Andrew Klavan’s The Last Thing I Remember is his first young adult thriller. That doesn’t mean a grizzled old man like me can’t enjoy it, though, and I did.
Nobody sets up a grabber opening like Klavan, and it would have been hard to better this one. As the story begins, we find our hero, high school junior Charlie West, waking up strapped to a heavy metal chair, in a room full of torture instruments. He has wounds and burns that he can’t remember getting. In fact, the last thing he remembers is a fairly ordinary day of school (which turns out, on closer examination, to have been not so ordinary at all). Outside the door, he hears men talking, and the one in charge says, “Kill him.”
Now we both know they won’t succeed at that, because otherwise there’d be no book. What follows is a two-stranded story—Charlie describes his desperate escape and his attempts to get back home and avoid the police (who are hunting him), alternating with his memories of that “ordinary” last day—the karate demonstration he did for a school assembly (he has a black belt, and it’s a good thing, too), working up the nerve to talk to a pretty girl and getting her phone number, a session at the dojo and a talk with an estranged friend, work on a history paper, and bed.
The formula for a good thriller is to put your hero in an impossible situation and find ways for him to survive and reach his goals, even though the impossible situation gets even worse. Klavan hits every stop, and the story just speeds along. It seemed too short, and now I’ll have to wait a whole year to find out what comes next.
Charlie is a Christian and a patriot, and just the kind of hero you want your kids to have.
I have some minor quibbles. Charlie frequently draws strength from a quotation from Winston Churchill that he got from his karate master—“Never give in, never give in… never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense….” It gets a little didactic, but of course this is a young adult novel, and you almost have to do that if you want to teach the reader anything. Nuance doesn’t go very far with younger readers.
I found that lesson a little painful, personally. The principle’s a good one, but there are a lot of people out there—especially young people—who aren’t in a position to act as Charlie does. These people are in situations where they literally have no power, and trying to “never give in” will only make their situations worse. I know, because I was one of those kids once.
But that’s something that’s probably more significant to me than to most people. This is a book you’ll want your son or daughter to read (mild violence, no sex or bad language), and you’ll enjoy reading it too. A lot.