Food and drink for book groups everywhere

28th February 2003 at 00:00
BLOOMSBURY ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR READING GROUPS. By Susan Osborne. Bloomsbury pound;9.99

BLOOMSBURY GOOD READING GUIDE: What to Read and What to Read Next. Edited by Nick Rennison. Fifth edition, Bloomsbury pound;9.99

WHO ELSE WRITES LIKE . . .? A readers' guide to fiction authors. Edited by Roy and Jeanne Huse. Fourth edition. Library amp; Information Statistics Unit pound;17.99. Order on lisu@lboro.ac.uk Tel: 01509 223071

These books seek to lead already committed readers down new pathways, but the covers are unenticing. Bloomsbury's fiction usually looks stunning; surely it could have tried harder with the jacket for Susan Osborne's Guide for Reading Groups. The stack of anonymous sepia tomes gives no hint of the energetic exchange of ideas to be found in the estimated 50,000 groups in the UK.

Osborne offers "readers' guides" to 40 novels and 10 works of non-fiction.

Her non-fiction choices are mostly memoirs including those of favourite reading group authors Isabel Allende, Margaret Forster and Lisa St Aubin de Ter n. The synopses and suggestions for discussion provide a structure that can be adapted for any text and might help give the author a fighting chance against gossip and alcohol on meeting night. The mini-synopses at the front are for choosing books; those who head straight for the readers' guide before reading the book do so at their own risk.

Susan Osborne is anxious not to be the loudest voice in the group. Her suggestions for themes are fairly safe; "Secrets" and "Disturbed Mental States" hint at the more adventurous "read on a theme" material she contributed to Nick Rennison's excellent Good Reading Guide, which has a slightly more reader-friendly jacket. Rennison's entries are shorter (he covers the major works of 350 authors, taking in others through a series of "pathways" springing from classics including 1984 and Catch-22) but quirky, opinionated and occasionally passionate. On a first skim I found more than 50 titles I am now desperate to read. This would be an inspiring reference for groups and individuals who don't need the extra structure of Osborne's approach or her up-to-date resources list. Her introduction on the mechanics of setting up a group might help those who lack motivation or confidence.

Who Else Writes Like . . .? claims to be aimed at readers, but needs the mediation of librarians who know the books. Entries that direct readers of Barbara Trapido to Jane Austen, but not readers of Anne Tyler, cry out for an interactive approach. I sense a lot of expertise struggling to escape from the ugly page layout, and I was intrigued to learn that there is a branch of science fiction called "space opera", but pound;17.99 is better spent on Rennison's book or possibly Osborne's, with change for a chunky paperback.

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