So how was it for you?

Across Britain, book lovers are getting together to swap opinions. Here, reading groups recall the highs and lows of the year
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The Independent Culture
A few years ago, anyone who said they were in a book club probably meant they were regularly sent a leatherette-bound, gold-inlaid, abridged version of some "classic" which they would put on the shelf and never read. Today it is far more likely to mean a group of friends getting together once a month or every six weeks to discuss a volume they've all read and enjoyed (or not).

The optimum size for a book club or reading group seems to be anywhere between six and a dozen members. Some meet in libraries, some in the lunch hour at work; the more socially minded take turns to lend their houses. "It's a really good way of meeting friends and doing something different," says Katie Owen, whose group thrashes out the latest literary efforts over pasta and wine. Some groups even head off for the weekend to appropriately literary destinations like Paris or Dublin.

Women tend to outnumber men; there aren't any national statistics because reading groups are very ad hoc, but a survey of groups run by Yorkshire libraries found that the ratio of women to men is nine to one.

It's important to impose some kind of structure on meetings, says Sarah Bond, who is part of a London group. "We tended to fly off at a tangent, so now we have an informal chair at each meeting and generally everybody says something and then we have an open discussion."

Jo Baldwin's Oxford group choose many of their volumes from reviews, the internet, personal recommendations and via the Bookseller, but they don't restrict themselves to new publications and will happily tackle good books from any period. Broadening the members' literary horizons is particularly effective if they don't stick too closely to the ultra- modern, agrees Tamsin Barrett, who started a group in Sevenoaks, Kent. "We chose Frankenstein and everybody was surprised by how much they enjoyed it." "I would never have read Anna Karenina, but it was fantastic," agrees Sarah Bond.

Sue Carter, a librarian from Leeds, where there are 12 reading groups, says motives for joining are varied. "Some people want to experiment and don't have the confidence to just pull volumes off the shelf. Others want to share the experience - we've all had moments where we've wanted to scream about this wonderful book we've just read." The main point, she says, is encouraging enthusiasm. "It's not about digesting every paragraph - it's about fun and enjoyment."

JO BALDWIN, OXFORD

There are seven or eight of us, all women. We started a couple of years ago - I was round at a friend's house, looking at her bookshelf and saying "I love that book" and we agreed that we'd like an incentive to read a book a month.

We all liked The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy). The Tesseract (Alex Garland) ran out of steam by the end. We felt that Fugitive Pieces (Anne Michaels) was just too slow and poetic. And there was one we all hated - Jane Smiley's latest, The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. A book that divided us was Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth. Some of us felt that the author didn't let us get close enough to her. We also tried some Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. It made me feel I'd like to go back to the classroom and have a lesson on what it all meant.

ANNE BABB, WEST LONDON

We've been going seven or eight years. The majority of us know each other through our children's primary school. We are 15 in all, all female, aged between late 40s and early 60s.

John Banville's The Untouchable stood out. The arrogance of the characters takes your breath away. Lightweight, but a real tonic, was John O'Farrell's Things Can Only Get Better. Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters is quite brilliant. Once in a House on Fire gave much scope for discussion. We thought Charlotte Gray (Sebastian Faulks) disappointing, and Alison Lurie's Last Resort was also a bit thin.

DR RICHARD FOX, EXETER

The Exeter Book Group started among lecturers at the University of Exeter's School of Education. It has a mix of scientists, artists, historians, psychologists and English specialists. Food and wine feature prominantly and the cook/host chooses the next meeting's book and leads the discussion.

Beryl Bainbridge's Master Georgie inspired loud debate. "Why did she create deliberate confusion by changing the narrating voice?" was one query. Katrin Fitzherbert's autobiography True to Both My Selves, which explores her Nazi childhood, prompted a dicussion on collective and historical responsibility.

TAMSIN BARRETT, SEVENOAKS

When I moved to Sevenoaks five years ago I met someone else who'd just moved here from Paris and wanted to start a group. There is a core of three and others who've come and gone. We're all women.

Most of us are at home with children, and the emphasis is on an enjoyable read. Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden) was generally well liked, more for the fascination of the lives it described, rather than the quality of the writing. With one exception, we were disappointed by Georgiana (Amanda Foreman). We felt she was too spoilt and silly to merit 400 pages. Much of contemporary fiction is brilliant but cold; Enduring Love and Last Orders spring to mind. So we've turned to the classics, but found A Farewell to Arms very dated.

ADRIAN MORRIS, TOTNES

The Book in Hand club is now in its 12th year. After debate, we hold up score cards.

How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman surprised everyone and scored 8.4 out of 10, which is high. Don DeLillo's sprawling Underworld was my favourite. I can't think of any other writer who can range so far, so fluently. It scored badly though, 5.8 (poor attention span of group members, I reckon). Our last book this year was The Untouchable, a wicked portrait of Anthony Blunt and chums and another high scorer (8.3).

KATIE OWEN, LONDON

There are six of us, all mid-30s professionals, two men and four women. Simon, my husband, read an article in Vogue about two years ago saying reading groups were all the rage, so he decided we ought to start one.

We try to read things are that in the news: dinner party conversation books. But there's been a lot of debate recently as to whether we should start including the classics. The book that's found most favour this year has been J M Coetzee's Disgrace. Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full split us: four out of six loved it, the other two (including me) passionately hated it. There's nothing worse than having to plough through a book like that in two days. However, that sort of intense reading really worked for me in the case of The God of Small Things.

SHIRLEY DOWNING, NORTHANTS

We've been going since the beginning of the year. We're 10 all together, nine women plus a token man. We met through having children at the same school.

A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving) made a big impression. The central character was an extraordinary creation. We've also read Hilary Mantel's A Change of Climate. I thought it evoked the landscapes of Norfolk and the Middle East really well. We've done the obligatory Captain Corelli's Mandolin, plus Birthday Letters, and Girlfriend in a Coma (Douglas Coupland). We thought that was a bit thin.

FAYE COOPER, SOUTHAMPTON

There are eight of us, three men, five women. We've been meeting up for about 18 months. We're mostly in our late 20s and early 30s though one of us is 24.

We've just finished the new Tom Wolfe and pretty well all of us thought it was fantastic. We've also read Jay McInerney's Model Behaviour, and we found a gender divide: the women liked it while the men just couldn't see the point. We never properly discussed American Psycho (Bret Easton Ellis), because a couple of us didn't finish it, not so much because it was violent but because it was boring and crap. We all devoured The Secret History by Donna Tartt. We're all so eager for the others to read our own favourites that it's amazing we ever manage to decide what to read next.

SUE CARTER, LEEDS

We've been meeting in Headingley Library for the past three years. Numbers vary between 15 and 20, all ages; three men, and the rest of the group are women.

Close Range (Annie Proulx) was incredibly popular. Of the Booker nominees, we loved Anita Desai's Fasting, Feasting; the Coetzee didn't go down so well. We also read Memoirs of a Geisha - "too much hype", we thought. The fact that he's a man writing as a woman sparked a vigorous debate. We decided that he really shouldn't have.

SARAH BOND, NORTH LONDON

The group was set up by me and a friend, and has been going since December 1995. There are 12 of us, all women, in our early to mid-30s.

One of the most interesting books we've read this year is Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres. We all really loved it, and were particularly struck by the parallels with King Lear. Lady Chatterley's Lover also generated debate - mainly because we couldn't believe how bad it was. Only two people rated John Irving's A Widow for One Year; the rest of us were asking "How has this guy got such a great reputation?"

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