Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sequels: The Sequel

Not all sequels are created equal.

Yesterday I started talking about sequels, and talked about reading the three books of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series backwards. It's not the best way to do it. I confirmed that last night by picking up The Girl Who Kicked Over the Hornets' Nest and read the final couple of chapters. The end of that final book was as good as I remember. Although there are telltale signs that had the author not died, he might have gone for another sequel.

There is another series of books – wildly popular, best sellers the day they come out – that requires nothing of you as a reader except to move your eyes across the text and turn the page. Actually following the story is almost optional. The books are pure Teflon, they slide in and out of your head and nothing sticks.

Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum stories (which, like Dragon Tattoo are about to become a movie soon) are unique in my experience. To my knowledge there are 17 of them so far, and more power to Evanovich for finding a formula that works so well for her.

Here's the thing. It doesn't matter what order you read her books in. If you enjoy them, you'll enjoy them regardless which you start with or which you read next. You could read all the odd numbered ones first, then read the even numbers backwards down to 2, and it wouldn't change anything. It doesn't matter. You'll love 'em or loathe 'em the same.

Someone gave us about a dozen of them in June 2010, and over the course of about a month we passed them back and forth among ourselves, reading whichever happened to be free at the time. It didn't matter. The stories aren't interdependent and the characters – while colorful cliches – were amusing and the situations unlikely enough to keep you going. And since the characters and their backstories never change, it doesn't matter.

In fact I'm convinced that not only do you not have to read the books in order – I think you don't have to read the chapters of a given book in any particular order either.

But here's the catch. Once you've finished reading her for a while, you can't go back. At least we couldn't. At first read the books were amusing, fresh. A few months later I tried to reread one and just couldn't. And this summer someone gave us a newer one and we tried reading it aloud to each other. (I do a very good voice for Lula.) We made it, but it was a chore and we spent way more time making fun of the story than wondering what would happen next.

It seems the author has become trapped by her own formula – stuff happens and characters do things for no other reason than the author decides it must. Whatever the last one we read was (16? 17?) there were several scenes with Grandma Mazur that had nothing to do with the story – nothing – but exist only because the formula requires a couple of zany scenes with Grandma in every book. Most of the book involves Stephanie and Lula driving around Trenton, with Lula talking about diets. Oh that Lula and her diets.

But who am I to complain? The books are hugely successful, Evanovich has far more fans than I have hairs on my head (that's a different problem that I can't blame on Evanovich.) She clearly doesn't need my advice and would probably be a fool to take it. I'm pretty sure she's not a fool. She just has low standards about what constitutes a plot.

You, on the other hand (assuming anyone reads this and that's not likely) might want my advice. And that is, if you think you want to try them, buy a fistful and read 'em all at once, nonstop. Because if you pause, there's a really good chance you won't pick them up again.

But maybe that's just me. She must be doing something right. I just can't figure out what.

• Tomorrow I'll have the final sequel on my rambling discourse on sequels and why I've been thinking about them in the first place.

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