Shelftalker Review: ‘Blink & Caution’ by Tim Wynne-Jones

Elizabeth Bluemle -- February 22nd, 2011

I’ve known Tim Wynne-Jones’s books since I was a wee bookseller back in the mid-90s, when Some of the Kinder Planets wagged its happy, generous tail at customers from the middle-grade section and The Maestro tickled the ivories over in YA. (Fun facts: in addition to picture books and novels for children, Wynne-Jones has also written a children’s musical, an opera libretto, songs for Fraggle Rock, and several novels for adults.)

I’ve known Tim Wynne-Jones the teacher since the early ‘aughts, when our paths crossed at Vermont College and his gleeful cackle seasoned lectures and readings on campus.

In writing workshops, he could take what seemed like an unworkable manuscript and find the true seed of possibility in it (and, more helpfully, a workable structure and arc) when the rest of us were at a total loss for helpful critique. He’d hone in on exactly the false note in a story, the soft rotten patch that smelled sweet on the outside but ruined the fruit. He had an unerring instinct for baloney, would simply write a big “NO!” next to a sneaked-in darling on your page. His own imagination was always on the boil, bubbling over and spilling into side corridors and weird corners.

Normal brain.

This is beginning to sound like a eulogy; apologies. Tim Wynne-Jones is very much alive, and still teaching at Vermont College. Here’s the thing I’m trying to say: the guy might be a bit of a genius. He’s a flawed human like the rest of us, but the portion of his brain that accounts for creativity and writing acumen is perhaps larger by a factor of two or three, like the Grinch’s heart after the Whos sing fahoodoray on Christmas morning. Or perhaps his brain is simply more complicated; see Rube Goldberg contraption below.

Artist's rendering of Wynne-Jones's brain. Okay, not really.

What prompted this post is my recent read of Tim’s new book, Blink & Caution. I loved it; it’s certainly one of his best novels yet, if not THE best—which is saying something. The man has penned a slew of excellent books.

Blink is a kid with an eye tic, a hungry street kid prone to panic who sneaks into a hotel hallway early one morning, scavenging for room-service leftovers. Instead, he witnesses a very strange encounter between a couple of thugs and a well-known businessman, and stumbles across a couple of objects that lead him deep into the heart of a dangerous scenario. Meanwhile, a teenage girl who’s had a string of bad luck and made a bunch of bad choices finds herself at odds with (and on the run from) her drug-dealing boyfriend. The story alternates between Blink and Caution’s points of view. Although the two teens don’t know each other, you can guess from the title that Blink and Caution’s paths eventually cross, and that this marks a turning point for both kids.

What really struck me about this novel was how fresh the voices are, and how skillful the crafting. Although there is something contrivedly cute about the matched nicknames, they fit the characters, who otherwise have so much real, complicated, raw, funny, awful, hopeful, lovable struggle about them that they overcome the contrivance. You can’t help opening your heart and welcoming them in. Wynne-Jones also addresses some pretty tough subjects—such as Caution’s vulnerable sexual relationship with the bad boyfriend, and Blink’s life on the street—with refreshing directness and a lack of coyness, sentimentality, or moralizing. He presents his characters as they are, not as they should be, and that makes them all the more touching.

The alternating viewpoints also come with two flavors of well-wrought writing flair: a successfully carried-off second-person present tense for Blink, and a limited-third present tense for Caution, with a little omniscient third in there for good measure. Not too shabby.

There’s a little cinematic plot-futzing, and some extra suspension of disbelief required for the crime denouement, but I didn’t care. I loved the book. And I won’t be surprised when the movie rights are sold.

Anyone have comments to add? Please don’t tell Tim W-J about this review. Writers should never know they may be geniuses. It messes with the process, or so I’m told.

11 thoughts on “Shelftalker Review: ‘Blink & Caution’ by Tim Wynne-Jones

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  3. Tara Nickerson

    Tim Wynne Jones read an absolutely riveting excerpt from Blink and Caution at VCFA while I was a student there. I can’t wait to read the entire book, which I’m sure is brilliant. And yes, the man is a genius.

  4. Angela K Sherrill

    I couldn’t agree more with Elizabeth’s review. While I’m new to TWJ, I think it’s an excellent book and look forward to exploring more of his work and seeing this one succeed in the marketplace, making it’s way into the hands of readers young and old(er). Because the cover is so non-kiddie, I think it could also have some read crossover adult appeal. A good book for any reader who likes contemporary thrillers.

  5. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

    Carol, with Dirt Road Home, I’ve found our best approach is to say that it’s a companion book to Alabama Moon, which we’ve sold to umpteen customers, and we do a little plot teaser about the kid wanting to keep a low profile and do his time, but two rival gangs want to force him to make a choice between them. That seems to be enough to rivet the teen readers!

    1. Carol B. Chittenden

      We sold Alabama Moon very well also. But Dirt Road Home is so different, and really stands alone, that I felt uneasy suggesting it was as light and funny as the first book, though I think they’re of equal quality. Kids aren’t the ones buying the hardcover, and adults want to know if it stands alone. (See, I’m talking myself into being a terrible bookseller!) When Dirt Road Home comes in paper, kids will have more say, and doubtless lap it up, thinking it’s a second helping of Alabama Moon, and then be delighted to discover that it’s pizza, not ice cream.

  6. Carol B. Chittenden

    TWJ is long admired here, too, and I’m envious that you know him personally. Of course I want to read Blink & Caution. But I also want to know who its other readers are/will be. I find it so very hard to actually sell teen books that deal with tough subjects and situations. Dirt Road Home, by Watt Key, is one of the most brilliant books ever about coping with bullies, and we talked it up and featured it as a Best of the Year — but we’ve only managed to sell 5 copies. I just know there are more than 5 teen boys among our customers who would find this book gripping, helpful, exciting. But how to get it in front of their eyes?

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Re: handselling Blink & Caution and other YA books with grittier topics, I try to keep the booktalk about the characters and a plot teaser, rather than distancing myself from the story and talking about the bigger themes. If I say a book is “about” some issue or theme, or even give a rave, saying, “It’s really, really good!”, that doesn’t sell the book. I have to get a potential reader invested in the story and characters. (You are a consummate handseller, so I know you know all of this. But it’s how we get those kinds of books off the shelf.)

      1. kenny Brechner

        I love this book also Carol, and lie in wait to hand sell it with wild abandon. My thinking is to pick my spots when the right teen hoves into view, I’d start with a plot tease, as Elizabeth said, and if appropriate just go with genuine enthusiasm, its strength as a great read, the powerful connection I felt to the characters, and how its a story I think you can take as much away from as you can carry.

  7. Deb Marshall

    OH my gosh…when you say one of his best, if not the best, I gasped. Love him. Cannot wait to get my hands on his latest. And yes on what you say about his workshops. I have two writer friends who have taken courses with him and they say he is amazing, generous, can zone in on the ms problem and help you fix it. Enough from me! Thanks for this!

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