Tag: Diane Setterfield

Oct 10

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

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? 


Jul 08

The Thirteenth Tale: A Fellowship of the Worms Extravaganza

Blogging, Book Club, Historical Fiction 33

Happy Monday, Bookworms!

smarty mcwordypantsToday is the day we’ve all been waiting for! The Fellowship of the Worms is officially in session. Our inaugural book club choice was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. WARNING: We will be discussing the WHOLE book. This will no doubt include SPOILERS. If you did not read the book and would like to participate, pick up a copy of The Thirteenth Tale and give it a read. This post will be here waiting for you when you finish. Now that the particulars are out of the way, I’ll remind you of the premise here. I thought the book club questions for this book listed in the back were exceptional, so I’ve borrowed those ideas liberally as discussion points. Some of these I re-worded, some of these were born of my own brain juices, some of these are random and off topic. I’ll pose questions in bold and answer them in regular type.  If you don’t want your opinions influenced by my rantings, stick to the bold first. 🙂

Please chime in, so I am not talking to myself. Though I do enjoy my own company, carrying on a full conversation with oneself, even electronically, is a bit worrisome. You’re welcome to leave as many comments as you like- long, short, tackling all the questions, answering none of the questions, whatever. If you have your own blog and have written a review of The Thirteenth Tale or would like to answer any of these questions in your own forum, a linky will be at the bottom of this post so you can link up and play along.

Ready? Set? Here we go!

1. Being a twin is discussed at length in this novel, in particular, the advent of a twin language. Do you think this is unique to twins, or have you had a similar shorthand with your siblings? Also, is this not the cutest video ever?

So I’m kind of fascinated by the whole twin thing. I think it’s pretty well established that most twins share a bond closer than that of ordinary siblings. The twin language is, at least according to Youtube, a real thing. I think it’s most common between twins because they’re the same age, but I think if you had children close enough together, they might develop their own little shorthand too. My sister was 3 when I was born, so she was good and fluent in English by the time I started talking. I’d be willing to bet kids would figure out ways to communicate without formal language, regardless of twinship.

2. I’ve reviewed several books about books in this blog, notably The Bookman’s Tale and Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore. The Thirteenth Tale took the books about books category in a whole new direction. Let’s talk about the various roles that books and writing play within this novel.

Yes. Books and writing, writing and books. In this novel Ms. Winter escapes her own outrageous story by creating other stories. She sends journalists on wild goose chases trying to figure out her origins. Stories are a way to mask the pain she experienced at the hands of reality… Then there’s our sweet little bookshop clerk, Margaret. Books for her allow her to retreat almost entirely from the world at large. I don’t know that I can blame either character for their obsessions with writing and literature, but they certainly made for an odd set of circumstances.

3. The nature vs. nurture debate runs rampant throughout this novel. We see it in Charlie and Isabelle and then again with Adeline and Emmeline. Charlie and Isabelle have a very… unique… relationship as siblings. Charlie is clearly disturbed as he seeks out pain and cruelty. Do you think Isabelle shares his tendencies because of some inborn trait, or do you think Isabelle picked it up because Charlie brought her into his “games” at such a young age?

I don’t have a strong opinion on this one. I suppose I do find it unusual that a small child who is scratched to the point of bleeding doesn’t cry out… Then again, it’s hard to know what goes on in a child’s head. I used to like to suck on marbles. One of my earliest memories is of the day I choked on one (I was probably about 3.) The incident didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for marbles. So… Kids are weird all on their own. Do weird stuff to them when they’re little and you’re going to screw them up even worse. So, um. Don’t do that!

4. Nature vs. Nurture Part 2… Was anybody else curious as to just HOW the twins could have become feral? I know the Missus was old and John the Dig was rather distant, but do you think the fact that the twins grew as they did was simply a result of gross neglect or do you think their parentage may have messed around with the gene pool a bit?

Do I think it’s a little farfetched that our twins ended up being feral despite the fact that there were people around? Yes. I do. However, I’m of the opinion that given their, uh, questionable parentage, they may have had some neurons misfiring on a biological level. I have a hard time believing they would continue speaking in twin language and not even manage to pick up ordinary English given their circumstances. I think they had some crappy genetics to contend with. Incest is just never a good idea. Did we learn nothing from Oedipus (I know it was an ACCIDENT… And his children turned out okay…maybe a bad example…) What about that awful, awful Joffrey from Game of Thrones? Proof that incest (or twincest) is bad with a capital B.

5. In the middle of the book, Vida begins shifting her pronouns around while telling her story and referring to herself in the first person. How did you interpret this as you were reading? Did you assign it much significance?

I noticed this change, mostly because Margaret was all like “ooooh she switched her pronouns!” I interpreted this at the time as Vida breaking down and connecting more with her own past. I didn’t assign it the significance I later learned it deserved, that’s for sure!


6. Diane Setterfield never gives us an exact date for any of the events in this book, though she does leave some clues. Did any of you put your detective hats on and hit google? Anybody have a theory as to the time frame?

You bet your sweet fanny I hit google. I hate not knowing things. In “present” time (at least, the time where Margaret is chatting with Vida) I noticed a lack of cell phones, and zero mention of computers. Margaret writes everything with pencil and paper, and in spite of the availability of telephones, writes plenty of letters to accomplish her widespread correspondence. This makes me think she fears long distance phone charges, perhaps? I suppose she could have just been a bit of a luddite and shunned technology, but I’m placing the “current” time roughly in the 1960s-70s. I mean, they were snowed in for 5 days with a dead body, for heaven’s sake. I blame old timey snow plows.

The early story makes no mention of technology. The books that are already in publication in the library give a concrete era for the book to be set AFTER but it lacks specifics. Titles mentioned include Jane Eyre (1847), Wuthering Heights (1847), The Woman in White (1859), and Sense and Sensibility (1811). Cumpulsory education in England started somewhere around 1870, and since Hester Barrow expressed concern over the mysterious village boy not being in school, it’s safe to assume this was written after that. I’m guessing somewhere in the neighborhood of 1890-1900… Which if Vida is in her 70s jives fairly well with my time frame for the “present.”

7. When Margaret falls ill after running about on the moors in the rain, Dr. Clifton comes to her aid with medicine, and diagnoses her with “an ailment that afflicts ladies with romantic imagination.” Did you find this condescending, or did it ring true for you given Margaret’s obsession with the Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Sense and Sensibility, etc.?

Personally, I found the doctor’s diagnosis rather condescending, dismissing Margaret as a silly woman obsessed with silly romances. However… There may have been a grain of truth to it. She certainly spent the majority of her time wrapped up in old books as opposed to interacting with other human beings… Also, can I just mention how glad I am that things like aspirin and antibiotics exist? I swear, everything I’ve ever read claims that body temperature has nothing to do with getting sick, because getting sick is all about germs, but my word. The characters in the romantic novels Margaret loves have TERRIBLE immune systems. It pleases me that my getting caught in the rain is not a death sentence…

8. At one point Aurelius mentions that his adoptive mother preferred lighter stories than heavy ones. What effect has knowing the truth had on the characters in the novel? Do you think Margaret would have been better off if she hadn’t stumbled across the fact that she’d been born a twin? Would Vida’s life have been different if she’d been honest about her past from the beginning? Would Aurelius have gained anything knowing his story early on in life? Do you think it’s advantageous to know such heartbreaking truths, or do you agree with the old adage that ignorance is bliss?

Would Aurelius and Vida and Margaret have had easier lives if they hadn’t known all sorts of dastardly and heartbreaking secrets? Probably. Does that mean they didn’t have a right to know their history? Nope. I think Vida in particular would have had a worse time of things if she had told the public about her upbringing from the beginning. Lots of looky-loos would have been prying- I can’t blame her for keeping that to herself! As far as Margaret goes, it sucked to know she had a conjoined twin, but at least it explained why her mother was so aloof toward her… It certainly doesn’t excuse it, but it helps Margaret understand the hot mess of her mom’s psyche. And Aurelius? Sure he uncovered some painful secrets, but then? Then he got a FAMILY. And that made me really really happy!

9. Hester Barrow, the twins’ governess, is obviously very intelligent, yet is relegated to a role as childcare provider when she is clearly suited to a more academic career path. She gets involved with Dr. Maudsley because she knows that any research she produces will not be taken seriously. Many of the 19th century female writers that feature in this book originally published their work under male names. Do you feel that this stigma still exists? Did I really have to throw a feminist question in here? Of course I did.

I got a little ragey when Hester couldn’t do her own research. She had terrible methods, of course, but they were no worse than any other science of the times. She had the best intentions and was all sorts of scholarly. I mean, I’m glad she was able to hook up with Dr. Maudsley (in more ways than one) but it annoyed me that she couldn’t go it alone.

10. Did you see that ending coming?!?!?! Did you believe that Adeline could have turned into a functional 13 year old girl out of the blue or did you suspect something fishy? Did you catch any of the early clues? Did your head feel all explodey?

At first, I thought Setterfield was going to say the girls were triplets, at which point I would have rolled my eyes and thrown the book at a wall, because it was really much too good to have taken a soap operatic turn like that. I had caught onto the idea that maybe the twins were so effed up in part because they were likely fathered by Charlie, but when when it turned out that Vida was a child of Charlie’s on some random poor girl he’d raped, I was like “ooooooh!” Because there had totally been clues about that early on. Lightbulb moment.

11. So, Bookworms, yay or nay on The Thirteenth Tale? Did you like it?

Personally, I loved this book to pieces. I hope that you enjoyed it as much as I did!

UPDATE on LINKY: I’ve removed the Linky code because I angered the internet gremlins somehow and can’t get it to work properly. If you wrote anything on your own blog, throw a link in the comments section. I’ll try to collect and highlight them in a wrap up post of some sort. Sorry about the tech fail, y’all!

For next month, we’ll read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Luis Zafron. Discussion date will be Monday, August 12! I hope you’ll join me again!