Four and Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie (Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield)

October 10, 2013 Contemporary Fiction, Supernatural 40

How goes it, Bookworms?

Remember our very first Fellowship of the Worms selection The Thirteenth Tale?  Believe it or not, that was Diane Setterfield’s debut novel. When I saw that her long awaited followup was available on NetGalley, I could not help myself. I positively jumped at the chance to get my hands on Bellman & Black

Full Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. You like honesty, right? 

bellman and blackBellman & Black begins with four ten-year-old boys frolicking in the woods. One of the boys in the group fashions a slingshot and uses it to knock a bird out of its tree. The rook is killed. Though Will Bellman is haunted by his act of childhood cruelty, he carries on with his life. Will proves a quick study at his uncle’s textile mill and is soon groomed to take over the operation. As he grows up and begins his adult life, he begins to lose family members and acquaintances. This isn’t much of a surprise, I mean, it’s the Victorian era, so medical care isn’t exactly stellar. A virulent strain of scarlet fever can (and does) wipe out a good chunk of a town. A mysterious cloaked figure keeps appearing at the funerals Bellman attends. One day, in the grips of extreme despair, Bellman imagines he has struck a deal with the cloaked man and embarks on a new venture.

His new venture? A funeral emporium. Now I GET that people who have suffered great losses often fall into depressive states or fixate on death… But starting a massive funeral emporium? It’s a little macabre. Of course, the Victorians were a little macabre… They did their grieving up in a big way- years of wearing black crepe, hired mourners, fancy pants coffins, all the dark and dreary trimmings. I found it to be a weird move, personally, but I am terrible at handling funerals. Seriously. I see one grieving family member and I’m a puddle of goo, even if it was someone I barely knew. I can’t imagine wanting to marinate in funeral-ness, but William was going through a lot. Plus, the world does need funeral supplies, so I’m willing to overlook the odd choice in industry.

What I can’t overlook is that this book was kind of… Boring. There was a lot of discussion of rooks and their influence on the human psyche

Try knocking THIS out of a tree with a slingshot... Actually don't. It's probably way easier than hitting a bird. (Image Source)

Try knocking THIS out of a tree with a slingshot… Actually don’t. It’s probably way easier than hitting a bird. (Image Source)

and mourning and grief… But you know what rooks are to me? The castle pieces in chess. That’s what we called them. Rooks. Apparently, they are ALSO big ugly black birds like ravens and crows. I’ve never been a big fan of birds that can actually fly. You can blame Hitchcock for that one. I think Setterfield was going for a Poe vibe, but it just fell completely flat for me. I’m really bummed about this. Setterfield’s debut, The Thirteenth Tale was SO incredible. Any offering she came out with was bound to suffer in comparison, I just never thought it would fail to hold my interest.

Of course, this is all a matter of opinion, and I am nothing if not aware of the fact that my taste in literature tends away from the poetic. I’m pretty literal when it comes to interpretations as well… I think for the right audience, this book might be wonderful. I’d recommend this to readers who enjoy novels with dark overtones and elements that are open to interpretation. Fans of ghost stories and gothic Victorian settings may just revel in the linguistically lovely descriptive passages. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t for me.

What about you, bookworms? Have you ever been disappointed in a favorite debut author’s sophomore work? 

40 Responses to “Four and Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie (Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield)”

  1. Isi

    Ohh what a shame (if we take into account that I also got this book from Netgalley!).
    I was sure it would be gripping, but I’ve read several reviews telling more or less the same as you 🙁
    The good part is that I haven’t read the author’s previous novel, so I have no expectations.

    • Words for Worms

      Going in without expectations will give you an advantage. It’s hard for me to tell how much of my disappointment was comparison and how much was just less than stellar book…

  2. Charleen

    Yup. This was a totally disappointing book, made more so because of how amazing The Thirteenth Tale was. And yes, you could argue that nothing she could have written would have measured up to it (or made the seven year wait worth it) but it’s not just that. Really the only difference is, if it were written by any other author, I would have DNF’d it.

  3. Rhian

    I absolutely adored The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, but Her Fearful Symmetry was … unusual.

    • Words for Worms

      Oye. Her Fearful Symmetry. I am right there with you, sister. The Time Traveler’s Wife was so, so lovely. I listened to Her Fearful Symmetry on a long road trip and now the entire state of Missouri makes me think of soul swapping ghosts.

    • Words for Worms

      Thanks, Kelly. I don’t love writing negative reviews, but I won’t pretend to like something I didn’t enjoy. I’m sure this book will find an audience, the audience just isn’t me :).

  4. Megan M.

    Noooo! I have been checking for YEARS to find out if she had another book coming out! Not only did I not know about it, it isn’t great. Dang! The sophomore slump strikes again. I still want to read it, but I’ll adjust my expectations accordingly.

  5. Nadia

    This book was just bad. It lacked the ghost story that it had promised and just felt more like a history of, then an actually story. Was quite a disappointment.

    • Words for Worms

      I couldn’t tell if Black was meant to be the ghost. I mean, it was obvious enough that he was meant to be the manifestation of the bird in some way, but was he even there? Will was losing it pretty badly there for a while. I agree with you though. It felt like endless exposition with no actual plot. I’m perplexed and saddened.

  6. Wayne

    Graham Masterton’s first novel *The Manitou* was released in 1976 and it is a fantastic read. However, I was quite disappointed in the sequel *The Revenge Of The Manitou*. The movie of The Manitou incidentally sucks big time even though it has Tony Curtis and Susan Strasberg in it.

    • Words for Worms

      The Thirteenth Tale is really excellent. I loved it so much I will likely read whatever Setterfield comes out with next on the hopes it gets back to some of that Thirteenth Tale magic.

  7. Jenny @ Reading the End (formerly Jenny's Books)

    It sounds very Poe-y! I’m one who enjoyed but did not love her first book, so maybe I will find her second book similarly enjoyable. But it’s really depressing when an author you loved lets you down — Donna Tartt is the one that springs to mind, since I just finished reading her third book. I loved her first novel and have been bored out of finishing her second novel approximately twelve times. IT IS SO BORING. WHY DID SHE DO THIS TO ME.

  8. Jennine G.

    This is totally off topic, but reading this I realized I may be able to use your post to teach my 7th graders “voice” in writing. I can see it plainly here! Hope you don’t mind!

    • Words for Worms

      Whaaaat?! I’m to be studied? And not in a scientific “what is wrong with your brain chemistry” sort of way? I’m humbled beyond measure. Anything you need, my dear, you are most welcome to!

  9. Bonnie (@missbonnie13)

    Hmmm.. I’ve been dying to make time to pick up The Thirteenth Tale but it hasn’t managed to happen yet. I also picked this one up from Netgalley so I’m wondering if it would actually be a benefit to have not read her first and glorious debut? Either way I’ll likely get to this one first. 🙂 Sorry you didn’t enjoy it as much as you hoped..Great review though!

  10. Dana

    I was crazy excited to read Thirteenth Tale and I was left underwhelmed. I think I over-hyped it in my own mind. Maybe I’ll enjoy the second book if I go in without the huge expectations.

  11. Lady Fancifull

    I think the publisher made a big mistake in marketing as a ghost story, presumably because Thirteenth Tale was gothic. That marketing had everyone WAITING for things to get (even just a WEE bit) spooky Big shame. I feel rather sorry for Setterfield, she’s rather being given the thumbs down by all of us because her first book was so wonderful. I agree with you that if you hadn’t read TT, you might (just might) enjoy this more

  12. Melinda

    And so I am one of those who didn’t enjoy this. I went into this one with expectations, even though I wasn’t aware of it. I told myself don’t try to compare it to The Thirteenth Tale, but subconsiously I expected something great, like a really nice ghostic ghost story. This was more mystery, no suspense. I hope she comes up with something better for her 3rd novel!

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