Review: Tokyo Heist by Diana Renn

 

   Title: Tokyo Heist

   Author: Diana Renn

   Publisher:  Viking

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Sixteen-year-old Violet loves reading manga and wearing scarves made from kimono fabric, so she’s thrilled that her father’s new painting commission means a summer trip to Japan. But what starts as an exotic vacation quickly turns into a dangerous treasure hunt.

Her father’s newest clients, the Yamada family, are the victims of a high-profile art robbery: van Gogh sketches have been stolen from their home, and, until they can produce the corresponding painting, everyone’s lives are in danger — including Violet’s and her father’s.

Violet’s search for the missing van Gogh takes her from the Seattle Art Museum, to the yakuza-infested streets of Tokyo, to a secluded inn in Kyoto. As the mystery thickens, Violet’s not sure whom she can trust. But she knows one thing: she has to solve the mystery — before it’s too late.

Review:

Mysteries aren’t my favorite genre, but Tokyo Heist had me curious because of the setting.  Violet is a huge manga geek, which I could definitely relate to, and she gets to go globe-trotting – to Japan.  How could I not want to read that? 

Violet is resigned that she isn’t going to have the best summer.  Her mother is in Italy for work, and she’s going to be staying with her father.  To say that her father is distant is an understatement.  To say that he is distracted also falls far short of the mark.  Her father, a man she barely knows, is an artist, and a rather eccentric one at that.  When he’s in a creative frame of mind, there is no room for anything, or anyone, else. Not even his teenaged daughter.  While Violet understands that theirs is not the closest of relationships, she is shocked to discover that her father has never told his co-workers, or even his girlfriend, about her existence.  Ouch!

When Violet’s father takes a commission from a wealthy Japanese couple, Violet finds herself embroiled in a mystery.  Somebody has stolen some van Gogh drawings from the Yamada’s, and all fingers are pointing to Skye, her father’s girlfriend.  Determined to find the drawings, and collect the huge reward, Violet discovers that there is so much more at stake than the drawings.  Her father’s life is on the line.  A yakuza boss is demanding the return of a van Gogh painting based on the drawings, claiming that Tomonori Yamada had stolen it from him.  Tomonori committed suicide years before, but Violet is starting to suspect that it wasn’t a suicide after all.

Most of the appeal of this read for me is the location.  What I wouldn’t give for an all-expenses paid trip to Tokyo (and a ryokan in Kyoto).  Even with all of the related danger!  Traveling to the Land of the Rising Sun is a dream of mine, one that I have had for a long, long time.  I want to slurp noodles at a ramen shop, stuff myself with fresh sushi, and snack on Melty Kiss and limited edition Kit Kat bars.  Through Violet, I was able to see some of the highlights of Tokyo, all without the expensive plane ticket and hotel room.

I liked Violet.  I felt for her when her best friend and secret crush, Edge, started dating her former BFF.  Everything she did to try to make things better and repair her friendship with Edge only made matters worse.  Without the mystery to occupy her thoughts, Violet would have moped around all summer long.  Instead, she spent her vacation trying to outsmart gangsters, locate a missing masterpiece, and get her father to finally pay attention to her.  I felt bad for Violet.  She was desperate to have her father’s approval, but he was always far too busy with his art to give her even the time of day.  I didn’t think her mother was much better, though, because she hopped on a plane to Italy and left her with her father, hardly a candidate for Father of the Year, without a second glance.  Just.  Wow.

Violet has perfected the technique of being invisible to avoid being bullied at school.  That doesn’t really work, but she is willing to stay on the fringes instead of getting caught up in the middle of  all of the action.  With the life of her father in danger, though, she must face her fears and start taking risks.  Sometimes observing life isn’t good enough; you have to roll up your shirt sleeves and dive into life.  It was fun watching as Violet gathered the courage to do just that.

Despite some pacing issues, i enjoyed this YA mystery.  I think it will work best for the younger range of YA readers, or anyone with an interest in Japan or Japanese art should find it hard to put down.  Violet is a likeable protagonist, and I had fun following along as she discovered her inner strengths and started to come into her own as she struggled with her relationship with her self-absorbed father.  Her lack of stealth as she raced to crack the mystery of the missing van Gogh painting had me worried about her continued health on more than one occasion.  I breathed a sigh of relief when she emerged, mostly unscathed, to the end of the book. 

Grade:  B

Available in Print and Digital

Review copy provided by publisher

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Interview with Dianna Renn, Author of Tokyo Heist

Diana Renn is the author of Tokyo Heist, a YA mystery set in Seattle and Japan.  Tokyo Heist will be in stores June 14, and Diana dropped by the virtual offices to introduce herself and chat about her book.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Describe yourself in 140 characters or less.

[Diana Renn] I write mysteries for teens. I love travel. I’m an amateur taiko drummer. I grew up in Seattle and now live in Boston. I struggle mightily with word counts – I think I ran over 140!

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Can you tell us a little about Tokyo Heist?

[Diana Renn] Tokyo Heist is a mystery set in Seattle and Japan. Violet Rossi, a 16-year-old manga fan and aspiring artist, is supposed to spend the summer with her distant artist father and work in a comic book shop. But her dad’s painting commission in Japan changes this plan, as does an art heist: Van Gogh drawings have been stolen from the Yamadas, her dad’s new clients. Someone demands a painting that corresponds to the drawings, and unless the Yamadas can come up with it fast, all of their lives are in danger. Violet’s visual skills and knowledge of manga help with her sleuthing, as does her friend Reika, who’s spending the summer in Tokyo.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] How did you come up with the concept and the characters for the story?

[Diana Renn] A few years ago, while attending a summer festival in Japan, I noticed an American girl wearing a brightly colored summer kimono and combat boots. I wondered what her story was. My image of this girl straddling cultures grew into Violet months later. I also came up with the character of Violet’s moody and estranged father, an artist, pretty early on, as well as the Japanese couple from whom the van Goghs are stolen. I liked the idea of a girl from a chaotic family being drawn to what she perceives as a more orderly family. Other characters evolved gradually, over the course of numerous drafts.

In terms of the concept, I resisted labeling the book a “mystery” for quite some time, even though it had many elements of mystery. (Stolen art, anyone? Family secrets? Hello?) It eventually became clear that it had to be a mystery, with real suspects, clues, reveals, the whole deal. Once I made that decision, the writing came easier and became more fun, and I still got to explore the character and culture dynamics that had interested me in the first place.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What was the most challenging aspect of writing the story?

[Diana Renn] Working out the mystery plot. It took years! I started without an outline. (Note to self: don’t do that again). I created a tangle of seemingly unsolvable problems. Then I tried to fix everything, throwing myself into brainstorming lists and graphic organizers to keep ideas straight. (Note to self: do that again!) I now think of my book not so much as a “whodunit” but a “whodini” (or Houdini) – I felt like an escape artist, trying to get out of the chains I’d created. I wasn’t even sure who the bad guy was when I began, let alone the logistics of the various crimes. Nightmare. But once I started figuring things out, other parts fell into place. So the most challenging aspect, plotting, ended up being the most fulfilling. I solved this weird, intricate puzzle, and now I hope readers can too!

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What three words best describe Violet?

[Diana Renn] Creative. Determined. Introspective.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What is Violet’s most prized possession?

[Diana Renn] Her sketchbook. She’s an artist who would love to share her work with a wider audience, but she is intensely private and living in the shadow of her artist father. That book is the one place where she feels free to express herself and explore ideas. It’s where she makes sense of her world, drawing the people and experiences in her life. It’s also where she works out much of the mystery she’s trying to solve, usually in comic book form.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What are your greatest creative influences?

[Diana Renn] Reading other writers always inspires me. I read widely and often. I went to graduate school for English and American literature, and I used to teach, so I’m sure that has influenced my writing. At the very least, I know how to do effective research!

I’m really most inspired and influenced by visual art, even though I am not a visual artist myself. I love going to galleries and museums, or just looking through books of art. Van Gogh is one of my favorites. I love how there’s this perception of him as a brilliant artist who dashed off masterpieces, when in fact he was a serious student of art. He would do countless sketches and studies of his subjects before putting a brush to canvas, really working through his ideas. When I see a van Gogh painting that seems utterly perfect, but then think about the work that went into it, I’m in awe.

I’m also influenced by music and dance. Those art forms make me alert to patterns and rhythms. Listening to a song over and over, while visualizing my story, helps me to work through tough plot points. In writing Tokyo Heist, I listened to a nine-minute recording of a Japanese koto song played by Masayo Ishigure. For years. Mostly in the car – I’d drive for miles and play this song. I can’t play the koto but I now know every note of this particular song! It really helped me to visualize and refine my story, and to evoke Japan for me.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What three things do you need in order to write?

[Diana Renn] It used to be steaming hot coffee, total silence, a stretch of time. With a small child, all of those things have become luxurious commodities. I’m happy with snatches of time, and childcare. I still have the coffee, but it’s often lukewarm.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] If you had to pick one book that turned you on to reading, which would it be?

[Diana Renn] Comet in Moominland, by Tove Jansson. It was one of the first novels I read on my own, and it was the most exciting thing I’d ever read. Something fascinating happened on every single page. I went on to devour the whole Moomintroll series, and these battered copies still occupy a place of honor on my shelves. To this day I love the simple but expressive line art illustrations of the whimsical creatures, as well as the exciting adventures and quests balanced with moments of introspection and quietude. The Moomintroll books are adventure stories for introverts. Brilliant.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What is the last book you read that knocked your socks off?

[Diana Renn] I’m a huge John Green fan, and The Fault in Our Stars blew me away. I can’t remember when I’ve cared about two characters as much as I’ve cared about Hazel and Augustus, and their connection is so well-rendered. I love the big questions the book takes on and doesn’t always answer. I love how the story could lapse into cliché and melodrama but repeatedly resists.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

[Diana Renn] I’ve been studying taiko drumming for two years, and I play and occasionally perform with a group here in New England. I hang out with my family – I have a husband, a young child, and a needy cat, plus family in Seattle whom I visit often. I read in almost every spare moment I have. I rarely watch TV.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] How can readers connect with you?

[Diana Renn] I’m easy to find! I have a website, http://www.dianarennbooks.com, and can be reached by email via that site. I lurk in the usual places online: Facebook, Twitter (@dianarenn). I’m also on a group blog called Sleuths Spies & Alibis with six other authors. We all write mysteries for young adult and middle grade readers, and we’re all debuting in 2012 or 2013. If you’re a mystery fan, please stop by and check out our site!

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Thank you!


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