Book Reviews: Back-To-School Novels

Alan Cheuse reviews two new novels set in schools. The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski is about a young woman attending a college in outer space. In The Fall They Come Back by Robert Bausch is about a young teacher beginning his career at a Virginia prep school.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Now that students are back to school, our book reviewer, Alan Cheuse, thinks readers should do the same. He likes a pair of new novels set in the classroom.

ALAN CHEUSE: The subject of "The Highest Frontier," Joan Slonczewski's novel, is higher education - literally higher. She sets her story in a university on a space hub called Frontera, 36,000 kilometers above the earth, nearly 100 years in the future. The novel opens at the beginning of a school year, a year in which Earth itself is threatened by an oddly mutating plant from outer space.

And as you might expect from a scientist/novelist, the book is filled with all sorts of technical innovations. Wealthy students have watchdog robots called DIRGs, Direct Intervention Robotic Guardians. And there's a worldwide communications system called Toy Box that makes the iPhone look like a Model-T Ford.

All of this in the story of Jenny Ramos Kennedy, a gifted high school athlete who's lost her genetically engineered twin brother and is trying to make the best of her first year at college. And wouldn't you know it, unlike most of our freshman years, this delightfully brilliant novel has the future of Earth hanging in the balance.

Robert Bausch's novel, "In the Fall They Come Back," takes place at a small private high school in northern Virginia during the Reagan presidency. Ben Jameson, in his 20s, has just taken his first teaching job. We discover along with him that education is a two-way street. From a group of rowdy, privileged, moody, bawdy, druggy, intense and some abused high school kids, Ben Jameson learns as much as he gives to them.

Robert Bausch's simple but never simplistic story pours off the page with a fluidity gained from decades of experience.

NORRIS: "In the Fall They Come Back" by Robert Bausch. We also heard about "The Highest Frontier" from Joan Slonczewski.

Our own Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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