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Monday, March 10, 2014

Charm & 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.

Released: June 11th 2013       Pages: 216
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin   Source: Review copy provided by publisher

First Look: ****Initially, I had no intention of reading this.  I had skimmed the description once, and dismissed it as "not my thing".  Then I started hearing good things about it, and it started sounding more interesting.  When I was offered a review copy, I decided I might as well give it a shot.

Setting: ****
I never quite know how to review the setting of realistic fiction books.  While setting is always important, it typically doesn't play as large a role as it would in the fantasy and sci-fi novels I'm used to reviewing.  Still, even after only 216 pages, I could get a sense of the claustrophobic feel of Win's private school, and the tension of where Drew stayed during that eventful summer.

Characters: ****
This book is a fascinating character study.  It's told from two different (kind of) points of view.  Both are the same person, but one is the young Drew, and the other is the older version, Win.  Though it's hard for me to relate to Drew's constant anger and general angst, it feels real in a way that is borderline frightening.  It might be difficult to like a character who is always that angry, and it does get frustrating, but in a way that makes it believable.

The other half of the story is told from the point of view of present-day Drew, Win.  He's the same person in some ways, and different in others, which is what makes him so compelling.  That angry little boy is still there, but he's grown up in a way that makes him more withdrawn and angsty.  Again, he none of this makes him sound likable, but I found myself caring about him and feeling for him all throughout the book. 

Plot: ***** 
It unfolds strangely and gives up its secrets slowly.  You don't get key elements of the backstory at the beginning--for the reader, they happen at the same time as the present-day action.  If nothing else, the backstory raised so many questions that I wanted to keep blowing through chapters simply to find the answers.  It's unpredictable--you think you know where it's going, but then it takes another turn.  It's dark, sad, frustrating, and wonderful all at the same time.

And then the ending makes it even more so.  It's fitting, yet at the same time it boggles my mind a bit.  I mean this in the best way possible--I love books that mess with my mind.

Uniqueness: ****At first, it seems like it will turn it to be yet another boarding school book about an overly-angsty teenage boy.  It is about an overly-angsty teenage boy at a boarding school, but it's so much more than that.  And besides, the twist at the end separates it from all that.

Writing: ****The best word I can come up with to describe the writing is "understated".  It's pretty straightforward, with little in the way of fancy language and "wow" moments.  And yet, it packs a huge emotional punch.  It proves that you don't have to be over-the-top with your narration in order to make readers feel something.  I certainly was feeling the things Drew/Win was feeling.

My favorite part of the writing, though, is the ambiguity of it.  It twists your perception of what is reality, within the novel, and what is happening inside Win's mind.  I know that some people hate not knowing whether or not something in a book is real, but I love it.

Likes: Nothing not already mentioned above.

Not-so-great:  Nothing not already mentioned above.

Overall: This is a strange, emotional, and wonderful little book.  It gives up its secrets slowly, but when the reveals come, they're worth it.  Even for just over 200 pages, it made me feel for the angry, sad, confused main character, Drew/Win.  The ending twists your perception of the entire novel in an awesome way.  I'm glad I got the chance to read and review this.

Similar Books:  It questions its own reality like The Marbury Lens and More Than This.  The angsty boarding school characters remind me of the boys from The Raven Boys.

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