Review Detail5.0 2
Stephanie Kuehn's debut Charm & Strange is a lot of things: confusing, frustrating, disturbing, thought-provoking, dark, and original. Starting out a career as an author with such an unusual book shows daring. Charm & Strange will not please every reader, and I myself felt largely ambivalent towards it until the very end. Those final scenes, though, helped Charm & Strange coalesce into something harsh but meaningful, something I'm glad to have read, if not understood fully.
Kuehn's writing style perfectly matches the character of Anrew/Winston (his first and middle name, which he goes by at different times of life). The narration is sort of fragmented, filled with commas and semi-colons. Punctuation breaks up the thoughts into little pieces, clearly illustrating Winston's troubled mind. He says nothing directly. For me, the writing was really tough to fathom, to piece together, which did result in a lot of confusion, but, artistically, I do think it's brilliant.
Much of what's admirable I cannot really speak to, as talking about this book to any great degree would involve spoilers. Suffice it to say that the twists are both deeply upsetting, perhaps even going marginally too far, but that the way everything ties together is impressive. From a psychological perspective, the conclusion is compelling and satisfying.
What brought things together for me were the final scenes. Kuehn imbues the ending with a bit of hope, but there's no happily ever after, and Winston's still got major issues to deal with. Rarely do endings like this show up in YA, with the hero or heroine still mostly broken and without a true love to cushion the loss of everything else. Still, there is that ray of hope, which shows through in Andrew's reversion to his first name and his much more easily parsed language.
What Left Me Wanting More:
There were three reasons I struggled so much with this book for most of its pages. The first is our narrator. Win is a brilliant teen, but a cold, aloof one. He keeps himself distant even from the reader, not just from the other kids at his boarding school. As such, he's hard to like, because he really doesn't want the reader to know anything but his worst moments, barely even explaining why he is the way he is, because he wants to wallow in the guilt.
The other two reasons are all bound up together. Win excels at science, and science terminology is dropped throughout the book. In fact, the title is a reference to something to do with quarks, and the chapter headings, alternatively Matter and Antimatter, are scientific as well. Their meaning is actually explained, but it wooshed right over my head. I was able to put together that Matter was Win in the present and that Antimatter was Drew in the past, but that was it. I feel like there's so much that I'm missing from a lack of science brain. Also, I had a lot of trouble navigating between the two timelines, finding that I would have forgotten what Win was doing by the time I finished a Drew section and vice versa.
The Final Verdict:
Though short, Charm & Strange is a read for a patient and well-educated reader, one with a high threshold for tough subject matter. If you're looking for an action-packed paranormal romance, you are in one hundred percent the wrong place. I will be very curious to see what Kuehn follows this up with.