Join the Tees Valley Book Group

The Tees Valley Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month from 6.30pm onwards at Stockton Central Library.

Please tell us some more about yourself so that we can pass your information on to the group leader.

Please note, meeting dates are occasionally subject to change, so please wait for a response from the group leader before attending your first meeting.

(This website will no longer be updated and is being kept online for archive purposes only.)

Spring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Borjlind

Spring Tide is a grippSpring Tideing, cinematic crime thriller from Cilla and Rolf Börjlind, the scriptwriters behind Arne Dahl and the Swedish Wallander TV series.

The spring tides are the highest of the year in Nordkoster; the beach will be covered in particularly deep water tonight. Three men on the beach are digging a hole, covertly watched by a young boy. His intrigue turns to horror as he makes out a fourth figure – the woman for whom the hole is intended. Buried up to her neck in the sand, the high tide is rapidly approaching. Still screaming in terror, the victim takes her last breath as water fills her nose and mouth – in her stomach, she feels her baby kick. And her waters break.

Twenty-four years later, the abhorrent crime remains unsolved; gruesome violence however is still prevalent after all those years. A gang has been beating up and killing homeless people in parks – worse still, they are filming their attacks and broadcasting them on the internet. The police have their work cut out trying to keep abreast of the crime wave. Olivia Ronning hopes to follow in her father’s footsteps and join their ranks in the next few months after she completes her training; she has only one last hurdle to overcome over the summer break, a challenge from her professor to pick a cold case and solve it. Should be simple, she thinks. Little does she know the world she is getting involved in, the danger she faces and the ugly truths she risks uncovering.

The Anatomist’s Dream by Clio Gray

514ZRUTKCGL‘Chop off my head and hawk it to the highest bidder. I’m the Anatomist’s Dream, did you know? That’s what they call me.’ … In a small salt-mining town, Philbert is born with a ‘taupe’, a disfiguring inflammation of the skull. Abandoned by his parents and with only a pet pig for company, he eventually finds refuge in a traveling carnival, Maulwerf’s Fair of Wonders, as it makes its annual migration across Germany bringing entertainment to a people beset by famine, repression and revolutionary ferment. Philbert finds a caring family in Herman the Fish Man, Lita the Dancing Dwarf, Frau Fettleheim the Fattest Woman in the World, and an assortment of ‘freak show’ artists, magicians and entertainers. But when Philbert meets Kwert Tospirologist and Teller of Signs he is persuaded to undergo examination by the renowned physician and craniometrist Dr Ullendorf, both Kwert and Philbert embark on an altogether darker and more perilous journey that will have far-reaching consequences for a whole nation.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book with a fulfilling ending, so it was a wonderful feeling to be quite satisfied as I read the final paragraph. Personally, I loved this book from start to finish, and the writing style is simply exquisite. Philbert is an extraordinary character whose part in this play is both imperative and subtle in equal measures. He is the catalyst for nearly every main event that takes place in the novel, yet his actions and speech are featured sparingly. I’ve never read a book with such exceptional prose and content – a real winner for me!

A majority of the group found it to be a magical read and agreed that they’ve never quite read anything with a tone and style such as this. Although some members thought that the story needed to move on a little quicker at times, they generally thought that it was a captivating read and were genuinely interested in Philbert and the direction in which his adventures were heading. One aspect that most members agreed on was the unpredictability of the story and the twists and turns that it takes were very much a surprise, and guessing what would happen next was nigh on impossible.

As well as the story being very well developed, the characters were incredibly well formed and although they had unusual quirks and attributes they were all very relatable; especially Philbert. In fact, most of the group felt very warmly towards Philbert and were genuinely concerned about his life and the misfortunate events and predicaments in which he found himself. You could genuinely feel for both him and his pet pig!

However, it wasn’t quite for everyone. Although most members of the group thoroughly enjoyed the book we did have a member that thoroughly disliked it! The fanciful aspect was a little too much for my group member and even though it is a work of fiction they still found it hard to believe in the story and the predicaments in which the characters found themselves. On a whole it was enjoyed by most, but I’d be doing a disservice to the group if not all opinions were discussed.

I was a little late to organise a Q&A with the author before the meeting, but Clio kindly sent me an email with some interesting thoughts and comments about this novel, which I’ve shared below:

‘I don’t know how many people in your reading group are also writers, but it might be good for them to know that this was actually one of the first books I wrote. Only since I revisited it a couple of years ago did I manage to get out all the bugs and horrifying prose that poured out of me like the proverbial.

‘But what folk might find illuminating – especially if they’ve any medical background – is that initially this book started as an intellectual exercise. I knew I wanted to write, but wasn’t sure where to start. I’d not long read a prose poem by Phineas Fletcher – written around 1630 – called The Purple Island, a sort of anatomical treatise likening the body to a city state, and that sent me flying off to my Gray’s Anatomy, seeking out memorable phrases from its index, researching all the words, how they worked in different languages, in different phrases, their etymology formed my initial chapters on those researches – all long changed, but the clues are still in there if you know what you’re looking for.

‘As yet, there’s no sequel planned but I’m working on a sort of sister book that has very similar elements as The Anatomist’s Dream and in which Philbert pops up as a side character.’

Some of the group were intrigued to find out if there was to be a sequel so I hope that this covers it for you!

This was an incredibly well-written novel with interesting topics, places, characters and situations. If you like your history mixed with fact and a fanciful edge thrown in for good measure, then this is the book for you. A truly exceptional novel that must be read to be appreciated.

*The Anatomist’s Dream was long listed for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016*

 

The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh

414+S1Lif3LHollywood. 1963. A Saturday night. A broken taillight leads to a routine traffic stop. It shouldn’t have changed the lives of the four men involved, but it did. Before the night was over, one was dead, two would find themselves facing the death penalty, and the other’s life would never be the same again. Fresh from a string of robberies, the car contained two desperate men who got the drop on the two LAPD cops who stopped them, seized their guns and kidnapped them. They then drove to a rural onion field where they decided to execute the cops. One officer was able to escape, but only at the price of his partner’s life. Haunted by horrific memories, wracked by guilt, ostracized by his own, and repeatedly tormented by defence attorneys in one retrial after another as the defendants manipulate the quicksilver legal system, this cop suffered emotional meltdown. Wambaugh, takes us meticulously through the crime, second by second, and then tells the surviving cop’s powerful and moving story: the destruction of a forgotten victim. The Onion Field is Joseph Wambaugh’s best-known and most celebrated work. It may be based on a true story, but it reads like a novel, much like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

This book came to me as a recommendation – and what a great recommendation it was. As a group we thoroughly enjoyed In Cold Blood so when this was described to me as a book that was similar to that little masterpiece I was very keen to give it a try. The first part of the book describes the killers (Smith and Powell), their upbringing, and their personalities later in life. Unlike fiction novels, where the villain is very rarely given a platform for their personal stories, non-fiction novels seem to delve into the minds of such characters with relish.

Learning about the killers was both interesting and baffling in equal measures. It was interesting to access the thoughts and drives of the killers, but their incompetence in executing robberies was simply perplexing. How these guys hadn’t been caught in the act, or caught soon after, was extraordinary. Was it luck? Was it police incompetence? I’m really not sure, but whatever it was it’s still hard to digest that they got away with so much for so long.

Reading the description of the the killing, and the subsequent botched-up effort to kill the second police officer (Hettinger), was simply harrowing. There were no fancy words and terminology, Wambaugh simply told it as it was, and it was truly terrifying. You cannot imagine what was going through the mind of the surviving police officer after having witnessed the cold-blooded murder of his partner (Campbell). It was equally upsetting to read about Hettinger’s treatment after the terrifying ordeal and even more distressing to find that he was back on the beat within days of the kidnap. As a group we thought that this must have been hugely traumatic for him and would certainly have contributed to his slow mental decline.

The reaction from the police department, and Los Angeles citizens, after the kidnapping was also an interesting topic of discussion. Rather than offering the sympathetic approach they began to victimise Hettinger, which became very uncomfortable. The lack of support for Hettinger began to show and his life began to deteriorate in a very sad fashion. It was a sorrowful life for that poor man and I found it very difficult to read, as did many of the group.

One thing that never comes to light in the book, and never seems to be clarified throughout the trial, is who exactly killed Campbell. We can guess, and the evidence is pretty overwhelming, but we never truly know. This became an interesting talking point for they were both going down for murder, and would be in line for the death penalty, so it didn’t make sense that they would hide the truth from the courts.

The sheer coldness and complete lack of remorse from both killers was both chilling and mystifying. To make things even worse they both escape the death penalty in the most fortuitous circumstances. Justice never quite seems to prevail in this book; it’s a very sad affair.

This was a fascinating read, and if you like to read crime fiction then I would definitely recommend giving this novel a try. Not only is it filled with the normal detective discussions and aspects, but it also covers some interesting territory that will have your mind working overtime. A brilliant piece of writing on such a horrific topic. A definite must read.

Blood Shot by Sara Paretsky

17323869V.I. Warshawski isn’t crazy about going back to her old south Chicago neighbourhood but a promise is something she always keeps. Caroline, a  childhood friend, has a dying mother and a problem –  after twenty-five years she wants V.I. to find the father she never knew. But when V.I. starts probing into the past, she not only finds out where all the bodies are buried – she stumbles onto a very new corpse. Now she’s stirring up a deadly mix of big business and chemical corruption that may become a toxic shock to a snooper who knows too much.

Book group reads are very different from your generic, commercial fiction – well I think they are anyway – so the only reason I chose a very standard crime thriller was simply due to the fact that it was a Harrogate Big Read book. Books are given out in their hundreds to various library groups in the north east, and I think that this is a super idea. To make it even more superer (yes, that is a real word – honest) there are book group meetings specifically for this book in the run up to the Harrogate Crime Festival. Anything that promotes reading on a big scale is pretty fab in my eyes, so I jumped at the chance of reading this with my group and dishing out free books at the same time. Everyone loves a freebie!

However, what I wasn’t planning on was how poor the choice of book was this year (and I NEVER like to be negative about a book). This book has sold in the thousands – the series in the millions – and yet my eyes have need dried up so quickly as they did reading this novel. Boring would be an improvement to what my group had to say on this book. It really was a very bland and simple book that it would probably sit better on a creative writing course as an example of how not to write a novel.

It really was that bad.

So, I’m quite reluctant to write this blog as I really don’t like to rip apart any novel, but I’ll do my best to keep it succinct.

We hated it.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

thElizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey’s stunning debut novel, introduces a mystery, an unsolved crime and one of the most unforgettable characters since Mark Haddon’s Christopher. Meet Maud …

‘Elizabeth is missing’, reads the note in Maud’s pocket in her own handwriting.

Lately, Maud’s been getting forgetful. She keeps buying peach slices when she has a cupboard full, forgets to drink the cups of tea she’s made and writes notes to remind herself of things. But Maud is determined to discover what has happened to her friend, Elizabeth, and what it has to do with the unsolved disappearance of her sister Sukey, years back, just after the war.

We seem to have read quite a lot of very ‘samey’ books recently so I was a little dubious about reading this one for book group. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The way in which Emma Healey portrayed Maud was both gentle and, I believe, very accurate. I have limited experience of Alzheimer’s disease but I felt as though Maud was incredibly genuine and very well written and felt deeply for her plight to discover what happened to Elizabeth.

The book was met with mixed views at our meeting and although everyone seemed to find the read well written and interesting, some members did struggle with the believability of Maud’s character, and of the final plot twist too. However, it wasn’t until I began to write this blog that I realised that we digressed in our meeting and talked too much about social care and the current system than we did of the book. Indeed, the issues we raised did generate a healthy and lengthy discussion about the disease, and how it’s managed through out current welfare system, but we failed to get back to the novel in the end.

No one seemed to enjoy it as much as I did, but no one took a particular disliking to it either. In summary it was an interesting read addressing some delicate issues but maybe the sub-plot could have been a little stronger. It’s clear throughout the book that the disappearance of Elizabeth plays a strong role in Maud’s life but when the mystery is finally unravelled it feels a little far fetched. Nevertheless, I do believe it to be a very good novel and certainly recommend it as a general good read for anyone.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams

TreesFrom prize-winning author Robert Williams, a novel about love and fear, family and security, and the search for sanctuary in the middle of chaos.

Harriet Norton won’t stop crying. Her parents, Ann and Thomas, are being driven close to insanity and only one thing will help. Mysteriously, their infant daughter will only calm when she’s under the ancient trees of Bleasdale forest.

The Nortons sell their town-house and set up home in an isolated barn. Secluded deep in the forest, they are finally approaching peace – until one night a group of men comes through the trees, ready to upend their lives and threaten everything they’ve built. 

Into the Trees is the story of four dispossessed people, drawn to the forest in search of something they lack and finding their lives intertwining in ways they could never have imagined. In hugely evocative and lyrical writing, Robert Williams lays bare their emotional lives, set against the intense and mysterious backdrop of the forest. Compelling and haunting, Into the Trees is a magisterial novel.

After reading the blurb I was quite excited to get round to reading this book. It promised mystery, intrigue and something a little bit different. However, the end result was quite disappointing and I (and pretty much the entire group) felt quite cheated with the overall story. Without giving too much away the beginning draws the reader in with quite a generic problem, which then has quite an unusual solution. It’s this solution that raises the readers’ intrigue and urges you to turn the page, however, those first few chapters of wonder are soon forgotten as we delve into a completely different direction to that which you would expect.

Some of the group felt that there may have been some possible magic involved but, alas, it comes to nothing. This was probably the biggest disappointment for the group, myself included. It simply felt as though the beginning was a simple set up to draw in the reader because the story itself was pretty flat. Even as you read along you couldn’t help but wonder whether the beginning will creep back into the book and leave you in complete amazement into how the author did it, or simply give you that ‘didn’t see that coming’ feeling, but this twist, this special moment, this life-changing scene just doesn’t happen.

It’s rare that, as a group, we collective don’t like something but this was one of those books. Having said that we did manage to pull out quite a few questions and discussions, even if they were mainly complaints and ideas of how to make it better! It’s a sad shame really because the book had so much promise and potential with some excellent scenes for some great action, or twists, but nothing seems to happen and it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere and leaves the reader wondering just where it all went wrong. Quite a few of the group felt it became quite predictable towards the middle and the end too, which I have to agree with. As mentioned above it’s a great shame because there were so many opportunities for the story to gain momentum and really take off but for some reason these are never pursued.

Overall it was a disappointing read and most of the group felt like giving up partway through, which is always disappointing to hear. Not one for us I’m afraid.


About the group

The Tees Valley Book Group meets at Stockton Central Library at 6.30pm on the first Tuesday of the month.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-tees-valley-book-group.

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