Book Talk: School provides a rich setting

Peter Critchley takes a look at books that may be set in schools, but are a long way from text book reads

A new school year will soon begin and many people, young and old alike, will hit the books. But not all school books are tomes as dry as dust. The school setting is a rich vein that many accomplished writers mine to produce a remarkable number of both fiction and non-fiction works.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy (2012) by Margaret Livesay is a captivating, original work that successfully reconstructs the classic Jane Eyre — no small feat by any means. A kindly uncle takes Gemma in after her parents die. But when her uncle dies, her aunt turns her into a scullery maid and strives to break her down. But Gemma works hard in school, earns a scholarship and eventually takes a position in the Orkneys, where she lives at the estate of the mysterious Sinclair and looks after his wild niece, Nell.

The character of Gemma, like Jane, is both proud, principled and learns to expect the best of herself and to forgive the transgressions of others. But she is thoroughly modern and the story captures and sustains your attention to the final page.

Too Close to Home (2008), a thriller by Linwood Barclay, addresses how well we really know the people in our lives. The Langley family is murdered on a sultry summer night and the novel’s protagonist Jim Cutter, their neighbor, is drawn into the investigation when his son is mistakenly arrested for the crime. It is a terrific read full of false trails and shady characters and offers an entertaining glimpse into small town life and the connections among people, both good and bad.

For nonfiction aficionados Fortunate Sons (2011) is a gripping tale of 120 Chinese boys sent to America in 1872 to learn about a progressive and modern country. The boys attended the best schools in New England, meticulously described by authors Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller. Fragments from diaries and correspondence reveal encounters the boys enjoyed with President Ulysses Grant and life in the same New England community as Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The boys eventually thrived, after China’s initial reluctance to accept the confident Americanized citizens. Their education, ambition and the bond they created during the cultural exchange propels them into high-profile government positions in China where they played an integral role in revolutionizing industry and international relations.

Without Mercy (2010) by best-selling author Lisa Jackson, is a cool thriller of mystery and dark romantic suspense that builds to a breath-taking ending. The protagonist, Jules Farentino, gets a job at an exclusive academy to help her 17-year-old sister Shaylee, sent to the school by court order. Jules runs into ex-lover Cooper Trent, hired to find a student who disappeared six months ago, and together they investigate the disappearance and a shocking crime spree that soon rocks the school, including the scary “suicide” strangulation of Shay’s roommate and the murder of her teaching assistant boyfriend.

The School of Night (2010), a wonderfully crafted historical thriller by Louis Bayard, smoothly shifts between present-day America and Elizabethan England. The author introduces us to the world of 16th-century scientist Thomas Harriot, Sir Walter Raleigh and a cadre of intellectuals called the School of Night. Henry Cavendish, a modern-day disgraced Elizabethan scholar, is ensnared in a legal and emotional wrangle after the apparent suicide of his friend Alonzo Wax, an accomplished and well-known bibliophile.

It appears Wax possessed a treasure map drafted by Harriot, and through flashbacks we discover a wealth of knowledge about Elizabethan England and a surprising side to Cavendish. He has failed in academia and romance yet he eventually conquers both arenas, an unlikely action hero to say the least.

These books, and many others that share similar themes and settings, are available at your Okanagan Regional Library; see

Peter Critchley is a librarian at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library whose column will be appearing regularly in The Morning Star.