Monday, 24 April 2017

PODCAST REVIEW: When the stars become the hosts

This article previously featured in The Tribune Weekend section of April 21

ALEC Baldwin has taken centre stage lately thanks to his performances as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live – but did you know he also has his own podcast? He kicks us off this week.

Alec Baldwin, photograph by By Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Here’s The Thing

If I ask you to tell me your first impressions of Alec Baldwin, it might be a world away from how you’ll find him on this podcast. Celebrity, actor, comedian... he’s all of these, but in this podcast you’ll also find him shining the spotlight rather than standing under it.
He hosts this show which features him interviewing all manner of guests – from actors to musicians, from celebrities to politicians, seemingly whoever takes his fancy in any given week.
The latest show sees him chatting to Mark Farner, former frontman of the rock band Great Funk Railroad once upon a day and in later years a solo artist.
The chats are amiable and Baldwin clearly knows his stuff, with asides mentioning landmark moments in Farner’s career.
It also takes on intriguing subjects, such as Farner’s Christianity, which came to feature in his music as his career progressed, and touching on Baldwin’s own Catholicism – he says he’s a churchgoer, but a more regular churchgoer when things go wrong in life.
They also talk about health issues, including Farner’s own two close brushes with death which he describes as leaving the meat sack.
The show might last three-quarters of an hour, but it absolutely flies by in the company of such a genial host and great guest.

The Dinner Party Download

Also mixing celebrities and chat is The Dinner Party Download, with hosts Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam roaming around several guest spots and more.
That can include quirky facts – the latest show tells us how we’re all using salt wrong – and contests involving listeners.
Among the guests in the latest show are musician Aimee Mann and actor Hank Azaria (who you may know from his show Brockmire, but is also a voice from The Simpsons and much more).
The interviews tend to be less formal, more shooting the breeze, with Azaria fun as he puts on all kind of voices during the talk and Aimee Mann relaxed and honest as she talks about copycat tattoos and how weird it is when you hear your own song playing somewhere or, worse, someone humming it nearby.
It’s probably a measure of how these segments go that they leave you wanting more. As they wrapped up the two interviews above, I was urging them to stay just a little longer.
Splendidly produced, it’s well worth a lunchtime listen.

RuPaul: What’s The Tee with Michelle Visage

RuPaul is, of course, a legend, and this is the famed drag star’s podcast, with air time shared with Michelle Visage, who fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race will be familiar with as a host.
The latest show also sees Glee star Naya Rivera as a guest but you’ll be waiting a long time before you get to her appearance. It’s almost an hour of chat with just RuPaul and Visage before we get there – and sadly, that’s not a great thing. RuPaul is a smashing host, but Visage seemed to be endlessly complaining, while busily flashing all kinds of celebrity privilege. Her complaints ranged from the quality of computers being given to kids at the school her children attend to the trials and tribulations she had to endure in Celebrity Big Brother. We hear how she constantly loses her phone and her favourite social media apps. Those with younger ears around are also advised that it’s filled liberally with swearing. It feels like a lengthy gossip session over coffee, which might suit what you’re looking for, but for me it grated – and the interview at the end felt rather shallow, not really digging much into Rivera’s career and life.
If it was dialled back more to RuPaul’s level – who shows genuine interest in the others on the show and asks engaging questions – it would be a whole lot better. But who knew that you’d be thinking that RuPaul would be the one playing it down?

Saturday, 22 April 2017

BOOK REVIEWS: Pipe and Pestle, by Joseph Weinberg; Crew Genesis, by CH Clepitt; and Betta Virus, by Jadzia Banks

For our regular book reviews, today we welcome back Brent A. Harris, as he takes a look at Pipe and Pestle. I add a couple of reviews afterwards too, of short titles from Jadzia Banks and CH Clepitt.

Pipe and Pestle, by Joseph Weinberg
Sam Archer is not a detective. He’s not a wizard either – curse his luck. He’s just a hapless human who runs an occult store and knows about the stuff which goes bump in the night. And he’s accompanied by a sex-crazed, wheeling-and-dealing demon, named Stacey, who’s along for the ride, locked in his mind. Poor Sam, he’s always finding ways to get in over his head.
Pipe and Pestle follows Sam and Stacey as the pair try to authenticate an important pipe for his latest client. As the deal goes south, the artifact goes missing, the client ends up murdered, and the police and half the occult underworld chase after Sam, who must keep one step ahead while finding the pipe and clearing his name, or he’ll wind up just as dead. Maybe that won’t be all bad. Stacey wouldn’t mind. She is a demon, after all.
The strength of this story is its readability. It’s fun, fast-paced, and difficult to put down – all things that make a book like this a success. Where Sam is dry and witty, Stacey is fun and flirty. He’s the straight guy to Stacey’s humor. It’s an informative and fresh take on the occult, part noir, part procedural, and part Buffy, all rolled into one.
Pipe and Pestle keeps the pace going, even if at times the plot can lead down a dead-end. There are numerous red-herrings, the occasional repetition and, structurally speaking, characters who arrive late to the game, and an end that arrives abruptly. Poor Sam is left as a human pinball to the whims of these plot devices, which makes it difficult for Sam to grow as a character or have much agency of his own. He spends so much time explaining what he is not, or what he should do, that we get little time to see Sam do himself. The most developed characters seem to be the peripheral ones, found in police detective Barry, the wizard Reginald, and the late-arriving Lilah, who seems to have no purpose in this story other than to lay the groundwork for appearances later in the series.
But Pestle does lay good groundwork, and between Sam, a character with potential, some fun ones like Stacey and Reginald, and some solid ones (I want more Lilah), the story overcomes its challenges. Sam Archer will entertain as a fun, quick thrill-ride of demonic dealings, acerbic wit, murder and mystery. 
AI Rating: 4.5, rounded to 5.

Pipe and Pestle is available on Amazon

Crew Genesis, by C H Clepitt
I've read a few of the Crew Chronicles tales now - and this one takes us on a trip to the past of the series. 
On the face of it, the Crew Chronicles might appear to be set up for a light-hearted, soaring space frolic - it is, after all, about fairies in space. But C H Clepitt has weightier tales to tell - the existence of fairies in this era of space exploration is a beginning point to explore all kinds of issues about how humans treat others, as well as giving us the chance for adventure. 
This flashback does the same, taking us back to a time before the crew's ship ever soared. Remember that flashback moment from Firefly where we got to see how the captain first laid eyes on the Serenity? Think the same kind of thing here, as we find out what propelled the first lift-off. There's tragedy in here, and determination - and it's a great little glimpse into the past of the series. Now bring on some more! 
AI Rating: 4/5

Crew Genesis is available on Amazon.

Betta Virus, by Jadzia Banks
There's a great deal to think about in this short story - and not all of it comfortable. 
Adira is an Islamic terrorist, working in a secret lab to try to create a way of destroying Western civilisation. 
The key to her research is the Betta fish. That's right, that little fish that floats around on its own in a little bowl. You see, Betta fish can be scared to death by seeing another - and that's what Adira seeks to replicate... in humans. 
What follows is a mix of intriguing science, disturbing considerations of how to distribute virues - and pointed satire about what happens next. 
I didn't always feel at ease reading parts of this story, but it's undeniably thought-provoking. And that earns it a definite thumbs-up. 
AI Rating: 4/5

Betta Virus is available on Amazon.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

PODCAST REVIEW: S-Town and more tales of the unexpected

This article was previously published by The Tribune Weekend section here

This week’s podcast takes a diversion down an unexpected path. A show that started off appearing to be about one thing quickly took a very different turn – and led this week’s review selection to ask the question “Who are we – and who has the right to talk about us after we’ve gone?”

S-Town comes from the creators of Serial - and has hit the top of the charts from its launch.


S-Town is a new show from the creators of Serial and This American Life. And it’s an oddity.
Ostensibly, this starts out as a real-life crime show in which the host, Brian Reed, is asked to come to the town of Woodstock, Alabama, to investigate a murder. It then takes a very, very different course.
Reed was invited to come to the town – the S-Town of the title, but that’s just an abbreviation of the curse word used to describe it by John B McLemore, a cranky old man who tinkers with clocks, drinks cheap whiskey and berates the world for all that is wrong.
He tells Reed of abuse of people across the state by police officers, he talks about the land he has where he keeps stray dogs as the unofficial animal shelter of the area, he hangs out with his buddy as he sharpens his chainsaw. And he presses Reed to investigate a murder that doesn’t appear to have happened.
Reed tries to find out more about the murder – but there’s nothing. No trail, no newspaper reports. Nothing. He begins to think McLemore might have made it all up. And so begins the real journey of the show, examining McLemore himself.
Now, there’s no two ways about this, I’m going to have to give a spoiler for the events that happen in the show. You see, in the second episode, McLemore commits suicide. The news of this comes to Reed as he’s mid-investigation and it changes the whole path of the show. Suddenly, it becomes about McLemore, who he is, his sexuality, his lack of a will that leads to all sorts of family contention, the rumours of quantities of gold that he owned. It becomes, in essence, a look at mid-American life, and the secrets that we keep.
S-Town was released recently in a block of episodes, so you can binge listen to the first seven episodes already. It’s a slightly uneasy listen – McLemore invited Reed to investigate a death, but it was never his death. Or his life. At times, this feels slightly voyeuristic, disrespectful even. But the story that is told really makes you think about what lies behind the faded facade of Americana, and what goes on in those small towns out there.

Modern Love

I’ve reviewed Modern Love before – it’s an excellent show – but by chance a remarkably fitting companion piece to S-Town this week is the latest show featuring a reading by actress Laura Dern of a piece by Rhonda Mawhood Lee. She reads about a pastor speaking to her parishioner, a 78-year-old man who had fallen in love with a 28-year-old man – to the shocked reaction of his church.
The show includes reaction to the piece – but one of the concerns is again that, unfortunately, the story comes after the fact. Ned passes away. So is his story someone else’s to tell? Ought we to be discussing, no matter how compassionately, their sex lives, their loves?
It fits into the same territory as the discussion of McLemore above – and while I have no answers to the questions it raises, it is beautifully done and thoughtfully executed.
Modern Love is very well worth a listen – even when it raises awkward questions.

Movie star John Candy - whose life is explored in Remarkable Lives, Tragic Deaths

Remarkable Lives, Tragic Deaths

This show – a quick listen at about half an hour – looks back over people’s lives, highlighting parts we might not be familiar with.
The latest episode is about John Candy, who died far too young at the age of 43 in Mexico. The show looks back at his early days starting out, failing to make a career as a salesman and being dismissed by someone who said they would never hire an actor again. That was a spark for Candy, who was at least being described as an actor, something he would devote himself to more fully, first in comedy in Canada before breakthrough roles in movies, especially when he hit the big time in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
It’s a quirky format for a show, with scenes from Candy’s life being played out in short vignettes, sometimes effectively, sometimes less so, but always putting a spotlight on parts of the actor’s life we might not be familiar with. There are his struggles with reviews that highlighted his weight, there are the times he is wrestling with the need to look after his family but being taken away from them by his work – his life is stressed with different influences, while always being recognised as a good guy.
The length of the show perhaps doesn’t allow us an in-depth view, but for a quick listen, it does help to show us more of the person we thought we knew – and wonder if we ever really did, and that’s no mean trick to pull off.
Other recent episodes cover subjects as wide-ranging as Marvin Gaye, Joan of Arc and Julius Caesar – so it’s fair to say the show has ambition in its targets. But start with someone familiar – or someone you thought was familiar.

Got a show you'd like to see featured in the review column? Drop a note in the comments below or tweet me at @AlteredInstinct. 

Thursday, 6 April 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Foul is Fair, by Jeffrey Cook and Katherine Perkins; Karl Drinkwater's Horror Collection; and Whack A Spammer, by Charity Grant

Foul is Fair, by Jeffrey Cook and Katherine Perkins

This book is a charming delight - and I say that knowing it's not at all my usual kind of read.
Foul is Fair is a Young Adult fantasy tale about a teenage girl named Megan O'Reilly who discovers that fairy realms are real - and that she might not be entirely human herself.
Suddenly threatened by a menace from that fairy world, Megan and her best friend team up with a pixie riding a crow and a satyress whose chariot is drawn by a pair of leopards to seek out her father, and the sword that could prove the key to freeing him.
It's the characters who draw you in most of all here, from Megan, the schoolgirl who is struggling with ADHD and the medication she uses to cope with that, to the pixie without wings who dares to be part of the quest, or the gleefully pansexual satyress pointing out that, after all, Pan is very sexy.
The early part of the book moves a little slowly - and perhaps gets bogged down in too many characters telling Megan about how the fairy realm works - but once we reach the fairy court, the book is off and running, rattling away at a fun pace with dialogue that sparkles. It's not all light and breezy though - there are weighty matters in here too, as Megan comes to terms with who she is, as we see people choose their sides and the reasons why, and as the fairy quest tips our own world into peril.
More than anything, I really enjoy the acceptance of such a delightful cast. Seeing such a great range of female characters is very, very welcome. The book wears its influences on its sleeve, from a clear love of Pratchett through tips of the hat to a host of punk world favourites - such as A Clockwork Orange or the music of Lindsay Sterling. But the book is very much its own thing, carving its own path in the young adult field.
Here's to more adventures from Megan and her friends.

AI Rating: 5/5

Foul is Fair is available on Amazon here.

Karl Drinkwater's Horror Collection

Karl Drinkwater wants to scare you. Come on in, close the door behind you, he's got something to tell you.
This horror collection brings together three of his previous publications - the novel Turner, the short story collection They Move Below and the novella Harvest Festival.
Let's start with Turner - a novel that is equal parts The Wicker Man and The Crazies. There's an island off the coast of Wales where unwary travellers become targets, where they become hunted. We find ourselves alongside three of those travellers - a policeman, a teacher and a criminal - thrown together as they try to stay alive while crazed killers try to track them down.
It's a brutal tale, full of blood and gore and grue. Think of the likes of Stephen Gallagher or James Herbert, and that's the realm we dwell in, where flawed people with imperfect motives try to make the best of a bad situation. It's certainly not for the squeamish. If there's one flaw, it's that it takes a while for the reader to meet the central cast of the story - there's some bloody shenanigans before we get to that point - but when we do, it's a solid thrill ride as people scramble to find a way out, and maybe to find revenge along the way.
The short stories and novella that make up the rest of the collection are, by their nature, a mixed bag. With short stories, there will always be some you love more than others. It's nice to see Drinkwater playing around with form here - with some stories framed around internet chat logs, others in the shape of police interviews. Sometimes those work, sometimes not, but experimentation sometimes pays off.
For me, the best of the short story collection was an unexpected one - Web tells a tale of a Somali woman who has been subjected to genital mutilation, and the mental illness she appears to be suffering from. It's a tough tale emotionally to read, but brilliantly done. The harsh honesty of the tale almost feels out of place alongside the fantasy horrors of the other stories - but it's perhaps the most horrific of all for that.
Other excellent tales in this set are the nightmarish cave journey of Claws Truth Forebear and How It Got There, which is a treat in this collection particularly for readers of the opening novel. Harvest Festival rounds out the book with a splendidly horrific alien adventure that makes me think of the old Quatermass series. And heck, if anyone can make you think of Gallagher, Herbert and Quatermass in one fell swoop, that's practically a guided tour of the classics of British horror.

AI Rating: 5/5

Karl Drinkwater's Horror Collection is available on Amazon here.

Whack A Spammer, by Charity Grant

Charity Grant says what many an author might think but not speak out loud in this short little book. She's fed up of the spammers and the crooks who make the life of genuine writers more difficult by filling up the likes of Amazon with poorly produced, quickly written piles of nonsense masquerading as books on a hot subject. They'll have extra pages of thank yous and copyright notices just to pad out the book for payment in page turns and they'll be badly edited and entirely a waste of your time. So how to beat them? Well, Charity's got some tips there - from leaving very deserved one-star reviews to remembering to mark clearly fake reviews as unhelpful. This may be a short book, it may be a bit of a rant, but it has to be said, she's spot on. So go and mark a genuine review as helpful today and try and beat the spammers!

AI Rating: 4/5

Whack A Spammer is available on Amazon here.

Monday, 3 April 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Godeena, by Stjepan Varsevac-Cobets, Red Sun Magazine #3 and The Good Old Days, by Bonnie Milani

Godeena, by Stjepan Varsevac-Cobets

Think The Dirty Dozen in a sci-fi setting and you've probably got the starting point for this novel.
The only survivor of a major future battle with beings called the Anskers is literally dug out of the pile of bodies in the wake of the fight.
The spoils of war after the fight leave the humans with a world called Godeena, a mysterious planet that the Anskers seem all too eager to give away. The survivor, Major Broncon, is charged with gathering a group of inmates from a prison world and shaping them up to become a team to investigate Godeena - but even as the team starts training, teams already sent to the world start to die at the hands of an all-powerful being.
This novel was, I'm sad to say, rather hard work. It's clear that it's a work in translation - but that's not the major difficulty, even if some parts read a little oddly at times. No, rather it's the structure of matters that really makes it hard to get to grips with.
To start with, we're thrown into a battle where vast numbers of people die, but we don't know any of them so it's hard to care as a battalion of redshirts bites the dust. Then the mission itself seems confusing - if there are already teams being sent to the planet, why does this team of the meanest of the mean have to be assembled? Add to that the characterisation of that team - where we barely get to know any of them - and we're left with a bunch of people we don't care about going on a mission that appears to have little reason to take place. I asked "Why?" a lot while reading this.
Throw in on top of that some really awful treatment of the female characters - one character, for example, is dismissed as a lesbian until she is saved by another character and then hints that she'll make it up to him in the bedroom later. Another character, a secretary at the prison, pops up for no reason seemingly other that to provide eye candy for the prison warden and the major to ogle and then never appears again. For a supposedly hardened crew of soldiers and prisoners, it seems the female characters spend a lot of time breaking down in tears or swooning over the major too.
In short, the plot didn't really hold together, while there was more time lavished on giving some of the weapons character than the cast themselves. Even the Anskers we meet at the start remain an unexplored mystery. I wish I could have liked this more, but it just feels like a few drafts short of a polished project.

AI Rating: 2/5

Godeena is available on Amazon here.

Red Sun Magazine issue 3

I've reviewed previous issues of Red Sun Magazine, and now that we're up to its third issue, I think we can safely say that it's found its groove. 
This issue has a horror feel to it - from the interview with the creators of the Sunless Sea computer game through to the cover story featured, a short story called Caroline, by Aeryn Rudel, that will just leave you with the heebie jeebies, skin crawling with both the action of the zombie-inspired tale and the implications it leaves behind. Excellent work by Rudel. 
Jason Duke's Draft Dodgers meanwhile gives a glimpse of a world of veterans making do with replacement limbs and dependent on a government that not only doesn't care but actively games the system to find ways of encouraging the veterans to remove themselves from the society that no longer cares about them. 
Michael Nethercott's Taddock's Ride launches into a supernatural charge of the Light Brigade, while Richard Zwicker's Wyrd Times forges a legend from those who Beowulf left behind, both soldiers... and dragons. 
A special note of praise for Tara Calaby's The Starlight Circus, a disturbing tale of a boy's trip to the circus that touches on love, loss and the consequences of the actions we take. 
Throw a bunch of extra articles into the mix and there you have it, another smashing read from the Red Sun team. Personally, I'd love if they mixed up the order of the collection a bit more so that the articles interspersed between the stories but that's really the pickiest of points. 

AI Rating: 4/5

Red Sun Magazine issue three is available on Amazon here.

The Good Old Days, by Bonnie Milani

Short but sweet, this is a pleasant little dip into the world of horror from Bonnie Milani. Bonnie's one of my favourite indie writers - despite writing work that probably wouldn't ordinarily be to my usual tastes. Still, she has the knack of writing well and drawing me into stories that might not ordinarily catch me. 
This is a tale of darkness, those who dwell within it and the landscape they reach out to beyond the walls around them. 
I can't say too much without giving away the story, but there's as much a dash of whimsy in here as there is of the world of horror, making this a delicious little tale to encounter. 

AI Rating: 4/5

The Good Old Days is available on Amazon here

Monday, 27 March 2017

PODCAST REVIEW: Something a little bit scary

This article previously featured in The Tribune Weekend section of March 24.

If you are a movie lover, there’s a host of podcasts out there covering all manner of films. 
This week, we focus on podcasts that embrace the weird, the wonderful and the scary.

An iconic moment in The Descent - a modern horror classic

Faculty of Horror
One of my favourite podcasts is Pseudopod – a podcast giving readings of horror stories. It was one of my podcasts of the year last year and a regular listen for me. So when they gave a shout out to Faculty of Horror, it had to go on my review list – and I’m awfully glad to find them.
Faculty of Horror is hosted by Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West, who analyse a host of horror movies across the episodes they’ve recorded.
The latest show focuses on rape revenge movies such as ‘I Spit On Your Grave’. 
I was somewhat wary of trusting a show I’d never listened to before to cover such movies in a non-exploitative way – heck, such movies themselves don’t really do that – so I chickened out and listened to the previous episode, an in-depth study of the brilliant movie ‘The Descent’.
If you’ve never seen ‘The Descent’, it’s a fantastic horror movie from Neil Marshall, whose most recent career highlights have been becoming the go-to guy for the big battle episodes of ‘Game of Thrones’.
It follows a group of women as they explore a cave system on an adventure holiday. Except the cave system they’re exploring isn’t the one they thought they were – and they’re not alone down there. 
The hosts are incredibly knowledgeable. The information about the movie just trips off their tongue in a way that shows the depth of their knowledge of the movie. The analysis is great, taking in everything from the set design through to feminist readings of the film.
Geek that I am, I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about this movie – but the hosts went far beyond what I thought I knew. They are engaging, the production is excellent, the analysis is on an academic level and... well, I’d best stop chickening out and go back and listen to the latest episode, hadn’t I?

Nightmare on Film Street
With the same format – two hosts chatting about a classic movie – Nightmare on Film Street is an ideal companion to Faculty of Horror.
Hosts Kimberly and Jonathan are unashamed enthusiasts for the horror genre. You can hear the love as they chat about the movies. The episode I listened to compared the Tim Burton movie ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and the Guillermo Del Toro tale ‘Crimson Peak’ – both lush, Gothic romances as much as they are horrors.
They don’t stick as tightly to their subject as the Faculty of Horror crew, even ranging across to chat about such things as the voice of the actor who filled the Darth Vader outfit in ‘Star Wars’ (though, pointer to the hosts, he had a Cornish accent and not a posh English accent, the video is out there of him speaking in the suit and it’s well, well worth finding for comedy value).
That said, when they go off piste, they go there because the conversation is fun. There are spoilers to be had in here, but the hosts are up front about that, so no accidental spoilers here.
If Faculty of Horror is an academic analysis, this is the show that makes you think of hanging out with your horror nerd buddies and picking apart the movie on the drive home from the cinema. Great listening.

30 Minutes of Diabolical
This is an odd one, in that it is as much a soundscape as a podcast. The episode I listened to focused on the Red Planet – and what that ultimately meant was a roaming chat about things to do with Mars, including conspiracy theories about a bunch of Martian-related movies all coming out at once and joking that it was really all a cover to give excuses for NASA not really having sent a probe to Mars but shot all their footage on the back of a sound stage somewhere.
Ultimately, the hosts settle on talking about the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall. Not, we hasten to add, the remake, which is a horror story in itself that a studio thought that was a good idea. The analysis, it has to be said, isn’t terribly deep, though the hosts clearly know the movie and pick out the various moments they feel were cool.
But simmering in the background is music inspired by the Red Planet – and interwoven at the end with moments from the Arnie movie. It’s a nice idea, creating a work of art out of the material they are talking about, and if the examination of the movie alongside it was more rigorous, this would be a belter of a show. As it is, it felt a little light, but with great potential for the future.

Got a podcast you'd like to see feature in our reviews? Drop me a line on Twitter @AlteredInstinct or leave a note in the comments. 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

PODCAST REVIEW: Exploring the mysteriously missing

This article previously featured in The Tribune Weekend section on March 17.

Richard Simmons attending the AARP's 2011 Life@50+ National Event and Expo in September 2011.

THE success of the podcast ‘Serial’ has inspired a raft of shows looking at true crime – and this week we start off by looking at a show that takes the investigative format of ‘Serial’ and applies it to a very different case – ‘Missing Richard Simmons’.
Richard Simmons is one of those celebrities you might be familiar if you watch a lot of talk shows and daytime TV. He was a regular on Letterman, would show up alongside Ellen, guest starred as himself in General Hospital, and more. He was loud, exuberant, enthusiastic and an evangelist for fitness and exercise. He’s the guy who would tell people to hug themselves at the end of their yoga sessions. And then he went missing.
Simmons had his own gym, Slimmons, in Los Angeles, and would lead sessions for a host of customers. But one day, despite being the kind of guy to ring and check on his customers if they missed a session, he just stopped showing up.
 Among the customers using the gym was the host of this podcast, Dan Taberski, and he launched this podcast to find out what had happened to Simmons. There’s no indication of foul play, no hint that Simmons is anywhere other than inside his house, but the show seeks to know why such a gregarious character could suddenly withdraw from the life he seemed to embrace so vividly.
Taberski sets about talking to the people who know Simmons – and building up a picture of a man who would reach out to others for no reason other than because he wanted to. But here’s the thing... it all feels a little like stalking. Simmons isn’t really missing, he’s just missed.
In the past week, police officers – spurred by one claim in the show that Simmons might be being held captive – went and knocked on the door, and came away saying he’s just fine, and that “right now he’s doing what he wants to do”. This podcast has rocketed to the top of the charts on the basis of this investigation of a missing man who isn’t missing. It’s immaculately produced, expertly researched... but is it really anyone else’s business? And is it helping Simmons, whatever he’s up to, behind the closed doors of his LA home.


The Vanished

A show looking more squarely at the issue of missing people is ‘The Vanished’ – and it’s a powerful, painful show to listen to. The episode I listened to focused on the case of Mimi Lewis, who was just 14 years old when she disappeared from her home in Kosciusko, Mississippi. She was later found dead, and those are just the bare facts of a story that touches on a host of issues of law enforcement, child protection – even the language we use – that end up stacked against the young people who find themselves in impossible situations.
The show features a long discussion with Sandye Roberts, of Halos Investigations, a group that aims to help children in danger of going missing. They talk first of all about how the label of runaway gets too easily applied – as if the missing child is just off on a Huckleberry Finn style adventure instead of at risk from predators, smuggler and more.
In the Mimi Lewis case, it appears the police simply didn’t investigate. She was just a runaway. And then she was dead.
Roberts highlights the risks that children face – increasingly. From websites that trade in children’s bodies to smugglers that turn towards trafficking in people rather than drugs because they can sell people’s bodies more than once, it’s a horrific, harrrowing tale – and it’s one that’s all too common, as common as the chat software on the games that children play.


Generation Why

Turning to other crimes, ‘Generation Why’ is a podcast in which hosts Aaron and Justin chat about unsolved murders, conspiracies, true crimes and more.The latest episode focuses on Harold Henthorn, a man who went on a hike with his wife, Toni, in the Rocky Mountains to celebrate their anniversary – a trip that ended with Toni falling from a cliff to her death.
The show goes over the build-up to the trip, and spends a lengthy amount of time playing the 911 call made by Henthorn as he called for park rangers to come to their aid after Toni’s fall, begging for a helicopter to come and collect them. But it was to no avail, and Toni died there at the bottom of that cliff. And then the investigation started to put a different story together from the one that Henthorn was telling.
From the phone he claimed had low battery which limited communication but which was used extensively at the time of the death, to the lack of efforts to keep Toni alive noticed by rangers when they arrived, and then the key pieces of evidence – the life insurance policy Henthorn had taken out on Toni. And the map in his glove compartment marked with an X at the spot where Toni died.
The hosts recount all this before revealing the other evidence that saw Henthorn jailed – the death of his previous wife in another accident, crushed under a car as they tried to change a tyre, and the sizeable life insurance policy that he had on her too.
It’s a grim story, but the way it’s told is mixed – the hosts leave some big holes unexplained, such as saying how friends of Toni thought her husband was controlling but then not offering anything to support that, and saying how Henthorn was a meticulous planner – yet by the end of the same sentence in which they say that ending up pointing out how he couldn’t explain why there was an X on a map showing the scene of the death.
Still, they don’t pretend to be professional analysts – and this is a thought-provoking show.