A still from Cruel Summer

Are you hooked yet? Cruel Summer. Image: Freeform

Not heard of Cruel Summer? It’s only a matter of time. The Amazon Prime drama has become the sleeper hit of the season thanks to its twisting plot, retro setting (yes, the '90s is retro now) and did-she, didn’t-she drama.

It’s likely you’ll devour the 10 episodes far more quickly than you may have originally planned, so we’ve pulled together some accompanying reads that will let the mystery linger a little longer – or until season two drops, at least.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)

Eugenides’ modern classic may have been set in the 1970s, but its release in the early nineties had major influence on how teenage girlhood was seen and portrayed during the decades to come. The first line is as much of a spoiler as the title: the book is about the five enthralling teenage Lisbon sisters, and their self-inflicted demise, as narrated by a form of “Greek chorus” of men who knew them at the time. To read it is to be catapulted into the almost imperceptibly sinister suburbs of America, but also a meditation on adolescence and the passage of time – all of which permeate through Cruel Summer, too.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (2018)

Mackintosh has made no secret of the influence The Virgin Suicides had on the writing of her Booker Prize-longlisted debut, only this time the “chorus” that gradually fills the reader in on the strange and shifting cult-like landscape they have been raised in is made of three sisters. Grace, Lia and Sky exist in a world cut apart from masculinity that has grown toxic; left to their own devices, their sisterhood evolves and crumbles in surprising ways. An excellent complementary read to explore the patriarchal background noise that thrums through Cruel Summer.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017)

Angie Thomas’s bestselling – and much-talked about - debut novel became a Hollywood film in 2018, and as opposed to Cruel Summer’s '90s backdrop, is firmly rooted in the Black Lives Matter movement of the 2010s. However, on themes of adolescence, teen tragedy and one girl’s struggle for justice, it aligns closely to the rather less political overtures of the Amazon Prime series. Starr Carter, 16, is a girl from Garden Heights, a poor, Black neighbourhood who attends Williamson Prep, a school with a mostly white, mostly affluent student body. Revolving around protest and court cases, The Hate U Give is a gripping novel with a very great real-life relevance.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (2014)

Cruel Summer's Jeanette Turner is hard to read at the best of times, but underneath that hardened exterior is a teenage girl who just wants to be pretty, popular and loved – so what does it matter if she tells a little lie or two along the way? 

Big Little Lies is all about seemingly harmless lies that can turn lethal. When young single mum Jane moves to town, she brings with her a secret she's held close for five long years. On the first day of school, she hits it off with local parents Madeleine and Celeste but under the gloss of their outwardly perfect lives lie their own secrets. It was always going to end in tears, but how did it end in murder?

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (2005)

If anyone understands the power and the problems of cliques, it’s Curtis Sittenfeld. Before The American Wife and Rodham smashed the bestsellers charts, her witty and knowing debut Prep took a sledgehammer to the complicated social hierarchy and mores of the American prep school. Tapping into the wrong-side-of-the-tracks isolation that fuels so many high school narratives, Prep’s observant outsider Lee Fiora guides the reader through four years of gossip at a fictional New England private school – only to dance with the dangerous possibility of becoming part of the clique herself.

Forget This Ever Happened by Rose Cassandra Clarke (2020)

Cruel Summer may be rooted firmly in the world we know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth dipping a toe into the paranormal with Rose Cassandra Clarke’s beguiling queer romance, set in 1993 in Indianola – a ghost town in Texas. In the novel’s version of it, the town is almost as creepy – people disappear and peculiar meteorological events threaten its very existence. And it’s down to Claire and her (potential) girlfriend Julie to save the day.

The Tulip Touch by Anne Fine (1996)

If you grew up in the '90s, there’s a chance you were shaken by The Tulip Touch. Anne Fine’s captivating story of friendship between Natalie and Tulip, a rebellious loner who is shunned by her peers, won the Whitbread Award upon its release in 1996. It’s undeniably a children’s novel, but one that deals with questions far beyond its reading age: nature, nurture and accountability. Inspired by the murder of James Bulger, Fine tackles these with aplomb in this searing novel.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015)

One of the reasons Cruel Summer keeps viewers on their toes is that it’s impossible to fully trust either of the changing narrators. And so it proved in Paula Hawkins’ genre-defying bestseller, Girl on the Train. In between alcoholism, abuse, psychological trauma and a shifting timeline, Hawkins’ story of a domestic murder in the middle of a seemingly perfect household keeps the reader hooked for hundreds of pages. Who did it, and who saw them? It’s the unreliability of the witness that lets the killer think they’ve got away with it.

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

In Cruel Summer, nerdy Jeanette is fascinated by most-popular girl in school, Kate. When Kate goes missing, Jeanette quickly assumes her position in the school's hierarchy, slotting in with Kate's best friends and even her boyfriend.

For another tale of obsession, pick up The Talented Mr Ripley. When Tom Ripley is offered an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe, he leaps at the chance.

Sent to Italy on the dime of shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf, Ripley is tasked with persuading his son Dickie to return home and join the family business. Instead, he develops a deep obsession with Dickie – with disastrous consequences. 

One Of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus (2017)

The Breakfast Club meets Pretty Little Liars in Karen M. McManus's gripping debut of secrets, lies and a notorious app that spreads the hottest gossip at Bayview High. 

When five students go to detention and only four leave alive, investigators conclude that it was no accident and one of the four must be lying. If Cruel Summer has left you with a taste for more high school drama and a binge-worthy, guess-I'm-staying-up-all-night level plot, make One Of Us Is Lying your next read.

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