The Horseman – Adam Llewellyn

The Horseman

Publication Date: July 24, 2015

Source: Available from Amazon

Format: E-book

Length: 253 pages

Summary: A lone horseman, his face hidden behind a mask, approaches the town of Steckland, trailing death in his wake. For two years he has searched, hunting down the man who took everything from him and left him for dead, but now the hunt is coming to an end. Somewhere in this God forsaken town he is hiding, but he will be found and he will be made to pay. But little does the horseman know that not only is he not alone in coming to Steckland to see Crait die, but Crait’s being here is no accident. He has a plan of his own and all three will collide, with a price that even the horseman may not be able to pay.  (Source: Amazon product description).

Short Version: This classic Western tale of a vigilante after justice has some colourful writing, but its grim and graphic depiction of violence, particularly sexual violence, was too strong for my tastes.

Longer Version: As I remarked a couple of hours ago on Twitter, this is the first review I’ve written that comes with a genuine, not-being-a-smartarse-here warning. I will be discussing the book’s heavy content in some detail.

I’m completely ambivalent toward Westerns as a genre, and on a plot level I really liked how cleanly written this was – the horseman’s obsession with the villainous Crait is strong enough to hold the story, and the writing itself is colourful and vivid (though Llewellyn seems too fond of similes. All of his similes are nicely observed, original, and at first made me smile, but there’s a veritable avalanche of them. When it comes to colourful figures of speech, less is always more.)

The story arc showed few surprises (though there’s a mild sting in the tail of this tale), but that’s part of its appeal – we watch Westerns primarily to see our heroes ride into Dodge and shoot a bunch of guys who’ve wronged them. In this basic sense, the story is completely satisfying.

But it’s almost impossible to like anyone in this book. I was confused as to who, exactly, I was meant to be rooting for. While I’m sure Llewellyn didn’t mean him as a cleaner-than-clean hero, the horseman quickly becomes, in my view, possibly just as evil as Crait.


SPOILERS:

He asks Isabella, a girl who is fifteen and maintains she’s only a “dancer”, to entice a drunk man upstairs as if she is going to sleep with him. She begs him, and he promises more than once, to get her out of this situation before it turns to actual sex. He is hiding in the wardrobe when this drunk man brings her into the room. Then, for reasons not fully explained, the horseman stays in the wardrobe and watches the screaming girl being violently raped. He rationalises that she’s a “whore”, and “whores deserve it.”

“Whore” and “bitch” are constantly and viciously flung at this girl, even after the horseman is apparently sorry for setting her up to be raped. (He tries to apologise by giving her a bracelet. She’s moved to tears. I was nearly moved to puke.) He also regularly hits her, or threatens to hit her.

And then we are supposed to buy that he’s had an epiphany and really valued her after all? No, no, no. I’m all for morally grey characters, but this one was a step too far. Isabella is subjected to the most violent, terrifying, degrading treatement by just about every single man in this book, and I just don’t buy that the horseman was any better than any of the others in how he treated her.

The violence depicted in this book doesn’t offend me, as such – I have a fairly high tolerance for gore – but the sheer repetitive nature of it quickly became a drag. Crait murders pretty much every single character he has a simple conversation with – some for absolutely no reason except “he’s evil”. It became, well… boring. There was no tension in any of his later interactions with people. I knew from previous chapters that it was a matter of not if, but when, he was going to slit a child’s throat or shoot a baby dead in his cradle.

END OF SPOILERS


If that’s not your kind of party, you might prefer to give this one a miss.

What Turns Me On and Off Your Book, Part 1: The Title

In looking around for a new book to sink my teeth into (in a manner of speaking), I started to ponder the many free new novels on Amazon and what made me choose one and reject the next. So I thought I’d write up a few blog posts explaining (for myself as much as anyone else) my thought processes when I’m trawling Amazon. This is the first of what will probably be four or five blog posts over the next two weeks.

There are three things about a book’s title that will give me serious reservations as to whether I even begin to read it:

    1. Generic, means-nothing titles that are usually clichés, like (and I’m just making these up now): “Blind Justice”, “Presumed Guilty” or “First Love” (the last is a book by Turgenev. He did it over a hundred years ago, and in his native Russian, so he got away with it.) Famous writers do sometimes phone-in titles – John Grisham, I’m thinking of you, mate. In general, I will overlook a pretty vague-and-ordinary title from a writer I trust, but won’t from a writer I have never heard of.
    2. TITLES IN ALL CAPS. STOP SHOUTING AT ME, PLEASE.
    3. Titles that include a postscript explaining how great the book apparently is. I see this quite often and really, it comes across as “telling, not showing” at best, and authorial arrogance at worst.

In short, I will probably not want to pick up your book if the title looks like this: “THE WRONG KIND OF GUY – a sexy and intriguing new novel by Naomi Barton.”

I love naming my own works, but it’s a niche talent and I know it’s a major pain for a lot of writers. If you’re one of those people who don’t spend hours making up names for things you haven’t even written yet, it’s perfectly OK to ask around for inspiration. Ask your editor or beta. Ask Twitter. Ask a random person at the bus stop. Ask your mother. (No, really. You don’t necessarily need to be a writer to have a gift for coming up a compelling title.)

Two of the best books I’ve read this year have unusual titles. The first won a Pulitzer: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. The other is underrated and little known: Colin Mulhern’s The Boy Who Buried Dead Things. That last one is one I picked up almost entirely because of the title. I’m so glad I did.

Am I way off here? Too harsh and picky? Let me know what you think. I won’t bite 🙂

The Review You Do When You’re Not Reviewing…

Yes, I know, I haven’t given a proper review in ages.

Yesterday, I read something between a short story and a novella that annoyed me so much I gave it one whole star on Goodreads. It was a sort of fluffy-romance thing, which isn’t my usual genre, but I thought I’d give it a go.

To spoil things, the whole story was “Is this new lover of Hard-Working Single Mum a psycho or not? No? Great, they’re getting married.”

She had known him for less than a week.

A. WEEK.

I was looking for the hidden catch at the end, mentally screaming “BUT YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW HIM! Why am I the only person who thinks marrying him is a horrible idea?!”

There was clearly something – a big something – I was missing. Not sure if it’s exemplary of the genre and I just don’t get that kind of romance (which is entirely my own issue) or whether it was truly a WTF ending. All I could think was that the so-called heroine was hopelessly naïve and unflatteringly desperate.

For Such a Time – Kate Breslin, Holocaust romances, and what we do with books that offend

So. Goodreads, Twitter, Amazon and just about everywhere else in that part of the internet that deals with fiction is in an uproar about Kate Breslin’s romance novel, For Such a Time.

Long, horrifying story short: it’s a retelling of the Book of Esther, an important book in both the Jewish and Christian faiths. It’s set during the Holocaust. Breslin has, apparently, decided that Esther’s story is a love story (no such thing happens in the original text). She has reimagined it as a “romance” between a Nazi SS-Kommandant of a Concentration Camp and Hadassah Benjamin, a Jewish girl who, due to her blonde hair and blue eyes, is saved from Dachau and instated as his personal secretary at Theresienstadt. (This was not strictly-speaking a death camp; but since so many were shipped TO death camps from Theresienstadt, that’s really arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.)

I can’t really discuss further plot details because I’ve not read this novel, and don’t intend to.

I’m not here to debate whether Kate Breslin’s novel contains elements that are deeply offensive, not just to Jewish people, but to anyone aware of what happened during the Holocaust (and frankly, that should be everyone above the age of about four. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.)

Undoubtedly, Breslin’s novel contains material that most people, Jewish or not, would find offensive. From a lack of real consent between Aric and Hadassah (which in itself should disqualify it from Romance Fiction awards, so far as I’m concerned) to Hadassah’s character arc including the implication that she has converted to Christianity, this book sounds like a big old train wreck.

What concerns me today is this: what is an appropriate reaction when someone writes a piece of fiction that offends you?

Do you show your disapproval by not buying the book, and spreading the word about it so that others can avoid it, too? (This is the route I’ve taken.) Or, as others have done, do you lobby to have the book disqualified from awards? Do you send letters and petitions to the publisher to have it taken off the shelves altogether? Do you send death threats to the author? Or what?

Throughout the drama on Goodreads and on Twitter, a quote from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray came to mind:

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

It’s human nature – and I do it too – to completely agree with that quote, until we are presented with a concrete example of a book that causes us offence; one we do see as immoral.

The goal posts are at a different place for everyone. For example, I’m firmly on the bandwagon of 50 Shades of Grey detractors, but I know plenty of people who aren’t.

Today, Wilde’s quote is usually brought up in reference to books that once caused moral offence, but are now seen through the filter of post-Sexual Revolution attitudes and half a dozen decades. DH Lawrence’s controversial novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover comes to mind. In 2015, it’s difficult for us to see how this book caused so much public offence that it underwent a trial for obscenity, but it did, and the feelings that brought it to trial were real.

There are many other books which are often banned and/or restricted, because they offend people – anything from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to American Psycho. (I haven’t read the latter.) National Censorship is a different ballgame to taking Titus Andronicus off the school reading list for 13-year-olds, but it all comes back to a similar argument: This book offended me. Other people should not read it.

I’m certainly not arguing that detractors of Breslin haven’t the right to be offended, even horrified. They absolutely do, and I applaud them taking to Twitter and Tumblr and voicing their protests in an intelligent, passionate way. But I keep coming back to a question I can’t answer:

Once we are offended, what do we do with that? Do we push to prevent others reading a book because it offended us?