Monday, November 23, 2009

Benedict, Catching Fire and Alcatraz

Series books are a tricky business. The first book in a series will often feel fresh and interesting and new, but that kind of momentum is hard to maintain through the rest of the series. The typical trilogy formula has the second book in the series be the least interesting. Plot lines have to be displayed, characters have to go through conflict and those books never end happily. The second book is like a holding place for the third book, which you know will be interesting and suspenseful and, ultimately, satisfying, but you got to slug through the second book to get to the third.

I read a bundle of series installments recently and they fell differently on the scale of series success. The first was The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma by Trenton Lee Stewart. I've blogged about the first and second books and I stand by my opinion that these are some of the best books I've ever read. The writing is amazing and the plot lines intricate, but not so much that my eight- and six-year-old can't enjoy it. The third book has more of the adventures of Reynie, Sticky, Kate and Constance, but it takes longer to get into the meat of the book. The first part of the book spends quite some time giving you Constance's mysterious background which we've been left in the dark about so far. It was interesting and I was excited to read it, but I grew anxious about when the action would really start. When it did, it was great. This book had more closure than any of the others, which is saying something since I was convinced the first book was the only one. Stewart doesn't leave you hanging at the end of each book which makes it easier to wait for the next one. I'm almost positive this is the last book of that series that Stewart will do, but I would love for him to create another universe for us readers to enjoy.

Next, I read Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, the second book after The Hunger Games. I thought that The Hunger Games was fascinating and a great read, but I was disappointed in Catching Fire. It seemed to suffer from second book-itis. Katniss, our heroine, spins her wheels in her hometown, trying to rebel, dealing with her love triangle, waiting for doom to descend--which it does, of course--and the reader has to wait for the action to start. It does start, but only long enough to lead us into a cliffhanger. This book is an example of the frustration of middle books in a series. That said, it's still exciting and the series as a whole will probably be awesome. If I could go back in time and tell myself to wait for all three books to come out, that's what I would do. I would never listen to such advice, but I'd try anyway.

Lastly, I read Alcatraz and the Knights of Crystallia by Brandon Sanderson. It still has snarky, nonsense-filled narration and action-packed chapters, but it lacked something that I'm going to blame on being the middle book of a series. It's the third installment out of what I suspect will be five books, so it's definitely the middle and lacks some of the momentum and excitement of the first two books. You get a peek into the Freelands of this imaginary world and has some fun moments with the villainous Librarians, but it just wasn't as much fun as the first two. Like Catching Fire, the series as a whole will be great, but we have to wait for it all to come together in the mean time. Not good for instant gratification.

While I'm thinking about it, I would qualify each of these series like this:
  • Mysterious Benedict Society: good for any age either as a read-aloud or for an independent reader with high enough reading skills.
  • Hunger Games/Catching Fire: definitely middle school and up. Lots of kissing and teen angst along with a smattering of substance abuse. Oh, and people killing each other in brutal, but not R-rated ways.
  • Alcatraz: I let my eight-year-old read it, but it has potty humor and some crass words like butt and fart. Nothing over the top, but enough to make me roll my eyes.
My husband and I were just chatting about what makes middle books of series good and we've come to the conclusion that it has to do with the intent of the author. Did they intend for it to be something broken into segments, hinged with cliffhangers and unfinished stories or rather independent stories that are all linked? I wish I could get a heads-up when it's the first type of story so I could be mentally prepared to be unsatisfied. Ah well, I'll still read them and still grump about them and probably still enjoy them.


  1. Glad you liked catching Fire, I thought that it was one of the best books I have ever read and Can't wait for book three, however because of Catching Fire's cliff hanger, I am shouting to my self WRITE FASTER suzanne. I just can't wait

  2. Hi, Jenny--

    Stopped by for some gift ideas for Jackson, and you didn't disappoint. I'd forgotten about the 3rd installment of the MBS, and am happy to hear you liked it. Perhaps it will wind up under the tree (shhhhh!). Thanks, and hello to the gang--Linda

  3. Probably the best example in my book of how to do a series well is JK Rowling's "Harry Potter." I'm astounded that she could pull off seven books that continued to build momentum and never just felt like filler or weak imitations. With such a long series the potential was high to have at least one or two lukewarm books, but amazingly not a single one was a disappointment. Other writers have done the series well, but in my opinion no one has done it better than she has.

  4. It's funny that I am just reading this now. After having seen New Moon I decided (against my better judgement) to reread it. It is the ultimate middle book disaster. Ugh. We've discussed these books a lot, but I have to restate that Meyer needs to edit edit edit. Because if she did, there are actually some really fun things in New Moon. Like the werewolves and Volturi. Anyway...I agree with your middle book assessment. And I agree with Caren about the Harry Potter books. Thanks for the run-down on those series. I pass them at the bookstore often and wonder about them.