Charm & Strange

216p. St. Martin's Griffin. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-1-250-02194-6. ebook available. LC 2013003247.
Gr 8 Up—The dark and twisted heart of this YA novel unfolds slowly, every chapter revealing a hint of the terrible secret that holds Andrew Winston Winters deep in its painful grip. The narrative toggles between the present, as Win, a surly Vermont boarding-school student (chapters titled "matter"), and flashbacks to his past as Drew, the middle child between his sensitive older brother and doting younger sister (chapters titled "antimatter"). Kuehn's descriptions of the boy's violent impulses, confusion, and coping strategies are taut and precise. Although it is hard for readers to get a firm hold on his state of mind and character (since there is so much that he is hiding from himself), the other characters, although painted in broad strokes, are fascinating, and readers will be intrigued to find out more about them and how they relate to Andrew and to one another. There's Lex, Andrew's best friend turned enemy at boarding school; Keith, Andrew's protective older brother; and even Andrew's provocative Boston cousins, who seem to have played a role in the unfolding mystery behind his taciturn veneer. Teens who enjoy their novels with a shovelful of gritty realism will find this enigmatic novel gripping. And the shock of realization at the end, when everything clicks into place, is palpable.—Evelyn Khoo Schwartz, Georgetown Day School, Washington, DC
It’s clear early in this taut psychological tale that sixteen-year-old Andrew Winston Winters is not okay: he’s estranged from his family, withdrawn from his boarding-school classmates, and a little too curious about the ravaged body of a hiker just discovered in the nearby Vermont woods. In present-tense narration, Win eventually professes that he’s a werewolf, condemned to change at the full moon and endanger others—if he hasn’t already (did he kill the hiker?). Alternating past-tense chapters flash back to Win’s childhood as volatile Drew. Masterfully, each narrative telescopes down to the minute details of one brief but life-changing moment: a single night during an outdoor party for Win; a visit to his grandparents during his tenth summer for Drew. As the novel progresses, the carefully constructed boundaries between Win’s and Drew’s personas and memories begin to blur. Readers may guess at the terrible reality behind the unreliable narratives before Kuehn’s final reveal, but the truth Andrew has been hiding from his classmates, readers, and—most importantly—himself is shattering. In tackling brutal issues of sexual and psychological abuse (and consequent mental illness and suicide) head-on, Kuehn affirms that, while Andrew might believe he’s a werewolf, the real monster in his life is his abuser. This wrenching novel is as difficult to put down as it is to read. katie bircher

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