30 April 2012

Book Review | Everyone's Just So So Special by Robert Shearman

Today I shall be examining not The History of the Doctor, or even the wider Whoniverse, but that of the world that we live in - its wars, its empires; its decline-and-falls. But I won’t be doing so through academic texts, ancient art or even representative literature – I’ll be doing so through the grunge-filtered eyes of Mr Robert Shearman, whose latest collection, Everyone’s Just So So Special, seeks to expose every single one of history’s mediocrities, while at the same time illuminating the achievements of all those who’ve fallen between the pages of the history books (heroes all).

I was particularly excited about this release as I’m one of the hundred people who signed up not just for the twenty-one comically macabre tales promised by the blurb, but also for a unique twenty-second that was partially-handwritten, dedicated to me, and starred an out-of-time yours truly. Making the reader feel so very special is certainly an ironic move, given the anthology’s themes, but it’s an exhilarating one nonetheless, and I couldn’t have been any happier with my “Edward G Wolverson 1853-1890” ghostly tale, and particularly with the eponymous Mr Wolverson’s “Master of the Macabre” billing. Given my recent venture into horrific storytelling, I was hoping to usurp my namesake’s moniker, but it’s yet to stick...

In a departure from previous collections, Everyone’s Just So So Special is interspersed with pages of tiny-print text detailing the history of the world according to Shearman. One’s first instinct is to skip over these pages, as the print is so small that the pages look more like an artistic intermission than anything that should be carefully studied, but Shearman conveys even the most prosaic of information with more intelligence and humour than most writers would fascinating material.

Amongst the stories on offer, there were inevitably a few that didn’t set me ablaze, however in every such instance this is probably more due to me missing some nuance than it is some deficiency in the tale. Indeed, the standard of the stories in this volume is exceedingly high; so much so, in fact, that were Big Finish to put out a Shearman’s Greatest Hits anthology in the near future, then nearly half of this book’s deranged misadventures would probably make the cut. Of them, “Endangered Species” is my firm favourite, focusing on a couple who have recently lost a young child and are trying to fill the hole in their hearts with a cat. The trouble is, the cat is constantly bringing home creatures that it’s slain as offerings – earning its keep, as cats like to think that they do. This wouldn’t be so great a problem had the cat limited its hunting to rodents, birds and the occasional wasp (though the latter may just be my cat), but as time goes by it starts to works its way up the food chain, bringing home more and more exotic cadavers for its increasingly-concerned owners. It shouldn’t be funny reading about a grief-stricken pair of newly-weds taking peculiar pride in their improving ability to dismember and dispose of a Panda’s corpse, but it really, really is.

“Times Tables” ups the outlandish ante with a story about a person who, each year, sheds her skin and becomes a new version of herself. Her past selves are promptly ushered away into the attic, where they are forced to endure alongside all her selves that she’s yet to be. It’s a fascinating exploration of the nature of self, dealing with profound questions about whether who we are now is really who we once were, or indeed will one day become, alongside such comparatively paltry concerns as sexual infidelity and boredom. Doctor Who fans may see shades of Paul Cornell’s Timewyrm: Revelation novel here in how the protagonist’s selves treat one another up in the attic, but for me that only added to the story’s appeal, rather than detracted from it.

“Without You, I Wouldn’t Be Alive” is one of the volume’s more moving pieces. Far from being the syrupy serenade that many would surmise, this story instead tells of a man who habitually purchases second-hand books purely for the inscriptions that they carry, and the lonely charity shop worker who thinks that she’s fallen in love with him. Shearman paints some astonishingly alluring pictures through the inscriptions that he fabricates, offering windows into lives and opening doors to stories that range from triumphant to painfully sad. None of them, though, pack the punch of the story’s eponymous inscription, the aggressive connotations of which are borne out in the narrative to harrowing effect.

Everyone’s Just So So Special’s most contentious tales are those in which Shearman uses ad absurdum examples to pass comment on the world and human society, and perhaps the way that they’re headed. “Taboo” introduces the reader to a world where marriages to beasts and incestuous relationships are not only tolerated, but endorsed, and the line in the sand is constantly being moved further and further back. Whilst this could potentially be construed as a rally against the last few decades’ liberal reforms, as ever Shearman simply appears to be championing reason and good sense, which are not even ghosts of memory in the world of “Taboo”.

Another extraordinary highlight is “A History of Broken Things”, which, like many of the tome’s most memorable offerings, examines its themes without any literary artifice. Initially framed as a critical essay that passes comment on everything from fairytales to James Cameron’s Titanic to how Jack Nicholson’s mind works, as the piece progresses we are drawn into the writer’s life and the neuroses that define it; that make it so special. What began as sardonic send-up of our blog-happy culture ultimately proves to be a haunting examination of memory and history, both personal and public.

The final offering, “History Becomes You” (which was nominated for The Sunday Times’ EFG Private Bank Award), again sees the author turn to the preposterous to make his points. One day, the Twin Towers return to the New York skyline; it’s as if they’ve never been gone. Just as quickly they vanish again, taking the inquisitive souls inside them with them, only to return once more, empty. From there, it doesn’t take the more cynical members of the human race long to commercialise the “9/11 Experience”, nor does it take long for its more impressionable members to buy their tickets to oblivion; to look to find meaning in their lives by dying as part of the defining tragedy of the noughties. In few words, Shearman successfully captures that incessant human need to have a purpose and somehow be special, and in doing so he expertly illustrates just how ludicrous such impulses are, and how hollow the prize.

And there is so much more to be found within these pages – a girl who collects dirt, but only Russian dirt; a hitman who blands people to death; a man and his boy both enslaved by a merry-go-round of peripatetic Santa Clauses; a moribund mother who tries to browbeat her child into getting a tattoo bearing her name; even the fall of Rome, only again, and altogether more wretchedly. With each new collection published, Shearman seems to sound more like himself, and less like anyone else. One of his characters describes a newborn baby’s shit as being sweet, free as it is from toxins, which exactly the opposite of what Everyone’s Just So So Special offers its readers. This is a book full of sour, intoxicating ideas and images that you wouldn’t dream of smearing across a nappy. For all their reasonable doubt and sagacious misgivings, these stories are somehow uplifting; it’s as if they encircle the reader and make him feel as if he’s been let in on history’s greatest joke. Everyone’s just so, so special; especially me.

And so says one of the hundred.

Original version first published on http://www.doctorwhoreviews.co.uk, 18th August 2011

Book Review | Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical by Robert Shearman

Okay, so it’s not Doctor Who, but it’s Rob Shearman. Some might say that’s even better. Whilst the Time Lord’s adventures are confined to all of time and space as we know them and the boundaries of the family format, Shearman’s stories are pent only by the limits of his extraordinarily dark and delicious imagination; limits that I feel he hasn’t even come close to pushing yet.

What I have here is the mass market paperback edition of Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical. It lacks the exclusivity of the various lush limited editions that saw release towards the back end of 2009, but at least I don’t have to brave the author’s handwriting. It’s still a nice thing to hold though; a shiny white and sparsely decorated cover suggests elegance and chic, clashing delectably with the exaggerated and barbaric array of human emotions that its contents probe.

Having thoroughly enjoyed Shearman’s first award-winning collection, the primary focus of which was death, I was intrigued as to how the author would broach the topic of love in this sophomore effort. Interestingly, there isn’t all that much difference; if anything, Love Songs is often more harrowing than Tiny Deaths as most of the characters that the reader faces here suffer a fate far more abhorrent than non-existence or even eternal damnation. Even the Devil himself isn’t spared love’s tender mercies, as the terror-strewn tedium of his day job kindles an urge to inflict his hackneyed romantic fiction on a world that will never quite appreciate it in the way that he so desperately wants it to.

Perhaps even more palpably than it did in Tiny Deaths, here Shearman’s unassuming and unconventional prose style sucks the reader straight into the minutiae of ostensibly ordinary lives, before leaping off the page, pulling their specs off, and then poking them hard in the eyes. Long sentences and even longer paragraphs lend each of these stories a colloquial feel, drawing in the reader with all the pull of a bedtime tale, and then refusing to let them go; imprisoning them within a world of slanted nightmares. Each story told serves as a window into a reality that isn’t quite our own, be it a slightly-skewed world teeming with half bat / half rabbits (“rabbats” or “babbits?”), a society equipped with technology capable of classifying and quantifying one’s love, or a recession-busting reality that offers the jobless the exciting employment opportunity that is becoming a tree (maybe even an Oak, if you have the right aptitude).

And Shearman never gives into the temptation to lift the veil or show his working. Many of the collection’s finest stories are those that are, in a sense, incomplete. When Luxembourg vanishes, leaving a water-filled lacuna in the middle of Europe, Shearman doesn’t waste words on the hows and whys. Instead, he mocks the lack of media interest. He charts the journey of a woman whose life is turned upside down as a result, and looks at her love, her grief. Or lack thereof.

The stories that I’m not quite so fond of are those which threaten to encroach upon the world as we know it; those that tell of cricket and kidnap, about widowers on cruise ships being tormented by Filipinos named Jesus and sucked-off by grannies. But for every such tale, there’s one about a man fretting that he’s only receiving 14.2% of his wife’s total love quota, who ultimately tires of his whinging and leaves him for a man she loves far less but wants to fuck more. One about a man writhing in the media spotlight following the brutal murder of his wife, never quite able to reconcile himself to the truth that she’s “the interesting one” now, and always will be. One about a dejected author nominated for some literary prize, looking for recognition in all the wrong places. It’s something of an irony that the one story in the anthology that purports not to be about love is the probably the one that captures its power most completely.

On balance though, I think that I prefer the one about death to the one about love (which is a bit of a worry for me) but in truth there’s little between them - tales of love and death flow in and out of each other as effortlessly as a pair of Shearman’s most amorous protagonists. Ultimately there’s a reason that Love Songs has been such a critical success. As the title promises, it’s bashful and belittling, coy and contemptuous, shy and cynical, and – above all else – unique. Pedantry won’t permit me to preface that ‘unique’ with a ‘totally’ or ‘utterly’, but if I could, then here I most certainly would.

First published on http://www.doctorwhoreviews.co.uk, 1st August 2010

Book Review | Tiny Deaths by Robert Shearman

As the reviews on The History of the Doctor illustrate, I read a lot of Doctor Who books, to put it mildly. But I also read a lot of non-Doctor Who books; so many, in fact, that the room in our house that the wife had initially earmarked as an en suite has instead become something of a modest library. But even though I flitter away so many hours of my life with my head stuck in a book, it’s incredibly rare that I devour one with the relish that I did Tiny Deaths.

I purchased this tome after hearing Robert Shearman co-host a Big Finish podcast back in August 2009, during which he read a little drabble from his Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical collection. The succinctly-titled “Sharp” told of a man whose wife had been beheaded in South America whilst off on some wilful sojourn, and his increasingly desperate attempts to make his life as worthy of note as her death was. Instantly I was sold. And so with his Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical sat proudly atop my Christmas list, I thought that in the meantime I’d try out Shearman’s World Fantasy Award-winning collection, Tiny Deaths.

As one would infer from the title, Tiny Deaths is about mortality. And as was the case with “Sharp”, within just a few lines of reading this anthology’s opening story, “Mortal Coil”, once again I was enraptured. This fitting opener tells of the day when, having finally admitted that they misjudged the level of “knowledge of death” that humans should have been given, the powers that be decide to inform every person in the world of how and when they will perish. Everyone, that is, save for one disgruntled fellow, who finds himself unemployable in this post-“knowledge of death” world as, amongst other things, he’s unable to prove his expiry date to prospective employers.

Shearman’s mordant prose is direct and clipped, practically every word vested with its own, twisted irony. And his style is certainly all his own; the preposterous bureaucracy and twisted logic of this post-“knowledge of death” world is perfectly drawn, and what’s more it’s drawn with such a patent lack of enthusiasm that it feels unfalteringly real. It’s almost plausible, and at the end of the day that’s what makes it so damned funny.

The ensuing procession of stories continue to blend the lifelessly mundane with the surreal to similar effect, as Shearman relays the tragic tale of Woofie, Adolf Hitler’s pet dog, who from the moment that the young f├╝hrer bought him was destined for hell in any event; Tanya, an astonishingly mature – but nonetheless imaginary – child; and, most impressively of all, Jesus Christ, a tortured soul destined to suffer an everlasting number of concomitant, tiny deaths in the collection’s concluding novelette.

It’s so rare that I stumble across an author that caters to my admittedly rather peculiar and specific taste, but Robert Shearman can now count himself amongst their number. Much in the same way that Gavin & Stacey’s Smithy has helped to rid me of the last vestiges of the guilt that I used feel when I’d have to tell people to get their filthy hands out of my curry, Tiny Deaths has reminded me that it’s okay to laugh at those “tiny” things that we all constantly half-dread; those “tiny” things that really don’t stand up to much logical scrutiny.

Thought-provoking in the extreme and categorically hilarious throughout, I don’t recommend Tiny Deaths but forcefully advocate its immediate purchase. It’s little wonder that Shearman won a “knobbled head” for this tour de force.

First published on http://www.doctorwhoreviews.co.uk, December 2009

Book Review | WWE: Journey into Darkness by Michael Chiappetta and David Stern

Having hurriedly tired of the self-righteous heroes and pantomime baddies of my childhood, my interest in the wrestling business, and particularly with what is now World Wrestling Entertainment (“WWE”), was piqued once more during my teens when charismatic pioneers the calibre of ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, The Rock, Mankind and Triple H rose to prominence, heralding the arrival of professional wrestling’s ‘Attitude Era’. The late 1990s were a thrilling time of Monday night ratings wars, riveting rogues, fallen heroes and plots so compelling that they laid the smacketh down on most other television shows’ comparatively listless storylines.

I’d long held a fascination with one character in particular; one of the few survivors from the days of clean-cut goodies versus horrible baddies: Mark Calaway’s Undertaker. During the Attitude Era the Undertaker evolved from a semi-supernatural old western-style mortician into a demonic leather-clad “Lord of Darkness” - a Lord of Darkness, we would learn, who harboured a dark and terrible secret.

The story went that, in his youth, the Undertaker set fire to his parents’ funeral parlour, killing them both as they slept - and, he thought, his little brother Kane too. The Undertaker’s estranged manager Paul Bearer knew the truth, however, and when his attempts to blackmail his former meal ticket back into subservience failed, he revealed to the world that Kane had survived the inferno, albeit scarred. Soon afterwards, wearing a death mask to hide his reportedly disfigured face, the near seven-foot Kane interrupted the first ever Hell in a Cell match to attack to the Phenom, costing him the match and beginning one of the most intense and heated rivalries of the Attitude Era.

Over the next year or so, Undertaker and Kane fought in many groundbreaking matches, including those in which victory could only be obtained by setting the other combatant on fire, but the secrets and horrors of their past were only ever hazily alluded to. While wrestlers such as Mick ‘Mankind’ Foley – who’s as exceptional an author as he was a performer, by the way – were regularly appearing in The New York Times’ Best Sellers’ List with real life memoirs about their exploits in the proudly-transparent world of sports entertainment, the make-believe history of Mark ‘Undertaker’ Calaway and Glenn ‘Kane’ Jacobs went untold. Did a young ‘American Bad Ass’ Undertaker deliberately start the fire? Is Paul Bearer really Kane’s father? And when did he find out about Kane’s survival, or had he always known? I must’ve written the back story of the Undertaker and Kane a dozen times, be it in my head or in the sprawling scrawl of a young wannabe wordsmith, but never in all my musings did I visualise the startlingly mundane picture that Journey into Darkness frames.

Michael Chiappetta and (the uncredited) David Stern have taken what was, in essence, a devilishly dark comic book back story and turned it into something that could arguably pass muster as being an authentic biography, warts and all. In WWE Kane is an icon, a monster; he’s larger than life. In this book, however, ‘Glen’ is supposed to be a human being with whom one can sympathise. Borrowing elements from the life of the real Glenn Jacobs and that of the fictional Kane, the authors have tried to give readers a book that feels real, but is not shackled by the constraints of truth.

The obvious problem that this presents is kayfabe. To work at all, Journey into Darkness had to depict professional wrestling as being a competitive sport, as opposed to sports entertainment where incredible athletes execute pre-planned finishes to matches and perform planned storylines (or, if you prefer, ‘angles’). Unless as a reader you totally buy into the conceit that Kane went into the wrestling business to legitimately exact revenge on his brother – to “kill him”, basically -, the whole thing can’t help but fall apart. Journey into Darkness needed to be unambiguous on the point that professional wrestling is real, but one moment the authors are trying to loosely imply that it’s not “a work” and that the Undertaker and Kane are both bona fide “fighters”; in the next Paul Bearer is waxing lyrical about how it’s “staged” and worrying about putting on a good show for the audience. This needless blurriness completely debases the whole plot; it just can’t work in a world where wrestling isn’t competitive. Not without a lot more imagination, in any event.

Now that said, the first two thirds of the book aren’t troubled by undermining kayfabe; in fact, they read much like the biography of any orphan let down by the fostering system. Of course, this isn’t automatically a good thing as I for one didn’t buy Journey into Darkness to read about a cursed kid that I don’t recognise being neglected and abused – I bought it in the hope of finally uncovering the dreadful secrets of the Brothers of Destruction’s past and gaining some insight into the twisted mind of Kane. Chiappetta and Stern could have ushered their readers into the portentous world of the Callaways, explored Susanna Kane Callaway’s seedy relationship with Paul Bearer, shown us how the young brothers interacted with each other before their lives were laid to ruin. Instead, such matters are summarily disposed of in the opening chapter, which is actually little more than a vapid prologue.

The novel is also blighted by pointless continuity retcons. Wrestling angles were never intended to stand up to rigorous scrutiny - one could argue that sporadic face / heel turns, to which Kane is prone, are far more harmful to a character’s veracity than any inconsistencies in his back story - yet Journey into Darkness looks to explain away just about every trivial gaffe surrounding the Big Red Machine. The number of words that the authors waste trying to rationalise Kane’s sudden ability to speak without his voicebox after he and X-Pac won the World Tag Team Championship for the second time is patently disproportionate, for instance, and the least said about Kane’s hereditary sensory and autonomous neuropathy the better. Why give Kane a condition that stops him from feeling pain when that particular gimmick was utterly worn out within the first couple of years of his career? There is no logic to it, especially when we consider that the Undertaker milked the same gimmick for the better part of a decade, yet the book paints him as being perfectly healthy. I’m actually quite surprised that the authors didn’t take it upon themselves to throw Jacobs’ mid-90s Isaac Yankem character into the continuity quagmire; we have this to be grateful for, at least.

More troublingly still, the authors merrily gloss over issues that do really matter, such as Kane’s notorious facial scarring - or lack thereof. According to the book, Glen’s facial scars weren’t that bad in his youth, and certainly by the time that he got to high school his peers were far more concerned with mocking his differently-coloured eyes than they were his alleged disfigurement (and high school hottie Katie Vick certainly didn’t have a problem with his appearance…) Yet by 1997, when he makes his first appearance in WWE as Kane, Glen’s scars are prominent again (albeit “anti-climactic”, according to Paul Bearer). It’s convenient, then, that the authors’ narrative ends in late 1998, almost five years before Kane unmasked on RAW to reveal his unblemished face.

And this is what really annoys me about Journey into Darkness - as much as I love the comic book Kane of old, in unmasking to reveal a face that hadn’t been scarred by fire as he’d always claimed, Kane betrayed his true scars, and they were in his fascinatingly warped mind. The interview that he gave to Jim Ross shortly after unmasking should have been the cornerstone of this book, not some wishy-washy family curse, alcoholic foster mother or star-crossed cheerleader romance. This book offered the authors the chance to probe the psyche of one of the most twisted and disturbed characters that WWE has ever created, while at the same time exploring one of its richest branches of mythology. Instead, we get Katie Vick and Kane’s Beauty and the Beast, enlivened by a few predictable Paul Bearer fat jokes and some desperately passionless accounts of what were actually revolutionary wrestling matches.

Some people have read Journey into Darkness and complained about its (presumably deliberate) misspellings of Glenn and Calaway, but I’m far more concerned with substance, and however their names happen to be spelt in it, the Undertaker and Kane of this book are two characters that I’ve never seen before, let alone cared about. If you’re a huge fan of WWE, and already heavily invested in its mythology, then this might just be a two star tome to you. If not, then this is a lone star effort and should be avoided like a tombstone piledriver.

24 April 2012

Book Review | My Booky Wook by Russell Brand

When I walk into a bookshop, two genres generally get my back up: “Real Life Tragedies”, which are essentially just macroscopic catharses, and joyless ones at that; and celebrity autobiographies, which are just a more conceited version of the same, a little louder and with a few glossy pictures straddled across their centrefolds. It’s ironic, then, that I’m about to wax lyrical about the merits of a book written by a celebrity whose predatory hunger for fame is rivalled by none: Russell Brand.

Note my choice of words: written by. Unlike most celebrity autobiographies, My Booky Wook is not some ghost-written hackwork bashed out following a summary traipse through someone’s diaries; it is, in fact, an exceptionally expressive and at times really quite moving work that still manages to amuse from its first page to its last – and it’s all been written by the man himself, as is evident from the text.

As those familiar with Brand’s stand-up routines and television shows will attest, the man has an extraordinary way with words; unique, even. By his own admission, Brand makes a point of trying to say something in a different and memorable way to make it, well, different and memorable. His prose is thus chatty and technically flawed, yet it’s sophisticated too – he can’t (or, more likely, won’t) properly conjugate the verb ‘to be’, but he’ll drop words into sentences that will have even the most articulate of us reaching for our dictionaries.

What’s even more extraordinary than the man’s style though is his story, and the way that he tells it. For a book with a title so camp that it manages to make its front cover’s sinuous pink lettering look positively butch in comparison, My Booky Wook is a fierce and jaw-droppingly forthright tale of obsession and addiction. Pets, girls, crack, women, heroin, women, fame, women… Brand casually drapes his shamelessly addictive personality from his sleeve as if it were a part of his regular finery. Lesser men might use an autobiography as a vehicle to dish dirt, settle old scores or even shift blame away from themselves, but if anything Brand goes out of his way to make his capricious exploits seem even more outrageous; even more offensive. The man delights in depicting himself as a conniving, lascivious swine - and guess what? You just end up respecting him all the more.

And so if you’ve room on your shelf for the musings of an indomitable fiend who once kept a league table of nans – well, it brought out the best in them – then I’d urge you in the strongest possible terms to check out My Booky Wook. It’s not quite as addictive as heroin sounds, but nonetheless it’s a bugger to put down.

21 April 2012


The Tally is competing for the rolling mantle of best book of its publication month in the Goodreads’ Listopia lists. Those of you who are already Goodreads members may want to help me out by casting a vote, or perhaps even by posting a rating or short review (so far as I’m aware, there’s no rule against posting reviews that you have already posted on Amazon on there, so you needn’t say anything new if you’re pressed for time). Those who aren’t members can sign in through Facebook or Twitter, though I’d highly recommend signing up, particularly for the book recommendations. Amazon customer reviews and Facebook likes would still be appreciated too.

On a final note, the eBay charity auction for MIND has now ended. Congratulations to “beautifultreats”, who donated £25.00 to the charity in exchange for the unique Tally proof.

Thanks for your continuing support.