This is my haul--I kept it small, because, you know, budgets. I could happily have snagged a couple of cookbooks too, but I made myself put them back.
This is just such a weirdly-conceived book.
I think it wants to be a more cerebral Da Vinci Code, but what it ends up being is neither particularly cerebral nor particularly successful as a thriller.
It follows Edward, a hotshot financial lawyer person (I think?), as he's hired by the mysterious aristocratic Went family to catalogue their extensive library. Soon, the Duchess is asking him to find a codex (or, in normal English, a book) in the library which holds the key to some mysterious and terrible secret about the Went family.
There are a few interesting bits - I particularly found medievalist Margaret's speculation about the codex's contents (she thinks it's a fake) fairly convincing. But some of Grossman's history is just plain wrong (Chaucer was the only person reading Dante? Um, not so much, given that Dante was the thirteenth-century equivalent of J.K. Rowling), and the novel is strangely and aimlessly plotted, with Edward spending much of his time playing a computer game that turns out to have only a tangential relationship to anything.
The secret the codex contains is disappointingly mundane, and the ending of the book just seems to continue the theme of overall aimlessness. I don't know why we're supposed to care here.
(Oh, also? Edward's attempts to contact Margaret after their first chance meeting in a library are seriously stalkerish.)
A library read and a re-read; the first time I read it was when we were living in Norway and my dad brought a copy back from the library. "I thought you might like it," he said, one of those uncanny times when someone gets you exactly right.
Because, let's be clear, Special Topics in Calamity Physics has its flaws, but for me it feels like a deeply personal book, the book that I want to run out and give to everyone who's ever tried to understand me. It's the story of Blue Van Meer, a bookish and almost precociously intelligent teenager who, after a lifetime of wandering through small-town America with her lecturer father, ends up attending St Gallway School in her final year of high school. There, a mysterious and charismatic teacher called Hannah Schneider takes Blue under her wing for reasons nobody can quite fathom, and she falls in by association with the Bluebloods, high school royalty (think the Cullens without the vampirism).
It's marketed as a thriller, which I think probably does a disservice both to the book and to its potential readers. Though, technically, there is a murder, it doesn't happen until at least halfway through; though there is a conspiracy theory, it only surfaces towards the end of the book. So Special Topics can only really be called a thriller retrospectively, and I suspect a reader hoping for a thriller will be disappointed by its discursive ramblings on books and political theory and high school troubles.
Because what the book really is is a story of a girl defined by her years of reading and by her adulation of a father who is, let's face it, a complete douchebag. Even as Blue tries to frame the tale of her last year through books, tries to tidy up and control her narrative with citations and Visual Aids and publication dates, loose threads flap uncontrollably around her, closure is impossible, gaps and uncertainty proliferate. I am a sucker for this kind of thing, this formal undecidability, and Pessl's work is something that really resonates with me.
I wondered, as I read the early pages of this book, if I'd be ultimately disappointed: Blue's father's gender politics is frequently sickening, and because we're reading through Blue's adoring eyes Pessl seems to support those politics. But, actually, I think that initial uncertainty is a sign of Pessl's success in managing to align herself so absolutely with the subjectivity of experience, and I do think Blue's perspective is sufficiently (if subtly) ironised by the end of the novel to problematize those early pages.
I guess the takeaway is: I loved this book, and I think others will too. Just don't go in expecting a fast-paced, taut thriller: you'll be disappointed. It's a postmodern, sharp and clear-eyed look at subjectivity and uncertainty and Life.
Fly Trap (Twilight Robbery in the UK; personally I prefer the latter title) is the sequel to Hardinge's debut Fly By Night. It sees Mosca, her evil-minded pet goose Saracen, and smooth-talking, perpetually broke Eponymous Clent end up in the town of Toll, a town riven by superstition and mistrust, where those born under Beloved (read: petty gods) who are considered to be allied to the night are forced to come out only at night, living lives of poverty and desperation, while those lucky enough to be born under day-Beloved and be given day-names stroll around an artificially sunny town eating chocolate and drinking tea. Pretty much.
It's a highly contrived set-up when compared to the anarchic buzz of Mandelion in Fly By Night, and the book loses a star for that. Toll just doesn't feel as urgently alive, or as symbolically important, as Mandelion does; and while in Fly By Night Mosca and Eponymous' adventures felt tied up with the fate of nations, affecting the politics of a small and puffed-up town with a population of several hundred rather than several thousand just doesn't seem quite as important.
But Fly Trap is still another lovely book: twisty, delightfully steampunk, involved and joyful. "Not as good as Fly By Night" still equates to "better than lots and lots of YA".