Author Matt de la Pena didn't grow up wanting to be a writer. He wasn't even an avid reader until a college professor introduced him to literature, and helped him embrace his own working-class background. His young adult books cover similar topics, with protagonists who walk the boundaries of race and class.
His latest thriller, "The Living," follows Mexican-American Shy Esperenza as he battles teenage angst, prejudice and sharks. Shy takes a job on a cruise ship one summer to make money before starting school again in the fall.
"It is at once a disaster epic, a survival story and a coming of age novel, told through the life of a young man who is becoming aware of class, prejudice and romance," says NPR.
Action takes the forefront as things go wrong on the ship, writes Motoko Rich in The New York Times:
"At times, with its pharmaceutical intrigue, man in a black suit stalking the hero, ship-destroying tsunami, high body count and fight for survival on a lifeboat, the plot reads as if it were concocted by a Hollywood studio," Rich says. "The pitch meeting could have gone something like this: 'It's Andromeda Strain meets Titanic meets Life of Pi (without the tiger).' You can almost hear the script doctors bursting into the writers' room, shouting, 'Add man-eating sharks!' or 'Make sure the chandelier falls on the bad guy!'"
After publishing "quieter" YA books with mixed-race characters, de la Pena wanted to add a new twist to that theme, he told The Rumpus:
"I've always wanted to work with this threat of the earthquake," he said. "I grew up in California and you are always worried about 'The Big One.' I thought it would be very interesting to set it on a cruise. I'm going to challenge myself to do this quiet, background, thematic strain about class. To me, in any of these action-oriented movies, the cast is all white or they have token minorities in there. They are not really doing it. They are putting [in] an African American character because they think, That's what I should do. I'm going to own these kids that grew up on the border and place them in an action story."