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by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & grew up in Chicago in a neighborhood laced with freight tracks and factories, where Natural Wonders had been almost entirely trampled. Still, I recall a night when a certain insomniac bookworm kid left his house at 2 in the morning and climbed to the very top of the very tallest factory in the neighborhood just because a TV weatherman said you could see the aurora borealis.

I bring this up only because Jim Lynch's funny and touching page-turner of a first novel, The Highest Tide, about an insomniac bookworm kid who sloshes around the tide flats during the wee hours, is going to massage any reader's natural wonder nerve as if it were a fabulous G-spot of memory.

Miles O'Malley is an engaging guide to being 13 and curious all over again as he spends a crazy summer out on the bays and tide flats at the southern extremity of Puget Sound.

The bay out front of the O'Malley place is a reeking, writhing broth of life and death. Miles, a marine biology geek who can quote Rachel Carson from memory, is making money this summer selling prosaic creatures to restaurants and exotic creatures to aquariums.

He hangs out on the mud flats by day and paddles his kayak at night because he loves the bay and all its life. So when he finds weird things -- creatures from deep faraway waters or barnacle-encrusted hockey gloves -- Miles is turned into an unwitting sage by bored reporters who do cute features.

Suddenly, adults who don't take time to look around at the world listen to Miles' clear-eyed observations of strange things in the bay and bend them into mystical utterances.

Soon, all sorts of strange people are coming down for "miracle" mud wraps, and are following Miles as he digs for clams; tip-toeing so as not to step on any sand dollars and straining to not miss any pearls of wisdom from a boy they see as a pint-sized shaman.

It's a riot.

But it's frustrating for Miles. He's desperately in love with the troubled 19-year-old girl who used to be his baby sitter. He's a freak to kids his own age.

Lynch describes the sea life, as well as the ebb and flow of Miles' inner turmoil, vividly and crisply. You'd never guess that a reeking mud flat could be a place of such wonder and drama.

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