Thursday, February 11, 2016

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire
by Garth Risk Hallberg
Knopf, 2015
944 pages
source: ebook borrowed from library

narrated by Rebecca Lowman (and others)
Random House Audio, 2015
37 hours and 53 minutes
source: purchased with audible credit

Goodreads summary:

New York City, 1976. Meet Regan and William Hamilton-Sweeney, estranged heirs to one of the city's great fortunes; Keith and Mercer, the men who, for better or worse, love them; Charlie and Samantha, two suburban teenagers seduced by downtown's punk scene; an obsessive magazine reporter, Richard, and his idealistic neighbor, Jenny, - and the detective trying to figure out what any of them have to do with a shooting in Central Park on New Year's Eve.

The mystery, as it reverberates through families, friendships, and the corridors of power, will open up even the loneliest-seeming corners of the crowded city. And when the blackout of July 13, 1977, plunges this world into darkness, each of these lives with be changed forever.

City on Fire  is an unforgettable novel about love and betrayal and forgiveness, about art and truth and rock 'n' roll, about what people need from each other in order to live... and about what makes the living worth doing in the first place.

My thoughts:

You might remember City on Fire for the astronomical advance its author received last year... the nearly two million dollars raised even more eyebrows going to a debut novelist. Or you might remember the wonder that Knopf would publish a 950 page novel in this day and age. Those factors, combined with a 1970s NYC setting, made the novel seem irresistible. Could it really be worth that advance?  I had to read it myself and find out.

And I did. It took nearly a month to get through all 944 pages. I opted for the ebook version since I doubted my ability to support such a massive tome for extended periods of time, and soon added audio to the mix as well. (The production is excellent.)

I found myself completely immersed in the New York City of the late 1970s... and most of that experience was truly remarkable. City of Fire  offers an intricate, complex story, with a wide array of well-developed characters. There is history, a mystery, philosophy, psychology, and it all culminates with the great blackout of 1977. I've even seen this novel compared to Bleak House.

In addition, the writing is excellent... at times, even brilliant. And Hallberg makes it seem so effortless. I marveled at his vocabulary. Where did he ever come across some of those words? I've never appreciated the ebook dictionary function so much.

The physical book is creative and attractive, too. A variety of fonts and formats, especially in the interlude sections, makes for a visually appealing product.

I was enthralled for most of the journey and remember thinking this was easily a 4-star book.

And then...

The 'resolution' began. It continued for 300 pages, maybe more, and... NOTHING. What? Did the author simply get tired of writing? Was 944 pages all he had in him? After investing so much reading time, I felt entitled to an ending. This was completely unsatisfying. To be clear, I have no problem with open-ended or ambiguous endings, but this just seemed lazy. I felt cheated.

And the length? I don't think this story really warrants 944 pages. A good editing would have cut three hundred pages, probably more. Reading about the 70s punk scene got pretty boring after a while... though to be honest, it didn't interest me much back then either.


Despite all the positives (writing, plot, characters), the lack of an ending after reading almost one thousand pages was too much of a disappointment for me to overcome.

I'm very curious about this novel's sales figures. Was Knopf able to recoup their 2 million dollar advance? Would they cut the length if given an opportunity for a redo? Or ask the author to write an ending?

With all of that said, I eagerly await Hallberg's second novel. And I will read it... provided it comes in under five hundred pages.

Bottom line:
Given the length and lack of an ending, I cannot recommend City on Fire.
Throw it on the pile of overhyped debut novels.

My rating:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Tuesday Intro: Death With an Ocean View

"Charlie, what the hell am I doing in paradise?" Kate glanced up at a cotton ball cloud bouncing along in a cornflower blue sky, not expecting an answer. Charlie Kennedy, her husband, had dropped dead six months ago, still clutching the pen he'd used to close on their beachfront condo. 
Ballou tugged on his leash. Knowing the Westie missed Charlie, too, she picked up speed, splashing surf over her bare feet and sending sand flying. 
Another perfect day in South Florida. A cliche Kate considered pure propaganda, perpetuated by snow birds and retirees who'd left behind change of seasons, grandchildren, and decent public transportation, and now felt obliged to rave about the weather on a daily basis.
Death With an Ocean View
A Kate Kennedy Mystery, #1
by Noreen Wald

Although not clearly noted on the NetGalley page, this book appears to be an upcoming (March 8) reissue of the 2004 book by Nora Charles, another pen name used by the author. After my long haul with City on Fire and my current Henry James reading, this cozy mystery is a welcome change of pace... especially in the evenings when my brain is too tired for Henry's prose. The south Florida setting and pretty cover are very appealing, too.

NetGalley description:
Nestled between fast track Ft. Lauderdale and nouveau riche Boca Raton, the once sleepy beach town of Palmetto is plagued by progress. The latest news has Ocean Vista condo board president Stella Sajak and other residents in an uproar. Developers plan to raze the property and put up a glitzy resort. But when Stella says she’ll go to City Hall and fight this to the death, no one thinks to take her statement literally. 
And when Kate begins to investigate the murder, she discovers that this little corner of the sunshine state is cursed with corruption, unsavory characters, and a very dark cloud overhead.
What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Every Tuesday, Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea posts the opening paragraph (sometime two) of a book she decided to read based on the opening. Feel free to grab the banner and play along.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sanibel Sunday: Super Bowl Edition

Beach Bounty: My Collection of Sea Urchins

Sunday already? The weeks certainly fly here. For as long as I can remember,  winter months (especially February) have dragged, so this is a welcome change. Being outdoors seems to be the key... at home I tend to hibernate, waiting for the snow and cold to go away.

We've been hiking and biking this week, and enjoyed wandering around ArtFest Fort Myers yesterday. It was a little soggy, but colorful art brightened the day.

Biggest accomplishment of the week//

I finally finished City on Fire! All 950 pages. At last. It was quite a ride and, for most of the book, I thought I would rate it at least 4 stars. In the end though, I felt cheated. After reading that many pages and investing so much time, I expected (felt entitled to?) more of an ending. Grr! I'm still working through my thoughts for a review, but don't think I can go higher than 3 or maybe 3.5 stars. Sigh.

Current reading//

What Maisie Knew by Henry James
It took a chapter or two to get back in the rhythm of James prose. Despite being written in 1897, the storyline is sadly modern. Could this be the first literary child custody battle?

Up next//

Death With an Ocean View by Noreen Wald
This cozy mystery should be a welcome break from Henry James... especially in the evening when my brain is tired! I got it from NetGalley a couple of months ago, and it appears to be a reissue of an old series. I love the cover... it should be fun.

On the blog// 
It was a quiet week with just one post:
A Read-along Begins: What Maisie Knew

In the kitchen//

I made more Turkey Chili Taco Soup (recipe and photo from SkinnyTaste). We'll have some this afternoon before the Super Bowl.

Skillet White Chicken Chili Dip is also on the Game Day menu. It's a new recipe, so I'll let you know how it turns out.

The Super Bowl or Downton Abbey?  My plan is to turn the channel to Downton Abbey  at 9PM, unless something unbelievably exciting is happening in the game. We'll see if my husband agrees...

I borrowed Testament of Youth from the library. It's based on Vera Brittain's book, which has been on my 'to read' list for years. I usually prefer to read the book first, but it could be some time before I get to this one. Hope to watch this tomorrow night.

The week ahead//
The forecast calls for cooler weather ahead, in the 60s most days. Perfect for biking, so a ride through the "Ding" Darling is on the agenda. One slight problem... I have a 'beach cruiser', which is as low tech as it gets (no gears, reverse pedals to brake), while my husband has an 18-speed trail bike. That means one of us is working much harder to cover equal distances! It may be time for me to upgrade.

I'm also looking forward to my sister and brother-in-law's visit. She's a teacher and winter break begins Friday. I can't wait!

What have you been up to this week? Are you reading anything good?

This post will link to It's Monday, What Are You Reading?  hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Read-along Begins: What Maisie Knew

The child was provided for, but the new arrangement was inevitably confounding to a young intelligence intensely aware that something had happened which must matter a good deal and looking anxiously out for the effects of so great a cause. It was to be the fate of this patient little girl to see much more than she at first understood, but also even at first to understand much more than any little girl, however patient, had perhaps ever understood before. Only a drummer-boy in a ballad or a story could have been so in the thick of the fight. She was taken into the confidence of passions on which she fixed just the stare she might have had for images bounding across the wall in the slide of a magic-lantern. Her little world was phantasmagoric - strange shadows dancing on a sheet. It was as if the whole performance had been given for her - a mite of a half-scared infant in a great dim theatre. She was in short introduced to life with a liberality in which the selfishness of others found its account, and there was nothing to avert the sacrifice but the modesty of her youth.
What Maisie Knew
by Henry Hames

Oh, Henry! It's been a couple of years since I last read a Henry James novel (Washington Square in 2013), but the style and rhythm of his sentences is immediately recognizable. It will no doubt take me several pages, or maybe even a chapter, to get into the groove, but I'm looking forward to beginning this novel within the next couple of days.

I'll be reading along with Audrey, Frances, and a couple of others. We'll post our thought at the end of the month... you're welcome to join us.

Here's the goodreads summary:
After her parents’ bitter divorce, young Maisie Farange finds herself shuttled between her selfish mother and vain father, who value her only as a means for provoking each other. Maisie—solitary, observant, and wise beyond her years—is drawn into an increasingly entangled adult world of intrigue and sexual betrayal until she is finally compelled to choose her own future. Published in 1897 as Henry James was experimenting with narrative technique and fascinated by the idea of the child’s-eye view, What Maisie Knew is a subtle yet devastating portrayal of an innocent adrift in a corrupt society.
What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Every Tuesday, Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea posts the opening paragraph (sometime two) of a book she decided to read based on the opening. Feel free to grab the banner and play along.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sanibel Sunday: Goodbye, January

Hard to believe January is over. We started the month in snowy central NY and are ending it on a saturated Sanibel Island. Another unusually rainy week, which included a 48-hour nonstop soaking, brought the monthly total to 12.98 inches. For comparison, a 'normal' January means just under 2 inches of rain. As a result, our walkway to the beach flooded, as did several roads, parking lots, yards, and driveways. Still, no complaints - this is much better than snow.

Friday brought clear skies, at last, and a beautiful sunrise - a perk of early morning dog walks. Later we visited Manatee Park, a warm water refuge for the Florida manatee when the gulf temperature is below 68F. There were literally hundreds of them hanging around! It's hard to tell, but each one of those gray blobs is a manatee. I just couldn't get a decent picture.

Current reading//

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
Still. At the 700 page mark with about 250 more to go. Can't wait to see how this ends, though I've been warned that Sarah wanted to throw her kindle across the room. Any day (maybe hour) now...

New books in the house//

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Almost embarrassed to admit I've never read this one, though I have been tempted to join a readalong or two. Thanks to a $2.99 kindle deal, there will be no excuses next time. It might make a great summer read, but I'm not ready to tackle another book this long just yet.

by Marina Arbetman Rabinowitz and Linda Kern Hayon 
Since I'm trying really hard to stick to the TBR Dare, cookbooks seem like the safest thing to bring home from the library.


Watching movies is a favorite rainy day activity, and we had plenty of opportunities last week. I listened to Colm Toibin's novel back in 2009 and the film perfectly captures the quiet tone of the book... I loved it

We saw a preview for My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 before Brooklyn and decided to refresh our memory of the original.. just as funny as I remembered.

Based on the novel An American Tragedy  by Theodore Dreiser (which I loved), I've been looking for this movie since I read the book in 2014 and finally found it on the shelf of the local library. The movie was good, not great. I might have had a hard time following it if I didn't already know the story, but I did enjoy watching a young Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters.

In the kitchen//
Two new recipes this week, both winners:
Beef, Tomato and Acini di Pepe Soup from Skinnytaste
Chicken Enchilada Empanadas from Cooking for Keeps

On the Blog//
Review: The Girls of Atomic City  by Denise Kiernan
Planning Ahead: My TBR Dare Reading List

Later today//
A trip to the farmers market is next on the agenda, then my FIL will join us for dinner. Tonight I'll be watching the latest episode of Downton Abbey and maybe, just maybe, I'll finish City on Fire, too. Wish me luck!

How was your week? What are you reading today?

This post will link to It's Monday, What Are You Reading? hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
by Denise Kiernan
narrated by Cassandra Campbell
Audible Studios, 2013
12 hours and 51 minutes
source: purchased

Summary (from IndieBound):
At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, and consumed more electricity than New York City, yet it was shrouded in such secrecy that it did not appear on any map. Thousands of civilians, many of them young women from small towns across the U.S., were recruited to this secret city, enticed by the promise of solid wages and war-ending work. What were they actually "doing" there? Very few knew. The purpose of this mysterious government project was kept a secret from the outside world and from the majority of the residents themselves. Some wondered why, despite the constant work and round-the-clock activity in this makeshift town, did no tangible product of any kind ever seem to leave its guarded gates? The women who kept this town running would find out at the end of the war, when Oak Ridge's secret was revealed and changed the world forever.

Drawing from the voices and experiences of the women who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, The Girls of Atomic City  rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of World War II from obscurity. Denise Kiernan captures the spirit of the times through these women: their pluck, their desire to contribute, and their enduring courage. "A phenomenal story," and Publishers Weekly  called it an "intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history."

My thoughts:

The Girls of Atomic City  is an interesting book covering a largely unfamiliar aspect of 20th century history. While I'd heard about The Manhattan Project and Los Alamos, NM, I did not realize that facilities in Oak Ridge, TN were not only instrumental in producing the atomic bomb, the entire city was created solely for that purpose.

Kiernan explores the history of Oak Ridge and development of the atomic bomb through the experiences of women who traveled to eastern Tennessee to "help end the war". These women were scientists, statisticians, nurses, machine operators, and custodians. Once in Oak Ridge, an air of secrecy prevailed. Workers knew their own jobs and nothing more. They were not privy to the overall goal or purpose of the facility. They were not allowed to talk about their work with anyone and letters home were heavily censored. In many ways, Oak Ridge can also be viewed as a social experiment of sorts.

The book started off slowly, but I became increasingly interested as the women were introduced. Overall, I enjoyed their personal stories much more than the technical workings of the plant. As I listened to the chapter recounting the day the first bomb was dropped, goosebumps covered my arms and tears filled my eyes.

As various agencies decide how to best commemorate (spin?) the role Oak Ridge played in the war, the official history remains unwritten. Thankfully, Ms. Kiernan was able to take advantage of many primary sources... an opportunity which is becoming increasingly precious as time passes.

This audiobook was narrated by Cassandra Campbell, a personal favorite. As always, her pitch-perfect delivery enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

My rating:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Planning Ahead: My TBR Dare Reading List

This is officially a freebie week for Top Ten Tuesday and I'm using the opportunity to plan my reading for the next couple of months. The TBR Triple Dog Dare is in full swing, so that means I'm reading from my shelf and from my kindle - no new books and no library books. (The library is actually the bigger temptation here in FL - our local branch is amazing!) I don't have many print books here so my shelf is somewhat limited, but my kindle more than makes up for that.

Here is the current list. As always, it may very well change tomorrow...

Reading Commitments

What Maisie Knew by Henry James 
February readalong

Jezebel's Daughter by Wilkie Collins 
review copy from Oxford World's Classics

Death with an Ocean View by Noreen Wald 
from NetGalley

On My Shelf

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

Them  by Joyce Carol Oates

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

On My Kindle
... and most likely to change tomorrow

by Kate Andersen Brower

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie

Have you read any of these books? I'll revisit this list in the spring to see where things stand. Wish me luck!


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