Friday, February 20, 2015

Book Notes: "The Living", by Matt de la Peña

I picked up "The Living" by Matt de la Peña because I'd enjoyed a short story of his that I read in "My True Love Gave to Me".

"The Living" starts off as an ordinary contemporary YA, about a young man named "Shy" who's working on a ritzy cruise ship in order to earn enough money to help out his family back home (in Otay Mesa, near San Diego, by the US/Mexico border).

But soon Shy's ordinary routine becomes something else, after he's the closest witness to a passenger who commits suicide and then he finds he's being stalked by a mysterious man in a suit. Weird becomes worse when "the Big One" finally hits Los Angeles, generating a series of gigantic tsunamis that overtake the cruise ship and kill almost everyone on board.

Shy manages to survive the initial disaster, but it's clear he's not out of danger yet, and worse becomes worser and worsest . . . annnnnnnnnnnnnnd, no spoilers from me. The journey's too good to spoil it. I will say: this is an adventure book, a post-apocalyptic book, and if being lost at sea is your personal nightmare, well, you'll find plenty of terrifying fodder here.

This is clearly a YA book, with a bit of romance and a ton of action, but nothing too graphic. However, I've come to genuinely enjoy YA: without the easy out of simply bludgeoning the reader over the head with either sex or violence, what you're often left with is just a good story, full of compelling characters.

Shy's outlook is pretty bleak, when you get down to it. His musings as he's pretty sure he's dying aren't exactly full of hope or any kind of surety of eternal meaning. But in action, he's a decent sort who looks out for his friends and often puts their well-being above his own.

In other words, he's a guy you can root for.

In one of his Goodreads blog entries, author de la Peña says:
The Living is a different book for me. It's an action-driven disaster novel. I wanted to take my usual mixed-race, working class characters and put them in a bigger context. Why? I want to reveal to a wider audience the heart and dignity (as well as the flaws) of kids growing up on the "wrong side of the tracks." My dream is for The Living to reach suburban folks, too, this time. And kids in private schools. And middle class adult readers who dig YA. So instead of bringing story conflict to my characters and letting them fight it out on their own turf (rough southern California neighborhoods), I brought my characters to the conflict, in this case a luxury cruise ship bound for Hawaii.
And I have to say: boy, he succeeded. I love de la Peña's voice, and now I want to go and find his earlier books, set in those rough southern California neighborhoods he mentions. Voice is the thing that carries you through a book; it's the thing that makes the book easy to read, no matter how much hard territory the author wants to carry you over.

De la Peña has a voice I'm willing to listen to, even if it's in genres that aren't usually my favorites. That's a rare thing, and I'm so happy to find a new author I like that much.

Some content warnings for violence, mayhem, a tiny bit of sexual content, and a mildly hopeless worldview. Probably appropriate for older teenagers, but parents give it a look first.

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

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