Overall rating: 4/5
Relevance of hamster beyond providing a quirky title: 1/5
I really enjoyed this surprising story. Based on the title I was expecting a dose of sci-fi silliness, but it actually delivered a quietly moving tale of love, loss and hamster fancying. The most surprising element was the central relationship of the book – not that between 12-year-old Al and his hamster, or even the father he must travel back in time to save, but his grandfather. I don’t think I’ve ever read a story centered around that particular bond, and enjoyed it all the more for its freshness.
The way the story unraveled really took me by surprise (although I suspect a lot of that is my own fault). As if the front cover and blurb weren’t enough to hammer home that Al’s dad dies twice, it’s also right there on the first page, and yet somehow it still came as a huge shock to me when it happened. The story gained a seriousness and significance that I didn’t expect going in, but thoroughly welcomed.
There are segments that deliver a reminder this is definitely a children’s story. Al’s constant forays back to the house he used to live in become a bit by-the-numbers in their frequency and repetition, and Welford’s tendency to end chapters on a huge (yet easily and immediately resolved) cliffhanger took me back to the good old days of Goosebumps. It was a nice kind of nostalgia.
My only major irk is the hamster itself! For a kid who loves his pet, Al sure does recklessly leave him in mortal peril a lot. Granted, if it was my first outing in a time machine I’d probably want some reassurance that it worked and wasn’t going to smoosh me into smithereens, but my crash test dummy wouldn’t be my much-loved pet. Fluffy little Alan Shearer mostly functions as a convenient plot device, and while it does all wrap up neatly at the end the cynical part of me thinks that his inclusion was more to bump up the sale-ability of the title than drive the story forward.
Still, this little story contains some big ideas, and makes an engaging, compelling read with real intelligence and resonance behind it.
Many thanks to HarperCollins UK for providing a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
[Read from 14th July-17th August 2016]