Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (& a Giveaway)

As he left the hotel, Henry looked west to where the sun was setting, burnt sienna flooding the horizon. It reminded him that time was short, but that beautiful endings could still be found at the end of cold, dreary days.
[pg 77]

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
by Jamie Ford
Ballantine Books, 2009
Fiction; 290 pgs

I am sure many of you have had this experience: you come across a book that you just have to read. From that very first moment that you heard of or saw the book, there is no doubt in your mind that you will be reading that book. And so it was for me with Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I do not like to buy hardbacks at full price, and so I began the long wait for the book to make it out in paperback. I told myself there was no way I would get to it anytime soon anyway, and so I could stand to wait as hard as that might be. Patience is not one of my virtues when it comes to books.

When Tracee’s e-mail came asking for tour participants, I did mental cartwheels. This was my chance! No more waiting! So, of course, I did not hesitate to say yes.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a delightful and tragic book all in one. It is full of hope even during the direst of moments. Crossing over time lines, the novel goes back and forth between the sort of present (1986) and the past (World War II). It is the story of Henry Lee, a young Chinese-American growing up in Seattle, Washington, and an older Henry, who is searching for something even he is not sure he will find and trying to piece his life together as he makes peace with the past.

The Panama Hotel had been boarded up since the 1950’s. One day in 1986, as Henry is walking by, he notices a crowd gathering outside the hotel. He stops to see what is going on. The new owner of the hotel has uncovered a treasure trove of belongings, presumed to be hidden in the basement during the early 1940’s by the Japanese-Americans who were forced to leave behind their lives and everything they owned because of an executive evacuation order. The Japanese-Americans were believed to be a threat to national security. The concern was that any of them could be spies or saboteurs, and so they were locked away in internment camps “for their own protection.” The sight of a beautiful Japanese parasol reawakens memories in Henry to a past that is never completely out of his mind.

Stephanie Kallos’ Broken for You instantly came to mind as I read the first chapters of this novel. Both are set in Seattle and have elderly protagonists. In Broken for You, Margaret Hughes is surrounded by antiques collected by her father from the Jewish people who had been forced into concentration camps all over Europe. In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry finds himself in the basement of a hotel, looking through the belongings of those who were interned during the war. Both Margaret and Henry have led full lives and yet they both feel something is missing and are in need of some sort of resolution to their pasts. Even among so many similarities the two books are completely different. The stories are told in their own unique fashions and go into completely different directions. Still, it was hard not to think of the one, at least at first, while reading the other.

In 1942, Henry is an innocent child of 12 years of age, untouched by the scars his father carried. His father, a proud Chinese man, did not like the Japanese because of the violence they inflicted on his friends and family in China. He saw it as a good thing that the Japanese were being persecuted in the U.S. during the war as they were the enemy, a common enemy shared with China. That part of Henry's family's history is so removed from Henry that he does not fully understand why his father holds so much animosity towards the Japanese, including Japanese Americans.

Henry’s father dreamed of sending his son to school in China once he reached his teen years, but with the war and the growing resentment towards the Japanese, Henry’s father and mother decided to push their son into an entirely different direction. Henry was instructed only to speak English both inside and outside of his home. In a home with parents who barely spoke English, this would prove to be difficult on many levels. In addition, Henry was enrolled in an exclusive private school where he was the only non-white student. At least until Keiko Okabe arrived.

Even before Keiko came to the school, Henry was tormented by the school bullies. The “I am Chinese” button his father made him wear did nothing to prevent the never-ending razing he got for being Asian. Keiko’s appearance on the scene only made things worse, and yet it also made things more bearable for Henry. He wasn’t alone anymore. The two formed an instant friendship.

Keiko was second generation Japanese. The daughter of a lawyer, she did not speak Japanese. She was American through and through. Henry and Keiko’s relationship blossomed, and yet she was not someone he could tell his parents about. His father’s hatred of all things Japanese made that impossible.

As the two grew closer, the situation in Seattle and around the country heated up. The war closed in around them. The persecution of Japanese-Americans intensified. Henry was devastated when Keiko was taken away from him, forced into an internment camp. He was not sure he would ever see her again.

I was in middle school when I read Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, a memoir of one woman’s experience during and after her internment at the Manzanar camp during World War II. I had heard about the internment of civilian Japanese Americans before that, but not in much detail. Farewell to Manzanar had a profound impact on me at the time. I would later read the novel Obasan by Joy Kogawa, a fictional account of one family’s experiences in an internment camp in Canada. The novel was drawn in large part on the author’s own real life experiences. Up until that point, I had not realized Canada had also been involved with interning their Japanese-Canadian population.

As you can guess, it was this part of Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet which most moved me. It was both sad and tragic. So many lives uprooted out of fear and prejudice. So many lives destroyed.

I cannot leave out mention of Sheldon. Sheldon was a black jazz musician, playing his saxophone on the street for money, while hoping to make it big. He was a constant in Henry’s life and one of my favorite characters. Jamie Ford did a good job of offering readers a glimpse at the layers of discrimination during the early 1940’s, not only for the varying Asian groups in the United States, but for blacks as well.

The novel is not just about the internment of the Japanese-Americans, however. It is so much more than that. It is also about family, particularly the relationship between father and son. Henry and his son, Marty, do not talk to each other. Henry never really could talked to his own father and he isn't sure now how to talk to his son. His wife had been the person to facilitate much in their relationship. Now that she is gone, Henry must figure it out for himself. There is much Marty does not know about his father, especially his past. And there is much Henry does not really know about his son, including his son’s perception of him. So much stood in the way of Henry and his own father having a good relationship, and the influences of that relationship on Henry can clearly be seen in his relationship with Marty. Fortunately for both Henry and Marty, it is not too late to try to fix what is broken.

And then there is the love story: love lost and found. Keiko and Henry had so much going against them during the war years. The stress of the times and their separation did not help matters. While the story of Keiko and Henry takes center stage, the story of Ethel and Henry should not go unnoticed. They too shared a special love and devotion. I liked the fact that Jamie Ford was kind and gentle to Ethel's memory throughout the novel. I spoke much of Henry's character.

There is romance, friendship and broken hearts. There is tragedy and hope. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet lives up to its title. There is definitely the bitter, but in it all, there is the sweet. I truly enjoyed Jamie Ford’s novel. Henry and Keiko are great characters, even if seemingly a little too perfect at times. They both suffered much in their young lives. I flew through Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. It touched my heart, made me laugh and cry, and left a smile on my face as I closed the book for that last time.

* (Very Good)

Challenge Commitment Fulfilled: ARC Challenge, New Authors Challenge, 2009 Pub Challenge, What's in a Name Challenge & War Through the Generations: WWII Challenge

Check out Jamie Ford's website for more information about the author and his book. You can find excerpts from his novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Thank you to Pump Up Your Book Promotion and the author, Jamie Ford, for the opportunity to participate in this book tour.

Want to enter for a chance to win a copy of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet? Here's what you have to do:
1. Leave a comment on this post telling me why you are interested in reading this book.
2. Be sure to include your e-mail address if it is not easy to locate on your blog or profile page.
3. The deadline to enter is May 30th at 11:59 p.m. (edited to add: open to anyone with a valid mailing address)
A winner will be chosen in a random drawing. Good luck!


  1. What a wonderful review Wendy. I want to read this book even more now. (I just won this book from thekoolaidmom :) and I can't wait for it to arrive)

  2. This book is HIGH on my radar, having seen the glowing reviews again and again. In addition, sometimes there is a book that, with its title and cover, evokes an emotion. Not many books have it, but this one does, and so does Guernsey. You just automatically want to crawl inside it and curl up and snuggle it around you. How do the publishers do that? It is a clever trick, and it works on me!

  3. This is definitely one I KNOW I am going to read someday too. I might as well wait for paperback since my TBR is threatening to take down our whole building ;).

  4. Violet - Thank you! Congratulations on winning a copy. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    Sandy - That's exactly how I felt about this one, Sandy. It was if the book was calling my name from the first moment I heard about it. And this really is a book that you can curl up and snuggle with.

    Lenore - I know what you mean! I'm surprised my floor has held out this long. :-) Maybe you'll win a copy though and won't have to wait. :-)

  5. This book is new to me but it sounds so good. That's a wonderful review for a wonderful book!

  6. Yours is the third review I've read, Wendy, along with Les':


    and Janice's:

    And it really does sound terrific. Having children of Asian descent, the story is particularly interesting and moving to me. The prejudice still exists.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful, kindly review.

  7. Please enter me in the giveaway. I want to read this book because of reviews like the one you wrote. It sounds wonderful. I'm also really interested in this time in history.

    meah56 at gmail dot com

  8. Great review. I'm really looking forward to reading this book.

  9. Hi Wendy,

    Thanks for the amazing review!

    And speaking of Stephanie Kallos, I met her last fall at an event in Portland (along with a host of other Northwest writers) and she is an absolutely lovely woman and such a fine writer.

    Thanks again. I'll pop back later if anyone has questions...always happy to answer.


  10. What a wonderful review Wendy. I was first attracted to the cover of this book and then it was the story itself that attracted me. Since then I have valiantly tried and failed to win a copy. I will try again here. Either way I'll have a copy one day. So, I'd love to enter.
    bj19662001 (at) yahoo (dot) ca

    Thanks for an awesome giveaway!

  11. This sounds like a nice compliment to my most recent read, SHANGHAI GIRLS. Please count me in the giveaway!

    =) Jill

  12. I have been hearing about this book and I'm glad to read your positive review! This will definitely go on my list!!!

    (Life by Candlelight)

  13. Great review! I really enjoyed reading this as well.

  14. Great review! I loved this story too. It's one of my faves so far this year.

  15. Great review, Wendy! Can you believe I had never heard of the internment camps until I was in my mid 20's or so. I just can't believe all through junior high and high school no one mentioned this to us. Such a sad time in history.

    And, you point out one thing that I really like too, Ethel. She's doesn't get many pages but those she does are a testament to another great person in Henry's life.

  16. Great review. I've had my eye on this one for a while, and I hope to read it for the WWII challenge. Most of the books I've read set in WWII focus on the Holocaust, so I'd like to read something about the Asian aspect of the war. Thanks for the great giveaway.

    I've posted about your review here.

    Diary of an Eccentricdiaryofaneccentric at hotmail dot com

  17. Awesome review Wendy! This one is a must read for me also.

    No need to enter me in the giveaway. I will add it to my Giveaways Galore post.

  18. Thanks for the great review. This one has been on my TBR list with a question mark and now due to your review I can change that to an exclamation mark.This is now a must read for me.

    espressogurl at hotmail dot com

  19. Excellent review, Wendy!
    I enjoyed reading this book too! :)

  20. Because I went to Squaw Valley Writers Conference with Jamie, and he's a great guy! And he's written a wonderful book.

    Actually I've already read it - and bought several copies for friends - but would love another, so consider me entered.

  21. I could tell how much you loved the book in your glowing review! I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

  22. I'm really looking forward to reading this one! I, too, was affected by reading Farewell To Manzanar as a teen, and I can imagine this would be affecting, also. Thanks for the lovely and heartfelt review!

  23. I was SO EXCITED too when Tracee contacted me about the book tour! This was a great review, and I'm putting Farewell to Manzanar on my TBR list.

  24. I am still kicking myself for turning this book down when I had a chance. I will be looking forward to the paperback!

  25. So glad you liked this one, Wendy! I don't think it grabbed me quite like it did you, but I really appreciated the tenderness in the writing. This will probably sound a little stereotypical, but I was surprised to find out that Jamie was a man...(no need to enter me)

  26. I love reading books set around WWII, and I was just commenting the other day on my blog that I didn't think that there was much out there in terms of the Japanese experience, albeit in the US in this case. I would love to be entered into this contest as long as you don't mind sending to Australia.

  27. I've had my eye on this book for a while, and then you went and compared it to Broken for You! Now I have to read it. :)

    nnjmom at yahoo dot com

  28. What a good review. I love the cover of this book: I do think book covers are important, with so many books out there, the cover of a book is so important.

    Please add my name to the giveaway.

  29. I've known Mr. Ford on the Internet for a couple of years now, and always wanted to read something out of my normal range of material, just to see what all the hubbub was about.


  30. I knew I was going to be in the minority on this one! It wasn't that I didn't enjoy it, exactly, but it didn't live up to my expectations. Since you and Iliana have given it a thumbs up, I hang my head in shame...

  31. I'd like to read the book because I like reading stories that tell of the past. As a nation, we made mistakes & one way to learn from our mistakes is to read these kinds of books.

    Please count me in - Thanks!

  32. I experienced the same emotions of laughter, shame (with what the US did to their own citizens), and cried at the end!! I absolutely love and adore this book!! Loved your words on this one.

    Please don't enter me dear but I'm cheering on the winner because this is truly a great read!!

  33. This is a wonderful review! You touched on everything and made me remember why I loved it so much.

  34. I felt exactly the same way when I got Tracee's email and was really looking forward to reading this for the tour, but then for some reason I never got sent the book. I've been wanting to read this since I first heard of it last year, so I was disappointed to say the least.

    I always love reading books with some sort of Japanese storyline, and am interested in stories about the internment of Japanese during the war, having read Obasan and Farewell to Manzanar that you mentioned, and Snow Falling on Cedars. So I'd love to have my name in the hat for a chance to win a copy. Fingers crossed! :)

  35. I'd love to win. I keep reading good reviews of this book!

  36. Alice - Thank you, Alice! It was a wonderful book.

    Nan - I think it deserves all the praise it has gotten. I know a couple of people who were not quite so smitten with it.

    You're right, unfortunately prejudice still exists in many societies. Perhaps someday it won't be so prevalent.

    Mary - It's a time in history that really interests me as well. I've entered you in the giveaway. :-)

    Kathy - Thank you! I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

    Jamie - Thank you for writing such a great book. You touched on so much in your book. I wish my review was able to do your book the justice it deserves.

    Dar - Thank you! I was drawn to the cover as well. And I just love the title. Maybe this will be your lucky giveaway! Good luck!

    Jill - I haven't yet read Shanghai Girls but I can imagine the two would make for a good theme reading pair. :-)

    Amy - It's such a good book. I am glad I read it.

    David - Thank you, David!

    Melissa - Thanks! I am glad you enjoyed it so much too. :-)

  37. Iliana - Thank you! I might not have heard of them had I not spent part of my childhood near a processing center that was an annual field trip for many of the schools in the area. It's amazing how little of it was taught in schools when we were growing up. I hope that's changed.

    I agree about Ethel. I really liked her as well. She seemed like such a wonderful person. Henry was lucky to have her.

    Anna - I think this one is a great one for the WWII Challenge. It definitely offers another side to what was going on during that time period. Thank you for linking my review!

    Teddy - Thank you, Teddy!

    Ally - It definitely is worth reading. I hope you do get the chance to read it.

    Melody - Thank you, Melody!

    Sara - I wish I could buy copies for everyone who wants to read it who has commented here. It definitely is a book worth sharing. Thank you for stopping by!

    Carrie (Patience) - My enthusiasm over it was pretty obvious, wasn't it? :-)

    Tracy - Thank you! This book left such a warm feeling in my heart afterward.

    Elizabeth - Oh! Do read Farewell to Manzanar if you get the chance. It's such a good book.

    Kelly - Just think of it this way: you can't say yes to every book. I should know. LOL There have been a couple I'm still kicking myself over for saying no to though.

  38. Trish - You know, my husband thought Jamie was a woman at first too, the way I kept talking about the book. :-)

    Marg - It doesn't seem like there is a lot about the Japanese experience, does there, especially in comparison to Europe and the Holocaust. I added a note that the giveaway is open to everyone. Thanks for the reminder!

    Carrie (Books&Movies) - Broken for You is one of my favorite books. This one is very different from that, but still a very good book. I hope you enjoy it!

    Jennifer - Thanks! Isn't the cover great? I really like it also. I've got you entered. :-)

    Bob - Thank you for dropping by and entering the giveaway!

    Jenclair - No, no hanging your head in shame! It's okay that you weren't as smitten with this book as some of the rest of us were. There was a lot of hype around this book and it isn't surprising that some would be let down in the end or not quite live up to expectation.

    Cheryl - I agree, stories like this need to be told and shared so that, hopefully, we can learn from our mistakes.

    Staci - Thanks, Staci. It really did make an impression on me as well.

    Kris - Thank you! It really is a terrific book.

    Nat - Oh no! I am sorry your copy never arrived, Nat. That really does suck.

    I wondered what you might think of this one, knowing your interest in Japanese related books. I hope you are able to get your hands on a copy.

    Nomadreader - It's a great one! Good luck in the giveaway.

  39. No need to enter me but I'm so glad you enjoyed this one so much :)

  40. Hi Wendy, take my name out of the running for this one please. A very nice bloggy friend offered me her copy-lucky me!

  41. I have a copy of this great book in one of my TBR piles-I am going to go dig it out right now! Your review was fantastic:)

  42. The easy answer is to fulfill a couple of challenges but really...your review told me just enough that I feel the NEED to read this.

    blogmy book blog email is bookdragonslair "at" gmail.com

  43. Jen - Thanks, Jen!

    Dar - Lucky you! I hope you enjoy it, Dar!

    Julie - I hope you like it as much as I did, Julie.

    Book Dragon - LOL I know exactly what you mean about fulfilling those challenge requirements. :-) Thanks for entering!

  44. Please include me in this giveaway, as I soooooooooo want to read this book. Thanks


  45. This book has been on my radar for a long time. Thanks for the review; I think I'll actually pick it up now.

    -Connie @ Constance-Reader.blogspot.com

  46. Neas - Gotcha down!

    Connie - I hope you do get a chance to read it. It's such a good book.

  47. This book caught my eye quite a while ago. I want to read it because the time period and events are very interesting to me.
    joannelong74 AT gmail DOT com

  48. I'd heard so many good things about this book. Your review makes me want to read it even more!

    Please count me in!

    gaby317nyc AT gmail DOT com

  49. Jo-Jo - It is an interesting time period, isn't it? I've got you entered.

    Gaby - You're in!

  50. I would love to be entered. Yours is just one of several really positive reviews I've read. Thanks.

    carolsnotebook at yahoo dot com

  51. I've seen this book reviewed on more than one blog and they're all positive reviews! It just makes me all the more intrigued by it!


  52. Thanks for the review. I have seen a number of reviews for this book and I can't wait to read it. I'd love to win a copy. Enter me please.

  53. I've heard rave reviews of this book that's why I'd love to read it!

    heatheranne99 at hotmail dot com

  54. I've seen this book on tons of blogs teasing me and I just HAVE to get my hands on it! The frugal, stingy side of me wants to win instead of buy (being honest) but yeah..I really wanna read this one! *crossing fingers*

  55. I would love to win this book. It sounds like a great book.

  56. Great review. I've seen several reviews, and I've had this book on my want to read list for awhile.


  57. Thank you all for entering! The drawing is now officially closed and I will be announcing the winner shortly.


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