This week: a coming of age book on the high seas, a must-read crime novel, and a boy who hasn't spoken in over one year. Plus: an absorbing biography of Charles Manson.
Tumbledown by Robert Boswell (Graywolf) - This is a crowded, tender, and captivating novel, the experience of which brings to the fore how reading itself can replenish our love of the imperfect beauty of humanity. Boswell spins an elaborate web of characters, and once the initial effort of keeping them straight subsides, the reward of knowing them is especially rich. Therapist James Candler works with young adults of various psychological diagnoses and mental limitations while struggling with his own life. Yet it is the constellation of people around him that makes the book’s development so fascinating. When Lise was a client of James’s, she was a stripper. Unbeknownst to James, when he moves to San Diego, Lise follows, reinventing herself with him in sight and hoping for love.
The Rathbones by Janice Clark (Doubleday) - A teenager comes of age and grapples with the heavy burdens of family secrets against the backdrop of the 19th-century New England whaling industry in this beautifully written, playful, and intricate debut novel. Fifteen-year-old Mercy Rathbone’s father, a whaler, has been away from home for nearly a decade, but Mercy holds out hope for his return. She happens to witness her mother coupling with a stranger, a scene that prompts Mercy and her cousin Mordecai to flee their home in panic. They embark on a journey of discovery that leads her to the truth about her missing brother and the rest of her family.
The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky (Candlewick) - Blending mystery with coming-of-age themes, Dubosarsky’s novel, set in 1967 at an Australian all-girls school, explores a class’s response to the unexplained disappearance of their teacher. Miss Renshaw, lover of poetry and hater of capital punishment, takes her group of 11 “little girls” on a field trip to visit a public memorial garden and “think about death.” There they meet an odd groundskeeper named Morgan, who leads them into a cave to see ancient Aboriginal paintings. The girls exit safely, but Miss Renshaw and Morgan do not reappear, and the girls return to school as the tide sweeps in. The incident, later reported to authorities, bonds the girls as each faces bewilderment, guilt, and grief when it becomes clear their teacher will not likely return.
Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn (Simon & Schuster) - The notorious mastermind of the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders emerges as an all-American ghoul in this riveting biography. Journalist Guinn (Go Down Together: The True Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde) tells how an ex-con distilled California's effervescing counterculture into the Manson Family freak show, recruiting a following of rootless teen waifs who worshipped him as Jesus Christ and did his bidding without question, whether in LSD-fueled orgies or killing sprees. Guinn's portrait is an absorbing true crime saga and a searching exploration of the anomie, broken homes, and crazed hopes that led lost souls to mistake Manson for the answer to their prayers.
Telling Our Way to the Sea: A Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez by Aaron Hirsh (FSG) - “We go in search of wilderness, and so it is wilderness we find,” biologist Hirsh writes in his wondrous nonfiction debut— a journey through the inlets and islands of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Accompanied by his wife, Veronica Volny (a biologist), and his friend Graham Burnett (a science historian), Hirsh guides a group of students through encounters with schools of damselfish, devil rays, fin whales, and other creatures. Hirsh delivers an important work about the power of place and the power of stories—scientific, historical, and personal—to shape our understanding of our world.
Listening for Lucca by Suzanne LaFleur (Random/Lamb) - At night, 13-year-old Siena has dreams about a house overlooking the ocean, as well as wartime imagery including plane crashes and sinking ships; scarier still, visions of the past are bleeding into Siena’s waking life. As a result, Siena has alienated her friends and taken to collecting abandoned objects. Meanwhile, Siena’s three-year-old brother, Lucca, hasn’t spoken in a year and a half, and her parents move the family from Brooklyn to Maine (into a house that resembles the one from Siena’s dreams) in hopes that both children’s behavior will return to normal.
A Crack in the Wall by Claudia Piñeiro, trans. from the Spanish by Miranda France (Bitter Lemon) - An old secret comes back to haunt 45-year-old Buenos Aires architect Pablo Simó in Argentinian author Piñeiro’s best crime novel yet. One day, an attractive woman of about 25, Leonor, stops by Simó’s office and asks him and his two coworkers, Borla and Marta, if they know Nelson Jara. Simó, Borla, and Marta are aware that Jara is dead, buried “under the concrete floor of the parking lot, exactly where they left him that night, three years ago,” but the three deny knowing him or his whereabouts.
Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers, and Rebels by Alissa Quart (New Press) - Veteran journalist Quart (Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child) focuses on individuals who “have created unusual, idiosyncratic identities” to tackle underrepresented issues and accomplish diverse goals. A perceptive, analytical reporter, Quart profiles a wide range of subjects: transgender activists, who “refuse the neat boxes of gender identity”; the “neurodiverse,” who try to redefine how people think about autism and normality in general; independent filmmakers and musicians, who eliminate middlemen by making and distributing their work themselves; animal-rights futurists who are attempting to create a “meat” product from animal cells in a process that harms no animals.
Brewster by Mark Slouka (Norton) - A simmering rage coupled with world-weary angst grip the four teenagers growing up as friends in Slouka’s (Lost Lake) hardscrabble novel, set in the small blue-collar town of Brewster, N.Y., where the author grew up. Jon Mosher—once a scholarship-winning high school track star, now a wistful, glum adult—narrates the group’s tragic experiences during the winter of 1968. Feeling alienated from his community and his parents, German-Jewish émigrés Sam and Vera, Jon first befriends the “erratic” Ray Cappiciano, who always looks banged up, supposedly from semipro middleweight boxing matches in out-of-town venues like the Bronx.
Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 by Brenda Wineapple (HarperCollins) - This lavish record of the eventful decades surrounding the Civil War explores a divided nation through the personalities of its growing and ideologically diversifying populace. Lincoln emerges as the iconic celebrity of the era’s central conflict, but the real stars are the supporting characters. Politicians, poets, slaves, slave holders, transcendentalists, Mormons, women’s suffragists, and Native American chiefs are just some of the colorful characters who run the gamut from “prolific and daring and conventional” to “spare and iron-willed” and “excessive and homegrown.”
Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon (Simon & Schuster) - Yoon’s slim, melancholy debut novel explores the somber life of Yohan, a North Korean soldier captured in the south during the Korean War. After the war, Yohan is given ocean passage to Brazil, where he becomes an apprentice to an aging Japanese tailor. Readers sympathetic to the trauma of losing one’s past and the isolation of displacement will be stirred.