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"Dryland" by Sara Jaffe

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"Dryland" by Sara Jaffe
The strength of this novel arises from Sara Jaffe’s intimate treatment of her heroine’s painful self-questioning and doubt. Fifteen year-old Julie holds forth in Dryland; her just-awakening attractions and aversions play perfectly true. The somber, expect-the-worst tone of her monolog suits her situation perfectly. Julie is genuine and has kindness in her soul and we root for the best for her.

At story’s outset she misses her brother, nine years her senior, and purportedly living in Europe. His departure is wrapped in mystery for Julie, and at the newsstand she looks through swimming magazines for him pictures that might look like him - he was a notable athlete, a hero made of multiple school records and loads of trophies, some still displayed in the school lobby. It isn’t until she joins the swim team herself that her perspective begins to change.

This novel encompasses a passage for Julie. She tries to balance friends from different camps while still forging her own path. She grapples with her attraction to other students, and tries to make sense of her friend’s sometimes baffling crushes. This is the stuff of millions of young people’s lives, and Ms. Jaffe makes Julie’s journey special by couching it in unmistakable teen language. It’s a language built with rebellion, and an immanent maturity, but its largest ingredient is of course uncertainty. It all too clearly and accurately demonstrates that an adolescent’s life is brutally difficult.

The author keeps her descriptions to the bare minimum.
That and the young girl’s narration of her own process give the book a dream-like quality, but at the same time certain scenes have an indelibility that will stay with you. Swimming scenes are few, actually, and while I expected at least the possibility that competitive swimming would give Julie some transcendent moments, this is not the case. Julie is being born to everything. She needs to experience all the trials and triumphs first-hand, and experience these she does.

Dryland is soulful, honest work. It lives up to fiction’s highest calling: it is an accurate, sympathetic telling of a person’s progress through life. Take it up!

"The Nature of the Beast" by Louise Penny

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"The Nature of the Beast" by Louise Penny
In The Nature of the Beast, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sureté Québecois has become simply Monsieur Gamache, a retired officer. He has retreated to the remote and tiny village of Three Pines, Québec, but trouble soon follows him there. Louise Penny has worked more of her familiar magic in this entry, either the eleventh or twelfth entry in the Chief Inspector Gamache series, depending on your source.

As this story starts, a fanciful and attention-grabbing nine year-old announces to all and sundry at a local bistro that he has found a big gun, and it has a monster carved on its side. The boy Laurent is soon murdered because his observational skills are keen (though few believe him) and his big mouth cannot be subdued.

This is my first encounter with the Inspector Gamache series. He has been through the wars for his department, and the author’s fondness for her hero is evident. There are features of this story that weaken it, however. The murdered boy lacks the understanding that a responsible adult should really see the immense weapon hidden in the remote forest; that such a weapon could indeed be hidden for so long; that the Canadian intelligence service would perpetuate dangerous secrets at the expense of local citizens’ safety – all these plot factors placed a strain on my credulity, even as a fiction reader in good standing.

Be all that as it may, this mystery does contain the reasoning and deductive sequences which readers expect. And we can tell how much affection the author has for her hero, given the sympathetic portrayal. I have read a few mystery series in my time, and I can understand the attraction of Ms. Penny’s popular Inspector Gamache novels.