Review: Bellman & Black

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Bellman & BlackBellman & Black: A Ghost Story by Diane Setterfield
Narrator: Jack Davenport
Length: 9 hrs, 40 mins
Published by Simon & Schuster Audio on November 5, 2013
Genres: Fantasy, Gothic, Historical
Format: Audiobook
Source: Publisher
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two-half-stars

Bellman & Black is a heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line. Its hero is William Bellman, who, as a boy of 11, killed a shiny black rook with a catapult, and who grew up to be someone, his neighbours think, who "could go to the good or the bad." And indeed, although William Bellman's life at first seems blessed - he has a happy marriage to a beautiful woman, becomes father to a brood of bright, strong children, and thrives in business - one by one, people around him die. And at each funeral, he is startled to see a strange man in black, smiling at him. At first, the dead are distant relatives, but eventually his own children die, and then his wife, leaving behind only one child, his favourite, Dora. Unhinged by grief, William gets drunk and stumbles to his wife's fresh grave - and who should be there waiting, but the smiling stranger in black. The stranger has a proposition for William - a mysterious business called "Bellman & Black"...

Oh man. You know, I actually feel really bad for authors who hit it out of the park with their first book. I totally get why Harper Lee wrote a masterpiece and dropped the mic, man. There’s SO much pressure to come out with something that’s just as brilliant and/or as much of a bestseller. The Thirteenth Tale was wonderful; I adored every page on my first read through, and, though I loved it less the second time, it was still really good. Bellman & Black is not the follow up anyone will be expecting, and not in a good way.

Believe it or not, I do feel bad when I have to give books a negative review (unless they piss me off and sometimes even then), but Bellman & Black is boring. If I had read this in print, there’s no way I would have made it through. The interest level of this book is roughly on par with the most dry, soporific textbooks of my time as a student. Though the audiobook kept my interest, objectively, I could tell that this is one of the most boring stories I’ve ever read (or, in this case, had read to me).

Listen, I’m sure some people are going to say, “No, this book is fascinating and analytical and you didn’t get it and you’re wrong,” but, no, I’m not. For me, that’s what this book was and, as I was reading, several others have indicated that they had the exact same experience. This is not just me. Now, I can see where this book might work for some. If you have a vast interest in the minutiae of running a mill or establishing a business that sells funerary arrangement, I have good news for you: this book will rock your perfectly dyed, black mourning socks off.

Let me give you a brief overview of what happens in Bellman & Black. Will is presented to us as a young man, who is quite skilled in getting his fingers into young ladies and at mill work. He builds the family mill into a much greater and more successful enterprise. He meets a girl he really wants to have sex with, so he gets married, and they are very happy. Pretty much everyone he loves dies, and it ought to be sad, but it’s not. He decides to make money off of people’s mourning and opens Bellman & Black a funerary goods shop. His daughter, Dora, draws some rooks. Calling it a ghost story is a bit of an overstatement. It’s a ghost story in the most tenuous and boring of ways. Very little actually happens; you just watch the young workaholic become an old workaholic.

Peppered throughout the novel are facts about rooks. In the most exciting scene of the book, the opening chapter, young Will kills a rook with his slingshot. His daughter likes to draw them. That’s pretty much the extent of connection to rooks in the plot, but the reader is hit over the head with rook knowledge. Apparently, we’re not set on what to call groups of rooks. It’s FASCINATING, guys. And then, at the end, we learn View Spoiler »

Bellman & Black is the perfect example of how a talented narrator can save anything. Had I read the print, I definitely wouldn’t have liked this, but, with Jack Davenport narrating, I almost liked it. Any excuse to listen to Jack Davenport, am I right? It’s a good story for audio, in the sense that there’s not much dialogue so a straight reading really works.

If you go into Bellman & Black expecting the next Thirteenth Tale, prepare for tears of disappointment. If you must read it, I recommend the audiobook. Alright, I’m done, because I’m already forgetting this book.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

jack davenport

29 responses to “Review: Bellman & Black”

  1. I haven’t read anything by this author, but I may just read her first book after this and forget about her second book. I’m definitely not a fan of analytical books that involve building up a business like you described. The heavy presence of rooks in the whole book definitely seems overwhelming though because of how it doesn’t really tie into the rest of the book. Sorry you didn’t like this one that much. 🙁 But fantastic review! <33
    Eileen @ Singing and Reading in the Rain recently posted…Avalon by Mindee ArnettMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      I did talk to someone today who loved this one, so it IS possible. I definitely recommend The Thirteenth Tale. It’s basically book porn with it’s descriptions of the bookshop. 😀

  2. Alice says:

    When ever I have to explain why I didn’t love this book, I will show this review.

    Pretty much sums up my thoughts.

  3. Andrea says:

    I commend you for finishing! I had the print book and you were right – I could not get through it. I started skimming at one point before giving up all together. It felt like nothing happened. Will went to work, information about rooks, Will got married, information about rooks, people died, information about rooks, Will went to work, information about rooks, Will went to work . . .

    It’s a story about his life and nothing more. Nothing interesting happens and I was expecting so much more after devouring The Thirteenth Tale.

    I can understand the pressure of writing your second novel when your first is such a success, but I would expect a little bit more than I received from Bellman & Black.
    Andrea recently posted…Puppet Shows by Michael Frissore (Review)My Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      Finishing really wasn’t a problem. Jack Davenport, man. HIS VOICE. He could read about anything and I would be up for it. That basically sums up the book. Nothing really happened. Which would be cool if I were remotely invested in Will or his rook brethren, but I was not.

      I do wonder that this one came through editing, but perhaps it will be a critical darling. I often don’t see the charm in those.

  4. Lol, I’m listening to this right now! It’s still early on (Will is just now telling his uncle he wants to marry Rose) but I like the book so far… Although that could because if the dulcet tones of Jack Davenport! I love his voice, it’s a great story telling one. I skimmed your review so that I wouldn’t get spoiled, but I did know before starting this book that it was not anything like Tge Thirteenth Tale. It is making me want a pet rook though.
    Kate- Midnightbookgirl recently posted…Neverwas ReviewMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      Honestly, I was never bored and almost liked it just because of Jack, but I would think about what was happening (or NOT happening) and be like REALLY? I do love his voice. But maybe you do actually like the book. Either way, I think audio is the best choice on this one.

  5. Bummer! I have this in print and haven’t tried it yet. Also, I have such a soft spot for Jack Davenport — I might just stare at that gif all morning…
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  6. Shannon N. says:

    YES. Thank you! This basically sums up my feelings on the book. It also made me feel kind of stupid…like I should find some meaning in it, but I didn’t.

    • Christina Franke says:

      Hmm, I guess maybe I should have noted something more valuable in the rook connection, but I don’t really feel stupid because I don’t care enough to do so.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    In summation….I completely agree with Shannon. All of it. The feeling bad because I LOVED The Thirteenth Tale and wanted to like this so much. Mostly the I really, really just don’t get it feelings. And the boredom at having to read a billion things about mills and account and yergh. Although I actually liked the bits about rooks, they’re the only bits I liked haha
    Elizabeth recently posted…Why Anya Balanchine Is So Great: or All These Things I’ve Done – Gabrielle ZevinMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      The bits about rooks may actually have been the most interesting when it comes to it, that and his daughter, but it was still boring and I didn’t feel like it meshed well with the plot of Will’s boring life.

  8. Sorry you didn’t like this one but I am glad I wasn’t the only one. I tried to read it last year and was bored out of my mind. I have, but haven’t read, The Thirteenth Tale. Have heard that it is really good so I was expecting Bellman and Black to be really great too. Not so much.
    Dana (Little Lovely Books) recently posted…Bout of Books Read-a-Thon Wrap Up PostMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      You are not alone. I’ve talked to one person who REALLY liked it and everyone else is meh at best. Of course, I’m sure there are more out there, but at least in my corner of the internet, it has not been a rousing success. The Thirteenth Tale is a TOTALLY different experience.

  9. One of the most boring stories you’ve ‘read,’ that definitely means something. I just went ahead to see the spoiler and that is.. strange. It’s a shame that this book didn’t live up to the quality of The thirteenth tale. It must be hard for an author to write something that is equally as good (or even better) as their other book.
    Mel@thedailyprophecy recently posted…Top 10 Tuesday 30.My Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      Ha, I have read a lot of boring things. I just keep hoping they will get not boring but then they don’t and I’m like why did I read the whole thing? Only in this case it was not a struggle because yum yum Jack Davenport.

  10. Bonnie says:

    Man, this book. I kept thinking that there was SOMETHING I had to be missing because it couldn’t possibly be this boring and pointless!? But clearly you and I are in the same boat. Which is nice. I still need to read Thirteenth Tale so at least I’ll go in with low expectations and get my mind all blown with the awesome, right?
    Bonnie recently posted…Waiting on Wednesday – The Fever: A Novel by Megan AbbottMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      You are my buddy on books. I clearly must stalk you closely, because we seem to agree a lot. We should all join forces on TLC tours. It’s sad when I accidentally pick out and suffer through a literary fiction of pretentiousness and boredom alone.

      YES. Do read The Thirteenth Tale anyway. On the reread it wasn’t perfect, but it’s a far cry from this.

      • Bonnie says:

        TLC used to have some fabulous book tours but lately I’ve been opting out because nothing sounds good! I saw she has Mind of Winter up there for March/April which intrigues me but I’m not sure.

        Well, a far cry from this is all I need to know.
        Bonnie recently posted…Early Review – The Vanishing by Wendy WebbMy Profile

        • Christina Franke says:

          If Mind of Winter is Kasischke, I’m thinking no, but I’m not a big horror fan and I’ve never read her before. The reviews don’t look hugely encouraging either.

          A FAR CRY. If the opening chapter of The Thirteenth Tale doesn’t get you, don’t bother. It’s in a bookstore, so it’s basically book porn. Lol.

          • Bonnie says:

            Ah, I actually haven’t read anything of hers but I’ve been on a horror kick lately but most books listed as ‘horror’ are yawn-worthy to me.

            Sold. I am forever a sucker of book porn.
            Bonnie recently posted…Early Review – The Vanishing by Wendy WebbMy Profile

            • Christina Franke says:

              Horror generally doesn’t have enough character development for me. Also, I’m not scared in books. Can’t handle it in movies, but in books I’m like “Oh, look, blah died. That’s cool.”

              I really liked Velveteen, but I thought it was more funny than terrifying, but again I’m weird about book horror.

              Do you know Kat (The Aussie Zombie)? She reads a lot of adult horror. She would probably have some good reccs.

  11. Oh, its a love/hate relationship when you see someone else post a negative review on a book your feelings were aligned with. Yes, I’m relieved to see it was just me that found this book, dull, boring and tedious. On the flip side, I do feel badly for the author. It was a well written grammatically and stylishly. However, its plot was lackluster and the characters weren’t easy to connect with. For me, the rook lore may have been the most intriguing piece, it certainly didn’t feel or read like a ghost story to me. Great review!

    • Christina Franke says:

      True, I do feel bad about having to say such things about something a person created, but at the same time, it’s been through editing and various hands, so they had to have some idea what was coming before publishing. I could see it doing well with critics maybe. They tend to like things I don’t appreciate.

  12. Aw this is a bummer! I read The Thirteenth Tale for the first time last year and loved it. It was different and creepy and just all around good. I’m disappointed that this one isn’t as good 🙁
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    • Christina Franke says:

      Well, I know you do audiobooks at least, so if you want to read it, the audiobook is tolerable. I don’t know that you would like this though, from what I know of your tastes. It is SO different from The Thirteenth Tale.

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