It is a very snowy morning as I sip my tea and enjoy a slice of freshly-baked Date Bread – mmm!
Just over a week ago, I picked up a box of books to review for the local paper – with so many great titles, it was like Christmas had come early for me! It was difficult to choose which one to read first, but I decided on Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield, as I felt that it would suit my reading mood best at that moment. I really enjoyed her first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, a gothic mystery about a young woman, Margaret Lea, who is summoned by an elusive writer, Vida Winter, to write her biography. She must come to Winter’s secluded manor in the English countryside in order to hear her story, and to finally uncover the truth about the rumoured “thirteenth tale”, curiously missing from Winter’s most famous story collection. What she ultimately discovers are family secrets, lies, mystery upon mystery, and even love. It was a thoroughly satisfying novel that I have read on my own, as well as read and discussed for both of my book groups. As you may suspect, I was hoping for more of the same with Setterfield’s new novel, a real page-turner written in the Gothic same style. And so it began… William Bellman, who is 10 years and 4 days old, is out in the woods with his cousin Charles and two friends. William sees a rook on a branch in a far-off tree and, boasting to his friends, claims that he can shoot it down with his catapult, one he designed himself with new features to increase the success of the shot. Although the bird was too far away, as the others claimed, Will pulled back the stone in the catapult and, even after thinking that he could still stop, that it wasn’t too late to change his mind, let fly the deadly missile which took the rook down with one hit. The boys went to see the dead bird, perhaps their first experience of death, and each felt the effects, although they made light of it in the end. They managed to forget this episode during which they lost a bit of their innocence and moved on with their lives. But as the reader learns, rooks never forget. Fast-forward about a decade, and William has grown into a fine young man, one with an excellent voice which he contributes to the choir. He is handsome and smart, and stands to inherit his uncle’s fabric mill, Charles having no interest in such affairs. He shows great promise in terms of learning and innovative thinking, and soon increases the profits of the mill beyond anyone’s expectations. He finds a wife, has children, comes to an agreement with Charles to share the wealth of the mill while he alone manages it, and all is right with Bellman’s world. Until the tide turns. Illness and death visit the town and leave parents without children and children without parents. William has noticed, over the years, a dark stranger lurking around corners, particularly at funerals for his friends or family members. When William fears he will lose everything, he is prepared to make a deal to save the one last thing he cares about. But can one ever truly profit from a deal with Death? This book started out slowly, but about half-way through, when Bellman strikes his deal, things pick up and move at a faster pace, and I began to speed through the novel. Unfortunately, I found it to be ultimately disappointing, with too many issues unexplained or unresolved. Unlike The Thirteenth Tale, the mysteries were not fully explained, which may work in some more realistic fiction, but in this case, I felt it detracted from the story and the enjoyment level. I do not feel inclined to reread this book, although I may pick up details on a second reading that I missed the first time, as it is a fairly complex story. I hate to criticize anyone’s writing, so I guess what I would offer is this warning: If you loved her first novel, try to lower your expectations for this second offering, and you may be less disappointed than I was. If anyone reads it, I’d be curious to know what you thought of this book.
I’m having a hard time deciding what to read next, as none of the other books in the box I received really fits my reading needs right now. I thought I might read Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson, the fourth book in the “Jackson Brody” series. I really enjoyed When Will There Be Good News?, which I’ve listened to as an audiobook, and I’ve read and/or listened to both Case Histories and One Good Turn. I don’t know what this one will be about, but the others featured Brody as a private investigator working to solve complex murder mysteries, some cold cases and some current, ongoing investigations. The quirky characters and Atkinson’s writing style make these a treat if I am in the right mood. I will give it a try this afternoon, but may have to move on to something else if it doesn’t suit.
Bye for now…