The Only Ones, by Aaron Starmer (Delacorte, Sept. 2011, 336 pages,middle grade)
In trying to convey what this book is about, without giving too much away, because it's a book that really doesn't want to spoiled, I came up with the following comparison--it's kind of like Life As We Knew It (a disaster has struck that leaves buildings standing empty and cars crashed on the roads and canned goods free for the taking) meets Lord of the Flies (children surviving on their own without any grown-ups around, and things not working out terribly well), only with a science fiction underpinning (see that machine on the cover? that's science fiction), and for younger readers (ie, it's much less horribly harrowing than Lord of the Flies, and many characters are appealing, so it's maybe not too good a comparison, although bad things do happen).
I'm not sure how useful that is. Probably not very. But I tried.
I found it utterly fascinating, in large part because I had no idea what to expect. I hadn't even read the blurb on the back, and I vaguely thought the machine might be a space ship of some sort. The unravelling of the mystery that's at the heart of the book is most definitely best approached with no foreknowledge. So if you are reader looking for books for yourself, stop now. Things will now become more spoilerish.
Martin has had a strange life, brought up by his father in isolation on a remote island. His father is obsessed with building a complex machine of unknown purpose, and his one contact with the outside world has been through a boy who's one of the island's summer residents...who, as well as being someone to talk to, is a conduit for books. When Martin is ten, his father leaves the island to find a piece he needs for the machine, promising to come back for Martin's birthday. But only the boat returns, it is empty. And there is no one else on the island.
Martin sets out into the world himself, to try to find out what has happened, only to find it deserted. The only people left are a group of forty or so children, who have made a community for themselves they call Xibalba, each living in his or her own house, each making a life for themselves as best they can. They are a strange and fascinating group, idiosyncratic and eccentric. And there are things they are not telling Martin.
Martin moves into his own house....and begins to unravel the truth about what happened, not just to all the other people in the world, but in Xibalba itself. And as the days pass, his mind turns to the machine his father was building, and he begins to recreate it himself. It will change everything.
There was much I enjoyed about this. The strangeness of Martin's lonely life on the island, the creepiness of a world in which almost everyone has vanished, the community (of sorts) created by the kids, and all the diverse and detailed characterizations of those kids kept me turning the pages eagerly. That being said, I never became deeply emotionally invested in any of them, perhaps because Martin, from whose 3rd person perspective we see them, is himself a somewhat detached observer (in keeping with his upbringing), and this lack of emotional connection (which might have been just me) kept me from loving the book deeply.
The solution to the mystery of what happened to everyone else is a concept I've never seen before in a book, and provides much pleasant food for thought--does it hang together? could it really work the way the author says it does? what will happen next? Most enjoyable.
It's the best sort of upper middle grade book--ie, great for an eleven year old child, and for the mg reading grown-up. The characters are at the stage of beginning to think about luv, but not quite doing anything about it yet. Difficult, sad, disturbing things happen, but not so much so as to make this too dark.
(ARC gratefully received from the author at the BEA kidlit drink night)
And now for the REAL
This is a time travel story in which none of the main characters travel through time. And since I want to put this in my list of time travel stories, I felt I had to say that....