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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 2015-04-04 17:21
The Beatles: The BBC Archives: 1962-1970 - Kevin Howlett

This book weighs 20# and is far too heavy to hold and read. The review is based on the lovely pictures and memories those pics provoked.

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review 2014-12-11 20:59
Beautiful Memoir
The Kiss - Kathryn Harrison

Uncomfortable subject matter. Interesting use of tense throughout. Deftly written, tight prose. Beautiful and clear.

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review 2014-11-29 11:31
Curious Pursuits, Margaret Atwood
Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing 1970-2005 (Chinese Edition) - Margaret Atwood

It's a good while since I read any Atwood, and wow, I'd forgotten just how engaging her non-fiction is. And how funny she can be, especially when she turns her weather eye on herself, in the most self-deprecating fashion, as in a couple of these essays.


This was a lot of fun, and at 15 minutes an episode x 6, it was a great short listen to fit in around other things going on. It's abridged, and doesn't contain all the essays from the book, but it did make me very much want to get the whole book and read it. 


The only thing about this I didn't like is the narrator (not Atwood herself) had a voice that was like nails on a chalkboard for me. YMMV. 



Via Bettie who can always find all this great stuff on the BBC site, when I never can. 


Also a very nice review of the full book, which just makes me want to get the entire thing to read even more @The Guardian (yes that Guardian, who are normally quite sensible about books and authors.)

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review 2014-11-28 16:17
Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing 1970-2005
Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing 1970-2005 (Chinese Edition) - Margaret Atwood
bookshelves: autumn-2014, published-2005, under-500-ratings, essays, nonfiction, radio-4x, autobiography-memoir
Recommended for: BBC Radio Listeners
Read from November 21 to 28, 2014


Description: 'Whenever I resolve to write less and do something healthful instead, like ice dancing - some honey-tongued editor is sure to call me up and make me an offer I can't refuse. So in some ways this book is simply the result of an under-developed ability to say no.'

Collected and published in the UK for the first time, here are essays and journalism from the brilliant novelist and poet. Ranging from book reviews of John Updike and Toni Morrison to an appreciation of Dashiell Hammet; an account of a journey in Afghanistan that sowed the seeds of The Handmaid's Tale; passionate ecological writings; funny stories of 'my most embarrassing moments'; obituaries of some of her great friends and fellow writers: Angela Carter, Mordecai Richler, Carol Shields. This is an insightful, thoughtful and revealing record of the life and times and writings of Margaret Atwood from 1970 to the present.


1/5 Travels Back: Margaret Atwood recalls dramas in reading her work to audiences. Why does 'national identity' intrigue her? Read by Liza Ross.

2/5 The Grunge Look: Coming to Britain in the 60s was a quest for culture, but Margaret got caught up in fashion and chat-up moments at museums.

3/5 Introduction to She: Margaret praises an old pot-boiler of a book with an infamous heroine and asks why it gripped her.

4/5 Victory Gardens: In days of yore, the test of a good cook was whether she could utilise every leftover morsel.

5/5 Mortification; Edinburgh Festival: Two short essays look at some author mishaps and Scotland's fair city through the decades.

4* The Handmaid's Tale
3* The Blind Assassin
TR Wilderness Tips
3* Good Bones
CR Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing 1970-2005

3* Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam Trilogy, #1)
3* The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam Trilogy, #2)
TR MaddAddam (MaddAddam Trilogy, #3)
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