3.6 5
by Liz Fichera

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This Game Is Getting All Too Real 

Sam Tracy likes to stay under the radar and hang out with his friends from the Rez. But when he saves rich suburban princess Riley Berenger from falling off a mountain, she decides to try to save him. Riley promises to help Sam win the heart of the girl he can't get over, and suddenly Sam is mad popular and on

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This Game Is Getting All Too Real 

Sam Tracy likes to stay under the radar and hang out with his friends from the Rez. But when he saves rich suburban princess Riley Berenger from falling off a mountain, she decides to try to save him. Riley promises to help Sam win the heart of the girl he can't get over, and suddenly Sam is mad popular and on everyone's hot list. Except now Riley's trying out some brand-new bad-girl moves and turning both of their lives upside down.

Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—Riley Berenger and Sam Tracy could not be more different. Sam is a brooding Native American teen from the rez, while Riley is a rich girl whose biggest concern is getting asked to prom. They cannot stand each other—until one weekend retreat changes everything. When Riley falls off a mountain, Sam is the one who rescues her. After a night spent stranded in the wilderness, Riley makes up her mind about two things: she is going to live life by her own rules and she is going to help Sam get the girl of his dreams. So what if that girl is her brother's girlfriend, right? The novel has all the ingredients of a typical romance: star-crossed lovers, an anti-hero, a dash of danger, and a cute boy on a motorcycle. It could be trite, but the plot is a perfect mix of real-life scenarios and swoon-worthy romance, while the issues of race and class that Fichera interweaves into Sam and Riley's story add substance. In an alternating first-person narration style similar to Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park (St. Martin's, 2013), readers are given insight into the characters' thoughts and feelings. The tale sticks to the formula, but the captivating ways in which the sequence of events plays out keep this take fresh and exciting.—Sarah Lorraine, Nazareth Academy, LaGrange Park , IL
Publishers Weekly
Fifteen-year-old Riley Berenger is a smart girl who loves to wear pink; Sam Tracy is equally smart, but he hides his intellectual side from his Native American friends. During a leadership weekend trip in the wilderness, Riley falls onto a mountain ledge; Sam tries to help her, and they spend the night together—nearly naked for warmth—until they are rescued. To thank Sam, Riley promises to help him break up her brother Ryan’s relationship with a Native girl, Fred, who Sam is in love with (Ryan and Fred will be familiar to readers of Fichera’s Hooked). Fichera reprises the theme of cross-cultural romance as misunderstandings ensue and Sam and Riley fall for each other, but the story is let down by overdone situations where Sam comes to Riley’s rescue. Beyond the initial mountain scene, Sam also fights a boy who takes advantage of Riley at a party and protects her from a menacing biker gang. Riley is the perpetual damsel in distress, repeatedly finding herself in sexually vulnerable positions, waiting for Sam to save the day. Ages 14–up. Agent: Holly Root, Waxman Leavell Literary Agency. (June)
Kirkus Reviews
The second book in the author's examination of relationships between the white community and Native Americans on a Phoenix-area reservation. Hooked (2013) got down and dirty into the racism engendered by a romance between Fred, a great girl golfer from the Rez, and Ryan, an upper-middle-class white boy. Here, the focus shifts to Ryan's younger sister, Riley, and Sam, a Gila-Havasupai boy who's been in unrequited love with Fred for years. Sophomore Riley and junior Sam, never friends, find themselves thrown together at a leadership camp when Riley falls over a ridge and Sam clambers down to rescue her. As they wait to be retrieved, Sam confesses his love for Fred to Riley, and Riley decides to break up the girl's romance with her brother and give Sam a makeover so he'll have a chance with her. Meanwhile, Riley goes to a party given by her longtime secret heartthrob—who simply plays Riley for a fool. Once again, Fichera concentrates on the conflict between personalities, although here she places less emphasis on the conditions on the reservation. While readers will predict the eventual romantic outcome, getting to that point takes the characters through major difficulties, providing most of the fodder for the story. As Riley and Sam begin to realize their mutual attraction, plenty of suspense arises from Riley's bad choices. The book stands out in its nicely realistic portraits of the teens. (Romance. 12-18)

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Being the good daughter wasn't easy.

First there was the guilt that gnawed at my self-esteem like a leech whenever I didn't live up to my parents' expectations. That guilt could be triggered by the smallest of things. Like when I snapped at Mom before school because I was late and she didn't appreciate my lipstick shade, and she looked back at me with wide eyes as if wondering whether I was her real daughter or an imposter from outer space. Or when I pulled a B on a chemistry test (my least favorite subject) instead of the A Mom and Dad wanted. For the rest of the day, my anxiety was on overdrive.

Second, because I've had to overcompensate for my loser older brother for, like, ever, old habits were hard to break. The worse he behaved, the better I behaved, because I was the Designated Good Daughter, remember? So when Ryan would come home reeking of cigarettes and beer, or sometimes not at all, and Dad would corner me about him in the family room, I'd make excuses for him. "He had to go upstairs" or "He's getting a cold" were my standbys as I feigned interest in whatever was playing on television. Being the perfect daughter, I got away with my little white lies, and my parents overlooked my brother's shortcomings. It was easier that way. And even though Ryan had recently achieved Good Son status thanks to his new girlfriend, I couldn't shake the feeling that I had to continue to be the glue that kept my family together.

Which was why it made no sense that I'd been going out of my way the past few months to be the Undesignated Bad Daughter. It was like there was another person inside of me with her hands on the controls, pushing my arms and legs, my mouth. My brain. She was definitely stronger than the normal, good me. But this strong part of me kept my confused and frustrated parts together, the ones that I tried to keep hidden from everybody.

You see, being the good daughter wasn't something I wanted. It was just the way the universe arranged things. No rhyme or reason. I'd give anything for a do-over, a chance at some normalcy. A chance to make mistakes and not always feel like bad behavior meant I deserved banishment to a black vortex.

"Just one teeny prick, Riley. Maybe two, at most. Between your eyebrows. You'll never feel a thing," Drew said. "It'll make you look hot." Drew Zuniga had been in dance club with me at Lone Butte High School since freshman year. She was pretty much my only friend, but I was a quality-over-quantity kind of girl—at least, that's what I told myself. It made my friend situation seem Zen instead of serving as reminder that I wasn't very popular, despite having a popular older brother. We had gotten into the habit of chilling at her house after dance practice. It totally beat walking home, especially during the hotter months which, in Phoenix, Arizona, was pretty much every month. And walking was for freshman. The best part was that Drew had gotten a car for her sixteenth birthday and could ferry us around. I had to wait three more months before I'd get to pick out my own car, which was as good as waiting for forever. Today we were standing in her bathroom as I watched her point a clear syringe-like thingy at my face. It was freaky crazy, actually, but Drew was my friend. I trusted her.

The syringe was filled with some type of BOTOX concoction, pilfered from her dad's medicine cabinet. Dr. Zuniga was a plastic surgeon and brought home BOTOX injections for Mrs. Zuniga, who, in her defense, did look like she could fit in with the popular seniors at our school. From a distance, at least.

"But this is creepy." I leaned away from the shiny pointy end as far as the edge of the bathroom counter would allow. "You don't even know what you're doing."

"Sure I do!" Her brown eyes widened with indignation. "I've watched my dad do it a ton. One time I even practiced on an orange. It's just a tiny prick." She paused. "And one time my dad even did it on me. Right here." She pointed to her chin.

"No way."

"Way. See how smooth the skin feels?"

I squinted at her chin. It did look a little different, maybe rounder. Softer. It might have been my imagination but I thought Drew's chin used to look square. Like a boy's. "But this stuff is supposed to be for moms. With wrinkles," I said.

"And you've got a few already, I hate to tell you, chica" Drew's eyes swept over my face in full I'm-not-really-a-dermatologist-but-I-play-one-on-TV mode.

"Where?" I turned toward the mirror.

"Right there." She pointed to the skin between my eyebrows, which, okay, had a few stray blond hairs that needed plucking.

"Those are freckles." I frowned at her. Teeny orangey-brown spots dotted my forehead like a dartboard.

Drew ignored me. "It'll tighten that skin right up. This stuff is totally preventative. You'll see."

I swallowed as my knees weakened. I could use a little help, that much was certain, but would it make me look pretty? Jenna Gibbons-pretty? Jenna Gibbons was without a doubt the most gorgeous girl in our sophomore class. To make matters worse for every other girl at school, she had a twin sister, Jeniel, who looked exactly like her but wasn't as outgoing—which was a good thing, because two perfect Jennas on the planet would be more than any girl could handle. With their wavy black hair and killer blue eyes, the twins could seriously be teen models. Why did some girls have all the luck? "But won't it leave a scar?" I said, weakening beneath Drew's unrelenting gaze.

"No scars. It'll just leave a little red mark. Like an ant bite. It'll be gone by tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" My voice rose. "What about tonight? My mom will freak."

Drew's eyes rolled. "Your mom will be at work, like always." Her hand—the one holding the syringe—lowered.

I swallowed again. Drew had a point. No one would see me. Dad would work late on a case or a trial like always, too. Ryan would be at Fred's house, where he was living practically 24/7. (By the way, Fred was a girl. Fred was short for Fredricka, but Fred hated her name and insisted everyone call her Fred—and who could blame her? She had an old-lady name, even though she was one of the coolest junior girls at school, in my opinion.)

Besides, I'd overheard Shelley McMahon say at lunch that other girls at school had tried BOTOX, even Jenna Gibbons. That was why I remembered. That was why I was standing in Drew's enormous bathroom, pressed against the double marble sinks, inches from a sadistic-looking syringe, squinting into about one hundred obnoxiously steaming-hot vanity lights. Maybe there was something to this BOTOX frenzy? And maybe feeling pretty was just as important as being pretty. "Okay," I heard myself say. "Do it. Between my eyes. Just once."

Drew flashed a triumphant smile, her thumb ready at the end of the pump. "Trust me, after you see what this will do, you'll be begging for more."

"Won't your dad notice it missing?"

She shrugged. "He hasn't so far."

Then she positioned the syringe inches above my forehead. I sucked in a breath.

"Lean back," she said, reaching for my neck with her other hand.

Every nerve, muscle and brain cell in my body told me that this was stupid and wrong, but I wasn't in control. It was that other girl inside of me, the fiercer, spunkier one who'd been calling the shots—no pun intended—lately. That voice inside my head kept telling me that I needed to be cooler, more spontaneous. Different. Definitely different. So I leaned back, closed my eyes, tilted my head and begged for different.

"Ouch," I said when the needle pierced my skin, freezing my forehead like it'd been doused with dry ice. Then the feeling spread to the rest of my face. "This so better be worth it," I said to Drew through gritted teeth.

Drew took a step back, still holding the syringe in her right hand. She reached inside a jar on the counter that was stuffed with cotton balls.

"It feels like my forehead is on fire."

She dabbed my skin with one of the cotton balls and some other liquid that I couldn't see. "Don't worry. It doesn't last." She took a step back, still studying me, and tossed her pony-tail over her shoulder.

"Better not. I've got the leadership conference this weekend."

Drew frowned. "Good gawd! Total dorkdom, Riley. You might as well wave the white flag on your social life right now."

"And what social life would that be?" I didn't bother hiding my sarcasm. Besides, it wasn't as though Drew had a better social life than I did. Otherwise, why would she be hanging out with me? "It's my parents' fault. They're making me go," I added, which was a complete lie. "And it looks good on college applications." Now that was true. It was pretty hard to get into the Art Institute of Chicago—that was my dream—so I figured I'd need all the help I could get, especially since I was kind of mediocre at anything besides art classes, at least as far as my grade point average was concerned.


I ignored her frown.

But then Drew smiled. She finally said what I longed to hear. What I never heard. "You look different already."

I wanted to believe her. No, scratch that. I needed to believe her. It gave me hope. It lifted weight off my shoulders. For a moment, it was as if my life had real possibilities. Potential. Magic.

Welcome to the inside of my crazy head.


My buddy Peter and I hitched a ride in the bed of Martin Ellis's pickup. Martin drove and Vernon Parker called shotgun. There was a party tonight somewhere near the Estrella foothills. When you lived way out on the Rez like we did, sometimes that was as close to real excitement as you got.

Going out beat the alternative, which was stay home, watch my grandmother weave baskets on the front stoop and pretend that my heart hadn't been pulverized into a thousand pieces.

Martin's truck chugged its way along a single-lane dirt road. The sun had already begun to set and by the time we reached the foothills, the sky would be as black as a bruise. Someone would have already started a campfire and (hopefully) someone else would have brought beer—just a can or two apiece, but that was probably all that anybody could sneak from home.

Peter and I clung to the sides of the truck as Martin charged up and out of bumpy washes that snaked across the Sonoran Desert. Peter was another Rez kid and a junior at Lone Butte High like me. Despite being fifty pounds lighter, he was as tall as I was. That's why our legs kept knocking whenever Martin sped like a madman over the washes. Across the truck bed, Peter kept giving me the stink eye from behind his wire-rimmed glasses, even as his glasses kept slipping down his nose.

"Stop it," he yelled over the grind of the engine.

"Stop what?" I yelled back, tasting a thin layer of dust on my lips.

He shook his head. "Stop thinking about it." Peter and Martin were the only ones I'd told, but I was pretty sure everyone on the Rez knew. Even though the Gila River Indian Reservation stretched forever in just about every direction, it was microscopic, if you know what I mean. Sometimes the biggest places could be the tiniest.

I shrugged and looked away from Peter, preferring to stare across miles of brown desert and dried tumbleweeds as if it were the most exciting scenery in the whole world.

As usual, Martin continued to drive like a maniac. Frankly, I was surprised his old man's truck could do more than thirty-five. If the truck were a hospital patient, someone would definitely be reading it its last rites.

I turned away from Peter and focused on the wake of dust that swirled like a minitornado behind us in the darkening sky. If Peter referred to That Which Shouldn't Be Named one more time, I was seriously thinking about ripping off a truck panel. It was bad enough that Peter even thought it. But he surprised me.

"I can't believe you're gonna bail on us this weekend."

I breathed easier and looked at him. "I know. Can't help it. My mom wants me to go." Total lie. My parents, my dad especially, had stopped being interested in what I did at school ever since I'd started going to Lone Butte High. Not sure why, exactly. But it was better for all of us when they stayed out of my business. Besides, they both worked all the time at the casino on the Rez and Mom was studying for her master's degree whenever she wasn't working, so it was probably easier that they didn't have to worry about me. One less hassle.

"Why don't you tell her that you don't want to go? Martin, Vernon and me, we're gonna drive down to Coolidge. Supposed to be a fair in town or something. Maybe even a rodeo." His eyebrows wiggled. "Maybe even hot rodeo queens."

"You wish," I said.

"A dude can dream. What else I got?"

I laughed. But then I dragged my tongue across my lips, tasting more dust. "Too late for me, anyway," I said. "Already paid for it." Another lie.


"Seriously." What I didn't share was that Lone Butte High School had paid my registration fee to the Maricopa County High School Leadership Conference. They'd paid the fees for the two sophomores, two juniors and two seniors with the highest GPAs. I happened to be one of the two juniors. Sucks to be the other sixty students who were invited but had to pay out of their own pockets. Now all I had to do was show up to school tomorrow morning and board the bus. It would get me to Monday and put about 250 miles of desert between me and the Rez.

"What do you want with some leadership bullshit?" Peter said. "You need someone to tell you what you already know?"

I swallowed. The truth? I really didn't know. My guidance counselor at school, Mr. Romero, had told me about it. He'd said things like conferences and awards looked good on college applications. He'd said I had to be more of a game player, especially since there was a good chance I was going to graduate early and colleges were already starting to inquire about me. Me. Sam Tracy, the smart kid from the Rez.

Unfortunately I stunk at playing games. Just give me something in black-and-white, minus the sugarcoating. Minus the doublespeak.

A part of me knew I couldn't stay in-state, and I think Mr. Romero would just about blow a gasket if I didn't apply to college, not when my SATs were among the highest in Arizona. Too bad that looking good on paper was more important than simply being smart enough.

I closed my eyes and tried to ignore Peter, even as he teased me for the rest of the ride about being the biggest nerd on the Rez. It was probably true.

Peter was lucky he was one of my best friends. Otherwise I would have tossed him out of the truck, which was pretty easy to do when you were my size.

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