A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin (YA)

A Corner of the Universe

Ann M. Martin (YA Fiction)

Hattie Owen lives in the third largest house in the small town of Millerton. Her grandparents live in the second largest. But unlike her Nana and Papa’s house, Hattie’s house isn’t filled with fancy furniture. It’s filled with boarders. Hattie doesn’t mind living with people who aren’t her family. What she does mind is living with secrets—one big secret especially. Hattie is about to find out that her mother has a younger brother, which means that she has another uncle. An uncle who, until recently, had been attending a “school” for the mentally disabled, but will now be moving back to Millerton to live with Nana and Papa.  Even though Hattie’s Uncle Adam is family, she realizes that she knows more about her parents’ boarders than her own flesh and blood, which begs the question, “If a person is kept a secret, is he real?” Hattie Owen is about to find out.

A 2003 Newbery Honor book, A Corner of the Universe covers so many complex and complicated topics, it’s really difficult to choose where to begin. Based on events in her own life, Ann M. Martin explores mental illness and the effects it has on both the individual and those around them. Twenty-year-old Adam Mercer, displaying symptoms of autism and schizophrenia, is seen as quirky, unpredictable, temperamental, and largely high-spirited by his twelve-year-old niece. However, as is the case with diseases of the brain, it only takes a minor deviation from a structured routine or an ill-delivered repudiation or rejection to set off a downward spiral of uncontrollable outbursts and dangerous reactions. Through Hattie’s lens, Adam is a person being denied fun and freedom by her controlling and rigid grandmother. Through Nana’s eyes, Adam is a child who requires constant supervision and well-defined boundaries. In reality, Adam is a little of both.

A Corner of the Universe is recommended for grades 5-8, and I certainly would not recommend this book to any reader younger than this. With topics of mental illness and suicide, as well as a few sexually implicit situations and some mild profanity, this is clearly meant for young adult readers—although the themes of acceptance, tolerance, inclusion, and kindness transcend all age groups. Martin gives us a perfect look into an imperfect world and shows us the devastation of living with guilt and regret, as well as the unintended consequences that follow seemingly good yet naïve intentions.

Hattie often said that she and her Uncle Adam had a lot in common. That they both felt like outsiders—always on the outside looking in. Hattie once told her uncle that she felt like she was a visiting alien to which Adam replied, “And aliens don’t belong anywhere except in their own little corners of the universe.” Sadly, it’s so easy to misjudge people who don’t fit into a preconceived category or check a certain box. What’s even sadder is the ease with which we tend to discount these same people—forgetting that they too have thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams. Although both Hattie and Adam often felt unwanted and out of place, both were able to find an unexpected friend in one another and for a brief moment, they were able to turn their corner of the universe into a very accepting, forgiving, and happy place.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz

Drowning Ruth

Christina Schwarz

Ruth remembered drowning. “That’s impossible,” Aunt Amanda said. “It must have been a dream.” But Ruth maintained that she drowned, insisted on it for years, even after she should have known better.

Amanda Starkey is a nurse—a brilliant one in fact. She’s known for having “the touch”, but recent events have brought her mental stability into question and has forced her to leave her work at the hospital. Seeking a change of venue, she travels to her family farm at Nagawaukee. Perhaps there she’ll get the rest and clarity she needs while allowing her to reconnect with her younger sister, Mathilda, and Ruth, her niece. Soon, tragedy strikes and mystery surrounds the shocking drowning of Mathilda and as the years pass, dark secrets begin to crowd the deepest corners of both Amanda’s and Ruth’s memories. What happened that winter night in 1919 that led to a young mother’s watery death? How much does Ruth remember? What are those horrible scars on Amanda’s hand?  Are they a clue to the past? But like ice, secrets eventually thaw and allow the truth to rise to the surface. What will happen to Amanda and Ruth once these secrets are finally discovered?

Christina Schwarz’s Drowning Ruth is an Oprah Book Club pick and I can see why. Oprah’s selections often involve dark, broody themes with complex characters and intricate plots. This book is wonderfully no exception. Schwarz packs her book with flawed and fractured characters who carry their own unique burdens and baggage. Schwarz is able to flesh out each of her pivotal characters amply (from Amanda’s old love interest to Ruth’s beautiful and vivacious new friend) and doesn’t waste precious words with throw-away details or pointless subplots. The story switches from past to present and from third-person narrative to first-person points of view of both Amanda and Ruth. It is perhaps these personal perspectives that give readers the most honest and raw insights into these women, the motivations behind their actions, and how each are dealing with loss, adversity, betrayal, and heartache. Drowning Ruth moves along at a vigorous pace with plenty of plot twists to keep the reader engaged and guessing. The farther you get into this story, the more you realize how all of Schwarz’s character’s lives are deeply intertwined and entangled. The result is a satisfyingly suspenseful and captivating read.

One of my favorite authors, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, wrote in his book The Shadow of the Wind, “A secret’s worth depends on the people from whom it must be kept.” Like Mathilda and Ruth, Amanda Starkey was drowning as well, but her water was the weight of the secrets she wrapped around herself. Despite her need to keep them submerged, Amanda’s dark secrets eventually found their way to the bright surface and as they emerged, they brought Amanda up as well and introduced her to the fresh air that only life and living can provide.    

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

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Savvy by Ingrid Law (J Fantasy)

Savvy 

Ingrid Law (J Fantasy)

There are certain things that the Beaumont family knows about secrets: they need them, they have them, and they keep them. In just a few days, when Mibs turns 13, she’ll join her mother’s side of the family and will have a secret of her very own. That’s when she’ll get her own savvy and her world—as she currently knows it—will never be the same. But before her big day, her father is involved in a terrible accident and left seriously injured. With her newly acquired supernatural power and a pink bible bus filled with a handful of misfits, Mibs encounters bikers, brawls, and plenty of banana cream pie in a race to bring her whole family together and to save her broken father.

A 2009 Newbery Honor Book, Savvy is an imaginative and heart-pounding adventure story filled with many relatable themes that are standard fare for young readers: bullying, standing out, fitting in, first love, and making friends. The first in a series of three books (Scumble and Switch are both complete stories, but make small references to the original book), Savvy is an easy-to-read, thrilling ride that introduces us to a quirky set of characters including the preacher’s daughter, a belittled bible salesman, and a waitress with a heart of gold. Each of these people allow Mibs to slowly understands that perhaps the Beaumonts aren’t the only ones that possess supernatural powers. The ability to encourage, to help, to listen, and to accept are just as powerful as any savvy and Mibs quickly realizes just how special her new friends are in their own way.

Ingrid Law packs so many wonderful lessons in this book and that alone is worth the read. Along the way, Mibs learns that sometimes a bad thing can make a good thing happen or that happy endings come in all shapes and sizes or that things don’t always happen the way you want them to. Perhaps the most valuable lesson Mibs receives was from her mother who told her, “In most ways, we Beaumonts are just like other people. We get born, and sometime later we die. And in between, we’re happy and sad, we feel love and we feel fear, we eat and we sleep and we hurt like everyone else.” Through the eyes of an awkward teenaged girl, Law reminds us of how much good can be accomplished and gained when we focus on our similarities rather than our differences.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

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A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

A Reliable Wife

A Reliable Wife

Robert Goolrick (Adult Fiction)

Ralph Truitt was fifty-four years old, rich, and alone.  He had been alone for twenty years and if the loneliness didn’t kill him, then another year in a bleak and barren Wisconsin winter might.  So, he placed an ad in the Chicago paper: “Country businessman seeks reliable wife.  Compelled by practical, not romantic reasons.  Reply by letter.”  He received many responses, but it was Catherine Land’s letter that he would choose.  He had read it so many times, he knew it by heart.  It was the first sentence that piqued his interest: “I am a simple honest woman.”  But letters can be deceiving and all this “simple honest woman” wanted—ever wanted—was to acquire both love and money.  Catherine would not live without some portion of both and Ralph Truitt was the ticket to her dream.  With a beautiful face and a sympathetic backstory, she was well on her way of inheriting a vast fortune…unless Ralph Truitt had other plans.

A Reliable Wife is one of those books that if you don’t stick with it, you would simply give up on it and unapologetically mark it as “Did Not Finish”.  With its foreboding and depressing backdrop of a 1907 Wisconsin winter, to its flawed and morally corrupt characters, to its underlying themes of lust and sexual fantasies, it really takes a herculean effort to weed through all of the debauchery and depression.  Thankfully, a nice story twist about midway through the book rewards those who stick it out and marks the beginning of several plot turns that will keep the reader’s interest and make the remaining scenes of lust and unrequited passion a little more forgivable.

The story centers on three main characters: Ralph Truitt, Catherine Lane, and Tony Moretti (Ralph’s illegitimate son).  All three do their fair share of whining and complaining and mourning a past that is lost and hating themselves for who they might have been.  Interestingly, I found Tony’s character the most sympathetic of the three, although Goolrick paints him as the antagonist.  He is the only one who truly deserves to feel betrayed and abandoned and can safely shroud himself in the term “victim”.  Don’t get me wrong, all three have their reasons to mope and feel wronged by life, but only one trophy can be awarded and I don’t give out participation ribbons so Tony gets the prize.

Robert Goolrick gives us a tale of regret and remorse and poses the question of how far would someone go in order to make a person love them?  I enjoyed this work far more than his book Heading Out to Wonderful, which I only gave 3/5 stars.  Unlike the latter, A Reliable Wife felt consistent all the way to the end and proved to be a suspenseful and compelling read.

I’ll end this review with four important takeways that I learned from A Reliable Wife: 1) If you live in Wisconsin, get out of Dodge before the first snowflake falls.  Winter marks the beginning of crazy season and you’re apt to either kill yourself, kill your family, kill yourself and your family (not in that order), or maim yourself (and possibly your family); 2) If your mother is a fanatical religious zealot, chances are you are going to grow up to be a hot mess; 3) A promise is a promise.  No matter how ridiculous, immoral, unethical, or illegal the promise is, you have to keep it.  No backing out.; and 4) Money doesn’t bring you happiness.  No matter how good looking you are, well educated, worldly, well-spoken.  It doesn’t matter.  You are going to be miserable so just pin that badge to your chest and wear it proudly.  So take a lesson from Ralph, Catherine, and Tony, just live a poor life in the tropics with a good therapist and don’t ever, EVER, make any promises.  You can thank me later.

Rating: 4/5

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