- Panic by Lauren Oliver
The annual game of Panic is an open secret in the small town of Carp, a place devastated by the recession. All of the high school kids of Carp put a daily dollar in the pot for graduating seniors to compete for by taking on a series of risky challenges and ending with a high-stakes game of automotive chicken that has already left one girl paralyzed. Three players—Nat, Heather, and Dodge—each with a specific motive for entering, form an alliance, but as the stunts get more dangerous and Heather’s home life falls apart, tension strains their relationships. It’s certainly an exciting story, and the narrative arc of the book leads ultimately to Heather’s happy ending as she overcomes her fear of being forever stuck in poverty. Unfortunately, the book tacitly affirms the risky path she takes to get there; the game results in the death of one man and causes several other nearly fatal episodes as the teens participate in activities that are illegal, dangerous and all too imitable. While the epilogue explicitly chides Heather for having been afraid to move forward and change her life, the rest of the book advocates for deliberately putting oneself and others at unnecessary and stupid risk as a fully legitimate, if uncomfortable, means to achieve personal and financial growth. The cheery ending therefore creates emotional dissonance for what started out as a suspenseful cautionary tale. It’s tough to sanction the way Heather earns her bright new outlook, but the appealing idea of a secretive and dangerous game may be enough to keep readers involved, if not morally unquestioning.