Reading journal for January

1. The Prince and Betty by P. G. Wodehouse

My first book for the year and, it appears, my first Mills and Boon ever. PG Wodehouse was a comic writer whose work basically nostalgises a period before the First World War when young, pointless men gadded about London and the countryside trying to amuse themselves despite their lack of education, drive, or purpose. I love his work, and so when there was a book I didn’t recognise on Librivox (which is, I have discovered a home for completists like me), I snapped it up.

It’s an odd, odd book, structurally. Basically Wodehouse wrote a simple love story about a man who is made prince of a little tourist island by a gambling magnate. He had that published by a romance company in the UK. Then, for this American edition, he added a great deal of material from Psmith, Journalist, which is set in New York. Now, I quite enjoyed the Psmith series, but there’s such a break in tone between the two parts that its clear that the section dealing with the career of an up and coming boxer in New York is a transplant. The whole tone of the book switches and the effective main character changes, so that much like the last chapter of Huckleberry Finn, you wonder where the book you were reading before has gone.

I’d recommend Psmith, Journalist, but I’d only recommend this for completists like myself. The reading’s well done, but the material has a crack up the middle.

2. The Makers of History : Richard II by Jacob Abbot

This book is part of a lengthy series by the author, in which he gives biographical accounts of each English king. Good, in so far as it goes, but lacks either the hard history of a modern scholar, or the gossipy history of someone like Thomas Costain. I enjoyed it, but really only for history nuts like myself.

I listened to the Librivox version.

3. The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross

The plot of this book doesn’t quite come together. I can’t say why, without giving away the key point of the plot. Stross tries something daring with the structure of his story and gets 95% of the way there, I feel, so that’s, of itself an excellent thing. Even though the plot doesn’t quite resolve properly, I like the style of the writing and tha main character’s voice so much I’m sure I’ll stick around for the other books in the series. This is one of those occasions when the style of the book, with its lovely mix of Mythos horror, spy fiction tropes, and public service satire, is enough to carry my enjoyment past little flaws in the story I would not forgive in a less amusing author.

4. The History of London by Walter Besant

I really enjoyed this work, which is pitched at a schoolboy level and was published in 1894. The most interesting parts are the little Imperial interjections, where the author takes a piece of history as a moral lesson for why his contemporaries should, or should not, do a particular thing. Not particularly useful as a modern history, but an interesting little slice of Victorian thought.

5. The Winter King by Thomas Penn

The Winter King is my favourite book this month. It charts the life of King Henry VII, and the boyhood of Henry VIII. It portrays shows the old king as a schemer who uses every trick he can find to finally cement the realm under his control, as the War of the Roses staggers to its final, tepid conclusion, with the Yorkists choosing random children to proclaim as the Princes in the Tower returned. In this book, the final victor in the war of Plantagenet self-genocide, brazens out the question of his right to rule, destroying all opposition, and weathering the loss of his heir, so that he leaves England to Henry VIII, ready to first be a prime supporter of, then a deadly foe toward, the Church. Highly recommended for those interested in historical biography.

6. The Furry Trap by Josh Simmons
This graphic novel has won several awards, and I’d heard it was controversial, so I decided to give it a read. I can’t understand what people see in it. It’s a horror comic, in a way, in a sort of splatterish tradition. I’ve looked up some interviews with the author, and he says that one of his points is that horror which leaves the victim their dignity isn’t horror. This means his characters need to be demeaned for what he’s trying to portray. The book is filled with sexual violence, generally not depicted, merely described in extreme detail.

Although I accept his point that horror in which the victim scores a moral victory by keeping their principles intact is less horrible than stories in which people are corroded away at every level, he also wants to mix the horrific and the humorous, so that you are never quite sure where you are, emotionally. I can’t get that, because I don’t find Schadenfreude funny. Reading some of the reviews in his work, it’s clear that many of his readers do not identify with the victim anyway: they identify with the monsters dong the demeaning and destroying, which I think reduces the work to little more than voyeurism.

In a way, I respect the work, even though its, for me, neither particularly interesting nor even particularly readable. I read horror, and a lot of horror is really action-adventure with the tropes of horror over the top. I think X is trying to recapture the shock that saw a nurse on duty at the first showings of Dracula, because a corpse that dragged itself into your daughter’s bedroom and sucked the blood from her neck, was not just terrifying but disgusting as well, on a physical and (because he was a nobleman) societal level. When EC comics were banned, their zombies were not just terrifying, but disgusting. They were stories about rotting corpses which could make telephone calls and send letters to real people, to suck them into the darkness and pollute them with their filth. Although I can’t find the humor in The Furry Trap, I do see that what Simmons is trying to do here is a similar sort of thing to the EC comics: he’s trying to go further than the reader can handle, by mixing horror and humor in a book. The target for his horror, though, is the ego, the indomitable right to have an opinion and to count as a person, which everyone feels they have.

Drawing on Foucault’s insight that people complain about things in literature primarily as a pose, and that transgression exists because people enjoy it too much to ban, I recommend this for people who enjoy very bleak horror, and are not shocked by descriptions of sexualized violence. In this I note that this is seriously transgressive literature, not the sort of shock-horror fun transgression literature like Fifty Shades where everyone gets to titter behind their hands at others reading mommy-porn bondage. This is bleak and nasty stuff, designed to repel and disgust.