Harper Collins 2014
Every summer in the small town of Carp, graduating high school seniors play a dangerous game they call Panic. Every student pays into the prize fund. Winner takes all. Heather wants to find out if she's more than someone's pathetic ex. Dodge wants revenge for what happened to his sister in her game. Nat will use anything at her disposal to get on her feet. Bishop wants to keep his friends safe.
There's a feeling throughout the book of elements coming together, everyone's agendas and half mentioned details of their stories weaving and building toward one explosive conclusion, and... they don't. Not really. The ending feels like an epilogue that was decided upon before the rest of the story was formed, and then was tacked on to cut things off when they started to run over 400 pages.
A few pieces of the story along the way feel missing too, with characters fighting, disappearing, getting themselves into trouble, and then showing up a few chapters later with minimal explanation, leaving us to fill in the gaps after their earlier cliffhangers.
I swear this woman could write a nine part epic about people sitting through jury duty and never getting picked, and I wouldn't be able to put it down.
No matter what tangible problems there are that would be infuriating in any other book, it's such a joy to read the descriptions along the way that it's hard to be too bothered. Everything from the atmospheric details (a car sounds "like an old man trying to choke out a belt buckle"), to the deepest emotional lives of the characters is spot-on and vivid enough to get lost in.
Heather's fear of never being loved like the "pocket-sized" girls get to be is stunningly real without rendering her weak or annoying, an honest flashback to high school without the filter of adult hindsight, and the sad, conflicting, complicated mess that is Nat is miles beyond what you'd expect from the character who tries to sleep and flirt her way to what she needs.
The juxtaposition of the high stakes game and the grounded contemporary setting also adds to the distinct and immersive flavor. When people first hear "YA" in conjunction with "dangerous game," it brings to mind yet another dystopian Hunger Games knockoff, but that’s far from the case here. The game Panic is not only voluntary but illegal. It's conducted underground by Carp's youth, players can opt out at any time, deaths associated with the game are unintentional (though not uncommon), and a lot of effort is put into ensuring secrecy, dodging the authorities, and keeping the game going to serve the players' various purposes.
As big a Hunger Games fan as I am, in the wake of all the imitators, the completely different dynamic of Panic is a fascinating and refreshing change of pace.
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