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The Empty Cafe

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Success Stories

by Michael Hoffman

For some reason known only to my subconscious, I began reading The Empty Café under the impression that it was a novel. It was only on coming to what I took to be the second chapter that I recognised it as a volume of short stories, the title of the book being also the title of the penultimate tale. Discovering my error was something of a relief - in the past, my own prejudices have caused me to avoid short stories, and this is the first work of its genre to appear on these review pages.

There was nothing about the cover to give away the contents. Although not unpleasant to look at, it does little to attract the casual browser (this is a professionally-produced print-on-demand book from a specialist publisher), a characteristic I can't help regarding as a disadvantage, regardless of the fact that it is not designed to be seen on bookshop shelves. Michael Hoffman is admittedly a successful journalist and an experienced story-writer, but he is hardly so famous that his work requires no outward advertisement.

Mr Hoffman's style is not "literary"; it is conversational, and for that reason the sections told in the first person work particularly well, the third-person narratives less well. It appears that, despite the success he has already enjoyed, he doesn't always recognise - or play to - his own strengths.

As far as plot goes, whilst I will admit to being a novice in terms of short-story technique, the individual elements of this collection strike me as particularly imaginative. The characters and situations are drawn from the author's own full and varied life. As a Canadian who has lived in the Far East, he uses locations with which he is familiar. One story is set in Japan, another in Bangkok, underlining the contrasting thought processes of eastern and western cultures.

The last story in the collection, Solitude, is longer, a novella in fact, taking up nearly half the volume and finally giving the author a chance to get into his stride. I wondered briefly why the book was not called by the title of this longer work; it can only be because the title is not as memorable. Instead of The Empty Café, it might have ended up as The Full B&B, since Solitude opens with a group of disparate individuals whose paths cross in the surroundings of a Vancouver bed-and-breakfast establishment. As their motives for being there are explored, so the action unfolds.

Michael Hoffman's characters are haunted - by dreams, premonitions or memories. There are many unsolved mysteries here, which for some readers will be frustrating, for others intriguing. Whatever your emotional response may be, I think I can guarantee that you won't be bored.

If you like this, you'll probably like:

First and Fiftieth & other stories

Monterey Shorts


ISBN 0 75961986 7 Published by 1stBooks, 2001
Paperback, 259pp Retail price $17.10

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

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