Monday, March 26, 2012


By Julian Barnes
ISBN No. 978-0-307-35961-2

Fans of the long form in fiction who were outraged (outraged, I tell you!) that Julian Barnes won big prizes for the surprisingly slim “The Sense of an Ending” might want to sit down when they read this: his new (and eagerly awaited follow-up) “Pulse” is more of the same - many times over.
It’s a collection of short stories.
Certainly stories that span a mere dozen pages are easier to write. At that length the author can make sure characters and metaphors stay where they’re supposed to; that intent and execution are equally obvious – to both writer and reader. These days who in their right mind wants to bend and twist a sprawling 300+ page narrative into something meaningful for an Everyman whose attention span lasts as long as the latest viral video?
In “Pulse” metaphors and story arcs are kept in check, and serious readers of serious fiction will be hard pressed to find any disappointments – or errors. (Indeed, in “East Wind” I had an “A-ha!” moment when Barnes switched from second to third person – until I realized it was a conceit of the story’s narrator, not a mistake of the author.) Instead, we’re lucky enough to be in the company of a master storyteller. “At Phil & Joanna’s 1: 60/40” is all painfully cajoling dialogue. In “Gardeners’ World” the complacent commitment of a marriage is compared with the construction of a backyard garden. And so it goes. Each story is quite, and quietly, remarkable, if only because these days the public has to wade through so much to get to so little that’s meaningful – in their lives, at the workplace, in culture. Barnes has written a book that’s both indicative and anecdotal for our internet age: a collection of one-offs, a book of small miracles of writing.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

“Riot Act”

By Diane Tullson
ISBN No. 978-1-4598-0139-4

“Riot Act” is basically “The Crucible” for the iPhone age. Remember when the Reverend has to choose between admitting his affair with the girl who’s accusing his wife of witchcraft, or deny it and save himself? No? Couldn’t sit through the whole thing? Don’t feel bad, I couldn’t either. So thank the deity of your choice for Diane Tullson’s “Riot Act”. Will seventeen-year-old Daniel, a hero for preventing a business from going up in flames during a post-game riot, save a friend who’s been YouTubed as a rioter? He better! Because as anyone following the outting of Vancouverites who rioted after the losing Stanley Cup game knows, the rioters can either come forward or the police can come and get them. Still, there’s lots to enjoy about the book than just taking a stroll down a memory lane of mayhem. It’s got a good moral quandary, a decent set of characters, and is written with the tween energy of getting caught up in the moment (a kid picks up a bottle, “Someone from the crowd shouts, ‘Throw it!’ Others take up the call and it becomes a chant. ‘Throw it! Throw it!’” A few pages later “the car bursts into flames.” A little later the denials start: “Other people were doing so much more.”). This is one readable riot act.

“When I Kill You”

By Michelle Wan
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-990-2

“When I Kill You” is basically one half of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train”, and while it’s got enough blackmail, suspense and intrigue to keep even my aunt reading, the one thing it’s missing is the thing I wanted to read most: what it’s like to work at the post office. Listen, I can believe the heroine of the story was an abused wife, that she stood to profit from the death of her husband, that one of his exes comes out of the woodwork with some incriminating cell phone footage, and, yes, that she even wrestles in mud (but not the Spa-grade kind - nice touch) on the weekends. But what I cannot believe, what I cannot accept, what I find practically science-fiction – especially in the current economy – is that she’d actually QUIT the post office. No one quits the post office – EVER. That twist in the story is perhaps its most daring, and highlights a larger irony of contemporary fiction: In movies, TV shows and novels, characters talk about dreams, big business and blackmail. In real life, people probably talk about movies, TV shows, novels – and getting on at the post office.