Ink and Ashes

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Ink and Ashes Book Poster Image
Strong, smart heroine in absorbing, gently paced mystery.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Some Japanese culture. Glossary of Japanese vocabulary words used. Facts about inflicting damage on an assailant in self-defense context. Brief information about the Warsaw Concerto. Author's note tells about her personal experience of Japanese culture in the United States.

Positive Messages

Love can be shown in a lot of small ways that add up to something big. Strong bonds of family and friendship help you through difficult times. Asking for help and letting others help you when they volunteer can save a lot of trouble.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Claire, who's 17, breaks some rules mostly to do with snooping, but she's a great model of a smart, well-rounded teen who values academics and athletics. She's loyal and persistent. She saves the life of someone who has done tremendous harm to her. She's surrounded by loving, supportive parents and brothers, and she chafes against their insistence that she needs protecting.


Violent acts required of yakuza (Japanese mafia) members mentioned or implied. Kidnapping, a few fights with punches, kicks, and resulting pain described. Heroine is threatened by arson, including receiving a burned mannequin dressed like her and real bird eyes in a box, which are creepy but not described in detail. Several gunshots; blood is mentioned a few times but not described.


A few kisses, one light make-out session, some hand-holding. A mooning with "white cheeks" mentioned.


"Crap," "butt" once or twice each.


A few snack, gaming, and car brands establish mood or character.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A bad guy smokes cigarettes and blows smoke in Claire's face, which stings her eyes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Ink and Ashes is a mystery with a strong, smart, 17-year-old heroine, Claire. The mystery involves revealing secrets about Claire's parents' past and intertwines with how Japanese culture has evolved in the United States through multiple generations. Her large network of family and friends provides positive role models for loyalty and support. There's no content inappropriate for a middle schooler, but high schoolers are more likely to relate to the older teen characters and their lives. Violence is mostly speculation about ties to the yakuza (Japanese mafia); an eventual confrontation with kidnapping, gunshots, and fighting with blows has pain and injuries, but they're described without gore. Older teens kiss a few times and make out once. Strong language is limited to a few instances of "crap." This is a fine choice for families looking for books with a diverse cast of characters.

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What's the story?

Claire finds a mysterious letter her father wrote to her stepfather long ago. Even though it's been 10 years since her father died, Claire never knew that the two men knew each other. She's determined to learn the truth about her parents' past and the secrets they've been keeping all this time. As she digs, Claire begins to suspect her father may have had ties to the yakuza. And when she starts receiving threats that only someone who knows Japanese culture would understand, it's clear that someone will do anything to stop her.

Is it any good?

This absorbing mystery unfolds at a graceful pace best suited for a patient reader. The plot builds slowly but steadily to a surprising end that reveals truths not only about the past but also about Claire herself. Teens will enjoy Claire's large circle of childhood friends who help solve the mystery, and elements of Japanese culture bring fresh appeal.

INK AND ASHES is a solid debut novel. The writing is good, but the lyrical language promised in the first few pages isn’t sustained throughout the story. Still, author Valynne E. Maetani keeps the pages turning. Claire's voice is realistic and engaging and provides a strong foundation as the reader navigates family secrets, budding romance, high school life, and a growing sense of danger.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how people who've immigrated to the U.S. maintain ties to their cultural heritage. Which customs or rituals have you inherited from your family's past? Do they help you feel connected to other people or places around the world?

  • What do you predict for Claire and Forrest's relationship in the future? Will their years of childhood friendship cement their bond or make it harder for a new relationship to last?

  • Did you find the glossary in the back helpful? Did you learn anything about Japanese culture that you didn't know before?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love mystery

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