book stack Three years ago I was very vocal when another reviewer here at AAR reviewed a highly anticipated book without having read the previous books, stating how can a reviewer judge a book if they don’t know the characters’ history and conflicts. I still think it is important and my preferred way of reading a book, being able to start a series with the very first book is becoming more and more difficult. While I really want to break out a little from my preferred genres of women’s fiction, contemporary, and chick lit to read more science fiction and fantasy – genres that incorporate a lot of worldbuilding – I am stymied because so many of the interesting-sounding books I find end up being mid-series books. Is it unreasonable to expect a series book to stand on its own? I feel ambivalent about that. I don’t think I should have to read an author’s whole backlist to enjoy a book, but I have also seen the amount of anticipation that certain authors build over five or six books. Is there really a right answer? I asked fellow reviewers Maggie and Pat to share their opinions as we discuss this debatable topic.

Maggie: I don’t know what to answer. On the one hand, a book should absolutely stand on its own. On the other, it has been a genre standard since Tolkien that sci-fi/fantasy books not stand alone. When reviewing I handle it very simply: If it is a sci-fi/paranormal/fantasy romance I normally don’t review it unless I am familiar with the series or am willing to read the previous books. In fairness, some stories are just best told this way. Certainly, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and Twilight make better reading for having been told in the format they were told in.

Pat: I think every book should work as a stand-alone whether it’s in a series or not. I used to follow the Anita Blake, Sookie Stackhouse, and Bridgerton series. (Not all vampires, obviously.) But the time between “installments” caused me to lose a lot of continuity. I guess if read only the series, then I probably wouldn’t have had that problem. Since I read 5-10 books or more a month, the series books kept getting lost in the shuffle. As I read the latest book, I had to remember the key players and the standing situation. I finally gave up and decided no more series. Now I read only the stand-alone series (oxymoron?) like Robyn Carr’s Virgin River that don’t rely on what happened previous books to make sense of the book I’m currently reading.

Leigh: One good thing about contemporary books is that the books seem more apt to read as a stand- alone. Still, I really prefer starting at the beginning. . Recently I finished a women’s fiction book, second in a series, although in my defense I didn’t know that it was part of a series, and thought to myself, “I might have enjoyed this more if I had read the first book,” which doesn’t seem quite fair to the author.

Maggie: With contemp single titles I expect the book to stand alone and it normally does. If I find myself absolutely floundering, I will read the book immediately before the one I am reviewing. For example, I agreed to review Brenda Novak’s In Seconds and couldn’t make heads or tales of what was happening. I got the previous book Inside for my Kindle, read it and it made a world of difference. Suddenly, I understood everything that was going on. And yes, that knowledge turned what could have been a bad book into a very readable one. But do reviewers owe that to the author? I don’t know.

Pat: I think the Brenda Novak example is sad. If you recommend this book to me, I will be very disappointed if I must read earlier books to understand what is happening. Maybe Novak is trying to create a clique of readers. In that case, I really think books should be marked, “Read only if you’ve read XXXX” so that those trying a new author or one they have heard about will not waste their time. And that’s what the bottom line is: If I read a book in a series and can’t “understand” what’s going on in it, then I’m wasting my time, time I could be using reading something much, much better.

Leigh: Maggie, I have never read a previous book just to understand a review book. For the most part I have been able to understand the plot, but find that I am missing some of the nuances or relationship building between the characters – which does make a difference to me. Pat, as of right now the Virgin River series is the longest series that I have read. Since I have read every book, it is difficult to view the books as just stand-alone books. I do think that relationship in the books have developed over time –but not enough to seriously impact the storyline, if someone wants to read a book out of order. Even in contemporary books, continuity can be a problem for me. Now it seems like every previous character has a role to play and the cast just keeps getting larger. Instead of needing a village to raise a child it almost like you have to village to write a book. Honestly I would prefer the author spend time on a new story arc, rather than rehashing previous incidents. But without doing this, new readers are unable to understand the characters’ history.

Pat: Don’t authors want to grow their fan base? If so, why would they limit it only to those who have read their books from the first one? Perhaps some do this, but it seems counterproductive. Therefore, it’s to their best interest to make every book in a series accessible. I read and review books late in an unfamiliar series for another venue which my editor assigns me. She doesn’t have any problem with sending me books like this since her viewpoint as mine is that the book should be able to stand by itself and not be dependent on other books for a reader’s enjoyment.

Now it is time for everyone else to jump in. Do you have to start a series with the very first book or do you read books out of order? Is there one genre that is more dependent on having read the previous books? Do you feel that the reviewer should be current with the story arc or do you expect books to stand on their own?

–  Leigh Davis with Maggie Boyd and Pat Henshaw