India, Finn and Mouse Tompkins live with their widowed mother in Thousand Oaks, CA. One day, Mom springs on them that the bank is foreclosing on their house and that they will be moving in with her Uncle Red in Colorado. The kids are leaving without Mom who needs to stay in California to finish the school year (she's a teacher). The siblings aren't particularly close, so they band together reluctantly to make this journey they don't really want to a relative they don't know. India is the oldest, a teenager sure that her mother is arranging this on purpose to spoil her life. Finn is the worrier (middle child!) trying to be the man of the family, and Mouse is considerably younger but really, really smart. Mouse has an imaginary friend named Bing who has his own ID.
They get on the plane (after a brief misunderstanding at security since Mouse had packed her Mentos and diet soda so she could demo a volcano for Uncle Red), travel through a serious storm and land in Denver. But Uncle Red isn't there to meet their plane. Instead, they take a decidedly odd taxi covered in feathers into the town of Falling Bird where they are greeted by a parade in their honor and escorted into their own individual houses. Houses that seemingly fulfill their every desire, including a "cool mom."
But there's a price to pay to stay in their houses, and Finn and Mouse soon realize that they aren't willing to pay that price. But getting out of Falling Bird is easier said than done, and they are determined to bring India with them. If they don't get out by the time their watches (clocks?) run out of time, they'll be stuck there forever.
That description does not do justice to the bizarre and outlandish world that is Falling Bird (think Alice in Wonderland or The Phantom Tollbooth), sprinkled with multiple meanings, red herrings and dead ends. I wonder if I might have been better off eye-reading this novel since I didn't linger over the many, many clues that Choldenko provides.
Since I trust this author (having enjoyed all her books, except for this one), I've got to believe those clues were there, but when I got to the end, I felt ripped off. None of the trials that the Tompkins endured to leave Falling Bird were resolved for me; I didn't have that "aha" moment that you want to have as a reader when a wrong world is set aright and everything falls into place. Instead, it felt a little bit like she couldn't figure out what to do with all the stuff she'd dropped into her novel and just provided an abrupt, pretty lame (and somewhat disturbing) conclusion.
The three siblings share the storytelling, and there are three narrators: Becca Battoe (heard here by me), Jesse Bernstein (here), and Tara Sands (here). Each of them is very good, creating consistent and vocally interesting characters that seem true to the author's intent. I enjoyed Sands' slightly hoarse voice full of Mouse's confidence in her intelligence, and I liked the responsible worrier I heard in Bernstein's voice. Battoe creates your standard sullen teenager -- knowing that everyone around her is stupid or out to get her -- without veering into caricature. Bernstein and Sands also avoid this trap when they are voicing India in their portions of the narration.
Unfortunately, the book ends with a fourth narrator (uncredited ... or if she was, I've forgotten) winding up the story in the unsatisfactory way I mentioned. She's an adult who's adopted a fake folksy delivery that pretty much spoiled everything that went before. Up to this point, I believed in this novel and the young narrators telling me the story, but then it all went terribly, terribly wrong. A real disappointment.
[The photo of the Mentos geyser experiment is by K. Shimada and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. The liquids from left to right: Perrier, Classic Coke, Sprite, and Diet Coke.]
No Passengers Beyond This Point by Gennifer Choldenko
Narrated by Becca Battoe, Jesse Bernstein, and Tara Sands
Listening Library, 2011. 6:06