Five Survive by Holly Jackson

The Blurb On The Back:

You can’t see me but I can see you.  If you try to run, I will shoot.

Red Kenny is on a road trip for spring break with five friends: Red’s best friend, her older brother, his perfect girlfriend and a classmate.

When their RV breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they soon realise that this is no accident.  They have been trapped by someone out there in the dark, someone who clearly wants one of them dead.

With eight hours until dawn, the six friends must escape, or work out which one of them is the target.  Buried secrets will be forced to light and tensions inside the RV will reach deadly levels.

Now all of them will survive the night …

FIVE SURVIVE was released in the United Kingdom on 8th December 2022.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order FIVE SURVIVE by Holly Jackson from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s 10pm.

17-year-old Red Kenny is on a Spring Break trip from Philadelphia to the Gulf Shores with her best friend Maddy, classmate Simon, Simon’s friend Arthur and are being chaperoned by Maddy’s older brother Oliver (who is a pre-law student at college) and his girlfriend Reyna (who is a pre-medical student at college).  They’re travelling in an RV belonging to Simon’s uncle because Red’s not able to afford the airfare – ever since her mother’s murder 4 years ago, Red’s father has taken solace in alcohol and the family’s finances are in a mess.  

They’re looking for a camping site in South Carolina to spend the night when they take a wrong turn and end up with a burst tyre in the middle of nowhere.  They think they’ve just hit a sharp rock but when gunfire erupts from the darkness, they realise that something more sinister and terrifying is going on.  Then the shooter makes contact to tell the group that one of them has a secret.  He wants them to work out who that person is and send them outside the RV. 

With the sun not due to come up for another 8 hours, the six of them must try to work out who is keeping a secret that someone wants to kill them for.  But it doesn’t take long to realise that they all have secrets from each other and as those secrets slowly come to light, loyalties within the group change and before the night ends, violence erupts inside the RV …

Holly Jackson’s standalone YA thriller is a disappointing misfire.  I get what Jackson was going for – an external threat becoming less dangerous than the internal threat that emerges within the group.  Unfortunately the characterisation is poor, especially Red whose guilt comes across as flakiness while Oliver’s mummy issues never convinced me while the plot points and motivations don’t make a whole lot of sense when you think about them. 

I picked this up because I think Jackson’s A GOOD GIRL’S GUIDE TO MURDER TRILOGY is one of the best YA crime fiction trilogies (and one of the best crime trilogies full stop) that I’ve ever read.  The plotting and characterisation are tightly done and Jackson made serious points about crime and especially crimes against women.  Had I not enjoyed that trilogy so much and rated it so highly, I would not have been so completely disappointed by this book because my expectations would have been lower.

I get what Jackson is trying to do with this book.  The central idea is essentially that notwithstanding that there is a very serious external threat to a group, once that group is put under pressure and turns in on itself, the internal threat becomes more dangerous than the external threat.  There are certainly the ingredients here for a gripping thriller – the idea of everyone in the RV having a secret, the growing paranoia that someone in the RV is in league with the shooter, the tight timescale of only having a few hours to work out who the shooter is after.  This all has the potential for a really gripping thriller that keeps your heart racing and your fingers turning the pages.

So why didn’t it work for me?

Well I’ll start with the fact that there are basically two characters in this book: Red and Oliver and neither of them is particularly well drawn.  The other characters – Simon, Arthur, Maddy and Reyna are thinly drawn at best.  Simon is basically drunk for the bulk of the book, Arthur is the practical one who seems to be flirting with Red, Maddy is bog standard best friend and Reyna is bog standard girlfriend.  It got to a point where I had to question why the plot needed all four of them.  It seemed to me that Jackson could have lost Simon and the book would not have missed him.

Red is the main point of view character in the book and from the start she’s shown as being quite vague and forgetful.  Jackson heavily anvils the Awful Past that has transformed Red’s life but while you realise early on that it’s something to do with her mother having died, it takes way too long before Jackson reveals how she died and even longer to reveal why it’s affected Red worse than you would otherwise expect.  Because it took so long to get to this point, Red’s constant forgetfulness and second-guessing herself really began to irritate me quite early on, and even when I found out why, the fact that what Red seems to be wrestling with is guilt, made me wonder how that made her forgetful and unable to focus.  As an aside, given the circumstances of her mother’s death (and her job as a police captain) coupled with Red’s phone call to her shortly before her death, I did wonder whether the Philadelphia police would have offered counselling or other support to her and her father and, if not, why Maddy’s Assistant District Attorney mother, who seems to have stepped in to care for Red, would not have offered it instead.  I do think that Jackson did a good job of depicting Red’s feeling and thoughts about Arthur – it was actually the most relatable thing about her – and had Arthur been a better drawn character I think that it would have sparked more.  Certainly there is more meat there than there is in Red’s friendship with Maddy, which doesn’t really come through on the page.

Oliver is very two dimensional and it’s not helped by the fact that Jackson starts off by strongly indicating that he’s a self-absorbed schmuck, which means that his character trajectory doesn’t really have anywhere to go.  He is the source of all the “as you know” revelations about his and Maddy’s ADA mother and the big murder case she is bringing against a Mafia mobster and how this could propel her to winning the election to become District Attorney and also how the case hinges on an unknown eye witness.  Of course, the moment this gets said, you know which direction the story is going to go in – notwithstanding Jackson’s attempts to muddy the waters.  The problem is that Oliver’s self-absorbed, bullying behaviour is very static throughout the book so although the idea is that he’s ramping up to be the threat, it’s all just far too obvious from the start.

The bigger problem with the book though is that the plot explanations don’t really make a lot of sense when you think about them.  For example, I could just about buy into the shooter and accomplice setting up the group to find themselves in the middle of nowhere (it’s convoluted but I could see it working).  What I didn’t understand was why the shooter doesn’t just tell the group he’s after one specific person because of one specific reason.  That would be the most straightforward way of dealing with it and could still have led to a lot of tension.  The idea (which the reader gets towards the end) that the shooter was also potentially looking for incriminating stuff on the other people in the RV makes very little sense and highlights how artificial the device is.  

Then there’s the key revelation itself.  If you apply any thought to it, it simply doesn’t hold water – firstly because of the nature of that character’s backstory and personality (and self-respecting defence attorney would rip them apart on the stand), then there’s the relationship between that character and the ADA and finally, the reveal of the potential double-cross would leave the ADA open to misconduct charges.

Later on there’s a scene where a character with zero experience in shooting guns apparently manages to kill someone from a building several hundred feet away because their gun has a laser scope.  That simply isn’t possible over a long distance.  There’s also the fact that a character is apparently able to avoid a police hunt for them, which in an era of camera phones and social media seems very unlikely.

If we were talking about a couple of implausibilities, then I wouldn’t have been so bothered because there’s always something in a novel that pushes the boundaries for artistic effect.  Unfortunately here they just keep mounting up and mounting up to the point where I really just lost interest in what was happening because I didn’t buy into it, which also meant that the tension that should have been building was all undone.

The end result was that I just couldn’t gel with this at all and was left feeling very disappointed that it wasn’t as good as I’d been hoping it would be.  It wouldn’t put me off reading Jackson’s next book because I do think she is a very talented writer.  I’m hoping that this is just a one-off misfire.  

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