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November 18, 2010 Edition
Dickie Coward is an upperclass Brit worried about losing the family estate to his brother, but he’s stuck in the middle of World War II and unable to do much more about it than try to survive. He is Flashman’s opposite, but equal, counterpart: a good and moral man whose decency is perpetually questioned. His luck is bad – anyone in a position to testify to Coward’s honesty and integrity ends up dead or otherwise out of the picture before Coward’s true character can be known. And yet he survives to tell the story of flying Spitfires and storming the beach at Normandy to his grandson in this story of adventure, war, and derring-do, the first in a proposed series.
Hall’s new collection of short stories lives up to his reputation as a comic in the vein of Woody Allen or David Sedaris. Hall is the star of his first story, Fifty-Cent Words, where he’s given a thesaurus for his 12th birthday which he proceeds to use to verbally batter his way in and out of trouble and money. In Rachel, a father does his best to normalize relations with his teenage daughter after she throws several MySpace parties the size of small towns, causing chaos and destruction. And in Prairie Dogs (which gives the collection its delightful cover image), an entrepreneur with ulterior motives moves in on a suspicious man and his naïve wife with the aid of a prairie-dog-sucking vacuum truck. The omniscient reader is left amused, saddened, and wondering about the view outside the narrow slices of life we’re treated to.
Van Gelder acknowledges from the outset that a comprehensive collection that includes everyone’s “best of” is difficult, but it’s hard to argue with the stellar job he’s done selecting these stories. Here, Ursula Le Guin rubs shoulders with Stephen King, James Tiptree, jr. with Roger Zelazny, and Neil Gaiman with Daniel Keyes for a satisfying range of hard science fiction and magical fantasy. Original publication dates range from 1951 (Of Time and Third Avenue, by Alfred Bester) to 2007 (The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, by Ted Chiang), giving readers a sense of how the genres have changed through time.
When a 57-carat ruby surfaces out of a bog clenched in the cadaverous hand of a 17th-century mapmaker, it’s taken as evidence that the legend of the Tavernier stones is real. Modern-day mapmaker John Graf has always loved Johannes Cellarius’ work and is now struck by something he hadn’t noticed before on one of Cellarius’ maps: a code. Teaming up with well-educated thief, David Freeman, the two work feverishly to solve the puzzle and find the lost cache of gems, if they still exist, while trying to stay well ahead of many others in the race. Fans of Dan Brown ought to give this fast-paced and intricately-plotted mystery a try.
From one of Mexico’s greatest writers comes this epic told by the mad empress Carlota (formerly Marie Charlotte of Belgium). Appointed Empress of Mexico by French nation-builders in 1864 alongside her husband, Emperor Maximilian, Carlota falls in love with her new country. Unfortunately, the two are seen, rightly, as usurpers, and even though Maximilian enacts liberal reforms that his conservative backers oppose, he can’t win over Juarez (Mexico’s elected president) and his supporters. Sensing a turn in their fortunes, Carlota makes the long journey back to Europe to plead for assistance from France, and the refusal sends her into a mental breakdown from which she never recovers.