DISCLAIMER: I am a MA in Writing Student at Rowan University who has recently had the opportunity to study under Professor Atwood. The following review may be biased.
When I saw that I would be required to read MC Atwood’s debut young adult novel, The Devils You Know for my Seminar II class this semester as part of my MA in Writing program at Rowan University, I was very excited. Last fall I had a wonderful experience studying under Professor Atwood by taking her Writing Genre Fiction course. Atwood is hilarious and one of the kindest individuals I’ve ever met. She is also seriously talented as both a writer and an editor.
The Devils You Know was a real pleasure to read. I love that while the book is Atwood’s favorite genre – horror – it is also still young adult. While terrifying, it was also extremely relatable. This novel is about more than a creepy haunted house with scary clowns and dolls (seriously…so many dolls…). It’s a story about friendship and finding yourself in the midst of the terror known as high school.
In the beginning of the novel, Paul, Violet, Dylan, Ashley, and Gretchen don’t know each other very well for the most part. Paul is seen as being the cool black guy that everyone loves. Violet is the quiet “nice” girl that no one knows very well, but Paul has a crush on, and she is beginning to develop feelings for as well. Dylan tries a little too hard to be a bad ass and I can really see him as being a bit of a punk rocker/skater kid. Ashley is the stuck up, rich, right-winged Republican princess that owns the school and absolutely HATES Gretchen (the feeling appears to be mutual), and Gretchen is Dylan’s partner whom is every bit as weird and tough as he is.
The quintent rarely ever crosses paths and most certainly wouldn’t call each other friends. However, when the opportunity to visit the legendary Boulder House on a class field trip presents itself, all five members of the group sign up and find themselves forced to not only share in the same space and experiences, but to also work together as a team and get to REALLY know the truth about each other. Sometimes the truth can be completely alarming and sometimes you think you know someone (as is the case of Dylan and Gretchen), but later realize you don’t know that person at all.
For instance – who would’ve guessed that Paul likes to wear tights and role play during medieval events? Nice girls finish last…and get taken advantage of as seen by the way Mr. Rhinehart takes advantage of Violet by having an affair with her the day she turns 18. Dylan is not actually Dylan at all…he’s John Michael…and despite his foul mouth and constant use of the word “yo”, he’s not as tough as he wants people to think he is. He’s actually a very conservative Christian who attends church every week with his rich parents. On the other end of the spectrum, Ashley isn’t the conservative Christian she wants everyone to believe she is. In fact, she’s gay and she’s trying everything to hide her true identity from everyone, especially her Republican parents. After all, her father IS a well-known senator who HATES anyone that’s not straight. If he knew the truth about her it would destroy him and the rest of her family. What’s worst – she doesn’t hate Gretchen at all. In fact, she’s in love with her. As for Gretchen? She’s tough because she has to be, not because she wants to be. Her family is on food stamps and she makes her own clothes because she has no choice. Her mother is ill and the family constantly struggles with money.
In order to survive the house and everything in it – from demonic angels to creepy evil dolls to scary clowns to even whales and everything in between, the quintent must work together. However, when the quintent’s secrets are revealed to one another, they all feel such a strong sense of shame that they want to go through the house alone. However, they later learn that while they each have their own secrets, it doesn’t make them less and if anything, knowing the truth about who they are is what will not only bring them closer together, but also force them to want to stick together to support each other and to make it out of the house alive and beyond the house, to make it through high school alive, too.
Some of the novel’s strengths lie in the extreme attention to details, particularly with the imagery and descriptions of the house. It’s a very unique and clever book that while sticking to the main conventions of the horror genre, doesn’t fall into the trap of cliches. For example: there’s an entire room dedicated to whales and aquatic lives. I’ve never been afraid of whales and squids/octapuses, but I am now! I also really appreciated the way the novel took the very successful risk of having multiple narrators/points of views. Each chapter was told by a different character – Ashley, Gretchen, Dylan, Violet, and/or Paul. This allowed the reader to get up close and personal with all of the characters. Atwood did a great job of breaking them all down and creating an equal balance between each character’s voice so it never felt like you had too much of one character and not enough of another character. It also never got too confusing or overwhelming; five seemed like the perfect number.
So why four stars and not five? While I really enjoyed this book and struggled to put it down, it wasn’t perfect. There were still some things that bothered me with this book. One of the main things I didn’t like was Dylan’s character. He really annoyed me. I didn’t like his dialogue and I had trouble believing that’s how he would actually talk. I think there was an instance in the beginning where he said something along the lines of “I remembered to turn my swag on” which made me cringe. Do people even use the term “swag” anymore? I thought that died around 2008. “Fuck-a-doodle-doo” also sounded really awkward to me. I could believe him saying it once or twice, but constantly throughout the book? And no one ever comments on how weird it sounds? I had trouble buying it. Lastly, by the end of the book I was really annoyed by his constant use of the word “yo”. I think he said it but I feel like that would be something he’d say in the beginning of a sentence, not the end and reading it vs. hearing it – it reads kind of awkwardly and annoyed me as a reader. Lastly – his name is something completely different than what everyone calls him and no one knew this? I feel like the school would at least have his legal name down and probably call him by it on the first day of class. I just didn’t buy that as being his secret.
Also, reading this as a conservative Christian, I realize I’m a little biased but I did take some issues with the content of the novel. At times I felt like I was being attacked based on my views and like I was supposed to apologize or feel bad about being a conservative, Republican, Christian. I go to church every week the way Dylan/John Michael did – I don’t think that’s a “bad” thing in itself.
Lastly, demonic/fallen angels? The angels which are typically symbols for good, were made into symbols for evil. I wasn’t really okay with that imagery. I felt like the idea of Christianity throughout the novel was being shown in a negative light. Some of the jabs against Christianity/Republicans (such as the subtle George Bush reference…) felt a little over-done/cheap. I also thought of the impact/influence they may have on the novel’s target teenage audience which made me a little uncomfortable.
But overall I did really like this novel. It was very well researched, well written, and engaging. 4 out of 5 stars.
I recently enrolled in Professor Julia Chang’s Writing the Memoir class at Rowan University. One of the first books she assigned for us to read is Nick Flynn’s now out of print memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. My first impression of this book was 1. There must be a reason why this out of print followed by 2. I trust my professor’s judgement, despite this book being out of print, it must be good.
However, I found this memoir to be pretty “meh” overall.
The main overarching theme in this memoir is the art of telling stories or searching for stories throughout life. I love that the book works towards this theme and that the theme is supposed to be the glue that holds the book together, however, I didn’t really realize this was the book’s theme until the very end. We get hints at this theme, but it’s not made quite as clear as I would have liked it to have been.
Nick Flynn is a twenty-something year old man living in Boston. Growing up, he never had the opportunity to really know his father. Everything that Nick knows about his father is through stories – those told by others like his mother and those from the occasional letters that he receives from his father.
Individuals like Nick’s mother paint a pretty depressing picture of what Nick’s father is really like. Nick learns that his father is an alcoholic, that he’s a conman with a number of scams and schemes over the years including robbing banks, and that the police are constantly looking for him due to his failure to pay child support.
Nick also learns through letters that his father writes to him while in prison that his father is a writer. Nick’s father often writes him to tell him that his novel is going well and is on its way to being the next great American novel — earning the same ranks and acclaim as classics like The Catcher in the Rye. However, Nick never actually gets to see the story and has no way of knowing whether or not this story actually exists or if it’s merely another one of his father’s famous stories.
Nick’s own story is very similar to that of his father’s. He too, becomes an alcoholic and gets himself involved in drugs, namely cocaine. Nick also becomes involved in a life of crime while working on the boat smuggling drugs in and out. Is he destined to become his father?
It isn’t until Nick starts working for a homeless shelter, Pine Street, one of the largest homeless shelters in the country, that he meets his father. His homeless father becomes one of the residents. However, Nick shows no sympathy to his father. There are often times places when he doesn’t even seem to want to be around his father. It’s as if he’d rather hear about his father through the grapevine. Nick wants to know who his father really is, but he seems to be afraid to do so because he is so afraid of becoming his father, something that he seems to be on track to do.
At the very end of the book, Nick finally does interview his father along with other father-like figures who were involved with his mother before her suicide. He finds that his father’s book does in fact exist, but it’s actually a musical, much of which seems to focus on his alcoholism and how it lead him to prison. While Nick admits that about thirty pages of it are pretty good, he admits that it’s definitely not the masterpiece that his father made it out to be. He reflects on what this means by saying:
What would I do if it was a masterpiece, an overlooked classic? What then? Would our blood be redeemed? Would time be made whole? Would I still have such ambivalence about calling myself a poet? Would I have more? Would I have some idea of what it means to be a father, would I still be terrified of becoming one? He cannot die, he tells me, until his work is complete. Perhaps I am digging his grave, perhaps the book you have in your hands is the coin for his eyes. Perhaps the story of his masterpiece is his life raft, what he’s invented to keep himself afloat.
This is really the highlight of the book and where all of the little stories weaved throughout begin to make sense. However, After trudging through over 300 pages to get to this point, I was a little exhausted as a reader. The book felt as though it dragged on a bit and could have easily been told in only 200 or so pages. Once the book got to the point and began to make sense, it was over.
Still, as a whole it is obvious that Nick Flynn had an interesting story to tell and it made for an interesting read, even if it was a bit cluttered, confusing, and long-winded at times.