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Charm and Strange by Stephanie Kuehn – Review

Goodreads | Amazon | Author’s Website

Published: June 11, 2013 by St. Martin’s Griffin

Genre: Contemporary

Pages: 224

Received: From library

Summary (from Goodreads): 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.

It’s not often that I have any sort of visceral reaction to a book. I can read some of the goriest, most disturbing scenes in horror novels and only mutter “oh, ew” or pull an exaggerated face of disgust. I read a lot of YA “issue” novels that deal with dark and upsetting subjects, but they rarely upset me to a point beyond maybe tearing up a little.

Charm and Strange, however, definitely did get a reaction from me as things about Andrew’s past came to light – it made me feel physically ill. I know that sounds bad – “this book made me feel sick” is not, generally, a glowing compliment, but considering the subject matter I think it’s an appropriate reaction. This is not an easy read, especially if you’re triggered by discussions of abuse, which I wish the jacket summary had been clearer about. I didn’t know what Charm and Strange was about going in, and its Goodreads page lists it as paranormal, so I’d assumed that it was just going to be a dark paranormal mystery. It, um… wasn’t. Not exactly the nicest surprise for someone who needs to mentally prepare themselves before reading about this sort of thing. I realize giving away just what happened to Andrew would spoil the shock of finding out, but I would have liked some sort of warning as to the book’s content.

As far as writing goes: Charm and Strange has an incredibly strong narrative voice. I’ll be honest, I don’t find a lot of male narrators in YA to be very compelling; ones I find distinctive are few and far between. Thankfully, this is one of the ones I do. Andrew’s voice is a little bit hard to get used to at first – he uses a lot of fragmented sentences, and he doesn’t reveal anything about himself very easily. He’s also… not the most likeable of people, even admitting he’s “not a good person.” He purposefully cuts himself off from others, and even reads like he’s throwing up walls between himself and reader in the chapters set in the present. As someone who thinks that writers and reviewers both put too much stock in characters being “likeable,” I thought Andrew was a unique and fascinating protagonist, flaws and all, but, of course, that’s all subjective.

There isn’t much to say regarding the plot that wouldn’t be considered a spoiler. Watching Charm and Strange unfold and give you one tiny piece of the truth at a time is one of its strongest points, and to say more than I already have would take away from that. The book’s – and Andrew’s – unwillingness to give up any easy answers about what happened may be frustrating for a lot of readers, and I can tell it’s going to be a DNF for some. I personally liked that aspect a lot – it matches up perfectly with Andrew trying to push his past away, and the denial he keeps himself in. The reader is getting pieces of the story at the rate he lets himself remember them.

I absolutely loved the secondary characters in this novel, too. Jordan, the first to appear, is blunt and no-nonsense, and while she’s part of what drives Andrew’s story forward it’s not in a Manic Pixie Dream Girl way. She’s a very real character who’s made mistakes in the past and is a genuinely good person, and I kind of want a book just about her, because what little we learn about her past sounds like it would make an amazing story of its own. Lex starts off being just a douchebag, but as the night goes on we see that he really is a good friend to Andrew, and cares a hell of a lot about him. And Andrew’s brother Keith – he absolutely broke my heart. I love Keith, even if I can’t say much about him without giving some very important things away. I’ll admit it, I shed a tear over what Andrew has to say about him at the end of the book.

This is far from being a typical YA novel, even alongside other books dealing with similarly dark subjects, and I appreciate that. There is no easy ending, no happily ever after. No world is saved or bad guy vanquished or girl’s heart won. Andrew’s story ends on a positive note, but a realistic one – it’s clear that he still has a lot to work through and a lot of progress left to make, and that he won’t be easily fixed. Despite all that, it wraps up in a way I found completely satisfying, and touching without being cheesy. Charm and Strange was not an easy book for me to read, and I can’t imagine that was an easy story to tell, but it was absolutely worth it. This is an incredible, haunting book that I won’t be able to stop thinking about for a long time to come.

Rating:

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Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt – Review

12875258 Goodreads | Amazon | Author’s Website

Published: June 19, 2012 by Random House

Genre: Contemporary, literary fiction

Pages: 335

Received: From library

Summary (from Goodreads): 1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.

It’s easy for me to write about books I hate. There’s a sort of gleeful joy in pulling a story apart to show all its flaws, in finding the most dramatic language to convey just how terrible a plot point, characterization, or the implications from either is. Writing about books I enjoyed, but had issues with certain elements of, is also simple – state what about the book worked for me, what didn’t, and how it could be improved upon.

But it’s very, very difficult for me to talk about books I love without feeling self-conscious. What can I say about them that doesn’t fall into the realm of cliche, or read like a publisher-selected cover blurb? As bloggers and others who talk about books online, it’s part of the job description to be critical, so when I find virtually nothing to criticize in a book, I end up questioning myself: am I not thinking hard enough about this? Am I letting my enjoyment of this book, and how it affected me, cloud my judgement and keep me from assessing its quality? And what is there to say about a book that leaves you speechless?

I don’t know. Glowing reviews are just not something that comes naturally to me. But even if they were, I still doubt I’d be able to eloquently write about how I feel about this particular book. I’ve tried, in the hours since I finished it. I’ve tried to capture what exactly made it perfect to me in words – and it’s come out cringe-inducing every time. Maybe later, when I have a chance to buy my own copy and re-read it, I’ll be able to untangle the jumbled mess of feelings in my head and write a coherent review explaining exactly why this book is as beautiful as it is. For now, that’s just not something I can do. Plenty of others, judging by the Goodreads and Amazon reviews, already have; if you’re curious about the book and exactly what people liked about it, those would be a far better place to look. But right now, that’s just not something I can do. The most I can say, and the best praise, I think, that I can give to this book or any other, is that even if just in a small way, I feel like Tell the Wolves I’m Home changed the way I look at myself and my relationships to those around me.

(What I said about feeling self-conscious talking about books I love? Yeah, every time I look back over that last sentence, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. It just reads so… overblown, true as it is. I feel like I need to write like ten snarky reviews of subpar YA just to make up for that sentence and regain my Cool Blogger Cred.)

My own feelings aside, I do think Tell the Wolves I’m Home is an incredible novel, and I meant it one hundred percent when I called it beautiful. Move it to the top of your TBR pile. Request it at your library. Please read this book. I can’t promise it will blow away your expectations like it did mine, but I can’t imagine you’ll regret picking it up.

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And a bucket of tears.

Orchards by Holly Thompson – Review

orchardscoverGoodreads | Amazon | Author’s website

Published: Feb. 22, 2011 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Genre: Contemporary, verse novel

Pages: 336

Received: From library

Summary (from Goodreads): After a classmate commits suicide, Kana Goldberg—a half-Japanese, half-Jewish American—wonders who is responsible. She and her cliquey friends said some thoughtless things to the girl. Hoping that Kana will reflect on her behavior, her parents pack her off to her mother’s ancestral home in Japan for the summer. There Kana spends hours under the hot sun tending to her family’s mikan orange groves.
Kana’s mixed heritage makes it hard to fit in at first, especially under the critical eye of her traditional grandmother, who has never accepted Kana’s father. But as the summer unfolds, Kana gets to know her relatives, Japan, and village culture, and she begins to process the pain and guilt she feels about the tragedy back home. Then news about a friend sends her world spinning out of orbit all over again.

I feel like I would have enjoyed Orchards a lot more if I’d read it when I was younger – middle school, maybe. This isn’t a negative thing; it just feels more like a novel that a tween or early teen would like and relate to than something I would. Besides the use of “bitch” and the topic of suicide, there’s not much in here that would be inappropriate for, say, a twelve year old, and most twelve year olds I know have heard all of that before. And, seeing as the character whose suicide kicks off the plot is an eighth grader, I’d say suicide is a subject relevant to readers that age. I personally had trouble identifying with Kana, very likely due to her age, but also because I just… didn’t get a good grasp on her as a character, I guess, which is hugely important when your novel is narrated in first-person voice and everything we’re reading is your narrator’s personal thoughts. The story, although definitely intriguing with the culture clash between Kana’s American upbringing and her family’s very Japanese values, didn’t really pick up until 260 or so pages out of 325 (the numbers on my page count differ from the ones Goodreads gives, for some reason) which in my opinion is far too long, and the sudden spike in pace and intensity felt very jarring.

The verse didn’t really grab me, either – it didn’t read like poetry, but like chopped-up sentences. I found myself mentally moving around the line breaks throughout the book, adding commas or periods to the end of sentences in my head – which, while it may be just my personal preference, was seriously distracting.

(Another personal gripe – all these YA novels about suicide from an outsider’s perspective, and I can only think of a few – much less successful – written from the point of view of someone who is suicidal themselves. I realize that it’s probably more easy to relate to, for readers who haven’t had any first-hand experience with being suicidal. But to me, it just feels… really, really patronizing. Very rarely do we get to tell our own stories, or have them told from our own perspectives; it’s always the story of the grieving friend, the bully who takes things too far, the bystander who let it happen, and how someone else’s actions effect them, and isn’t suicide terrible because of that? Well, yes. I don’t mean to invaldiate the experiences who’s lost someone they cared about to suicide or had to deal with a loved one’s attempt, because obviously, that’s a horrible thing to go through. But the fact that someone feels there’s no choice but to end their life, that someone has a little voice in their head telling them it would be better for everyone if they just died, that someone feels so tired and worn down by the world that they can see no other way – that’s terrible, too, and terrifying to notice those thoughts in your head. So, yeah. More first-person stories about this subject, please, I beg of you. Rant over now.)

The reason I picked up this novel, the fact that it takes place in Japan, does not disappoint. Kana’s mother’s relatives are very traditional, as most of Japan is, and if you’re new to Japanese culture and traditions Orchards is a good place to start learning about it through fiction. One of my favorite parts of the book was the scenes during Obon, a Japanese Buddhist holiday where families come together to perform a ceremony to guide home the spirits of their ancestors. It’s one of the sections that didn’t distract me with my own personal annoyances about the verse, and quite honestly, it’s beautiful. (It also put a pretty big smile on my face when Kana said that “it would just be easier to give the spirits GPS-activated cell phones.” This sounds exactly like something my cousin, around Kana’s age, would say.)

Although I’m not in the target audience for Orchards, and I feel like my enjoyment of it suffered for that, I actually found myself quite fond of it by the time I turned the last page. Issues with the verse format and its choppiness aside, this is a very sweet story despite some of the subject matter and one that I think middle-grade readers could learn a lot from, about not only Japanese culture but also grief, family, and moving forwards.

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(Also, the cover!  It would be absolutely gorgeous if only the font for the author’s name and “a novel” fit better with the rest of it – they do, however, help to tip the reader off that this is aimed just a little below YA.  But those colors, my god, they are fantastic.  I want my room painted that shade of blue!)