Discussion: What’s so fun about hanging from a cliff?

Ah, cliffhangers. It seems they are all the rage nowadays, except for the part where most readers* claim to hate them, yet most authors** keep using them to end all their books. Why is that? I doubt it’s because authors hate us. I mean, they need us. And we need them. It’s a symbiotic relationship. So it’s probably unlikely that all our favorite authors are sitting at their laptops, writing the ends of their books, and cackling maniacally, “Take THAT, readers!”

So really, what’s the deal? What is up with all the cliffhanger endings?

Well, first of all, let’s address what a cliffhanger actually is. Because maybe the reason it seems so pervasive is because we’re defining it wrong. So allow me to consult Wikipedia. [Wikipedia wasn’t a thing when I was in high school and college, and therefore I never got to count it as “research” and then get smacked down by my teacher because Wikipedia never counts as research. So I’ll do it now. Feel free to smack me down.]

“A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in fiction which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma, or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction.”

Okay. Going by the Wikipedia definition, a true cliff hanger contains two elements:

1. Must feature the main character.

2. Contains either a precarious dilemma, a difficult dilemma, or a shocking revelation.

Huh. I have a couple problems with that definition. First, “precarious,” “difficult,” and “shocking” are all in the eye of the beholder. What is shocking to one person may be totally predictable to another. For example, I have heard a lot of people talk about the shocking twist at the end of Lauren Oliver’s Pandemonium, whereas I thought that ending was pretty obvious (for the record, I still loved the book). But then others talked about the predictability of the end of Veronica Roth’s Insurgent, while I kept guessing.

Second, just because a book ends on a shocking revelation doesn’t, in my opinion, make it a cliffhanger. A great example would be The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen, which ends with a huge revelation. But, although the book is the start of a trilogy, it actually resolves its plot arcs pretty neatly. As a matter of fact, the big reveal helps resolve the plot arcs. Yes, there is definitely room for a sequel, but not because of a cliffhanger ending. There’s just more story to be explored.

So, thanks for nothing, Wikipedia. I guess that’s why I’m not supposed to cite you as research.

Having wasted some time down that rabbit hole, let’s get to what consider a cliffhanger. It’s simple really. I would view a cliffhanger ending as one where a big question is left unanswered. A lot of times, the way this is done is the main plot arc of the book will be resolved, but a new arc will be introduced in the last few pages. I find that second books in trilogies do this a lot. Catching Fire, Timepiece, and Crown of Embers all resolve the main conflicts and questions of their stories, then end by asking another. I actually like this kind of cliffhanger. It leaves me satisfied, but still invested in wanting to find out what happens in the next book.

However, some books pose their unanswered question at the beginning. For example, in The Selection by Kiera Cass, the fundamental question that drives the entire book is “Who will America end up with?” And when the last page is turned, we are no closer to  the answer to that question than we were 300 pages before. I’d consider that a cliffhanger, even though there’s no big twisty event at the end that leaves me at the edge of my seatOther books where I felt a big question posed early in the book was left still unanswered by the end were The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, and Defiance by C.J. Redwine. (Edit: The more I think about this, the more Defiance falls somewhere between the two kinds of cliffhangers, which makes it a bad illustration.)

Here’s the thing about those sorts of books (which, coincidentally, are all the first books in trilogies. Hmmm…). I actually really enjoyed and highly recommend all of those books, but my main complaint with all three is that the ending left me unsatisfied. I felt like I’d invested a good amount of time in a question that was left open-ended. Now, I think in some cases, it’s the author’s intent to leave the reader frustrated (The Knife of Never Letting Go would be the obvious example here). I think that’s the emotional response we’re supposed to have, and the one we’re supposed to carry into the beginning of the next book. But that doesn’t help the feeling that I just read an incomplete book. That the ending wasn’t an ending; the book just stopped. This kind of cliffhanger doesn’t necessarily introduce a new dilemma or revelation at all; it just lacks resolution to a pre-existing conflict.

Then we get to the non-cliffhangers. The books where there is definitely still more story left to tell, but there aren’t any huge questions or dilemmas left open-ended. These books are, in my opinion, often mislabeled as having a cliffhanger ending, because the series arc is not resolved. However, the thing that sets these books apart from cliffhanger books like Catching Fire is that the conflict of that book is wrapped up and no new conflict is introduced at the end.

For example, the first three Harry Potter books all have room for more story. But if you look at Sorcerer’s Stoneit wraps up all its conflicts neatly and don’t leave you with a burning need to find out what happens after the end. Sure, I still was wondering what would ultimately happen with Voldemort, but Harry defeated the bad guy, we found out what his motivations were, and then he goes back to his aunt and uncle’s house, bringing closure to the internal arcs of that book. Not a cliffhanger, in my opinion, despite Voldemort still being out in the world somewhere.

But honestly, is there any book or series where all the questions are answered at the end? Again, take Harry Potter. At the end of the last book, she resolves the multi-book conflict, deals conclusively with the fate of Harry and Voldemort, and even gives us an epilogue letting us know what happens to the main characters afterwards. And there are still fans saying she didn’t wrap up the story enough. (What happened to Luna? And George?) Or Mockingjay. Same deal — we find out what happens to Katniss, which guy she chooses, and the fallout of the revolution. And again, there’s an epilogue, but people still have questions. (How did they fall in love? What happened to the other guy? What does the political system look like now?)

So what’s the point in all this? I think it’s kind of impossible for an author to wrap up every single character’s story in a detailed way, unless they all die or there is only one character. And really, who wants to read only books where everyone dies or there’s only one character? Not me.

I think cliffhangers can be useful as a storytelling device, but would prefer that they be an introduction of a new conflict after resolving the old ones, as opposed to the failure to resolve existing conflict. And I think they can be helpful to keep you invested in a series, but aren’t necessary.

I also think, much like with love triangles, that cliffhangers are less common than we think they are. And that sometimes questions are okay, because they help immerse you in the story. And getting immersed in a story is a good thing.

So discuss. What are your feelings on cliffhangers? Like them, hate them, think they’re overused? Let me know your thoughts. I’m ready to listen.

*my subjective analysis of the people in my Twitter feed whose updates I actually read.

**my general feeling based on books I’ve read recently.

Feature & Follow (October 19) – Branching Out

Welcome to the Feature & Follow Hop, hosted by Parajunkee’s View and Alison Can Read!

If you’re here for the first time, I’d love if you could follow via email, RSS, LinkyFollowers or Networked Blogs. Just let me know your follow method of choice in the comments, and I’ll be happy to return the favor.

And if you’re not new, welcome back! Repeat visitors are better than when the husband does the dishes.

Today’s question is: 

When you step out of your usual genre, what do you like to read? Best books in that genre?

Um…I don’t…have…a usual genre? I was pretty eclectic before I started this blog. And nowadays, I lean YA and will always jump at fantasy and sci-fi before anything else, but I’ve still read books spanning all sorts of genres. BUT, if I had to pick a genre I read in MOST, it would be kind of a broad speculative fiction umbrella. Books where things happen that couldn’t (or would be extremely unlikely to) happen in real life. Bonus points for taking place in the future. Extra bonus points for relevant use of fantastic creatures. High five if there’s a dragon. Fist bump for space travel.

But outside of that, books I’ve read and loved include The Book Thief, Outlander, The Help, The Hiding Place, The Fault in Our Stars, Pushing the Limits, The Dark Unwindingand Anna and the French Kiss. And probably a whole bunch more that I’m forgetting.

Seriously, if it’s good, let me know. I don’t like to be pigeonholed.

Happy weekend! Anyone else’s kids on fall break? Mine are out of school for a WHOLE WEEK. Help.

Throwback Thursday (October 18) – Three Cups of Tea

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly meme hosted by The Housework Can Wait and Never Too Fond of Books!

It’s the nature of book blogging to focus mainly on new releases, but there are thousands of great books out there that haven’t seen the “New Releases” shelf in years. We hope to be able to bring attention to some older titles that may not be at the top of the current bestseller list, but still deserve a spot in your To-Be-Read pile.

You don’t have to be a book blogger to participate! You can put up a Throwback Thursday post on your non-bookish blog; or if you don’t have a blog at all, just use the comments to tell us about a book you remember fondly.

Here’s how it works:
1. Pick any book released more than 5 years ago. Adult, YA, Children’s; doesn’t matter. Any great book will do.
2. Write up a short summary of the book (include the title, author, and cover art) and an explanation of why you love it. Make sure to link back to The Housework Can Wait and Never Too Fond of Books in your post.
3. Link up your post at The Housework Can Wait or Never Too Fond of Books.
4. Visit as many blogs as you can, reminisce about books you loved, and discover some “new” books for your TBR list!

Feel free to grab the Throwback Thursday button code from the sidebar to use in your posts.

Thanks for participating, and we look forward to seeing which books you choose to remember!

My Throwback this week is…

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson

I’m going to keep this short and sweet because it’s late and I’m tired. And that, children, is what happens when you procrastinate. Don’t do it. It’s not worth it.

Anyway, I read this book because I was in a random non-fiction phase — I swear, based on my Throwback Thursday posts, you guys probably are under the impression that I read a lot more non-fiction than I actually do — and someone on my Facebook wall told me I should read this one. And this was before the days of book blogging, so I was at liberty to just rush right out and read a random recommendation. Ah, sweet liberty.

Just kidding. I love book blogging, even if I’m so far behind on my review books it’s ridiculous.

Anyway, here’s the Goodreads synopsis because, as I may have mentioned, I’m tired:

Anyone who despairs of the individual’s power to change lives has to read the story of Greg Mortenson, a homeless mountaineer who, following a 1993 climb of Pakistan’s treacherous K2, was inspired by a chance encounter with impoverished mountain villagers and promised to build them a school. Over the next decade he built fifty-five schools—especially for girls—that offer a balanced education in one of the most isolated and dangerous regions on earth. As it chronicles Mortenson’s quest, which has brought him into conflict with both enraged Islamists and uncomprehending Americans, Three Cups of Tea combines adventure with a celebration of the humanitarian spirit.

Now, I am vaguely aware that there is some sort of controversy surrounding the factual accuracy of this book, but honestly, I don’t care. Is anyone going to argue that mountain villages in Pakistan don’t need schools? No. And what this book accomplished, more than anything else, was made me care about the education of kids on the other side of the world, and made me glad that there are people on my side of the world who care enough to do something about it. It was inspiring and touching and even amusing at times. When you’re in a random non-fiction mood, check it out.

On a completely unrelated note, I wrote this blog post while listening to this, and the two halves of my brain are at war with each other right now.

This is a blog hop! Link up your Throwback Thursday post below!

Review: The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron (@CameronSharonE @Scholastic)

I received a review copy from Scholastic as part of the blog tour

I’ll admit, The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron wasn’t really on my radar until I was asked to be part of the blog tour, but after seeing the cover and hearing the synopsis, I was intrigued. I haven’t read a lot of YA historical fiction without any paranormal or fantastical elements, but this one sounded really interesting. And then after meeting Sharon a few times — who is awesome, by the way — I bumped it significantly up my TBR list. After finishing, I’ve gotta say…this one is good, guys.

The Plot  (from Goodreads)

When Katharine Tulman’s inheritance is called into question by the rumor that her eccentric uncle is squandering away the family fortune, she is sent to his estate to have him committed to an asylum. But instead of a lunatic, Katharine discovers a genius inventor with his own set of rules, who employs a village of nine hundred people rescued from the workhouses of London.

Katharine is now torn between protecting her own inheritance and preserving the peculiar community she grows to care for deeply. And her choices are made even more complicated by a handsome apprentice, a secretive student, and fears for her own sanity.

As the mysteries of the estate begin to unravel, it is clear that not only is her uncle’s world at stake, but also the state of England as Katharine knows it. With twists and turns at every corner, this heart-racing adventure will captivate readers with its intrigue, thrills, and romance.

My Thoughts

From the first page, I knew I loved Sharon’s prose. I just wanted to wallow around in it. Her descriptions of the Tulman estate, where most of the book is set (and which is based on Welbeck Abbey in England, during the time of the Fifth Duke of Portland — a fascinating study in and of itself) are lush and vivid, and she does an amazing job of conveying the feelings of creepiness and mystery, but also wonder and joy, that permeate the story.

Her characters are varied and intriguing. There is prim and proper Katharine, the narrator, who is forced to choose between protecting her own grim future or that of her Uncle and his 900 tenants. There is wonderfully eccentric and childlike Uncle Tully, who brightened every scene he was in while also contributing a note of sadness. Katharine’s wretched Aunt Alice is the “villain” hanging over the entire story, concerned only with securing wealth for her son and making Katharine as miserable as possible, and every mention of her made me grit my teeth in frustration. Then we have the tenants of the estate, the dark and brooding Lane, with his eye for faces and unwavering loyalty to Mr. Tully; mute little Davy, who sees more than anyone realizes, and his constant companion, the rabbit Bertram; Mrs. Jefferies, who protects those she loves with a fiery fierceness; Ben Aldridge, whose fascination with Mr. Tully’s automatons seemed to overshadow everything else; and Mary Brown, Katharine’s maid, whose constant chatter filled many a silence.

Sharon spends just the right amount of time dropping careful clues about what’s going on that I was never lost, but not so many that I knew exactly what was going on. A huge part of the story is Katharine’s inner battle to figure out if she’s losing her mind, and I was right there with her, questioning things that had happened, wondering what was real, and clinging to logic and reason like a lifeline. Meanwhile, there’s tiny questions and inconsistencies that she notices around the estate, and tries to investigate, but we’re left always wondering if those things had really happened, or if they were imagined. It was extremely well done, and I felt very satisfied when the story wrapped up and answered all those questions.

Probably my favorite aspect of the story was Katharine’s interactions with her Uncle Tully. As this story is set centuries ago, when people like him were simply classified as insane, the book never comes out and says what his exact condition is, but I’m guessing it’s autism. He also has some extraordinary savant capabilities, including a penchant for mathematics and his ability to invent amazing clockwork automatons that seem to defy the laws of physics. There is nothing supernatural about what he does; it is simply the outcome of his wonderfully unique brain. Katharine herself seems to suffer from a bit of OCD, even though she doesn’t appear to realize it, and watching the two of them together was beautiful. I could probably have read an entire book consisting solely of their conversations and still been satisfied.

But of course, there’s more to the story than that. There’s mystery and intrigue, a touch of adventure, and a hint of romance. I think a problem the book has is setting expectations accordingly (which is not the book or Sharon’s fault); because it’s different than most other books out there, it’s being lumped in with other stories that are nothing like it. The book is being marketed as “steampunk adventure,” which it’s absolutely not, and some people are even saying there are supernatural elements, which there aren’t. If I had to classify this book, I’d say it’s kind of Victorian Gothic-Light. There’s mystery and creepiness, but no horror, and there’s romance, but nothing blatant. The stars of the book are the intensely atmospheric prose and the beautifully developed characters.

To avoid a 100% gushy review, I’ll touch on my (very few and far between) criticisms of the book. It’s a very contemplative story, so if you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure, this is not the book for you. It picks up towards the end, but most of the book unfolds very slowly. I was never bored — actually, the gradual pacing allowed me to do the wallowing I talked about — but nor was I on the edge of my seat, on pins and needles to find out what happened next. And then the ending could leave you a bit unsatisfied, depending on what you’re looking for in the book. It ties up the plot arc neatly, but leaves some emotional threads dangling. Also, without wanting to spoil anything, I’ll just make the very vague statement that towards the end, something happened that broke my heart in a way I did not expect to have my heart broken in a YA book. So be warned. Sadness awaits.

But honestly, my criticisms aren’t even really criticism. They’re more “proceed with caution” signs, so you don’t rush headlong into a book that is different than what you might be expecting. But if you go in prepared, I think you’ll be in for a treat.

If you are looking for something with beautiful writing, excellent characterization, an intriguing setting, and a captivating plot that unwinds gradually and intricately, then I’d suggest you try The Dark Unwinding.

Content Guide: Contains mild violence, and a couple potentially disturbing deaths.

Review: Where She Went by Gayle Forman (@gayleforman)

Where She Went is the sequel to If I Stay by Gayle Forman. In If I Stay, the protagonist, Mia, gets into a horrific car accident with the rest of her family, and the book is about her decision to return to her life, such as it is, or to succumb to her injuries. Where She Went picks up three years later, with a different protagonist, and I can’t really tell you anything else without spoiling If I Stay. So if you haven’t read it and you don’t like spoilers, stop reading here and come back after you’ve read If I Stay. You can read my review of it here.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

It’s been three years since the devastating accident . . . three years since Mia walked out of Adam’s life forever.

Now living on opposite coasts, Mia is Juilliard’s rising star and Adam is LA tabloid fodder, thanks to his new rock star status and celebrity girlfriend. When Adam gets stuck in New York by himself, chance brings the couple together again, for one last night. As they explore the city that has become Mia’s home, Adam and Mia revisit the past and open their hearts to the future-and each other.

My Thoughts

Strange as it sounds, considering no one is fighting for their life in this one (at least physically speaking), I found this book much harder to read than If I Stay. Reading about Adam’s struggles in the years since the accident, after seeing what he was like before then, was just heartbreaking. And honestly, even though I liked Mia in If I Stay and was rooting for her, I kind of hated her in this book. Partially because Adam didn’t hate her, and I wanted him to. I understood from Mia’s perspective why she acted the way she had, but since the story is told from Adam’s POV, I just ached for him.

And Adam…oh Adam. He was a bit of a knight in shining armor in If I Stay, the kind of character you really need to have a happy ending. But the three years between the two stories have not been kind to him, and he made a lot of bad decisions. I kind of wanted to throttle him in his flashbacks, keep him from going down paths I knew were going to mean nothing but trouble. But I couldn’t, and he screwed up over and over, and it was frustrating and annoying and real.

The one problem I had with the book, other than that it made me feel feelings I’d rather not have (which, to be clear, means it succeeded), was that while the emotions were extremely real and visceral, the external events were a bit hard to swallow. I had a hard time buying that Adam became a famous rock star and Mia a world-class cellist within the 3-year span following the accident (especially considering the physical rehabilitation Mia would have needed). Is it possible? Yes. People become famous, and people date people that also become famous. But that these people would become famous…I don’t know. It seemed like a bit of a stretch. I kind of wish it had been more a case of two people bumping into each other than two famous people being able to follow each other’s lives and seek each other out because they are famous.

And the only other issue is that after spending the entire book working towards the ending, I was left wanting more. After all those painful emotions, I needed something more to balance it out. But I can’t say this is a criticism of the book — shouldn’t all good books leave us wanting more?

I’d have a hard time determining whether I preferred If I Stay or Where She Went, because while they feature the same characters in the same timeline of events, they are two very different books. It feels like an apples-to-oranges comparison. So I’ll just say that Where She Went, once again, made me have all sorts of feelings, both uplifting and painful, made me connect with realistic and interesting characters, and left me thinking for a long time afterward.

Content Guide: Contains profanity, drug use, mentions of sex