Review: Charm & Strange

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Charm & StrangeCharm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on June 11, 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery
Pages: 224
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher

When you’ve been kept caged in the dark, it’s impossible to see the forest for the trees. It’s impossible to see anything, really. Not without bars . . . 

Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself.

He’s part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts all his classmates out, no matter the cost.

He’s part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable.

Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present.

Before the sun rises, he’ll either surrender his sanity to the wild darkness inside his mind or make peace with the most elemental of truths—that choosing to live can mean so much more than not dying.

First Sentence: “I don’t feel the presence of God here.”

Stephanie Kuehn’s debut Charm & Strange is a lot of things: confusing, frustrating, disturbing, thought-provoking, dark, and original. Starting out a career as an author with such an unusual book shows daring. Charm & Strange will not please every reader, and I myself felt largely ambivalent towards it until the very end. Those final scenes, though, helped Charm & Strange coalesce into something harsh but meaningful, something I’m glad to have read, if not understood fully.

Kuehn’s writing style perfectly matches the character of Anrew/Winston (his first and middle name, which he goes by at different times of life). The narration is sort of fragmented, filled with commas and semi-colons. Punctuation breaks up the thoughts into little pieces, clearly illustrating Winston’s troubled mind. He says nothing directly. For me, the writing was really tough to fathom, to piece together, which did result in a lot of confusion, but, artistically, I do think it’s brilliant.

Much of what’s admirable I cannot really speak to, as talking about this book to any great degree would involve spoilers. Suffice it to say that the twists are both deeply upsetting, perhaps even going marginally too far, but that the way everything ties together is impressive. From a psychological perspective, the conclusion is compelling and satisfying.

What brought things together for me were the final scenes. Kuehn imbues the ending with a bit of hope, but there’s no happily ever after, and Winston’s still got major issues to deal with. Rarely do endings like this show up in YA, with the hero or heroine still mostly broken and without a true love to cushion the loss of everything else. Still, there is that ray of hope, which shows through in Andrew’s reversion to his first name and his much more easily parsed language.

There were three reasons I struggled so much with this book for most of its pages. The first is our narrator. Win is a brilliant teen, but a cold, aloof one. He keeps himself distant even from the reader, not just from the other kids at his boarding school. As such, he’s hard to like, because he really doesn’t want the reader to know anything but his worst moments, barely even explaining why he is the way he is, because he wants to wallow in the guilt.

The other two reasons are all bound up together. Win excels at science, and science terminology is dropped throughout the book. In fact, the title is a reference to something to do with quarks, and the chapter headings, alternatively Matter and Antimatter, are scientific as well. Their meaning is actually explained (see p.35-36), but it whooshed right over my head. I was able to put together that Matter was Win in the present and that Antimatter was Drew in the past, but that was it. I feel like there’s so much that I’m missing from a lack of science brain. Also, I had a lot of trouble navigating between the two timelines, finding that I would have forgotten what Win was doing by the time I finished a Drew section and vice versa.

Though short, Charm & Strange is a read for a patient and well-educated reader, one with a high threshold for tough subject matter. If you’re looking for an action-packed paranormal romance, you are in one hundred percent the wrong place. I will be very curious to see what Kuehn follows this up with.

Favorite Quote:

“And yes, I say, I do like girls. I don’t pursue them, though, and there are a lot of reasons for that. It’s gotten me in trouble before, but I also think I have ridiculously high standards because the whole dating, fooling around thing seems so complicated. And not in a good way. I hate obligations, and if you want to be with a girl, it’s like you’re expected to do certain things. And do them a certain way.”

21 responses to “Review: Charm & Strange”

  1. Allison says:

    You have me SO intrigued to read this that I may have to pick it up soon! I’ll wait until I’m feeling patient though, and in the mood for a cold/distant protag.

  2. Kat Balcombe says:

    Sciencey stuff? *eyes glaze over*. Otherwise I probably would have picked this one up, but that scares me!

  3. Megan K. says:

    This sounds so good. I’ve seen some raving reviews from Giselle and Blythe, and they make me want to pick it up so badly! Win doesn’t sound like the ideal protagonist at all, but that’s what makes Charm & Strange all the more appealing. Eh, I don’t have a science brain either. Bet that’ll affect my opinion of the book a lot…

  4. I think Charm & Strange sounds intriguing but I’m not really sure it’s something I could get through. I always have a hard time with books that use different or unusual writing styles. My brain just doesn’t like it and I end up getting frustrated by it. Also, science is not my friend.

  5. Yeah this was all kinds of strange. I didn’t get the matter and anitmatter stuff either, my brain kept thinking that the past should be matter, because it made him the way that he was but that was not right at all. Look what happens when I actually try to figure stuff out instead of just going along for the ride. You did like the wrap up a bit more than me, but I think that’s because all the stuff I read in the final pages I had already figured out so it was just a rehashing of what I knew. *sigh* and I had such high hopes for this one.

    • Christina says:

      Yeah, I was sort of wondering that about matter/antimatter, but I was mostly just happy to have figured out it was alternating between two timelines. That took me longer than it maybe should have. There were not enough comments about his age. Oh, look at you being all ahead of the curve!

  6. Amy says:

    I am really looking forward to reading this!! I have it, it’s sitting right next to me on my computer desk actually. I think the lack of having any clue what it’s about and the fact it’s been described numerous times as a mind fuck, make me really intrigued. Hopefully in July when I don’t have so many review books.

    • Christina says:

      I hope you like creepy reads because this goes some super dark places. July is when I’m hoping to MAYBE be able to sneak in that second Rhiannon Held book that arrived, but I doubt it. Oh well.

  7. Ashley says:

    Interesting. I enjoyed your review but I am glad for the heads up about the fact that I might need to be patient when reading this one…. not usually my forte when reading.

    Ashley @ The Quiet Concert

  8. This looks so unique that I really want to read it, but I don’t have a science brain either so I will have to be in a patient mood! Thanks for the explanation of why you didn’t love it, I think it will be super helpful.

    -Taylor @ Reading is the Thing

  9. meg says:

    I’m hearing a lot of interesting things about this book. The premise really intrigues me, but science was (by far) my worst subject so I’m a little wary. I think I’ll give it a try anyway and just plan to be patient. Thanks for the review, I feel much more prepared.

  10. Faye M. says:

    I read this one and totally loved it! I’m still glad that even though you didn’t like the MC too much because of the detached tone and the scientific stuff scattered throughout the book, you were still able to get the meaning of it. When I was reviewing this one, I found it really hard to get my review right without spoiling it, and you did an awesome job! Thank you for your thoughts, Christina!

    Faye @ The Social Potato

    • Christina says:

      Until the last ten pages or so, this book was getting 2.5 stars, but she wrapped it up really well. Writing these reviews is so hard! Want to spoil everything just to be able to explain things, but can’t. Haha. Thanks!

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