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REVIEW: Devilish by Maureen Johnson

Dear Ms. Johnson,

book review While I’ve read many reviews about your books, I’ve actually never read one myself.   I have occasionally read a blog post or two of yours when linked to it and even though I can’t remember which posts those were, I recall thinking they were funny and charming.   So for this month’s TBR challenge review, I dug Devilish out of my TBR pile.   Even more shocking, given my sad history in this endeavor, it actually fits the monthly theme — paranormal!

Jane Jarvis is a senior at Saint Teresa’s Preparatory School for Girls.   She’s short, fiercely smart, and perhaps not what you’d expect of a Catholic school girl with her spiky, bleached blond hair.   She’s also in the process of getting over her ex-boyfriend, despite her claims otherwise, and trying to help her best friend, Allison Concord, maintain her cool during one of the school’s annual traditions.   Unfortunately, Ally is something of a nervous wreck at the best of times and embarrassingly awkward at the worst and after a humiliating incident involving a cupcake, vomit, and a poor underclassman, Ally becomes the laughingstock of the school.

But to Jane’s surprise, Ally bounces back quickly.   She returns to school with a new haircut, pretty clothes, and improved confidence.   Jane tries to be happy for her friend but she can’t help but feel that something strange is going on.   After all, when you’ve been friends for as long as they have, you don’t just suddenly stop talking to each other for no good reason at all.   But that’s exactly what Ally does — she starts ignoring Jane.   And then Jane learns the truth: in exchange for popularity, Ally has sold her soul to the devil.

What I liked best about this book was Jane’s skepticism.   After all, when confronted with the fact that your best friend has sold her soul to the devil in order to be popular, I think most people would say that’s ridiculous.   I know I would.   Especially in circumstances like those described in the book — where the changes are unusual but not necessarily out of the realm of impossibility.   Like the golf-sized hail that fell when Ally apparently made her pact with the demon, for example.   It’s a little strange but freak weather storms aren’t unheard of.   Weren’t there some major hailstorms in the United States just a couple weeks ago?

Another thing I enjoyed was how strained the relationship between Jane and Ally became after Ally’s transformation.   Since we follow the story from Jane’s POV, it was very easy to sympathize with how Jane wanted to feel happy for her best friend but felt shut out at the same time.   I think we’ve all felt that way at one point or another in our lives when we feel excluded by our friends, whether inadvertently or not.   It was great to see Jane juggle her feelings of loneliness — after all, they’ve always had each other but Ally’s new persona doesn’t seem to need Jane anymore — and her feelings of jealousy, which becomes even more apparent when the whole thing involving Jane’s ex comes up.

On the other hand, I wonder if I would have enjoyed this book far more if I’d read it when it first came out a few years ago.   Let’s face it — while demons aren’t as ubiquitous as vampires, they’re pretty common these days.   And the horrors of demons juxtaposed with the horrors of high school?   Hardly a new concept.

I think that’s where most of my dissatisfaction comes from.   There’s much in the book that reads and feels familiar: the pact to become beautiful and popular, the new girl who’s trouble, the brainy main character with an attitude who’s a problem student and almost-outsider at her school, the relationships between the best friends and an ex-boyfriend and so on.   Those things, in and of themselves, aren’t dealbreakers because these are the building blocks of many a great story.   Why they didn’t work as well for me here is because I found the book to lack a certain level of nuance and detail to put a new spin on these elements.   As I said before, maybe if I’d read this book a few years ago, I would feel differently but these days, with paranormal malaise setting in, that can be a tall order.

I would have liked to see more of the demon-hunting order, especially their history with the demon in question, and Jane’s evolving relationship with Owen, which certainly poses some interesting complications.   And while I thought the demon’s ultimate plot was clever — sort of a bait and switch — I would have preferred more back and forth in the power struggle once Jane enters the playing field to win Ally’s soul back.

Ultimately, this book’s potential fell flat for me.   It has a great concept but the fact that it uses elements that have become very familiar and standard in the genre work against it.   This is one of the dangers of reading a work of fiction years after it’s come out.   What you’ve read in the meantime will have an effect despite your best intentions, especially if the book in question is in a popular genre.   So even though I do wonder what the Jia of three years ago would have thought, the Jia of today gives this book a C+.

My regards,
Jia

This book can be purchased in mass market from an independent bookstore. No ebook format.

Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

8 Comments

  1. hope
    Apr 16, 2009 @ 16:47:58

    Oh, I am sorry you couldn’t give it a higher grade. I did read it when it came out and thought it was a treat– a chocolate cupcake of a book . . . buttercream frosting, but not too much. I loved Jane’s skepticism, and I liked the way Johnson finessed the demon hunter stuff — I think that any more detail would have broken the bridge of the plot and building up the plot to carry the detail would have made a heavier book. I was unimpressed by Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes, but I really enjoyed this one– I think because it didn’t overreach.

  2. carolyn jean
    Apr 16, 2009 @ 19:08:10

    Oh, interesting how when you read a book can sometimes affect so much.

  3. LauraJane
    Apr 17, 2009 @ 07:43:18

    This is the only Maureen Johnson book I’ve read, too, and I didn’t like it. I’m hoping to give something else by her a chance.

  4. Kelly
    Aug 23, 2009 @ 11:56:04

    Oh, bummer, sorry you didn’t like this one that much! I enjoyed it.

    But my favorite Maureen Johnson has to be The Key to the Golden Firebird. It’s got heart.

  5. jessica
    Oct 26, 2009 @ 15:49:06

    @Kelly: this book was kinda werid all these soul and other things it kind of hard to understand

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  7. vikki
    Aug 21, 2010 @ 11:01:09

    I thought this book was wonderful in every way, and I keep rereading it…
    Yes, the concept is familiar. You could argue any book that comes out nowadays is nothing new. But the reason why I love it so much is because Johnson breathes so much life into all of her characters– we all know a Jane, an Allison, an Elton. I for one, loved Lanalee because yeah, she’s technically a bad guy but it’s because she had terrible morals, not really her personality. She’s supposed to be amiable and personable so people will want to follow her. And that’s exactly how Johnson depicts her.
    Johnson paints all her characters (even minor ones) so well, and this is why I think this book is so good. Too many authors choose plot over character development, so it was really really refreshing to read a book that had the best of both.

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