Friday, July 22, 2011

There may be trouble ahead

I love that sensation that you get when a suspenseful book has gripped you -- that you must keep going no matter what you have to do that day until you have finished. The characters matter enough to you and their situation is so convincingly perilous that you've got to know NOW what happened. I got that literary rush listening to Tim Wynne-Jones' Blink & Caution this weekend (and I've got it now with another book, but there's too much left of it to drop everything!). Dig the bullet holes on the cover (and how one of the holes substitutes for the 'o' in Jones)!

Blink is all dressed up in his Blessed Breakfast Uniform, ready to stride into the Plaza Regent Hotel in Toronto in order to break his fast. In his months living on the street, Blink has found this to be a reliable way of getting a halfway decent meal: He prowls the hotel's floors looking for abandoned room service trays. As he's chowing down on his find -- in that room where they keep the ice machine -- he hears some crashing noises inside Room 1616 and sees four men leave the room. Three of the men look like criminals (rubber gloves and black clothes), the fourth is a well-dressed businessman. They toss a Blackberry into the room and flip the room key down the hall. Blink can't resist -- he picks up the key and enters the room -- which has been violently tossed. He grabs the Blackberry and leaves the hotel.

Caution thinks she's helping out her boyfriend by demanding some payment from the drug dealer that he works for. When she arrives back at the squat she shares with him -- triumphant with groceries and gas in the car (because he has been claiming that he has money for neither) -- he is less than appreciative. Hurt and pissed-off at her discovery of something particularly unpleasant that he's done, Caution figures out where he keeps his stash of drugs and money and impulsively steals both.

Both teens are on the run: Blink starts getting phone calls from the Blackberry owner's daughter and he tells her that her father -- unlike what the news is saying -- wasn't forcibly kidnapped. The daughter eventually convinces Blink to drive up to her father's remote cabin just to make sure that he's OK. Caution figures out that her boyfriend has been tracking her and realizes she's got to get away from Toronto for awhile. Blink and Caution meet in the ticket line at the train station and -- tentatively sensing that each is a kindred spirit -- they set off for the Canadian woods together. Not a good idea, really -- trying to find a wealthy man who has staged his own kidnapping.

And there's so much more that I'm not telling you! Wynne-Jones alternates the narratives of Blink and Caution for nearly half the book before they meet up. He teases out the back stories of the two teenagers -- how they ended up on the street. He cleverly wraps you up in their lives so that you are utterly invested in what happens to them. You know -- of course-- that they will meet, but when they do, something unexpected happens. And once they climb into the daughter's brand new bright yellow Jeep Wrangler and head north, the novel turns into a suspenseful thrill ride that can lead to a lost weekend of reading or listening.

Blink's narrative is in the second person ("You're wearing the Blessed Breakfast Uniform ...") which I initially found offputting, but it blends so perfectly with narrator MacLeod Andrews' performance that I began to look forward to his sections. Andrews is an experienced narrator, but I've only heard him read once (and he was very good there as well). His voice is deep and kind of gravelly and he reads Blink's narrative with an intensity that sounds to me like barely suppressed anger and fear. The "you" feels almost threatening -- like a verbal grab-of-the-shoulders, look-me-in-the-eye and listen. Fearful and longing for connection, at least someone is talking to him.

When Andrews is narrating Caution's story, he tones it down a little ... but Caution's carrying a huge, emotional secret and he is not afraid to expose her tenderness about this. He doesn't attempt to be "girly" in any way, but Caution's spikiness and intelligence are crystal clear. I did wonder, in an off-hand way, why a female narrator wasn't narrating Caution's sections. It would have made it a different listening experience, but Andrews is so strong here that I don't think it would have made it better.

The author's writing is really quite wonderful (and he is almost new to me -- I read one of his books a while ago). There are so many touches that let you know how carefully crafted his work is: The way the second person adds urgency to the narrative. The patient, yet compelling, build-up of the individual stories. The way the two storylines merged -- and how one character's breakthrough (emotional or otherwise) often take place in the opposite character's section. The sheer suspense as they walk toward that cabin in the woods. The blending of character study and nail-biting action. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only person who enjoyed this -- Wynne-Jones was recently named the fiction winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children's Literature.

It was pouring down rain here on Sunday (and right now we are blessedly free from the rest of the country's hellish heat wave). Blink & Caution is just the kind of book you want for a cold, rainy weekend ... no reason to do anything else.

[Caution sign -- at a Florida rest stop (yikes!) -- was taken by TampAGS and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones
Narrated by MacLeod Andrews
Brilliance Audio, 2011. 9:55

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