“The Challenge” by Tom Hoyle

After Ben’s best and only friend Will disappears, everyone suspects he’s been murdered. However, no one has found his killer. A year passes by, and Ben is left to grieve his friend alone. Everyone else has moved on, but Ben hasn’t forgotten Will and he isn’t eager to make any new friends. That is, until the twins show up.

Even though the twins are the new kids in town, everyone likes them immediately. And when the twins prevent Ben from being bullied, and allow him into their inner circle, Ben falls under their spell too. With the twins, Ben is finally accepted and when the twins let Ben into an online game, Ben is eager to compete. Even when the challenges become more dangerous than ever.

“The Challenge” is the perfect book for you if you like reading about creepy events in small towns and friendships that are based on coercion. That is to say, this book is a thriller with high stakes. Ben shifts into a character that makes some challenging decisions (get it? challenging decisions?) that will shape him forever. I definitely couldn’t put this book down.

The book leads you towards the ending the entire time, and even still the ending is not what I expected. The ending was unsettling and I’m not sure I fully understood it and agreed with it. However, it wasn’t a let down like some endings. Really made you think.

“Slated” by Teri Terry

What if the government could wipe your mind and you’d start a new life with a new family as a new person? How would you know who you really are without your memories?

This is what happens to Kyla. She is what the government calls Slated. Once she leaves the hospital, she joins a new family, which sounds hard enough, but also her mood is constantly monitored with a device called Levo. If she gets too sad or angry, an electric shock goes to her brain and kills her on the spot.

The government claims that she was a terrorist and that their treatment of her and the other Slateds is justified to protect society. That they have been lenient by giving Kyla a second chance.

But Kyla has scary dreams that might be her memories. What are they telling her? Who is she really?

This sci fi thriller had me flipping pages as quickly as possible. Terry’s writing is addictive. You have to learn what the deal is with Kyla. Was she really a terrorist or is she an innocent person the government targeted for asking too many questions? What is the real deal with the Slateds? Who can she trust?

Themes of governmental control and individual freedom, as well as a heightened teenage search for identity run through “Slated.” As always, it’s useful to ask how similar Kyla’s world is to our own. How is a person classified as dangerous to society? How much control should the government have over our own lives? Also, the book kind of creeped me out – in a good way.

I’m definitely hooked and going to read the next installments of the series.

“Mind Games” by Teri Terry

Luna is a Refuser. In a world where everyone uses Virtual Reality nonstop, she is one of the few who refuses to have an implant. Unlike her Refuser peers, she does not have a religious or medical exemption. Luna refuses to get an implant for a seperate reason. A reason she keeps secret. Why?

“Mind Games” is a science fiction thriller full of secrets. It is these secrets that keep the reader wondering who Luna is, who Luna’s mother was, who can she trust, what is the sinister company PareCo up to. The list goes on.

When Luna is taking for PareCo’s two standard tests, rationality and intelligence, she is forced to stop hiding from her abilities. She has to decide whether to work with the company or fight it.

I found this book relevant to today’s society where we are on the brink of developing virtual reality. Already, I find that the internet is addictive in itself and virtual reality seems that much more seductive.

Will humans prefer to escape constantly in fantasy worlds? Will we abandon our bodies entirely to live in our minds?

I wonder.

Although “Mind Games” is very concept-driven for a book, there are some interesting character connections as well. Particularly between Luna and Gecko, and Luna and her former good friend.

One small complaint I had with the novel was the treatment of Hacking. Certain Hacking was compared with magic. Although you could imagine that in virtual reality hacking may look more visual and awesome, in reality the virtual reality framework probably will involve lines and lines of code.

Coding can feel magical certainly, but the book took a more fantastical approach. Although there was nothing wrong with that! It could be boring hearing how Luna types code or reads code or destructs code or whatever. I just had difficulty understanding the ending because of it.

Overall, I liked the themes and concepts in the book. Certainly thinking about how virtual reality should be handled is a topical issue.

“I am Princess X” by Cherie Priest (illustrations by Kali Ciesemier)

I love webcomics, like Dumbing of Age, Questionable Content, Yume Dream and Girls with Slingshots. In fact, an afternoon spent discovering a new webcomic and reading every single episode with a friend is my idea of an afternoon well spent. So, a YA novel with a webcomic in it is basically a marriage between two of the best art forms ever. It also helps that Ciesemier’s art is gorgeous in black, white and hot pink.

The two best friends in this novel make comics together. May writes the story, the Libby draws the art. The heroine of the comic – Princess X – beats stuff up with a massive sword. I definitely related to this a lot. (The comics, not the sword welding princess. (Actually, scrap that. I related to the princess too. She was awesome.)

When I was in middle school, I briefly drew and wrote a comic for my friends. I don’t know what the exact plot was – I don’t think there was much of a plot beyond my friends meeting all the cute cartoon boys we loved (like Inuyasha and Kyo from Fruitsbasket and maybe Spader from Pendragon, who isn’t a cartoon shut up) and freaking out because they were cute. Anyway, it was fun. It brought my friends and me together.

So I was feeling for May, when Libby and her mom drove over a cliff one night and died. No more friendship, no more comics. But here’s the creepy thing – many years later, May starts seeing Princess X around the city again. She becomes convinced her friend didn’t die and tries to find her based on a popular webcomic called – you guessed it – Princess X.

Another aspect of “I am Princess X” that really struck me is that it gets a lot done with a surprisingly small cast. Every sentence, every plot point, every character really counts. The writing is gripping and creepy, yet minimalist. Priest’s style works well. The pacing at the end will have you staying up “just a few more minutes” to find out what happens.

The one character I wasn’t completely sold on was May’s ally Patrick. Patrick’s main service to the plot was his made tech skills. Yes, mad tech skills were needed for the plot, but his connection to May wasn’t entirely clear to me. It didn’t seem believable that he would risk so much for a May’s old best friend. Especially since May and he just met.

However, the villain is complex. May’s backstory is realistic and gives the reader empathy. The scientific logic is solid. All in all, “I am Princess X” is a fast-paced read with beautiful illustrations.