Review: Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

charmGoodreads Blurb:

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.

My Review:

How has Charm & Strange evaded me for all these months? Maybe it’s because the Readers Also Enjoyed section on Goodreads sets it alongside various fluffy paranormals with flowing dresses on the cover, when in fact, this book is closer to one of my contemporary YA favorites 17 & Gone (down to the ampersand in the title, hehe). Maybe it’s because other reviews were infuriatingly vague, along the lines of, I’m not sure how to describe this book, but…

Well, it’s true. I’m not sure how to describe this book, but I’m head over heels in love. Can I add it retroactively to my top 2013 reads? Please?

It’s not—I repeat, it’s NOT a typical paranormal story. It’s not paranormal at all. It’s a psychological mindscrew, a journey into the mind of Drew (or Win) Winters—and it’s not a happy place to be, crawling with festering anger, resentment, and secrets so dark I felt nauseous several times (which doesn’t happen to me often).

The story is actually two intertwined stories: one (antimatter) takes place when Drew is ten years old and lives with his parents and two siblings. The other (matter) is set in the present day, in a remote (and creepy) boarding school where Win is hiding out under a new name. Over the course of one night, old scars surface as his secret threatens to emerge and drive him insane.

I figured out pretty early on what the secret was and what the wolf stood for. But it did not dampen my enjoyment of this book in the slightest. Kuehn’s prose strikes precisely the right balance between minimalistic and descriptive, with the same dreamy quality I loved about 17 & Gone. The voice of the male protagonist is rendered exquisitely—I could feel his anger radiating from the pages. There was very little glossing over to try and make Win more likeable or relatable. This isn’t a cute snarky “antihero” with a heart of gold that just needs the right girl to bring it out; this guy is seriously messed up, and even though the story ends on a hopeful note, I for one had my doubts whether he could ever go back to completely normal after everything that happened. This is probably one of the best YA antiheroes I’ve ever read– and pretty damn close to the best YA character voice I’ve ever read, ever. So warning: if you prefer your main characters sweet and lovable, this is definitely not the book for you.

On the other hand, I recommend this to anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers and really screwed-up antiheroes. Must not mind epic amounts of darkness and have pretty strong faith in humanity– because be warned, this book will test it.

I give Charm & Strange five stars.

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