Review: Bellman & Black

Bellman & BlackDiane Setterfield, Bellman & Black

This atmospheric novel tells the story of William Bellman, who makes one decision in childhood that will alter the entire course of his life. When he is ten years old, he and a few friends are playing in the field near their village, and they see a rook on a far-off tree branch. Will bets his friends that he can hit the bird with his slingshot, and to everyone’s astonishment, he actually does it. Will and his friends soon forget the incident, but from then on, rooks become a touchstone and a bad omen for William Bellman. As he gets older, he becomes more and more successful: first he get a job at his uncle’s mill, then rises through the ranks until he eventually runs it. He marries and has children, and he begins to make a very comfortable living. But when an illness sweeps through the village and takes most of William’s family, he will do anything to save his remaining daughter — including making a desperate deal with the mysterious Mr. Black. William’s encounter with Black leads him to an entirely different business venture, one that eventually threatens to consume him.

I absolutely loved Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, so I had high expectations for this book. Unfortunately, I’m coming away from it with mixed feelings. The writing style is just as rich and gorgeous as I remember, and I found myself reading very quickly despite the slow-moving plot. I also admire the novel’s atmosphere of suspense; it has a wonderfully autumnal, sinister quality, despite the fact that not a lot of scary stuff actually happens. In fact, that may be my biggest problem with the book: there’s this great buildup of tension throughout the novel, but in the end there’s no payoff. The interludes about rooks — and William’s encounters with them throughout the book — are meant to heighten the suspense, I think, but I didn’t really understand their role in the story. Frankly, I was a bit confused about the story as a whole; I was expecting a Faustian narrative in which William essentially sells his soul for success, but that’s not really what happens. In short, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be taking away from this book — but I’m definitely not giving up on Setterfield yet!

Review: The Quick

Quick, TheLauren Owen, The Quick

This novel, set in late Victorian England, centers around James Norbury and his sister Charlotte. After growing up isolated in a crumbling country estate, James is eager to move to London and try his luck as a poet. He slowly begins to conquer his shyness and mix a little in society, and eventually he even falls in love. But everything changes one fateful night when James is attacked, kidnapped, and initiated into the sinister Aegolius Club. Meanwhile, Charlotte has grown more and more anxious about her brother, who seems to have vanished without a trace. She journeys to London and attemps to discover what has happened to him, but what she finds out is more shocking and horrible than she ever could have imagined. As the Aegolius Club’s secrets are slowly revealed, and its members become more and more dangerous, Charlotte realizes that her only course of action is to destroy the club; but even if such a thing were possible, would she truly be able to rescue James?

I find that I really can’t talk about this book without mentioning one significant spoiler, so please STOP READING NOW if you don’t want to know anything else about the plot of this book! … If you’re still interested, here goes: this book is about vampires. I mention it because there is nothing in the book’s description or on the cover blurb about them, yet they are central to the entire book! Personally, I’m not a big fan of vampire novels and would not have picked up this book if I’d known they would be such a big part of the plot. That said, I actually really liked it a lot; Owen is a wonderful writer, and I found the novel a real page-turner despite the fact that it’s over 500 pages long. In fact, my other complaint is that it could probably have ended a few chapters before it did. I wasn’t a huge fan of the (largely depressing) ending, and I would have liked a little happiness for the main characters in the end, after they’d suffered so much. Still, this is a very accomplished gothic novel, and I’d definitely consider reading more by Lauren Owen.