When we started the RITA® Reader Challenge this year, MissB2U asked me to write up a guide to reviewing – which is a totally obvious thing to ask for, and I'm surprised I hadn't thought of it earlier. When I wrote the list of suggestions for reviewing, I meant mostly to help people figure out how to articulate the way a book made them feel, or how it made them think. Reviews can be difficult to write.
Now that the RITAs® have been announced, I wanted to look back on the reviews for the RITA® nominated books, what worked for you as readers and what didn't. I also think there are some things to discuss – and I'm curious about your opinion.
In reviews for a book that was part of a series – especially if that book was the later part of a series, there was often some indication of rancor or objection in the comments from fans of that series if the person who reviewed the book hadn't read the previous six or eight or three or however many books in the series. It's an interesting question considering that there are usually at least one or two books nominated for a RITA® that are later books in a series.
Is it fair to judge a book as a stand-alone when it's clearly part of a series? Or should the books that are parts of a series be reviewed by someone who has read the prior books? (Setting aside the coordination struggle that would be to find a person or persons who have read all the other books.)
I'm of the opinion that a book in a series should also stand alone. When a book is nominated for an award, those who produce the award are likely in part hoping that more attention will be given to those books as nominees, and thus to the award itself. So a book that is part of a series that is nominated for a RITA® is likely to receive perhaps a bit more attention, and attract the curiosity of someone who hasn't read all the others.
Speaking solely for myself, I'll happily jump into a book in the middle of a series if the one in the middle is the one that caught my eye (and is also the green kangaroo) (LINK) and I do have the expectation that I'll be able to follow along. I also expect that there may be subtleties and references to prior books and characters that I may not understand as well as someone who has been reading since the first book, but I'm ok with that. I approach books in the middle of a series with the expectation that I can read them on their own.
That said, in romance and in genres closely related to it, there are series where the romance payoff comes later – like, book 6 or 7 later in the series. I can think of a few that were much more powerful because I'd read the prior books (Mercy Thompson comes to mind, for example).
I do look for reviews that say, effectively, “Look, with this series, you have to start in the beginning to really appreciate this book, as it's the culmination of a loooooong romantic development” and I appreciate those reviews. But I also know that, given that I'm easily exhausted by series books, I probably won't read a book that requires me to read six more to fully understand and appreciate it. Like I said, I expect that every book in a series can be read as a standalone even if it's part of a larger world development, and while I understand the challenge that presents for the writer, as a reader, I want to be able to enter with the book I discover, and not be told, “That's book 9, and you have to read these eight books before you really appreciate it.” I don't like being told there's a long-reading entrance exams to a series!
Much like people who insist a series be read in order, I think there are some readers who can't or won't start a series in the middle, either. (It's kind of the same thing, really). And there are readers (like me) who pick up a book in any part of a series and start there, and may even skip around, reading the second then the first and then the sixth. (I do that, and it makes my older son Freebird twitch if I even SUGGEST it to him. Series have to be read in ORDER, he says.)
But when it comes to the RITA® reviews, the question of reading a series in order becomes slightly different: is a review helpful and worthwhile if the person hasnt' read the prior books? For me – always. I like to know if I can also start in the middle. But there were some who thought that having a person who hadn't read any of the prior books review the nominated book that was late in the series order was inaccurate and wasn't fully fair to the book, or the culmination of plotting and characterization that it represented.
That's a hard question, really. That point of view isn't wrong – the nominated book may in fact be the culmination of a long-developing plot, and the payoff of a lot of slow-building tension (yum). Evaluation of that book in comparison to other books of its genre might be done more completely be someone who has read the others.
That said, I'm not going to start having requirements for selection of RITA® reader books, and tell people that you've got to have read all the others before you can review that one. That's not fair to anyone. But perhaps in the future, I will mark on the spreadsheet of nominees which books are part of a series, and see if anyone who has read the series (or most of it) will write one of the reviews for us.
What do you think? Do you think when reviewing a book that is being compared as one of the best in its genre a familiarity with its series is helpful? I personally value the opinion of both those who are familiar and those who pick up the nominated book as their entrance to the series, but I'd like to hear what you think, too.