Slackers in novel work hard to avoid work

"Project Sweet Life" -

Brent Hartinger

HarperTeen -

282 pages - $16.99

Tacoma author Brent Hartinger has made a career of writing top-notch books for teens - "Geography Club" and "The Last Chance Texaco" among them.

Although Hartinger always writes with verve and wit, his books generally have a powerful undertow - your social conscience will get dragged into it and emerge for the better by book's end, whether the story is about sexual identity or foster kids or something else.

But "Project Sweet Life," Hartinger's latest, has a different feel.

This is a breezy tale about three 15-year-old guys in the Tacoma suburb of Fircrest who do everything within their power to avoid getting a summer job.

Dave and his friends Curtis and Victor had been expecting to spend their summer days biking, swimming and just hanging out in their hideaway, a 1960s-era bomb shelter in Curtis' backyard. After all, age 15 is the year of the optional summer job.

Unfortunately, this is a precept to which their dads do not subscribe. And to make his point perfectly clear, Dave's dad cuts off his son's allowance money.

The boys kick around their dismal options for summer employment and then hit upon a plan they like better. With Project Sweet Life, they'll fake getting summer jobs and come up with a more creative way for making the same amount of money in that period of time.

They go through a succes-sion of fundraising schemes - holding a high-end garage sale at the home of Dave's relatives in toney North Tacoma, turning in bank robbers for reward money and taking part in a promotion at the local mall by guessing how many jelly beans there are in a jar for prize money.

Applying themselves with great determination, Dave and his friends come surprisingly close several times to making the necessary money - but something always seems to get in the way of their collecting the dough and often they find themselves in scrapes with nefarious individuals instead.

One Project Sweet Life scheme involves a detour into Tacoma's history.

The guys seize upon an

urban legend about tunnels that had been dug underneath the city by Chinese immigrants and used for smuggling long ago. Stumbling across an unlikely lead, the boys hunt for hidden treasure in the China Tunnels. When further research indicates that the site they're exploring has long since washed out into Commencement Bay, the boys undertake a scuba diving expedition.

It doesn't seem to matter whether they're underground, underwater or in hot water - Dave and friends constantly are struggling to keep up their ruse with their parents while cooking up a get-rich-quick scheme that actually will pay off.

Over the course of the summer, these likable slackers end up working harder than they ever would have in any of those minimum-wage jobs they disdained.

"Project Sweet Life" is an amusing yarn, no doubt about it, and a mite educational, too. It will not be mistaken, however, for one of Hartinger's more important books.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest.

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