“The Testing” by Joelle Charbonneau

It’s easy to critique today’s education system, from the woefully underpaid teachers to the financial inaccessibility of higher learning. Not to mention the competitiveness behind scholarships, grants, and just getting into college (let’s not even start on the subject of loans…). But Joelle Charbonneau takes this idea of competition to the next level, painting a gruesome future in which your grades can make all the difference between a life of glory and a gory death. It’s a frightening thought that, to an extent, is all too real today: what if everything depended on how well you scored on your next test?

The Testing is one of many YA dystopian stories to come out in the last decade, and in some ways, it sticks to the formulaic plot-line of its predecessors: there is a “strong” (more on that in a second) female protagonist, Malencia “Cia” Vale, who is tasked with fighting a corrupt system that threatens the safety of her family and friends. She has a love interest with ambiguous moral coding… but he’s a fairly bland character whose main contribution to the story involves praising and supporting Cia. And of course, like with most YA dystopians, the backdrop to The Testing consists of poverty, starvation, and murder.

The aforementioned protagonist, Cia, is a smart, 16-year-old girl who has just graduated from school. Like many recent graduates, she has no idea what she wants to do with her life. Well, that’s not entirely true – she would love to attend University and become one of the leaders of society, like her father. But each year, only a select few students are invited to attend The Testing, where they compete for one of these prestigious higher education slots. No one from her colony has been chosen in ten years, so it comes as quite a surprise when Cia and three other students are whisked off to attend. None of them know what to expect, but her father warns her to prepare for the worst.

Quickly, Cia realizes the true depths of what it means to be a Testing candidate – if you get something wrong, the government is unforgiving. They have no room nor patience for anyone who doesn’t fit their idea of leadership, and those who fall short are dealt with through unconscionable means. Fortunately, Cia aces test after test, from written exams to more hands-on challenges. But many around her are not so fortunate, and Cia is forced to watch friend after friend mysteriously disappear, or die right before her eyes.

Cia’s reaction to the brutality around her is very muted, and her father’s one warning does not account for how well she contains her emotions, nor does it explain how easily she understands the design of The Testing and what is expected of her performance. Several times, she seems to survive simply due to a lucky guess, one that is erroneously attributed to her intelligence. And when her success is directly linked to her figuring out some psychological puzzle, Cia seems far too intelligent in comparison. But if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief concerning a government that murders hundreds of students each year, you might as well do the same for Cia and her off-the-charts-knowledge-of-everything. If you can do that, you’ll find that Cia is very likable. In fact, many of the characters have a charm to them that makes you root for their success.

Despite my criticism, The Testing is a pretty enjoyable read. I read the book in one sitting, then finished the sequel that same day – there’s enough suspense and fun characters to keep your interest, even if the story follows several tropes of other YA dystopians. The thing is, these tropes aren’t bad, just overdone. If you’ve liked them before, you’ll probably like them here.

I give The Testing 3 stars out of 5. I’m doubting it’s a score that would go over well in Cia’s society, but for me, it’s a passing grade – certainly not an A, but definitely worth a look.

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“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline

“Being human totally sucks most of the time. Videogames are the only thing that make life bearable.” —Anorak’s Almanac, Chapter 91, Verses 1–2

In our age of technology, communication and relationships are being redefined by MMORPGs, social networking sites, and online dating. After spending dozens of hours plugged into a computer, it can be difficult to distinguish these virtual realms from reality. But in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, this blurring of “real” and “kind of real” takes on a whole new level, asking what is worth living, loving, and dying for, and what it means to embrace a virtual life as your real life.

Ready Player One centers on Wade Watts, an 18-year-old “gunter” who lives with his aunt in a “stack” of mobile homes. He spends most of his time online in a virtual game called the OASIS, where people can participate in almost anything: school, church, even recreations of iconic tv shows. The deceased creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, left behind his enormous fortune in the form of a hidden Easter egg. Wade, along with other gunters, scours the online world for this prize, needing to attain three keys and open three gates before his avatar, Parzival, will be deemed worthy enough to win it.

It has been years since the competition started, and no one has even come close to solving the first clue. But Wade’s extensive knowledge of Halliday proves invaluable when he figures out its meaning; a race ensues between him and his fellow gunters, including his best friend Aech, and his romantic interest Art3mis. But the situation nosedives when a vicious group known as the Sixers catches wind of Wade’s accomplishment; if they find the egg, the OASIS will be destroyed. And Wade cannot allow that to happen.

Ready Player One is full of esoteric references that might go over your head, but they certainly won’t distract from the story. If you’re a fan of ’80s culture, you’ll get a gracious helping of tv show, video game, and music throwbacks. And even if you don’t like the ’80s, Wade and friends are sure to keep you entertained. I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5, and I encourage you to add it your shelves right away. It’s time to enter a world of excitement, danger, and bravery: Are you ready, Player One?

The Mad Room

If you think your family is dysfunctional, let Ellen Hardy offer some perspective: Did your brother and sister kill your parents? Were they sent to a mental institution over 10 years ago and recently released into your care? Have they started killing again?

The Mad Room, a 1969 remake of Ladies in Retirement, stars Stella Stevens as Ellen Hardy, fiancée to the wealthy Sam Adler and live-in secretary to Sam’s widowed step-mother, Mrs. Armstrong (played by Shelley Winters). Mrs. Armstrong, convinced that Ellen is out for Sam’s money, searches for any reason why the pair should not wed; two pretty-darn-good reasons appear in the form of Mandy and George, Ellen’s younger, murderous siblings.

Of course, Ellen makes no mention of their murderous past, instead telling Mrs. Armstrong that they lived with their uncle, now deceased. But her lie can only last so long, and shatters completely when Mandy requests a “mad room.”

What exactly is a mad room? It’s a place where George and Mandy can let off steam, a place where they can feel safe, calm, and confident… So what’s the mutilated body doing there?

Certainly, some belief needs to be suspended when watching The Mad Room – seriously, why did Ellen let her siblings move in with her??? – but if you can do that, you’re in for a treat. The movie was quirky, full of talented stars playing some surprisingly creepy characters. Not to mention the twist ending, the romantic side plots, and the dark humor that pervades every scene.

Is the twist expected? Yes, very. But does that take away from the viewing experience? Not at all! The Mad Room is twisted enough even without the ending, and you’d be mad not to give it a shot.