First two books of the new year.
The Association of Small Bombs – Karan Mahajan
This is a complicated, if very good, novel. Beginning with a fictional terrorist bomb that explodes in a Delhi market in 1996, it follows the explosion’s effects on those it touched. That includes the men responsible for the attack, the parents of young brothers who died in the blast, their friend who survived and his family, and how the ripples of the attack eventually changed modern Indian society.
It’s about more than just the direct lines you can draw from the blast through the next decade, though. Mahajan pulls in the traditional divisions of India and adds them to the mix. The boys who die are Hindu. Their friend who lives is Muslim. While the families had been friendly for some time, the religious difference between them eventually becomes an issue. And Mansoor, the surviving boy, is slowly pulled from being a secular Muslim into the more religious world, where he contemplates taking action against the state. In Mansoor, we get a brief exploration into why Muslims who come from well-to-do families can be seduced into becoming terrorists.
This novel is very Indian. Mahajan throws in lots of Indian terms – from all regions, religions, and dialects – but does not offer the immediate translation we often get in novels. That can be distracting, as you either set the book aside to do a quick look-up of the term, or plow through using your assumed definition. And while not exhaustive, he does dive into the broad divisions in India, whether North vs South, Rural vs. City, Rich vs Poor, English speakers vs. Native Language speakers, India vs. Pakistan, or Hindu vs. Muslim vs. Christian. I think it helps to have a little knowledge of India’s history when you jump into this. Not that I have much, but I had enough to have a basic idea of the country’s structure and divisions.
The Association of Small Bombs was on many Best Of lists for 2016. It tackles tough issues, offers characters who are interesting and have depth, and is quite well written.
Mr. Mercedes – Stephen King.
Oh to be Stephen King. He is the Prince of the popular novel, cranking out a seemingly endless stream of books. He claimed he would retire when he finally finished The Dark Tower series. By my count he’s now published at least 12 new novels since then. Along with numerous short stories, comics, screenplays, and essays. So much for slowing down.
I was ready to give up on him. I read a couple of those early, post-Dark Tower books and didn’t really like them. I began ignoring his output. That is until 11/22/63 came out. It was so, so good and a reminder of what a great storyteller he is. Still, I didn’t plan on jumping back into his work.
That is until a combination of factors made me reconsider. Last year’s End of Watch got terrific reviews and ended up on a lot of Best Of lists. My brother in books, Dave V., added his praise for it. And I read a couple books last year that were clearly influenced by King: his son Joe Hill’s The Firefighter and Drew Magary’s The Hike. So I decided to go back a couple years and pick up the trilogy that End of Watch concludes.
I give Mr. Mercedes a solid B. It’s not one of King’s best novels, but it’s still very fun to read. It’s a solid story, full of creepy characters, graphic descriptions of violence and decay, pop culture references, and a fight between good and evil. As with most of his books, it sucked me in and kept me turning pages quickly. I wondered if this book, had he written it 20–30 years ago, might not be 650 pages long instead of just over 400. I appreciate his restraint. The most important aspect of the book is that it is the jumping off point for two more. I’m excited to see where he takes the characters who I expect repeat in the next two volumes.
- I suppose the difference is that King publishes everything he creates. We all know about the mythical vault on Prince’s estate that is filled with music the public has never heard. ↩