Occasionally, I encounter books that make me extremely uncomfortable. A couple of those books are Identical by Ellen Hopkins and Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. Well, I can now add another book to the list of uncomfortable, disturbing, and powerful reads. The book is Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn.
Charm & Strange, winner of the 2014 ALA William C. Morris YA Debut Award, came to me via Goodreads First Reads, and I’m so glad that it did. I may not have otherwise picked up this book, and, though it weirded me out a bit, I think the book is very well-written, and it keeps readers engrossed and eager to know more about the main character and his twisted past.
Charm & Strange tells the convoluted story of Andrew Winston Winters. Known as Win to his fellow students, he keeps to himself at his boarding school. He tries to keep everyone out…for their own safety. He knows he’s dangerous, and he’s always on the verge of letting his emotions get the best of him. If he ever truly lets go, he’s sure the consequences will be disastrous. After all, it’s happened before…
Years ago, Win was known as Drew, a young tennis star with serious anger issues. After letting his anger loose on another boy, his parents decided to send him to stay with his grandparents one fateful summer…and that’s when everything changed. That summer, Drew was forced to confront what really lead to his violent outbursts, and he and his siblings made a terrible decision that would end the cycle of destruction that had ruled their young lives.
In the end, though, Drew couldn’t take that final step, and that decision would haunt him and make him into Win, the lone wolf with no real connections to anyone or anything. He retreats into something of a fantasy world, a world that helps him to make sense of the horrors he faced as a child.
Win’s fantasy world is unraveling fast, and it soon becomes clear that something happened to him so awful that it colored every aspect of his existence. He’ll have to rely on two friends–friends he didn’t even know he had–to get him the help he so desperately needs. In the process, Win will come face-to-face with his childhood self, the memories that plague him, and the abuse that led him to this point.
Read Charm & Strange for a dark, unsettling, and intense look into the mind of a boy who is looking for answers–answers about his own nature and the haunting past that made him into the emotional powder keg he has become.
When I first started reading this book, I thought I was dealing with a story about a young sociopath. Drew–and Win, his older self–seemed to have no real emotions, he acted impulsively, he didn’t connect with most people, and he had no remorse for this sometimes destructive actions. The more I read, though, the more I learned about this character. Yes, he still had some disturbing tendencies and thoughts, but I suspected that there was more going on below the surface. How right I was. Drew/Win was holding onto a secret so terrible that even he couldn’t face it, and that secret ultimately led to the worst events in this boy’s life and to his own view of himself as a monster.
I think Charm & Strange is an important YA novel because it takes a hard look at how abuse impacts boys. I’ve read loads of books that deal with abuse from the female perspective, but I can’t remember offhand any of them that look at abuse, especially sexual abuse, from a boy’s point of view. (If you know of any books with this perspective, let me know in the comments.) This book addresses the cyclical, catastrophic consequences of abuse and what some kids do to escape what happened to them.
If you’re thinking about picking up this book and/or adding it to your school/classroom/public library, I warn you that it is an intense book suitable for mature readers. There is frank talk of sexual situations, alcohol and drug use, and violence. There’s also a fair amount of adult language. Charm & Strange deals with mature themes, and that should be taken into consideration when recommending this book to readers.