Blog Book Tour | “Once Upon A River” by Diane Setterfield a rather hauntingly gothic tale set against a historical era where lanterns & candlelight were commonplace as much as a river who could either bless or curse a man

Posted Tuesday, 11 December, 2018 by jorielov , , , 4 Comments

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Acquired Book By: Over the Summer of [2018] I was approached about this Winter blog tour celebrating the new release by Ms Setterfield. The interesting bit is that this is an author I am familiar in name only as I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading one of her novels – as I will explain in a moment. When I read the premise and read a bit about the author’s style of narrative, it felt like the kind of story I would love to be reading. It is hard to imagine I knew about this book originally in August and had to wait til December to start talking about it! I was going to mention it sooner but decided to wait for the blog tour instead.

I received a complimentary ARC copy of “Once Upon A River” direct from the publisher Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive compensation for my opinions or thoughts shared herein.

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The reason reading ‘Once Upon A River’ appealled to me:

What can I say? I’m memorised by this premise!! I know of the author – I picked up a copy of Bellman & Black last year but haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading it. She’s been on my #mustread list for a few years, as I’ve heard about her writing style and the eloquent way she pulls words together and illuminates her stories through the book bloggers I visit who have read her stories.

It is a rather curious plot – not just for the reasons behind why the identity of the girl remains hidden from both the characters in the story as much as the reader but the circumstances themselves.

This story has stirred my imagination! It reminds me of another story I read earlier in the year “House on the Forgotten Coast” by Ruth Coe Chambers – as when I read this one “Once Upon A River” stays with you long after you conclude the story – due to the themes and insights it explores, I felt, ooh I love stories like those! And, that brings back fond memories of ‘House on the Forgotten Coast’!!

As you can see, I went into reading ‘Once Upon A River’ as a new reader into Setterfield’s style of narrative whilst I had the joy of knowing ‘of her stories’ even if I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of joy ‘reading her stories’. It felt like the kind of story you wait to read and discover and then, feel wonderfully blessed for having been selected to read it ahead of publication!

I do enjoy haunting tales – where there is an element of the fantastical & the historical breaching into the background of the narrative itself. Where you are never quite certain as you move through its world – what is real, what is imagined & what is wondrously otherworldly?

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Blog Book Tour | “Once Upon A River” by Diane Setterfield a rather hauntingly gothic tale set against a historical era where lanterns & candlelight were commonplace as much as a river who could either bless or curse a manOnce Upon A River
by Diane Setterfield
Source: Direct from Publisher
Narrator: Juliet Stevenson

From the instant #1 New York Times bestselling author of the “eerie and fascinating” ( USA TODAY) The Thirteenth Tale comes a richly imagined, powerful new novel about how we explain the world to ourselves, ourselves to others, and the meaning of our lives in a universe that remains impenetrably mysterious.

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.

Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.

Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.

Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.

Places to find the book:

Borrow from a Public Library

Add to LibraryThing

ISBN: 9780743298070

ASIN: B07FKSTRCJ

Genres: Dark Fantasy, Gothic Literature, Historical Fiction, Historical Thriller Suspense, Historical-Fantasy, Literary Fiction, Mythological Fantasy


Published by Atria Books

on 4th December, 2018

Format: Paperback ARC

Pages: 480

Length: 16 hours and 27 minutes (unabridged)

 Published By: Atria Books (@AtriaBooks)
{imprint of} Simon & Schuster (

Converse via: #OnceUponARiver
Available Formats: Hardcover, Trade Paperback, Audiobook & Ebook

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I, admit, I did listen to the audiobook sampler ahead of reading #OnceUponARiver – however, I discontinued listening to it, as instead of being an extract at the beginning of the story, I found myself on page eight (of the ARC) – thereby, I felt a bit in the dark about the placement of the extract and elected to read this at the beginning, as it was a rather ghoulish place to begin the sampler,…

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About Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield Photo Credit: Susie Barker

Diane Setterfield is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Thirteenth Tale, and a former academic, specializing in twentieth-century French literature, particularly the works of Andre Gide. She lives in Oxford, England.

Photo Credit: Susie Barker

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My Review of once upon a river:

Interestingly, there is a segue of thought in the midst of the opening of the novel – of how the dead can speak tales long after they’ve gone to grave and how even in the benign farming of watercress, there can be sparks of the past. Where the dead linger, hungering almost to be heard and are never as silent as the whispered breezes cast through cemeteries as we would like to believe. Herein is a towne haunted by the past, the deaths of hundreds lost weighing down their souls and the somberness of that revelation cast against the reflections of where we find them presently is an interesting juxtaposition.

Finding out why the swan is on the cover was cleverly spun; it is where I met a clever character named Margot Bliss; though she was an Ockwell girl through and through. She kept the legacy of her pub in tact and as a testament of owning her truth and living it, she fell in love with a bloke others might have overlooked. Theirs was an interesting life lived out by story and daughters; til they were unexpectedly blessed by a son. Thirteen children in all and yet, the life they lived through those years could be counted in stories and visitors. I loved how the worth of her husband’s life was counted differently than others might have perceived his gift for crafting stories; it was the first moment I came to find myself warming towards the character Margot Bliss. She didn’t second guess herself and she owned her opinions and her heart; something a bit radical no matter which generation you live inside. Theirs was a humbling romance – of a man not built of strength of body but of mind, of where a marriage can thrive unconventionally and how the belief in a person can carry them through a lifetime.

I, love, too how she finds a way to give you the back-history on local lore and of her characters’ lives as if they are mere brush strokes at the start of a painting but are not meant to be the sole focus of how her novel begins. They are imperative to understand a few things but there is a larger purpose to this kind of story being gently guided through its opening chapters – almost, as if the reader needs to ease into the narrative rather than alighting abruptly. It gave a short chill to the passages you are reading – as you are curious about the suspense of what is not yet known against what is now understood.

As we shift forward into contemplating the solstice and the turnings of the year, of how certain moments in time can be affected by an invisible veil between our reality and the places out of sight but feel as close as if we could walk inside a hidden world – I was wicked enthralled to turn the pages, to see what was awaiting me as there an anxiety of anticipation – of if this would have a darker turning of where the fantastical elements could become lightly dashed with Horror or if the folklore itself might have sharper edges laced into how the lore would affect the direction of the plot.

When I reached the place in the story where the audiobook sampler began I re-listened to the sampler, taking stock of the narrator’s gift for etching out realistic voices per each voiced character within the scene and for the quietness of horror surrounding what was unfolding. It was still ghoulish round the edges, as you are uncertain about what has befallen these two unexpected visitors to the pub but it is how what is revealled is written – that in of itself was an interesting turning in the plot, as I hadn’t expected it to be here where we would find a light shining on the key point of reference within the plot.

Rita Sunday the nurse of these parts has a way about herself – she might be unmarried due to those years she spent in the convent learning about medicine but what she gives to her patients is the calm confidence you’d hope to find in first responder. The fact the hardened men of the pub were less able to deal with the medical necessities of the hour spoke volumes; as they could come together when needed but if any of them were asked to do what Rita was observed doing, I am sure they would have needed stiff drinks to re-gain their ability to be conscious! For she was given the task of mending the ghoulishly fierce stranger whose injuries were quite horrific and yet whose tender hand at treating him was keenly seen in how she approached her duties. Nursing like doctoring is a calling and this Rita Sunday was in the right field for she had a hidden talent of understanding the body and the medical needs of her patient. Her keen observation skills also worked well but it was how she approached being a nurse which warms your heart.

You have to appreciate a well-timed moment of comedic relief – for me it was the scene were the candles of snuffed out due to the fainting man! Honestly, due to the dramatic nature of the passages thus far along, it was lovely to feel a chuckle of glee emitting out of a scene that was quite dire and medically intricate. I had to give credit to Setterfield for writing this the way she had – as she took a rather delicate scene and kept it sensible. She didn’t overly describe the bits she could have to take this a bit deeper into the medicinal world but she gave enough realism to keep us in the scene; something I love to champion as it makes it easier as a reader with a sensitive heart!

Pulling back inside Rita’s younger years, it was quite telling her inner strength by how she greeted the world – even her name is was given to help bolster her with an inner light of resolve. What was interesting of course, is how her beginning was not vindictive of her future – of how she had a chosen path for servitude and how naturally comfortable she had become in her role as a nurse. Being given her back-story and then, coming full circle back to the present, we see the route she had taken as a nurse but also as a woman. She made certain choices which re-directed her actions and the path her life had taken to bring her to Radcot. If she hadn’t been here, a lot of lives would have been lost, more than the dead she had observed who died due to injuries and circumstances even medicine couldn’t affect through intervention. It was through this sequence we get to stay a bit in her head as she contemplates the girl – seemingly pulled straight out of the river and one whose been cast aside to work on the living, as by all appearances she was already gone.

There was a moment when Rita was examining the young girl where I felt she would make a wonderful lead character in a historical medical examiner series! There was something about those scenes – the way in which Setterfield set the stage for her to be in focus and how she wrote her character’s passion for the medical arts; all of it combined so well, I dearly wish there was a spin-off of this novel where the Rita Sunday Examiner Chronicles could pick-up where this story leaves off. I felt she would make the perfect examiner (or whichever historical term would apply) after having lived as a nurse who understood death to the degree she did.

After our respite with Rita, we shifted back to the story-telling drinkers who were unable to leave the pub for the arrival of the man and girl were too unsettling to go without contemplation. The irony here is that despite their earnest efforts, sorting out a plausible explanation for the bloke and the girl; of the route they’re boat took to reach Radcot and this pub; nothing felt right. And, yet to hear them tell it and haggle out a plan of method where the river could be both the culprit of injury and the saving grace of the lost; no one was able to reason it out completely. It was here as we observed them, we noticed how tethered and tied everyone in this area is to the river. Their lives were lived against the river – it dictated as much about living as it churned out the dead. It was a foul place for folly, a grave of sorts for the unfortunate ones who had found themselves lost inside its grip and for the locals, it was a reminder of the cycles of life.

These are ordinary men – trying to sort out an extraordinary event, their voices murmuring in sync with one another as they each took turns trying to contemplate a ready response which befitted the situations they mused must’ve happened. In this way, they were as comforting in presence as Rita herself, as they were nursing the doubts and fears leftover from tragedy. Yet, the more interesting moments were still to arrive – when each of them left the pub heading back to their lives and where they kept them. For the people they were entertain with the story of the night and how, much to everyone’s incredulous disbelief were suspended in the story itself – of what it could mean and how it could be true.

After the men leave the pub, the story enlarges its scope – in some ways, I felt a bit tucked out from the cosiness of the beginning – where it was a certain group of people who were experiencing this phenomenon. Of course, for the story to have depth it must reach past its initial audience – which is why I knew we had to leave the pub and the environs close to it in order to reach further into the story itself – but in so doing, I felt we lost a bit of the anchour we had to the river, to the girl and to the stranger himself. Almost as if we had to put this beginning section on hold whilst we sorted through the revelations arriving from all the newer perspectives of people just realising something not of this world has happened.

When we reached Mrs Vaughan and the river, it was interesting how folklore was re-introduced into focus – as we were first introduced to the lore behind who guides the dead in passage from life to death (ie. ferrymen, etc) and now, we were given a bit of history on river goblins. In the background of the story lies the shadows of the legends and folklore; where the truth of living is countered against the superstitious and the religious. There are overtures of thought waxing into both disciplines the whole time there is contemplation about the young girl and her mysterious presence in their lives. Nothing is certain and no one is leaving an explanation out of contention; as rightly they should.

The anguish you find in Mr Vaughan is rippling as a river over rocks in whitewater – he is beyond himself with grief and he can’t see a way out from the crippling realities of a wife whose mind is half lost in her own sorrow. Theirs is a story echoing others – of a little girl now lost to them and of no hope of being found. It speaks to the cruel fate of having one girl found and two others left to the unknown. Which of the families is blessed and which shall remain in the darkness of their angst?

It is Rita Sunday who bemuses me, dear hearts – her cunning clarity of mind, her sharpness at observational details and the ways in which she knits together the clues others are either overlooking or casting aside. She is my favourite character of this tale because she has so much to give to the story. In many ways, it felt like it was centred on her – giving her the breadth to breathe the story round her own sensibilities and musings.

I was rejoicing with a joyfulness finding out who the girl was and to whom she belonged. I had picked up on her truer ancestry in the opening bridge of the novel; a little nudge of direction I felt I had misunderstood was actually the right line of course to understand. In that way, it felt like the novel had come full circle for me, as I was most curious if the girl herself was a vessel of hope and of truth. If she had to interact with all of these characters for their own lives to be righted against all wrongs and if the purpose of her presence was to affect change where a stagnant stasis had overtaken their paths instead?

By the time the story concludes, you have to wonder – which of it was real, which is imagined and if you re-read the last paragraph – what is our role as readers? How does the stories we read affect us and how to we affect the stories? There is a circle between writers and readers, as we complete the circle as we read the stories – that everyone knows, but how are the stories themselves altered by our presence within their folds? As each reader surely interprets them differently and has different takeaways, thereby where is the true beginning and end? Or is it all connected through the turning of pages threading into our imaginations?

Equality in Lit:

The young boy Jonathan, the son of Joe and Margot I believe has Downs Syndrome or something similar – as there were a few clues towards his condition in the novel, including what was said about him at his time of birth. What was interesting about this part of the story is how they treated him with equality and gave him freedom to express himself. Including if he wanted to tell stories in the pub alongside everyone else who came for the stories and the drink. The drink was a component of entertainment for the men but it was the stories they loved more, so when he wanted to participate, his father Joe encouraged him to try his hand at spinning a yarn.

He also had a quiet sweetness about him – he has an innocence about him too, which reminded me of the personalities of those who have Downs I’ve encountered in real life. Whichever condition of birth he had – what Jonathan does best is relate to the people round him and his gentleness with other children is commendable. He was a secondary character and a bit minor by all other counts, but he had a special purpose I felt to be inclusive to the story-line and I was thankful his presence was included.

A slight fly in the ointment:

The ghoulish scene at the pub when we first met the stranger and the girl was held back a bit from being overtly difficult to read. However, when we reached the section about the farmer, I think I could have fared better with a bit of pull-back on what he was butchering and how he was proceeding with his chores at that particular moment. It was enough to know he was tending to what he needed to get done but I honestly didn’t need the particulars – nor the vibrant details!

There were some rather harder hitting truths emerging out of the narrative as well – truths certain characters needed to let slip past their lips if they could hope to live a bit freer lateron in the story. Those passages were a bit more difficult to read as I was caught inside the river metaphor, the story of the lost girl and how everything settles itself on this unsuspecting inn and pub hugged close to the river itself.

on the hauntingly suspenseful writing styling of diane setterfield:

Setterfield has an ease of unsettling you – of giving you a reason to pause for breath and to give her a chance to envelope you inside her emerging world. It is here where you can feel the moments between your breaths to where you await what she is going to tell you, for the story itself has a larger scope of insight to be told; you have to remain patient to hear its whispers and then, sort out your thoughts at its disclosures.

Setterfield is aces at metaphors – she has a way of etching out a sketch of presence about her character (herein I refer to Margot’s husband) in such a way to re-illuminate the setting cast against their own personality traits. It is interesting to watch how she tucks in these phrases of insight, rooted in setting and how it reaches out to wrap round a character in such a way as to give you a fuller impression of who they would have been if they walked in the door of the room you were waiting for them to arrive. It is not just creative wordplay it is reaching past the subtle clues of character identity and seeking a deeper understanding of who they are and how they self-identify.

Even when I think there is enough lead-way to understand a particular direction within the story, I find Setterfield charms me with the illusion of what I felt I knew by what she is directing me towards instead. It was wonderful to find the darker elements in the beginning were more smoke and mirrors than reality; as it could have turnt a different way. I appreciated how the suspense stays anchoured into the background – never quite alleviating the edge you feel as your reading because it is what leaves the hunger for the next chapters whilst you’re reading!

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Once Upon A River promo badge provided by the publisher and is used with permission.

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Notations on the Audiobook:

The audiobook is narrated by Juliet Stevenson (@Juliet945600) (read and listen to a sampling of her narrations via AudioFile Magazine) – I believe it is the first time I’ve heard her narrative style as I don’t recall listening to an audiobook she’s narrated in the past. I have only been listening to audiobooks since [2016] which means I’m still assembling my favourite list of narrators, authors and stories. A quick look at her collective works as a narrator and I already spied a heap of lovelies I’d like to seek out to listen too, as I noticed she narrates both Classical stories and newer releases like Once Upon A River.

For me, the gift she has is how she asserts her voice to each of the individual characters – you never have to question if she is narrating a boy or a girl; she has innate instincts for presenting differing genders, not just in how she fuses the personality you think fits the character but how they would sound vocally. It is a gift because not every narrator I’ve listened to has mastered the art of switching from one gender to another; as sometimes women are too high pitched (similar to children being narrated) and other times, men are sounding too feminine or women too mescaline depending on the narrator themselves. She, on the other hand, has a way of tucking into that sweet spot – where the character comes to life, fully as you felt they ought to and sound exactly as you can envision them through hearing her articulate their lines.

When it came to hearing Margot for the first time, I was a bit surprised she’s rougher edged more than I had originally visualised of her – though, I ought to have known better, being the proprietor of a pub! You have to not just be of strong stock but of the kind of heftiness needed for the rougher crowds who might populate a favourite pub for their weekly drink!

Counter to her voice, what struck me the most though is how she lived inside this story. I love finding narrators who give all of themselves to the story – to where there is a blurring of lines – between narrator, story and character – almost as if you were to see this as a proper play or motion picture – the actor becomes the living embodiment of the story they are acting out. I *love!* when this happens and it is such a rare treat to discover!

I shall have to re-visit this story and listen to the audiobook in full – the portions I was able to listen to I enjoyed immensely as it was a singular feat of joy to hearing the words Setterfield had written in the hands of a narrator like Stevenson who understands how to take a reader viscerally into a world they inhabit for such a short expanse of time!

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Dear me, I had forgotten to mention, how much I love the fact ARCs can come with Editor Notes in front of the stories! This is one special treat to reading ARCs is getting the chance to be privy to the thoughts an editor had whilst first reading the story themselves – they each approach these notes differently & I was not disappointed this go round, wherein I found out  Emily Bestler felt the moment she first learnt there was a new Setterfield novel on the horizon! She takes you through those earnest first moments of where you are itching to read a new incantation of a story by a beloved author & her first takeaways of what she felt after she read the novel itself.

I also loved how this was my first ARC ‘wrapped’ with the cover art hidden inside the wrapping – of where the back flap was devouted to in-house reactions of readers who work for Atria Books and how the matte nature of the wrap and cover added something to the mystery of reading the story.

It is one aspect about ARCs I wish would transition into finished copies – as I miss these notes & letters from Editors & publishing teams – as sometimes you get a note from someone other than the lead editor – they are little missives of interest to those of us who are dearly curious about book world & how the stories first find their feet in publishing.

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This book review is courtesy of:

Atria Books / Simon & Schuster

Once Upon A River blog tour via Atria Books provided by the publisher.

Be sure to visit other stops along the tour route I was able to find
– as there is a lovely bookaway attached to this tour which you’ll find on these stops!

Book Review of “Once Upon A River” & the Bookaway | Really Into This

Book Review of “Once Upon A River” & the Bookaway | Book Junkie Reviews

Book Review of “Once Upon A River” & the Bookaway | Laura’s Reviews

Blog Tour Book Review of “Once Upon A River” | Book of Secrets

Book Review of “Once Upon A River” | Brittany Muscarella*

Book Review of “Once Upon A River” | Hooked On Bookz*

(*) note – it was tricky to find the book bloggers stateside on the tour, as there was an equally large tour in the UK running at the same time as ours. Some of these might be early readers who received the ARC (print or digital) but are not on the tour. I tried to get an overview of other readers who are stateside & of whom were posting their reviews within the time frame of this tour – some are on the tour as I spied the blog tour banner on their blogs.

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 I look forward to reading your thoughts & commentary!
Especially if you read the book or were thinking you might be inclined to read it. I appreciate hearing different points of view especially amongst readers who gravitate towards the same stories to read. Bookish conversations are always welcome!

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2018 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge badge created by Jorie in Canva.

This review is cross-posted to LibraryThing.

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{SOURCES: Book cover for “Once Upon A River”, book synopsis, author biography, author photograph of Diane Setterfield, the blog tour banner and the quote/promo badges were all provided by Simon & Schuster (courtesy of Atria Books) and used with permission. Post dividers badge by Fun Stuff for Your Blog via Pure Imagination. Tweets were embedded due to codes provided by Twitter. Audio commentary provided by embed codes provided by SoundCloud. Blog graphics created by Jorie via Canva: Book Review Banner using Unsplash.com (Creative Commons Zero) Photography by Frank McKenna, Historical Fiction Reading Challenge banner and the Comment Box Banner.}

Copyright © Jorie Loves A Story, 2018.

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About jorielov

I am self-educated through local libraries and alternative education opportunities. I am a writer by trade and I cured a ten-year writer’s block by the discovery of Nanowrimo in November 2008. The event changed my life by re-establishing my muse and solidifying my path. Five years later whilst exploring the bookish blogosphere I decided to become a book blogger. I am a champion of wordsmiths who evoke a visceral experience in narrative. I write comprehensive book showcases electing to get into the heart of my reading observations. I dance through genres seeking literary enlightenment and enchantment. Starting in Autumn 2013 I became a blog book tour hostess featuring books and authors. I joined The Classics Club in January 2014 to seek out appreciators of the timeless works of literature whose breadth of scope and voice resonate with us all.

"I write my heart out and own my writing after it has spilt out of the pen." - self quote (Jorie of Jorie Loves A Story)

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Posted Tuesday, 11 December, 2018 by jorielov in Bits & Bobbles of Jorie, Blog Tour Host & Reviewer, British Literature, Content Note, Dark Fantasy, Fantasy Fiction, Fly in the Ointment, Folklore, Folklore and Mythology, Historical Fiction, Horror-Lite, Literary Fiction, Modern British Author




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4 responses to “Blog Book Tour | “Once Upon A River” by Diane Setterfield a rather hauntingly gothic tale set against a historical era where lanterns & candlelight were commonplace as much as a river who could either bless or curse a man

  1. What a wonderful, thorough, and well thought out review! I thought this was an excellent book as well, but The Thirteenth Tale is my first love by Diane Setterfield. If you get the chance to read that I’d love to know what you think!

    • Hallo, Hallo Nicole,

      Thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts with me about Ms Setterfield!! I believe I missed this when you first wrote the note, as I was sick for three weeks leading into New Year’s Eve; apologise it took me a bit to get back with you! I truly appreciate your lovely feedback on behalf of this review. I really try to blog the heart out of the stories I am reading and I am thankful that that is resonating with you as you visit with me!

      Definitely! I have “The Thirteenth Tale” on my TBR for 2019 – it will be part of my #BeatTheBackList challenge!! I look forward to discussing the story with you and seeing where our thoughts take us! I hope your having a very happy New Year’s Day!

    • Hallo, Hallo Davida,

      It is another uniquely spun story – I’d love to know your thoughts after you’ve read it. I had to stop seeking out other reviewers for this story when I fell ill but what is interesting is the differences in what we’re relating about the story and who (out of the characters) is impressing us the most.

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