Last week I got a comment requesting that I review a book, complete with an offer to send me a PDF file of the book so that I could do so.  From an author.  After flailing around excitedly, I accepted my very first book review request.

So here is my review of Ugly to Start With by John Michael Cummings.  I’d prefer to be nicer, but honesty is the best policy; it’s not a five-star book.

Statistics
Checkouts: Not owned by the library
Typical reader: High school boys
Source: Direct from the author via email (Squee!)

Synopsis: Jason Stevens is a teen growing up in historic Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in the 1970s.  This is a collection of short, fictional stories about his less-than-ideal life.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars

This book exemplifies the differences between middle-grade novels and those for young adults.  While the writing style and vocabulary are suitable for a younger audience, the subject matter certainly is not.  There are a lot of mature situations in this book, ranging from race relations to infidelity, from exploring sexuality to cruelty to animals.  This book is perfectly acceptable material for a public library, but my school library serves mostly K-8.  It doesn’t belong there.

I liked the simple, honest prose.  Jason isn’t the greatest person, particularly in the title story (I’ll get to that later), but he provides quality narration to his stories.  The short story format left me a bit wanting at times, because some vignettes ended without a sense of conclusion, but that’s a drawback to the confines of short stories.  On the other hand, the end of a short story is not the end of Jason’s overall tale.  There are pros and cons; your mileage may vary on this.

My favorite story was “The Scratchboard Project.”  In this, Jason visits a classmate’s house to sketch her for an art assignment.  It’s a story that gives a lot of depth to Jason’s dream of being an artist, as well as the world in which he lives.  The classmate he visits is a black girl in a different part of town, and both of them, as well as her family, have to deal with prejudices in the fullest sense of the word.  Jason and Shanice have to get past their presuppositions about each other as she poses for him and he sketches her, and their interactions break down the icy barriers.

My least favorite story was the title one.  A little cat comes to Jason’s house and his family takes her in, marveling at her soft, beautiful coat.  But in the summer, she gets into fights with other cats in the neighborhood and returns home with bloody sores and scratches.  The family refuses to let her in or care for her.  Jason goes so far to even shoot at her with a BB gun to chase her off.  You can imagine how well this sat with a cat-lover such as myself!  The story does well at illustrating how the family values only that which is beautiful, and has no love for what’s ugly – either “to start with” or what becomes so through circumstance.  It also shows their hypocrisy, considering how run-down their house is and how ugly within the father can be.
(To be honest, this story almost made me put the book down completely, but as Mr. Cummings’ web site mentions that he has a cat, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and continued.)

I have one thing to nitpick about this book.  In one story, Jason is looking at a board in his school with editorials pasted to it, and two phrases jumped out at me.  These were references to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “the X-Files.”  This book is set in the 1970s.  The movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out in 1981.  “The X-Files” TV show ran from 1993 to 2002.  There’s another story that mentions the basketball skills of Magic Johnson, who played for the L.A. Lakers starting in 1979.  Please, fact-check.  I don’t appreciate historical inaccuracies.

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