Panic by Lauren Oliver

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Hodder & Stoughton, 2014. ISBN 9781444723038.
(Age 14+) Recommended. Thriller. Adolescents. Risk-taking. Poverty. Heather has never thought that she was the sort of person to put her life on the line, but she finds herself taking part in Panic, the game that is traditionally played by graduating seniors because there is nothing else to do. Everyone puts into the pot and the prize money offers the winner a way out of poverty and small town life. Heather lives in a trailer in Carp, a dead end town. Her mother is an alcoholic, her father dead and all she wants is to leave for a new life. Dodge is bitter. His sister Dayna, lost the use of her legs playing Panic, and there is no money to help her regain mobility. He is playing Panic to get revenge on the family that caused Dayna's car to crash in the game. But all the players have secrets and will have to face enormous fear. What will the players do to win $67,000?
The story Panic brings to the fore the lives that some young people have when they live in a town where there is little to do. Boredom ensures that the game will be followed and there will always be people who will play it in the hope that they will be the winner; risk-takers who are in it for the thrill and those who see the money as the only way out. On one level the book is a thriller, keeping the reader on the edge of the seat as the players participate in terrifying games and numbers are gradually whittled away leaving only a few contestants. On another level it is an analysis of the factors like poverty, abuse, and poor self-esteem that push the players to the limit.
The story is told in two voices, that of Heather and Dodge. Heather seems to have no future, hates Carp and believes that her problems would go away if only she could leave. Dodge is a loner, angry and determined to win even though he knows firsthand just how badly it can all turn out. He is in love with Nat, Heather's best friend, who has problems of her own but who also wants to win. They make a pact to help each other, while Heather's best friend, Bishop tags along. There are mysteries to solve along the way - who are the anonymous judges and how do they know the innermost fears of the contestants? Will the police be able to stop the game and will anyone die?
This is an enjoyable story that makes the reader think about the risks that this group of teens will take to make changes and whether it is money or leaving town that will ultimately change their lives.
Pat Pledger