Friday, April 2, 2021

"Billie Albatross and Her Time Traveling Mom" by Thomas Hansen--Fiction Review

Well, it’s Friday, so it’s review day! Today we’re talking about a time travel sci-fi adventure by Thomas Hansen that genuinely surprised me. “Billie Albatross and Her Time Traveling Mom” is a really fun read.  

Thomas Hansen

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

Hansen has a natural talent for bestowing his characters with the gift of gab. Dialogue is some of the hardest things to write and make believable, and when it isn’t, it risks being labeled with the dreaded descriptor of stilted. The tamber of banter between Billie and her mother Pandora especially shines with a Whedon-esque style with a touch of “Gilmore Girls.” This is such a valuable skill because if the dialogue sparkles, the audience will naturally be more forgiving about any other shortcomings a narrative might have.  

Another thing I appreciated about this novel is that every element Hansen introduces, he used, nothing was wasted or was superfluous. It makes for a trim to the point plot, which for a book paced as quickly as this, I think this is the best tact to take. In a slower-paced narrative, story elements introduced for purely indulgent reasons can work atmospherically, but in quick-hitting stories, they tend to cause the reader to think, “well, what was the point of ‘X?’ It was introduced and then dropped.” The only possible exception I can think of right now is maybe a mystery with lots of red herrings. 

Just as a short note, about a thing toward the end of the story, for practical reasons—assuming time travel was a thing, of course—the concept behind the Arcadia ship was clever. Once time travel is possible, going backward to create a staging ground—out of the way—that always exists throughout time is a practical solution for time travelers that I liked. 

What I don’t love about this book:

So, this is soft science fiction, and that’s fine—I’m not down on soft sci-fi at all, and it might be the only way to do a time travel sci-fi because what does a hard sci-fi time travel story even look like? However, the easy to fall into trap soft sci-fi makes all the more likely is handwaving. What I mean by that is the tendency to address a hard to explain component of the story with basically, “and no one knows.” Ok, yeah, sure, there are many things we don’t know now, so I assume that would be true of this universe too, but surely someone must have theories, right? 

You meet two characters, I’d say near the end of the beginning of this story, Tosh and Marty—the latter undoubtedly a “Back to the Future” reference—who are well-meaning but impractical idiots. That’s a fine character arc to explore. What I don’t get is Pandora’s reaction to them. She’s often annoyed by them and worried about their influence on her daughter—that part I get—but why she keeps dealing with them just because Billie likes them is beyond me. Personally, after facing the first life or death situation they subject Billie to, my reaction would be, “you two need to go and figure your shit out and leave my fourteen-year-old daughter out of it before you get her hurt, arrested, or killed.”

While I’m thinking about it—I understand the pop culture references. I even believe they are helpful to sprinkle into certain stories because it builds intimacy with the reader. Basically, it’s a freebie of goodwill, “you like X? Well, I like X!” That is—when people get the references. Now here is where I might lose some people, but pop culture references—like bacon—can be overdone. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Don’t believe me? Go eat a pound of bacon. I’m not entirely certain when “Billie Albatross and Her Time Traveling Mom” crosses that line precisely, but I just found them distracting by the end of the story.   

This preview is an Amazon Affiliate link; 
as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The story starts with Billie, a fourteen-year-old girl—daughter of an eccentric single mother—going to school with her best friends. On this day, however, there is a really odd substitute teacher who only seems interested in asking just the girls really bizarre questions. Later, after school, the class bully tells Billie that the substitute teacher wants to meet with her specifically. Not believing him, Billie and her friends leave to go home. On the way, they’re chased by that substitute teacher who seems slightly ungrounded—like she doesn’t belong.

Billie and her pals manage to escape and make it to Billie’s mother—Pandora—who is still at work. Surprisingly, Pandora takes the whole situation very seriously nearly immediately. She deduces who and what the substitute teacher really is, a chronofficer tasked with policing and capturing rogue time travelers. Pandora knows this because she is a rogue time traveler and has kept this a secret from Billie her entire life. Billie is at first skeptical.

Skepticism has to take a back seat; however, when to escape the people after them, Pandora uses a device to not just nearly instantly transport herself and Billie to the moon, but into the future to a time when the moon has been colonized. Once there, Billie is forced to admit that her mother is indeed a time traveler. They then set out to meet with one of Pandora’s contacts, an alien who helped her create a false identity before, back when she was on the run right before she gave birth to Billie. Billie, not Pandora, gets him to agree to help them, but in the intervening time between him deciding to make them new false credentials and them picking said credentials up—he is murdered.

Without those false IDs and little to go on—trapped on the moon now—Billie and Pandora track down a couple they saw at the shop where they hoped to get their false IDs, to see if they know anything. The couple, Marty and Tosh, don’t know anything but agree to help Billie and her mother investigate the murder. None of them can go to the authorities themselves since they’re all on the run.

From there, the four of them, much to Pandora’s chagrin—but she still does little to put a stop to it—go on a series of misadventures in both reality and virtual reality to solve the murder and find a way off the moon. Eventually, to escape, Billie and her Mother end up using the time machine again and end up back home and in their own time—sorta. However, their device is destroyed, but with the help of some childhood friends, Billie manages to retrieve one of the chronofficer’s time travel devices. Billie and Pandora use it to go back to the future and take the long way back to the moon, this time to hopefully save Pandora’s murdered contact. They’re not successful, though, and Pandora explains that his death was inevitable. Billie disagrees with her mother’s assertion that they can’t change things for the better and takes off on her own to help save her friends Marty and Tosh, who the murderer was always after in the first place.

After, Billie and her mother get cornered in their room by chronofficers, and Billie discovers that one of them is her father. They agree to go with the chronofficers, who assure them that they aren’t interested in capturing Pandora and punishing her. They just wanted to talk and reunite Billie and Pandora with Billie’s father. Billie and Pandora leave the moon with the chronofficers. They all go to the ship Arcadia, a massive ship the chronofficers have built in such a way that it exists in every period of time. That way, they always have a base of operations.

Ultimately though, it’s revealed that Billie’s father had moved on a long time ago and has a wife and child separate from Pandora. The chronofficers want Billie to join them because she’s essential to the future somehow, and they feel that gallivanting around with her mother might jeopardize that future. Not forced to stay; however, Billie opts to refuse their offer. The book closes with Billie and her mother taking off, not with a time machine, but their very own starship to explore the universe.   


At first blush, I would say that the target audience for “Billie Albatross and Her Time Traveling Mom” was middle-grade, but there are some suggestive moments in it that muddy the issue and push it to more of a PG-13 experience, which suggests young adult is more appropriate. Typically, this isn’t something I care too—too much about, but I found my expectations oscillating between the two target groups as I read the novel. This isn’t a bad thing per se—just an observation. 

On a more critical note, I didn’t feel I ever fully understood Pandora’s reasons for running away in the first place. There is something about how she didn’t want her family and chronofficers to tell her how to raise Billie, but friends and family typically show an interest in these sorts of things. So I felt left in the dark of what she was expecting. By the end of the book, there are hints on what this “control” may have been like, but it’s still murky to me. 

In fact, with most of the adult characters, I felt a general haziness on their motivations—this was true with the antagonists’ goals, too. Putting it in the most favorable light, this non-understanding could be an artistic choice. It underscores the confusion most young teenagers feel about the motivations of adults.  

Parting thoughts:

I’ll be honest—I didn’t really know what to expect from Hansen’s “Billie Albatross and Her Time Traveling Mom,” but was consistently pleasantly surprised at how much it entertained me. This is an example of a book where I took a chance on it with little knowledge other than the high concept—the title, if you haven’t guessed. It suggested—to me at least—that this was likely a coming-of-age story with a Sci-Fi backdrop, and while Sci-Fi is clearly in my wheelhouse, coming-of-age stories are less so my thing. They stopped speaking to me as a reader consistently when—well—when I came of age. I’d say since I became an adult, nearly half of all coming-of-age plots I’ve read didn’t do much for me. 

In my reading list, though, I try to regularly throw in curveballs to give myself the broadest possible literary experience. Sometimes, a story such as this, which I assume I’m probably going to be lukewarm on, genuinely surprises me with how much I enjoy them—and that is really one of my favorite things to discover.

Getting outside of your comfort zone can seem daunting—especially if you try it and don’t like it—but I would encourage everyone I meet to try it because the world is a big place with lots in it, and you never know what you might be missing. Start small, try a book from a genre or target audience you wouldn’t normally resonate with—or if you tend to read all fiction, try nonfiction, or vice versa. I’m a big believer in the cliché, “variety is the spice of life.”

No comments:

Post a Comment