Friday, June 19, 2015

YA Guy Reviews... Non-YA Books!

As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, YA Guy's taking a little break from YA this summer. Maybe that's because I've read over 150 YA books in the past three years (plus writing several more), and I felt a need to read outside my genre. Personally, I think YA writers need to read widely; I think you can learn a lot about writing YA by reading things that aren't YA. But leaving aside the benefits as a writer, it's just fun to read other stuff from time to time.

Last summer, I read non-YA science fiction. This summer, I'm focusing on classics. I've read only two in the past month--they take longer to read than YA!--but they've definitely been worth it.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Way back in graduate school, I taught a class on science fiction, including H. G. Wells's novel The Invisible Man. My graduate mentor visited my class on the day I was discussing the Wells novel, and she was totally confused because she thought I was teaching the Ellison book! But I hadn't read it at that point, and I didn't read it until this summer.

It's a pretty zany book. Some of the scenes--such as the oft-anthologized Battle Royal or the scene in the paint factory where the anonymous narrator's job is to mix black paint into white--are almost preposterously allegorical, and as such they have little realism. But other parts of the book--in particular, the Harlem episodes, including the narrator's struggles with the Brotherhood (a thinly-veiled Communist Party)--are striking as realistic representations of urban African-American experience in the middle of the past century. And the narrator's voice, at once learned and naive, bellicose and timid, hopeful and cynical, is one of the great inventions of American literature.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

You have to go even farther back in my history for my first encounter with this book. I read the Classics Illustrated version of it when I was nine or ten (the version pictured to the right), when my parents were trying to introduce me and my siblings to great literature. (That was the way I discovered a lot of classics I'd later read for real: Frankenstein, The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and more.) I've read many Dickens novels since, but for some reason, I never read A Tale of Two Cities. So I decided it was time to take the plunge.

I'll admit, it took me a while to settle in to Dickens's verbose, orotund style. I've heard that Dickens protracted everything because he was paid by the word for his serialized fiction; whether true or not, it was a bit much to take at first. But once I got into the story, I was able to accept the style. Dickens produces some great set pieces, particularly those surrounding the events of the French Revolution, and some great characters, particularly the ominous Madame Defarge, who scares the hell out of her own creator but who I saw as a precursor of many "kick-butt" female characters of the present day. And the novel's title, I discovered to my surprise and delight, has less to do with the two physical cities in which the action takes place--Paris and London--than with the two metaphysical "cities" sometime protagonist Sydney Carton struggles between: the hellish city of selfish sensuality and the heavenly city of selfless sacrifice. I don't remember much from the old comic book, but I do remember Carton's ultimate action and concluding speech. They were powerful to me back then, and they're still powerful to this day.

So I think I'm going to read either Les Miserables or Crime and Punishment next. Then it'll be back to the great YA novels I've got waiting on my Kindle!


  1. This summer, I've been revisiting some of my old favorites from high school. Just finished the first set of Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny, and I'm about to start the second set.

    1. Are you kidding me? I DEVOURED the Amber books in high school! (The first set; I never read the second.) Brilliant fantasy/sci-fi with an utterly unique world!