A load of short reviews

Its been ages since I looked back at the books I’ve read, so its time for a bit of a catch up.

Since the wonderful, The Hate You Gave by Angie Thomas, these are the books I’ve managed to read since.

The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean Paul Didi-Laurient

A short quirky french book. One you’d probabbly file under ‘charming’.  Hard to know what to say about it. First of all I really enjoyed it. Its about Guylain, a kind but lonely man who works in a place that pulps books – a job he hates. He rescues pages from time to time, and begins to read them on his commute to work the eponymous 6.27. There’s more to the story obviously, but you’ll have to read it to find out more.

Its about the power of words, and friendship and a love of books. Its beautifully written, and although short, you may find you want to slowly read in order to relish the writing

My Goodreads rating – 5 stars.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

A victorian fantasy/mystery/love story. Not a fantasy in the elves and magic genre, but more in the fact that it touchs on the mystical and folklore and the fantastical. Set in Essex and london, it tells the story of Cora Seaborne and her relationship with Reverend Ransome and his family.
With a supporting cast of villagers and well to do Londoners, the story skips along at a nice pace, with a story centred around a local tale of a sea serpent/dragon creature that frightens the locals and intrigues the scientest in our Hero Cora.

Lots to enjoy in this story plus a strikingly gorgeous cover for those that judge books by that kind of thing. I managed to get a hardback copy in a local charity shop for the grand price of €3

My Goodreads rating – 4 stars…bargain!!

Skintown by Ciaran McMenamin

Another charity shop bargain, this time for the miserly sum of €1. I read my first ever proof of a novel. Skintown is Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. Its a drink, drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll look back at a period of time towards the end of The Troubles. Lots of humour, and irreverence. Anyone with fond memories of the Rave scene may enjoy parts of the book, and it comes with a suggested Spotify playlist. Well worth checking out

My Goodreads rating 4 stars
The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1) by NK Jemison

Considering at one point I read almost entirely only fantasy or science fiction, I read very little now relatively speaking. Its great then to find something new in the genre. Jemison creates a world in constant flux, where natural forces (or are they Gods?) seem to be out to kill the population.

The world ends at the beginning. The story is told through the eyes of three different characters at three different points in time explaining the social starta that exists in ‘The Stillness’ (a slightly clucky name, but tbh that’s very much nitpicking.  One a young girl snatched from her family as she is a hated Orogenes who can control natural forces. Then there is Essun, whose husband has murdered her son and kidnapped her daughter. and Syen a young powerful orogene on a mission. Personal stories all part of a bigger story that spans the world and generation.

I’m kind of waiting for part 3 to come out before I get to part 2, as I’d really like to read them together and suspect part one is merely the introduction to a bigger story. Excellent start, looking forward to seeing what comes next. World building and interesting characters are at the heart of any good fantasy series. This one is guaranteed to leave you wanting more.

My Goodreads rating – 4 stars

If Then by Matthew De Abaitua

Another fantasy, of the science fiction variety. Set in a post apocolyptic future, an English town survives under the watch of a system of algorithims called The Process. Everyone is given a role, including James, who is the bailiff, that ensures the rules are adhered to. Then the process starts making soldiers. Why?

This is a book of ideas. Plenty of philospohical musing follows. Its a book of two halves. If, intruduces us to life under the process. Then looks at war, and I guess whether it can be avoided by studying what happened, why and the influences of certain people.

Its a hard one to review. I enjoyed it. Probably best read in long sittings rather than in bits. There’s plenty to think about and work out. Its an interesting thesis on the end of capitalism, and IF, we concede decision making to an AI, whether THEN we might lead to a more settled and better life. Draw your own conclusions.

My Goodreads ratings – 4 stars

Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

This was a monthly read for the Rick O’Shea Book Club which happens on Facebook and which I’ve been part of from early on. I’m kind of ashamed that it took being nominated as a monthly read for me to buy the book and read it. I got a nice hardback anniversary edition though in a second hand shop.

Anyway the book. I loved it. Still resonates strongly for me. The wall to wall mindless entertainment. The idea being perputated that we should live our lives in ignorance and not worry about having to think too much, that ideas are dangerous, let our betters look after us. Funnily enough, part of the themes of my previous read, ‘If Then’.

We live in a dangerous world. Ideas drive people to do terrible things, but equally ideas protect us from people that seek to do terrible things. We need to find the beauty in the everyday and the banal. We need to keep creating, and to fight against the tide of elitism. I think Bradbury would both love social media for how it can spread ideas, and baulk against the propoganda of mainstream media (of whatever flavour you care for), but would shudder at the steady stream of hatred and utter shite it manages to spew out each day too.

Overall though, I think he’d like the idea of ideas being set free and shared around the world.

The book is still powerful, and I would urge people to go read it.

Goodreads rating 5 stars

A Doubters Almanac by Ethan Canin

The story of a genious, or actually a family of genious’s..geneii? A great novel. Peppered with mathamatical equations, or references to equations or problems that I barely understood, but which did not take away from my enjoyment of this novel.

Its kind of in the style of John Irving which is a plus for me. Lots to enjoy in this. Plenty of humour and a great story.

Goodreads ratings – 4 stars

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

An Irish novelist writing about the American Indian wars and American Civil war, with some nods to Brokeback Mountain. The story of a young Irish lad from Sligo, impoverished in Ireland and impoverished in America, who joins the army, and goes to fight for land and for the freedom of slaves.

Its written in the venacular of the time (I assume), and it adds nicely to the dialogue in my opinion. The writing is wonderful. Language is to be enjoyed, and Barry uses it plenty of different ways. Misery in battle is particularly well written.  Some (in the ROSBC) haven’t found it an easy read but I had lots of praise for it.

Goodreads rating – 4 stars

Distress Signals by Katherine Ryan Howard

This was a quick read for me. Went through it a few hours. A good decent mystery, who a good ending. Satisfying read that will keep you hooked in throughout the book. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either. A good holiday read I guess.

Goodreads rating 3 stars

The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates by Des Ekin

Oh I was so disappointed in this. I read about it somewhere and sought it out in the library. Pirates from the Barbrary coast  came to Ireland and captured almost an entire village. Over 100 Irish people taken as slaves, with only 2 ever or see Ireland again.

I thought or hoped I was going to read their actual stories, but a lot of it was conjecture and surmising from contemporary accounts.

Maybe I’m being a bit hard. I found the writing style not to my liking, with the story padded out. It would have made a really interesting long magazine or newspaper report, but didn’t quite work as a book for me.  Some really interesting parts padded out with guesses. I couldn’t quite work out if he thought the captured villagers were subjected to a life of misery and drudgery, or a life of relative luxury.

I wouldn’t put anyone off it, as the story itself is interesting, but…

Goodreads rating – 2 stars

 

The Best of Adam Sharp – Graeme Simsion

I wanted to love this. I didn’t. I really liked half it. I was pushed about the other half. The bit I liked was the use of music and songs as plot devices, and connections to different parts of his life. How some songs were important and were linked to different events that happened to him. I thought it was going to be a decent take on the second chance romance, a bit of a rom com.

Then it got a bit silly I thought. I just couldn’t find the premise believable. I lost interest in the characters a bit. I couldn’t decide if I wanted them to hook up or not.

It was ok. Not great, not terrible. Bit of a mixed bag really.

Goodreads rating – 3 stars

The Forest of Hands and Teeth – Carrie Ryan

Who doesn’t love a good zombie novel? Well, I liked it, I didn’t love it.  The good. It was well written, atmospheric, good idea, and promises more to come from the sequels. The bad – few gaps or unanswered questions, that may be answered if I read the sequels. So who are the sisterhood? How the village come to be? Where do the other paths go? Why is Gabrielle different and who was she anyway? I think I might have preferred a longer novel that answered those questions rather than being left wondering if I should get the sequals.

Goodreads ratings – 3 stars

 

 

 

 

 

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The Hate U Give deserves a lot of love

I think I may have just read the Young Adult book of 2017. ‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas is arguably essential reading for anyone, but especially if looking for a something that spells out why ‘Black Lives Matter’.

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Starr is 16 and lives in the Ghetto, but also goes to a mainly white ‘good’ school in the suburbs. Her 2 lives are kept mostly seperate until she and lifelong friend Khalil are pulled over by a white police officer who then shoots Khalil.  The book goes on to explore the tensions within Starr’s own identity, her family life, the reaction of the poor and black community where she lives and the affluent white school she attends.

 

On one hand, it’s a tragic but uncomplicated event. Even making excuses for the police officer, the event is simply that an innocent boy is mistakenly shot by a  police officer misreading the boy’s actions.  In reality the impact is incredibly complex, and Thomas’ book captures this wonderfully. The police force covers up for the officer. Media reports the event using coded language, and the local community & wider society react accordingly. Starr is traumatised and caught between her conflicting identities, causing her to confront the good and bad of how she presents herself.

 

Angie Thomas has created a beautiful and authentic voice in Starr Carter. I was on the verge of tears for large parts of the novel. Large parts are intense, hooking you into Starr’s world the way only a good book can. At other times I was laughing freely or swaying from anger to dismay.  This book grabs hold of your emotions early on and gives them a good seeing to.

 

Anyone that pays even a cursory attention to news in America over the last few months can’t help but be aware of the number of cases where black people, including minors or children, have been shot by police officers. None of which appear to have to answer for their actions, or where investigations have happened, have not been found to have acted either illegally or even disproportionaly. Many of these events have led to protests and the growth of the tagline Black Lives Matter.

 

On a personal level, when I read such reports, my reactions are normally shock, sadness, anger and disbelief. When you read the reports, or watch videos, it seems impossible to not at least have sympathy for the victim’s familes, and empathy with the anger of the communities they come from. I fail to understand anyone (or the news outlets) that tries to justify, what are on the face of things, unjustifiable actions.

 

Where THUG works for me, is to personalise why the Black Live Matter movement is important. Empathy will only get you so far. This book gives a great insight into the feelings that are happening. The loss felt, and the helplessness or frustration that follows. There is a scene where Starr’s dad is stopped and humilated by police that must provoke a reaction from every reader.

 

If the reaction you find yourself having after reading this book, is that Khalil deserved what he got, or still along the lines of ‘if black people just did what they police said?’, or ‘why do communities loot neighbourhoods?’ then chances are you’ll never change from that perspective unless personally experiencing it. No doubt there will be plenty of people that just don’t get this book, or the feelings it is trying to portray. They might try attach some meaning that’s not there. Maybe use the references to Tupac and ThugLife to paint an alternative narrative.  I feel sorry for those people.

 

YA often does big issues. When it does it well…eg 13 Reason Why, Asking For it, Nothing Tastes as Good, The Art of Being Normal, it is reason to celebrate and a great excuse to badger every young person (and adult) to get the book and think hard about the message.

 

The Life U Give has already recieved a lot of attention and will no doubt become a movie and hopefully become as big a sensation as other YA works like The Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars. For those that like to be ahead of the curve, I recommend getting on this one now before it gets huge – because it will.

 

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A Line Made By Walking, My Name is Lucy Barton and Autumn

Family, love, depression, belonging, post brexit Britain, art and beauty…Some of the themes found in my latest three reads

Some books don’t tell stories…sort of. A line Made By Walking is of that ilk. Its more an exploration or a portrait of depression, or someone having a breakdown. Its about art or beauty in the everyday or the mundane. I have to say, I didn’t enjoy it. That’s not to say it wasn’t good. I just found it something to admire rather than enjoy. Baume captures the atmosphere expertly. It’s gloomy and claustrophobic and stifling, sort of how I imagine depression can feel.line made bywalking

Its written in short bite sized bits. Each paragraph its own little stand alone piece of prose. And that’s where the admiration happens. She writes so well. Frankie the protagonist is an artist, with her eye on the world finding the beauty in the smallest  of moments. She’s not the most sympathetic of characters. She’s hard to like. But there’s a certain guilt in that, because you know she is struggling, but you kind of want to shake her out of her stupor. Not unlike living with someone with depression when it can be hard to not (unhelpfully) tell someone to snap out things.

A study of character. Something to admire, but I didn’t enjoy it. I accept I might be in the minority with that opinion though. I wouldn’t put someone off the book. My Goodreads ranking was 3 out of 5 stars, for the care and attention given to the writing. I would suggest reading it slowly, imbibing each bite size chapter and having a little think about each one before moving on. You have to be in the mood for that though.

lucy bartonMy Name is Lucy Barton is a much warmer book. Lucy is  in a hospital bed, being visited by her mother. Some of the same ground is covered, remininicing about childhood. Some sadness, isolation, poverty. But the main theme is love, or its absence, or the want of love. Its about a complex relationship between a mother and daughter that doesn’t appear to be loving, but has a deep unspoken love.

I have read one other Elizabeth Strout book, Olive Kitteridge, and I have to say she writes people so well. There are segments that just make you stop, then reread. Some of the emotions coming of the page are palpable, brooding even. Is Lucy unhappy, lonely, or happily married and moved on from her unhappy childhood.

Its a short read and an easy read, but unlike A line…its very much enjoyable.

Book three in this post also has a woman as the main character. Autumn by Ali Smith, is apparently the first of four books, to be named after each season. Its also set in a post-Brexit Britain, and judging by the few references, Smith is a remainer. The book is a nice short read, with likeable characters. There were a number of momentsAutumn_Hockney.jpg when I stopped to shout at the pages. “Yes! That’s bang on” or to have a good chuckle to myself, or to shake my head in sad agreement about the state of modern culture.

Its not just about modern Britain though. One of the characters Daniel Gluck is 101 years of age, and may or may not have had a romantic tryst with a little known artist caled Pauline Boty. The story moves about a bit. Its cynical and whimsical, and warm and wise. I can’t wait to find out what happens in the future instalments.

 

 

Are you John Irving in disguise? The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

I lost a weekend to John Boyne’s world of Cyril Avery – and I’m still not the better of it. I’m recovering from a book hangover of the best kind.

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The story is simple but complex. It is the life of Cyril Avery, from not long before his birth, to pretty soon before his death. It is the story of being gay in Ireland and the story of social change in Ireland, told from the 1940’s through to 2015. It is an emotional roller coaster.

If you have ever read The World According to Garp, or Prayer to Owen Meany, you will understand my reference in the title of the post. Boyne is channeling Irving in the best possible way. He stands the comparison well. It is up there with the best of his work.

Boyne starts angry. The opening lines will hook you and you won’t want to be let go. Cyril’s mother is denounced from the alter, physically kicked thrown out of the church and  basically run out of town. If in the opening chapter you find yourself defending the clergy or Cyril’s grandparents, then you probably need to stop reading there. If you think gay people are sick and perverted you should probably read on as you might learn something, but you’ll probably stop reading early on.

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After leaving her home town behind, Cyril’s mother heads off to Dublin on the bus where she begins her new life, with a grand plan in place that involves a hunchbacked old nun who will deliver Cyril to his adoptive parents.

What follows is the best part of 600 pages of tears and laughter. I know I swung from anger, to joy, to despair, and back again.  The dialogue is sharp and quirky. Cyril’s upbringing is unconventional, but mostly believable, if occasionally absurd. The near misses between Cyril and his birth mother will probably frustrate you.

I read the book over the last weekend, as the Tuam Baby story was dominating headlines in Ireland. So anger at religious organisations was already in my system. The sad thing for Ireland is that many of the attitudes expressed and described in the book, you feel, are not in anyway over-hyped.There are too many scandals for the reader to not believe any of the more outrageous event or conversations that happen in the book. The strict conservative shadow of the Catholic Church reached into every part of society in Ireland. The sharpest barbs in this book are drafted in the funniest dialogue. Mary Margaret Muffet is a great character and you can easily imagine taking part in the cringe-worthy conversation towards the end with his daughter in law’s parents.

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The object of Boyne’s contempt isn’t limited to the Catholic Church. Politicians and our general attitudes to women are the other principle targets. The occasional historical factual figure pops up, and some, like Charlie Haughey, get a bit of a shoeing.

Not all of the characters are drawn out or have depth to them. The modern segments aren’t maybe as good as the older ones. The book isn’t perfect, but it’s up there.

Overall I loved this book. First proper 5 star of the year. I was lucky in that I was able to just read for most of the weekend, so could get properly lost in Cyril. But in best book hangover traditions, I have no idea what to read next, although I do think I’ll be re-reading A Prayer to Owen Meany this year.

His Bloody Project – It’s bloody brilliant!

His Bloody Project by Graeme MacRae Burnet is not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit mixed with a legal drama about whether the perpetrator is found guilty or not. It got shortlisted for the Booker Prize and is one the best books I’ve read in a while.

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The story is set in  the late 1860’s in the Highlands of Scotland, a setting that is important and relevant in the context of the story. Young Roddy McRae committed the crime of murder. This isn’t in doubt, and we learn if very early on. The author tells us in a preface that he stumbled upon the story while doing some family history research, and that it was a quite the big deal of its time. The story is supposed to be written from the accused’s testimony, along with ‘genuine’ witness statements and newspaper reports of the trial.

The story is set in a croft in the Highlands of Scotland, barely a village, more a collection of tumbledown cottages where livestock are housed in the family home during the winter months. The crofters subsist in a life of poverty that was the lot of the Highland crofter, scratching a living at the whim of a local Laird.  The natural beauty of the geographical setting is in direct contrast to the ugliness of the poverty that existed, and the murder committed.

Its presented as a true story. I don’t know if it really is or not. I’ve done a quick Google to find out and I’ve come the conclusion that it’s not, but I have to admit. I’m not certain, and I’d be quite satisfied to find it is (although sad for the people involved). As I understand it, it is inspired by events that are true and that have similarities, but that don’t involve the people mentioned. I think there are events described in the telling that may have happened to the author’s anscestors, but the gist of the story is all fiction.

It probably helps to think of it as true. It’s not a very long book, so is quickly read. It engages and hold the readers throughout. It will play with your sympathies though. You will swing between verdicts, but the verdict for the book, is that it’s a winner and definitely one to recommend, especially if you are fond of an historical novel.

4 books read, 4 reviewed

Since I last wrote I’ve managed to complete 4 books, so I’ll do some brief reviews of  them here before I start number 5.

 

5-riversI started the month with a book I picked up on a weekend away in Liverpool. Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain by Barney Norris. Its the story of five separate lives that interconnect briefly around a single incident – a car accident in Salisbury. Judging the book by its cover, it had some decent reviews. Plus I hadn’t heard of it before…(see the paragraph below about Down Station), plus I used to live in Bournemouth so had visited Salisbury a few times back then.

The prologue is a bit of a red herring. It’s a bit of flowery prose about the five rivers that flow onto Salisbury Plain, tracing time from prehistory through to the modern era. It has nothing to do with the story other than (I’m guessing) as an analogy for the 5 people who’s lives flow separately but come together in a single moment that has it’s own story and tributaries.

The interconnectedness of people’s lives isn’t a new idea, but Barney Norris does it very well. He’s also a playwright so I can imagine the story working very well as a play or film. The characters are likeable, or at least interesting. I enjoyed the different stories (some more than others).   This is a fine read. It engages the reader, and should hold your attention right the way through. Recommended.
I moved back in time then to re-read a book I last read (I Think) about 30 years ago – The Diary of A Young Girl – by Anne Frank.  anne-frank
There’s something about how the world is at the moment that motivated me to revisit this well known work. When I read it first I was either a teen or in my early 20’s. Either way, I had forgotten much of the detail. Anne Frank in the early chapters isn’t the most likeable child. She comes across as quite vain, and full of herself. Turns out, in the case of her writing she had every right. I had forgotten how good her writing is. It’s easy for forget that she was 13 when she started and 15 by the end of the diary. I imagine after the war, people may have doubted it was written by someone so young. Her depth of understanding and articulation of her emotions and feelings towards her family are very surprising, and lift it beyond the general description of the claustrophobic life she lived for those years.

Beyond that the unwritten story is of course a vital reminder of the horrors of the time. The family’s eventual arrest and death of all but Anne’s father Otto a few weeks before the camp’s liberation a tragedy.  What strikes is the simple pleasures she lost, her desire to be a normal young person and the bravery of the people that helped the 8 people in the Anne Frank House. I don’t know if this is still essential reading in the school curriculum, but it certainly should be.

DOWN-STATION1.jpgWhether it’s because of the internet and having so much information ready to hand, or because if the shops I tend to browse in, I am increasingly finding I rarely ‘discover’ new books any more. I seem to have heard about or read about the new books I see in the shelves of my local Dubray Bookshop. So when I’m away I like to see if there is something I haven’t seen before. I’m returning to my trip to Liverpool where the local Waterstones 3 for 2 had be checking for something new. To my surprise I found Down Station by Simon Morden.

The story – a couple of groups of people are working in London’s underground network. Some sort of catastrophic event is happening. The world is on fire. The escape through a service door in a disused station and emerge in what turns out to a totally different world. The way back seems to disappear, along with it their way back. They’re not the first to come through into this world, from which there seems to be no return. They have to learn how to survive and who they can or cannot trust.

I enjoy fantasy and this is something a little different. It move along nice and briskly and has all the ingredients for a great series. I am looking forward to number 2, and learning more about the world of Down. If you like fantasy that isn’t Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, but that has an intriguing dusting of magic, then you’ll like this.

orphan-xFinally, a book that’s been in my TBR pile for a while now. I fancied what I hoped would be a straight forward thriller and wasn’t disappointed by Orphan X by Greg Hurwitz. It is what I hoped and is very enjoyable. I flew through it, and enjoyed it all.

Orphan X was literally an orphan taken and trained to be an assassin/spy/tool ah la Jason Bourne I guess. He eventually leaves the world of black ops, and becomes a sort of vigilante, man for hire…like a younger Equalizer. After he has sorted your problem, your payment is to pass on his number to one person that really needs his help. And from there he gets tied up in a conspiracy with all the thrills and spills you might expect.

This is the first in a series apparently, with number 2 (The Nowwhere Man) currently available. I would expect to see a movie to go along with it too.

The Association of Small Bombs

A small bomb, in a busy Indian market. Among its victims are two young boys, among the survivors their friend. From there we look beyond the physical impact of the bomb to the emotional ‘collateral damage’ on the boy’s parents, Mansoor the survivor and Shockie the bomb maker and terrorist and some other supporting cast.

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This book by Karan Marhajan featured in many end of year lists for 2016, so I was really looking forward to reading it. I’m still not entirely sure how much I enjoyed it, or if I was giving it a ranking on Goodreads, what that might be.

Its not a very long novel, but I read it in two large chunks, separated by over a week, due to life impinging on reading time. Whether this impacted on my enjoyment of the book I’m not sure. I enjoyed it. Its wonderfully written. It held my attention. It just lacked a little something I think.

There are big themes. Is there any such thing as a small bomb? Taking one life or 1000 lives? Either is a huge event in the lives of so many people. What are the motivations of terrorists? This gets explored.

My take on it is that the author, even by the title, deliberately diminished the notion of a terrorist act as being something almost mundane (once the threat becomes almost normalised). The bomb is considered a small bomb. The type that gets very little coverage in the modern world. It all takes place in New Delhi, which maybe adds to this notion for western readers to whom bombs in the East don’t create the same social media outpouring of grief or empathy that terrorist attacks in Europe or North America do.

There is a sadness that runs through this book. Or thinking more about it, maybe its a weariness.The sadness of the Khurana’s is obvious. They lost their sons and struggle to come to terms with that, but there are other reasons for their sadness. Mansoor survives, but that has its own guilt and ramifications. Plus he is Muslim, a minority, and for some a possible suspect? Shockie, the bomb maker has his own demons. Throughout the book, it seems nobody is happy, or that happiness is only fleeting.  The ineptitude of the police and judicial forces, or the politicians merely add to the downbeat feeling.

The cultural, social and political context of New Dehli and India adds a layer and subtext to the book. There are I guess, nuances, that might be obvious to some or that I as a western reader have missed.

There are no big answers  to the big questions. Motivations for terrorism are not revealed, or at least not to me. There are individual reasons, fame, glory, ideological, political, revenge.

It seems to me after reading, that there are no small lives,  and therefore no small bombs.

I think this going to get 4 stars. 3 and half might be more accurate. The story is engaging. I  cared about Mansoor, and Ayub, a character in the second half. The parents (I’m guessing deliberately are less likeable).

A lot of care has been taken on the language. It is really well written. Its beautiful sad.

A sad book, doesn’t mean a bad book. The Association of Small Bombs is well worth reading, just don’t expect to feel good about the world afterwords.