Get to Know the Naperville Public Library’s Criminal Spines Book Club

Leader/Organizer: Shoshana Frank (current leader), Karen Toonen (founder), Naperville Public Library

Years of operation: Since 2015

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Tell us about your book group.

Criminal Spines peers into humanity’s darker nature via the world of criminals and detectives. This group discusses mysteries, thrillers, suspense novels, and true crime. Red herrings swim and plots twist! The level of violence will vary from title to title.

How do your book discussions work?

We all read the same book, then spend one and a half hours discussing it. The library leader rounds up a series of questions identifying themes highlighted in the story and then invites personal opinions and perspectives from the group members. We sometimes drift into discussing topics beyond the book, but these conversations generally relate back to something mentioned in the story line or a previous book the group has discussed. Because we discuss all genres of crime, not just mysteries, the members learn to identify different aspects that make different types of crime books appeal to different members. Members have cited this broadening of their understanding of crime literature as a whole as one reason they enjoy the group.

How does your group make its reading selections?

Generally, once a year the group completes a survey about the types of authors, genres, or topics they would like to read. They also rate the books discussed the previous year, which allows the leader more insight into the group’s preferences. Then the library leader chooses titles based on that information.

Which book did your group collectively like the most this past year?

This is a really challenging question to answer as our group rarely reaches a consensus regarding a book. The book that appealed most broadly in the last year was probably The Dry by Jane Harper. However, different subgroups would likely congenially argue that either The Caretaker by A. X. Ahmad or Lock In by John Scalzi was the best book we read. The best discussions often occur when the group is somewhat split between people who loved the book and people who were less enamored. Having a diverse group with strong opinions reading a variety of different types of crime books is a main appeal of the book club, and keeps it growing.

Which is the most divisive book your group has read, and why?

Recently our group was adamantly divided over Sara Paretsky’s Shell Game. While some readers felt the attitudes towards ICE, immigration, and the government were too liberal and not balanced by conservative viewpoints, others felt Parestky had done an excellent job of capturing the current controversies and debates within the national landscape. 

How do your group discussions work?

The library leader strives to ensure everyone is heard around the table. We also endeavor to ensure everyone is respectful and understanding of different perspectives from the group’s members. Our unofficial motto is “every book its reader and every reader its book,” to help us keep in mind everyone won’t love or hate the same parts of a book.

What is your group most looking forward to reading this year?

I can’t speak for the whole group, but I am most looking forward to reading about cowboys riding hippos in Sarah Gailey’s Oceans 11–type caper, River of Teeth, on June 13.

What is the best piece of advice you’d give a group that is just getting started?

The Naperville community and the library already had many book groups that discuss typical book club books. However, there was no group that focused on discussing just crime books. Part of the reason Criminal Spines was created was because staff noticed the popularity of all genres of crime books within our community.

Our advice would be twofold. First, think outside the normal box. While some libraries shy away from genre book discussions, there are discussion-worthy books in any genre. Second, choose a theme or topic that your community loves, and a leader that is equally passionate about that type of book. The leader’s passion for the subject will come across when promoting the club and throughout the discussions. If you aren’t excited and engaged, then no else will be either. Also, you never know . . . the club could run for the next 20 years!

Are you looking for new members?

Always! Different perspectives make for great discussions. We gain members by recommending Criminal Spines during readers advisory with customers looking for crime novels. We also use Criminal Spines to plan additional programming—and that programming to promote Criminal Spines. For example, we’re presenting our second-ever three-part series of Crime Time programs (Criminal Caper, Evidence of a Crime, and The Truth of Trials) and partnering with the Naperville Police Department and Assistant State’s Attorney for the latter two.

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