#BookReview ‘City on Fire’ by Garth Risk Hallberg. How Long Was My Novel.

City on Fire, Kindle by Gareth Risk Hallberg
City on Fire, Kindle by Garth Risk Hallberg

Title:  City on Fire
Author:   Garth Risk Hallberg
ISBN:  0385353774

Published:  E-book version due on 22nd October, although available in paperback
Pages:  944
Genre:  Contemporary Fiction, urban

Body of review: 

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. How Long Was My Novel.

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.

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hollberg Paperback
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg Paperback

Realistic Characterization: 3.5/5
Made Me Think: 4/5
Overall enjoyment: 3.5/5
Readability: 3/5
Recommended: 3/5
Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Buy it at:  Amazon
Format & Pricing:
Paperback:  $13.40 

Hardback: $18 
Kindle: $11.47 

Audio: $16.93 

 Olga Núñez Miret





Author: olganm

I am a language teacher, writer, bookworm, and collaborator at Sants 3 Ràdio (a local radio station in Barcelona, where I returned in 2018), who lived in the UK for 25 years and worked for many years as a forensic psychiatrist there. I also have a Ph.D. in American Literature and an MSc in Criminology. I started publishing my stories, in English and Spanish, in 2012 and now have over twenty books available in a variety of genres, a blog (in English and Spanish), and translate books for other authors (English-Spanish and vice versa). In 2020 obtained the CELTA certificate as a language teacher, and offer Spanish and English classes. Writers and readers both in English and Spanish are my friends, colleagues, and allies, and after living in the UK for over twenty-five years, have returned home, to Barcelona, Spain, searching for inspiration for my stories. I also love owls and try to keep fit following fitness YouTube videos. Do feel free to connect with me. Here are: My website/blog: http://OlgaNM.wordpress.com

11 thoughts on “#BookReview ‘City on Fire’ by Garth Risk Hallberg. How Long Was My Novel.”

  1. Thank you Olga. At 944 pages, you put a lot of work into this review. I love long books — when I’m enjoying the book. A lot of fantasy books are quite long. However, I do not like confusing books of any genre or length. Shifting point-of-view can be extremely confusing, even when told in third person. I believe the transition needs to be clear — obvious. And I think it should follow a pattern (such as placing it at the end of each chapter). Thanks again, and hugs!


    1. Thanks Teagan. I didn’t find the book confusing, although I wasn’t sure what the point of telling the story in the way it’s told was (yest, it builds up to the blackout, but still…). I can understand why world building could take many pages, but… It has got wonderful reviews and also some pretty bad ones. I did consider abandoning the book because I’ve come to a point in my life when I’ve decided life it’s too short, but I was curious to see if there would be a major change…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like an honest review. Thanks for this. I don’t mind working out details of a story while reading, but I must enjoy it. Given your pros and cons, had I the time, I might be tempted to still read this novel.
    😀 😆


                1. Right now I’m not sure I’ll manage. But they don’t have quotas or time limit on reading…I think once (if I ever) finish my backlog (not all, but the ones I had committed to reviewing), I might only review for the groups…

                  Liked by 1 person

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