I flew through THREE books last week--which is great, because I've got some other must-reads clogging up the ol' spare time, on which more later. Some thoughts on each:
When Beauty Tamed the Beast, Eloisa James: Gosh, this was just great. A heroine with her rep in ruins because of an unfortunately pleated dress, a hero based on Gregory House (muscle infarction, "everybody lies," and all, though it's his father who was the opium addict), a castle in Wales!! Followed it up with An Affair Before Christmas, another James with an altogether different trope: it's about an already-married couple made miserable by her awful, awful mother's having taught her that sex was horrible and disgusting and not be enjoyed at any cost, and their gradually getting to know each other as people, leaving aside the physical aspect until their love is based on a firmer foundation. So sweet.
A thorough James convert I; not as blown away by the central romance in Courtney Milan's debut,Proof by Seduction, but still liked the book's exploration of the pathetic economic options available to women of "uncertain birth" in early Victorian England. The heroine has supported herself as a fortune-teller for 12 years; the hero's the cousin of one of her clients and a reluctant marquess who'd rather be studying macaws in Brazil. Their cross-class attraction strains her wishes for independence--how to be his lover without becoming his mistress?--and makes her ashamed of a profession based on lies. What I liked best about the book was the dynamism of the characters, all of whom are troubled and unhappy--Jenny's ambivalence, Lord Blakely's social awkwardness and passion subsumed to duty, and especially the cousin-client, Ned Carhart, a painfully sweet naif prone to depression and self-loathing. For their happy ending, all of these people have to create different visions of themselves, and Milan doesn't pretend it's easy.
I'm going to have to take a brief break, howevs, due to two factors: first, I have a couple of library books due in three days that can't be renewed--An Evening of Long Goodbyes and Graham Greene's Haiti novel The Comedians. Second, Freebird Books' Post-Apocalyptic Book Club (yes, that is the greatest book club idea ever) is discussing Neal Stephenson's 2008 tour de force Anathem next week! I am not entirely optimistic about my being able to reread the entire 1000-page tome by the 17th, but I'd like to reread it anyway. Here's my original review from the first go-round:
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Plato, Saint Augustine, Leibniz, Kant, Mach, Husserl, and Godel make up Anathem’s metaphysical backbone,” Neal Stephenson tells us in his acknowledgments. It’s a wise assertion to make up front, warning the reader, in effect, Ideas Ahead; while he may lose some of his audience, those of us who think to ourselves “Ooh, I love Saint Augustine and Leibniz and Kant!” know right off we’re in for a treat.
Anathem is less science fiction than philosophy fiction (to coin a phrase and a genre). Set on the Earthlike planet of Arbre, it’s told in the voice of young Fraa Erasmas of the Concent of Saunt Edhar, part of a worldwide network of sequestered intellectuals called avout. These men and women have for millenia lived a cloistered existence, cut off from contact with the outside world except during certain festivals. And what do they do within their walls? They think: about numbers, geometry, astronomy, physics; they study the ideas of their forebears; they form squabbling philosophical orders; they relentlessly discuss and examine every notion they have in formal Socratic dialogue, chasing down illogic and ferreting out bits of truth. Around them, civilizations and religions rise and fall—but the avout stick to their discipline, and keep knowledge safe.
And then, something appears in the sky, and everything changes.
The high point of Stephenson’s talent, as should be obvious from all the neologisms in this review, is world creation. Fifty pages in, he can reel off a sentence that, out of context, makes no sense at all—but without resorting to clumsy exposition, he’s immersed the reader in this familiar/unfamiliar world so completely that its vocabulary becomes second nature. This is helped along by frequent entries from the avout’s most recent Dictionary, which go so far as to provide etymology. He’s also phenomenal at explaining difficult concepts, the great concepts, in fact: the nature of consciousness, the objective truth of plane geometry, the quantum possibilities of multiple universes.
If all this makes Anathem sound dry, that’s my fault entirely. In Stephenson’s hands, all of these heady concepts and hypotheses are part of a grand adventure. The novel is funny and weird and action-packed and even romantic. Just when I’d think I knew what was going on, he’d throw me a curve that upped the stakes. You’ll know, just from the acknowledgments, whether you’ll love Anathem. And if you do, I’d be happy to talk about it—because, as the avout and philosophy majors like me well know, it’s sharing ideas that make them true.