Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Since her mother’s death years ago, Blue has been traveling around with her father, a professor of history and politics, measuring time in semesters, and in random locations throughout the US. While her father is certainly attentive — indoctrinating her with his philosophical theories, drilling her in vocabulary, and encouraging her reading of every book ever written (which she quotes throughout the narrative) – he also seems to attract women to himself as magnets attract shards of steel. When they actually commit to a single, fancier house in a small town in N Carolina and to a single school for the entirety of Blue’s senior year, Blue cannot believe her luck. And much to her surprise, she actually becomes visible to her peers after being invisible for most of her life, being chosen by one of the teachers, Hannah Schneider, to join a small, tightly knit clique of admiring, rebel students who spend Sunday afternoons with her in her home. This invitation will change Blue’s life path forever.

This is one of the most unique novels I’ve read in quite awhile. The writing is outstanding. Pessl creates characters who are simultaneously mean yet sympathetic, powerful yet vulnerable, familiar yet mysterious. The narrative is replete with sardonic humor and an encyclopedic breadth of cultural and political references, which Blue annotates as she relays her experience. There are also enough unexpected turns that even when you believe you know, you actually have no idea what is coming. It is also the kind of story that you continue to ponder and puzzle over long after the last page is turned (my favorite part…).

I could say so much more, but I don’t want to give anything away. I feel it would take away from your discovering these characters and this intricate plot for yourself. So I won’t.

I will only say it’s a MUST READ – just for the fun of it!!


Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano

From early on, William has done everything he can do to make himself small. After tragedy befell his family shortly after his birth, his parents could barely hold on and he did what he could to make himself disappear. The only outlet he found to appease his loneliness was basketball, at which he found himself excelling. Meanwhile, Julia, nicknamed aptly by her father as the “rocket,” was a force to be reckoned with. She was the problem-solver, the arranger, the one in charge. She always had a plan, for herself and for anyone else in her tightly-knit family. Once her world collided with William’s, their lives would be changed forever – and in ways even Julia could never have predicted.

This is a powerful story about family – about how family can crush us, surround us, desert us and engulf us. Napolitano’s portrait of these two families (William’s and Julia’s) highlight family relationships at extremes. William’s parents emotionally abandon him at infancy, whereas Julia’s family is pathologically enmeshed such they have few relationships outside their nuclear family. While at first this seems to connect the two of them, perhaps fill a need for each of them, it may also create a blindness to what the other may be feeling, how it may impact each of them psychologically. They are both naive to the fact that our families are inside us, no matter how mightily we may try to rebel against it.

The writing in Hello Beautiful is interesting. While many authors will direct the readers in how to feel, in so many words, Napolitano seems to elicit our emotions by just telling the story outright, giving us a chance to form our own opinions, to have our own reactions. We are privy to the inner thoughts of each of the main characters- their frustrations, their demons – but we are also given the facts of their lives, the skeleton of their days in order to see the whole picture. It is not devoid of emotion – on the contrary – but what we feel in reaction to it is very much our own. What we feel is because we have formed genuine attachment to the characters and their fortunes and misfortunes. It is a unique and effective style of narrative.

I am still living with these characters – I feel that I will be living with them for quite awhile. I love when that happens.

Windfall by Penny Vincenzi

Although she’d given up quite a bit for her family, Cassia had felt fairly content with her life. She has a lovely family, a husband who is a respected, community doctor, and she is even allowed to assist him once in awhile in his practice. What she doesn’t often acknowledge, even to herself, is how much she’s missed practicing medicine herself, after having trained at the same medical school as her husband. But now that she’s inherited quite a large sum of money from her beloved godmother, perhaps now she can make something of her education. Perhaps now she can realize some of the dreams she has had for herself. How this plays out seems to have a ripple effect, for her family and for the many people she cares about and who care about her.

In my opinion, this author, Penny Vincenzi, is a master craftswoman. She has a gift of being able to create an entire community of fully developed characters with whom we become intimately connected, interweave their stories so that they tie together but also function as engaging subplots, and all while keeping each character and story solidly lucid and memorable in and of themselves. It is not heavy descriptives or overwhelming detail that keep the characters clear and identifiable, but our own emotional commitment to each of them because of their deeply human feel. We are compelled to know what comes next because they feel as tactile as we do, we need to know because they become our family, our friends. We feel almost a part of the intricately woven plot, that we are almost a part of the fabric of their lives. We are vulnerable to the suspense, the sharp dialogue, the exotic scenes, and most poignantly, the human emotions the novel elicits.

There is also a theme of fighting convention by the many strong women herein. Women were just starting to battle against the norm of having to stay home and care for children as their only option – and at the same time they were also starting to rebel against the presumption that they, in fact, had to have children at all. Contraception was just then becoming a possibility, which liberated women from the burden of just being baby factories. At one point, Harry, a very complex character with whom Cassia has a very complicated relationship, laments that he is forever destined to be attracted to very strong women. As it happens, most of the women in this novel are strong, each in their own ways.

If you’re looking for a fun, substantive read – a truly healthy addiction because you will not be able to put this one down! – this is the novel for you!


Persuasion by Jane Austen

Anne has led a quiet life, since the breakup of her engagement 8 years ago. She has not questioned the wisdom of the advice her dear friend, Lady Russell had given her, knowing that it was only out of the best of intentions that her friend advised her so. But she has wondered just how her Captain Wentworth had been faring since that time. As it happens, she may now find out – because he is returning to them! Now that her father has outspent his fortune and has to rent out his estate to Captain Wentworth’s sister and brother-in-law, she may be seeing him once again. But it won’t be that simple to learn what his thoughts are – and to whom his heart belongs.

Every so often I love going back to the classics – especially ones I’ve never had the opportunity to read. While I found this one a bit confusing in that it was challenging to keep track of the characters and their connections – every male character was named either Charles or William and everyone was a cousin! – I did find it amusing and entertaining. So many of the classics are heart-wrenching and tragic and it is refreshing to know that at the time of Jane Austen – the later 1700’s/early 1800’s – it was permitted, even appreciated, to have a sense of humor!

So while this was not a deeply profound or moving novel, it was certainly a fun change of pace.

I wouldn’t call this a MUST READ but it is definitely on the list of classics to get to at some point…


Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

Bennie and Byron are both devastated over the loss of their mother. Still, they cannot imagine why they are here, sitting with Mr. Mitch, their mother’s lawyer, just a day before her funeral. What could he possibly have to tell them that they do not already know – she’s their mother, after all. And just because Bennie has felt she’s had to separate herself from her home and family for the past several years after a hurtful Thanksgiving feud, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know her own mother. Or does it? As Benny and Byron listen to the recording their mother prepared for them just prior to her death, they learn about her real past and how this will impact their lives in the future.

I should have loved this novel. It was told from a 360 degree narrative that I love – the perspective of different voices, involving different time periods. It is enriched with sensory descriptions and with beautiful cultural imagery, particularly when describing Eleanor’s (their mom’s) Caribbean roots. There are messages of environmental and political importance that were worthy of being elevated.

But what was missing, at least for me, was a deep connection to the characters. Maybe it’s that we are told about a palpable anger and resentment between the siblings that permeates the tone of the story, but I feel we don’t really get to know those siblings all that well. We get quick peeks into their lives, brief snippets of their struggles.  Byron in his constant state of sullenness is the overachieving Black male, having to outrun his peers just to get ahead. Bennie is the opposite: trying to find herself because she doesn’t fit neatly into any box. But not only is the storytelling somewhat dispassionate, but it is also choppy. We don’t really get to feel their feelings, we don’t see their more tender sides. Little wonder we (or I at least) can’t connect.

What I find here is a great idea with such rich potential, but I do not believe it was as well-executed as it deserved. The story deserved characters served up with deep love, empathy and much more heart. I just didn’t feel that here.


Four Ways to Wear a Dress by Gillian Libby

Millie has just lost her PR job in NYC. She really thought this would be her big beginning, when she would show her parents that she’d really become an adult. But alas, once again, in spite of her warnings to the company that their product was impractical and overpriced, they were forced to make cuts – and that included her. So, at least for now, she is going to take her shared, “good-luck” little black dress that her friends are foisting upon her and move out to California, where the final member of their posse, Quincy, is living, helping to run their family-owned hotel. What Millie finds is that Quincy and her friends, social media influencers hoping to bolster the businesses of their tiny coastal town, are living a dual reality: one that is on social media and one that is real life. As Millie tries to find her own way, she has to navigate this duality for herself and figure out where – and if!- she fits into this picture.

My initial reaction to this book for this blog’s purpose is to tell you not to waste your time.

The bulk of this story, which is predictable in almost every way, revolves around the superficial world of social media influencers, which is distracting, disingenuous, and really all about the money. Even the children here are trained to stop suddenly – right on cue, even mid-sibling-rivalry-argument – long enough to plaster lovely smiles on their faces for uploadable photos in a very contrived-but-meant-to-look-natural setting. Any admission of an imperfection is shameful, any hint of real-world troubles is deemed unacceptable. When Millie arrives and begins to be publicly genuine, posting her mishaps and actually getting attention for it, she gets admonished by the local “queen bee.”

That is, of course, the message, though. It is a comment on social media and its influencers. It is a critique of the idea that we must only put our best selves – or a version of ourselves that is “perfect” out there for others to see, and never admit that we are imperfect, or actually human.

But I would suggest that that isn’t good enough. I would suggest that maybe we might not publicize so much of ourselves at all. Maybe we could just be actually living more of our lives; being mindful of, rather than posting, every meal we consume, every outfit we wear, every experience we enjoy. Maybe also, we could be watching less of what others are doing. Certainly research supports this: that is, the more time we spend on social media, the more anxious and depressed we are.

So while the book is not necessarily a worthwhile read, it does get one thinking… which always has value. Lucky for you, I saved you the trouble! You’re welcome! 🙂


Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Sadie is full of resentment, even though she can’t admit it. She’s given up her summer to be with her sister – and that’s ok, I mean, her sister is battling cancer, for god’s sake. She’s doing her best to be out of everyone’s way, when she comes upon a quiet boy named Sam, who, it appears, likes to game as much as she does. In fact, as his nurse has observed, Sadie is the first person Sam has actually spoken to since his horrible accident and his multiple foot surgeries. When the nurse requests that Sadie come back and game with him some more, trying to pry him further out of his shell, she encourages the development of a friendship that will go through many lives – almost like those of the characters they become in their games.

I am not a gamer, in any way, shape or form. But I loved this book and found it relatable on all of its levels. While gaming is the language the characters use to communicate, we sense their vastly deeper connection to each other, the love they feel. We also experience their pain and understand how they rely on gaming to escape this pain – to dive into worlds that are dreamlike, fantastical and utterly distracting in order to just get through. As they create games for others, they use this knowledge to create alternate realities for others to escape as well.

I also love how the plot unfolds. It surprises, interrupts, detours, and restarts – almost as if in a game itself. Because of this, it captures our imagination but also feels as real as one’s own heartbeat. It is simultaneously lyrical and tactile. The characters are both idyllic and deeply flawed.

I believe this is a MUST READ – a creative, imaginative, and very modern love story!

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

As Tony Webster reflects back on his life, he begins his account with his early days in high school, describing his friendship with a small group of lads who considered themselves cynically intellectual. When a newcomer, Adrian, joins their group, they realize that he is truly the superior of them all, and they subtly vie for his approval, though each would deny it fully. What distracts them from their everyday rhythm, however, is the news of a suicide by a fellow classmate. This, they feel at the time, is a truly brave philosophical comment on life itself. What Tony doesn’t realize is how he will come to understand this very differently as he ages, as he gains understanding and experience. But will he ever gain true wisdom?

This is one book that I may actually go back and reread at some point, in order to fully appreciate what it has to teach me. There is so much to unpack here in this short yet deceivingly rambling novel. Tony mulls and overthinks and constantly questions his past, sharing and reexamining details, pondering the reliability of memory itself. We’re not clear why it all bothers him so, as it seems all to be benign enough, so much the typical male adolescent bravado. Even his relationship during college with Veronica, while hard to understand given her cold and disparaging manner, we attribute to his naivety and we applaud him for moving on from her when he finally does. We come to know his overly sensitive and analytic nature, his coming to terms with his own mediocrity, and what he sees as his inability to effect change in others.

What we – and Tony – don’t see until it’s very late is what we should all know: our words impact others always. Our relationships and how we conduct them have consequences always and our actions have a ripple effect much in the “butterfly effect’ analogy. We may not know what they are now, we may never know what they are. But they are there. I believe this is the message of this novel, delivered in its final twisty pages.

The writing here is a bit ponderous but it’s as if you’re walking along the beach and if you’re looking, you find the shells and pearls of wisdom if your eyes are open to them. It feels as if each word is intentional, each fact placed where we are meant to find it. In this way it builds so that we are as flummoxed as Tony, then, by the ending.

Perhaps not a MUST READ, but I highly recommend this to those of you who are more philosophically inclined. Also to those of you who enjoy a surprise!

Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah

Jo is exhausted from her day of moving from nest to nest, from observing the details of nature that will add to her data for her dissertation research. All she wants to do is get some dinner prepared on the grill so that she can eat quickly and get some sleep before the cycle starts again tomorrow. Suddenly she sees a small, thin, unwashed, shoeless girl in pajamas step out from amidst the trees, claiming to be an alien who has newly inhabited the body of a human girl named Ursa Major. As reluctant as Jo is to feed her in, she also cannot abandon her, especially because she appears to have already been. And so begins the magical and starlit journey the two begin together, each bringing hope and light into each other’s lives, albeit in somewhat unpredictable ways.

This is a sweet and engaging novel that you’ll need to, in your mind, suspend reality somewhat first in order to go along for the pleasant ride. I guess what I mean is that it is just a bit too saccharine sweet for my taste. For example, while each character has a complicated past giving them some depth, they seem to overcome their personality flaws almost miraculously just by having been brought together by their circumstance. Gabe, the neighbor who has, for all his life, never been able to overcome his social anxiety to make any friends, suddenly becomes a graceful and articulate partner to Jo in her caring for Ursa. Likewise, later when more of Gabe’s story is revealed, and we learn the root of the tension between Gabe and his sister, we learn that just one conversation between them resolves years of built-up conflict and resentment. Many things are just too smooth, just too perfect. And don’t get me started about the ending…

Nevertheless, it is a decent story with likable characters, even with some suspense at points.  And if you like endings that are wrapped up and tidied, this one will be delivered to you absolutely perfectly – even with a bow on top! 


The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

While still a boy, Patroclus is brought by his father, a king, to compete for the marriage of Helen, considered the most beautiful woman in all of Greece. They bring gifts, and the bashful boy is expected to demonstrate his wit and intelligence measured against the famous princes and demigods around him. While his father speaks up for him, his unabashed disdain for the boy is apparent. It is no surprise when Helen chooses another. Upon their return home, when disaster strikes, Patroclus is not surprised when he is sent away from his home, forced to live in exile, with a king known to take in other exiles like himself. While he does what he can to avoid attention, he inadvertently catches the eye of the son of the king, none other than Achilles, a demigod himself. Their friendship grows and leads to adventures that Patroclus can not even imagine.

Not being so well-versed in Greek mythology myself (having read the Odyssey in high school and little beyond that- not generally a huge fan) I can’t comment with much authority on how this compares to the original . What I can say is that while some of the themes of vanity and hubris are well-preserved, this was certainly a modernized version of the events told in those ancient texts.

What is done so subtly and beautifully, I believe, is while Patroclus tries to uplift the Achilles heroic narrative, he (or the author), in fact, reveals himself as the true hero: the one who maintains humility, kindness, and true loyalty even in the midst of what becomes chaos. While he always folds himself into the background, always shining the light toward Achilles – who accepts this with no hesitation, as his position and stature would dictate – Patroclus meanwhile bolsters, soothes, even guides Achilles toward the proper direction. Few see him for who he really is. Some even hate him – and none more than Achilles’ mother. (Could it be that she hates him because she sees him for who he really is?)

So while I did read The Odyssey quite a long time ago, I did enjoy this adventure much more than that one! I’m curious if you out there in cyberspace did as well! I’d love to hear your opinions!