Review: Conversion by Katherine Howe


conversionPublished by Putnam Juvenile
Released July 1, 2014
432 pages
Where I got it: E-galley received from publisher via NetGalley
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Description (from Goodreads):

It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ texts: Through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t.
First it’s the school’s queen bee, Clara Rutherford, who suddenly falls into uncontrollable tics in the middle of class. Her mystery illness quickly spreads to her closest clique of friends, then more students and symptoms follow: seizures, hair loss, violent coughing fits. St. Joan’s buzzes with rumor; rumor blossoms into full-blown panic.
Soon the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts, as everyone scrambles to find something, or someone, to blame. Pollution? Stress? Or are the girls faking? Only Colleen—who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit—comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuries ago . . .
Inspired by true events—from seventeenth-century colonial life to the halls of a modern-day high school—Conversion casts a spell. With her signature wit and passion, New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe delivers an exciting and suspenseful novel, a chilling mystery that raises the question, what’s really happening to the girls at St. Joan’s?

I love the history of the Salem Witch Trials. A native Southern Californian, when I had an internship in New England, the only weekend trip I took was to Salem. I’ve been there multiple times since I moved to Massachusetts, and find the history fascinating. When I saw that Katherine Howe was writing a new young adult novel that had some basis in the Salem hysteria, I knew it was a must read. Sadly, it didn’t live up to my expectations.

Howe tries something interesting in Conversion. She links the current phenomena of mystery illness among high school students to the hysteria in Salem in the 1690s. The current school in Danvers, MA is a hotbed of stresses: girls worrying about grades, competing with each other for class rank, hoping to get into their ideal colleges, and, of course, boys. Then, the coolest girl in school starts to twitch uncontrollably in class.

This book had so much promise. It just didn’t work for me for the reason that some other young adult books by adult novelists don’t work. Howe doesn’t write in a convincing teen voice. Her first-person narrator comes across as inauthentic and stilted. On top of that, it takes her much too long to draw certain connections that are obvious to readers from the outset. There was much face-palming while I read this book.

While young adult fiction must seem like a goldmine, not all authors should attempt it. It isn’t as easy as it seems to write a good young adult novel, and Howe just doesn’t pull it off. It’s too bad. Conversion is a good idea, poorly executed.

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Review: Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

working stiffPublished by Scribner
Released August 12, 2014
272 pages
Where I got it: E-galley received from publisher via NetGalley

Description (from Goodreads):

The fearless memoir of a young forensic pathologist’s rookie season as a NYC medical examiner, and the cases, hair-raising and heartbreaking and impossibly complex, that shaped her as both a physician and a mother.

Just two months before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Dr. Judy Melinek began her training as a New York City forensic pathologist. With her husband T.J. and their toddler Daniel holding down the home front, Judy threw herself into the fascinating world of death investigation, performing autopsies, investigating death scenes, counseling grieving relatives. Working Stiff chronicles Judy’s two years of training, taking readers behind the police tape of some of the most harrowing deaths in the Big Apple, including a firsthand account of the events of September 11, the subsequent anthrax bio-terrorism attack, and the disastrous crash of American Airlines flight 587.

Lively, action-packed, and loaded with mordant wit, Working Stiff offers a firsthand account of daily life in one of America’s most arduous professions, and the unexpected challenges of shuttling between the domains of the living and the dead. The body never lies, and through the murders, accidents, and suicides that land on her table, Dr. Melinek lays bare the truth behind the glamorized depictions of autopsy work on shows like CSI and Law and Order to reveal the secret story of the real morgue.

I think one of the things that would keep me from ever being a doctor is the thought of dissecting a corpse. I just can’t fathom being that close to a dead body, let alone cutting it open. I would keep expecting it to lurch up and go for my brains. Keeping in line with my habit of reading about the exact thing I am afraid of, I couldn’t put Working Stiff down.

Dr. Melinek cuts open dead bodies for a living. Each day, she makes the Y-shaped incision into the torso, opens up the head when she needs to, breaks ribs, rummages around, and figures out why people die. Even better, she seems to genuinely enjoy her job. Dead bodies are fascinating, and she recounts the various ways that you might kick the bucket. Sometimes the body comes to her in a bucket, or in a mail container. Sometimes she has to go to the scene where the person is decomposing.

I couldn’t believe some of the amazing things the body can do when it dies. For example, one body was a suicide on the subway. There was no blood in the body or on the scene because it was completely absorbed into the marrow. Melinek also describes her time on the front line as a medical examiner during 9-11. It was a very striking chapter and really showed what first responders went through.

This was exactly the kind of book I like to read. The writing was engaging, the topic fascinating, and it didn’t pander or get cute with the subject matter. If you have an interest in death, forensics, true crime, or taboo topics, you’ll want to pre-order this one.

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? #103

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is a weekly meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey meant to highlight books you read in the past week, and what you’re planning on reading this week.

Phew, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. Baby steps.

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau
Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois

Continuing to read:
American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning by Kate Sweeney

Hoping to finish:
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
Vampires, Bones and Treacle Scones by Kaitlyn Dunnett

What are you reading this week?

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Review: Haunted Asylums, Prisons, and Sanatoriums: Inside Abandoned Institutions for the Crazy, Criminal & Quarantined by Jamie Davis