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review 2017-08-04 13:58
Bellman & Black
Bellman & Black - Diane Setterfield

I have a bit of a love/apathy relationship with Diane Setterfield’s novels (all two of them). I think her prose is gorgeous. I think her plots and characters are boring. But enough time passed between her first novel and her second that I only remembered the former and forgot about the latter until I was reminded as I plodded through Bellman & Black. If she takes the better part of another decade to write her next book, I’ll probably forget again.


This book was originally advertised as a dark, atmospheric, Gothic ghost story. I guess enough people complained, because my mass market paperback version omits the “ghost story” part of the description. And rightly so.


This is not so much a Gothic ghost story as it is (in my opinion) a character study about a Victorian era businessman-savant who probably suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and maybe a congenital heart defect. Included is a bunch of bonus content on how rooks are pretty much vindictive avian assholes.


If you want to read about how a Victorian textile mill might’ve been run in tedious, excruciating but beautifully written detail, or if you’ve ever wondered how one might go about building a mourning emporium from the ground up in Victorian London, boy howdy! this is the book for you. If you want to read a chilling Gothic ghost story, pass on by, folks. Nothing to see here.

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review 2016-12-21 22:18
The Thirteenth Tale
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

I love my book club. We've been gathering around the same dining room table for over 10 years. But I need to give them a bit of sass. I've been trying to talk them into reading The Thirteenth Tale for YEARS. For some reason, it never makes the list. I'll admit, the synopsis doesn't really grab me so maybe that's the issue. I finally gave up waiting for them and decided to read it on my own.


I'm so glad I made this book a priority. This book was able to keep me guessing until the end. And once all was revealed, the other 'questionable' things I had about this book fell right into place and it was awesome. I'd love to go back and re-read it now that I know the ending. I'm wondering how much I'd catch a second time through when reading through a different lens.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-10-29 19:39
When the backstory IS the story. . . . . . . . .
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

Disclosure:  I borrowed this book from my local public library.  I do not know the author nor have I ever had any communication with her about this book or any other matter  I am an author.


Quick review, then spoilers and discussion.


I can't speak for other authors, but for me, the backstory -- everything that happens before the action in the book itself starts on page 1 -- is crucial.  Sometimes bits of this backstory enter the actual narrative and sometimes revelation of the backstory becomes the objective of the narrative.  The novel's journey, then, becomes the uncovering of the backstory.


The Thirteenth Tale is essentially the development of the backstory for the ending.  As a writer, I found this interesting, because I expected it to show how the character's history served as a catalyst.  In this I was monumentally disappointed.


Vida Winter is England's most successful novelist and one of its most mysterious personages.  No one has written an "authorized" biography of her, and no one really knows anything about her before she became a bestselling author.  Now all of a sudden out of the blue, Miss Winter contacts Margaret Lea, the daughter of the owner of an antiquarian bookshop, to write her life story.  Margaret travels from her home in Cambridge to Miss Winter's estate in Yorkshire, where she spends hours listening to the writer tell her history, beginning with the background of her parents and grandparents.


The objective is to finally, because she knows she is dying, tell the truth about who and/or what, she is.


My problem as a reader -- and I can never read without also being a writer and analyzing how the other writer constructed the story -- was that I could never get away from the image of the elderly woman, in her wheelchair, dictating to the younger woman who then went to her room to transcribe her notes.  I kept thinking, okay, okay, okay, get on with it:  How did all this prepare you to be a writer and give you material for your stories?  And what were your stories?


That part of it never happened.  Never. I had reached the point almost halfway through where all of this morbid detail about Vida Winter's supposed childhood became boring.  I disliked most of the characters and felt they were weak and spineless.  Too much of what I've been reading lately is about weak and spineless or stupid characters, and I just didn't want to slog through another 200+ pages of it.  I continued only because Obsidian-Something ;-) prevailed upon me to do so.


And now for the spoiler.  It's long.



The story Vida tells Margaret is of growing up as a twin on a mouldering estate, Angelfield, not far from the Yorkshire estate where she now lives.  I was immediately reminded of Thomas Tryon's novel, The Other, which I read once back in the 1970s.  The good twin and the evil twin and not being able to tell them apart, and so on.  But where Tryon's twins were able to function more or less normally -- they could speak and interact with other people -- Adeline and Emmeline cannot.  They speak to each other in an invented language only they can understand.  They have virtually no supervision, no parenting.  Their mother married in haste and their father died somewhere around the time of their birth.  The mother is now in an asylum, and they are cared for, if you want to call it that, by an eccentric uncle and two loyal servants.


Emmeline is relatively docile, but Adeline is mean, cruel, destructive.  They are like animals.


They are about thirteen years of age when a governess is brought in.  Hester is appalled at the state of the house -- it is literally falling down around them and filthy dirty -- so she takes over the household and starts putting things to rights.  She also begins to work with the local doctor to find a way to train the twins to be, well, human.  Emmeline, the docile one, is sent off to live with the doctor and his wife, while Adeline is kept at Angelfield under Hester's supervision.


Here's the thing -- there's no time frame given for these events.  Given that Vida Winter is presumably in her 70s or 80s, were she and her twin children in the 1920s?  the 1940s?  We don't know.  And for me, this would have been crucial to understanding how this situation could have been allowed to exist.


Hester is caught kissing the doctor and leaves in disgrace.  The house falls back into disrepair and the twins, together again, continue to deteriorate as well.  Then the aged housekeeper dies, leaving only John the gardener to take care of the twins.


And suddenly the intelligence and capability of Adeline, the vicious and cruel twin, manifests itself so that she can partner with John to manage the household.


Although Setterfield had established a hint that Adeline might be hiding a normal intelligence behind her wild child behavior, the transformation was just too slick. As a reader, I was already one level removed from the story because I couldn't get away from that constant image of the old woman telling her story to the biographer.  Now my disbelief was being tested again.  If Adeline was so capable, why had she done nothing at all during the years of living in squalor, with unwashed dishes and poorly cooked food and a crazy uncle in the attic?


Then the crazy uncle dies, leaving the little "family" of Adeline, Emmeline, John the gardener and the boy he has hired for help.  Adeline connives with the family solicitor to keep the money flowing, at least for a while. 


But she never sets about fixing the house.  Although Hester, prior to her abrupt departure in disgrace, had hired workmen to repair the roof and fix other problems, the transformed Adeline never sets about to do this. 


One of the other things that put my suspicions on alert was that the "new" Adeline developed a taste and talent for topiary, which had been one of John the gardener's pastimes.  He had left it when the wild Adeline went on one of her rampages and destroyed all his work.  Now all of a sudden she wants to re-establish the topiary garden.  Hmmmmmm........


And then John dies, falling from a ladder under mysterious circumstances.


I had already been thinking about The Other.  Now another book came to mind -- it might have been a Phyllis A. Whitney novel, but I'm not sure -- in which twins had been used in some kind of deceptive scheme, but no one had counted on there being a triplet, a third girl/woman who looked exactly like the other two.  I have both Feather on the Moon and Rainbow in the Mist beside me, but I'm not going to read either of them right now to find out if it was one of those two books that contained that plot element.  It's enough to know that I remembered it.


So John is dead, and that leaves the twins -- the "new" Adeline and Emmeline, who may or may not be developmentally disabled -- on their own at the age of maybe fifteen.  Their only help comes from "the boy," the one hired by John to help with the gardening.


"The boy" has designs on Adeline, but she's not interested.  For whatever reason, he rapes Emmeline instead -- even if she consented, it's suggested that she wasn't capable of giving consent, so that makes it rape -- and she becomes pregnant.  The child is born, and Emmeline develops what appears to be a true maternal instinct for it.  And this enrages the "old" Adeline, who attempts to murder the infant by burning it in the library fireplace.


Her plan is thwarted by the "new" Adeline, who rescues the child but is unable to put out the fire, which consumes the mansion.  She is able, however, to save Emmeline, who is badly burned in the fire.


For in fact, the new Adeline is not the old Adeline at all, but a foundling who may or may not have been fathered on a village girl by the crazy uncle -- the crazy uncle who was also probably the father of the twins his sister bore.  ("Vice is nice, but incest is best.")  The old Adeline dies in the fire, no one being the wiser, and so the new Adeline goes on being the only Adeline.  Emmeline's infant is raised by a kindly neighbor -- apparently in the days when no one investigated things like that -- and so on and so forth.


And they all lived happily ever after?


That's just it.  That's where the story essentially ends.  A few loose ends are tied up -- such as Margaret's own lost twin, none of which made any sense to me and seemed contrived and melodramatic -- but the real story that held my interest was how Adeline became Vida the writer, and there wasn't a single word about it.  No clue as to how the new Adeline became Vida Winter.  Nothing about what happened in the years after the fire but before she wrote her first book of stories and became a best-selling author.  Nothing about how she managed to take care of Emmeline without anyone knowing where she was.  Setterfield tells us what happened to "the boy" who was the father of Emmeline's child, but not what happened to Emmeline in the interim.


And that's when I recalled the third book that this reminded me of -- my long-time favorite Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey.  A long-lost twin, thought to be a suicide at age thirteen, returns eight years later to claim his inheritance.  He is eventually unmasked as not the twin, but a probable cousin who has nonetheless an uncanny identical resemblance to the real twin brothers.


After I had finished reading it, I felt a niggling in my brain beyond all this:  How did Hester not know there was a third child involved, and how did Adeline/Vida keep the real Adeline under control?  Hester had suspicions, but never acted upon them, which seemed odd.  And Vida never revealed how John and the housekeeper kept her -- "protected" her -- for ten years or more without anyone ever knowing.


(spoiler show)


The book is well written and the details are carefully crafted into the mystery, but I felt a horrible, horrible letdown at the end.  Most readers, however, will probably love it.



Depending on how the rest of my week-end goes, I may use this for a Bingo square.  Not sure which one, as it could fit in several.




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text 2016-10-28 15:35
Reading progress update: I've read 186 out of 406 pages.
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

May have to DNF.  Started strong, now it's just dragging.  Too many spineless characters.

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review 2016-09-18 16:47
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

This is the kind of book that I should use quotes to make my point, but I read a print edition, and I am just far too lazy to go back and get my copy and find the quotes that I've marked.


I really don't know what I was expecting when I picked up this novel. I chose it because of the stunning cover and a recommendation from a friend (Obsidian Blue). I love bookish books, and this one filled that niche quite well, with Margaret's bookshop job and her obsession with English lit, most especially Jane Eyre. There is a rich vein of Jane Eyre mined throughout this book. Fortuitously, I had just reread Jane Eyre, so my appreciation for the way in which the author used Bronte's classic was at a peak.


Having said that, this is no light tale for a summers eve. The Thirteenth Tale is made for a fall or winter night, wrapped in a blanket, preferably in front of a roaring fire. I read it on a grey early autumn day, which was an acceptable choice, if not quite perfect. This is a dark story, with weird and gothic elements, centered around an otherworldly home and one of the most troubling and troubled families dreamed up in an author's imagination, peopled by characters whose behavior frankly ignores important social mores and verges deep into taboo. It is not explicit by any stretch of the imagination, but this is not a book for the faint of heart.



But, then again, neither were Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, or The Woman in White if it comes to that. If you are a fan of Victorian gothic, classic literature and richly dark writing, I think you'll like this book. If you like your stories sunny and sweet, you'll probably want to run away from this book.


There are a few squares where I could've fit this book, including ghost stories and haunted houses. But, there is also a black cat with emerald green eyes - Shadow - who makes several crucial appearances throughout the book. So, I'm claiming it for "black cat"!


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