books on my iPhone while waiting for the subway, and my Kindle is crucial when I travel. I also love that I can put my Kindle or my iPhone in my pocket and carry hundreds of books with me wherever I go. The biggest downside, though, is that it is incredibly easy to forget about all of those ebooks I’ve impulse-purchased for $1.99 over the years. I never look at them, so they might as well not be there.

As I grow older and my life becomes fuller, I have to squeeze in reading for fun when I can. Focusing on the “realness” of a physical book over more practical considerations like storage space, free time and convenience is a luxury I can no longer afford. It’s the kind of lesson you can only learn by growing older and understanding how your priorities have changed.

I’ll probably never stop buying physical books because I have terrible impulse control, but that doesn’t mean I think they’re any better or worse than other mediums. I want books in every format so that I can read as much as possible.

Treacherous Parts: You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

You Too Can Have a Body Like MineYou Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

Published: August 25th 2015
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Genre(s): Literary Fiction, Surrealism
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hrs and 17 mins

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a catalog of the mundane made nightmarish and surreal. Eating an orange is a visceral act of destruction and consumption. Applying makeup is an absolute negation of the self.

Sex is dissociative and alien, a study of individual body parts joining and separating in feverish dispassion. Commercials are bizarre tragedies populated with gruesome cartoon imagery.

Your favorite game show ruins lives and breaks up marriages. The neighbors dressed themselves in bed sheets with holes for their eyes and checked out of society to join a new cult. Your roommate wants to become you so thoroughly that you might no longer exist.

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a bit difficult to summarize in any kind of concise fashion, but the back copy certainly tries. The main thing you need to know before reading it is that it isn’t particularly plot-driven and the characters aren’t much more than archetypes.

The first three-fourths are an episodic, anxious meditation on body image, consumerism and food issues. The last quarter changes gears a bit when the main character decides she has found a solution to her general malaise, and the book loses a bit of its odd, surrealist charm. That last quarter also suffers from a sudden influx of jargon, but the end still mostly sticks the landing.

My favorite parts were Kleeman’s descriptions of terrifying commercials for a chemical-filled brand of snack cakes. Imagine an existentialist Wile E Coyote who doesn’t just fall but breaks at a spiritual level thanks to the machinations of sentient dessert, and you’ve got the general idea.

I also appreciated the author’s horrifying descriptions of food and eating even as they made me cringe. Eating is basically never pleasurable in this book; instead, it’s an act of violence against both food and eater.

I’m honestly not entirely sure why I enjoyed this book as much as I did. I’m not usually patient enough to read weird, arty books, and it was definitely a bit pretentious and overwritten. It’s possible that listening to the audiobook was a big part of why I liked it; in fact, I’m pretty sure I would have gotten bogged down trying to read it in print.

Accordingly, I’d rate this one as a qualified recommendation. If a rambling, slim story about body image and food issues sounds like it might be worth your time, you’ll probably get a few laughs and/or shudders out of Kleeman’s début.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

Amazon | Audible | Book Soup | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound

Awesome Authors Who Are Also Fantastic Narrators

speaking-into-can

I recently started listening to H is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald. The book is a rare experience, both because I don’t read many non-fiction books and because the author is a fantastic narrator. Her recitation is both deeply personal and carefully, perfectly enunciated in the exact sort of British accent that makes for a pleasant listening experience. In fact, listening to a clip of her narration is a big part of what sold me on the book.

Listening to her read made me think of other authors who are also great narrators. In my experience, the combination is extremely rare. The sort of person who is willing to spend endless hours writing in solitude tends not to enjoy public speaking. Of course, it also doesn’t help when your favorite authors turn out to have weird nasally voices and a tendency to drone.

Thankfully, when an author is good at reading out loud, they are oftentimes very, very good. I’ve listed a few notable examples below.

Neil Gaiman – One of the most obvious examples of a great author-narrator is Neil Gaiman, who has a way with words and an excellent sense of pacing and intonation. Many of his stories feature thinly veiled versions of the author himself, so hearing them read aloud is crucial. I wasn’t a huge fan of his most recent collection of short stories, but Gaiman is still one of my all-time favorite authors thanks to his novels. Hearing him read anything aloud is wonderful.

David Sedaris – The weird thing about David Sedaris is that his voice is so bizarre and off-putting, but his stories just aren’t the same without it. When I first listened to Sedaris’ short stories, I wasn’t sure if I would ever get used to his voice, but a few short hours later I was weeping profusely at his story about his family’s history with dogs. His work is very much a case where the performance is an important part of every story, and if you’re just reading his words on the page, they don’t have the same effect at all.

Catherynne M. ValenteValente narrates several of the books in her Fairyland series, and although she isn’t as polished as some of the other authors on this list, her reading of September’s adventures in Fairyland gives it a unique character that I missed when another narrator took over for book two.

Mary Robinette Kowal – I actually haven’t read any of Kowal’s books yet, but I’ve listened to her narration on a number of books by other authors, and I really enjoy her voice. She’s actually a fairly prolific narrator, and I’ve also listened to many episodes of her work on the Writing Excuses podcast. I’m sure I’ll get around to reading one of her books someday soon!

Romance By Any Other Name

outlander

We’ve been watching the Starz adaptation of Outlander recently, and it got me thinking about how I’ve never actually read a “romance” novel, but I’ve read plenty of stealth romance sold as other genres. I’ve actually owned Outlander on Kindle for a while – it was free at one point and I thought I might as well find out what all the fuss was about – but I never actually got around to reading it.

Now we’re just over halfway through the first season and I’m definitely enjoying the show. Jack Randall, the villain, steals pretty much every scene he’s in, and the episode where he describes flaying Jamie’s back is simultaneously mesmerizing and horrifying. The show does have its problems here and there, however. The first episode spends a bit too much time in Claire’s head; she narrates most of the episodes, but that first one feels like it’s half an hour of her staring out a window thinking pretty thoughts. The narration does get better from there, however.

Sexual violence is also a pretty common trope on the show so far. I do think they’re making an effort to give Claire some agency when these moments occur, but I have to wonder if she’s going to face the threat (or reality) of rape literally every other episode. Additionally, there are a few particularly controversial scenes (one of which we just watched) that I know completely turned people off on the experience. I can’t really compare since I haven’t read the book (yet), but I get the impression that the show might be doing a better job with some of the more borderline material. Your mileage may vary?

In any case, I’m enjoying Outlander, but that wasn’t really a surprise. I’ve known for a very long time that I’m a huge sucker for cinematic romance although I normally stick with comedies. Outlander is oftentimes a very funny show, but it’s mostly dramatic. Luckily it generally avoids melodramatic or soapy plot twists (unlike Downton Abbey, for example), so that helps with my enjoyment.

So, here’s me: a sucker for romance, but I’ve never read an actual Romance Novel. I’ve enjoyed reading romantic books sold as fantasy or literary fiction – books like The Night Circus, Kushiel’s Dart, Soulless, Attachments, A Little Night Magic and Firethorn – so why haven’t I taken the plunge and picked up a flat-out romance?

The short and most obvious answer is: marketing. Romance novels tend to have covers that don’t appeal to me and summaries that don’t catch my interest. I haven’t figured out how to interpret the packaging to find the books I would actually enjoy the way I can with a genre novel. My rule for SF&F was that I wouldn’t read a book with a spaceship or a shirtless dude wielding a sword unless I was already familiar with the author, but I don’t know what rules to follow in the romance world. My best guess is that I should avoid books featuring Fabio on the cover.

For now, I’m going to follow Sunil Patel’s lead and pick up a book by Courtney Milan. His article over at The Book Smugglers makes a compelling case for why guys should give romance novels a chance. It’s kind of amazing to think about how much mental inertia I must have in place that I can thoroughly enjoy romantic movies and TV shows as well as blatantly romantic novels but I still hesitate at the thought of picking up a Romance Novel.

Turn Overcast Into an Amazing Audiobook App

overcastOvercast is one of the best podcasting apps on the market, but I decided that I wanted to use it to listen to audiobooks. The only problem? Overcast only works with podcast feeds.

As far as I can tell, there isn’t a simple way to manually load in MP3s or point the app directly at a file. However, I didn’t let this limitation discourage me; instead, I came up with a convoluted solution that probably isn’t for the faint of heart.

Update, March 2016: As of Overcast 2.5, patrons can upload DRM-free audio files for their own personal use. When you upload a file, it goes directly to storage hosted by Marco Arment, the app’s creator, so you don’t have to do any further setup. I’m still using the home-grown podcast configuration I explain below, but if you want to skip all that, it’s as easy as becoming an Overcast patron.

There are two really good reasons I went to so much effort: Smart Speed and Voice Boost. Smart Speed is a killer app for listening to the spoken word – it automatically speeds up podcasts and audiobooks by dynamically snipping out pauses, all without distortion. As for Voice Boost, it automatically equalizes the volume in your file, when comes in handy for too-quiet books.

Overcast also tracks how much time you’ve saved thanks to Smart Speed, and it’s kind of astonishing. I’ve used Overcast to listen to two books so far – Funny Girl and The Library at Mount Char – but it’s already saved me six hours of time. When I tried to listen to Funny Girl at normal speed as an experiment, the pauses were excruciating.

How did I manage to pull this off? I installed Podcast Generator, an “open source podcast publishing platform”. It runs in PHP and doesn’t need a MySQL database, so it’s very easy to set up. Once you’ve installed it on a server, you can use an FTP program to upload M4A or MP3 files and Podcast Generator will automatically add them as new episodes in your feed.

Here’s my current workflow for transferring audiobooks into Overcast:

  1. Download an MP3 audiobook from places such as Downpour, SYNC or your local library’s Overdrive collection.
  2. If your audiobook comes in parts, you’ll probably want to convert it into one combined file. I use a program called Join Together, which generates an M4B file and automatically adds it to iTunes.
    • If you do create a combined M4B, you’ll need to change the file extension to M4A before you upload the file into Podcast Generator.
    • This doesn’t work with extremely long books (anything involving George R.R. Martin), which will need to remain broken into smaller parts.
  3. Upload your audiobook into Podcast Generator’s media folder.
  4. Go into the Podcast Generator Admin console and choose “FTP Feature (Auto Indexing)” to refresh your feed. Your audiobook should now appear in the list of episodes.
  5. I like to edit the metadata for new episodes so that they have proper descriptions and author information, but this isn’t strictly necessary. If you want to change the order of the books in your feed, you’ll need to edit the date of the episode.
  6. Once you’ve finished adding audiobooks, go to the main page of your Podcast Generator installation and click on the RSS Feed button. This should give you your feed url, which will look something like http://example.com/feed.xml. Open Overcast and  use the “Add URL” option to subscribe to that link.

You can now stream or download audiobooks in Overcast to your heart’s content!