Time Snatchers by Richard Ungar

Caleb is a time snatcher, an orphan trained by the man he calls “Uncle”, to travel through time and steal valuable artifacts that people in the year 2060 will pay big bucks to own. His time-traveling and thieving partner is Abbie, and the two of them have been living with Uncle and working for his company, Timeless Treasures, for as long as they can remember. The two teens enjoy their time travel, cat burglar adventures, but Uncle is becoming more and more callous and brutal. And Caleb is confused by his longing for a real family and by his feelings for Abbie. Are they partners or does Abbie care for Caleb in a different, more romantic way? Or is Abbie falling for Caleb’s cheating arch-enemy, Frank?

The author blurb says that Mr. Ungar “was inspired to write this novel by an image in Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.” Good inspiration. Time Snatchers is a good novel.

What I liked: the idea of combining con games and cat burglary with time travel, the characterization of Caleb in particular, the cranky computer cyborg, Phoebe, who runs the elevator and has a running feud with Caleb, some of the snatches that Abbie and Caleb pull off.

What I disliked: Uncle is a particularly nasty bad guy who engages in rather gruesome child abuse to keep his “time snatchers” in line. To be specific, he uses a sword to cut off body parts of those who disobey him, and at one point he has his captive snapping turtles gnaw on Caleb’s arm. Yuck. The torture episodes gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Also, the romantic interludes (very tame and junior high-ish) seemed a little bit abrupt, not quite enough set-up or insight into what Abbie is thinking or feeling.

I’ve been watching a lot of the TV show White Collar, and I was reminded of that program while I was reading Time Snatchers. Caleb is not quite as classy as Neil Caffrey; he’s a lot younger, for one thing. However, just as Neil wants to know who his parents were and wants to be a part of a family, Caleb longs for a normal life with a real family. And both Caleb and Neil are pretty good at fast-thinking and theft. Unfortunately for both of them, thievery is not a very sustainable or morally justifiable lifestyle. Neil Caffrey and Caleb are both in the process of learning that crime doesn’t pay.

Time Snatchers ends with major unresolved questions, so I’m assuming we’re headed for a sequel or two. If you don’t mind the child abuse parts, it’s a good story.

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