On the 10th anniversary of her father’s death, Claire Takata discovers that her mother and her stepfather—the man that she and her brothers have been calling "Dad" for almost as long as they can remember—have been lying to them for years. It turns out that not only did her father and her stepfather know each other, but they knew each other well—so why, when she asks flat-out, is she met with lies and deception? And why would they have lied in the first place?
Claire takes a closer look at her father’s death in Hawaii, which leads her to the years before her father even left Japan for the United States…at which point she realizes that the answer to her questions might be spelled YAKUZA, and that it’s quite possible that she, her brothers, and everyone else she loves is now in grave danger.
Even with action and suspense and romance and a car chase and a robbery and a fireball, Valynne E. Maetani's Ink and Ashes is a surprisingly quiet thriller. Much of the mystery-solving involves sneaking around, stealthy lock-picking, and research, and all of that allows for an emotional depth—in looking closely at their father’s past, Claire and her brothers explore some deeply-housed grief; a decade’s worth of best-friendship with Forrest gives their new romance special weight—not always associated with action-thrillers.
There’s a large cast of likable, well-drawn characters, and Claire’s status as the only girl in a large group of male friends and family is as complicated and occasionally frustrating as you might imagine—on the one hand, she adores them all and doesn’t question their loyalty, on the other, she’s unimpressed with their casual sexism–as-humor, and she certainly doesn’t need them to fight her battles FOR her. Maetani does a really nice job of portraying Claire as an individual—as one specific girl, not as a stand-in for all girls everywhere—and while all of her close friends are male, there’s never any nonsense from her or from them about how Claire “isn’t like other girls”. (However, it must be noted that Maetani’s avoidance of that trope—and of avoiding broad generalizations about gender—made Claire’s use of the word “pansy” as an insult especially glaring.)
In her Author’s Note, Maetani writes about being a fourth-generation Japanese American: she mentions that the traditions she grew up with date back to when her family immigrated to America, and that they may well differ from those practiced in Japan now; she talks a bit about how, within families, religious rituals can sometimes morph into cultural traditions; and she touches briefly on the effect that the Japanese internment camps in WWII-era America had on the loss of knowledge about various traditions in some families. All of which is a thoughtful, broad-strokes picture of how traditions and beliefs can change—and be created—throughout time.
Along those same lines, Tu Books, the imprint of Lee & Low that published Ink and Ashes, is devoted to bringing more diversity to the YA world. By providing stories that come closer to reflecting our world as it is, rather than simply reflecting the assumptions and views of the dominant culture, Tu Books makes it possible for readers to see Claire as one individual among many, rather than as the one spokesgirl for the entire Japanese American experience. They’re doing important, necessary work, and if they’re not on your radar, you’re missing out.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.