BOOK REVIEWS: Playing With Matches

Playing With Matches made the American Library Association’s 2009 list of Best Books for Young Adults.

Winner of the 2010-2011 North Carolina Young Adult Book Award

A 2010-2011 Missouri Gateway Award nominee

A 2009-2010 Michigan Thumbs Up Award nominee

A 2009-2010 Tennessee Volunteer Award nominee

A 2009-2010 Arkansas Teen Book Award nominee

A 2010-2011 Garden State Teen Book Award nominee

From Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2008 edition:

A loner goes from hero to zero after dating and dumping the school outcast. When 17-year-old self-professed nerd Leon Sanders is paired for a class project with Melody Hennon, a classmate whose face has been disfigured from a childhood burn accident, he discovers they share a passion for Monty Python, The Twilight Zone and fan fiction. The two quickly fall into a comfortable relationship, despite Leon ’s reservations about Melody’s scars. But when beautiful, popular Amy Green starts giving him come-hither glances, Leon trades in love for looks, only to realize too late he may have lost his soul mate. Katcher realistically plumbs the depths of the tortured teenage male soul (“What if they both had pig faces? Then my choice would be easy”) while tempering Leon ’s internal angst with plenty of laughs (“The following Monday I didn’t wake up as a billionaire playboy secret agent, so I was forced to return to school”). In the spirit of Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (1993) and David Yoo’s Girls for Breakfast (2005), this tender, funny debut is “dude lit” at its best.

From Booklist:

“Three billion women in the world, and the universe couldn’t spare one for Leon Sanders.” Leon is a D&D-playing, Monty Python-watching, lame joke-telling, high-school junior. An act of kindness with loner Melody, a burn victim with severe scars and facial disfigurement, leads to friendship and then romance. Leon enjoys her company but worries about what others think, while Melody revels in feeling beautiful for the first time. Following a familiar plot trajectory, Leon pushes Melody aside after the class hottie, Amy, makes her move on him. First-time author Katcher pulls out a nice twist at the end, revealing Melody to be a girl who has been through fire both literally and figuratively and has emerged with uncommon strength. This is a fabulous blend of laugh-out-loud humor and a serious look at relationships. The secondary characters are delightful, including ADHD friends Jimmy and Johnny, Parking Lot Pete, and even Dan, the junior Hannibal Lector, who has more heart than he lets on. Recommend to this to fans of John Green’s books; Katcher is an author to watch.
-Cindy Dobrez

From Romantic Times Book Reviews: Four and a half stars

Boys will relate to this story, and girls will appreciate the insight it gives into the minds of teenage boys. Katcher delivers a well-written, humorous and very human debut.

From The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books:

Tired of being a harmless high-school nerd, Leon longs for real contact with the female sex, especially curvy cheerleader Amy, on whom he’s got a hopeless crush. What comes to him instead is a growing friendship with school outsider Melody Hennon, who’s severely facially disfigured from a childhood accident, and who turns out to share Leon’s interest in sci-fi and dumb jokes. Soon they’ve moved beyond friendship to being a romantic couple, but what happens when Amy suddenly begins to take an interest in him as well? What sounds like a plot for a sappy movie proves to be a keenly perceptive, witty, and at times painfully authentic study of character and social dynamics. Nobody’s just a functionary here: not only is Leon credible and nuanced, Melody too avoids stereotyping—yes, she finds more confidence from being in a relationship, but she’s not just there to be saved by Leon; even manipulative, not-that-smart Amy has serious personality. The book is raw and honest in its examination of Leon’s feelings, including his fear of stigma and settling and his eagerness to have sex as well as his genuine affection for Melody. Ultimately, this is a wise and unpretentious story of a young guy making a young guy’s mistake, the kind you have to actually make in order to learn from it; while he also learns the sad lesson that there are no do-overs, the experience was worth the ending, and they’ll be okay.

From School Library Journal:

Leon’s self-deprecating, ironic humor keeps an authentic edge running through the story as he explores new relationships and roles, and wrestles with doing the right thing. Melody is a resilient young woman whose experience with Leon helps her develop self-confidence. This is a strong debut novel with a cast of quirky, multidimensional characters struggling with issues of acceptance, sexuality, identity, and self-worth.

Reviews by other authors:

“A sharp, funny, and poignant coming of age tale. Katcher’s love triangle is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious.” —Blake Nelson, author of Paranoid Park

“From the first scene to the last, Leon Sanders embodies all the traits of Kurt Vonnegut’s best anti-heroes in teen form: the vulnerability, the conflict, the acerbic wit-and above all, the humanity. You’ll root for him, even as he stumbles. And then you’ll read this impressive novel again.” —Daniel Ehrenhaft, author of The Afterlife and 10 Things to Do Before I Die

“What is beauty? Philosophers have been debating the question for thousands of years. Now debut novelist Brian Katcher gets a good crack at it, too. Playing With Matches is a touching, sometimes funny story about a classic dilemma.” —Brent Hartinger, author of Geography Club and The Order of the Poison Oak

“Convincingly raw in emotion and spirity, and yet polished in voice, Brian Katcher’s Playing With Matches speaks with humor and compassion to the nerd (and admit it-there is a nerd) in every one of us.” —P.E. Ryan, author of Saints of Augustine

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