Looking for reading group guides and book reviews

July 25, 2007 at 3:26 pm (Book clubs, Book review)

other-side.jpg The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers. Okay, we already know that I love this novel. Now I’d like to lead a discussion of it. So what do I need? Reading group guides and reviews, primarily. Let’s look for the guides first; they’re easier to find.

Here’s where I looked: Some reading group guides resemble middle school essay exams. Not so the guides found at the proprietary database Novelist; these guides tend to be insightful and intelligently written. The downside is that Novelist is an artfully concealed resource. To begin with, you have to be authorized to access it. If you’re lucky, this will mean simply possessing a card at your local public library. Here in Howard County, you start by getting on the library’s website: hclibrary.org. Then you select “electronic resources.” Then select “Databases.” Click on “Click here.” If you are accessing the site remotely, then this is as far as you’ll get without entering your card number. If, however, you do have that magic number, you’ll get taken to the list of databases. At that point, just scroll down the alphabetically arranged list of resources until you get to Novelist. Click on it. You may have to enter your card number again. Okay – now you should be in! (If you are doing this at a computer for public use at one of the branches, you should be able to go straight to the databases without needing to enter your card number at all.)

So, are you there yet? Well, not quite… Click on the tab “For readers.” Then select “Book Discussion Guides, Adult Level.” There is your specific list of reading group guides. Alas, for Yours Truly, The Other Side of You is not numbered among them. This does not surprise me. Vickers’s novel has two strikes against it: It is “literary fiction” by a writer not widely known, and it is from Great Britain. It is probably, therefore, destined to get significantly less attention here than American novels in the same category, e.g. the works of Anne Tyler or Barbara Kingsolver. (For the moment, we can except Ian McEwan from this generalization; On Chesil Beach made the Number Seven slot on the list of hardcover fiction bestsellers in the July 22 issue of the Washington Post Book World, and yes, it does give one the slenderest little thread of hope…) Then, there is the tide of American thrillers that is not only swamping fiction here in general but also marginalizing British crime fiction in particular (my personal favorite leisure reading, so don’t expect me to be happy about this trend).

Where to try next? The publisher’s website – in this case, the venerable Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Here I receive a pleasant surprise, for not only is there a guide on offer, but it is an exceptionally thorough one, and it’s presented in a nice, classy PDF format The Other Side of You reading group guide. Now, just to cover all the bases, I try Reading Group Guides. Eureka! yet another guide – at least I think so, until I read it carefully and discover it is word for the same as the publisher’s guide. Okay…moving right along, I check Reading Group Choices and come up empty-handed. And for me, Dear Reader, this is the end of the guide search, as I must conserve my energies for the trickier task of…

Finding reviews: To begin with, I’m going to stick with the proprietary databases. This time I’m going to use Masterfile, accessed in the same way as Novelist was. Enter the title of the book in the search, box, using the field code TI in order to minimize the number of false hits. What I particularly love about Masterfile is that for any given title, it includes reviews from at least two or three, if not all four, of the major selection periodicals: Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist. From there, quite frankly, it’s hit or miss. I’ve tried Google News search, with widely varying results. ( I recommend using the “Advanced news search,” once again in order to rule out as many false hits as possible.) You can also do a blog search on Google: in the top left-hand corner, click on More: “blog search option” will appear at the top of the drop down list. Now of course with blogs, you get everything from rank, if enthusiastic, amateurs to real pros, and everything in between. Some of these entries you may dismiss out of hand, others might be excellent. Here’s an example of the latter from a blog that I really admire, The Other World :

Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine

I might as well offer my extremely subjective two cents’ worth here on the subject of book clubs. My biggest problem with them is that I don’t like my choice of reading matter dictated to me by anyone or anything except my own often mercurial inclination of the moment. In the course of my long history of teaching, library work, and book loving, I’ve been coerced into reading some books that I could barely get through even via the audio book. beryl.jpg ( West With the Night by Beryl Markham springs to mind.) On the other hand, there are books I’ve come to reluctantly (oftentimes out of respect for the presenter) and, to my surprise, genuinely liked simla.jpg ( Ragtime in Simla by Barbara Cleverly). As for leading discussions, up until recently, I’ve resented being made to re-read a book, since there are so many books I have yet to read in the first place, but lately I’ve changed my view on this. I can think of several books that I’ve gained new insight into – and enjoyed as much, if not more – on successive readings: Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber, Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell. Often one of my favorite ways of revisiting a book is by listening to the audio-book: I think I enjoyed Blair Brown’s reading of Anne Tyler’s Digging To America digging.jpg even more than I did the print version of this wonderful novel. Finally, of course, there are the classics, many of which continue to unpack their riches at each successive reading. My favorite author in this category is the favorite of many booklovers: Jane Austen. And my favorite Austen novel? It has made me laugh and cry numerous times over the years, from my days as an English major onward: Emma. auste.jpgemma.jpg

There are probably ways of finding guides and/or reviews in addition to those that I have described in this post. Suggestions are welcome.


  1. Pauline Cohen said,

    I’m glad you enjoyed “Ragtime in Simla”!

  2. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] wrote   Looking for reading group guides and book reviews in 2007 . The information contained in this post is still useful, but one item needs updating. The […]

  3. UV Paint said,

    i love to listen on audiobooks while travelling on a bus, i could learn a lot from it while travelling :,;

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