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Book Reivew: Charm and Strange by Stephanie Khuen

This book is an amazingly well written and profound story, but it is incredibly difficult to read, unsettling. It is an amazing example of the power of books to make us think about difficult topics. You can find a discussion guide here.
“She must have seen more of my charm than my strangeness tonight.” 

Publisher’s Description:  

No one really knows who Andrew Winston Winters is. Least of all himself. He is part Win, a lonely teenager exiled to a remote boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts the whole world out, no matter the cost, because his darkest fear is of himself …of the wolfish predator within. But he’s also part Drew, the angry boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who, one fateful summer, was part of something so terrible it came close to destroying him. A deftly woven, elegant, unnerving psychological thriller about a boy at war with himself. Charm and Strange is a masterful exploration of one of the greatest taboos.

My thoughts:

Charm and Strange is told by flashing from the present to the past in alternating chapters.  In the present, Win is attending a boarding school where a murder has taken place. He is struggling to hold himself together, thinking that on the next full moon he will surely turn into a horrible monster because it is his family’s curse. In the past, we are living the summer when he and his brother went to go live with his grandparents, building up to the reveal of what, exactly, happened that summer.

“She loves us all.”
“Then why doesn’t she act like it?”
“Because love doesn’t always look nice.” 

The writing in this book is truly astounding. The storytelling is complex. And it has one of the most devastating scenes I have ever read in a book. It is not graphic, but there is no doubt as to what is happening and then there is full and complete understanding of who Win is and why.  It is almost as if Win has developed some type of dis-associative disorder to protect himself and you both see that moment happening and see how it is used as a coping device. The mother also appears to suffer from some extreme depression, though it is never called this, so you can see glimpses of mental illness coursing through the veins of this family and touching all of its members in various ways.

“Because blood is blood, and every family has its own force.
Its own flavor.
Its own charm and strange.”

After I finished the final chapter on this book I couldn’t read anything for a few days afterwards, I just felt completely shattered for this young man. It is an important and stark look at the damage that is left in the wake of sexual violence. This book is deeply relevant and unique because it explores a type of sexual violence that is often overlooked in YA literature, but unfortunately we know it happens far too often in the real world.

Charm and Strange is also is also very important because, like books like The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely and the books on this list, it reminds us all that boys can and are often the victims of sexual violence. It is also a profound and important look at the confusion and destruction left in its wake. Some of the difficult topics include sexual violence, allusions to mental illness, and suicide.


Daniel Kraus says, “Debut author Kuehn comes out swinging with this confident, unnerving look at a damaged teen struggling with something violent inside of him” (Booklist, June 1, 2013). This literary look at sexual violence is a compelling and highly recommended read.

Stephanie Khuen will be joining us on March 26th for our next SVYALit Google Hangout on Air.

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