Monday, June 10, 2013

Book Review: Charm and Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

Release Date: 06/11/13
Thanks to the publisher!
Published by: St. Martin's Griffin

Charm and Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

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.


Ten Likes/Dislikes:

1. (+) Win/Drew, the protagonist - It takes real, raw talent to make readers empathize with an unreliable, and somewhat unlikable protagonist. The teenager Win is not very kind (though sometimes he has good intentions). He pushes everyone away from him, though he's quite lonely, he does some bad things to that effect, and he's strong and prone to violent attacks (summary). Yet there's so much more to him, deeply rooted pain, something that goes way beyond the typical teenage angst. There's also the narrative of adolescent Drew, a strange, intense child who gets motion sick and is angry and acts out... but is also a child: afraid, unsure of the world around him, unstable. The combination of these two narratives makes Win/Drew a stand-out in YA protagonists, complex and real and empathetic... and brave.
2. (+) Character Development - The book alternates between chapters of matter and antimatter to distinguish between the past and present narratives of adolescent Drew and teenager Win. Seeing how Win has developed from Drew, how Drew changes over the course of one summer, how Win develops over the course of one night--it all was utterly compelling.
3. (+) Character Cast - Win/Drew is not the only real and complex character to be found. His older brother, Keith, is... wow, I have no words for that boy. And despite the length of the book, Win's roommate, Lex--his choices, his actions, his words--and somewhat friend, Jordan. The three cousins: Phoebe, Charlie, and Anna. How the decisions and choices of all these individual characters feed back into the plot and the terrible tragedy.
4. (+) The Lure - I don't usually talk about this, but what makes this book so compelling is that it is both a mind bender and tear jerker. From page one, from the first sentence--"I don't feel the presence of God here"--you are drawn into Win's pain, his every emotion as you learn of his past and present tragedy. At the same time, the book raises a lot of questions from the outset... and that will make you want to read on, if only to at least check whether your suspicions are correct.
5. (+) Themes- What is the cost of survival? How do people cope with tragedy? What happens when your faith in yourself, in the world has been broken? How has the past shaped you into who you are, and how has the past refused to fade from your daily life? Can meaning be derived from tragedy? This is a book that deeply explores the psyche of a growing human dealing with pain, loss, and the lines between life, death, love, and identity. Also a bit of psychology v. hard science (charm & strange, quarks, stress reactions, etc.).
6. (+/-) Unanswered Questions - Although I personally thought that this book was wonderfully paced, and a great length, I also found myself a bit frustrated at the end... because I think there are still some unanswered questions. While I understand that that may be part of the point, I think that some of the questions I have are more fundamental to story structure. However, since the majority of reviews on Goodreads are glowing and do not appear to mention this, perhaps this is just me being nitpicky.
7. (+/-) Not for Everyone - This book is not for everyone. I say this not because it is a bad book, but because some people may not be able to handle this book. If you're looking for a happy tale, or something humorous, you won't find it here. For me, this book was also compelling yet not quite engaging. I was compelled, certainly, to read until the end, but because of the dark nature of the themes and the tragedy itself, it's not the kind of book that I felt rooted in--and I'm glad for that, because of the horrific and sad moments. (And in the end, this book has a specific effect, and yes, it's done well, but that also means it's not quite my kind of book.) If this doesn't make sense or you want me to expand, let me know in the comments. I'm trying not to spoil the book for you.
8. (+) The Writing - Raw talent here. The writing is very ambiguous for a reason, but not ambiguous enough to make you feel frustrated or confused. It's the kind of ambiguity that shows how much pain and confusion Win/Drew must feel, and you get the sense that Stephanie Kuehn was very, very careful with each and every word. It was also quite beautiful in some spots and flowed well.
9. (+) Pacing - This book is paced perfectly. It's hard to master alternating chapters of past and present, but Kuehn does this well, building and building to the conclusion when the answers are finally revealed. I would've wanted just a few more pages for my other questions, but other than that, it was the perfect length to capture and keep your attention until the end.
10. (+) The Cover - I am so glad they changed the cover to this one. A great representation of the contents, themes, and main characters (x2, past & present), and again, like the writing: ambiguous. Wonderful job.

There is some alcohol and drug use, and some of the other themes and incidents in this book may make some people uncomfortable sharing it with younger teens. However, this is also a book that is so volatile, so emotionally gut-wrenching and sad and well-written and compelling that it would be a shame for Charm and Strange to not have its own niche with... everyone. It's unlike anything I've ever read, and I would definitely recommend it to Ellen Hopkins fans, as the blurb suggests, or to fans of Jay Asher. Or if you're simply looking for anything new, or a darkly compelling book. I know that I will definitely be reading Stephanie Kuehn's next book.

Other similar reviews from Reynje, Giselle, Blythe, and Keertana.

11 comments:

  1. I love the way you formatted this review! I personally think this book looks really great, and definitely different from anything out there! And, well, there are a lot more plusses than minuses so I don't think I can go wrong here :)

    Taylor @ Reading is the Thing

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  2. Well, this is interesting

    I LOVE your review

    I think this book looks like a pretty complicated but lovely one

    And the mystery and the tragedy have me intrigued

    GREAT review

    Your reader,

    Soma

    http://insomnia-of-books.blogspot.com/

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  3. It is definitely different from most other things I've read, not only in topic but also in style and emotional punch. I hope you enjoy it :)

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  4. Thanks, Soma. It's definitely both complicated and lovely, but also sad and emotionally resonant. I hope you enjoy the book!

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  5. First, the cover is awesome. It immediately caught my eye when it first started roaming the web. After reading several reviews, some good and some not so good, I am even more curious about the story. I have heard several times that it is a mind-bending, trippy story which I like. But it seems like it may be one that I need to save for a certain type of mood. Otherwise, it may not have quite the effect it is supposed to!

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  6. Yes, definitely. You got at the heart of what I meant to say with "not for everyone." You probably do have to be in a certain mood when reading. It's a good book, but it has a very specific atmosphere that I think might not work for everyone. If you're not sure whether it's for you, I would suggest reading from the Look Inside excerpt on Amazon. It's intense from the beginning, and I think you'll be able to know from those first few pages whether that effect is something you'll enjoy.

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  7. I think it is a book that I would enjoy. I like mind-bending, trippy stories for the most part. But I couldn't read one today because I don't think my head would bend very well. Some days, though, it is much more bendable than others. THOSE would be the days for books like Charm & Strange!

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  8. Wow, this one was much more of a success for you than it was for me. I did end up liking it right at the very end, though I do agree that a lot of stuff was left unclear and think it went a little over the top. I didn't connect with Win/Drew at all until that point, and never had a really strong handle on the characters, so I was obviously missing something you were able to tap into. The writing was fascinating, and I totally agree that it feels like she put a ton of thought into every word.

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  9. Faye M. @ The Social PotatoJune 21, 2013 at 12:36 PM

    I love how you dissected it one by one! When I read this book it was very hard for me to describe it as it was just so bizarre and surreal that putting what you felt into words (and coherent words at that) was impossible. You did a great job, though! :) Nice review!

    Faye @ The Social Potato Reviews

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  10. Oh, this was hard, Faye, and truthfully I'm not sure if I gave a full estimation of the book or stayed so very vague that it's hard to tell what this surreal/bizarre but wonderful book is about... but thank you for your kind words :)

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  11. Well, it wasn't a huge connect with the characters, but they seemed very real to me. I can definitely see how connecting with Win/Drew works for some but not for others. Either way, it's nice that you did eventually connect with him!

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