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Review: Ugly to Start With by John Michael Cummings

Ugly to Start With by John Michael Cummings

4 out of 5 stars
Published by West Virginia University Press
Review copy received through the author & publisher

Ugly to Start With is a collection of short stories that describe Jason’s life growing up in 1970s small town West Virginia.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. With a title like Ugly to Start With I expect some kind of bizarre semi-realistic romp through childhood. What I got was a well thought-through string of stories that all highlighted a little part of Jason’s personality. They were all very well-written and polished. There were no loose ends or stories that I didn’t understand the meaning of, which is quite an accomplishment in this genre.

A LOT is wrong in Jason’s life, from his highly dysfunctional family to the racism that raged through the States and everything in between. Yet Ugly to Start With is a hopeful book that shines in some passages. It was nice to see that meaningful books don’t have to be depressing but can be enjoyable to read.

I liked reading about all the different characters that make up the little town of Harpers Ferry, all strange in their own way. At moments I was disappointed that the story ended so quickly, I wanted to know what would happen next.

Ugly to Start With is a great little book, and I would love to read something from Mr Cummings again.

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.

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