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‘Special Topics in Calamity Physics’ by Marisha Pessl

(Penguin, $35)I have a system for buying books when I’m not looking for anything in particular: If I like the cover, I read the back, if I like the back, I read the first paragraph, and if I like the first paragraph, I buy the book. It’s a pretty fail-safe system that has introduced me to many new writers over the years, and this book was one of those great random discoveries.

Blue van oeer is a precocious high-school student with an eccentric, domineering father whom she adores, even though he moves her from pillar to post so often she never gets a chance to fit in. The book opens with Blue deciding to write her life story after struggling to “erase” her discovery of a dead body almost a year before.

What follows is an account that is part coming-of-age story, part thriller and part literary know-it-all fest. I loved it, even the showy-offy bits, because it is so refreshing and funny and surprising, with more than one jaw-dropping twist.

What I didn’t know, until I googled the author after finishing the book, was that oarisha caused quite a stir because this is her debut and she got paid bucketloads for it – and she’s only young and very pretty. Some of the older literary types took umbrage at this, saying things along the lines of, “What chance do the old, ugly people who can actually write have when talentless young strumpets are stealing all the book deals?”

I confess, I went right off her myself after I saw her photo and discovered she had been born in 1977. However, just as I had to admit after meeting her that Elle oacpherson has a lovely personality – which is deeply unfair because she also has everything else – I have to admit oarisha Pessl writes a darn good book. The only problem I can see is that her surname looks like it’s missing a letter.

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