Continuing the Story: Why I’m Wary of Sequels and Series, with Some Exceptions

Most of the time, if I learn that a book has a sequel or is the first in a series, my automatic reaction is to groan. Why can’t a story just have a tidy ending? Why does it need to sprawl further, creating a sense of obligation in its readers? Further adventures with The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window? Returning to the world of The Handmaid’s Tale? No, thank you.

It was different when I was a kid. I couldn’t get enough of series: the Little House on the Prairie books, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, the Saddle Club, Redwall, the Baby-Sitters Club, various dragon series, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who mysteries, the Anne of Green Gables books… You name it, I read it. I think children, especially, gravitate towards series because they’re guaranteed more of what they know they like. It’s a dependable mold. These days, though, I’m famous for trying one or two books from a series and leaving the rest unfinished (Harry Potter: 1.5 books; Discworld: 2 books at random; Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files: 1 book; the first book of crime series by M.J. Carter, Judith Flanders and William Shaw).

But, like any reader, I break my own rules all the time – even if I sometimes come to regret it. I recently finished reading a sequel and I’m now halfway through another. I’ve even read a few high-profile sci fi/fantasy trilogies over the last eight years, even though with all of them I liked each sequel less than the book that went before (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden series and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy).

A later book in a series can go either way for me – surpass the original, or fail to live up to it. Nonfiction sequels seem more reliable than fiction ones, though: if I discover that a memoirist has written a follow-up volume, I will generally rush to read it.

 

So, what would induce me to pick up a sequel?

 

I want to know what happens next.

 

WINNERS:

After reading Ruth Picardie’s Before I Say Goodbye, I was eager to hear from her bereaved sister, Justine Picardie. Ruth died of breast cancer in 1997; Justine writes a journal covering 2000 to 2001, asking herself whether death is really the end and if there is any possibility of communicating with her sister and other loved ones she’s recently lost. If the Spirit Moves You: Life and Love after Death is desperately sad, but also compelling.

Graeme Simsion’s Rosie series has a wonderfully quirky narrator. When we first meet him, Don Tillman is a 39-year-old Melbourne genetics professor who’s decided it’s time to find a wife. Book 2 has him and Rosie expecting a baby in New York City. I’m halfway through Book 3, in which in their son is 11 and they’re back in Australia. Though not as enjoyable as the first, it’s still a funny look through the eyes of someone on the autistic spectrum.

Edward St. Aubyn’s Never Mind, the first Patrick Melrose book, left a nasty aftertaste, but I was glad I tried again with Bad News, a blackly comic two days in the life of a drug addict.

 

LOSERS:

Joan Anderson’s two sequels to A Year by the Sea are less engaging, and her books have too much overlap with each other.

Perhaps inevitably, Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days, about getting clean, feels subdued compared to his flashy account of the heights of his drug addiction, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water was an awfully wordy slog compared to A Time of Gifts.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow was one of my favorite backlist reads last year. I only read the first 60 pages of Children of God, though. It was a recent DNF after leaving it languishing on my pile for many months. While I was, of course, intrigued to learn that (SPOILER) a character we thought had died is still alive, and it was nice to see broken priest Emilio Sandoz getting a chance at happiness back on Earth, I couldn’t get interested in the political machinations of the alien races. Without the quest setup and terrific ensemble cast of the first book, this didn’t grab me.

 

 

I want to spend more time with these characters.

 

WINNERS:

Simon Armitage’s travel narrative Walking Away is even funnier than Walking Home.

I’m as leery of child narrators as I am of sequels, yet I read all 10 Flavia de Luce novels by Alan Bradley: quaint mysteries set in 1950s England and starring an eleven-year-old who performs madcap chemistry experiments and solves small-town murders. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#6) was the best, followed by Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (#8).

Roald Dahl’s Going Solo is almost as good as Boy.

Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come is even better than Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

Likewise, Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, about a female doctor in the 1880s, is even better than Bodies of Light.

Doreen Tovey’s Cats in May is just as good as Cats in the Belfry.

 

LOSERS:

H. E. Bates’s A Breath of French Air revisits the Larkins, the indomitably cheery hedonists introduced in The Darling Buds of May, as they spend a month abroad in the late 1950s. France shows off its worst weather and mostly inedible cuisine; even the booze is barely tolerable. Like a lot of comedy, this feels slightly dated, and maybe also a touch xenophobic.

The first Hendrik Groen diary, about an octogenarian and his Old-But-Not-Dead club of Amsterdam nursing home buddies, was a joy, but the sequel felt like it would never end.

I loved Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; I didn’t need the two subsequent books.

The Shakespeare Requirement, Julie Schumacher’s sequel to Dear Committee Members, a hilarious epistolary novel about an English professor on a Midwest college campus, was only mildly amusing; I didn’t even get halfway through it.

I finished Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy because I felt invested in the central family, but as with the SFF series above, the later books, especially the third one, were a letdown.

 


What next? I’m still unsure about whether to try the other H. E. Bates and Edward St. Aubyn sequels. I’m thinking yes to Melrose but no to the Larkins. Olive Kitteridge, which I’ve been slowly working my way through, is so good that I might make yet another exception and seek out Olive, Again in the autumn.

 

Sequels: yea or nay?

39 thoughts on “Continuing the Story: Why I’m Wary of Sequels and Series, with Some Exceptions

  1. Totally agree, especially re Gilead, Signs for Lost Children, and Boy (although I like Going Solo even more than Boy!) it’s funny because, like you, I grew up when children’s and YA publishing was in ‘peak series’ phase. However, I often get even more annoyed with the YA trilogies we get now than with the old series – at least some of the better series had characters develop over time, whereas trilogies often feel like one and a half books stretched into three, and yet now seem to be mandatory.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I tried a few Sweet Valley High books back then, too, but I was never big into them. I don’t know a lot of the more recent YA stuff, and definitely would never embark on a series (Hunger Games, etc.). I was particularly disappointed when Atwood turned Oryx & Crake into a series because I really didn’t think the first book merited a continuation, and the other two volumes didn’t add much. That’s what I mean about not liking the sense of obligation a series creates — you feel you owe it to the author, or maybe to yourself, to find out the whole story, but then sometimes it ends up disappointing you.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I have a theory about this, which is that the individual books in YA series used to be shorter, making them more like metaphorical episodes in a TV show than full-blown films; the trilogy boom also coincided with the rise of the long-books-worked-for-JK-Rowling attitude, which isn’t always what a particular bunch of characters or plot or world fictional actually needs.

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  2. I’m a bit wary of Olive, Again given the perfection of Olive Kitteridge, although I’m sure I’ll read it. By coincidence, my last post was on Vacuum in the Dark, Jen Beagin’s sequel to Pretend I’m Dead, which I enjoyed but a third would be a step too far.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post. I think it’s mainly the characters that’ll keep me reading a series, but I’m notoriously fickle with series. Apart from HP and LOTR I think Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is the only one I’ve read in its entirety for years. I often give up or lose interest after the second book – although I do want to read more of the Rivers of London series in particular, I’ve got stuck after the first two. I have no desire to read more of the Dresden Files though for instance having read the first two too. Crime novels are slightly different though I do tend to read more in a series before I give up! Single sequels are again different. Now as for the question of setting multiple books in the same universe – Iain M Banks, Becky Chambers all deliver. (If you exclude crime novels, there’s a lot of fantasy and SF in series, isn’t there?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does mostly seem like SFF and crime that come as series, and since I rarely read those genres that explains why I’m able to avoid sequels much of the time! I do mean to try Becky Chambers’s books, though. We are on the lookout for a shorter SF book for our book club, so let me know if you can think of anything (one member is a dedicated SF reader but all her suggestions were ~600 pages, and many of the members struggle to finish the 200-300 page books before our meetings!) By contrast, sequels often feel surprising, or maybe indulgent on the author’s part, in literary fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I really enjoyed this post. Generally I think I tend to avoid sequels as I am greedy for new books and can never get enough books read…having said this, I make exceptions for books I really loved, like the Diary of the Provinical Lady series, thought the sequels were not as good as the first one; I also love the various Nancy Mitford novels which in a way are sequels though they focus on different characters. I recently read Francis Plug How to be a Public Author, a humorous novel, I think I might give the sequel a go too, though I found I needed to be in the right mood for the drunken antics of Plug.

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  4. I like series – always have, ever since I was a child – but i am famous for taking FOREVER to read them. I space them out ridiculously long usually. For instance, the Ruth Rendell Wexford mysteries. I probably read only one or two a year – I’m at number 16 and have 8 more to go! I’m wary of the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, though. I question why it’s needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not usually a binge reader, so if I did get really into a series I think I’d try to space the books out like that, too. Certainly no more than three a year. (I don’t like to read more than three books by any one author in a year.) I’d rather just reread The Handmaid’s Tale, or try to see the TV series. You have to wonder how much she was pressured into it — her publishers are surely rubbing their hands with glee!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I can’t think of a single case where I read a sequel. Either it’s because I get to the end of the first book and felt satisfied enough that I didn’t need to know any more OR because I’d be afraid the follow up wouldnt be anywhere as good as the first. I do better with series but even then stop part way through because I think it;s run its course. One exception – Louise Penny’s “Gamache ” series set in Canada.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In general I feel the same way as you — I’ve read a complete story and I don’t need to revisit that territory. I’m keen to try Louise Penny’s books, though; I suggested them to my book club.

      Like

  6. For mysteries, yea. They’re my brain candy anyway. I also read Jo Walton’s alternate history Small Change trilogy and loved it.

    But generally, nay. I don’t like pat endings, so I don’t need to read a book that ties up everything from the first story.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I will get Olive Again. I found Jan Karon’s At Home in Mitford series wonderful, each one, as the characters age, grow and change.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m with you – and most other people apparently – on series. And agree that in childhood it’s different. I didn’t know that Simsion’s Rosie had become one of a series, but though I enjoyed the first book, I’m only marginally tempted. Maybe on a slow day in the library……

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post./
    Quite agree re the Harkness and the Atwood follow ups . The Robinson Gilead sequals – a Yes for me. The Rosie sequel – hmmm – tepid reaction from me. You win some, you lose some.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Interesting indeed… like you, I used to love sequels, but now I rarely read any books that are part of a series. The problem I found is of decreasing quality with each instalment (generally it’s the same for films too), with a disappointing conclusion, more often than not. It’s also very annoying when the cover design is changed for a series, so that the newer books have different designs and you’re left with a mismatched series…

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve found that I’m far less into series than I was when I was younger too (many of which overlap with what you were reading!). I think it’s partly because I’ve started blogging. That’s made me aware of so many books I want to get to that are all new and shiny, so I have a hard time coming back to finish a series.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I did the completist thing on my teens, all of Christie, Heyer, etc. and I do like a cosy series or a trilogy set in Cornwall. I love this: “Simon Armitage’s travel narrative Walking Away is even funnier than Walking Home.” – very true!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This sounds just like me. I try to avoid series if I can. I don’t want the commitment! And, like you, I tend to lose interest after the first book or two. However, I agree there are definite exceptions to this – a most obvious one being Anne of Green Gables. But also, recently, I’ve read a couple of very good books (not knowing they were going to be the first of three), and am interested in reading more of both.(I’m talking about Son of A Trickster by Eden Robinson and Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill. Although, I’m afraid I’ll have forgotten too much by the time I read the others!)

    Liked by 2 people

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