Review of The Beat on Ruby’s Street by Jenna Zark

rubySynopsis: The last thing eleven-year-old Ruby Tabeata expected to happen on her way to a Jack Kerouac reading was to be hauled to the police station.

It’s 1958 and Ruby is the opposite of a 1950s stereotype: fierce, funny and strong willed, she is only just starting to chart her course in a family of Beat Generation artists in Greenwich Village. Ruby dreams of meeting famous poets while becoming one herself; instead, she’s accused of trying to steal fruit from a local vendor and is forced to live in a children’s home.

As Ruby struggles to return to family and friends, she learns her only choice is to follow her heart.

Join Ruby’s journey as she finds unexpected friendships, the courage to rebel against unjust authority and the healing power of art in this inspiring middle-grade novel by Jenna Zark.

Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Beat on Ruby’s Street is a novel intended for middle-grade students, as the protagonist is an 11-year-old girl named Ruby, and the story is told from first-person point-of-view. Ruby’s voice is realistic for a girl her age, and I think this book reads appropriately for kids around the same age.

The details of New York in the late 1950s and the Beat Generation of the time are also fleshed out well in the backdrop. There’s a certain freedom to being a kid 60 years ago that I feel no longer applies nowadays. A girl like Ruby can wander the streets with her friends for hours at a time and be safe. I am reminded of stories my mom told me about how far she’d ride her bike or how she’d ride on public transportation when she was about Ruby’s age and be gone all day, yet her parents didn’t have to worry.

Ruby is also an aspiring poet. She wants badly to meet famous poets like Jack Kerouac and is on her way to one of his readings when…

The freedom Ruby experiences is threatened when she is accused of stealing fruit, however. A social worker steps in and begins to question Ruby’s home life. The reader discovers that Ruby’s parents aren’t married. Their apartment isn’t kept up. Her dad, Gary Daddy-o, is a musician who is on the road for weeks at a times. Her mom, Nell-Mom, is an artist is is oblivious to the comings and goings of Ruby and her brother, Ray. Ruby and some of her friends attend “school” at a store called Blue Sky, where they learn some stuff from the owners, Sky and Blu, but they aren’t being properly educated.

Everything Ruby thought was true and normal about her life is suddenly threatened. She spends some time in a children’s home. Her childhood innocence is ripped away from her. To see the shortcomings of adults through a child’s eyes is a unique perspective. I remember when I was a kid thinking my parents knew everything and that I would understand everything about life once I was grown up. To have that worldview shattered, to realize your parents are far from perfect and that your home isn’t the nice place you thought is scary and also realistic, a part of growing up.

This is a quick read. Being much older than the intended audience, I found the novel had its charms and was good for middle-grade readers, and yes, it reminded me of what it was like for me when I was 11 or 12, but I didn’t get much else out of this novel. It’s a good story, but not great. It doesn’t necessarily stand out from much else I’ve read, but it was enjoyable enough.

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Excerpt from A Laughing Matter of Pain (Chapter 25)

 

harrykathy“Can you believe it? We’re married.” Her eyes dance in the low light from the bedside lamp.
I lean in and kiss her. “I’m the luckiest guy alive.”
The smile falters on her lips. Her eyes go glassy. A tear slips past, trailing down her left cheek.
“What’s wrong, doll?” I cup that cheek and kiss her again.
“I-I never thought this day would come.”
“What? Why not?” My heart hammers, afraid she’s having doubts.
A tiny, nervous laugh escapes. “Not because of you. You misunderstand. I mean, I didn’t think I’d ever get married, period. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting me.” Her gaze shifts to the mattress.
I wipe another tear away with my thumb, kiss the spot where it fled from her eye. “You remember what I said all those months ago? That you’re the most beautiful person I know?”
She lifts her gaze and tries to smile. “Yeah.”
“I meant that, Kath. Every word. I ain’t romantic. I mess up a lot. But you’re the one thing I know I got right. You deserve to be treated like a queen. To never hurt again.”
“I don’t deserve you, Harry.”
“Hush, now. None of that.” I pull her to me.
Our kisses deepen. Her hands caress the length of my exposed back. Our breathing heavy, we pull apart, resting our foreheads on each other’s.
“We don’t hafta do anything you ain’t ready for,” I whisper.
“No, Harry. I…I’m ready.” Her smile seems uncertain.
“You sure?” I run my hand through her curls.
“It’s you. It’s time we made our own memories.”
I kiss her again, then ease her down onto the mattress, with the deliberate care of handling something sacred. I close my eyes and let my heart and body show her my love.

A Laughing Matter of Pain
by Cynthia Hilston
(coming fall 2018)

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Excerpt from Hannah’s Rainbow (Chapter 41)

While the first year without Edward was the most difficult, Hannah found strength she didn’t know she had.  There were times when she thought everything was fine, and then something would trigger a memory of Edward – a song on the radio, a line from a book, a phrase someone said.  Then Hannah was pulled back into grief.

She supposed she would spend the rest of her life susceptible to such turns of emotion.  According to Harry, he had similar experiences since losing Kathy. He joined Hannah at the cemetery some Sundays, and when the weather was nice, they slowly walked the well-trod path from Kathy’s grave to Edward’s grave to their parents’ grave and finally to Amy’s grave.

“You know, this may sound morbid, but I’m finding the cemetery oddly comforting,” Hannah said on a July day, a year after Edward’s passing.  “There’s a certain beauty about this place. I wouldn’t have believed it before, but coming here has been vital for me.”

“I’m glad you suggested I join you,” Harry replied.  The wind gently played with his silver hair, messing it in the manner he’d often worn it when he was much younger.  Behind thick glasses, his blue eyes crinkled as he smiled. “You know you must’ve been very convincing to get me to come here this often, sis, seeing as I avoided this place like the plague for years.”

Hannah joined in the laughter.  “Anything to get you to listen to me, Harry.  You know I’ve always known what’s best for you.”

Harry sobered.  “There’s more truth to that than you realize.”

Hannah reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze.  “Hey, you old geezer, you forget that you first came to my aid.”

“Who you calling old, Hannah-panna?”

“Don’t you remember how you related to me when I was angry about Amy dating?  For the first time, I felt like someone understood me, Harry.”

Brother and sister exchanged knowing smiles.

“I have a feeling my two younger grandsons are going to cause as much trouble as you and Erik did when you were boys.  Randy’s only seven months old and is determined to crawl. He’s getting into things, and I have to keep my eye on the little stinker around the outlets.”

“Ah, grandkids.  They keep us young, don’t you think?”

“I often forget my age, but keeping up with them is another thing entirely.  What I’d give to wake up just one morning without a stiff neck or back, and if it isn’t that, it’s my legs.”

“You sound like that one old biddy friend of yours you’re always complaining about.  What’s her name, Gertie? The one from church who goes on and on about what’s ailing her.”

“Yes, that’s Gertie all right, but don’t you even start, Harry.”  

The siblings walked on in perfect companionship to the pond and fed the geese, whiling away another lazy afternoon.

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Excerpt from Hannah’s Rainbow (Chapter 40)

After Tim pulled away, Erik, Lily, and Harry joined Hannah.  She was sad that Irma wasn’t able to make it, but she understood that her sister had her hands full with caring for Ross.  Lily and Erik embraced Hannah before saying they needed to return home. As Hannah watched her oldest brother go, Harry lingered by her side, his presence comforting and steady.  

Fresh tears filled her eyes as her brother pulled her to him.  “Oh, Harry.” She sobbed into his shirt while he rubbed circles into her upper back, and when Hannah finally withdrew, she looked up into his wise eyes.

“I won’t lie to you and say the pain ever goes away,” he said softly, “but in time, you’ll find peace.  There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think of Kathy.”

“And here I thought no one understood, that I was so alone,” Hannah said, half-laughing, half-crying.  “How could I have been so selfish to have forgotten? You’ve always been there for me, and I-”

“Shh,” Harry murmured.  “Grieve in your own way, in your own time, Hannah.  There are no rules for this sort of thing. No one can tell you how to feel, what to say or do.  And you forget that I wasn’t always there…”

Hannah shook her head.  “That was a lifetime ago, Harry.  We were all so young.”

“Sometimes, sis, when I’m low and feeling especially sorry for myself, I still go there.  Besides you, Kathy was my rock. Without her, the temptation to have a drink is stronger, but when I think of how it would break her heart, I know she’s alive inside me, and I hold back.  Edward will still be your strength and comfort when you don’t even know it.”

Hannah nodded.  “Thank you, Harry.  I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Harry looked like he was about to speak, but he only hugged her and smiled, turning as he went to join his own family.  Hannah gazed at the fresh grave one last time.

“Goodbye, Eddy,” she whispered.  “We’ll see each other again in Heaven, my love.”

She somehow found the resolve to walk away.  She knew Edward wasn’t really in that grave, so as she ambled across the freshly mown grass to join her family, she looked up at the heavens.  The sun brushed her cheeks and lips like a feather-light kiss.

Hannah returned often to Edward’s grave.  She brought fresh daisies every Sunday after church.  Sometimes her family joined her, but she was usually alone.  She took to keeping a folding chair in her trunk, and whether rain or sun, she’d sit with Edward for a little while and speak to him.  She sometimes read from her book of Psalms, but other times, she’d just sit quietly, listening. Closing her eyes, she didn’t have to think hard to imagine him in the rustling of the leaves, in the birdsong, or in the breeze that embraced her.  These days became Hannah’s path to healing.

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Excerpt from Hannah’s Rainbow (Chapter 48)

“I just don’t get it,” Hannah said, eyeing the many stacks of newspapers in Harry’s basement.  “You have way more stuff than I do, and Abbi is acting like I have a hoarding problem. She’d have a field day over here!”

Harry shrugged.  “I’ve thought about cleaning them out, but none of my kids will bother with them.  I’m too old to go at it myself, and I figured, what’s the harm?”

“It’s a fire hazard, Harry.  You really ought to consider getting rid of some of these.  I know I’m not one to talk about keeping things, but it makes me uncomfortable seeing all these papers down here and you living alone.”

“But some of them have stories in them I like, important historical events, old ads that are neat to look at.”

Hannah smiled ruefully.  “You sound like me making up excuses.  When Abbi asked why I had a couple hundred plastic bags, I told her that you never know when you might need a bag to carry something in.”  Chuckling, Hannah said, “She doesn’t know this, but after she left on Sunday, I went back out to the trash and brought half of the stuff back in.  Can you believe she threw out old Christmas cards? She told me she holds onto hers for a year, uses them to write out that year’s cards, and then throws them away.  Can you imagine?”

“Maybe she saw the way you are and decided to do just the opposite?”

Hannah shook her head as they ascended the stairs.

“That seems to be a pattern in my family.  I keep wondering where I went wrong with Glen…”

“Don’t beat yourself up, sis.  I could ask myself the same thing about my daughter.  Gloria never married and seemed so against it. Her mother and she argued all the time about it.  It’s not just sons that upset us, not that I had expectations that Gloria needed a man in her life.  Her mother thought differently, though. I know a thing or two about upsetting my parents.”

“Does that bother you, even after all this time?” Hannah asked as they took seats on the sofa.

“It’s always with me,” Harry said softly, meeting his sister’s eyes.  “When Gloria showed herself as independent and head-strong, part of me admired her for standing up for herself, but I was reminded of… Kat.  There were a couple of occasions when Gloria was in her twenties and she was dating a different guy every week when I was this close to grabbing a drink.  Kathy stopped me every time. Now, I’m about to be a great-grandfather, and that’s the easiest role I think I’ve ever played.”

“So, is Heidi expecting, then?”

“Yes, my oldest granddaughter is pregnant.  I teased her that she was making me feel old.”

“You’re pushing eighty.  You are old.” Hannah smirked at him.

“You’re right behind me, sis.  To be honest, I’m happy to see eighty.”

Hannah thought briefly about Erik and sobered.  “I wanted to ask you something.”

“Yeah?”

“All this talk about families, we’ve spoken about our roles as parents, but as my brother, I want you to answer me honestly.  Was I an annoying younger sister?”

Harry couldn’t help but laugh.  “Oh, were you ever! But seriously, Hannah, you were there for me at times when most would’ve left.  Why?”

“I hear Abbi talking about her kids and how they fight, and I think about my own kids and how they just don’t see eye-to-eye as adults.  I feel like a hypocrite at times, Harry, when I remember how I failed you as a sister. I don’t care that it was years ago. You tell me otherwise, but I sometimes wonder if I’ve failed in other ways as well.”

Harry frowned.  “Is this mostly about Glen?”

“Yes…”

“He’ll come around.  I did.”

“Eddy’s father never did.  I told you his story.”

“But Glen’s circumstances are different.  I think he really is trying to do right for his family.  When you’re a son, Hannah, there are expectations to be ‘a man.’  I guess that means proving yourself, not showing weaknesses… stupid stuff at the end of the day.  I’m not one who’s all that wise, Hannah. I just know that if someone’s meant to be in your life, they will be at the end of the day.  You’re very strong, but somehow thought you were failing others. I’d say if anyone I know has earned the right to speak her mind, it’s you.  I didn’t want to hear the truth all those years ago, but you weren’t afraid to get in my face when I needed a good emotional slap. If your son has any sense, then he’ll be there.  I’m certain he loves you.”

“I hope you’re right.  Thanks, Harry.” Hannah squeezed his hand.  

“That’s what I’m here for.  I have all the time in the world, Hannah.”

“Like for cleaning out those newspapers?”

“We’re back to that again, are we?”

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Excerpt from Hannah’s Rainbow

By Christmas, the First World War ended.  The children had decorated the pine tree with a popcorn-strung garland, an assortment of handmade ornaments from school, and a few carefully placed candles.

Both Christmas Eve and Day had separate dinners that were planned to the point of perfection.  Other than Lucy’s mother, only the immediate family gathered to partake in both meals. Everyone dressed in their finest, shoes polished, and under Ma’s eagle eye, not a hair out of place.  It was the one time of year when Erik and Harry would allow their mother to dictate what they wore.

After dinner on Christmas Eve, the family attended church to hear the story of the birth of Jesus, the miracle of light that came into the world.

The service ended, and the family walked the short distance down Madison Avenue to their home.  Snow was falling lightly. It had a magical quality when Hannah looked upward and imagined the angels dusting their wings off.  She skipped ahead, kicking up the fresh thin layer of snow on the sidewalk. She was laughing, when an icy wetness suddenly hit her in the back of the head.

“Ow!”

Her mood evaporated as she spun around to glare daggers at her brothers.  

“Hey, how dare you!” she said.

Harry had the audacity to look innocent, while Erik couldn’t help but chuckle.  The adults and Amy hung back farther, lost in conversation.

Hannah quickly knelt down and grabbed a handful of snow, formed a ball, and chucked it at her brothers.  It missed, flying between them and ended up smacking Pa in the side of the face.

Both boys were briefly shocked, before dissolving into laughter.

“Oh, you’re in for it now, Hannah-panna,” Harry teased.

“Be quiet!” Hannah shouted.  “You started it!”

The adults were upon them a few seconds later.  Pa was wiping his cheek with his gloved hand, but it was Ma who was angry.

“Who threw that?” she demanded.

“It wasn’t us.  It was Hannah,” Erik said.

“Yeah, but I wasn’t aiming for you, Pa” Hannah said.  “One of them hit me in the back of the head.”

“A likely story,” Harry said coyly, smirking.

Ma’s eyes shifted to her younger son.  “Actually, it sounds about right. Come.  We will discuss this once we’re inside.”

Pa pretended to be stern, but when he walked past Hannah and the boys, he half-smiled.  He winked at Hannah, and then his face was impassive once more. As Hannah watched her parents retreating down the road, she grinned.  

Once back inside their small home, Pa worked at starting a fire in the grate, while Ma sat Erik, Harry, and Hannah on the sofa to give them a brief lecture on how to treat each other with more respect, “most especially on Christmas.”

“How is pelting each other with snow when it’s already freezing outside a Christ-like attitude?”

Pa, finished with the fire, came to his wife’s side, and wrapped an arm around her.

“I think, perhaps just this once, we might excuse the children.  It is Christmas, after all. There will be plenty of time for extra chores in a few days.”  He smirked knowingly.

“Hmm,” Ma murmured, although her eye twinkled as she exchanged a look with her husband.  

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Excerpt from Hannah’s Rainbow (Opening Scenes)

To some looking back, the world seemed a simpler place a hundred years ago.  People left their doors unlocked. Neighbors waved and said hellos and how-do-you-dos.  Children could play outside all day, no matter the season, and return home safe for dinner at night.

        Several modest, nearly identical houses lined Madison Avenue, all constructed around the turn of the century.  There were the Foleys, the Thompsons, the Gardners, the Halleys, the Bradfords. And the Rechtharts.

Augustus Rechthart had met Lucille Grosner in the summer of 1899.  Gus had been delivering some goods to the local general store when he accidentally had bumped into a young woman coming out of the shop…

“Oh, excuse me, ma’am,” he said, lowering the wooden crate.

“No need for your excuses,” the young lady returned, her eyes challenging him.

Gus detected the slightest grin on her face.  He hastily set aside the load.

“Might I buy you a drink to make up for my carelessness, Miss-?”

“Grosner.  Lucille Grosner.  And yes, I suppose so, although if you’re thinking of getting me drunk-”

“No, not that kind of drink, Lucille,” Gus replied, laughing, a little embarrassed.  He was testing his luck by using her given name.

“Very well, then.  And my friends call me Lucy.  And you are?”

“Oh, right.”  Gus smiled easily, relieved.  “Augustus Rechthart, although no one in their right mind ever calls me that.  Plain, old Gus is just fine, Lucy. Are you Lucy to me?”

“Well, that depends on rather a lot of things, Gus.  Since I am in my right mind, I’ll call you Gus, and since I think we might well become better acquainted, yes, you may call me Lucy.”

After that initial conversation, the two had struck up a courtship that led to an engagement at Christmas.

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My novel, Lorna versus Laura, is available for $4.99 here.

My novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, is available for $5.99 here.