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review 2016-04-28 07:34
a review in two parts
City on Fire: A novel - Garth Risk Hallberg
Post Read Review
A book like this isn't for everyone but I loved it.  It's long, has lots of characters, and jumps back and forth in time.  But I'm a huge sucker for epic family centric stories, and one that takes me to an interesting time and place is right up my alley.  
 
New York City, primarily 1976-1977 is brilliant choice for a setting.  It wasn't a great time for the Big Apple.  It wasn't a great time for music.  And it wasn't a great time for the LGBTQ community.  There was disco and punk.  There was economic blight, riots and corruption.  And there was a massive blackout in the summer of 1977.  So much happened in the decade that followed that the late 70s often seems lost and forgotten. Fear not, City on Fire will bring it to you, not any in-your-face way, but craftily woven in as part of the tale.
 
No big analysis of the story or characters from me, but I do want to point out a minor bit that kind of fascinated me.  Keith and Regan had a vintage <b>horsehair mattress</b> that had been passed down in the family.   I had no idea of such things.  In this memory foam sleep number mattress era, horsehair sounds like rather old timey and slightly appalling, but also kind intriguing.  I can just see grandpa saying they just don't make them like they used to.
 
Halftime Show Review (written when I hit the halfway point)
Ok, I'm a bit past halfway.  Given that this book is 900 pages (or 37 hours of audio) and given no one is forcing any rules upon me,  I'm going to do something different here.  I am going to give a mid-book book report.  Because why the fuck not.
 
First, why am I reading this?  My sister recommend it to me because she knew how much I appreciated <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1235220590">A Little Life</a> and she thought this might appeal to me.  While this is not A Little Life, the recommendation made it an easy sell.
 
Very basic description - this is an ensemble cast sort of story where all the characters have some tenuous connection to one another.   Early on, one character has an unfortunate incident on New Years's eve in Central Park that leaves her on life support.  With this, it's sort of a who/what/why done it sort of mystery.  <spoiler>i'm a lazy mystery reader, but Amory seems like a good suspect to me</spoiler>
 
Probably the best and most interesting aspect of this book is the setting.  It takes place in NYC which isn't anything special.  If I had a nickel for each NYC based book.... What makes City of Fire special is the fact that it takes place in 1977 NYC (and some years prior).  The time period in general seems to be lost between the kitschy early 70s and the Reagan revolution of 1980.  Punk, disco, classic rock?  It was a cultural and economic crossroads and I find the portrayal to be the most compelling thing about the book so far.
 
I find myself personally drawn to Regan's story, her struggles with bulimia, family loyalty and personal relationships resonate with me.  One one hand, she just wants to be fucking normal and not beholden to other powers.  While she has privilege that she can't deny or shake, she knows she wasn't anyone's first choice.
 
There is still quite a bit to happen.  Sometimes the writing thrills me, and sometimes I want to give it an eye roll.  I can say this, I am engaged and I will see this through, even if it takes two more weeks.
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quote 2016-01-23 09:18
Choice isn't the same thing as freedom - not when someone is framing the choices for you.
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review 2015-10-25 18:06
How Long Was My Novel
City on Fire: A novel - Garth Risk Hallberg

Thanks to the publishers (Vintage/Penguin Random House) and to Net Galley for offering me a complimentary copy in exchange for a review.

I must confess to feeling curious after reading about all the attention the novel was getting and the advance praise. Although I read a variety of authors and genres, I studied American Literature and have an affinity for it and an interest in new American writers, so I was intrigued. But, I didn’t investigate the matter further and didn’t quite realise how long this novel was.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read, and loved, many long novels (I love Moby Dick, although it is not quite this long, but I’ve also read War and Peace, several of Jonathan Franzen’s novels, and have never felt the length). And I’m sure I’ll read many more. Although perhaps since I’ve been dedicating more time to reviewing and reading about writing, I’ve become more impatient.

City on Fire is 944 pages long. There are many stories, all entangled into one (sort of), told from different characters’ point of view (using the third person), with some interludes that include (fictitious) documentation, like the article on Fireworkers (experts on firework or pyrotechnics) written by Richard, a reporter and writer, or the Fanzines that Sam (a young girl, fan of Punk music) writes. The novel doesn’t follow a chronological order either, and you have episodes set before New Year’s Eve, when one of the central plot events takes place —the shooting of a young girl (Sam)—, some set after, and some set many years later, with flashbacks to years before, in seemingly no particular order, although not difficult to follow (but somewhat exhausting if one is reading for long periods of time. And I wonder if it could be confusing if people read the book in short chunks). The book, set in New York, in the Seventies, refers also to a number of issues, like the financial crisis, the musical movements of the time, riots, the big blackout, art, and all those worlds are illustrated by characters from different genres, social classes, walks of life, ethnicities, sexuality and origins. Ambitious is an adjective that has been used to describe this novel, and there’s no denying that. There are cops with physical ailments nearing retirement, artist, musicians, youngsters exploring and discovering themselves, rich and unhappy families, conspiracies and financial entanglements, an anarchist group setting up fires and bombs, adultery, love, a shooting, drugs, alcohol, writing, radio… And always New York.

The author has a beautiful turn of phrase, and you can’t but admire some of his sentences, although they can have the effect of throwing you out of the story. I kept thinking of the indictment for writers, ‘Kill your darlings’, don’t let those pieces that seem like beautiful paintings decorating the book just hang there. Remove anything that has nothing to do with the story or does not contribute to its progress. But perhaps the story is not the aim of this novel. I wasn’t so sure about the characters, either. Most of them were interesting, but perhaps there was something generic about them, and despite the length of the book I didn’t get the sense that I really knew a lot of them (not the same time is dedicated to the inner thoughts of all the characters, and some of the secondary characters that are potentially interesting, like Amory, are not given a voice), and the ones I felt I knew were familiar types. The rhythm is leisurely and although at times it seems about to pick up the pace (during the blackout), the changes in time-frame and point of view slow it down again. I was somewhat puzzled at finding the interludes about the fireworks more engrossing than some parts of the novel (although I’ve always loved fireworks, but it could be the journalistic style). 

Having read some of the comments, I have to agree that much of what contributes to the vastness of the novel does not necessarily add to the experience of the reader or the story (at least for me). City on Fire is a huge canvas, with some very beautiful splashes and sublime moments, but perhaps the sum does not live up to the promise of the parts. I felt it aspired to be like one of the fireworks it describes, that have several layers and fuses, and go up, and down, and then back up again, before exploding in a wonder of colours and shapes. For me it didn’t manage, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

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review 2015-10-18 13:18
City on Fire. How Long Was My Book.
City on Fire: A novel - Garth Risk Hallberg

Thanks to the publishers (Vintage/Penguin Random House) and to Net Galley for offering me a complimentary copy in exchange for a review.

I must confess to feeling curious after reading about all the attention the novel was getting and the advance praise. Although I read a variety of authors and genres, I studied American Literature and have an affinity for it and an interest in new American writers, so I was intrigued. But, I didn’t investigate the matter further and didn’t quite realise how long this novel was.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read, and loved, many long novels (I love Moby Dick, although it is not quite this long, but I’ve also read War and Peace, several of Jonathan Franzen’s novels, and have never felt the length). And I’m sure I’ll read many more. Although perhaps since I’ve been dedicating more time to reviewing and reading about writing, I’ve become more impatient.

City on Fire is 944 pages long. There are many stories, all entangled into one (sort of), told from different characters’ point of view (using the third person), with some interludes that include (fictitious) documentation, like the article on Fireworkers (experts on firework or pyrotechnics) written by Richard, a reporter and writer, or the Fanzines that Sam (a young girl, fan of Punk music) writes. The novel doesn’t follow a chronological order either, and you have episodes set before New Year’s Eve, when one of the central plot events takes place —the shooting of a young girl (Sam)—, some set after, and some set many years later, with flashbacks to years before, in seemingly no particular order, although not difficult to follow (but somewhat exhausting if one is reading for long periods of time. And I wonder if it could be confusing if people read the book in short chunks). The book, set in New York, in the Seventies, refers also to a number of issues, like the financial crisis, the musical movements of the time, riots, the big blackout, art, and all those worlds are illustrated by characters from different genres, social classes, walks of life, ethnicities, sexuality and origins. Ambitious is an adjective that has been used to describe this novel, and there’s no denying that. There are cops with physical ailments nearing retirement, artist, musicians, youngsters exploring and discovering themselves, rich and unhappy families, conspiracies and financial entanglements, an anarchist group setting up fires and bombs, adultery, love, a shooting, drugs, alcohol, writing, radio… And always New York.

The author has a beautiful turn of phrase, and you can’t but admire some of his sentences, although they can have the effect of throwing you out of the story. I kept thinking of the indictment for writers, ‘Kill your darlings’, don’t let those pieces that seem like beautiful paintings decorating the book just hang there. Remove anything that has nothing to do with the story or does not contribute to its progress. But perhaps the story is not the aim of this novel. I wasn’t so sure about the characters, either. Most of them were interesting, but perhaps there was something generic about them, and despite the length of the book I didn’t get the sense that I really knew a lot of them (not the same time is dedicated to the inner thoughts of all the characters, and some of the secondary characters that are potentially interesting, like Amory, are not given a voice), and the ones I felt I knew were familiar types. The rhythm is leisurely and although at times it seems about to pick up the pace (during the blackout), the changes in time-frame and point of view slow it down again. I was somewhat puzzled at finding the interludes about the fireworks more engrossing than some parts of the novel (although I’ve always loved fireworks, but it could be the journalistic style).  

Having read some of the comments, I have to agree that much of what contributes to the vastness of the novel does not necessarily add to the experience of the reader or the story (at least for me). City on Fire is a huge canvas, with some very beautiful splashes and sublime moments, but perhaps the sum does not live up to the promise of the parts. I felt it aspired to be like one of the fireworks it describes, that have several layers and fuses, and go up, and down, and then back up again, before exploding in a wonder of colours and shapes. For me it didn’t manage, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

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review 2013-02-12 00:00
City on Fire - Walter Jon Williams Less noir, more war.
And more government. Yes, minister.
The writing is improved (now with more wittyness!), the plot is tighter, the structure is neater, more things go spectacularly wrong and there is some resolution at the end. I'm hardly satisfied though and I hope Williams eventually gets around to writing the long-delayed sequel(s).
But what was possibly the biggest problem with the first books gets worse: Mary Sue. You don't need to be sexist get tired with the ever-amazing Aiah who's now explicitely gifted by the gods or something on top of her preposterous luck and improbable skills. I won't spoil the plot but it doesn't stop there.
The romance is getting less plausible as well, though there's a nice twist at the end.

Another problem with City on Fire is that it's a bit condescending, especially in the first part of the book where the reader is unsubtly reminded about everything that was established earlier. If it was only a matter of accomodating readers who didn't read the first book, OK (though it could have been handled better). But it doesn't stop there.

There are other changes between the books.
Most obviously, mystical stuff is introduced. It's pretty well-done. Mysteries are waved in front the readers' face. I'm less crazy about that.
Our heroine gets even more angsty, pathologically so. That was well-done too. She's more responsible but even more out of her depth. In spite of the Mary Sue syndrome, I found the new Aiah on the whole even more endearing.
Trans-humans become a bigger deal and we get into the realm of unsubtle political allegory.
And so on...
In other words, even though it's a direct continuation of the first book (which picks up right where it left), it isn't more of the same.
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