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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Special Topics in Calamity Physics
This is the assured debut of Marisha Pessl and, having recently read her new novel, “Night Film,” I decided to go back and re-read the story of Blue Van Meer and her professor father. Blue travels around the country with her father, attending different schools and being educated, and moulded, by him. Gareth van Meer is a man of mystery – intelligent,...
Published 7 months ago by S Riaz

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47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Strange, flawed, but compelling
My initial interest in this book was mainly down to the fact that I had read numerous reviews comparing it to Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History', one of my favourite novels of all time. Having finished it, I can now say with confidence that these comparisons are inaccurate and lazy. The only real similarity between the books is that both concern an elite group of young...
Published on 8 Sept. 2007 by Veronica Marwood


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47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Strange, flawed, but compelling, 8 Sept. 2007
My initial interest in this book was mainly down to the fact that I had read numerous reviews comparing it to Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History', one of my favourite novels of all time. Having finished it, I can now say with confidence that these comparisons are inaccurate and lazy. The only real similarity between the books is that both concern an elite group of young people in an academic setting (in this case, a much-admired clique known as the 'Bluebloods' in an American high school) whose friendships are torn apart by an unexpected death. Otherwise, they are entirely different; 'Special Topics in Calamity Physics' is a very odd book - in fact, it's one of the strangest I have ever read.

At first, I felt sure I was going to dislike the novel. For a start, there's the narrative voice; Blue van Meer is an extremely precocious sixteen-year-old girl who narrates the story using constant references, comparing everything to something else (the book would probably be about a third of its actual length if Blue's incessant metaphors and similies were removed). The style is exhausting, and the continual attempt to cram as many references as possible into each sentence quickly becomes irritating. Blue's narration is smug and self-satisfied, and it's hard to reconcile this with the fact that the character is apparently a 'wallflower' with little confidence and no real friends other than her fiercely academic father. The characterisation is also, if not exactly bad, then strange - it's difficult to believe that the Bluebloods would actually be friends with each other (or that they would command the respect and awe they mysteriously seem to enjoy from their peers), let alone accept Blue into their clique, however reluctantly. They aren't remotely believable; they come across as a crudely drawn gallery of grotesques, none of whom you can envisage as real people. In fact, none of the characters are at all likeable - including Hannah, the supposedly charismatic teacher at the centre of the Bluebloods' friendship - although this is perhaps intentional.

However, despite its imperfections, the book did draw me in. For all that it irritated me, I never once thought about not finishing it, and around halfway through (once all the largely unnecessary exposition was out of the way) I found myself hooked. I was genuinely intrigued by the mystery surrounding Hannah's identity, which deepens in the final third, and I found the eventual denouement thrilling, with the way the tale unravelled coming as a genuine surprise. Incredibly (given the length of the novel), when I reached the final page, I actually found myself wishing there was more.

There are touches of brilliance in this book, but it's deeply flawed. On one hand, it's impressive that Pessl completed such a lengthy, complex debut at a relatively young age (27); on the other, her immaturity as a writer is evident in its faults. Her skill, wit and intelligence shine through sporadically, only to be obscured by unnecessary detail or missed opportunities - we really don't need to know the exact minutiae of every tiny thing that happens to Blue, and yet the chapters explaining her conclusions about Hannah's death and the conspiracy surrounding it could have benefited from more detail. 'Special Topics' left me feeling that Pessl is a hugely talented writer, but one still finding her feet, and yet to produce her magnum opus. It's certainly worth reading (if you're a persistent reader), but expect an impressive yet imperfect piece of work, not an absolute masterpiece.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Special Topics in Calamity Physics, 24 July 2014
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S Riaz "S Riaz" (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Kindle Edition)
This is the assured debut of Marisha Pessl and, having recently read her new novel, “Night Film,” I decided to go back and re-read the story of Blue Van Meer and her professor father. Blue travels around the country with her father, attending different schools and being educated, and moulded, by him. Gareth van Meer is a man of mystery – intelligent, sarcastic and bookish – who has a whole plethora of ‘June bugs’ attempting to trap the widower, but who all fall by the wayside, as he and Blue continue their travels.

Blue fantasises that they will settle somewhere and is thrilled when her dad announces that they will reside in Stockton, North Carolina, for the entirety of her high school senior year in order to obtain her a secure place at Harvard. Two days after arriving in Stockton, Blue sees Hannah Schneider, who turns out to be a teacher at St Gallway School, where she will attend. Her dad wants her to be Valedictorian and, at first, Blue believes it is her dad that Hannah is interested in. However, to her astonishment, it appears to be Blue that Hannah, and her closest students – a group referred to as ‘the Bluebloods’ are interested in.

Before long, Blue has joined the clique of Hannah’s group of privileged students; including handsome Charlies, delicate Leulah, sturdy Milton, the cipher that is Nigel and the stunningly beautiful and wealthy Jade. Accepted into a group for the first time in her life, it appears to be a Golden Age and a special time for Blue, but Hannah is surrounded by mystery and eventually there will be a tragedy which will change Blue’s life.

This is a wonderful novel – intelligent, filled with fantastic characters, well plotted and paced and one of those books you can simply sink into. There are few authors I re-read, but Pessl is one of them. When it was released, this novel was compared to “The Secret History” and there is much about Pessl’s writing that reminds me of Tartt, but I believe the comparisons are more due to the academic setting than anything else. I would say that, if you do enjoy Donna Tartt’s novels, you will most probably like this and she is an author that I am so glad I discovered.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tartt's younger, more extrovert, funnier sister?, 19 May 2014
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This review is from: Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Kindle Edition)
Comparisons between the two are most clear between Calamity Physics and Secret History. Both writers are FIERCELY and I mean FIERCELY intelligent and erudite, widely read literati; good users of language, unfurlers of a measured narrative drive, but determined to make their readers observe the countryside they are travelling through, and not just driven speedily by `what happens next' plot impatience. Both create complex, layered characters, both set their books within academia, and moreover the academia of the glitteringly brilliant. In both books, there is a charismatic, magus type teacher figure who exerts undue and ultimately destructive power over a group of young, impressionable acolytes. This is obviously a well-worn groove, which can be brilliantly done - Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie an early example of the genre, and can be, well, dire. Pessl, like Tartt, inhabits the vibrantly successful end of the spectrum, though both lack Spark's ability to pare down to the bone, and produce a piece of writing which runs clear, arrow like and lethal to its conclusion.

I know that this book has garnered widely differing reviews, with some readers at screaming pitch, finding Pessl arrogant, pretentious and a show-off, and others (I'm one) absolutely savouring the literary illusions (each chapter has the title of a piece of literature which references in some way that chapter) She also does full referencing of texts .Blue is of course now a student within higher education and referencing is de rigueur. Some of the texts are real, some are there because Pessl is playing with us, and you sense the mischief. There are also what Blue calls `visual aids' scattered throughout the text - her drawings of photographs, or just her drawings, illustrating the people she is writing. And, yes the illustrations are from Pessl's doubly gifted pen.

I think it comes down to, do you resonate with the author's voice - do you want to listen to what she says, does she grab your attention, or do you find her like chalk on a blackboard. I found Pessl - or rather Pessl subsumed into Blue, marvellous funny, witty, her humour sharp, dry and sometimes cruelly deadly.

I guess this IS Pessl's wit, as the central character of Night Film is equally acerbic and ouchly, wickedly, funny. Where Night Film references films, Calamity Physics is literary,

For a brief flavour, Blue on her father, who unfortunately was a magnet for females, whom Blue, named the June Bugs - they had an intense life in gareth van Meer's bed, just like those brilliant short summer insects, before being suddenly abandoned for a newer bug:

"Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can't help but pick up lint.For years I had a nickname for them, though I feel a little guilty using it now :June Bugs(see "Figeater Beetle", Ordinary Insects, Vol.24)

There was Mona Letrovski, the actress from Chicago with wide-set eyes and dark hair on her arms who liked to shout , "Gareth, you're a fool, " with her back to him. Dad's cue to run to her, turn her around to see the Look of Bitter Longing on her face. Only Dad never turned her round to see the Bitter Longing. Instead, he stared at her back as if it were an abstract painting. Then he went into the kitchen for a glass of bourbon."

Blue (and the Bluebloods) are, yes, at times operatic, self-indulgent, melodramatic, cruel and without a shred of empathy. But they are very young, still, and often this age is cruelly judgmental, especially to its peers. Experience and suffering (life) develop empathy and nuance.

After having taken us through the huge events, the teenage tantrums, the cruelly funny dismissive barbs of young teens, which it is (or was) impossible for this reader to avoid laughing at, whilst wincing at the cruel put-downs, Pessl skilfully steers us to the not-so-sudden bleakness of an ending. The one we do not want, but the one which changes Blue, the one which makes her able to "feel a little guilty using it now". Blue enters bleakness, the wit and the humour suddenly ripped aside, and we suddenly are slap-bang into a depth. The ending, which I am still thinking about, still going `oh no, oh no' is perfect, and Pessl has made the reader inhabit this likeable, frightening, irritating, far too worldly, intelligent adolescent, and really engage with the journey.

When I read the book again (as I surely will) I will ensure I have also read the chapter heading literary works I DON'T know, in order to gain a bit of extra nuanced flavour from the chapter it announces. It is absolutely possible to enjoy this book hugely if you are completely unfamiliar with any of the texts, but knowing them, adds a bit of spice.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great read (but wish there was rather less of it), 3 Dec. 2009
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I really enjoyed this book - the first part drags a bit but it picks up tremendously in the second half and the last few chapters took me totally by surprise.

The main problem with it (as far as I'm concerned) is that it's horribly overwritten. There's barely a sentence without a metaphor, absolutely everything is like something else. After a while the style became terrifically annoying, with sentence after sentence (after sentence!) like this (picked on a random dipping, there are *plenty* to choose from):

`Jade looked like a kid in a nursing home impatiently waiting for her designated fogey to be wheeled in so she could read him Watership Down in a monotone, thereby earning her Community Outreach credit, thereby graduating on time...'
`their slurpy voices splattering all over each other and everyone else...'
`- Like old Howie Easton at Clearwood Day with the cleft chin and gap in his teeth making him such a sophisticated whistler he could have whistled Wagner's entire Der Ring Des Nibelungen (1848 - 74) if he'd wanted to (he didn't want to)...'
`dressed like a famous person working the red carpet at Cannes...'
`felt the way Van Gogh would probably feel, if, one hot afternoon he happened to wander into a Sarasota Gift Shoppe and found, next to the cardboard baseball caps and fun-in-the-sun seashell figurines, his beloved Sunflowers printed on one side of one hundred beach towels on SALE for just $9.99...'

- Over and over till I found myself muttering to myself (out loud on occasion), no it's not, no they're not, no he's NOT!!!

Any one of these observations would have been fine, nice, enjoyable even, in *moderation*, but it goes on and on with the subtlety of a clump-hammer to the skull (see what I did there?!), with these endless comparisons, two, three, even four times per *paragraph* and it began to drive me not-so-slowly insane.

In the second half, the style, while still frequently wont to take metaphorical flight, does settle down a little and the story comes through and it's a corker of a story, no doubt about it. I even enjoyed the constant stream of literary references, though I'm convinced the author is not especially erudite, certainly nowhere near as much as she'd like to be. The one, short section on Cuba (where I lived for many years) is entirely wrong (really, there's not an accurate word in that whole, short paragraph) which leads me to conclude that many, if not most, of the facts in this novel were googled or Wiki'ed with varying degrees of success/accuracy and - that's OK, that's fine, it's a work of fiction, there's no need for accuracy and, factual or not, it's all highly enjoyable, though I think the comparisons with Donna Tartt's Secret History are pushing it more than just a tad.

Despite which, I liked it a lot, but I'd have loved it to *bits* if it'd had the benefit of a really aggressive edit.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Desert island books, 25 Jan. 2010
Review sections of amazon.co.uk are frequently rich in hyperbole-both overly positive and overly negative. In reviewing Special topics, it would be easy to enter a route of such lavish sentiments. I loved this book but I can easily see how other readers would find the intellectual snobbery of Blue Van Meer grating, the plot convoluted, book too long and her references pointless. But this is a great novel, the kind of one you need to reread immediately after you finish it because it makes even more sense second and even third time round. The main question posed by the novel is whether reading is good for you or whether it is a poor substitute for experience.

The main protagonist in the novel is Blue Van Meer, an isolated yet supremely intelligent teenager who tours America with her father, an itinerant professor of politics. In the novel she meets and mixes with a teacher and a curious band of students who associate with the teacher. For the first time in her life, Blue is almost a typical teenager complete with dysfunctional friends and her own neurotic preoccupations but the death of the teacher through suicide creates its own turmoil and makes her question her world.

If ever there was a novel that could be brought to a desert island then this is it because it will occupy your mind whilst reading it and take a long, long time to digest.
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34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Heathers for Gen X, 13 July 2006
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I loved this book.

The narrator has an excellent tone of voice and it never falls into the trap of other teen-narrated books - this girl is no idiot. Blue Van Meer has been raised only by her high-brow, low-comfort father since her mother's death in a car crash years earlier, and they've travelled from place to place ever since; partly due to his modern ideas of schooling, and partly due to his inability to treat women well.

She's finally landed at St. Galway's, where the hip, culty kids she's being forced towards (very Secret History) make it clear they don't want her around. But unlike so many of these books, she doesn't really want to be around them either, and it's her fresh eye and lack of usual gullibility that make this book worth reading. Why should she hang around with these kids? Is her father hiding something from her? And what truths does the death of Hannah Schneider hide - or reveal?

Bloody brilliant. Addictive. You'll give it to everyone.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling and Addictive, 7 Feb. 2012
When I first picked up this book, I was expecting something entirely different. I thought it was going to be a pretty simple book about a teacher who has killed herself and how her student who finds her reacts. But it is really not that at all. At first the story took me a while to get into, and I can see the parallels that have been drawn between it Nabokov's Lolita at the beginning, but soon I was addicted, especially once I realised I already supposed to be looking out for 'clues' while reading it. The chapter headings being the names of books (as a 'Reading List') was especially interesting, I've now set myself a challenge to read all of them I haven't already read!! I couldn't get it out of my head once I'd finished it and ended up reading theories about it all over the internet! A very well written thriller that drew me in, I loved it. Some people have found Blue's constant references in it monotonous and boring, but I thought it added a deeper element to the book and was something a little different. I suppose it all depends on your taste, but I love it and would definitely recommend it =)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Remorselessly jokey (just not very funny), 23 Sept. 2014
Laboured and winsome (three pages in). Soo-Jin ('whose face employed the same countenance* for both Anger and Elation') is the only light relief; when will she murder the narrator? Or - just maybe - will our ineffable heroine be humanised by the combined dark forces Soo-Jin and Jade (4th page)?

'Written in a style that suggested someone got busted for and was undergoing restitution for 2nd degree plagiarism for not using MLA style in high school' (from an amazon.com review). To enjoy this you probably need to be under 25, female and American - and even then..

* uh, countenance equals 'face'; Pessl means 'who wore the same face for..' (which wasn't quite giggly enough)
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Special Indeed, 15 Oct. 2006
By 
R. Selby (Sevenoaks, Kent United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This is a very fresh, bubbling read from a young glamerous author who will go on to do great things. It's really a who-done-it, but the first half of the book contains some wonderfully observed references to literature and the interaction between school kids. Clever and witty, and in places reminding me of Joyce Carol Oates's - 'I'll Take You There'.

The second half tumbles at a hundred miles an hour, deepens in darkness, and after page 300 I just couldn't put it down. The injustices the main character - Blue - receives from her fellow 'bluebloods' is superbly observed and makes you want to scream out.

Minuses; The editors could have done more editing. Just when the storyline speeds up and the 'incident' occurs, we want to be getting to the denoument, but Pessl goes off on a thousand little tangents referring to stories in other works of literature that - frankly - I don't care about. I want to read Pessl's novel, not anyone elses. Also, Too Many Capitalised Words to underline common turns of phrase. It's distracting and ugly.

One more plus; slick old-skool presentation by Viking publishing; a very sexy dust cover on the hardback.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something To Savour, 14 Jun. 2007
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Mary Crofton (UK) - See all my reviews
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Don't pick up this book if you're looking for chick-lit or something to read on the beach and instantly forget; despite the overly eager title and dramatic blurb, this is a novel to take your time over and savour.

Yes, at the beginning the constant citations and over-the-top cleverness of the main character may get on your nerves, but if you stick with this novel you'll be rewarded with an intricate and unpredictable plot and the pleasure of characters that become more interesting and intense as the book goes on (in my opinion, much better than characters that are completely laid out at the start).
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