I’m beyond thrilled to be part of the Charm & Strange blog tour, hosted by Itching for Books! I was approved to read the book on NetGalley, and then when the blog tour opportunity came along, I jumped on it. This is one book you do not want to miss, so keep reading for my glowing five-star review!
Synopsis from Goodreads:
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.
Release date: June 11 2013
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
About the Author:
Stephanie Kuehn is a YA writer who grew up in Berkeley, California, which is a quirky sort of a place with a ton of wonderful bookstores. Her very first job was working in one of those bookstores, and she’s been a freakishly avid reader for as long as she can remember.
Stephanie’s other passions include mental health advocacy, social justice, and sports of all kinds. She’s currently living in Northern California with her family and their wild menagerie of pets.
In a word: a deeply buried mystery, complicated family relationships, a feeling of dread that grows with each chapter, written in gorgeous and evocative prose.
The school devours privacy, and rumors are like drops of blood in an ocean full of predators.
This may be the hardest review I’ve ever had to write. The synopsis for Charm & Strange doesn’t tell you much. It’s ridiculously vague. So I didn’t have much to go on when I started to read the book, which turns out to be OK. I’d heard some rumblings that it might be a book about a certain something (Now I’m being vague! I really don’t even want to give that away), but I decided to dive in without trying to form a preconceived notion of what the heck this book was about.
And I’m glad I got to experience Charm & Strange that way. I believe every reader should have the same experience, so I’m not going to talk about the plot much, other than to give you a brief summary. There are secrets afoot in this book, secrets that should only be revealed as the reader turns the pages. The emotional reaction I had at the end (tears!!) would not have been the same if I had known certain truths about the story ahead of time. It should also be pointed out that I wasn’t able to find a website that would tell me the genre of this book, and I believe the publisher was smart to keep genre labels away from Charm & Strange. It was a unique story that everyone should read. This is the type of book that will be nominated for book awards, and it also has a timeless quality that makes it perfect for high school literature classes.
The story is told by Andrew Winston Winters and alternates between chapters set in the present (“matter”) and the past (“antimatter”). In the present, “Win” is a sixteen-year-old boy whose parents have sent him off to a boarding school where he excels at tennis but has a hard time connecting with his peers. In the past, “Drew” is ten years old and lives at home with his parents, his older brother Keith, and his younger sister Siobhan. We slowly learn that Win has been sent away because of an event that happened when he was ten, something that is only hinted at and never revealed until the end. Win is convinced that he is about to “change,” a change that he can’t escape because of family genetics. When the story opens, a hiker has been killed by a wild animal, and Win is worried that he might have had something to do with it.
Most of the “matter” chapters take place in Eden, a secret location in the nearby woods where students gather every Friday night for drunken mischief. Win goes to Eden, certain that this is the night he will finally change. He is accompanied by Lex, a boy who figures into another mystery with Win, and Jordan, an odd girl who refuses to stay away from Win, even though he wants nothing to do with her.
As Win struggles with his inner demons, terrible memories from his childhood rise to the surface, and past and present converge. In the alternating “antimatter” sections, he remembers a particularly painful summer when he was ten years old and was forced to visit his grandparents, and the events that triggered the secret he’s blocked from his memory. As disparate as the past and present chapters seem, Kuehn seamlessly weaves them together, creating a picture of a damaged family.
Provided you stay away from spoilers, I guarantee you will experience confusion while reading Charm & Strange. And that’s a good thing. Kuehn is a master at giving the reader just enough information to whet your appetite without ruining the reveal at the end. I honestly did not see it coming. Some readers may be more astute than I was and figure things out much sooner, but whether you’re the kind of reader who needs to have all the answers, or the kind that just goes along with the story, I’m betting that you’ll be surprised at least once during the tale. The author plants clues along the way, and some of them are misleading. I found myself thinking the story was about one thing, only to discover that it’s really about something else entirely. And I have to say I loved that feeling of unease, the feeling that the author really does have control of her story, and she’s not giving up her secrets so easily. It takes skill to pull off something like this, and Kuehn managed to do it well, and with her debut, no less!
Kuehn’s writing is beautiful. It’s poetic. It’s above and beyond the skill level of most debut authors. She writes like a seasoned professional, and I’m sure she has a wonderful writing career ahead of her. She gives Win just the right language to evoke both sympathy and dread from the reader. You feel for Win because you know something traumatic has happened to him, but his anger and general unhappiness, not to mention his belief that he has something terrible inside him, make the reader wary. I wanted to give him a big hug, but I also wanted to stay as far away from him as possible! The author’s visual descriptions are lovely, but often menacing and creepy as well. I could see her using metaphors and subtext, but I was never sure if I was reading them correctly. Her writing reminded me of two authors in particular: Donna Tartt, whose The Secret History is one of my all-time favorite books (and is also a story about a mystery at a boarding school), and Anne Rice, whose lush prose perfectly evokes a time and place, just like Kuehn’s.
The title is also carefully planned, as is everything else about this book. “Charm” and “strange” are types of quarks, particles that make up matter. Even if you aren’t a physicist, you’ll appreciate the way Kuehn creates parallels between quarks and human interaction in her story.
The bonds between siblings, friends and parents make up the heart of this book, but the relationship Win has with his inner beast is just as important. As an inescapable feeling of dread grows with each turn of the page, the reader begins to see that relationships are often about more than just what we see on the surface. The heart wrenching moments near the end will make you want to go back and read Charm & Strange all over again. And that, my friends, is what stories are all about.
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Quotes from the book were taken from an uncorrected proof, and may be different in the finished version.
I rode on his back the rest of the way. I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and turned my head to watch the forest go by above me. A surreal effect, it felt like the world had been flipped. I floated, weightless, nothing more than ether pulled into a formless journey. The dark branches of the trees swept us along, long, shadowy arms raking against our bodies, propelling us forward. That flutter of fear riffled through me again. I squeezed my eyes shut.
Big thanks to Itching for Books for hosting this tour: