Saturday, January 26, 2019

Book Review - The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away

Reading the summary and the praise for The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away, I was excited to check it out with the hopes of finding another great option to hand to reluctant younger readers. It was compared to Louis Sachar who I absolutely enjoy and have recommended to many kids. The premise also sounded like something that would have a great appeal. The story of a young boy obsessed with aliens who is then abducted. The imagery of the creepy owls mimicking (or perhaps being/becoming) the referenced aliens made me feel like this had potential.

I dove into the story, working through the introductory pages and chapters, eagerly awaiting the moments of sci-fi tension or creepy foreboding from the owls. I was a little puzzled at the direction the story took. It meandered around with some exploration of the familial and social world of our protagonist Simon. While this was fine, I found these relations taking on the heart of the story in a way I didn't expect.

The story is told in Simon's voice both through his own narrative and through him sharing with us a fantasy story he's writing. He lives on an Air Force base, the latest in many. Simon's parents are biracial which he makes a point of letting us know (a few times). He has a bad relationship with his father in that he feels like a bit of a disappointment to his father or at least that he's not what his father hoped. His father is a little verbally abusive even in the times he tries to show compassion. It felt a little like a stereotype from an old TV sitcom. Simon has asthma and is on meds for that as well as other meds later in the book. His mother tries to be supportive but she feels a bit flat and disconnected. Simon is distanced from others but has one core friend he can turn to even if there are issues in that friendship.

Throughout the first few chapters, we learn that Simon read a book about aliens and is a bit obsessed with them. He's studied up and is very knowledgeable about all sorts of trivia around alien sightings, abductions and the like. So much so that it's a point of contention with his parents.

**** minor plot spoilers in next 2 paragraphs *****

Based on the title and the synopsis, I kept expecting "the owls" or the aliens to make an appearance early on and/or repeatedly. Instead, I kept getting to know more and more about Simon and his family and his life. The whole plot felt rather mundane as we read along with the ways he tries to deal with his personal issues.

Finally, Simon and his family are going camping and I thought "Yes, here come the owls." There was a minor moment of excitement and then we're back home. Convinced that he was abducted while camping, Simon tries to work through this with his parents. His parents take him to therapists and get him on medications and the whole incident makes relations with both his parents even worse. Simon seeks out someone who will believe him and finally makes a connection with some other "believers."

****** End main spoilers **********

At this point, I realize that this slim book is running out of pages and I'm concerned as to how they're going to resolve things. I still felt like there hadn't been any real good climax and I had essentially decided to change my expectations from this being an alien abduction kid's horror novel to being a psychological book about emotional issues and parent-child relations.

As the pages of the book quickly ran out, I suspected the way the author was going to end it. I have to admit I was a little surprised as to the way the book concluded. In some ways I was glad for the surprise because my "predicted" ending would have been a little heartless and depressive (even if realistic and thus able to act as a harsh fable).

Instead the ending felt very forced. The quick turn of events and sudden nuances were a bit 'deus ex machina' and the overall conclusion was rather unsatisfying. We are rushed through the wrap up and given a multi-paragraph discourse on the moral of the story. It's obvious that this moral is intended to be coupled with all of the unresolved emotional baggage from the other story threads. Throughout the book Simon also shares with us some chapters from the fantasy book he's writing. These chapters give more insights into some of the intentional messages and conversations this book is obviously trying to induce. Unfortunately I felt like this "messaging" was a bit too heavy handed and became the crux of the story rather than a message to be learned from a good story. Add to that the fact that no realistic resolutions are given and I wonder at the author's motivation in framing the story in this way.

Overall the premise sounded intriguing. The writing is adequate and can easily be digested by a reader in the 8-10 year old age group. The pacing of the story is fine, once you realize what kind of a story you're reading. An overly excited young kid looking for a high adrenaline thriller would quickly lose interest. The messages of the story could be nice talking points between adults and kids, either in a classroom or a therapeutic setting, but I doubt kids will care about them otherwise. Young readers may be more forgiving of the hasty wrap up and messy conclusion, but only if they make it that far in the book.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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