Last year, the good times rolled for Ryan and his friends. Beautiful young things each and every one, with bright futures shimmering in the sunset of their school years, they seemed unstoppable. Until one of them did stop. Permanently. A year on, the rest of the gang go on holiday, trying to connect, trying to forget; yet the past is never far away and Janey is hard to leave behind. Janey who fell off the edge of the world and never returned; Janey who may or may not have chosen this dramatic exit for herself. As the group dedicate themselves to sun, fun and sangria, suspicions are never far away and when an unwelcome face from the past shows up, the friends find themselves once more embroiled in a world of secrets, lies and...whisper it...murder.
There's nothing quite like an ensemble cast and James Dawson has assembled one worthy of any good teen drama. We're talking the high-class bitchiness of Gossip Girl, the sun-kissed hotness of 90210 and the gritty, oh-so-British underbelly of Skins. Cruel Summer is told primarily from the view points of Ryan and Katie, childhood friends. Ryan is an highly entertaining yet also cleverly multi-faceted character. Camply gay, he's an aspiring actor who views everything through a imagined lens, arranging the events of the book into a screen play starring Ryan, himself, as the main attraction. After the cliffhanger of Janey's death, he sees this holiday as the start of a new season on the show, or perhaps a high-drama spin-off in the sun, a la Hollyoaks. While Ryan is likable, and disarmingly honest with himself, as the back story progresses (which we see through a mix of character exposition and flashbacks) it becomes clear that he is far from perfect. At times, his vision of life through a lens seems vaguely sociopathic. It makes him a fascinating protagonist. Katie is an archetypal, somewhat neurotic good girl. She's everyone's friend, has arranged the holiday and has an interesting (and pivotal) back story with geek/god, Ben. She swings from sweet to irritatingly pathetic to sweet and her character development is rather brilliant. Of all of the characters, she seems the most affected by Janey's death and therefore illicits more sympathy from the reader. As the story progresses, Katie becomes more and more upset and more and more compelling. She's rather brilliantly imagined.
Ben himself is somewhat lightly sketched, which is vital for the plot as his back story with Janey and with Katie is rather important. He's a nice bloke who seems to have found himself in a terrible mess and it is clear why bad girl Alicia finds him so attractive. Alicia is the screw-up , her partying ways having led her to repeat a year at school; but she's learnt from her mistakes and rapidly emerges as the only character who has any moral fibre (and by any, I don't mean much). Filling out the cast are footballer Greg who is all too aware of the risk his past might be to his future and his non-stereotypical WAG Erin who, bless her, knows nothing about anything. Both are lightly drawn yet interesting. Finally there is the gloriously wicked Roxanne. The less said about her the better but golly, is she a LOT of fun to read.
Cruel Summer treads a well worn path, previously walked by many authors from Agatha Christie, to RL Stine, to Christoper Pike and most recently by Gretchen MacNeil with her relatively recent debut Ten (a great companion read to Cruel Summer) and treads it well. In his second book, Dawson creates a knowing homage to all of the above while also cleverly riffing on reality TV, celebrity and the nature of popularity. As his story twists to its clever (not to mention dramatic) denouement, his use of flashback supports a plot that paint its characters as a tight group, a clique, even, who swing between likability and a kind of witless cruelty and ugly narcissism. In the end, their fate is pleasingly predictable in the same way that the fate of all teenagers-stuck-in-an-isolated-location-who-may-have-murdered-their-best-friend is. Apart from the twist. Which is hard to spot, a triumph when writing a story so familiar. As a follow up to the hugely successful Hollow Pike, Cruel Summer is a thrilling, enjoyable and sophisticated story that should be a must read before the end of this year's sunshine.
This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Cruel Summer is available now. We particularly recommend this to those who have a late beach holiday on the horizon.