Cliffhanger May Be A Four-Letter Word

June 10, 2013 at 8:13 pm (Writing) (, , , , )

There are a number of words in the English language (or, honestly, probably any language) that have been used so loosely, so borderline inaccurately, for so long, the perceived meaning has started to shift. We actually have words for that (how cool is that?): connotation and denotation.

Remember those from ninth grade English?

Denotation is the literal definition of any given word. The dictionary definition, if you will. It’s the meaning that doesn’t shift much over time, or at least, is much more slow to shift. Like, a glove is an accessory/article of clothing worn over the hand with individual fingers.

Connotation is the not necessarily slang, but it’s the perceived meaning of a word. Much more so than denotation, connotation reflects the current culture. In this case, a glove isn’t only an article of clothing on the hand, it’s also a slang term for condom.

…well, I guess we know my mind’s in the gutter on a pretty regular basis.

Why do I bring up connotation and denotation? Because there are some words we use on a regular basis in talking about books that we use incorrectly.

Like dystopia. It’s become rather a catch-all for genuine dystopia, post-apocalyptic, evil modern regime, and some genre-benders that only partially fit within the definition. We use it to describe just about everything grim and touching on anything loosely governmental. BUT. The definition of dystopia (and don’t trust Merriam-Webster online, their definition sucks) is a society built upon utopian principles that, through innate human error, political or spiritual corruption, a/o self-initiated disaster, decays into something nearly a parody of its original, idealistic principles.

Here’s where we tie back into the title: cliffhanger is another term that’s experienced a shift between original and perceived meaning. We hear it being used for anything that makes you want more, anything that ends abruptly in such a way as to leave you intensely craving more.

The thing is, the original (and accurate) definition of cliffhanger is contained within the phrase itself. Cliffhanger. It came about as radio and television shows developed, and they’d leave you at the end of a week’s episode with someone literally hanging off a cliff. Does he make it? Or does he fall? Will she celebrate a rescue? Or have to plan a funeral? Do the humans understand Lassie? Or does Timmy finally drown in that damn well? You’d be left with your character in genuine, life-threatening DANGER and then have to wait until next week’s episode to find out if he or she is okay.

Here’s an example where the meaning has blurred. (WARNING: SPOILERS FOR CATCHING FIRE BY SUZANNE COLLINS BELOW) If you talk to most people who’ve read Catching Fire, they call the ending a cliffhanger. What?! *gasp!* There’s no District 12 anymore?! *shock!* It’s not, though. A cliffhanger, that is, it’s sort of a shock if you haven’t been paying attention to the repeated stories of the 13th District that wasn’t really mentioned at all in the first book. It’s not a cliffhanger because it’s not leaving us in the middle of active (or if you’re a Tom Clancy fan, clear and present) danger. Katniss and a handful of others have been rescued from the arena, they’re on their way to promised safety, the main action of the second book is finished. The “There is no District Twelve, Katniss” is the lead-in to the next book, a way to spark the interest that naturally wanes as the resolution ties neatly together, a way to keep you chomping at the bit for the next installment. It’s the carrot dangling from the end of the stick.

But it’s not dangling over the end of a cliff.

On my second What I’ve Been Reading post, The Streelight Reader asked me if The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater ends in a cliffhanger, and I had to think about what to answer. (Don’t worry, NO SPOILERS) Because, by the current definition of cliffhanger, by the connotation of the word…sure, it’s a bit abrupt, it’s a definite lead in to the next book, and it’s a pair of sentences that make your heart skip few beats as you stare at the page.

But I wouldn’t call it a cliffhanger.

One of the things I love about Maggie Stiefvater’s books, especially the two we’ve seen thus far in the Raven Cycle, is that each book has its own story. The series has an arching story, an overall goal and way of getting there, but the individual books aren’t merely installments. Each book has its own arc, has its own threads that mostly resolve and tie back together even as they form a pattern within the larger story.

Do you remember those friendship bracelets that little kids make with embroidery floss? (Or not so little kids, given that I made one right before BEA) There’s one that’s called, among other names, a Triple Diamond. Hang on, let me throw in a picture:

Bracelet

It uses twenty strands of floss in five different colors, knotting in chevrons and inverted chevrons to form the diamonds, and you have to be able to knot both left and right, sometimes switching direction in the middle of a knot. The overall design, the finished pattern, is like the series. The story of the Raven Cycle is that completed work, with all those individual diamonds linking together into a cohesive creation. But every thread, every color, every individual knot, those are the elements of the books on their own. Just as the main characters can each be assigned a thread color and we can call it that character’s path through the series, we can also call those threads individual plot elements. They have to resolve in every set in order to continue through the rest of the books.

So the black thread (let’s call it Ronan) can’t just dangle off into nothingness and still be fully present through the resolution of the series. His smaller stories, his episodes, HAVE to resolve within each set.

The Dream Thieves is not merely a continuation of the quest for Glendower. It’s not merely a second installment, continuing the same story and trudging relentlessly onward. This is its own book, its own story, a set of snarls and knots that resolves into a part of the larger pattern, even as the threads set themselves for the next block of pattern. Without that preparation, without those two sentences that make your gut clench with wonder and anticipation and just a bit of fear, things would just kind of…fizzle…after the necessary resolution of those smaller threads.

But we’re not left in the middle of something. We’re not left with our Raven Boys (including Blue) in imminent peril. We’re not left with them over the lip of a cliff, literal or metaphorical. Instead, we’re left with a clue- the frame of a question that hasn’t yet found its voice or shuffled the words into the right order to follow the transition from declarative to inquisitive. That question, once it’s found, will be the starting block for the third book (and seriously, can’t wait; if I haven’t scared you off with grammar and craft-based-analogies, READ THESE BOOKS IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY), but it’s necessarily built off the resolution of the book two story.

This is a very long answer to what’s probably a simple question, Streetlight Reader, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, as I see the word cliffhanger more and more in book reviews.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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What I’ve Been Reading 2

June 4, 2013 at 7:53 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , , )

You know that thing where you really do intend to do something regularly, Best Intentions and all that, and you just kind of…don’t?

Welcome to What I’ve Been Reading.

So we’ll hit the highlights, rather than be wholly inclusive.

Dream Thieves I just last night (very nearly this morning, I stayed up WAY too late reading this one) finished The Dream Thieves, by Maggie Stiefvater, and YOU GUYS! I am utterly incapable of talking intelligently about this book. Every Stiefvater experience just keeps getting better. This book is smart, and funny, and devastating, and so brilliantly put together that as soon as I finished it, I wanted to go back through to see if I could figure out how the frack she does it. I love that the shifting perspectives let us see such varying elements of each character, and yet every perspective shares some common threads- for example, Blue, Gansey, Adam, and Ronan all see some different specifics of Gansey, and yet they’re all simply shading in subtleties of the same person. Even as they each see something (not quite someone) different, each perspective is still distinctly recognizable. Even down to a structural level, the use of parallel sentences is brilliant, leading the reader into a solid impact that’s no less strong for falling into a rhythm. And the beauty isn’t just in the language, or in the characters, though both elements have more than their share of beauty- seriously, the characters are astonishing, gorgeous and rich and so very, very broken, each in their own ways, and we see not only the way they make each other whole but they way they all poke at those sharp, prickly, dangerous edges- but also in the subject matter, the Great Quest, and the history that’s woven through. This was one of the handful of books I was REALLY hoping to get at BEA, and thanks to the folk at the Scholastic booth kindly telling me when to come back, I was able to come home with one. It comes out in September, and seriously, if you’ve haven’t read The Raven Boys, DO IT NOW so you can read this one as soon as it comes out.

Dark Triumph Dark Triumph, by Robin LaFevers, is also a sequel, in this case to last year’s Grave Mercy. I totally gushed about that one when I read it, but as a refresher: assassin nuns in the 15th century Breton court. It was dark and elegant and riveting, and so seamlessly, flawlessly woven through real history that I gave it a second reading purely so I could compare it to a few non-fiction sources. Totally mind-blowing. Its sequel does not disappoint. We follow Sybella this time, Ismae’s sister-friend from the convent, who’s only ever clinging to sanity in some ways. Even in the midst of her private war with the abbess of St. Mortain’s, the convent was a refuge, and on the orders of the abbess, Sybella has gone back into the not-so-private hell that is her family’s house. This book is terrifying in some respects, largely because of the serious abuses Sybella endures and the desperation with which she clings to fragile threads that might be more ephemeral even than hope, but by the same measure, it’s perhaps more redemptive than Grave Mercy as well. Ismae’s journey was hard, a self-discovery and a true independence, but Sybella’s journey is hellish and raw and beautiful, and the trust and hope that shimmer together into a single being is amazing to watch. It’s a well-balanced story, with action and grace and the full range of goodness (and not) of which Man is capable. If you enjoyed the first book, this one is absolutely not to be missed.

Summer Prince I mentioned this one a while back as one I was still in the middle of, and WOW. The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson, was kind of a weird book for me. It’s one I thought about putting down a hundred times, and yet couldn’t quite do it. That changed a little over halfway through, and suddenly the only reasons I wanted to put it down were lines and images to savor. It’s a sneaky, sneaky book, its darkness hidden for a long time beneath bright lights and festivals, and yet the decay is always there, much like the lowest layer of the city. The characters are strong and bold and almost frantically drawn, almost too alive in this fragile moment, where life and prosperity and order is brought about by a season of chaos and a ritual of death. It’s sexy and sharp-edged and so very, very sad, and I love that it deals with an amalgamated Brazilian culture, love that we get this glimpse into something that, even as it strains to move beyond its roots, clings to them in culture and tradition. The music comes off the page, the drop-dead sexy dances, even the tangy stench of the algae vats and the copper tang of blood. Be patient with this one- it takes a while for the language (the slang) to feel natural, and it cuts in and out of things for a bit, but it is totally worth the effort. This book blew me away.

Hero's Guide to Storming the CastleAnother sequel, but a Middle Grade this time, and TOTALLY AWESOME. The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle, by Christopher Healy, picks up not long after The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom. Most of our Princes Charming (rather than Prince Charmings) have separated back to their home kingdoms, but soon Princess Briar’s delightfully shrewish ways have them yanked back together for a chance of saving everything as they know it- if they can stop arguing. Accompanied with incredible illustrations, this volume has the same tongue-in-cheek love of the absurd that made the first one such a stand out, including (but not limited to): correct grammar, un-lawful de-kidneying, hysterical nicknames, and so much more. It’s a great spin on classic characters, each one standing out, each richly drawn (often literally, in the corners of the pages), and each with a strong mix of virtues and flaws- some more obvious than others. It’s an unusual Middle Grade in that most of the characters are adults, some of them in fact married, but they’re hugely fun and we still get to see them grow. This book is a magnificent adventure from beginning to end, and the idea of waiting another year for the next one is kind of painful.

School for Good and EvilThe School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani, proved to be my mixed-bag-book for this round. It’s a fantastic concept- two kids kidnapped from a village in the woods and taken to the schools for good and evil, one to each, where they learn to be the type of fairy-tale characters they’ve grown up reading- only pretty, pink Sophie, spoiled and passionately-convinced of her own princessness, is taken to the school for evil, whereas bug-eyed, drab, greasy haired Agatha is taken to the school for good. Convinced that there’s been a mistake, the girls are desperate to make things right- only they have a very different idea of what their goal should be. In a lot of ways, this book was amazing. The schools are beautifully creepy, and there’s a world of fun in the details, and Sophie and Agatha are incredibly well-drawn, giving the reader a much clearer view of both girls than either have or themselves or each other. There’s a prophecy, an enigmatic and potentially dangerous figure, a series of challenges…this book really does have a lot of amazing elements to it. Really, there were only two things that bothered me. One: the ending. Without spoilers, it seemed very…I dunno. Not quite abrupt, more like it forgot it had to wind things up and so the curtain came down before the actors were really ready. Like the story was so much fun that the characters (or the author) didn’t want it to have to end. The second prickle was the bigger one, though- this books comes off as strangely homophobic, at least in hints. The friendship between Sophie and Agatha is both complex and complicated, and there exists a very real, very strong, and very one-sided love that doesn’t have to be given a name. The book alternates between avidly avoiding calling it love and throwing itself at an attempted definition that comes off as both awkward and off-putting. Love is a complicated thing, romance being only one rather small facet of it, and truth be told, their friendship didn’t need a name. The realizations they both make in the course of the book, the understanding each in her own way gains (especially Agatha- she’s unabashedly my favorite, even though there is a character named Dot who’s always eating chocolate), they didn’t need to be nailed down into something awkward. It left me closing the book and going “huh” rather than cheering as I had spent so much of the book wanting to do. I enjoyed most of it, but the unsettling bits linger. If any of you read this, I’m very curious to know what you think.

Maid of SecretsLast one for this round, Maid of Secrets, by Jennifer McGowan. Set in the early court of Elizabeth I, newly ascended to her throne, this book follows Meg Fellowes, an acting-troupe raised thief and con-artist kidnapped into the queen’s Court to serve as a spy for the queen and two of her shadow advisors. I never completely fell in love with this book, and I think that’s more due to stress while I was reading it than anything else, but I did really, REALLY enjoy it. I come from an acting background, and part of that was in Renaissance faires, so opening the pages kind of felt like coming home. I liked that the language gave away its origins and yet always remained accessible to a modern audience, and the attention to detail in clothing and small customs was brilliant. Meg is smart, resourceful, unabashedly ignorant of the larger social graces, and totally over her head in Court. I loved that the Spanish Court, largely a source of enigmatic animosity through the book (and history), is never drawn as a caricature. Those characters are just as distinct as the English players, and those we get to know are well-rounded. Meg’s fellow Maids are unique, each bringing different strengths to the group, and we actually get to watch them finally become a team, rather than just a group. It weaves through the very real intrigue that marked so much of the Elizabethan nobility, especially the troubles that came of having a young, resolutely unmarried, unswayably Protestant queen in a largely male, Catholic world of power. It sounds like this might be the first of a series? I HOPE, and I very much look forward to more of Meg’s adventures.

Currently, I’m reading another BEA prize, Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. How ’bout you? What are you reading right now?

Until next time~
Cheers!

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