BY: MELISSA GROELING
When you’re caught in a traffic jam, you’ve got nowhere to go…
Val Delton’s life is spiraling and there’s nothing she can do to stop it. Her dad lost his job, her mom works fourteen hour days to pay the bills and yet somehow there are high-end shopping bags and an iPod in her older sister’s room. Naturally, Val becomes suspicious but her sister’s lips are sealed. Then by accident, she uncovers a dark, dangerous secret hidden behind her sister’s bright smiles and cool indifference. Val has no idea how far and how deep the repercussions of her sister’s secret will reach but she’ll do whatever it takes to keep her family safe. Will she succeed before her sister’s secret destroys everyone she loves?
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: Traffic Jam by Melissa Groeling is a smart, sassy, and contemporary YA novel. Our heroine Val is a sophomore in high school. She is a shy, troubled girl with more than her share of problems who longs to be as popular as her older sister Samantha. With her father out of work and her mother working ungodly long hours to pay the bills, Val and her siblings are suffering from the fallout. But when Val discovers expensive items in her sister’s room that she knows Sam can’t afford to buy, Val’s problems get much, much worse. The secret that Val discovers when she investigates her sister’s activities opens a can of dangerous worms. The subject matter might be a little harsh for YA, but it is handled with care and Groeling doesn’t go into any gory details so it works. At least for me. The story is told strictly from Val’s point of view, which also helps to soften the more harsher elements of the story since Val only hears about them. She doesn’t experience any of them.
Traffic Jam is a well-written story of a young girl’s struggle to help keep her family safe from a danger she can only begin to comprehend. In a way, I saw it as a coming of age story where a young, untried girl of sixteen fights what seems like overwhelming odds to emerge a more mature but still very sweet young woman. It is the kind of book you can curl up with on a rainy afternoon, with a hot cup of tea and a nice fire in the fireplace, and escape back to a time when homework and a desire for the smoking-hot boy next door seemed to be your biggest problems—until you found out what the world is really like.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Since I absolutely hated high school, Traffic Jam by Melissa Groeling had two strikes against it before I even started it. But I was quite surprised to find I enjoyed it. While it is a YA book that will actually appeal more to young adults than older ones, it is a well-written and accurate depiction of the life of young sophomore in high school. Groeling has a good feel for the mind of her character and the book had a strong ring of truth. I too found the subject matter of the dark secret depressing, but as Taylor says, it is handled with a great deal of sensitivity and we aren’t shown any of the gory details.
The heroine is Valerie, a sixteen-year-old sophomore in high school whom I found very easy to relate to. She hates high school, envies and despises her older sister, and cherishes her little brother. She has few friends and a secret, hopeless crush on John, one of her sister’s best friends. As she deals with the problems in her life and uncovers a gruesome secret about her older sister, Valerie grows up. She moves from being shy and timid to sticking up for herself and her family against all comers, from her sister’s cruel friends to the man who is forcing her sister into a life that Valerie can’t even begin to imagine. Traffic Jam is the story of one young girl’s journey through a pivotal year of her life, a story of young love and of finding the courage to do whatever it takes to keep those you love safe. All in all, it is a marvelous piece of work.
“Choke up on the bat, Val! Choke up!”
Val Delton sighed at the command and inched her hands upwards on the baseball bat. She’d forgotten her batting gloves yet again, and she could feel a blister forming on the side of her thumb.
It was the bottom of the ninth and just getting there had been like a double period of history with Mr. Asnor droning on and on about the Greeks and the Romans. He was quite possibly the only person on Earth who could make Gladiator sound like the most boring movie ever made. As it stood now, Val would take that double period over this game any day of the week. It was seriously the longest game ever. The sun had been up when the game started but now night had completely fallen, the stars blotted out by the field lights.
She heaved another sigh, thinking about the twenty-question assignment she still had to do for biology. How was she even supposed to hold a pen when there was a blister the size of a golf ball on her finger? She doubted Dr. Bennington would see that as a valid excuse for not doing the work. And then she still had to put the finishing touches on that book report—
The ball whizzed by her face, inches from her nose.
“Striiiiike!” the umpire belted out.
Val jumped. “Hey, I wasn’t ready!”
“You’re ready when you’re inside the batter’s box,” the umpire informed her.
Cheers came from the players out in the field. Rolling her eyes, she stepped out of the batter’s box and took a few practice swings. The bat felt heavy and useless in her hands and she winced as she chafed her blister against the rubber grip. She scowled to herself. She couldn’t believe she let her dad talk her into playing another season. There were clumps of dirt in her socks, dust in her hair, her stirrups were crumpling around her ankles, and the sweat stains under her arms were growing embarrassingly large by the second. Just a few more reasons on a long list of many to quit this stupid league.
“Valerie!” Coach Briello shouted impatiently. “Come on, focus! Eye on the ball, you hear me? Eye on the ball!”
It was the same advice he’d been shouting since the game started and judging by the gap in the score—that would be 19-3, thank you very much—it wasn’t doing much good. It had been three and a half hours chocked full of bad umpire calls, missed grounders, and high-fly balls that couldn’t be seen coming down from the sky because the people who built the ball park had Shea Stadium in mind. The towering field lights set the field ablaze like a monstrous bonfire and lit an area with a radius of about twenty square miles as well.
But Coach Briello refused to call a forfeit. He stood outside the dugout with his arms crossed, his chest puffed out, hat pulled down low over his eyes, looking more like a captain at the bow of a warship, just seconds away from ordering his crew to fire the first torpedo. For every umpire call he didn’t agree with, he challenged it with the ferocity of an enraged pit bull as if the World Series lay on the line rather than the exhausted efforts of a recreational girls’ softball team. In the shadow of the dugout, Val could see her team seated along the bench, bleary eyed and dejected, leaning against one another as if to keep each other from pitching face first into the dirt.
“Look alive!” Coach Briello roared.
Val shuffled back up to home plate. She hoisted the bat over her shoulder.
“Full count!” the catcher yelled. “Come on, Diane! Strike her out!”
Yeah, strike me out so we can all be put out of our misery, Val thought.
She glanced down at the catcher and she could see Becca’s blue eyes twinkling up at her through her mask.
“What’s up, Val?” she smirked.
“Hey,” Val muttered.
She turned her attention towards Diane, who was winding up a pitch. Val had a moment to think that Diane shouldn’t even be playing recreational softball. The girl had an arm that could take the bark off of a tree. Val had heard once that she actually knocked an umpire out cold when one of her pitches went wild. Rumor or not, it was still enough to invoke a healthy amount of fear.
With a strange mix of fascination and terror, Val watched as Diane pinwheeled her arm and sent the ball streaking towards her. She scrunched her eyes shut and swung.
The thick vibration of the bat hitting the ball sent a tremor down the bat and into her hands. Her eyes flew open and she watched, mesmerized, as the ball floated like a miniature moon against the dark backdrop of the sky, as if suspended there by a string. Then the ball was sailing in a hard curve into right field.
Cheers and shouts came from her teammates and more came from the bleachers, jarring her from her stupor. She dropped the bat. Excitement and adrenaline boiled in her gut as she broke out into a frenzied run towards first base.
Oh my God, I hit it! Oh my God! I hit a ball going the speed of sound!
She thought she was flying, her cleats barely touching the ground as she rounded towards second. Man, she didn’t even run this fast when she was late for school. Her heart thudded in her ears. She wanted to look over her shoulder to see where the ball was but she was afraid she’d trip and do a magnificent face-plant. Tucking her elbows into her sides, she launched herself towards third.
Dude, stop! Go back! You won’t make it! What’re you doing?
But her legs seemed determined to carry her farther. As if through an echoing tunnel, she could hear people hollering and yelling.
“She’s going for third!”
“Come on! Go! Go! Go!”
The cheers around her reached a pitch of urgency and she knew that the ball was close.
Close. God, it was gonna be close…
If she had any air, she’d scream.
“Slide! Slide!” someone exclaimed.
From beneath the rim of her helmet and with sweat stinging her eyes, she saw the third baseman’s glove come up. Sucking in a deep breath, she threw herself into the dirt like a human javelin. She slid like a fish in water, eyes tearing up, dirt and dust shooting up her nose and into her mouth. Her outstretched hands touched the base, and she came to a halt, almost over sliding. Billowing brown clouds rose around her like fog. A split second later there was a muffled thwump as the ball slammed into the baseman’s glove.
Her ears popped. For a second, she lay still, too afraid to move. She clutched at the base like a life preserver. Then slowly, she stood and applause erupted around her. Blinking dust from her eyes, she saw her coach bouncing around like a half-mad Mexican Jumping Bean. Her teammates were going crazy.
“Yeah! Way to hustle!”
“That’s what I want to see!”
“Way to go, Valerie!”
“Good slide, Val!” Coach Briello cried, pumping his fist into the air.
Val broke out in shaky laughter, unable to believe what had just happened. She wiped the sweat from her face.
There’s no way Mom and Dad are gonna believe that I hit a triple! Not even Sam’s gonna believe it! Neither will Justin!
There was a hard poke at her shoulder. She turned to find herself face-to-face with the umpire.
“You’re out,” he said.
The smile froze on her face. “What?”
She blinked. “I—”
“What’d you say, ump?” Coach Briello cut in, rushing over like a small swirling thunderstorm.
Val shook her head, frowning. “No, I’m not.”
“What?” came from the dugout.
“How is she out?”
“Is he blind or what?”
“You’re the last out. Game’s over,” the umpire said with finality.
“But I got here before the ball did,” Val insisted. “I heard it.”
“You heard wrong.”
“How exactly is she out, ump?” Coach Briello barked. “She made it safely to the base. I saw it with my own eyes.”
There was a commotion behind Val. She looked over her shoulder to see the other team high-fiving and congratulating each other. It felt like someone had dumped ice over her head.
“I heard the ball hit her glove after I got to the base,” she tried again. “I know I did.”
“Sorry,” the umpire said even though his tone wasn’t the least bit apologetic. “From where I stood, she tagged you.”
Val stared at him, the surge of adrenaline for hitting a triple now cooling off to the shoulder-sagging misery of striking out. Her team groaned and grumbled in disappointment.
Coach Briello, however, was not about to go down quietly. “This is ridiculous!” he bellowed, his thin black moustache trembling. “I have had it up to here with you, ump! You’ve been making bad calls throughout this entire game and my team and I have suffered for it. She was safe, you hear me? I was watching from right over there!”
“Hey, that’s the way I saw it,” the umpire snapped. “You don’t have to like it but that’s the way it happened, all right?”
“This game is not played by cheating!” Coach Briello ranted angrily.
Val glared at the umpire, wishing she could see his face through his mask. She yanked off her helmet. It was no use, really. Once Coach Briello started yelling, it only made the umpires stick more firmly to their calls, whether they were bad or not.
“That’s the way I saw it. If you don’t like it, you can request to have another umpire call your games.”
“I don’t want another umpire!” Coach Briello shot back. “I want you to admit your mistake. She was safe!”
“I’m not going to admit anything. She’s out. End of story.”
Val turned on her heel and stomped into the dugout. Sure, she didn’t want to play this stupid sport anymore but God, her first triple and it ended with her being called out because the umpire was an absolute moron. Make that a blind moron.
“Oh no! No, we are not done yet!” Coach Briello shouted after her. “Valerie, get your helmet back on! We are continuing this game immediately!”
“Coach, this game is over,” the umpire insisted. “It’s the bottom of the ninth and she was the last out.”
“Like hell!” he cried, flailing his arms like an acrobat teetering on a high wire.
The umpire walked away from him. Coach Briello followed like an irate puppy nipping at his heels.
Val tossed her helmet to the ground and sank onto the dugout bench with a miserable groan. “Well that sucked.”
“It was a good hit, Val,” Keri Anne said, as she took a seat next to her.
Melissa smiled as she sat down on the other side of her. She passed Val a small cup of water. “Textbook slide, too.”
Val shrugged. “Would’ve been better if I was safe.”
“Kenny’s an idiot. No one can help that.”
Val gulped down the water. “Kenny?”
“Yeah. You know, the umpire?”
“That was Kenny?”
Keri Anne rolled her brown eyes. She was a tall gangly girl with thick brown hair a face full of freckles. “Who else could call a game this badly?”
“Don’t you work with him on the school paper?” Melissa asked.
She was as short as Keri Anne was tall, with olive-colored skin and thick, dark hair that always looked like it belonged in one of those Pantene commercials. Val scowled, both at Melissa’s enviable hair and Kenny’s far-reaching stupidity.
“Yeah. He’s a moron there, too.”
“Well, at least he’s consistent,” Keri Anne said with a shrug.
“Consistently lame maybe,” Melissa sneered as she shook her hair loose from her ponytail.
“Not to mention blind,” Val mumbled.
“Think he has a date for the dance yet?” Melissa wondered.
Keri Anne popped two pieces of gum into her mouth, chewing noisily. “If he does, I feel sorry for her already.”
“Whoever he does drag along probably won’t be from our high school.”
“Is Jim taking you to his senior prom?” Val asked.
Melissa flipped her hair over her shoulder, flashing a satisfied smile. “Of course. I’ll probably be the only sophomore there.”
Keri Anne gave her a bored look. “Is he coming to our sophomore dance then?”
Melissa’s eyes clouded a bit. “No. He thinks it’s too…juvenile.”
“Hey,” Val said, offended.
Keri Anne arched an eyebrow. “He used to be a sophomore once.”
Melissa waved a dismissive hand at them. “It doesn’t matter. Besides, my parents won’t pay for two dresses.”
Keri Anne nudged Val with her elbow. “How about you, Val? You going with anyone?”
Melissa snorted softly under her breath before Val could reply. Surprised, Val looked over at her with raised eyebrows.
“Yeah, Val, are you going with anyone?”
There was a thick layer of snob in her tone, and she fixed Val with such a knowing look, Val wondered if she’d been taking lessons from Sam. Sam looked at her that way all the time—sly and amused, like she was waiting for the punch line of a particularly raunchy joke. Except the joke was Val. She felt the skin on the back of her neck prickle.
I am not that pathetic. Am I?
Frowning, she looked down at her cleats. “I’m…Well, I’m not sure if I’m going yet.”
She could almost feel Melissa’s smirk. “That’s code for no one’s asked you.”
Val narrowed her eyes at her. “How do you know?”
Melissa’s smirk deepened. “I would’ve heard otherwise.”
Val bit the inside of her cheek. God, she hated high school. Didn’t anyone have anything better to do than to keep track of everyone else’s business?
“Well, there’s still time,” Keri Anne piped up, trying at least to be nice. “I mean, the dance is like two months away still.”
“It takes two months just to pick out a dress,” Melissa sniffed.
Keri Anne rolled her eyes. “It does not.”
“It does too,” Melissa insisted with authority. “I remember Jim taking me to his junior prom last year and it took me forever to choose a dress and by the time I did, there was barely enough time for the alterations. It was such a pain in the ass.”
Keri Anne wasn’t buying it. “Dude, it takes you two hours just to decide what you’re going to wear to school every morning.”
“It does not.”
“Can I help it if I want to look good?”
“Looking good is one thing. Getting detention every day for being late because of it is something else.”
Melissa laughed. “You should’ve heard my bio teacher when I told him I was late because I was getting a manicure.”
Keri Anne chuckled. “You’re ridiculous.”
“Hey, these bad boys are awesome.” She held up her hands, splaying her fingers. As if to make up for the fact that her hands were as small as the rest of her, Melissa’s fingernails were ferociously long and painted a deep teal color with silver sparkly lines spaced across each nail like a rainbow.
Keri Anne was eyeing them skeptically. “How do you even put your softball glove on?”
“How often do they break off?”
“Quite often actually. I keep that nail salon in business.”
“And it’s never crossed your mind that you might be blowing your money away?”
“It’s not my money,” she said with a careless shrug. “Jim pays for them. He likes them. A lot. Especially when I—”
“Whoa, whoa, hey, don’t need the details.” Keri Anne cut her off with a laugh. “Or the images, thank you very much.”
Melissa snickered then jabbed Val in the ribs when she saw that she wasn’t laughing.
“Don’t be such a prude.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“No, but you’re looking like you just swallowed a bug.”
Val tried to school her expression into something more pleasant. “No, I’m not—”
“Maybe if you actually crawled out of the homework hole you like to dig for yourself every weekend, you’d—”
“I do not have a homework hole,” Val said indignantly, her cheeks turning red when Keri Anne tried to stifle her laughter. “I just…I’m just busy.”
“Oh come on. Busy doing what? Extra credit that you don’t need?” Melissa rolled her eyes. “You’ve already got straight A’s. You’re set for the rest of the year. It’s not going to kill you to come out on a Friday night.”
Biting her tongue in frustration, Val dug a small crevice in the dirt with the toe of her cleat. Great, here it comes. Another round of Let’s-State-The-Obvious. As if I want to hang around with a bunch of idiots who do nothing but get stupidly drunk off the nasty beer that someone stole from their dad’s stash and then proceed to puke and pass out. Or pass out then puke, whichever comes first.
“Look, I know things are probably rough with your dad losing his job and all—” Melissa continued.
Seriously why couldn’t she just shut up about things she didn’t understand?
“—but surely he’s allowing you to at least have a life and—”
“My dad lets me go out,” Val cut in sharply.
“Then why don’t you? And going to the library doesn’t count. You’ve got to socialize, Val. It’s the only way you’re going to get a date for the dance. And you want a date for the dance, don’t you? You’ve got to let people know that you’re alive.”
“I’m alive,” she said after a pause, hating the way her voice came out meek and uncertain.
Hating the way Melissa laughed at her.
“Why don’t you ask your sister for some pointers, Val? I’m sure she can—”
There was an instant burning resentment in Val’s chest at the mention of Sam.
“I do not need to ask my sister how to have fun.”
“Hey, don’t get snippy. I’m just trying to help.”
“Yeah, you’re so helpful.”
“Well, it’s not my fault you can’t take good advice.”
Val looked away, her jaw clenching and unclenching. Melissa scoffed and stood up.
She walked away. Without a word, Keri Anne got up and followed her. Val remained where she was, feeling the blood pound in her face, wondering wildly how a conversation about Kenny being a horrible umpire could’ve morphed into a running commentary on Val’s social life or lack thereof. She stared at the ground, listening with half an ear as her teammates moved around her, collecting their gear. She wondered how much of the conversation they’d overheard and if they agreed with Melissa. She heard someone laughing and the embarrassment sank deeper into her bones, keeping her frozen in place. It took her a moment to realize it wasn’t only embarrassment that weighed her down. It was the knowledge that Melissa was right.
Val had always been a bit of a loner. She wasn’t sure when it actually started—when she decided that dealing with schoolwork was preferable to dealing with people. It was probably around the time her dad lost his job as a construction foreman last year. He’d been at that job for nearly seventeen years. When the economy tanked, his job was one of the millions that dissolved.
They were forced to move from their comfortable, two-story house to a three-bedroom apartment that was right smack in the center of town. It was surprisingly convenient but that fact was overridden daily by how small, loud, and noisy it was. The toilet didn’t work fifty percent of the time and there was nowhere to store her mountain bike. Currently it was standing on its back tire, crammed into the hall closet.
So while her dad scrambled to find work and her mom put in long hours at a local bakery, Val threw herself into her schoolwork—taking on extra assignments, book reports, practically running the school paper. Because as long as she was busy, she wouldn’t have to think about what her parents were going through. How they looked, hunched over the kitchen table with bills spread out before them like a nightmarish blanket, their faces creased with worry and frustration and their hands raking continuously through their hair, searching, always searching for a solution.
Val had to share a room with her little brother, Justin and Sam—I’m the oldest so I get my own room—was more concerned with her social standing at school than whether or not the phone bill could be paid.
Not a day went by that Val didn’t wonder what freak act of nature made them related. She knew countless people who had siblings, yet they never seemed to suffer from the confusing circumstances of sharing the same mother and father with a complete stranger. The weird connection, that cosmic alignment of the planets that readily assured her that she was part of the same family tree as her parents and Justin, did not exist between her and Sam. And probably never would as long as the two of them were alive and breathing.
Sam existed on another plane of reality, another dimension. She was every younger sister’s worst nightmare—tall, blonde, pretty and popular—and Val found life to be much easier if she just stumbled along in Sam’s shadow rather than try to avoid it.
Honestly, who wanted to be friends with her when they could be friends with Sam? Sam, who was the life of the party, who was surely going to get a modeling contract after graduation, who could charm any teacher into giving her an A by simply flashing her pearly whites or by giving them a sob story about how her life had changed so drastically, thanks to the plummeting economy. And honestly, her life really had changed but she refused to draw any attention to it unless it could benefit her in some way. Sam, who palled around with just about everyone, making them think that they were her friend, when in actuality, she wasn’t friends with anyone except Audrey, John, and Bryan. But that didn’t matter because as long as she acknowledged you, you were her friend even if she wasn’t yours.
Val supposed she couldn’t really be mad at Melissa. As big of a snob as she was, Melissa was only saying things that Val already knew. Of course that didn’t make it sting any less but what was she supposed to do? Sit around and worry about it? There was homework to be done. There were softball games to play. So what if her life was consumed by academics? So what if she missed out on parties every weekend or on hanging out with her friends?
Okay, well, only one friend actually, but still. It was nobody’s business what she did with her time. Why did people like Melissa always feel like they had to rub her face in the fact that she basically had no life whatsoever?
She sighed, her shoulders sagging. Besides, she’d take a book report over feeling like this any day.
Monday, February 25, 2013: Jennifer of Book Bitches gives Traffic Jam 4 Kisses.
She says: Looking for a YA novel with a kick?? I was asked to read and review Traffic Jam by Melissa Groeling and to be honest, YA suspense is not my genre. But I went into it with an open mind and was pleasantly surprised!! Traffic Jam is a story about some extremely intense life situations. Melissa touches on family dynamics, high school drama and HUMAN TRAFFICKING. Yes, I said human trafficking and I never expected that one either!! I kept thinking throughout the story, how is she going to pull this off in a YA book?? I would think this to be a hard subject to write about and she did it with class…The events that take place in this story were very intense. There are a lot of life lessons to be learned in this story. And not just with Val and Sam. There are situations that happen also with their friends that will break your heart and make you think. I kept saying, let me read one more chapter and then I will put it down, but one more chapter would turn out to be 2 or 3.) Also, I was so impressed with the beautiful editing of this story. The dialogue is great and so easy to follow. I could probably count on one hand the grammar errors I saw in this story. The only thing that bothered me was it started out a little slow but that is just my personal preference. Overall, a great book and I recommend it.” READ FULL REVIEW
Tana Rae Reads:
Monday, October 8, 2012: Tana Rae gives Traffic Jam 4 Stars and calls it a fantastic read.
She says: “Melissa Groeling’s writing is very good, the story flows extremely well, it’s one of those books that you just don’t want to put down until you can figure out what is going on. As the story starts to unravel you start to feel for Val and hope she doesn’t get hurt along the way. This story is full of suspense, drama, secrets, and maybe a new relationship. I will say I couldn’t stop reading Traffic Jam, the story line, characters and everything about this story held my attention…Traffic Jam is a fantastic read; I ended up really enjoying Val she is shy and can’t look at the boy she likes or even hold a conversation with him. But when she comes face to face with the dangerous and scary Ed she doesn’t hold back. You can see the strength coming through her as she tries to figure out a way to save her sister Sam.I have rated Traffic Jam a 4 star rating, I couldn’t put this book down, it is a must read. Melissa’s writing is good and I will definitely read the next book she publishes. I would recommend Traffic Jam to anyone who reads my reviews.” READ FULL REVIEW
Boekie’s Book Reviews:
Thursday, August 2, 2012: Maria of Boekie’s gives Traffic Jam 4.7 Stars and calls it definitely a good read.
She says: “All I can say is… wow. The beginning of the book was really good, but it didn’t clue me in at all to what the whole book was going to be about. I immediately liked Val, though, so that was a huge plus for me. If I like the main character right off the bat (haha, that was a pun – you’ll have to read the book to understand) I immediately take a liking to the book. I have to like the main character to be able to put up with a whole book about them… My three favorite characters were Val, Justin (Val’s little brother), and John (Val’s… love interest). Val was just so awesome and even though she had her stupid moments it made her a realistic character. Justin was so clever and innocent and wise and I just wanted to hug him. John was just so cute and tough and caring – I just loved him! The book’s topic is something that is very important and should be stopped (I can’t say what it is because it would be a SPOILER). The plot in general was really interesting and it definitely was a good read. I recommend it for people 14 and over, because there are some mature topics in the book. I also really love how many emotions the book put me through. I was on a roller coaster of emotion the whole way through.” READ FULL REVIEW