You Should Read: Seanan McGuire’s ROSEMARY AND RUE

Synopsis: The world of Faerie never disappeared: it merely went into hiding, continuing to exist parallel to our own. Secrecy is the key to Faerie’s survival—but no secret can be kept forever, and when the fae and mortal worlds collide, changelings are born. Half-human, half-fae, outsiders from birth, these second-class children of Faerie spend their lives fighting for the respect of their immortal relations. Or, in the case of October “Toby” Daye, rejecting it completely. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the fae world, retreating into a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, Faerie has other ideas.

The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose, one of the secret regents of the San Francisco Bay Area, pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening’s dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby is forced to resume her old position as knight errant to the Duke of Shadowed Hills and begin renewing old alliances that may prove her only hope of solving the mystery…before the curse catches up with her. (From SeananMcGuire.com)

Seanan McGuire skips the backstory and drops you straight into the action with Rosemary and Rue, starting her debut novel with a crime already in progress. October Daye, who would prefer to be called Toby just the same way that you would prefer no one punched you in the face, is tracking down the kidnapped wife and daughter of her pure-blooded liege, Duke Sylvester. To complicate matters, it’s a crime committed by the Duke’s own brother, and tracking a fugitive fae through the human world means a lot of being subtle and trying to blend in. Have I mentioned that Toby isn’t very good at subtle? Instead of saving the day, she falls victim to the bad guy’s superior magic, is trapped in the body of an ornamental koi fish for over a decade, and loses her self-esteem and her family in one fell swoop.

The fish thing wears off, eventually, though too late for Toby to be able to explain it to the daughter she seemingly abandoned. This is the woman we get properly introduced to: a dejected, failed detective, living alone in a bad part of town with no friends, no family, no future, and a dead-end supermarket job that barely pays the rent. She lives in a dark place, to be sure, but much of that is of her own making, since Toby’s worked very hard to keep away anyone that might have made her feel better. Duke Sylvester? She doesn’t return his phone calls. Her old changeling friends? She makes excuses so she doesn’t have to see the happy families that they have, and she doesn’t. Her job? Her PI license lapsed while she was nibbling tourists’ bread in a cold pool, and she doesn’t have the confidence in herself to want to get it back. She has exactly one friend in the world, the Countess Winterrose, but of course Toby can’t see the woman’s helping her out of anything more than obligation. It’s a pity party, table for one, and only Toby Daye is invited.

This is where McGuire’s story really starts.

What do you do with a half-breed fairie woman who’s lost, literally, everything she held dear? You kill off her one remaining supporter, of course, and that’s exactly what happens when Winterrose is brutally murdered. Without any idea of what’s happening around her, Toby has to return to the only skill she has: finding the answers.

To be honest, I don’t read many fantasy novels. I prefer my fiction to be desolate, apocalyptic, and dangerous. Fairies, to me, are a lot like sparkly vampires: they’re based on creatures which were, originally, something much worse, but they’ve been prettied up to fit in with the buying habits of tween girls and unmarried aunts. Fairies now mean fluttery and flowery and beautiful, but I know better than to believe that. Fairies are supposed to be nasty, bitey little creatures, and impossibly beautiful ice queens, and confusing things made of mixed together bits of tree branches and stolen shoes. They’re not creatures of light and happiness, no matter how much glitter you slap on them. Too few people want to write about the dark side of fairies.

Seanan McGuire understands the dark.

She blends together Shakespeare, Irish legends, Japanese myth, medieval ballads, and Victorian Flower Fairies to tell a tale so familiar it doesn’t occur to you to look for where she’s gotten it wrong because it’s all unbelievably right. Toby lives in a world that makes sense, in a sad and disturbing way, because it’s our world, if you could see just a little more of it.

I started reading Rosemary and Rue, expecting to put it back down again, but I ended up hiding in the bedroom and telling my husband to make his own dinner so I didn’t have to quit until it was done. I loved this story, and can’t wait to read the next in what I hope is a very long series.

Seanan McGuire, Rosemary and Rue, DAW Books, 2009. 368 pages. ISBN 0756405718.

The second book in the series, A Local Habitation, is out as of March 2010, and I review it HERE.

 

You Should Read: Roger Ma’s THE ZOMBIE COMBAT MANUAL

Synopsis: With over 300 pages and 90+ illustrations of zombie anatomy, weapons, and combat techniques, The Zombie Combat Manual is your go-to guide for fending off mobs of revenants in hand-to-hand combat. (From The Zombie Combat Club)

It’s safe to say that I love zombie books. Movies, I’m not always a fan of, because I prefer my horror to be suspenseful instead of gory, and most zombie flicks seem to think they can cover gaping plot holes with a pile of torn off limbs. Books, on the other hand, don’t usually have the option of typing [INSERT FLESH RENDING HERE] over and over again. There has to be plot, description, and character development, even if it isn’t very good. Zombies as a genre has become mainstream enough to include things like zombie poetry, graphic novels, adaptations from historical literature, religious thought, and cook books.

So I was pleased to see a book which promised to be both zombie-related and actually useful. Roger Ma foresaw the comparisons to Max Brook’s Zombie Survival Guide and swerved around them by focusing on the human body itself. It doesn’t assume that you have access to a variety of guns, swords, or other military weapons – in fact, among those it does list are notes as to how realistic it would be to assume that you could find one. It also handily points out the destructive power and flaws of the everyday items you might have at hand, saving you from making a risky attempt to get past a shambling horde for something like a chef’s knife, which would actually require a “very high” amount of skill to use. Make sure to take note of the lifespan of the items as well – it doesn’t do you any good to rely on something sharp and dangerous which will certainly break after the second time you use it to bash in a head.

If the undead apocalypse does come, there will probably be more than two zombies in it.

One of my favorite sections was Ma’s discussion on combatant body types. He gives the pros and cons for three kinds of zombie fighters (based on the tradition of diagnosing people as eco, edo, or mesomorphs), and follows it up with workout routines which can get you into fighting shape. His “Zombie Basic Fitness Circuit” can be done in a small room with nothing but your own body required. His “Combat Exercises” only require an old tire and a tree (to swing a small axe against). Even better, Ma gives you a reason for each of the exercises he recommends, showing how jumping jacks can save you from a broken ankle, and your deltoids are necessary for thrusting swords or spears.

I would recommend this to any serious zombie fan looking to expand their book collection, writers who want to add an authentic voice to their tales of the undead, or people hoping to spice up their workouts by envisioning themselves preparing for the next zombie war.

Roger Ma, The Zombie Combat Manual, Berkeley Press. 2010. Illustrations by Y.N. Heller. 300 pages. ISBN 0425232549

 

You Should Read: Simon Winchester’s THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN

Synopsis: It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor–that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane–and locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics. (From Harper Collins)

For the last twenty years or so, since I was old enough to know better, if anyone asked me what my favorite book ever was, I would answer, “The Oxford English Dictionary.” I adore dictionaries, and the queen of them all is the OED. Humongous, diligently researched, and continually updated, it is a map to the sprawling landscape of the English language. As a historian and writer myself, I love to read well-researched non-fiction, especially about subjects long dead (it has been my experience that they tend to focus more on the facts than biographical works whose subjects are still alive, and presumably still willing to sue). When I saw Winchester’s book, it never occurred to me not to buy it. I mention it so that you know my bias ahead of time, and can take what follows accordingly.

I adored this book.

It is a quick, light read which intermingles archaic word definitions with crime scene descriptions. It clears up some long-held myths about Minor’s involvement with the OED, sacrificing drama for the truth, which always scores points with me. At the same time, Winchester writes as if the mysteries are worth being surprised with, and lets the story be told almost chronologically.

I learned a great deal about the circumstances surrounding the move to create the OED in the first place. I guess that I had imagined there had been dictionaries for many hundreds of years, and that this was simply a better version of one. That the OED is better, is true; that dictionaries are an ancient institution is completely false. I felt for Mr. Minor, who was made to seem as much a victim of his disease as the man he murdered. I loved Professor Murray’s way of organizing the submissions which poured into his office like sea water filling the Titanic. He kept his ship from sinking, and transformed hundreds of thousands of quotes from thousands of volunteers around the world into a workable document. Simon Winchester went to the graveyards of the men most central to this book, literally and figuratively. He scoured newspapers, read medical reports, visited the asylum and the OED offices. He took this great mountain of information and translated it into a work which unfolds smoothly before you. I don’t think that a reader would require a great education in any particular subject before reading The Professor and the Madman, which I have seen with other non-fiction titles about academic subjects. Instead it is one of those rare but wonderful books which presents you with a story, answers your questions, and leaves you feeling uplifted by knowledge.

The little paperback version I bought has the story ending at page 221, with notes afterward. I recommend getting the P.S. edition if you can find it; it includes an interview with the author, dictionary words, and additional reading suggestions.

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Harper Perennial, 2005. 242 pages, plus P.S. ISBN 0060839783