Reading: Starting in the middle

Miss Julia Delivers the GoodsRight now I’m halfway through a very stupid book called Miss Julia Delivers the Goods. It is not my type of book at all, and the only reason I’m reading it is because I don’t want to hurt the feelings of the person who gave it to me. Why this person chose this particular book for me is absolutely mystifying, but whatever. I am reading the darn thing.

Now, this book is annoying for many reasons, and I thought about making a list of snarky bullet points, but decided against it mainly because it wouldn’t be fair. I mean, it’s not the author’s fault that I don’t care for lite fiction starring proper Southern ladies of a “certain age” whose lives revolve around church gossip and who think there’s no bigger crime than having a baby out of wedlock. There’s nothing inherently wrong with books that have blurbs like “Get ready for double the trouble and twice the fun in Ann B. Ross’s tenth Miss Julia adventure.

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However. This stupid book, it is actually making me think. Did you notice, from that blurb I quoted, that this book is the tenth in a series? And no, of course I haven’t read books one through nine. I never even heard of Miss Julia until she appeared under the Christmas tree.

I am not a big reader of genre fiction in general, and especially not genre fiction that comes in long series. One of my biggest gripes is the way so many writers handle the back story. Alas, they tell it to you over and over again, the same thing in each and every subsequent novel. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series is a perfect example of this. Now the Plum novels are an exception to my general dislike of long series — they are riotously funny and I love ’em. But there’s no doubt that they’d be even better without the back story of Stephanie and Ranger, Stephanie and Morelli, how she became a bounty hunter in the first place, etc. etc. etc., being recited ad nauseum in each book.

Forget the back story, dear series authors. Just leave it out! Do your readers the honor of allowing us to figure it out for ourselves. We are not stupid. Please do not spoonfeed us.

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That used to be my attitude, anyway. But now I’m kind of eating my words. Because I just realized something. When I read a series, I always start at the beginning. It’s just how I am. I am a methodical, linear, left-brain thinker. The idea of starting in the middle actually creeps me out. And now, with Miss Julia, I’m finding out that when you start in the middle, maybe you do need some back story. Not a lot, perhaps, but enough to make the motivation of the characters and the relationships between them, understandable.

See, there’s a weird situation in this novel. The main character, Miss Julia, apparently lives with and financially supports her dead husband’s mistress. And I have no idea why. That’s kind of a big elephant in the room, especially when the entire plot revolves around the aforesaid mistress’s pregnancy. There are also inexplicable undercurrents with the baby’s father. Again, I can tell there is history, but I don’t know what. I’m sure the author didn’t intend to create this particular type of suspense. It’s not fun suspense; it’s just puzzling and annoying. I’m sure if I’d started at the beginning of the series, I wouldn’t be in the dark right now.

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I said I’m not a big reader of genre fiction that comes in a long series, but one huge exception to that, besides Stephanie Plum, is Patrick O’Brian’s glorious Aubrey-Maturin series. I have read all twenty of these Age of Sail novels again and again, and I never tire of them. One of the (many many) things I admire so much about these books is that the author gives no back story at all. And yet, these books are set in a time and place that really requires a lot of explanation: they are filled with quaint nautical jargon, history, geography, slang, botany, early nineteenth century “medicine” and much more that most of us modern readers have no clue about. But O’Brian doesn’t explain anything. He simply throws you in at the deep end, and as you come to the surface you gradually piece things together and figure out what’s going on. But somehow, you never feel puzzled the way I am puzzled about Miss Julia right now. That’s because O’Brian does help you along in subtle ways, using a variety of literary devices that never feel remotely expository or didactic.

For example, instead of outlining a complicated political situation directly to the reader, you find out about it indirectly, when Captain Aubrey gets his orders from the Admiralty. And in case you are wondering what the “Admiralty” is, that’s never explained directly, either. It’s just where Jack goes to get his orders. But its significance is abundantly clear. Furthermore, there are interpersonal relationships almost as weirdly unexpected as the one between Miss Julia and Hazel Marie. Oh, and there is a long stretch where O’Brian creates almost unbearable (but delicious!) suspense because you know who the traitor is, but the secret agent does not. And you know the traitor’s identity even if  you’re not reading the books in order. O’Brian has to get you up to speed somehow, or the whole point of this particular multi-volume plot arc would be lost. He does it, again, in lovely subtle ways. He doesn’t tell, but he shows. One character keeps a secret diary. Another writes letters home. They have conversations and inner monologues. And it’s all good.

So, as I continue to plow through Miss Julia, I find myself wishing the author would take some lessons from my beloved P O’B. I’m not asking for paragraphs of direct explanation as to why the dead husband’s mistress is a beloved member of her household. There are lots of ways she could make that clear. But she should pick one! I like suspense, real suspense, but I shouldn’t be left in the dark about these basic and important pieces of the story. Ann B. Ross, go read some Patrick O’Brian.

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Ok, fine, but there is a counter-argument. Ann B. Ross could very well come back and say that the onus is on the reader to read the books in order. I mean, I wrote this whole long post based on the assumption that authors should accommodate readers who jump in mid-series. Is that fair, though? Should a series author cater to fools like me who choose to start in the middle? Or do we readers owe it to the author to start at the beginning? After all, if authors didn’t feel obligated to clue in mid-series readers there would be no need for back story.

Hmmm. Interesting question. What do you think? Do you read series fiction? Do you ever start in the middle?

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About Daxie

I walk the dog, volunteer on the PTO, read obsessively, work freelance, and try to make sense of this crazy world.
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