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City of the Falling Sky by Joseph Evans

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This book has a triple distinction of, for me, quite significant... er, significance. Permit me to elaborate.
  1. It is the first book I’ve read by a person who was a friend before they wrote it rather than a person who became a friend because they wrote a book. Joe and I worked together for Gedin knows how many years as booksellers, and was the only person who actually wanted (and liked) to arrange the Tokyopop alphabetically by series. Little did I know he was secretly nursing a creative spark*. I made a vague promise years ago that I would get round to reading it, with the caveat that it would be as soon as I owned an electronic device capable of downloading it, unlikely given the collective ambivalence expressed by fellow booksellers to the new Sony E-Reader the shop was then stocking (although clearly not shared by Joe, considering this, his first book, now has over 50,000 downloads). This is also consideration number one for readers of this review.
  2. It is the first teenage / adult cross-over novel I have willingly chosen to read since I read The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett when I was ten. This includes The Radleys by Matt Haig, which, as my readers will know was an accident. As such, it needed to be reviewed with this in mind, and the review read with this as consideration number two.
  3. It is the first book I have ever downloaded onto my very own electronic reading device.

I did wonder if the earth would shake at this point in my narrative; whether walls would tumble and sea defences collapse with the force of the maelstrom-driven seas. Of course, life went on as before, and the curious feelings of guilt that I harboured over a secret desire to own a Kindle... remained. Of course they did. I hadn't spent 14 years of my professional life (meaning by Gladwell’s**** criteria I was an expert bookseller two times over) jealously guarding paper’s dominion over the dissemination of information, only for a random (but absolutely fantastic) birthday present to change my mind.  It was a most unwelcome reminder that I am in conflict with myself, in thrall to technology whilst also a grotesque, self-indulgent Luddite at heart.

Shamefully, this cognitive dissonance lasted about two hours, by which time I’d downloaded not only (as promised) City of the Falling Sky but 60 additional, mostly free, e-books. I am a filthy, filthy bitch.

Nonetheless, I had made a solemn (if, perhaps in keeping with the epic nature of this review thus far, rash) promise to read Joe’s book as soon as I had crossed this particular line, so I began. I didn't think it began well. The prologue, about Seckry’s past and forming part of a recurring dream later in the novel, felt loose, childish and was off-putting. I had clearly and immediately forgotten my own context. So I pressed on chagrined. About 36 hours later, I had finished.

This is not a slim book with huge font and giant spacing - it is nearly 400 pages long. I did not read for 36 hours straight, although I was tempted to, for a few different reasons (including but not exclusively novelty value). I did, however, quickly buy into the plot, learn to enjoy Joe’s simple but pleasing style, and come to anticipate the next chapter, the next page, the next button press. Seckry’s transformation from country mouse to city slicker, from novice to master (at the remarkable and frankly exciting interactive first-person alternative reality game called Friction) is beguiling and addictive. I’d read some of the hormonal teenage adulation on various websites but was still somewhat unprepared for what I was reading. This was good. It moved quickly (perhaps too quickly in places but maybe that’s just me), read well and none of the characters felt superfluous or tacked-on as obvious plot devices. The author has put some serious work into developing a supporting cast of whom much could be made in sequels. Of course, this similarity to the Harry Potter novels is not the only one, seeing as it appears to be one of Joe’s formative influences. The eye-rolling character names betray an homage to characters like Dumbledore and Hagrid, even if the bad guy (no spoilers here, sorry) has a more futuristic moniker. But putting this anti-Rowling prejudice of mine aside, I will admit that until very near the end I didn't spot the twist, the paradox that could have a 14 year-old’s mind swimming around in the primordial soup of his or her burgeoning intellect.

Joe has done something remarkable with this book, both in terms of the creative effort (and result) and with his own near tireless pursuit of mainstream acceptance for a story he was told wouldn't sell (or at least enough for the big houses). Over 50,000 downloads and counting, several weeks in the top-sellers chart at Waterstones Cardiff (despite it being £9.99 in paper format) and for a so-called vanity publication none of the aggressive sales techniques pursued by other “writers” to be found stalking Twitter in search of favourable reviewers to act ostensibly as objective mouthpieces. Joe’s naturally well-mannered and somewhat publicity-shy demeanour (unless he’s had a few dozen riojas – just messing with you Joe!) does not push to the shadows a steely determination to explore his creativity and to share his talents – politely of course.

You may think I'm being polite myself*****, or doing a mate a favour, but I honestly believe Joseph Evans has talent, sufficient in my opinion to get his next book on someone’s lead list for Christmas. Kudos, Joe, you've done a fabulous job chap.

 *Actually, this is an artistic falsehood**. He told me all the time (I tried to get the chaps at Random House interested in his proof copy to no avail – they were working on a book with a similar premise which they were unwilling to undermine***), and also wrote music for computer games and art projects, amongst other sidelines. He was also one of my favourite reviewers on two of the three Guardian First Book Award judging panels over which I presided, with a charming yet self-aware naivety and strong artistic convictions, even then.

**That’s a posh lie for arty twats.

***Publisher bullshit.

****Of course it’s not Malcolm Gladwell’s opinion, but he did write a rather good book about it.

***** I'm definitely not. I don’t even warrant a small, respectful mention in the acknowledgements after all I did for him. Bastard.


How's about that then?

A Death In The Family: My Struggle Volume 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I sit here, wearing my limited edition Knausgaard t-shirt, immensely grateful to the kind people at Vintage Books for their surprising gift of the first four novels (and aforementioned t-shirt) simply as a result of being able to post a comment on their YouTube Vlog. There may have been a hidden agenda, considering I'm a book blogger (What, interrobang, a book blogger, interrobang and so on...) but I prefer to believe they picked me at random. Because I'm ace. 
Nonetheless, I had no idea what to expect of these books. I did do a little reading, and found lots of very interesting articles about Karl Ove Knausgaard, including this entertaining one in the Wall Street Journal. But in all honesty, nothing prepared me for reading them, and I can see why they cause controversy and consternation wherever they are translated (which is pretty much everywhere).
First off, being intelligent and perspicacious readers as I trust you all to be, you will no doubt have spotted the whole Godwin&#…

A Bright Moon For Fools by Jasper Gibson

Ah, what would be a review penned by yours truly without some sort of grovelling apology at the outset? A better review no doubt, but that aside I can't help but continue the tiresome tradition with an apology. Sorry to my regular robotic readers (hi bots!) but I have been very neglectful of the blog of late, having been tied up with my pursuit of a broader spectrum of dilettantism; I've been taking part in a number of MOOCs offered by various HEIs on the FutureLearn platform. Worth checking out if you ask me.

(Subtle enough plug, you think?)
Anyway, the break afforded by a foray into further education has proved something of a test for Jasper Gibson and his fiction. In truth, it took me a little while to remember what exactly the novel was about, who was in it, and how I felt about the whole thing. Instant alarm bells. Of course, having had a break, I'd had a good crack at filling my head with a whole bunch of other things worth remembering, so maybe it all just got squeeze…

Open Door by Iosi Havilio

*Shame Klaxon*
I am ashamed to admit it but I know next to nothing about Borges. I know the names of his books. I know he crops up almost without fail when conversations include literature from South America. I know his words book-end so many novels that I have that habitual proving-my-bold-assertion-mind-blankness which means my brain knows it to be true and won't humour your scepticism with an example*. And I know it's likely the biggest single lacuna in my entire reading history**.
So you may imagine my lack of surprise, on finishing this novel and reading the afterword by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, and author of works on the history and politics of Latin America, that Borges pops up, within three lines of text. Three lines! He wastes no time does Oscar. Of course, my shame bristled and I was ready to adopt the usual casual hostility to something of which I was ignorant. But straight away, I understood what he was saying. I have often consid…

UnAmerican Activities by James Miller

I don't think I was asked to honour the old convention that a freebie necessitates an honest if gently favourable review (at least I can find no written proof). I will however, name-check the generous (and possibly over-optimistic) @TheWorkshyFop, editorial director of the independent British publisher, Dodo Ink, from whose proof boxes of new November lead titles this one arrived. Thank you, sir!
I recall James Miller, specifically Lost Boys, from the dim and distant past. It may have been a commission for Waterstones Books Quarterly, or perhaps I was doing a solid for the Little, Brown sales rep. Regardless, I remember nothing about the book except being underwhelmed. From reading old reviews, it seems it had the coat-tails of the contemporaneous zeitgeist in its teeth, but one slightly savage Guardian review* points out it was pretty badly done. This might explain why I remember very little, perhaps proving Auden's assertion that, "some books are undeservedly forgotten; …