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!


You can purchase Tokyo Heist from your favorite bookseller, or by clicking the widget below. Available in both print and digital

Review: Cat Girl’s Day Off by Kimberly Pauley


 

Title: Cat Girl’s Day Off

Author: Kimberly Pauley

Publisher:  Tu Books

ISBN: 978-1600608834

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Natalie Ng’s little sister is a super-genius with a chameleon-like ability to disappear. Her older sister has three Class A Talents, including being a human lie detector. Her mom has laser vision and has one of the highest IQs ever. Her dad’s Talent is so complex even the Bureau of Extra-Sensory Regulation and Management (BERM) hardly knows what to classify him as.

And Nat? She can talk to cats.

The whole talking-to-cats thing is something she tries very hard to hide, except with her best friends Oscar (a celebrity-addicted gossip hound) and Melly (a wannabe actress). When Oscar shows her a viral Internet video featuring a famous blogger being attacked by her own cat, Nat realizes what’s really going on…and it’s not funny.
(okay, yeah, a frou-frou blogger being taken down by a really angry cat named Tiddlywinks, who also happens to be dyed pink? Pretty hilarious.)

Nat and her friends are catapulted right into the middle of a celebrity kidnapping mystery that takes them through Ferris Bueller’s Chicago and on and off movie sets. Can she keep her reputation intact? Can she keep Oscar and Melly focused long enough to save the day? And, most importantly, can she keep from embarrassing herself in front of Ian?
Find out what happens when the kitty litter hits the fan

Review:

I have read all of Kimberly Pauley’s books to date, and I have enjoyed each one of them.  Her Sucks to be Me series is a tongue in cheek take on vampires (they are also Bargain Priced on Amazon as of the writing of this review here and here), and when I saw that her next project was about a girl who could talk to cats, I was all over that.  I love animals, and the thought of being able to talk to cats sounded like a fun plot device, considering how humorous I hoped that the book would be.  Turns out, I wasn’t disappointed in the least.  I hope I get to spend more time with Nat in the future.

Natalie Ng feels like she’s the under-achiever of her family.  While her sisters have cool Talents, like being a human lie-detector and being able to levitate things, hers is just plain dumb.  Nat can talk to cats.  She’s afraid her classmates will find out and start making fun of her, so she keeps her Talent under wraps.  It’s also grating that her younger sister is a super-genius and already in a higher grade than she is, and that her older sister and her dad both work for BERM, the organization that monitors Talents, so they stick together like glue.  Nat is adrift in her own family, and she feels like she doesn’t fit in.

When she and her friends discover that a celebrity blogger has been kidnapped, they spring into action.  They cat-nap (rescue?) Tiddlewinks, aka Rufus Brutus the Third, and using her special Talent, Nat gets the scoop on the truth.  Easton West has been kidnapped, and Nat’s celebrity obsessed BFFs are determined to save her!  Whether Nat wants anything to do with their rescue mission or not!  Hijinks ensue, which include an epic food fight in the high school cafeteria, skipping classes, breaking into a creepy house, and random discourse with strange cats, only one of which is pink.

I loved Nat and her relationships with the animals she meets during her adventure.  Her own cat, Meep, is genetically engineered so that her mother’s allergies don’t get out of control.  Meep is snarky, but she can’t hold a candle to Rufus.  Rufus is a prima donna in pink cat fur, aloof, demanding, and temperamental.  He also loves his person and wants to save her from the clutches of the evil woman who has kidnapped her and taken over her identity.  The cats are a lot of fun, and their diverse personalities added some laughs when tensions ran high.  I am a sucker for animals, and I loved the idea of being able to communicate with them.  They don’t pull any punches, either!  These cats can be brutally honest.  Nat can only talk to cats, though there are those occasional times when she can understand a dog, usually one that lives with a cat (so maybe the dog is really speaking cat?).

While I did find Nat’s friends too stereo-typed and uber annoying, overall, I thought Cat Girl’s Day Off was a fun, fast read.  I was engaged in the story from beginning to end, and even had a few stressful moments when it looked like Rufus might meet an untimely end. Gah!  Thankfully, Nat cleverly, albeit reluctantly, races in to save the day, as well as the cranky cat.  This is the perfect book to pack in your beach bag; it’s a quick read, it’s light, and it’s a great escape from reality.  I hope Nat has more adventures, because this really is a fun read.

Note: Nat’s footsteps follow those of Ferris Bueller, but since I haven’t seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in forever, most of the nods to the movie went right over my head.  That didn’t stop me from enjoying the book anyway.

Grade: B+

Review copy provided by {teen} Book Scene

 

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Teaser Tuesday–Princess of the Wild Swans and Deadly

 

Diane Zahler’s reimagined fairy tales are quickly becoming a favorite of mine.  Princess of the Wild Swans is another fun book that kept me entertained over the weekend.  I am looking forward to more of her books!

 

I rose abruptly, rocking the table.  As I stood, my goblet crashed to the floor, shattering into a hundred tiny pieces. At the sound, the door to the hall flew open.  Mistress Tuileach stood there, and I ran to her.

Help me! I thought in desperation.

 

I just picked up Deadly by Julie Chibbaro.  I love the premise; it takes place in New York in 1906 during the devastating outbreak of typhoid fever. 

 

Every September, the shivers come over me, thoughts of my brother’s terrifying death, and the questions – why did his short life end? Why do people have to die?

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

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Guest Post–John Barlow, Author of Hope Road

 

John Barlow is the author of Hope Road, the debut book in his new LS9 Crime series.  John dropped by the virtual offices to discuss the challenges of writing convincing women characters.  Check out what he has to say.  If you are interested in learning more about Hope Road, send John an email.  He has some copies to give away!   Read his thought-provoking post for details.

Writing Compelling Women Characters by John Barlow, author of HOPE ROAD

I’m not a woman. In fact, I’m the complete opposite of that. And we all know what the the problem with men is… We’re not empathizers. Having never been to Venus, we’re just no good at standing outside ourselves and feeling what it’s like to be someone else. For an author, this leads to certain issues with characterisation. They say ‘write what you know’, but for any writer roughly 50% of his or her characters are going to be of the sex he or she doesn’t ‘know’ from the inside. And it’s worse for men, because we just don’t have that empathy thing going on.

Writing about women has never caused me any problems before. Having said that, perhaps the most ‘feminine’ scene in my first book, EATING MAMMALS, was the incompetent fumblings of two young lovers having their first sexual encounter, circa 1870. The problem for me as a writer was not getting into the young girl’s mind, but getting into her clothes. Quite simply, the Victorians wore a lot more layers down there, and they had buttons not zippers. By the end of the scene I felt sorry for both of them. I think we were all glad when it was over, somewhat prematurely.

Bad or unconvincing female characters: a recurring criticism of fiction written by men. And it’s a serious problem, because women buy and read well over half of all fiction sold. When I came to write HOPE ROAD, my new mystery, these issues were compounded by the genre itself: unless your detective or sleuth is a woman, crime mysteries often involve a man solving the murder of a woman. The power relationship is clear, and although many writers tamper with the formula, it’s amazing how often contemporary crime fiction opens with a murdered woman.

And my novel? Yep, it opens with a murdered woman. For a variety of reasons, this was the only way the plot would work. Meanwhile, my sleuth is a man. And that had to be the case because, well, because I’m a man. ‘Write about what you know.’ I know about being a man, so my lead character was going to be masculine. However, HOPE ROAD is a psychological mystery. It tries to explore the human consequences of criminality. Hence, I really wanted to see a woman experiencing these consequences as well as a man. What I came up with was a dynamic that would let me set a romantic relationship against the backdrop of a crime. So, my sleuth is the son of a career criminal who gets mixed up in a murder investigation, and his girlfriend is a young police detective.

Sound promising? I thought so. As I began to write, my main male character came along well, and I started to enjoy writing about him. But his girlfriend? Because the situation in which she found herself was one of emotional and professional conflict, I needed to work out how she might respond to all this shit. To begin with I just didn’t know. I ended up re-writing most of her scenes several times, re-jigging the plot to incorporate the consequences of her decisions, and generally making her emotions more and more pivotal to the story. I ended up pacing up and down, acting out her lines, trying to think like a woman, trying to strike that balance between strength and vulnerability, between someone who is tough but not hardened.

Did it work? This is where you come in. I’d really like to know what you think. I’ve got ten ebooks to give away (any format), and the only condition is that you let me know what you think of the female lead character in the book. Email me for your free copy (see website for contact details). Ladies only, please.


John Barlow was born in Leeds, England in 1967. He studied English Literature at Cambridge University and worked as a university teacher before becoming a full-time writer in 2004. His work has been published by HarperCollins, Farrar, Straus & Giroux and 4th Estate, and has been translated into six languages.
Contact John:
John’s website
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Review: My Own Worst Frenemy by Kimberly Reid

 

Title:  My Own Worst Frenemy

Author: Kimberly Reid

Publisher: Dafina

ISBN: 978-0758267405

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Straight outta the Mile High City, Chanti Evans is an undercover cop’s daughter and an exclusive private school’s newest student. But Chanti is learning fast that when it comes to con games, the streets have nothing on Langdon Prep.

With barely a foot in the door, fifteen-year-old Chanti gets on the bad side of school queen bee Lissa and snobbish Headmistress Smythe. They’ve made it their mission to take Chanti down and she needs to find out why, especially when stuff begins disappearing around campus, making her the most wanted girl in school, and not in a good way. But the last straw comes when she and her Langdon crush, the seriously hot Marco Ruiz, are set up to take the heat for a series of home burglaries–and worse. . . . 

Review:

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I first picked up My Own Worst Frenemy.  While I occasionally found protagonist Chanti grating, I also found her likeable, capable, and intelligent.  Maybe too smart for her own good, because she couldn’t keep herself, or her mouth, from getting her in trouble.  While watching each new disaster play out, I kept wondering how on earth she was going to clear herself of each new mess she tumbled in.  Usually face first, with plenty of embarrassment and the eminent threat of expulsion from her new prep school, and worse, a trip to jail!  Chanti keeps herself very busy getting herself out of these situations, and each new hurdle kept the pages turning.

After being in the wrong place at the wrong time during summer break, Chanti’s mom, a no-nonsense undercover cop, decides her daughter needs to be in new surroundings.  Separated from her friends, Chanti finds herself enrolled at Langdon Prep, a school across town for rich kids.  Kids jarringly different from herself, and kids who don’t hesitate to mock her scholarship and her humble background.  As Chanti tries to fit in with kids she has absolutely nothing in common with, she finds other trials to overcome.  A series of thefts has suspicions aimed firmly in her direction, as well as the two other scholarship kids at Langdon.  Determined to clear her name, and maybe hook-up with cutie Marco, Chanti finds herself in a lot more trouble than she bargained for.

I have to admit, when I first met Chanti, I didn’t like her.  She is a smart aleck, and she thinks she is a lot more street savvy than she actually is.  Then I learned that her bravado is all a front, and that she would really rather run from a confrontation than engage in one.  To keep herself from looking like a coward, she meets adversity head on.  I started to admire that trait, because I think I would have rolled over and given up a few times if I had been presented with the same challenges as Chanti.  I also started to appreciate her flaws, and her acceptance of them, as the story unfolded.

What Chanti is good at is noticing things.  She also never backs down from a challenge.  Having observed her mom in action, Chanti can’t help but mimic some of her mom’s detective skills.  It’s almost genetic.  She can’t help noticing things, and many times, it’s noticing things that get her into trouble.  She is curious about everything, and is always trying to understand other people’s motivations.  This trait annoys pretty much everyone she meets, because she can’t help but grill them about – well – everything. 

As the charges against Chanti increase, so does her desperation to discover the real thief.  As her life hurtles out of control, Chanti tries desperately to reconcile her old life and her old friends with her new life at Langdon Prep, where it looks as though she will never fit in.  The pages starting turning with increased velocity as Chanti’s troubles magnified.  Once I got involved in the plot, I gobbled this book up in an afternoon.  This is a fun read for fans of contemporary dramas, with a mystery thrown in for good measure.  I felt that the romance elements needed to be stronger, and I’m hoping that Chanti and Marco’s relationship will be further developed in the next book.  I also hope that Chanti’s mom, Lana, will be a little more active in her life; no wonder Chanti keeps getting herself into mischief!  It’s not like her mom is home to keep her on the straight and narrow.  

Grade: B

Review copy provided by {Teen} Book Scene


My Own Worst Frenemy is available in both print and digital formats:

Review: Between by Jessica Warman

 

Title: Between

Author: Jessica Warman

Publisher: Walker Books

ISBN: 978-0802721822

 

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Elizabeth Valchar-pretty, popular, and perfect-wakes up the morning after her eighteenth birthday party on her family’s yacht, where she’d been celebrating with her six closest friends. A persistent thumping noise has roused her. When she goes to investigate, what she finds will change everything she thought she knew about her life, her friends, and everything in between. As Liz begins to unravel the circumstances surrounding her birthday night, she will find that no one around her, least of all Liz herself, was perfect-or innocent. Critically acclaimed author Jessica Warman brings readers along on a roller-coaster ride of a mystery, one that is also a heartbreaking character study, a touching romance, and ultimately a hopeful tale of redemption, love, and letting go.

Review:

I am a bit confused about my feelings for this book.  There were many elements that I loved and that is what kept me reading.  There were also bits and pieces that I wasn’t so fond of, that detracted from my enjoyment of Between.  I love the concept, too, but felt that the execution was just a little weak in spots.

My biggest dissatisfaction stems from the pacing.  This is a leisurely look at the life and death of one very spoiled young woman.  Starting with Liz’s death, the book jumps between the present and flashbacks to the past to unravel the mystery of her death.  How did she end up in a cold, watery grave on her birthday? Why didn’t anyone hear her fall off of her parents’ boat, or her struggles to save herself from drowning?  Liz has very few memories left, so with the help of another ghost, she begins to fill in the pieces of her life that she has forgotten.  As she slowly adds one fragment of her past after another, she starts to see that she wasn’t a very nice person, and that despite all appearances to the contrary, she wasn’t a very happy one, either.

This is a character driven book, which brings me to the other reason why I didn’t totally love this read.  I wasn’t head over heels with any of the characters, except maybe Alex.  Alex has been dead for a year, killed by a hit and run driver.  He has been stuck somewhere between life and death, restlessly seeking a way to move beyond where he’s stuck now.  He was never a popular kid at school, and unlike Liz, he had to work for everything that he had.  His parents weren’t wealthy, and he had to work at the local market, riding his bike back and forth to his job.  It’s obvious from the start that he can’t stand Liz, he can’t stand her friends, and he isn’t happy that he’s with her in death.  She is about the last person he would want to spend time with, and now it looks like he’s going to be spending eternity with her.   Life, and death, just aren’t fair!

Since Liz can’t remember much about herself, she has a hard time believing that she was as big a witch as Alex claims.  Through flashbacks, she begins to see what a mess she was.  Having witnessed her mother’s untimely death, Liz has had many issues to deal with, and they have left her with a skewed outlook on life.  Her father denies her nothing, and her step-mother and step-sister are also accustomed to getting every material thing that they want.  This leaves Liz a shallow, materialistic girl, and I never connected with her.  Even in her death, she’s hard to like.  She’s catty and judgmental, and she’s always critical of the people around her and how they look or what they have.  It’s like she still can’t see beyond outward appearances, even when she is seeking redemption for herself.  This frustrated me about her.  She is petty and shallow, from the beginning of the book to the end.   This is a passage near the end of the novel:

Nicole saunters out the back door of our house. She’s wearing a flowing white skirt that grazes her ankles, a yellow halter top that exposes her belly – which is just a tad pudgy – and a light jacket.

If I had ever met her in real life, we would have hated each other.

Having said that, Liz does possess one character trait that I admired, and kept me from totally disliking her.  She is so intensely loyal and in love with Richie, her boyfriend.  Though he is a flawed character as well, their relationship was convincing.  They have known each other since they were both babies, and they have developed an intense and unwavering love between them.  They have always been together, and they believe, firmly and unflinchingly, that they will always be together.

While Between didn’t always work for me, I never wanted to put it down and stop reading it.  I did want Liz and Alex to find some kind of meaning in their deaths, and I wanted Liz to find the happiness in death that she never found in her troubled life.  I just wish I had liked her better during her journey to find inner peace.

Grade: B

Review copy provided by publisher