Thursday, March 6, 2014


I thought I'd read a few books by Lauren Oliver but didn't double check until after I'd read Panic. The author seems to be fairly popular, and her name was familiar to me. I'm not sure if that's why I picked up Panic or if I thought the premise was kind of interesting, probably a little of both. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten my review of the first young adult book of hers that I read, Delirium. I liked her grade school fiction book The Spindlers a little better. The thing is, she does have great ideas. I'm just not so fond of her delivery and style. I'm sure that's a personal preference thing, so readers, please take this review as one person's opinion, and get another before you dismiss this book.

Panic is contemporary young adult fiction set in a small New York town where life is ho-hum and never changes...until, that is, summer rolls around and the game begins. Every summer, the graduated seniors play Panic, a game of dangerous dares and higher and higher stakes with the winner taking home at least $50,000, collected from the student population over the year. The adults know it's played and try to stop it. The risk of arrest is just part of the game. The two judges are a total secret, even to the players themselves, and the locations and dares are kept secret until the last minute.

Money is big incentive to play, but Heather and Dodge have their own reasons on the side. Dodge's sister was injured in last year's game, and he has an opportunity to even the score. Heather will do anything to get her and her sister away from their addicted mom. Heather didn't mean to play, but her options have run out. One way or another, she will escape.

What I like least about this book is the sense of hopelessness and unhappiness that permeates the setting and the plot. The characters are really in a bad place emotionally, and it's no wonder. They live in broken, dysfunctional families in rundown homes. I suppose it is the perfect setting for this kind of book. Who else would be desperate enough to risk their lives for money? But it's so depressing.

I didn't grow up in that kind of environment, and though I know it exists, it's kind of hard to look at. I keep asking myself if I'm just stuck-up and selfish and would avoid that kind of environment if I knew it existed in my neighborhood. I'm trying to be honest here. I would certainly feel out of my element and completely uncomfortable, but I know that's not a reason to turn a blind eye to need. I won't lie and say that I would jump at the opportunity to help people like this; I don't know what I would do. If the opportunity presented itself, I want to believe my heartstrings would be pulled, just as they are for one exemplary adult in the novel. But what complicates the issue a bit here is that this is fiction (based on reality, as it undoubtedly is). I know the world is broken, but I don't go to fiction to remind myself of it. I go to fiction to escape it.

(Minor SPOILERS follow.) Now, books like this can be a great help to teens struggling with the same things, but here's where I have further issues with the book. I'm not sure it offers a way out. In the end, despite everything, the game is played and the game wins. The characters don't learn that they can live without the game. Rather, they benefit from it. It's not that they don't grow, but it doesn't seem like they learn from their mistakes. They just make the best of what they're given, and they learn to live despite the crap. That message is too hopeless for me. As a Christian, I know there is so much more to life, and even though I can't hold a non-Christian author to the standards I hold myself to, the difference in our beliefs is so glaringly obvious it can't be ignored. For me, this book didn't work because it didn't match my values. I'm not talking about the inclusion of dysfunction; I'm talking about the road out of it. The author's answer was an answer for her characters, but it was lacking some things, and it was a temporary fix. It certainly wasn't a universal fix for anyone dealing with the same problems. If I'm going to read a book about hard issues, I want to see light at the end of the tunnel. The light here is faint and doesn't make the read worth the trouble.

Aside from the thematic issues above, there are a few other scenes of moral degradation to be aware of, not deal-breakers, but they do add to the general dark feel of the book. There is some swearing, including the F-word. There are no sex scenes, though there's the implication of past sex and some sexuality. There is a lot of teenage drinking, and some characters deal with addiction.

For me, this book is two stars. It had some potential but didn't realize it. I can't recommend it, even for teens going through similar circumstances. Instead, I recommend Christian author Melody Carlson's True Colors series about teens struggling with various issues. I've read only one, Blade Silver: Color Me Scarred, dealing with cutting, but that was what I was looking for in a book dealing with such depressing but very real problems.

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