Dave Freer’s “Without a Trace” — effective YA suspense with parallel worlds

Dave Freer’s new novella “Without a Trace” ** is out from the Naked Reader e-books (www.nakedreader.com) is about Michael “Mike” O’Hara, a youngster from present-day South Africa.  He’s impoverished and lives with his father and one loyal family of black tenant farmers; before his grandfather went missing twelve years ago, the family was wealthy, but of course Mike doesn’t remember anything about that because he was only three months old when his grandfather disappeared without a trace.

Mike’s life is like many twelve-year-olds; he goes to school and hates it, then plays with his friend Amos (who he’s grown up with) when he gets home and enjoys that.  Mike appreciates his father, who’s always been there for him, but hasn’t even examined his relationship deeply — his father is just his father, and while Mike admires him, it’s something that he’s never really thought deeply about.  This makes sense considering Mike is the point-of-view (POV) character, and throughout the first two-thirds of this approximately 22,000 word novella Mike is never named by anyone.  (Freer apparently wanted kids to be able to put themselves in Mike’s place more easily, which is why Mike isn’t named until quite late in the narrative.  Freer is a highly accomplished writer who wouldn’t do this unintentionally, so he must have made a conscious choice in this regard.)   Mike is like any other kid of this age, with the typical kid-problems, and isn’t big on self-examination or self-expression.

This changes when his father, suddenly, falls into a coma.  Mike doesn’t want to be taken away from his home, so starts exploring to find a place to hide where he won’t be found (thus can’t be taken away).   During his exploration, he finds a secret room underneath his family’s home, then hears a cryptic radio message and writes it down.  He doesn’t know what the radio message is, but he does understand co-ordinates, and he needs to be away from home before he can be taken by the state, so he and Amos take off and start their adventure.

What do they find?  First, there’s a parallel South Africa that they fall into and they discover many things, some shocking, some sad, and some frustrating.  Next, Mike finds a man who needs rescuing — but can he and Amos do it?  And finally, they realize that just going home and leaving that parallel world has to be the next adventure, even if Mike and Amos don’t understand how they’ve gotten there nor how to leave — so, will they do it?  Or instead, will they end up vanishing just like Mike’s grandfather did years ago?

That’s for you to read, but I can assure you that it’s well worth your time to do so.  Mike’s an interesting character — he’s not extremely smart but he adapts quickly and he tries hard and goes full out, all the time, which should endear him to kids — and Amos was just as strong, a fully-realized, fully-developed friend with breadth and depth.  I really liked Mike’s father, and his favorite teacher, and the tenant farmers and just about every “good” character in this novel. 

But the best part of “Without a Trace?”  It’s a lot of fun from start to finish.

As for how I’d rate this novella, I’d give it a solid B-plus.  “Without a Trace” carried me along effortlessly, and I enjoyed it a great deal.  (Mind you, I didn’t like it that Mike wasn’t named until two-thirds in, but it’s not a deal-breaker for the reasons I gave before.)  I think “Without a Trace” is a good, interesting story that will be enjoyed by kids of all ages but is likely to be better understood if your kids are anywhere from age eight on up. 

This is the first middle-grade, young adult offering from the Naked Reader, and it’s a good one.   I believe it’s an e-book that will be appreciated by many kids of all ages, and I truly hope it finds its audience, because “Without a Trace” has good adventure, good suspense, nice pacing, and it’s a really pleasant tale of families, mistakes, friendship, and redemption.

— Reviewed by Barb


** Note: No picture was available at the time of this review.

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