Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Book Review: Conversion by Katherine Howe

Conversion by Katherine Howe
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Pub. Date: July 2014
Genre: YA/Historical Fiction/Mystery
Source/Format: Own/Hardcover

Goodreads Summary: 
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?

The Story 
It's hard to talk much about the plot of Conversion without giving something away, as so much of what drives the story is the mystery of what's really happening to the girls of St. Joan's. Is it a virus? The result of environmental pollution? A hoax? Or something more sinister? The story hops back and forth in time between 2012 Danvers, Massachussets, where high school senior Colleen Rowley witnesses her friends and classmates succumb to a "Mystery Illness," and late 17th century Salem, where thirteen-year-old Ann Putnam gets drawn into a witch hunt hysteria. While I preferred the present day story to Ann's, Ann's was still important because it mirrored the events happening in Colleen's time and provided one possible explanation: that the St. Joan's girls could all be perpetuating a hoax for attention, just like the girls in Salem claiming to be tortured by witches. And the farther along you get in the story, the more it all does seem like a hoax. When interviewed on national television, the girls' symptoms seem to disappear in front of the cameras, most notably in Clara, the first girl to fall victim to the illness, whose debilitating verbal tics are miraculously gone But then there's Colleen's friend, Anjali, whose own symptoms--coughing up tiny balls of pins-- still persist and cannot be so easily explained away. If there's one thing Howe is excellent at in this book, it's her ability to keep you guessing, because just when you think you've got it all figured out, she throws another curveball.

While the plot of Conversion was definitely intriguing and enough to keep me reading, one major drawback of the book for me was Colleen's voice. It didn't feel genuine to me and I felt more like I was reading a caricature of teenager--everything was very exaggerated and honestly, it kind of put me off. Another problem for me was this sense of disconnect I had with not only Colleen, but with pretty much all of the characters in the story. Although Colleen had all of these relationships in the story--with her friends, her siblings, her parents, and her boyfriend, Spence--I never came to care very strongly for any of them. They all felt like props, just filling up space in the story while you tried to figure out the mystery. 

Final Thoughts
 Buy | Borrow | Skip
Despite the downsides, Conversion kept me flipping the pages until the very end. I absolutely had to find out what was causing the "Mystery Illness" outbreak at St. Joan's, and whether or not it was all tied back to the Salem witch panic. If you're in the mood for a quick read with an intriguing mystery, you might want to put this one on your library request list.

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