Book Thoughts: Ugly to Start With by John Michael Cummings

(**I received this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Jason Stevens is growing up in picturesque, historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the 1970s. Back when the roads are smaller, the cars slower, the people more colorful, and Washington, D.C. is way across the mountains—a winding sixty-five miles away. 

Jason dreams of going to art school in the city, but he must first survive his teenage years. He witnesses a street artist from Italy charm his mother from the backseat of the family car. He stands up to an abusive husband—and then feels sorry for the jerk. He puts up with his father’s hard-skulled backwoods ways, his grandfather’s showy younger wife, and the fist-throwing schoolmates and eccentric mountain characters that make up Harpers Ferry—all topped off by a basement art project with a girl from the poor side of town. 

Ugly to Start With punctuates the exuberant highs, bewildering midpoints, and painful lows of growing up, and affirms that adolescent dreams and desires are often fulfilled in surprising ways.

Ugly To Start With was definitely a first for me. Although I’ve read YA books that are realistic fiction, I haven’t read one where the main plot wasn’t based off of a romance of some sort. This book is based in 1970s, dealing with issues that are not as prominent today. Right from the beginning I was intrigued.

The protagonist, Jason, has a very realistic perspective. As a young adult, he expresses his anger and desires. He holds the prejudices that are to be realistically found in his setting. Although I didn’t agree with some of his views, I did understand that they were a product of the time and place he was raised, and didn’t let them cloud my judgment of the book, if anything it made it much more realistic and disagreeing with the main character added another level to the relationship I had with him. It felt like I had stepped into the mind of a boy. I also enjoyed that none of Jason’s thoughts were ‘censored’; it allowed me to step out of my bubble and see issues that other people are surrounded with.

While reading this book I kept asking myself what the plot was. To me, it seemed as if each chapter was still building up to the point of the book. I actually found out that Ugly To Start With is a series of short stories. At the time, I didn’t know that and concluded that this is a story about living life as it is. The reader follows Jason’s life, starting with him as a child and continuing into his high school years. Cumming’s writing allows the reader to feel lost, confused, and hopeful as the character does.  At one point, I was really uncomfortable with part of the story. I think a good book shows itself by its ability to stir up feelings in the reader, especially unsettling ones. At the same time, I was not expecting a scene like that to show up in this book…

Ugly to Start With does start out a bit slow and builds up to one point. I really, really enjoyed one chapter of the novel – but that is what disappointed me. It felt as the whole book was built up to this one scene, but nothing happened after that one part.

In the end, I did enjoy this novel, but it is not something I would choose to read again. Ugly to Start With is interesting; it also deals with common issues that many are still dealing with today. Check it out!


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