Monthly Archives: August 2008

“How to Build a House” by Dana Reinhardt


Let me begin by saying that Dana Reinhardt's "How to Build a House" received starred reviews in both Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal, so it's entirely possible that my opinion is just plain wrong! Still, I have to admit I found it to be a decent but not great story of one teenager's summer spent building a house in western Tennessee.

Homes from the Heart is a sort of Habitat for Humanity outfit, and here the group is working with a few teens from across the country to build a new house for the Wrights, a biracial family who lost everything in a devastating tornado. Harper has signed on for this summer of hard labor and sweat partly because she's a staunch environmentalist and news of the tornado, which was overshadowed by Hurricane Katrina's destruction, touched her heart. Mostly, though, Harper wanted a way to get out of southern California for the summer. She desperately needed to leave behind her newly divorced and brokenhearted dad; her former stepmother and stepsisters, who were the only real family members she ever had; and her oldest friend, Gabriel, who callously used and discarded Harper when she was at her most vulnerable.

Harper's summer goes about how you'd expect if you've ever read a single teen novel. Harper makes friends with a diverse group of kids from across the country (although, to me, her snarky pal Captain feels like a complete ripoff of the snarky Colonel in John Green's fabulous "Looking for Alaska" … right down to the name!). Harper begins to forgive her stepsister and closest friend, Tess, for a perceived wrong involving Gabriel. She discovers her strength and resourcefulness as she literally constructs something out of nothing. And, of course, she lets go and falls in love, in this case with Teddy, the Wrights' smart, affectionate, deep yet fun-loving son.

In the end, "How to Build a House" is a pleasant, earnest, yet wholly predictable novel populated by stock characters. It follows a standard yet inoffensive story arc, so it will neither surprise nor disgust you. While there's nothing exceptional here — typically, this sort of "chick lit" at least features zippy wit, crackling dialogue, or lyrical descriptions — there's nothing awful either. If you decide to check it out, I'd say this is more of a high school book (there are several discreet sex and drinking scenes) and one geared entirely toward girls. And, who knows, maybe you'll like it more than I did.

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Posted by on August 29, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Good Enough” by Paula Yoo


I thoroughly enjoyed "Good Enough," which tells the story of high school senior Patti Yoon. Patti, who is Korean-American, is an exceptional violinist and a straight-A student. She's also got a killer sense of humor (you know, the bone dry, cynical, self-deprecating wit that absolutely slays me). As you might imagine, being the All-State concertmaster for the previous three years, taking all AP classes, and spending free time at Korean church youth group doesn't exactly make Patti the most popular girl in school. Still, she seems to have made peace with her low standing in the high school hierarchy, as she's totally focused on acing her makeup SATs, maintaining her sky high GPA, and getting into — as her mom calls it in one hushed breath — HarvardPrincetonYale.

Yes, as you might have guessed, Patti's first-generation parents place a heavy emphasis on Patti's academic success. What Patti sees as an almost suffocating pressure her parents view as mere support and encouragement. Patti's future is the most important thing in the world to them, and if getting her into an Ivy League school means constantly nagging her about SAT vocabulary words and practice tests and such, then so be it. The thing is, Patti has internalized her folks' high expectations, and she's just about the most dedicated, conscientious student around. It's only when Patti befriends a cute, rock-loving classmate that she takes her first small steps away from the rigid structure of her life and toward freedom and even rebellion. Before long, Patti is regularly sneaking off to Ben's house for jam sessions, ducking out of a church lock-in to hit a punk show, and even secretly sending an application off to (gasp!) Julliard, NYC's famous music school.

Besides providing candid insight into a Korean-American household, "Good Enough" is smart, charming, realistic without being overly gritty or heavy-handed, and just so much fun. I loved Patti's character, from her amazingly true teen voice to the dignified, respectful way she starts to challenge her parents' expectations and fulfill her own dreams. Even Patti's overachieving youth group pals are revealed as real kids with their own quirks. "Good Enough" is a lively, quick read, and I recommend it for all middle school girls. It's also a great choice for those interested in music, as Patti's descriptions of being transported away while playing her violin should be warmly received by all you budding musicians out there. (And if you like that aspect of the novel, please check out Virginia Euwer Wolff's "Mozart Season" for another peak into a violinist's world.) I hope you enjoy this story as much as I did!

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Posted by on August 12, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Breaking Dawn” by Stephenie Meyer


Ok, I have to break my own rule and reveal spoilers in this review. I just can't see any way to write a meaningful review without bringing up some critical plot points. But I'm warning you right now, in advance, so hopefully you won't be heartbroken, surprised, appalled, etc.


"Breaking Dawn" is split into three sections, or books. The first, and clearly the weakest, is narrated by Bella and details her wedding to Edward, their honeymoon, and her subsequent … er … alright, there's no easy way to say this. It discusses Bella's pregnancy. I know! Worse yet, this is a "Rosemary's Baby" style pregnancy, where the fetus is apparently some kind of tiny monster whose very existence is destroying the mother and threatening the world. I cannot begin to adequately describe how awful this first section of the book truly is. Much of the dialogue between Edward and Bella sounds something like this:

E: "I love you so much, Bella."
B: "No, Edward, I love you so much."

And on, and on, and on. Also, leaving aside the fact that Bella's pregnancy violates Meyer's own vampire mythology — Edward's not "alive," biologically; didn't we establish that in the lab class back in "Twilight"? — I could live without the tired cautionary tale (sex = pregnancy + death!) that used to be such a staple of teen novels. Haven't we moved beyond that? Sheesh.

The second book gives us Jacob's narration, and the improvement is noticeable and immediate. In my view, Jacob is the only character throughout the saga who displays any level of complexity. He's honorable, weak, impulsive, brave, loyal, angst-ridden, and joyful, often all at the same time. In contrast to the Cullens' cold perfection, Bella's constant awkwardness, and Charlie's one-note bluster, Jacob has depth and shading. No wonder following his story of heartbreak, pain, and ultimate hope is so much more fulfilling.

Long story short, Bella has a perfect baby girl who is half-vampire, half-human. To save her life following Renesmee's birth, Edward makes Bella a vampire. (Note: he literally tries to pimp her out to Jacob first, as a last ditch effort (?!?), which is so wrong on so many levels that I cannot even begin to comment.) Turns out the baby is an absolute jewel and not a monster, so hooray. But, wait, the Volturri have a strict law forbidding vampire children, and now they're headed to Forks for a big showdown.

Except, not so much. Yes, the passages detailing Bella's vampire transformation, in which all her senses are heightened to extraordinary levels, are full of magic and wonder. They're delightful to read. And I'm all for a thaw in the Jacob-Edward relationship, which is long overdue. Other good stuff? Vampire folks from far and wide circling their wagons and prepping for a Volturri smackdown. There is genuine excitement in these scenes, in which the sense of impending terror is palpable. Finally, yippee, Bella is at last strong and powerful instead of the weak girl following Edward's every order. Brava! It's just the entire, rather lengthy book builds to a climax that goes absolutely nowhere. Talk about fizzling out! The whole ending felt like a college debate and not the grand finale of an epic series. What a letdown.

I realize all "Twilight" fans will read this, and some will overlook the flaws while others, like me, will be terribly disappointed. Either way, perhaps we can focus on the biggest positive to emerge from this saga, which is that teen reading — for girls! — has finally become a big news story and a viable force in mainstream culture. For that, I'll always be grateful to Stephenie Meyer, despite my failed expectations here.


Posted by on August 4, 2008 in Uncategorized


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