The #WritersRead prompt for September was: a book I wished I’d read in school. I’ve written before about books I’d like to see on high school reading lists. It’s a subject I’m passionate about, so I was determined to read something I really, really wished had been recommended back when I was in school.
When I researched current high school reading recommendations, I was pleasantly surprised to find a more diverse list than what I’d expected. Although there were titles I’d replace (ugh, Nathaniel Hawthorne, I both love and hate you), there were several exciting choices. I’d just about settled on The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela when a title farther down caught my eye—A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute.
I was born in Australia but attended high school in the United States. My knowledge of Australian history and culture, therefore, has gaps. I grabbed a copy of Alice from the Free Library of Philadelphia and started to read. Half an hour later, the app I use to read library books posted an alert: The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg was ready for me to borrow.
I adore Bill Konigsberg’s books. His message never crowds out the story and the stories are always packed with emotion I can feel. I love his characters and his words. I clicked on borrow and set The Bridge aside to read when I was done with Alice.
I’ll talk more about A Town Like Alice below, but for now, I’ll simply say it’s a wonderful book. I’m glad I didn’t read it in school because I wouldn’t have appreciated the story as much as I did now, as a woman who has largely made her own way, despite men often thinking they knew what was best for me.
The book I really, really wished I’d read in school is The Bridge.
The Bridge could have been too heavy to contemplate. The story is about two teens who meet on the George Washington Bridge on the day both of them have decided that life isn’t worth living. The plot then explores several realities from that point. One jumps, the other jumps, they both jump, neither of them jumps. When I realized this—about a third of the way through the book, I was kind of bowled over. No, I hadn’t read the cover copy before I started. The book was by one of my favorite authors. I quite often pick up books by my favorites and dive in without any preparation. It’s an interesting way to read.
The Bridge is simultaneously one of the saddest and yet most joyful books I’ve ever read. I cried for these kids, but I also laughed with them. I felt their pain, and that of their siblings, parents, and friends. I heard their voices. They weren’t just telling me their story, though. They were telling me mine.
I’ve never felt so lost that I went looking for a bridge, but I do know what it’s like to believe you’re not enough, and never will be. I don’t know if that’s an adolescent thing? I’m thinking not, because as an adult with a creative career, I’m faced with the question of “Is it enough?” every time I finish writing something.
I might not have appreciated The Bridge as fully back when I was in school as I do now. It may have been too close or too real. But I think it’s an important book and one that should be read. Not simply because it shows understanding and compassion, or for the solutions one might find between the pages, but for the exploration of how suicide affects those who are left behind. The friends, but also the parents—which brings me to my final note.
Aaron’s father, Michael, is a wonderful, wonderful character. While I empathized with Tillie’s mom, Michael captured my heart. I loved his involvement with MKP and how his brothers supported him through every eventuality. It was just so healthy and an absolute pleasure to read.
Other Notable Reads from August and September
Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues
This was my pick for August’s theme, which was: a short story magazine or anthology. The stand-out stories in this collection were:
- “Seeds” by Carol Berg – set in the world of her Sanctuary Duet with a character from the Lighthouse Duet.
- “Troll Trouble” by Richard Lee Byers – good old-fashioned fun.
- “A Length of Cherrywood” by Peter Orullian – for the character, Jastain J’Vache. As the author states in his intro, this story isn’t a romp and but he’s wrong about the lack of charming villainy.
- “Sun and Steel” by Jon Sprunk – Jirom is one of my favourite characters in the Book of the Black Earth series.
There were many more worthy stories in the collection from worlds the authors have written in before. These will be appreciated by existing fans—which is why fantasy anthologies are awesome. I have at least one new author to try. I count that as a win, even if my TBR pile does not.
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
Due to my habit of sometimes not reading the cover copy, I thought this was going to be about the history of Alice Springs. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Jean does visit Alice Springs, briefly, but the title is in reference to the project she embarks on later in the story.
The first part covers the years Jean spent as a Japanese prisoner (during WWII) marched with a band of thirty-two women and children from one end of Malaya to the other. Along the way, she meets Joe Harman, an Australian soldier who risks his life to procure supplies for the starving women. Years later, upon learning he survived the war, she travels to Australia to find him.
Jean’s life is one of amazing courage and entrepreneurship. Several times while reading, I’d have to stop myself from checking to see whether or not she’d been a real person. As it turned out, the beginning of her journey was inspired by a story told to Shute by Carry Geysel, whom the author met while visiting Sumatra in 1949.
While I loved the romantic aspect of this book—it’s truly wonderful—the part I loved even more was Jean’s ability to get things done. She saw a problem, and she fixed it. Framed by the narration of the solicitor overseeing the inheritance she wasn’t to be trusted with because of her gender, the story proves that Jean, as a woman, was more than capable and blessed with boundless imagination. She didn’t waste time being frustrated by her place in the world. She simply did it anyway.
Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
It’s been years since I read Anne Tyler and I’m not sure why I stopped. Maybe because she’s so reliable, I figured she’d always be there. Tyler has a way of making every book about you, personally, and Redhead is no exception. Micah is the sort of character I’ll always love. He’s quirky, particular, and one might even say aimless. But he’s happy that way—or thinks he is.
Even before I reached middle age, I loved stories about this baffling period in the life of an adult. I think I found it comforting to know that while you might decide, somewhere in your twenties, that you’ve got it all figured out—you don’t.
Frozen Orbit by Patrick Chiles
I won a signed copy of Frozen Orbit through the Baen newsletter giveaway and was absolutely charmed by the personalized autograph by the author inside the front cover. I also actually read the back cover for this one, and it looked like something I’d enjoy.
Frozen Orbit was, in fact, amazing and I’m eager to read more from Chiles! It’s a superbly crafted near-future science fiction novel packed with experimental tech and ideas and written with a deep thoughtfulness that made it not only interesting but resonant. Highly recommended.
The White Plague by Frank Herbert
Those of you who have followed my blog for a while will know that Dune is one of my favourite books. When I reread it about ten years ago, Dune displaced Robert Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strangle Land from the top spot. I haven’t updated my list since reading Dan Simmons’s Hyperion and would be hard-pressed to choose between that and Dune. The really interesting thing, though, is that I’ve only ever read TWO books by Frank Herbert. I’ve read at least a dozen of Heinlein’s and over half a dozen from Simmons.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that when The White Plague popped up either on sale or as an Audible Daily Deal, I snapped it up.
Listening to this during a pandemic was interesting—which is something I could say about many of the books I’ve read or listened to this year. It always takes me a while to move past the weird sense of dissonance where the book feels too real.
What I enjoyed most about The White Plague was how very different it was from Dune. I also liked the approach Herbert took to a story about the end of the world. I’ve read a lot of apocalyptic fiction and the books very often cover the same ground. The White Plague skipped much of the usual panic and early response, instead narrowing in on the space where things were dire but might still be fixed.
More than a story of the apocalypse, however, The White Plague is a chilling portrait of insanity that’s not limited to a single individual. It’s a brilliant book and I’m looking forward to reading more outside of the Dune universe.
Don’t Read the Comments by Eric Smith – I kept wanting to take a break from reading to play video games! I also wanted to play Reclaim the Sun. Cute and super contemporary. I stayed up late last night to finish.
Code Zero by Jonathan Maberry – Dark. I almost don’t want to read the next book. (But I will.)
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