This week features one of the two books from the third Book Riot YA subscription box. I haven’t yet started reading the second book from that selection, mainly because after two horror novels back to back, I need a break.
The Devil and Winnie Flynn looked interesting from the start, and the neat temp tattoos that came in the box just piqued my interest that much more. The cover gives credit to a brother-sister duo; Micol wrote the novel while her brother David created the illustrations.
I was pretty stoked to read it, especially with the cover blurb boasting that it will haunt me long after I finish reading (sweet!).
But first, the spoiler-free summary.
Before Winnie Flynn even has time to reconcile with the reality of her mother’s suicide, her estranged aunt swoops in and convinces everyone what Winnie really needs is some time away. Big-time TV producer aunt Maggie whisks Winnie off with her to New Jersey for a summer spent filming her paranormal reality show. While there, Winnie learns more than she could have imagined about “reality” television, but also about herself, her mother’s death, and her role in the history of a town she’s never even seen before.
What really happened to Winnie’s mom? What is Maggie hiding? And what could either of them possibly have to do with the New Jersey Devil?
How I found it: BYA03
Genre: Horror; Mystery; Gothic; Young Adult; bildungsroman
Does it pass the Bechdel test? Yes
Is it a standalone? Maybe?
So what worked? Well. I did like the abundance and variety of female characters. I didn’t like them all personally, but it was nice to see a lot of women at varying stages in their lives with little tics and quirks that made them unique from the others. On the same hand, I liked that the story was entirely driven by women. The mixed-media feel was nice, and I liked the illustrations that helped set the mood here and there.
Once I finally let myself really get into the book, I actually started to like Winnie as well. I spent the better part of the book’s first half contemplating not reading any more, annoyed with Winnie’s pettiness and wishing she would grow up already. But somewhere along the way I realized—I’m not even sure now what triggered it—that Winnie’s just a pretty typical teenager thrown into some pretty atypical circumstances. I acted a lot like her when I was in high school even though I had a well-adjusted, two-(grand)parent home. Once I started accepting her behavior for what it was—a confused, scared teenager acting out for lack of understanding her emotions—I started forgiving her for more. I liked her character development for that reason alone; she seemed to respond to things the way an actual teenager in her shoes would, which is something a lot of adults writing teen fiction seem to misunderstand.
I liked Maggie, though I wish I could have gotten to see more of her. She was one of the most interesting characters in the book, in my opinion.
And of course, I’m always a sucker for meta-commentary and self-parody, so it was fun to see the book playing off (and making fun) of the various tired old horror tropes.
What didn’t work? This is where that “once I let myself” part comes into play. Winnie starts the book out being wholly judgmental, rude, standoffish, ungrateful, and a host of other adjectives. She was annoying and off-putting and had me rolling my eyes and considering not even finishing the book. (But I did.) The love triangle angle was also annoying. Yeah, we get the “reality TV is contrived” point—a point that more than once came across a little too heavily—but that doesn’t mean you have to fall into the trap of committing all those TV tropes you’ve been mocking for 200 pages. I didn’t like Casey, either, but I also didn’t like the execs preying on her insecurities and pitting her against Winnie for no real reason at all.
Honestly? The whole arc about the Kallikak women in the asylum. It seemed tossed in, like an effort to correct an overlooked plot hole by hastily shoving something in the empty space. They weren’t explored in the depth they could have been given, cast aside like an afterthought. They were, essentially, nothing more than a vehicle to move the story forward and, trust me, I get enough of women-as-plot-device in my gaming life. I don’t need it in my books as well, thanks just the same. It was especially disappointing because I think the Kallikak women could have pretty well propped up a story on their own. This family has powers? Let’s see them! What happened to them in that asylum? What happened to others, at their hands? How long did it take doctors to start putting the pieces together? What did they stand to gain by persecuting and systematically wiping out this whole family? These are things that would have been fascinating, far more fascinating than randomly chiming clocks and disembodied laughter.
Overall: I liked the book. I really did. But I wish I’d had a better idea of what it was going in. It felt written on a lower level than what I was anticipating, and it really wasn’t scary at all. There were some tense, suspenseful moments, sure, but scary, nah. The ending seemed to set up a sequel, and I can’t say I’m entirely sure I’ll read it. Overall, this book was some cute, mildly spooky fun that would be a great family Halloween read, but readers looking for real goosebumps may want to look elsewhere.