Friday, September 19, 2008

Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Summary: In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.

This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship–and innocent love–that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.

Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice–words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.

Set during one of the most conflicted and volatile times in American history, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an extraordinary story of commitment and enduring hope. In Henry and Keiko, Jamie Ford has created an unforgettable duo whose story teaches us of the power of forgiveness and the human heart. -- Ballantine Books

I was a little surprised when I opened a package with the book HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jamie Ford. I wasn't expecting to receive this book in the mail, nor had I ever even heard about it. (That's probably because it was a "Special Preview Edition," and the book won't be available until January 2009.) The letter that came with the book said, " It's an amazing story, and our department hasn't been so excited about a book since LOVING FRANK." With that kind of endorsement, I just knew I had to read it right away! Even though I have a huge stack of books that I "should" be reading, I picked up HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET and absolutely devoured it in one day.

I don't know what to say except that I adored this book! It definitely lived up to the hype, and I can't recommend it enough. I'm afraid that my review won't do this book justice, but I'll give it a shot anyway. I think HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is one of the best books that I've read so far in 2008. If my gushing isn't enough, check out some other praise for the novel.

This book touched me like no other book has in recent memory. Of course, the subject matter of the Japanese internment camps during WWII is a very difficult one that causes me a great deal of sadness. It's still hard for me to believe that something like this happened in our country (and not that long ago.) However, I really think that the character of Henry is what affected me the most. The bullying he faced at an all-white school and the difficulties he had with his parents caused me a great deal of heartache. It just broke my heart to see such a wonderful kid who didn't feel like he belonged anywhere. So when Henry met Keiko and found someone who truly understood him, I could see why this friendship had such a dramatic impact on his life.

I loved how the author took the reader back and forth between 1940s and 1986 Seattle; and I think he did a wonderful job with the transitions. I also thoroughly enjoyed how the author incorported 1940s Seattle and its Jazz scene into this book. It's apparent that he did a great deal of research on this time period and even incorporated actual buildings and people into this novel. I think it was brilliant how the author tied Henry's search for the jazz album into his ultimate quest for Keiko.

Although this book was definitely sad and dealt with some very difficult issues, I still finished the book with a smile on my face. For me, this book was ultimately about the resilience of human spirit; and most importantly, that one should never give up hope. I loved so many of the themes that appeared within the pages of the book especially the one that dealt with the father/son relationship issues. The relationship between Henry and his father was extremely complex, and lack of communication was such a huge issue for them (the language barrier being only one reason.) As a result of the problems that Henry faced as a young boy, I think it was even more tragic when Henry and his son had some of the same issues.

HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is Mr. Ford's first novel, and what a novel it it! I thought this book was incredibly written -- from the descriptions of 1940s Seattle to the intense dialogue between the characters. I was especially blown away by how well Mr. Ford developed all of the characters and caused me to fall in love with Henry and Keiko. I have no doubt that this is just the beginning for Mr. Ford, and I'm anxiously awaiting more books from this very talented author.

HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET would be the perfect book to read and discuss with friends. There are so many things to discuss, and this book evoked so many intense feelings in me. I have a sneaky suspicion that book clubs everywhere will be rushing to select this book for a future discussion. I'm sure there will be a discussion guide available in the near future, and I will link to it when it's available.

Trust me on this one! You should definitely pick up a copy of HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET when it comes out on January 27, 2009.


Anonymous said...

Nice review and good story. It makes me want to read the book. I'll definitely look for it when its out.

Anonymous said...

Wow! You've convinced me to add this one to my wish list.

Mary (Bookfan) said...

This one's going on my TBR list. Great review.

Jill said...

Great review...I saw the title of this one somewhere in passing, but I had no idea what it was about. Added to my TBR list..

Amy said...

Ha, I just got this one this week. But I requested it after reading about it elsewhere. Can't wait to read it! :)

Anonymous said...

Wow! I can't wait to read this one! I'm always looking for books that have a WWII aspect to them. I've always been fascinated with that period. Sounds like he accomplished a lot for a first novel!

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

It sounds awesome. Great review. I can't believe I have to wait until January though!!!

Megan said...

Sounds like something I'll definitely be interested in reading. Thanks for the great review! =)

Anonymous said...

I saw this book in the bookstore and was immediately drawn both to the title and to the cover. And I was not disappointed! What a beautifully written, touching book that takes place in a sad time in our country's history. I highly recommend this book, and look forward to more works from this author in the future.

LuAnn said...

I live in Washington state and have been to Seattle many, many times. So this would be a wonderful book to read!