From Tokyo Heist:
Now I've got one parent jetting off to Italy, and the other zooming away to Japan, while I get to spend my entire summer working at a second-rate stripmall comic shop, taking money from snotty kids and forty-year-old men who need showers. Plus, it's my life dream to go to Japan. One of my best friends is there all summer, and I would kill to be there with her. And now my dad—who won't even touch sushi with a ten-foot chopstick—is the one who gets to go. This is so not fair.
Luckily for sixteen-year-old Violet—aspiring manga artist and fan of all things Japanese—her talents catch the eye of Kenji and Mitsue Yamada, the couple who've just hired her father, and suddenly they've offered her a summer job in Japan, too.
And, as Violet is also a mystery novel junkie, the fact that her new employers just-so happen to be offering a one hundred thousand dollar reward for information leading to the recovery of their three recently-stolen van Gogh drawings, well, that's just the icing on the cake. So now she's headed to Japan with a new job PLUS a mystery to solve and a reward to win.
Fun stuff. Lots of running around—in Seattle, Tokyo, and Kyoto—spying and sleuthing and shopping, detecting and drawing and deducing. Violet's habit of recreating the suspects and storyline as manga characters (sometimes on paper, sometimes in her mind) is a really cool touch, and often gives her train of thought a sort-of prose-version-of-manga feel, though it's always clear in Tokyo Heist what is reality and what is fantasy. There's a lot here about Japanese culture and art, but since Violet already has a pretty decent base of knowledge, it's conveyed in a nicely organic manner, without didacticism or infodumps.
In addition to the aforementioned stolen art, the mystery involves the yakuza, secret love affairs, mysterious deaths, and a treasure hunt that follows clues hidden in art. There are lots of twists, turns, surprises and red herrings, and it's fast-paced and entertaining from start to finish.
On the more personal side, I especially liked Violet as a protagonist because she wasn't perfect, or even always entirely likable: while she's smart and talented and often quite fun to be around, she's also a bit of a snobbish pill about her job in the comic shop, and she's kind of a jerk to her crush. Her difficult relationship with her father is especially good, as is her friendship with Reika. Speaking of Reika, two things: 1. This book totally passes the Bechdel Test, and 2. in addition to being written as an actual three-dimensional character, Reika acts nicely as a bridge between cultures and languages due to her upbringing and parentage—her mother is originally from Tokyo and her father is from Seattle. But, like I said, she's written as an actual person, not as a vessel for imparting information to the reader. Well done, that.
Finally, my only real problem. While I liked Violet's lack of romantic experience—her understanding of lurrrve comes from watching Reika's love life from the sidelines and reading lots of shōjo manga—her own love story feels not only flat, but completely unnecessary. That flaw certainly won't stop me from recommending Tokyo Heist as a solid mystery to my YA patrons, but it was still enough of an issue that it was worth a mention.
Book source: ILLed through my library. This book was read for the 2012 Cybils season.