Unpopular opinion time: I don’t like reading books in a series. I had to accept that about myself this week after giving up on not one, but two of them.
I was listening to Daniel Jose Older’s Bone Street Rumba series in audio, and it was great. The books are read by the author, and he has the dreamiest voice ever, somehow silky and gravelly at the same time. And when he switches to Spanish? Forget about it. I was totally into the undead/half-dead world of Carlos Delacruz, and couldn’t wait to find out what the deal was with his past and how he’d died.
Around the same time, I was reading N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy. Jemisin is one of the smartest and most creative fantasy writers I’ve encountered, and her work is dense and challenging and tackles recognizable current issues in an unfamiliar universe. Her story of gods and godlings and humans duking it out for power, prestige, and surprisingly, love, had me enthralled.
Both times, I hit the wall about halfway into the third book. Both times, the writing was just as good as the first two books I’d enjoyed, and the characters were doing fairly interesting things. Both times, I felt extreme guilt and frustration as I admitted to myself that I wanted to quit.
But despite all that, I just...couldn’t...make myself finish those books.
It’s weird to me that this is happening, because as a kid, I loved series fiction the way I loved pop (or “soda,” for those of you outside the Midwest who apparently don’t realize that “soda” is a white powder that comes in a box and when combined with vinegar makes a super sweet volcano, not a sugary carbonated drink). My parents didn’t keep pop in the house, so when my brother and I had opportunities to get it, we went all out. Every year at our elementary school’s Fun Night, we’d camp out at the Ring Toss and win as many two-liter bottles as our family’s Dodge Caravan could haul home. Who cares if it was a lot of RC Cola off-brand nonsense that would go flat ten seconds after opening? Not us, man. We needed the pop!
And I felt much the same way about my book series. I was invested in several, some more deeply than others. The Babysitters Club was obviously number one. Obviously. Those girls were living the dream--although as I’m writing this now, I can’t come up with a single example of anything they actually did in those books other than answer the phone and accept babysitting jobs. I seriously read a thousand of those books, and I can’t remember a single salient plot point. All I have is a miasma of names and impressions. I remember Stacy was a Type I diabetic and had to give herself shots, does that count for anything?
This perhaps exposes the main reason I suck at series reading--I can’t remember a damn thing. If I read book one in a series and it’s going to be a year before book two is released, I have two choices: reread the first book when the second book comes out and THEN read the second book, or abandon the series entirely because who has time for re-reading when newer and shinier books are being released literally every week?
Guess which option I pick the most.
This year, though, I’ve been getting really into sci-fi, fantasy, and thrillers, all of which have more series than they know what to do with, frankly, so I knew I needed a new strategy. I thought I’d figured out the secret, too: I’d stick to complete series, only reading ones in which all the volumes have been published. That way, I could read them one after the other with no waiting in between, and therefore no time to forget all the important stuff. Genius, right?
What I didn’t account for is my flighty, fickle brain and her shiftless nature. No matter how much I love a particular literary world or its characters, one book’s worth is usually enough for me. No matter how inventive or delightful the next books coming down the pike are, it eventually feels like too much to me. As I’ve learned, there IS such a thing as too much pop.
So I’m not sure what the solution is, or what I can do to make series a bigger part of my reading life. If I read all the books back to back, I’ll burn out, but if I wait too long in between, I’ll forget all the details. What’s a girl to do?
I seem to do well with series that are only loosely connected. They provide the best of both worlds--I can pick the next book up months or even years after reading the last one, and jump back into the flow without studying up on what happened before. Tana French’s series based around different members of the Dublin Murder Squad is a great example. I’ve faithfully read every installment as they’ve come out, and I can tell you adamantly that I love them even though I only fuzzily remember the last one I read, and the others not really at all.
Jo Nesbo’s Norwegian thriller series about rough-around-the-edges cop Harry Hole is another one I’ve come back to with success. There’s definitely a narrative arc to the whole series, but generally if you can remember that Harry is a burned-out alcoholic who makes a lot of self-destructive choices, you’re good to go.
Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series starring the oh-so-charming and fast-talking Locke Lamora is also one I’ve been able to dip in and out of. You don’t have to remember all the details of Locke’s last caper, just read the final few pages of the prior book to remind yourself where things left off and you’ll be fine. Although these books are so much fun, even I might consider a full re-read whenever book 4 comes out.
I think the conclusion I’ve come to is that in reading, like in many things in life, variety is key. It’s good to keep things fresh. I’m also turning myself loose this year and allowing myself to pick what to read next based on what interests me in the moment, and not some misguided sense of obligation or responsibility or respectability. As a result, I’ve had a few flops, like this third-book-in-a-series curse I’m experiencing now, but I’ve also had some great successes, discovering new authors and genres I love.
So, it’s onward to the next book for me! If you have any tips for sticking with a series or recommendations of series I should try, comments are open below. Surely I'm not the only person who is series-challenged!