Weekend Discussion Topic? C’mon, Emily, that is not even an alliteration of any kind. What kind of a book blogger are you? If anyone has a better idea of what to call this potential feature, please oh please let me know. The gist is that I plan to write slightly more lengthy posts that will go up on Fridays so that we can have a few days in the comments to consider/discuss/etc.
Today’s topic is the ongoing debate between series and standalones. If you read anything in the fantasy and/or YA genre lately, you can’t help but notice that virtually everything is a series. You innocently pick up a book that looks good and either realize, “Oh crap, this is the third in a series and I have NO idea what is going on,” OR “Oh, I really loved those characters, holy crap what kind of a cliffhanger was THAT and WHAT there are 10 more books to go?!” Both have happened to me. But then again, sometimes when I am reading a standalone novel and it comes to an end, I am seriously disappointed. I want two (or more) additional books with these characters! I want to see more! I need to return to this world! Obviously I can’t have it both ways, and I’m not truly sure which I prefer. I’m going to try to focus on the pro’s of both, but am happy to hear your pros OR cons in the comments.
What’s so great about a standalone novel?
- Story comes to a neat conclusion – usually no cliffhangers. Sometimes you just want to read a book. You want to pick up a book, read 300 pages or so, close that book and feel a sense of finality. You want to feel like you accomplished something. A standalone novel lets you do this – you read, you close the book, story over. And there’s something really great about that.
- Tighter plotline.This is a major generalization, and I’m sure I’ll be pounded in the comments, but I often find that a standalone novel has a tighter plotline because the author doesn’t have the luxury of 3 more books to tie up all of the loose ends. This is particularly true in the YA world, wherein books generally are shorter.
- Focus on characters. Again, a generalization, but the common thread in standalone novels that I love is that they each have one or two characters that I fell in love with and have stuck with me. Not that series can’t do that, but something about the standalone novel, in my mind, lends itself to truly strong characters. Maybe because the author knows that everything has to be wrapped up in just those 300 pages or so?
Favorite Standalone Novels
Some of my favorite novels are standalones! Here are the first five that came to mind, but I’d love to hear about yours!
1. Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. I talked about this one in my June Rewind post, so feel free to check that one out. But what I love about this novel is the strong character development, particularly in the main character, Josie. She was one of my top characters of the year so far. Despite only spending the one novel with her, I feel like I can conjure up an image of her easily and I still find myself thinking about this book every so often. This is Top 10 of the Year for me so far.
2. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Or really any novel by John Green – just insert your favorite here (and I know you have a favorite…). While I’m a fan of all of Green’s works, this one is certainly top of the list for me. The plot was not overly complex, there were not too many loose ends to tie up, and while there were certain things about the plot that kept me wondering, at bottom this book was just a story about two kids facing a tough time. I wanted to go on that journey with them, and I was devastated when this book ended. But the ending, in my mind, was perfect, and this is one that I thought was a perfect standalone.
3. The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman. This is one of my absolute favorite examples of historical fiction. Penman generally writes series – in fact, possibly every other book by her is part of a series or at least tied together in some way. And don’t get me wrong, I really love her series. But this book was just such a perfect example of a great historical fiction. First, it’s well researched. While I can certainly enjoy a less researched historical fiction, in order for me to truly love it, I have to feel like the author did her homework and that this COULD have been the way it happened. Second, it is so freaking well written, don’t get me started. By the end of this book, you love characters that you have seriously hated all of your life. How does she do it? I have no idea, but man I was so along for the ride. If Out of the Easy or The Book Thief or Octavian Nothing have you wanting to check out a more hefty example of historical fiction, start here. You will not be disappointed.
4. The Lions of al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. This one walks the line between historical fiction and fantasy. It’s an epic story of war and friendship and strong women and bromance and duty and everything. Seriously, think of a theme, it’s probably in here. But it’s done well and beautifully. Kay’s writing is always gorgeous, but to me this one is his top. Oh and it’s also kind of set in medieval Spain. This is possibly the only book I’ve ever finished, sat with it closed on my lap for 10 minutes considering the ending, and then re-opened it to begin again. I just couldn’t help myself. If you prefer things a little less war and a little more musical, you might also check out A Song for Arbonne.
5. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I have to give a shout out to the inspiration for my blog title, of course. This one is a completely underrated classic. I don’t think I know anyone who has read this one and not loved it. It’s a coming-of-age about a young girl growing up in Brooklyn at the turn of the century in the United States. And that’s kind of it, but it’s gorgeously done and brilliantly written. Our protagonist, Francie, is a smart girl who loves to read and is always trying to find the beauty in her sometimes ugly set of circumstances. I think you could read this a hundred times in life and take something different from it each time. I implore you to pick it up if you haven’t read this one before. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
And of course there are so many more (I really meant to talk about Eleanor and Park), both well-known and underrated. What are your favorite standalones? Do you seek them out? What do you love about the standalone novel?
What’s so great about a series?
- A well-developed world. To me, this is one of the biggest pro’s for a series. I love a book with a great setting, and series novels generally have enough time and ink space available to truly develop a setting. Whereas the bread and butter of a standalone novel might be the character development, to me, the top thing a series can achieve is to draw me a new world that I can get lost in for awhile.
- Lots of time with characters we love. I love that feeling of closing a book and knowing that if I want more of the characters I was just reading about, I can go and reserve the next book in the series and jump right back in with them. For this reason, I tend to prefer series about the same characters, rather than series with parallel story lines or new characters in the same world. Part of the greatness of a series is being able to keep traveling along with characters I already know and love.
- Opportunity for a shared experience. For some reason, I find that series novels tend to bring people together moreso than many standalones. Of course, there are authors that can achieve that sense of togetherness with a truly popular book, but the series experience gives you more time to read it and recommend it and still be living in the world of that book when your friend gets around to reading it as well. If you think about it, fandoms tend to crop up around series more than standalones – Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, etc. For me, this is part of the fun.
I have been spending a lot of time in series this year. These are some of my more recent favorites – how about you?
1. The Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs. I also talked about this one in my June Rewind post. This series follows Mercy Thompson, a VW-mechanic/walker who dates a werewolf and is friends with fae and vampires and ghosts and just about anything preternatural you can imagine. Even with so many different things going on Briggs has found a formula that really works. There is a main conflict in each book that, for the most part, wraps up nicely, while the underlying story focusing on friendships and relationships and so forth carries on throughout the books. I have been devouring these and just finished the fourth book in the series. None have been given less than four stars and they are great, quick reads. The first in the series is Moon Called, and I highly recommend checking it out.
2. The Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor. This is a supernatural YA about angels and demons, but also about love and betrayal, and forgiveness and the grey areas between right and wrong. It’s absolutely gorgeously written and the world building is top rate. I don’t know if I would say these books standalone – each left me salivating for the next in the series in order to know what happens to our two main characters, Karou and Akiva. (This would be a perfect time for that “NOW KISS!” graphic out there on the interwebs…) Taylor avoided the sophomore slump and the second book in the series is just as good as the first, moving the story along without feeling like filler until the end. This is a perfect time to pick it up, because the third one is due to come out in early 2014, which gives you plenty of time to make your way through the first two (they are not short). The first is Daughter of Smoke and Bone.
3. The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss. This series. I can’t. Seriously, in my opinion, the best fantasy series in recent memory. When the second book came out, I re-read the first and fell in love all over again. Now, yes, we are still waiting for the final book, but please read this. Please. You will not be disappointed. This does all the great things that a standalone can do with character development and applies it to a beautifully drawn world. You know that our main character must somehow be a bad guy, but you don’t care because you love him so much. The fantasy part is wizards, but not your Harry Potter type (though the first book does primarily take place in a boarding school). It’s just excellent and well worth the investment. Start with The Name of the Wind.
4. The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken. Ok, it’s brave of me to put on this list a series for which only the first book has been released, but I just can’t help myself. This was just wonderful. This one is dystopian/fantasy YA wherein the children of the world are dying off in large numbers. Those that survive turn out to have various powers and the government collects them and puts them in what are basically concentration-type camps. A few escape and this is their story. It’s X-Men meets Hunger Games meets I don’t even know. It was amazing. Top 10 of the Year for sure and I cannot for the life of me figure out why more people aren’t talking about it. Ruby is a kick-butt heroine, the relationships are well-developed and understandable. There is a romance, but it’s a slow burn and it makes sense in the context of the story. Bracken writes so well and everything about this book is beautiful and heart-wrenching. Read The Darkest Minds and suffer along with me waiting for the next ones to come out.
5. The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb. This was a really tough fifth slot. I even wrote a blurb about Heist Society, which I also love, before changing my mind. And there are so many other great series I want to talk about here, but I have to stop somewhere. This series is like the ultimate definition of a series book. You read three, think you’re done, and then realize there are three more books in the same world with lots of the same characters. So you mourn them, move on, and then find out there are three more books you missed along the way! And now even more! If you love this world, which I think you will, you have tons of books to choose from and there is something for everyone. The series at first seems like it’s pretty stereotypical fantasy – outcast orphan who can talk to animals is given the opportunity to become more. But … I don’t know. I can hardly even put my finger on why this was so good, but I think partially it’s because I loved the main character so much. And partially it’s because Hobb is not afraid to make tough decisions in her writing. And partially just because this is one of those series I keep coming back to – it’s become familiar and well-loved, and that’s just the way I like it. I recommend starting with The Assassin’s Apprentice.