Friday, 11 May 2012

Review~ Ugly to Start with by John Cummings

Title: Ugly to start with
Author: John Michael Cummings
Published: October 1st 2011
By: West Virginia University Press
Review request

Good reads says:~
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.

*This book contains strong sexual content, some explicit language and mild references to racism.

This book is completely different from the usual YA fiction I have read, for one I have never had to put up a content warning on a review before, however I hope this will not deter you from reading this book, I would advise that maybe this collection of short stories is aimed at the older end of the YA readership.
Ugly to start with is a novel moulded from a collection of short stories revolving around the life of Jason Stevens, set in the historic town of Harpers Ferry situated in West Virginia. The stories are episodes in Jason’s childhood which we can only presume will shape his adult life.

The layout of this book is unusual; the short stories are connected however each one is a new episode in Jason’s life that does not follow on from the previous story. We are quite literally thrown into each new story not knowing how he got there, and why it is important. The reader is quite often left asking questions, then immediately being thrown into a new scenario with a new set of questions that need answering. I think to truly understand the significance of each story you need to stick with this book, and after finishing you realise that Cummings has created a patchwork, which when the reader steps back and views starts to make sense.

We are being given little snippets of Jason’s childhood, events which will surely shape him as an adult.
I wasn’t quite sure whether I liked Jason as a character, there were moments when I really warmed to him and others when I wanted to give him a clip round the ear. But then I realised that nobody’s perfect, and so often in YA fiction we are faced with one dimensional characters who are shoved into stereotypical roles! Jason is no ordinary character he is laid bare in these stories, we see every aspect of his personality, he is not perfect, but who is? If you were a character in a story would the reader think you were perfect? Would they like you at every stage of your story? I know they wouldn’t like me! I snap at people sometimes when I shouldn’t, take a joke too far! I found this approach quite refreshing.

The first few stories in the book centre around Jason’s family, Cummings focuses mainly on Jason’s relationship with his Father, which is abusive to say the least. Jason’s Father is everything a Father shouldn’t be, self-obsessed! Selfish! He is also not comfortable with the fact that Jason is struggling to discover his sexuality. Jason’s relationship with his mother is quite different; she supports his artistic side and stands up for him in front of his Father. In the book we hear constant references from different minor characters that Jason has become soft because of the way his mother has smothered him with love, they blame her for his suspected homosexuality.

Cummings explores Jason’s sexuality in great depths in this book, he struggles to decide whether he is straight or gay, and to be honest  I came to the conclusion that he lay somewhere in the middle. There is a story in the book that I found quite difficult to read which involves a sexual encounter between Jason and a much older man, Cummings description of the encounter is blunt and graphic, as much as I felt uncomfortable reading this story I felt I needed to keep reading for Jason’s sake, I wanted to see whether he would be ok, and how this would affect him.

3/5 stars because this book is an interesting read; it explores different avenues which I have never wandered down before in YA fiction. Cummings has written a powerful, colour filled book, if you have been searching for something different I urge you to follow me down this path.


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