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How to Start a Theme Book Group

Theme book groups are fun. The members pick a theme, read a book of their choice based on the theme, and meet to talk about what they read. But beware: you’re in constant danger of going home with a runaway TBR list!

In the Murder on Tour group featured in Murder at the Book Group, the members read mysteries set in geographical locations. In the opening chapter, the group talks about the books they read with Florida settings. Titles include The Paperboy by Pete Dexter, Key Largo by Raymond Chandler, and The Deep Blue Good-By by John MacDonald.

In the second Hazel Rose Book Group mystery, Murder at the Moonshine Inn, the Murder on Tour group travels back in time to the ancient world via Silver Pigs by Lindsay Davis and Germanicus Mosaic by Rosemary Rowe. Martin Lorin’s Genesis One: Abel is Missing sparks an animated back and forth on the age-old question: why did Cain kill Abel?

Why did I choose a theme group for the Hazel Rose Book Group series? In 1993 I went to my first mystery book group in Santa Clarita, California. My instructions were to read a mystery set in New York City and I chose one from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. That first night launched my love of mysteries and eventually lead me to writing my own. Themes included main characters with professions in journalism, business, law enforcement, and academia. We chose stories set in specific regions, small towns, large cities, you name it. The members not only discussed the books they’d read for that month, but they recommended others as well—hence my above warning about leaving each meeting with a lengthy TBR list. I attended that group for three years until I relocated to Virginia. While I modeled the Murder on Tour group after the Santa Clarita one, it bears no resemblance—the members of the original group were much more pleasant than the ones in my fictional one and, most important, no one was murdered!

Theme groups allow flexibility of choice and all but eliminate the “I Hated That Book” syndrome that plagues many groups whose members read the same book. See my recent post on this subject here. But if your group favors in-depth book discussions, the theme approach may not be for you. You may consider trying it on occasion, like during the holiday season or the summer. Sometimes the theme itself will kick off a spirited dialog.

Whatever you decide, the main objective is to read and share your love of books.

Lelia Taylor, blogger at Buried Under Books: Tales of a Former Indie Bookseller and former owner of Creatures ‘n Crooks Books & Sundries has a theme group that’s been together for fifteen years. She says, “We have a list of about seventy five themes and we have no trouble satisfying the reading tastes of all members, from super cozy to seriously grim.” Lelia has these suggestions for themes:

Fictional Characters Mr. and Mrs. Darcy series by Carrie Bebris: Sherlock Holmes in the Irene Adler series by Carole Nelson Douglas; the Nursery Crimes series by Jasper Fforde

Golden Age Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Dorothy L. Sayers, Rex Stout, Josephine Tey, etc.

Scientific Occupations Alan Bradley (aspiring chemist Flavia de Luce); Randy Wayne White (marine biologist Doc Ford); Sarah Andrews (forensic geologist Em Hansen); and Mary Anna Evans (archaeologist Faye Longchamp)

GLBT Ellen Hart (restaurateur Jane Lawless); Val McDermid (journalist / socialist Lindsay Gordon); and Josh Lanyon (mystery writer / bookseller Adrien English)

Books to Movies and Movies to Books (includes TV or any other kind of screen treatment). This encompasses countless possibilities from Agatha Christie to Henning Mankell to Ann Rule.

Selected resources for finding themes:

Stop, You’re Killing Me! this online database includes indexes for locations, jobs, diversity, and historical periods

Goodreads the social media cataloging site for readers has its own theme group

Cozy Mysteries by Theme you’re sure to find something here that will interest your group

By a Woman’s Hand: A Guide to Mystery Fiction by Women by Jean Swanson and Dean James): this is a favorite resource of mine. It hasn’t been updated since its publication in 1996 but many of the authors listed are still writing.

Or go the traditional route: ask your local librarian!

Ready to try a theme group? Let me know what you think of the format. Happy reading!



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