“The Most Valuable Substance on Earth” by Shashi Bhat (Grand Central)
In first grade, Nina has a crush on her English teacher.
This is how “The most precious substance on earth” begins. Author Shashi Bhat wastes no time with introductions or background because it’s all there in the universality of Nina’s hyper-specific experiences.
Nina quickly develops a fascination for the occult and other religions. Her parents may be Indian, but she’s deeply Canadian, eating Timbits and googling the Hindu gods and goddesses her parents worship. Meanwhile, her best friend, Amy, learns to spend her time with the boys and the weed.
When Nina finds herself in the classroom as a 9th grade teacher, there’s a clear parallel between high school and adulthood, both Battle Royales. Anyone can be an ally or an enemy under the right circumstances – a teacher, a friend, a parent, a student.
With the fluid suspense of a novel and the opening of a diary, Bhat’s writing is transporting as it pops from one major event to the next.
The vignettes reflect Nina’s growth through the writer’s voice and style. The first few chapters use brilliant metaphors and bits of context brimming with detail. Later chapters are direct, describing the bare facts of events and allowing the heartbreaking pain of mistakes, failures, and regrets to live between the lines of the text. It’s hard to say which feeling is the worst – or perhaps best captured – but the whole novel is deeply effective and moving.
Heightening the novel’s relatability, the setting has a still strong sense of time and place. Nina’s teenage years are so 90s it hurts. Bhat weaves together technological advances and cultural shifts as the novel moves from the 2000s to the 20s, the progression being a silent homage to the decades.
“The most precious substance on earth” is both profound and meaningless. True to life, there is no great morality. 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 hits
(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 a lot and catch up.
They all have problems. Daniel lied about the poor state of his acting career. Armann, owner of a multi-million dollar travel guide business, is a recovering drug addict. Gunnlaugur, an alcoholic lawyer who got away with rape, is obsessed with Helena. And she, an engineer at a tech start-up, mourns the death of her boyfriend and believes his so-called accident was actually murder.
At the opening of “Outside”, Ragnar Jonasson’s ninth thriller translated from the island into English, they gather in anticipation of partying in the capital, Reykjavik. However, Armann, the recognized leader of the group, changes plans at the last minute. They will go hunting ptarmigan in the desolate moors of Iceland, although most of them have little experience with firearms.
Armann checks the weather report before leaving, but as they trudge across the moors, barely a bird in sight, a blizzard is howling from the west, the snow is so deep they can only see a few feet away. in front of them. Using his guiding skills, he leads them to an abandoned hunting cabin, but once inside they discover they are not alone.
A man with a shotgun sits in the corner, a gun in his arms. No matter how hard they try, they can’t get him to say a single word.
Over the hours, the author gradually increases the tension. The occupants of the claustrophobic cabin have only their clothes for warmth. Their cell phones do not work. Either way, rescuers would never be able to reach them until the storm subsided.
And the armed stranger watches in silence – for hours – as the blizzard rages on.
The author alternates viewpoints, with each of the four friends taking turns as their stories unfold and they gradually discover that they may not be such good friends after all.
Jonasson and translator Victoria Cribb do a great job setting the scene, developing the characters, and keeping readers hooked with a tight, clean, dark style of prose.
“Someone,” said Helen prophetically, “is going to die before the end of this trip.”
This cover image published by Grand Central Publishing shows “The Most Precious Substance on Earth” by Shashi Bhat.