The To-Read Pile

There's an ever growing pile of books I want to read…

Big Joint Review: Cruel Summer by James Dawson & The Key to the Golden Firebird by Maureen Johnson


Earlier this week, I went to an event at Waterstones in Piccadilly where Maureen Johnson and James Dawson talked about gender and YA fiction. I actually have a separate blog post planned to talk about that, which I will post once I’ve finished writing it. Hopefully this week. But possibly not.

Today, I’m going to review a book from each of them. I actually read both in the run-up to the event and, although they were very different, I really enjoyed them both.

Let’s start with Cruel Summer by James Dawson because it was the one I read first.


Cruel Summer tells the story of a group of friends who meet up again a year after leaving school for a holiday in the sun. Things aren’t quite the way they seem, though, and the friends are keeping secrets from each other. Deadly, deadly secrets.

The novel opens with the death of their friend Janey and one of the big questions running through the story is what exactly happened to Janey. Did she fall or was she pushed?

It is really difficult to review this book without giving away lots of spoilers. I want to tell you that I loved the scene where spoilers redacted or that I thought the fact that in the end more spoilers redacted was really clever and fab.

What I’m trying to say is that I loved it. I had a couple of OH MY GOD moments while I was reading and although I did have an idea about who was behind even more spoilers redacted, damn it, it didn’t impact on my enjoyment because there were lots of other things I didn’t have figured out.

If you want a good teen thriller/horror story, this one is for you. It reminded me of an updated version of the point horror and Christopher Pike novels I read when I was growing up. It was stylishly written too in a meta, self-aware kind of way. Like reading a movie. The characters are very consciously aware of horror story tropes and even point them out to the reader, often before subverting them.

There were a couple of times that this didn’t work for me but, on the whole, I really enjoyed the book. Also, it loses half a point for giving me the song Cruel Summer as an ear worm. I was humming it as I read and also for the entire time I was writing this review, dammit!


So, let’s talk about The Key to the Golden Firebird. It’s a very different book to Cruel Summer.


The Key to the Golden Firebird is the story of three sisters, May, Palmer & Brooks. They are all dealing differently with the death of their father and the fact that their mother is now absent more often, working extra hours to keep the family afloat.

Although May is arguably the main character, each sister’s perspective is shown throughout the story and often I found that I was agreeing how a character’s traits would be very annoying and then understanding them too, when they presented their own feelings to me.

I have a sister and I thought the way that Maureen Johnson wrote the relationships between them was very believable. They clearly love one another at the same time that they resent and misunderstand one another. There was a scene with Palmer in particular that really resonated with me, where she tries to talk to May and just picks the wrong moment.

Although, at its heart, this is quite a “serious” story, it’s also really funny and told in a way that is a lot of fun to read. I also feel like Maureen Johnson deserves all the cookies for not taking the quick fix, “everything is all better now”, approach.

It’s a great and realistic portrayal of first loves/relationships as well as being a story about coming to terms with loss. If you are human, this story has something for you. If you have a sister or sisters, you definitely need to read it.


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This entry was posted on October 11, 2013 by in Events, Reviews and tagged , , , , , .
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