Book Review: Charm & Strange

It's been a while since we had one of these, but I have been reading a lot (for me) and it is appropriately Banned Books Week in the U.S., during which we talk about the importance of books and reading and the dangers of banning them.

[Illustration/ mine]
This book is new (debut from earlier this year) and as far as I know it hasn't been banned, though I could see that it might be given its dark content. I meant to review it ages ago, but life was busy and I needed some time to think on it. In any case, it is a short, powerful book that I think is worth the read.

CHARM & STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn

Disclaimer: Received an e-ARC from publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

PROS: Taut plotting; engaging voice; deft use of metaphor and magical realism

CONS: Dual narrative structure takes a little getting used to; supporting characters aren't as fleshed out

Intellectual Rating: 9 out of 10
Emotional Grade: A-

Book Blurb (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.


Charm & Strange is indeed both of those things - charming in a mesmerizing, gripping kind of way and strange. For a relatively short book, it is powerful. It's dark, tense, psychological, and full of voice.

It's hard to review this book in part because it is something of a mystery, and to say anything of substance would be to give away the reveals. And part of the power of this book is how we come to the revelations, how the revelations ripple back to what we've seen happen in the story, and how those revelations affect the Win of the present.

The chapters are split between the present (Matter) with Win and the past (Antimatter) with Drew (the name he used before he became known as Win). The Present chapters and Past chapters each move forward in their own narratives, but they are put at the perfect pace so that each Past chapter reveals something about what is happening to Win in the Present. Both narratives are populated by their own set of characters - the common denominator being Win/Drew - but you can tell everything is intricately tied together. When you look at the story by the end, it's actually quite straightforward in a plot sense - there are no real subplots - but the clever interweaving of the chapters and the use of magical realism is what keeps you guessing. And it doesn't feel like a trick, like the odd structure was a means to keeping the reader in the dark. I thought it was actually a very effective way of showing us the confusion and change Win was going through, how complicated memories and perceptions can be.

I mean, the first line of the book blurb is: "Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself" and the split narratives illustrate this struggle in an organic way. So, it is a brilliant structure choice!

It is also astonishing how tightly plotted and well-paced this book is, especially considering that this is Kuehn's debut. Another fantastic part of this book? The voice and atmosphere!

The voice is what grabbed me from the beginning and didn't let go. I wasn't sure what to expect from this book, and for the first few chapters, I still didn't know where it was going. Then I stopped caring about the where because Win/Drew's voice was so distinct, so clear. Here is such an odd and not really likeable boy: so tightly wound, angry, lonely, and even afraid despite his coldness (in the present) and his violence (in the past). Though his personality seems a bit different between the past and present, his voice was recognizable as his own in both. He captivated me, made me curious and invested in his story.

UK Cover of Charm & Strange
And the atmosphere in this book was perfect. It evoked beauty, darkness, fear, and tension. The many woodland scenes were at once idyllic and ominous. The mood easily shifted from the realistic (e.g. the drunken antics of teens at a campfire party) to the surreal (e.g. running through the woods under the moonlight), and that lent itself to the mystery of Win/Drew's past at the heart of this novel.

One more thing I really loved about this book was the use of extended metaphor and motifs. They aren't overdone or overbearing, and I thought one of the metaphors was particularly appropriate to the themes of this book. I can't say more or I'll ruin it for you, but it is so appropriate. For the motifs, I loved the juxtaposition of Win's interest in the hard sciences (where the title and chapter titles come from, and which also lends itself to reinforcing Win's journey) to this shifting, paranormal-tinged depiction of his internal, personal struggle. I think also the juxtaposition of the unruly and abstract nature of this story to Kuehn's controlled prose and pacing serves to further the tension and dread while highlighting Kuehn's discipline.

The only slight bumps in the book I could mention is that the dual narrative does take a bit of getting use to and the other characters are very much supporting characters. It's not jarring per se, but it is like starting two different stories at once since the narratives run parallel to each other. It also makes it a bit hard to grasp the passage of time because the MATTER (present) story line takes place mostly over the course of a day/night, whereas the ANTIMATTER (past) story line jumps from incident to incident and then covers one fateful summer. The other thing is that while there is a cast of characters - particularly Win's two friends and Drew's brother and various other family members - there isn't too much of them. But while they are painted in rather broad strokes, there is a realness to them that makes it okay, and anyway, the story is very much Win's.

Kuehn draws a very complex portrait of a boy who is struggling with loss, grief, identity, trauma, and survival. The themes and what the story is really about only become truly clear at the end, and it is a heartbreaking, powerful revelation. I don't think you'll know how well-constructed Win's character and story is until then.

This is a very potent piece of magical realism, a book that blurs perception as much as it blurs the past and present, the real and fantastical. It is a dark, difficult story but it also has a lot of hope and heart. I look forward to anything Stephanie Kuehn writes in the future.

Similar suggested reads: Nova Ren Suma's 17 & Gone


Julie Dao said...

This book sounds SO good and I've been wanting to read it since I first heard about it. Might be a perfect almost-Halloween read :) Thanks for the review!

Laura S. said...

It's so sad when someone makes it their mission to ban a book from a school or library. I think that if you don't want to read it, fine, but don't take that right from anyone else! I love to see posts bringing awareness to Banned Books Week. This book looks great. Thanks for the recommendation!

Happy reading and writing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

Katy Upperman said...

Okay, I am dying to get my hands on this! I actually won it in a Debut Author Challenge giveaway, but it hasn't reached me yet. Your review is making me even more anxious to read it!

Lydia Kang said...

Can't wait to read this!