That last one is the delicious premise of Ink, by Amanda Sun, a young adult paranormal set in Japan. Releases June 25; thank you NetGalley and Harlequin Teen for a chance to read an advance e-book.
Katie discovers her new Japanese friend, Tomohiro, is a Kami, a person with mythological ties and a power that can bring his drawings to life. This is sooooo cool, and I hungered for each and every scene where Tomo sketches:
But before I get too carried away with Tomohiro and his ability to bring ink to life, let me start at the beginning:
As he moved his pen to sketch the wins of another butterfly, the first spiraled from the page. It was colorless, with jagged sketch outlines. A stream of ink trailed behind it like a firework, shimmering in shades of black and dark plum.
First line: I made it halfway across the courtyard before I realized I was still wearing my school slippers.
I liked how the very first line shows Katie trying – and failing – to adjust to a new culture, as she’s just moved from the U.S. to Japan to live with her aunt, after the death of her mother. Little touches like how her aunt packed her bentou box from side to side with squished peanut-butter sandwiches: the Japanese container, the American food, helped me identify with this girl. But also, I liked how as the months progress, she starts to assimilate more of the culture, and eventually embrace it.
Katie is drawn to Tomohiro, who has a “bad-boy” reputation, but she discovers he’s hurting from his mother’s death too. Throughout the book he’s always trying to push Katie away, and I had to admire her persistence, and eventually Tomo admires it too: “I’ve always had to push away people I cared about. You’re the only one who ever pushed back.”
As I came to admire Katie’s persistence, I also had to give Tomohiro credit for breaking some common YA guy stereotypes, even though at times I wanted to kick him! In fact, I slowly developed a surprising appreciation for Katie’s and Tomohiro’s chemistry and anti-chemistry:
The words brushed against my lips and sent the butterflies tumbling again. He’s going to kiss me, he’s going to –
He leaned back and patted me on the head. My cheeks turned tomato-red as I glared at him.
He blinked and stared back, looking completely innocent. “What?” he took another look at me and burst out laughing. “Did you think I was going to…?”
And then there’s this sharply contrasting description of Tomo:
He was fireworks and radiance, glare and tingling frostbite.
Another thing I loved about the story were all the details about Japanese culture were woven in to the story without sounding infodumpy. Here’s a great example of where Katie forgets one of the Japanese rules for addressing a person by name:
“Tomo, I’m serious. Stop it.” It slipped out, just like that. I’d switched to his first name, a shortened one even, and made whatever it was we had closer. He heard the minute I did, and his face started to turn beet-red.
I also loved the ink-wash sketches included in the book, some of them full page illustrations and some just small sketches in the page borders. One of the page border sketches is of a wagtail bird that changes position on each page like an animation.
And this: this gave me shivers!
It occurred to me the room was fireproof to keep the painting from burning down the rest of the shrine, not to protect the treasures inside.
Characterization: Katie and Tomo were well done and Katie’s friends Yuki and Tanaka had distinctive personalities, but I really wanted to more about Katie’s aunt, and why she chose to live in Japan.
Setting: Enjoyed the details of the different settings in Japan, from the cherry blossom season to the archaeological site in the park forest, to the shrine that Katie visits with her friend. It didn’t completely “transport” me like some vivid settings can, but it did a better job of making me feel the setting than a couple other books set in Japan that I’ve read. Impressed how all the Japanese words were integrated with the story still being easily readable.
Plot: A solid plot, though I would have liked more development/background on what Tomo can do with the ink and how it tries to control him, and how it's connected to other Kamis. The ending felt a little rushed, and left me scratching my head as far as the Kami part, but for Katie’s decision in the airport, I really liked that part.
Personal appeal: I love stories with mythological components, especially ones I haven’t encountered before, like the Kami in Japan. Mix that with some well-woven cultural components and cultural clashes, and I’m a happy camper.
Literary touches: There were some thoughtful touches related to Tomohiro’s and Ishikawa’s troublesome backgrounds, like this hints at:
Outside of kendo, they both slouched, looked badass and, in Ishikawa’s case, got into a lot of serious trouble. But somehow wearing the bogu armor and covering their faces with the men [face-guard] actually unmasked them and put them at ease.
There’s the age-old situation of falling for the wrong sort of person:
I wasn’t sure how I’d managed to get mixed in with gangsters and secret societies. I wished I’d fallen for Tanaka [the safe boy], that I’d called Tomohiro on the jerk he was and just stayed away from him. But I’d seen the real him, that he was deeper and different and changed. Now I couldn’t imagine a world without him in it. My heart was glass – easy to see through, simple to break.
There are reasons why we aren’t drawn to the “safe” person, and the key word for me in the paragraph above is Katie recognizing that Tomohiro is “changed” – and he was the one that pointed out the same thing to her too. After her mother’s death she thought like she should eventually be able to get back to “normal” and wondered why she couldn’t, and Tomo is the one who tells her it’s okay to be “changed” and that she doesn't have to go back to normal, to the way she was before her life fell apart.
Normally I am not a fan of girls falling for the misunderstood bad boy even when, as in this case, there's a mutual bond of pain and loss; but I think the author made it clear Tomo was a noble person, who tried to look "bad" for a very specific and valid reason...
What's your take on the "misunderstood" bad boy in teen lit? Problematic or realistic or both?