Plot: 2/5 Characters: 3/5 Writing: 2/5 World Building: 3/5 World Building: 3/5
“The Summer of my Fourteenth Year” is an odd little book with what seems like a simple premise until Meaders gives it the most unexpected and creative one-eighty. Meaders essentially takes Ralphie from “A Christmas Story” and has him narrate an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” As crazy as that sounds, it actually works. The end result is a zany blend of sci-fi and memoir that had me laughing and invested in every page, until the last fourth began to go nowhere and the ending flat out disappointed me.
It’s the summer of 1963 and all almost-fourteen-year-old James can think about is girls, his approaching birthday and mowing enough lawns to buy his first car in two years’ time, making him a typical kid having a typical summer. As he ventures out into his surrounding neighborhoods to mow grass, however, his summer begins to go from typical, to strange, to downright bizarre. Houses start disappearing, some neighbors end up being reptilian aliens ready to gobble James up and others disappear along with the houses. With all this sudden craziness, can James survive past his fourteenth birthday?
The memoir-like aspects are very well done. The images of summer days spent mowing lawns, hanging out with buddies, dodging bullies, and vegging in front of the TV are vivid, believable, and draw on what I think is a pretty universal experience in America, even if the story does take place in 1963. Meaders does a wonderful job bringing out the little details of the time period, giving the story a strong sense of nostalgia and drawing the reader into another place and time. This makes the strange and alien elements of the story stand out all the more and for the better. The two atmospheres are so polar opposites that it’s a lot of fun seeing how they interact.
Until the last twenty minutes of the book.
Another element Meaders does well is keeping it a mystery what’s real and what’s not. It was fun trying to figure out if James really was seeing the aliens and other strange happenings or if they were in his mind. It really gets exciting once his parents start seeing the weirdness too, confirming that there really is something strange happening in his neighborhood, but just as you think it’s all coming together, the narration gets sloppy and goes off on tangents and dream sequences that amount to nothing. Then, Meaders presents the ending, pulling the rug out from under you and letting you fall right on your face.
It seemed like Meaders got towards the climax of this book, got bored and said, “Well, that’s enough. Sorry, readers!” and hit “Publish.” If the rest of the book had been mediocre, I probably wouldn’t have cared, but it’s so good and so creative that I was genuinely angry at the end of the book. If Meaders had kept up the steam and actually saw the story through, it could have been a very good, creative book.
And if anyone wants to point out that the twist was right in the book description on Amazon, I’d like to point out that 1) I get these books through email. I don’t see the description until I get ready to write the review. 2) That doesn’t make it a good twist. If anything, it just makes it more disappointing.
Overall, I’d say read the first three-fourths of the book and then make up your own ending. The clash between “Twilight Zone”-like weirdness and American nostalgia is enjoyable and funny. The protagonist is even pretty fun and actually sounds like a fourteen-year-old, which is sort of impressive (even if his ‘fourteen-year-old-hormones’ argument does get old). I only wish his story had a better conclusion.