Book Review: Playing With Matches

This novel was one I stumbled upon, entirely by accident. I have a habit of wandering around book review sites, and I thought I’d clicked to read about another title when this one popped up. The five stars given made me read the review. The review made me buy a copy. The copy turned me into a devoted fan of Brian Katcher.

Here’s the official blurb from Amazon:

Leon Sanders has a mug that looks like it should be hanging in a post office with the caption WANTED FOR SHOPLIFTING AND CREDIT CARD FRAUD. His new locker neighbor is Melody Hennon—class outcast and certified freak. Everyone at school keeps their distance from Melody because she was burned in a childhood accident. Leon has avoided her too, until the day he takes a chance, tells her a bad joke, and makes her laugh. No one, least of all Leon, could have predicted that Melody would turn out to be a funny, smart, and interesting person, or that he and Melody would become good friends… and later, more than friends.

But when junior class hottie Amy Green asks Leon out after he saves her from getting detention, his devotion to Melody hangs in the balance. Leon tries to find a way out of this nasty dilemma without hurting anyone, but soon he realizes—a little too late—that playing with someone’s heart is as dangerous as playing with matches.

This book is categorized as young adult, but it’s worth checking out no matter your age. The characters feel authentic, the setting realistic. I could’ve gone to this high school, I could’ve known these people. In fact, reading this book made me wish I had.

Leon is perhaps the most entertaining, genuinely written teenage boy I’ve ever read. This might have something to do with the fact that this author is male, but since I’ve read books written by women in which the women didn’t feel very real, I’m going to go ahead and say Mr. Katcher is a phenomenally talented creator of characters.

The hero is not perfect here. There were a couple moments I had to cringe at some of his internal monologue. Teenagers in general are not always kind and Leon was no exception. He was, however, laugh out loud funny and completely realistic.

I keep using these words: realistic, genuine, authentic, for a reason. I was still somewhat new to the YA genre the first time I picked up this book, and it was eye-opening for me. It can be difficult to transport an older reader back to their high school days with any kind of effectiveness, yet that’s the experience gained with this book. It is not over-the-top. It doesn’t try too hard. Playing With Matches simply is what it should be: a humorous, unlikely romance.

I grew up on romance novels–they were the only books in my mother’s house. By the time I was sixteen, I was well acquainted with Johanna Lindsay, Nora Roberts, Catherine Coulter. I’d read more Harlequins than most women twice my age. I know romance novels. I know what makes them good, what makes them suck. One of my biggest complaints is when I don’t buy the attraction. When the author is telling me over and over again how much these two crazy kids like each other, and I just can’t understand why.

That wasn’t an issue here. I not only believed that Leon and Melody were into each other, I completely understood why. Both characters had undeniable appeal. The attraction made sense…as did the hurdles their relationship faced.

I will admit that I did have a small problem with this book, but I can’t really blame the author for it. He wrote a girl who was seriously disfigured in an accident, one whose shyness is expected, whose lack of confidence is assumed. Problem is, I was involved in an accident when I was an infant. I, too, was severely burned. Though my scars are easier to hide, I am always aware of them. I know exactly what it’s like to be stared at, to hear the whispers, and feel the shame.

At first, Melody reminded me a lot of myself. I understood her far better than nearly any other character I’ve read. As the story progressed, however, I felt a slight disconnect. Melody, though deeply scarred both inside and out, turned out to be one hell of a lot stronger than me. I was torn, at various points, as to whether I was dubious of that strength, or simply jealous.

It doesn’t matter, I suppose. I never stopped rooting for her. Melody is a character that will stay with you. She’s someone to admire, someone you’ll think about at odd moments, and remember fondly. For that matter, so was Leon. Thought I called him an idiot a couple times in my head, I wanted things to work out between them. I wanted, more than I had in a very long time, to find a happy ending for these characters Mr. Katcher so generously shared with the world.

Obviously, I would recommend this novel. To anyone. To everyone. Whether you’re looking for laughs, emotion, or nostalgia, Playing With Matches will deliver.

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