Friday, 7 February 2014

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

This is the second book I ever read on a Kindle. (The first was Deathless, but this digression seemed more at home here.) A friend very kindly lent me one of hers when I was on a trip last week, so I didn't have to deal with the extra weight that comes with packing a book for every day I'd be gone. And I am very grateful for the loan, not least for the great array of books she had on the Kindle, and which I've had great fun perusing.

But the actual experience of reading on a Kindle? Give me a book any day. (Except if I'm travelling. And, in this case, I'll read more off it, because there are books on there I want to read, and our local library is not great at SF/F. So, you know, I'm not dogmatic about it.)

But I missed the materiality of books so keenly while I was using the Kindle. It seems right that Ulysses has a different physical presence than does a slim little book like The Nothing That Is. My arm should be a little achy after I'm done a bout with it. It seems fitting. And the font, and the type size, and the smell - the Kindle flattens all that out. It makes what was once a varied experience into a consistent one. It's not hard to read a book on the Kindle, but I missed seeing the cover of the book, the weight of the book, the feel.

And it drove me crazy that it was difficult or impossible to find the page where the publication date was listed, which in one case led me to start a series in the middle because I could not figure out which book came first. It also makes it much more difficult to flip back a few pages to check on something you didn't quite catch the first time.

The experience isn't bad, but I came out of it both grateful for having had it for travelling, and glad to pick up a real book again when I got home.

So, what does this have to do with Angelmaker, other than that this was one of the first books I read on it? More than you might think. One of the threads running through this book is individual craftsmanship against mass production. The Ruskinite Order of Monks, dedicated at one point to creating machines of beauty that were literally unique, that were handcrafted, and made with love and care and attention, have been perverted, and are now monstrous echoes of what they once were.

This is a hard book to describe. It is rollicking, it is tense. It slips back and forth in time. Some of the book relates the adventures of the now almost-nonagenarian spy Edie, back in World War II, when she was part of an elite group, and was responsible for liberating a brilliant female scientist from the clutches of the Opium Khan, who had employed her to make a doomsday device. To protect the scientist, with whom she forms a very personal connection, she has to fight the Opium Khan all through Europe, time and time again.

In the present, Edie has set said doomsday device running, with the best of intentions, and has used Joe Spork, clockmaker, as her cat's-paw setting it in motion. Soon, little gold bees are flying around the globe, awakening other gold bees, and the governments of the world are fucking terrified. Joe is swept up in this, taken into custody by a branch of the government not beholden to any laws, which feels justified in taking any measures to do whatever they bloody well like.

But Joe is not just a mild-mannered clockmaker. Somewhere deep inside him sleeps the Joe who learned at the feet of his stylish gangster father, Mathew, who waged a spree with panache across Europe. Joe learned more than he knows, and with Polly, a supervillain in her own right by his side, and Edie, and Edie's absolutely wonderful blind dog Bastion by his side, he might just take the fight to them.

I am be a sucker for fictional dogs and cats, when they're written well. I adore Bastion.

This book is strange and funny and spooky and rollicking and serious. It uses the modern security state as the tool of Joe's enemies, and the ways in which government is perverted to serve the desires of whoever is pulling the strings is truly frightening.

And I have a weak spot for calls to arms, so when Joe calls on all the old criminals of London to come together for one huge assault, one with some derring-do, a few tears came to my eyes.

This book is crazy. It is all over the place. And yet it hangs together, better than I thought Harkaway's previous book The Gone Away World did. I enjoyed The Gone Away World even though I didn't think the story, in the end, quite jelled. This one did, and I loved it.

Even though I read it on the Kindle. And felt vaguely guilty, because this book, of all books, deserves the physical presence that print could give it.


  1. I really love your reviews Meagon. I posted a comment as Jennifer N on goodreads about a week ago and subscribed to your posts. First of all do you read a book a day? Like really? I'm just curious what is your words per minute reading speed? I can finish maybe two in a week so I really admire you. Additionally, it's not even just the books you read it's how well you can form a review and an opinion and really pull more out of it than I would just reading it from the surface. Thank you.

    Finallllly have you read this book

    If not would you please? I see you mention sf/f and this falls nicely in line with that as well as 70s feminism. I just would love to see what you would have to say about reading this book.

    <3 Jenny

    1. Thank you for the kind words! I don't read nearly as much as this blog makes it look I do - I'm in the process of moving all my Goodreads reviews over here, one a day, so it looks like I'm reading that much, but actually much less. Days I post two reviews on the blog, one of them is a new one. I usually read three or four books a week.

      I have read Woman on the Edge of Time! Last year at some point - the review I wrote at the time should still be on Goodreads, and will eventually make it over here to Smorgasbook. I quite enjoyed it.

  2. Hi Megan.
    I can sure relate to your issues with the kindle. Firstly let me say I do a lot of travelling with my job. I started using the kindle app on my i-pad about 3 years ago. I didn't really get used to it until after the first year but now I don’t mind it at all. One big drawback is you cannot easily lend a book to someone. The convenience of being able to carry a lot of books without sacrificing space and weight is well worth any comfort reading a real book may have. Plus you can order and download a book within seconds. I find I read a lot more now because it doesn’t involve a trip to a book store or lugging around a set of books in my luggage. I truly love going to bookstores when I have the time.
    I still miss the feel and the smell of a books and for favorite books I find myself buying a real copy and putting on my shelf. My wife thinks I am wasting money but I can’t help myself.

    1. I do like having my friend's kindle for travelling - it does make my luggage much more manageable! But when I'm at home, it's still books all the way. :)