“The Most Precious Substance on Earth” by Shashi Bhat (Grand Central)
As a freshman, Nina has a crush on her English teacher.
That’s how “The Most Precious Substance on Earth” begins. Author Shashi Bhat wastes no time with introductions or context because it’s all there in the universality of Nina’s hyper-specific experiences.
Nina soon develops a fascination with the occult and other religions. Her parents may be from India, but she’s Canadian to the core, eating Timbits and Googling the Hindu gods and goddesses her parents pray to. Meanwhile, her best friend, Amy, is learning how to occupy her time with boys and weed.
When Nina finds herself back in the classroom as a Grade 9 teacher, there’s a clear parallel between high school and adulthood, both dog-eat-dog Battle Royales. Anyone might be an ally or an enemy under the right circumstances — a teacher, a friend, a parent, a student.
With the smooth suspense of a novel and the openness of a journal, Bhat’s writing is transportive as it pops from one major event to the next.
The vignettes reflect Nina’s growth through the writer’s voice and style. Early chapters use funky metaphors and chunks of context overflowing with detail. Later chapters are blunt, describing bare facts of events and allowing the gut-wrenching sorrow of mistakes, failures and regrets to live between the lines of the text. It’s tough to tell which is a worse feeling — or perhaps better captured — but the entire novel is deeply effective and moving.
Intensifying the novel’s relatability, the setting has a consistently strong sense of time and place. Nina’s teen years are so ’90s it hurts. Bhat weaves in technological advances and cultural shifts as the novel rolls from the 2000s to the ’20s, the progression a quiet homage to the decades.
“The Most Precious Substance on Earth” is both profound and meaningless. True to life, there is no great moral. The book is neither tragic nor triumphant. Baht’s novel is a slice of life that will either ring eerily true, or be a highly educational experience in empathy.
“Outside” by Ragnar Jonasson (Minotaur): A hunting trip turns deadly when a blizzard strikes
(AP) It’s reunion week in Iceland for Daniel, Armann, Gunnlaugur, and Helena, who were tight in college and like to get together every year or so to drink heavily and catch up.
They all have issues. Daniel has been lying about how poorly his acting career is going. Armann, owner of a multi-million-dollar travel-guide business, is a recovering drug addict. Gunnlaugur, an alcoholic lawyer who once got away with rape, is obsessed with Helena. And she, an engineer at a tech startup, is mourning the death of her boyfriend and thinks his so-called accident was actually a murder.
As “Outside” — Ragnar Jonasson’s ninth thriller translated from Islandic to English — opens, they gather expecting to party in the capital city of Reykjavik. However, Armann, the acknowledged leader of the group, makes a last-minute change of plans. They will go ptarmigan hunting on the desolate moors of Iceland, even though most of them have scant experience with guns.
Armann checks the weather report before they set out, but as they trudge across the moors, nary a bird in sight, a blizzard screams out of the west, the snow so thick that they can see only a few feet in front of them. With his skills as a guide, he leads them to a derelict hunting cabin, but once inside, they discover they are not alone.
A man with a shotgun sits in a corner, a gun cradled in his arms. No matter how hard they try, can’t get him to speak a single word.
As the hours crawl by, the author gradually builds the tension. The occupants of the claustrophobic cabin have nothing but their clothes to keep them warm. Their cell phones aren’t working. Rescuers could never reach them anyway until the storm subsides.
And the armed stranger just stares in silence — for hours — as the blizzard rages.
The author alternates points of view, each of the four friends taking turns as their backstories are revealed and as they gradually discover that maybe they aren’t such great friends after all.
Jonasson and translator Victoria Cribb do a fine job of setting the scene, developing the characters, and keeping readers in suspense with a tight, clean, noir prose style.
“Somebody,” Helene says prophetically, “is going to end up dead before this trip is over.”