November 5, 2006

The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 10/31/06
Rating: B (6/10 So-so)

Each year there seems to be one book about which everyone is talking: The Kite Runner, Bel Canto, Life of Pi, Plainsong, and Cold Mountain, to name just a few. This year’s “book buzz” award goes to Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale. Bloggers across the globe have been raving about this gothic tale since it hit the shelves earlier this fall (and in some cases, well before, thanks to the ubiquitous Advance Reader’s Copy). Word of mouth is an author’s best friend and bloggers have done nothing but help boost Setterfield’s fame and, undoubtedly, fortune.

I hate to be the voice of dissension, but this book failed to impress me as it did Heather, Dolce Bellezza, Carl, Booklogged, Bluestalking Reader, Di, Lesley, and thousands of other readers.

It’s not that I didn’t like the book (I love the dust jacket with it’s rich cover art and raised lettering, not to mention all the passages about reading and the love of books). I just didn’t feel the magic that so many other readers experienced.

Judging by the number of favorite passages, though, one would think I’d've given the book a higher rating. Unfortunately, I felt the narrative dragged a bit too much and I had a tough time staying focused. I’d curl up with the book, read a few pages only to discover my mind wandering or that I’d drifted off to sleep. Until the last hundred pages, I couldn’t manage to get engrossed in the narrative, only caring for one of the characters (and a secondary character, at that) and finding several that struck me as terribly mean and heartless.

Was it a case of too much hype? There are currently 2,462 posts matching “The Thirteenth Tale” at Blogger! Wrong time, wrong read? Still on too much of a book high after reading The Book Thief? Did I spend too much brain power trying to sort out all the clues in a futile attempt to unravel the book’s mystery? As the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place during the last quarter of the book, my interest did heighten and I sat and read for a couple of hours, anxious to see how it would all turn out.

Please don’t misunderstand my disappointment. This is certainly not a terrible book. It’s not even a bad book. It simply failed to live up to my expectations for a great read. I didn’t quit reading and there were definitely enjoyable parts that kept my interest, but overall all, meh. Not one I’ll read again and I’m almost sorry I spent the money on a hardcover (although, as I said it is a gorgeous cover and my husband loved the book, so at least we got our money’s worth).

Favorite Passages:

People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.


Time was of the essence. For at eight o’clock the world came to an end. It was reading time.

The hours between eight in the evening and one or two in the morning have always been my magic hours. Against the blue candlewick bedspread the white pages of my open book, illuminated by a circle of lamplight, were the gateway to another world.


There is one thing on which we are agreed: There are too many books in the world to read in a single lifetime; you have to draw the line somewhere.


Of course one always hopes for something special when one reads an author one hasn’t read before… I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life, and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are, for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and more essential than that. When I was a child, books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books. It is not a yearning that one ever expects to be fulfilled. And during this time, these days when I read all day and half the night, when I sleep under a counterpane strewn with books, when my sleep was black and dreamless and passed in a flash and I woke to read again – the lost joys of reading returned to me…


Whether by luck or accident I cannot say, but I found my way to the library a full twenty minutes earlier than I had been commanded to attend. It was not a problem. What better place to kill time than in a library? And for me, what better way to get to know someone than through her choice and treatment of books?


All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes – characters even – caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you. Well, it was like that. All day I had been prey to distractions. Thoughts, memories, feelings, irrelevant fragments of my own life, playing havoc with my concentration.


  1. Of course you are entitled to your (crazy) opinion! As you know, I loved it, as did my best friend Amy. As a matter of fact, she was reading the last couple of chapters when her plane landed, so she walked down to baggage claim, plopped herself on the floor and finished it then and there.

    But if we all liked the same thing, bookstores would be much smaller and we would never get the chance to strike out and read out of our comfort zone.

    And for the record...of the other buzz books mentioned, I didn't like Life of Pi and found Plainsong and Cold Mountain a little to long and spare for my taste. If I want SLOW, I'll watch my daughter unload the dishwasher...or better yet clean her room!

    Good review!

  2. That last quote you listed sounds like your experience with this book - the membrane from Book Thief had not yet closed, maybe. You may remember that I didn't much care for the book before page 172.

    I agree with Di about the Life of Pi. I really didn't like it. Loved the Kite Runner, though.

  3. yeah.. i think it was too hyped for me to enjoy it as much too.
    but then, there were still elements that bothered me too much to have given it high praises anyway.

  4. Anonymous7:45 AM

    I'm with you. I did enjoy it, found it very entertaining yet something was missing. For me I really think it was due to too much hype. I probably should have read it months later.

  5. Anonymous8:16 AM

    I haven't read this one yet because I'm still carrying The Book Thief around in my brain. I was afraid to read anything but brain vacation type books till it was out of my system.

    Like Booklogged said - that last quote is exactly why I'm still waiting to read this one.

  6. Di, it took me about 80 pages to get interested in Life of Pi. Up until then, I didn't care for it at all. I didn't like Cold Mountain AT ALL. Too slow (wasn't there an entire page - or two - about rain water dripping off a leaf?? ugh).

    Booklogged, if the last 100 pages hadn't been so engrossing, I would have given TTT an even lower rating. But that last portion, combined with all the great reading pasages, helped bring it up above a C average.

    Angela, I'm so glad to hear that I'm not alone with my lukewarm reaction to the book. I have noticed a few more reviews on Amazon that echo my sentiments, so I don't feel too bad about my lack of enthusiasm. Comfort in numbers, eh?

    Iliana, thanks for the validation. :) That'll teach me to read something fresh off the presses! I should stick to my usual routine of buying a hardcover only to let it sit until the paperback has been out for over a year. ;)

    SuziQ, Wait! Save it for next summer or even next fall. I truly believe I read it too soon after The Book Thief. Even though I had a couple of great reads between the two, I think the writing deserves a fresh attitude and I didn't allow for that.

  7. I have to say, while I really enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale, I had the mystery solved before the end. That almost cost it its perfect vote, because the ending was more to prove I was right than to surprise me!

  8. I am currently reading this, so I didn't read your review; however, I did read all the comments.

    I am approximately at p100 and am finding it to be just okay. I read THE BOOK THIEF and really liked it, but I don't feel that book has any reflection on my TTT thoughts. I did read a book inbetween as well.

    As for LIFE OF PI, I read it a year ago and rated it a 4/5 at the time, but in my mind now it's a 5! I still think about that book. I have forgotten much, but the feeling it left still lingers.

  9. Anonymous8:14 AM

    Hi, Les!

    Great review! I haven't read "The Thirteenth Tale" yet, but sometimes when a book is talked about (superlatively) we tend to have very high expectations for it and often we find it falls short. After reading your review, I won't feel like the odd man out if I don't enjoy it that much! :)

    Those quotes are just fabulous especially the last one - don't you wish you had read "The Thirteenth Tale" before "The Book Thief"? :)

  10. Anonymous9:09 AM

    It is much nicer to discover a book before the hype--it seems like too much press just taints really popular books. And then you have read a dozen other opinions, so really you aren't approaching it with a completely open mind. I did enjoy it--I thought it was well written and nicely designed. It captured my interest pretty well. Of course it is hard when you have read a book that you really *loved*, as it seems anything coming after really sort of pales. At least now you know what everyone else is talking about. :)

  11. Because I fell in love with it so hard I am sorry that you didn't have a similar experience, but I certainly respect your right to be wrong....ha,ha...just kidding! Picking up this book after a bunch of hype might not have helped and I firmly believe in there being a right and wrong time for some books. We are emotional, mood-driven creatures after all. And I agree, it is a fantastically put together book!

  12. Les, I can understand why you didn't like TTT after reading The Book Thief. I'm over half finished with TBT and am absolutely in love with it. There is absolutely no comparing the two books. Book Thief is so beautifully written, the story chilling, yet warm and so engrossing. I'm going to have to read some cozy mysteries after this, because I'm not sure anything will hold up well compared to Book Thief.

  13. Anonymous5:03 PM

    See, I am hoping I don't feel this way about 'The Book Thief' once I finally get around to reading it, since everyone has seemingly loved it so. I think there's some sort of tipping point when it comes to hype, and after that point, the book needs to be beyond wonderful to even meet expectations. Myself, I don't understand what all the fuss about 'Life of Pi' is about!

  14. I wholeheartedly agree with this phrase of yours:
    It simply failed to live up to my expectations for a great read. I didn’t quit reading and there were definitely enjoyable parts that kept my interest, but overall all, meh. Not one I’ll read again.

    Sure, it was fine. Even good in places. But awesome? No. Carl suspected, and I agree with him, that I had too much hype going into it. The ending was the let down for me. B.O.R.I.N.G.

  15. Kailana, I didn't figure out the mystery until it a page or two before it was revealed. I certainly tried, though, and perhaps that was too much of a distraction, as was trying to figure out the time frame.

    Joy, I hope you enjoy better than I did. I'll be anxious to read your review. I, too, still think about Life of Pi. It's one I'll read again. Eventually!

    Lotus, thanks! I agree. Those quotes are incredible. You know, I don't really wish I had read TTT before The Book Thief. I'd hate to have had the same sort of disappointing reaction to The Book Thief! And you know, I love the fact that I have one book that outshines all the rest I've read this year. Easily my #1.

    Danielle, I agree. I wish I had just waited (as I've done with most books that have been over-hyped) for all the chatter to die down. Who knows what my reaction would've been if I waited until next year (or even later).

    Carl, I kept thinking about how much you and Heather loved this book and wondered what was wrong with me! I just hope you love The Book Thief as much as I did. It's another that's had tremendous hype since it first came out.

    Booklogged, I'm so glad you're enjoying The Book Thief. I have yet to hear any negative remarks and I'm not sure I could stand it if I did!

    Lesley, you aren't alone in your opinion of Life of Pi. My husband didn't care for it at all. I don't even think he finished reading it. I hope you enjoy The Book Thief when you decide to read it.

    Bellezza, glad to hear I'm not alone in the "meh" camp. :) However, I thought the ending was the best part. Up until the last 100 pages or so, I thought it was B.O.R.I.N.G.

  16. Both TTT and TBT are on my list, but I won't get to either for quite some time. Maybe by then, the hype will have died down and I won't have any preconceived notions. To be honest, TBT looks much more appealing.

  17. I'm posting this for Sheri (at Bookie) since I can't seem to figure out how to edit her original comment. I needed to delete a spoiler (with her permission) before posting. So here it is without the spoiler:

    Well..I hinted a little about this at BOOKIE and I agree with you. TTT was a good book. I didn't think it was a great book. I liked it for the same reasons you did based on your of the themes was about about reading and about the importance of it in your life. However, about mid-way my interest waned. The character of Aurelious was ridiculous to me and around the point where he was introduced I became disenchanted. {spoiler removed} Blah blah...I could go on...I guess Di was right. We all have diff opinions, I loved Life of Pi...but one of my best friends hated it...go figure.

  18. Framed, maybe you could wait until after the holidays. Or even when they come out in paperback (although they both have lovely covers - I wonder what the trade editions will look like!). If you're susceptible to feeling blue after the holidays, The Book Thief might be better read in the spring. It does tug at your heartstrings quite strongly.

  19. Found your blog Les and we are kindred spirits because I have also swum against the tide of popular opinion on this book, It did nothing for me,felt flawed and could have been so much better.I read it in proof copy so pre-publication which was interesting because I knew about the hype that was promised but I had a feeling it might flop here in the UK and to a certain extent it has.But then you see I loved The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox and how many people have loathed that? It's a funny old thing this reading world and thank goodness we are all different or wouldn't it be boring!

  20. dovegreyreader, glad to see your comments on my blog! I think we might be kindred spirits. We seem to have similar reading tastes. By any chance have you read McEwan's Atonement? It's one of my favorites and so many readers disliked it. I have a Top Ten list (for 2005) posted somewhere in my blog (maybe just do a search). I'd be curious to hear if you've read and enjoyed the same books. Off to add you to my blogroll.

  21. Oh yes I LOVED Atonement and know others who hated it with such a passion and spent hours trashing it for my benefit, but still I loved it.I will seek out your top reads and my blog has similar if you scroll down some way.

  22. dovegreyreader, I had a feeling Atonement might be something you enjoyed. Now I'll have to seek out a copy of The Meaning of Night. It sounds like something my husband might enjoy, too. Thanks for the recommendation.

  23. I was disappointed in The Thirteenth Tale, too - there was just... something... lacking, even though it had all the ingredients for a perfect story.

    I wrote about it here -

  24. Thanks for visiting my blog, Teabird. I enjoyed your review of The Thirteenth Tale and agree with you on several counts.

  25. Anonymous8:10 PM

    I personally loved the book. As a younger, transitioning reader, I've found it to be magical and creative. I can relate to Margaret in the sense that reading is more than a passion, but a hunger. Three cheers for the best book of the year.

  26. Erin - Thanks for stopping by with your comment. I agree. Reading is a hunger that I can't ever quench. Not sure I'd want to! I'm glad this was such a good book for you. Thanks for stopping by.

  27. And now this book was chosen over "The Book Thief" for Lincoln's One Book. Your comments? BTW, I believe you were the one I spoke with at B&N several weeks ago. You highly recommended "The Book Thief" to me. Yes, I did read it. Yes, I really liked it! JoAnn

  28. Joann - I was disappointed that The Book Thief wasn't chosen! Oh, well. Maybe they were looking for something a little less heartbreaking.

    And what a coincidence that you found my blog! I remember recommending the book to you and I'm so pleased to know that you liked it. Now you'll have to read my favorite book (so far) for 2008: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

    Take care and thanks for stopping by with your comment!

  29. Frankly, I had to dig around the Internet for a while. I couldn't remember your name but I could remember everything else! LOL, remembering names has always been a struggle for me (which was an occupational challenge when I taught at the college level for 16 years).

  30. Anonymous5:47 PM

    Well, I just finished the book. It was an okay read but I thought the ending was a bit disappointing. It's doubtful that I will attend any of the "One Book One Lincoln" events.

    Now I am on to "Three Cups of Tea" (my book club's October read). After that "The Pillars of the Earth" for November. I'm hoping that "The Book Thief" will end up soon after that.

  31. JoAnn - Well, I can't say I'm surprised that you were disappointed with this one. While it has a lot of fans, there are also many who weren't at all impressed.

    I'll be interested to hear what you think of Three Cups of Tea. You can post your thoughts here, if you like.

    I do hope you get to The Book Thief sooner than later!! Just think, it may turn out to be the best book you read in 2008. :)


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