For starters, the A and B stories have been reversed, which is something typically seen only in romance novels where the relationship is the point, and everything else is background noise. Here, you could say the relationship is the point, only it’s not a love story in the conventional sense either. This is about a teen, separated from his birth parents from a very young age, subsequently abused, and so has never known what it’s like to be surrounded by a loving family. When he gets a chance to do the family drama thing right, he snatches it up, and he gives himself the life he always wanted. Not only does he surround himself with loving, doting grandparents, but he also gets the job and friends he always wanted. All of this would seem like the happy-ever-after end of a story instead of the beginning. And it would also seem to be anti-climactic in the extreme. After all, drama hinges on everything that’s going wrong in our lives, not everything that’s going right. And that’s precisely why this book is so remarkable.
The B-story, you see, is the time travel story. As it turns out, our hero has inherited a very precious gift in his genes, the ability to jump through time. But some very dangerous characters are out to kill the last of his kind. Their relentlessness and their street cred when it comes to pursuing and killing everyone they go after keeps the tension in this novel ratcheted up to a very high degree throughout. In this sense, the story structure reminds me of the movie Witness, with Harrison Ford, if I can be allowed the faux pas of mentioning a story that is entirely off-genre. There too, despite Harrison’s relationship with the Amish woman dominating the story, we never forget for a second who’s out to get them, how dangerous and determined they are.
But the thriller aspects of The Photo Traveler get bolstered by several other clever narrative devices. For one, our hero is the prototypical teen. Meaning he is guilty of faulty thinking that just makes you want to scream, and that invites disaster despite his best intentions. His parents tell him, “Now remember, you can visit the past, but you can’t change it. The repercussions would be devastating to the present.” So what’s the first thing he does? He time travels to the past, falls in love with a girl, and has a baby with her (albeit, not all in one visit.) He makes one bad decision after another that continually puts his life and the lives of those he loves at risk. For anyone who is also a fan of teen and YA literature, you’ll recognize that this too is a staple of the genre. Stir in a trusting nature and he’s even more of a magnet for danger and disaster. A time traveler shows up, acts the part of the perfect friend, and he never once thinks that this girl could be running a con on him? It’s another one of those moments when I had to put the book down, scream, visualize taking him by the neck and shaking him, then breathe deeply, and return to the book. Remarkably, the author keeps his teen character true to form without it ever coming across as if he the author should just have known better. Though I did take issue with the hero never thinking for a second that he could be tracked simply by using his cell phone which carries over from his former life in the abusive household.
Okay, now for my absolute favorite things about this story. For one, the fantasy elements and the thriller elements, though surprisingly subordinated to B-story status, are also extremely well handled. I’ve spoken about the thriller component in brief, so I’ll leave that alone for now. As to the fantasy component, the lore surrounding why it is our hero’s family are among the rare few who can time travel through pictures is beyond fascinating, and very original. I also appreciated how each time he time travels he complicates his life in ways that taxes his ability to make smart decisions under pressure. Moreover, the screw-ups come at a high cost to the ones he loves, meaning they tear at his heart strings forcing not just his IQ but his EQ or emotional intelligence to grow in leaps and bounds just to keep from drowning in the time ripples emanating from each time jump. And what else should a teen or YA novel be if not a primer for growing the heart and mind to facilitate the coming of age drama that constitutes the very initiation into adulthood?
And that leads me to my absolute favorite component of this story. Namely how well the author handles intense emotions, one of the most difficult things for any writer, especially a young, first-time author. The pages are saturated with an emotional intensity and tension that never lets up, and whether it’s dark emotions he’s painting for us, or lighter ones, emotions pertaining to teen romantic love, or love of family and friends, together with all the amplified responses that come with hormonal surges, it’s a real tour de force.
Just one caveat, this is not a stand-alone book. The cliff hanger is so huge that you will feel like you need to read the next book for a sense of completion, and possibly the one after that. Some of that is just good baiting of the hook; after all, the writer’s offering this first installment for .99 cents, so the guy has to make his money somehow if he ever expects to quit his day job. With that said, I’m not a big fan of being left hugely hanging after completing a full length book. Tease me, yes, bait the hook to read on, yes, but leave me with a satisfying sense of completion for the tale I just read. That’s my one biggest bone to pick, but again, it’s hard to fault the guy for trying to make a living.