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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?

Selected Holiday Reading - The In-Betweeners Abroad

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