“Last Summer Boys” by Bill Rivers is the author’s debut novel. The story is told from the point of view of 13-year-old Jack.
This coming-of-age tale is set in the eventful summer of 1968. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King has just been murdered. Cities are burning from the riots. As the book progresses, Bobby Kennedy will be assassinated.
Jack and his two older brothers, Pete, 17, and Will, 16, welcome their cousin Frankie, 13, when he comes to stay for the summer in the Appalachian hills of Pennsylvania. Jack is impressed that Frankie won a contest for story writing.
The family is upset because a man who works for the county keeps coming around, trying to get the father to sell the house and land. “The county wants it so they can build their dam and flood the valley.” It would, of course, destroy their ancestral home. Other neighbors have sold; Dad is one of the only holdouts in the valley.
Jack longs for an adventure: “My brothers had been planning an expedition to find a wrecked fighter jet that crashed years ago the next county over.”
But his main concern is somehow saving his brother Pete from the draft. Pete is about to turn 18; the “Vietnam draft is going on and it’s a dangerous time for him to be so close to eighteen.” Jack has nightmares about Pete being in the war, and he wants to keep his brother at home and safe. He overhears a conversation that leads him to believe that famous people don’t get drafted, so he’s determined to see that Pete becomes famous so he won’t have to go to war.
He turns to Frankie the prize-winning writer and the wreckage of the jet. In Jack’s mind, if the boys can find the wreckage, Frankie can write about it, Pete will become famous, and Pete will avoid the draft. Meanwhile, there are adventures involving the pastor’s beautiful daughter, the disrespectful and destructive local motorcycle gang, a possible ghost, and other colorful neighbors.
I enjoyed the writing, such as “The smell of honeysuckle comes to us on warm wind.” The creek was “the sparkling ribbon of water rolling deep and wide before us.” Or “The storm purrs to itself, like a giant cat. It’s hiding behind the pines on the other side of our hill, waiting. … I can smell the storm’s electricity in the air, can feel it along my arms and the back of my neck.”
There are moments to make you stop and think: “If you go long enough thinking you don’t have a say in your life, you reach a point where you’ll do anything to show others that you do.”
The book reminds me of old-fashioned adventures of boys in the outdoors, or the movie “Stand By Me” — there’s a quest, boys growing up, dangerous encounters, and even a dead body. The story is suitable for all ages. And it’s really good.
“The Half-Life of Ruby Fielding” by Lydia Kang is set in Brooklyn in 1942.
Will and Maggie are siblings. Will is studying physics in college part-time and working during the day moving hush-hush shipments of uranium.
Everyone’s lives have changed because of Pearl Harbor. “The uncommon, a year ago, was all so common now. … It was a funny thing: when every day was extraordinary, it was the ordinary that became ever so odd.” Will, 25, is happy to be doing something for the war effort; he couldn’t join the army because he has one deaf ear. Maggie volunteers for practically every cause. She’s a plane-spotter. She makes nightly rounds telling people to observe the blackout rules. She also takes care of helpless creatures she finds in the neighborhood.
Maggie, 22, has a problem. “Sometimes it was crippling nervousness, sometimes outright ineptitude. … Sometimes it seemed she was still twelve.” Since her mother ended her own life, Maggie hasn’t been the same. In fact, she’s also tried suicide. So Will has always taken care of her. To calm herself down, she writes letters to her dead mother.
Maggie and Will live together, and both are lonely. “There was a reason Will had no friends, and no guests were ever invited over to dinner. Casual conversation meant asking about work and discussing the war. Giving away answers of any kind — be they subtle truths or outright lies — might ruin everything.”
One night they find a strange woman passed out on their front doorstep. She appears half-dead. At Maggie’s insistence and against Will’s better judgment, they drag her into their house and into their lives.
She is, of course, beautiful and mysterious. She claims she’s been beaten and needs to hide out from her abusive fiancé. Will is attracted to her; Maggie “wanted to keep the woman, like a trinket. Like a kitten.”
They’re fascinated by but also suspicious of the woman, Laurel. “They knew nothing about her but what they could judge by her looks. And looks lied. They lied all the time.” She could be a criminal. But when she flirts with both of them, they let their guards down and accept her as a temporary roommate.
When Maggie gets a job, Laurel asks if she can tag along. Another day, she insists on going to work with Will. And both Maggie and Will keep feeling they’re being watched. Then Maggie hears Laurel talking in her sleep — in German. And Laurel is pretty much an expert on poisons. What’s going on?
When they figure out her true identity, things get even stranger. They’re told, “You’re both perfect targets for a spy to cozy up with, and manipulate, and ruin everything for our country.”
It starts out as a family drama, turns into a mystery, and becomes a thriller. It felt to me, though, as if the last few chapters were written by a different author. Although I questioned the characters’ motivation, I was enjoying it until the ending that seemed to come out of left field. And you may have to overlook some of the author’s iffy phrasing. See for yourself.