Reviews for Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Booklist Reviews 2008 November #2
Ford vacillates between a front story dominated by nostalgia and a backstory dominated by fear. The front story struggles to support the weight of the backstory, and the complexity Ford brings to the latter is the strength of this debut novel, which considers a Chinese American man s relationship with a Japanese American woman in the 1940s and his son in the 1980s. Although Ford does not have anything especially novel to say about a familiar subject (the interplay between race and family), he writes earnestly and cares for his characters, who consistently defy stereotype. Ford posits great meaning in objects--a button reading "I am Chinese" and a jazz record, in particular--but the most striking moments come from the characters readings of each other: "Henry couldn t picture bathing with his parents the way some Japanese families did. He couldn t picture himself doing a lot of things with his parents. . . . He felt his stomach turn a little. His heart raced when he thought about Keiko, but his gut tightened just the same." Copyright 2008 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2009 February
First novel is more sweet than bitter

In the opening scene of Jamie Ford's debut, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, 50-something Henry Lee watches as a crowd gathers around the Panama Hotel. The new owner of the long-abandoned building has discovered something in the basement: the belongings of 37 Japanese families, items left behind decades ago when their owners were rounded up for internment camps during World War II.

There's a delicious sense of mystery about this scene. What will we find in the dusty memorabilia? Will its secrets be beautiful or tragicor both? Henry is curious too, and he begins to remember his preteen years during the war and a girl named Keiko. In flashbacks, Ford tells us their story.

The only two students of Asian descent at their school, Chinese-American Henry and Japanese-American Keiko quickly strike up a friendship. But soon it becomes clear that their friendship is much deeper than schoolyard camaraderie. Their feelings for each other are simple, but their love story is complicated: by war, and by Henry's father's ill regard for the Japanese. When Keiko's family is sent to an internment camp, time and tragedy separate her from Henry.

Ford aims to portray the Japanese-American internment with solid historicity, choosing to focus on how the events affected the course of real people's lives. And he succeeds. The book's historical elements are sturdy, but they're very gently threaded into the novel. It's mostly just a good story, one about families and first loves and identity and loyalty.

Ford, of Chinese descent, is the kind of down-to-earth writer you'd like to have a cup of coffee with. His full-length fiction debut might make you fall in love with Seattleor at least start digging up your own city's wartime history and possible jazz roots. It will make you want to call your oldest relatives and ask how they met their spouses. More than anything, though, it will make you linger on the final pages, sure that even the bitterest memories and the most painful regret can yield something sweet.

Jessica Inman writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Copyright 2009 BookPage Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2009 November
Best paperbacks for reading groups

This month's selection of best reading group picks includes historical fiction from Kim Barnes, Louis de Bernières, and Jamie Ford—three novels that are sure to spark discussion!

A Country Called Home

Set during the 1960s, Kim Barnes’ beautifully written novel tells the story of Thomas and Helen Deracotte, newlyweds who leave civilized, cultured Connecticut behind to start a fresh life in Idaho. Thomas, a doctor, sets his sights on opening a country practice and running a farm in the small town of Fife. Neither Thomas nor well-to-do Helen knows anything about farming, and so they hire Manny, an independent and capable hand, to take over operations on their homestead. Charmed by the idea of living off his own land, Thomas soon decides not to open a medical practice and turns his energies to the farm. But he relies heavily on handsome Manny, who quickly insinuates himself into the Deracottes’ good graces. After Helen gives birth to a daughter, the Deracottes’ dependence on Manny increases, and Helen—disenchanted by the responsibilities of new motherhood—finds herself increasingly drawn to him. Barnes, a Pulitzer Prize nominee for her memoir In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in an Unknown Country (1997), writes poetically about the rough Idaho landscape, instilling the narrative with rich detail and vivid imagery. Her poignant portrait of an unraveling marriage brims with tension and suspense. This is a fierce novel that bravely explores the challenges of love and family life. A reading group guide is available online.

A Partisan’s Daughter

Taking 1970s London as its backdrop, Louis de Bernières’ captivating novel is a testament to the power of storytelling. Lonely and restless, Chris is stuck in a dead-end marriage and desperate for change, which arrives one night in an unexpected form—that of a mysterious Yugoslavian woman named Roza. Chris wrongly believes that Roza is a prostitute and tries to engage her services. Amused by the situation, Roza plays along and accompanies him. So begins a strange relationship that—instead of being based on sex—is founded on the power of Roza’s tales about her old life. In truth, she is far from a call girl. The daughter of one of Tito’s supporters, she is new to London and struggling to make a life for herself. Mixing fact and fiction, she spins incredible accounts about her existence in Eastern Europe, seducing the naïve Chris, who falls hopelessly in love with her. Roza’s stories transport him to a reality far more interesting than his own, and the consequences—heartbreaking and unforgettable—change Chris’ life forever. With his latest novel, de Bernières, author of Corelli’s Mandolin, offers a profound look at the ways in which a seemingly simple choice can irrevocably alter a life. A master novelist, he has written a fascinating and insightful book that’s part love story, part political history and part mystery. A reading group guide is available online.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford’s accomplished first novel focuses on Asian Americans in Seattle. Struggling to regain his equilibrium after the death of his wife from cancer, Henry Lee finds a welcome distraction in his own personal history. When he learns that the possessions of some Japanese immigrants who were imprisoned during World War II have been discovered in the cellar of a Seattle hotel, he is prompted to re-evaluate his life. Reflecting upon his childhood, Henry recalls the challenges of his upbringing in Seattle during the war. As a student at a reputable, predominantly white private school, he is teased mercilessly. While there, Henry falls in love with Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese-American girl who is also a student. After Keiko and her family are interned in a camp, he is forced to acknowledge the reality of anti-Japanese feeling, a sentiment his own Chinese father displays, much to Henry’s horror. Shifting back and forth between past and present, the novel highlights Henry’s strained relationship with his own son, Marty, a college student. The narrative presents his memories and musings in chapters rich with drama and finely choreographed scenes. Ford writes with assurance about the legacies of history and the difficulties of cultural assimilation. His poignant examination of the father-son relationship adds an extra layer of complexity to this mature debut. A reading group guide is included in the book.

Copyright 2009 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2008 October #2
Sentimental, heartfelt novel portrays two children separated during the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.In 1940s Seattle, ethnicities do not mix. Whites, blacks, Chinese and Japanese live in separate neighborhoods, and their children attend different schools. When Henry Lee's staunchly nationalistic father pins an "I am Chinese" button to his 12-year-old son's shirt and enrolls him in an all-white prep school, Henry finds himself friendless and at the mercy of schoolyard bullies. His salvation arrives in the form of Keiko, a Japanese girl with whom Henry forms an instant--and forbidden--bond. The occasionally sappy prose tends to overtly express subtleties that readers would be happier to glean for themselves, but the tender relationship between the two young people is moving. The older Henry, a recent widower living in 1980s Seattle, reflects in a series of flashbacks on his burgeoning romance with Keiko and its abrupt ending when her family was evacuated. A chance discovery of items left behind by Japanese-Americans during the evacuation inspires Henry to share his and Keiko's story with his own son, in hopes of preventing the dysfunctional parent-child relationship he experienced with his own father. The major problem here is that Henry's voice always sounds like that of a grown man, never quite like that of a child; the boy of the flashbacks is jarringly precocious and not entirely credible. Still, the exploration of Henry's changing relationship with his family and with Keiko will keep most readers turning pages while waiting for the story arc to come full circle, despite the overly flowery portrait of young love, cruel fate and unbreakable bonds.A timely debut that not only reminds readers of a shameful episode in American history, but cautions us to examine the present and take heed we don't repeat those injustices.Agent: Kristin Nelson/Nelson Literary Agency Copyright Kirkus 2008 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2008 October #1

Fifth-grade scholarship students and best friends Henry and Keiko are the only Asians in their Seattle elementary school in 1942. Henry is Chinese, Keiko is Japanese, and Pearl Harbor has made all Asians--even those who are American born--targets for abuse. Because Henry's nationalistic father has a deep-seated hatred for Japan, Henry keeps his friendship with and eventual love for Keiko a secret. When Keiko's family is sent to an internment camp in Idaho, Henry vows to wait for her. Forty years later, Henry comes upon an old hotel where the belongings of dozens of displaced Japanese families have turned up in the basement, and his love for Keiko is reborn. In his first novel, award-winning short-story writer Ford expertly nails the sweet innocence of first love, the cruelty of racism, the blindness of patriotism, the astonishing unknowns between parents and their children, and the sadness and satisfaction at the end of a life well lived. The result is a vivid picture of a confusing and critical time in American history. Recommended for all fiction collections.--Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Lib., Providence

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2008 September #3

Ford's strained debut concerns Henry Lee, a Chinese-American in Seattle who, in 1986, has just lost his wife to cancer. After Henry hears that the belongings of Japanese immigrants interned during WWII have been found in the basement of the Panama Hotel, the narrative shuttles between 1986 and the 1940s in a predictable story that chronicles the losses of old age and the bewilderment of youth. Henry recalls the difficulties of life in America during WWII, when he and his Japanese-American school friend, Keiko, wandered through wartime Seattle. Keiko and her family are later interned in a camp, and Henry, horrified by America's anti-Japanese hysteria, is further conflicted because of his Chinese father's anti-Japanese sentiment. Henry's adult life in 1986 is rather mechanically rendered, and Ford clumsily contrasts Henry's difficulty in communicating with his college-age son, Marty, with Henry's own alienation from his father, who was determined to Americanize him. The wartime persecution of Japanese immigrants is presented well, but the flatness of the narrative and Ford's reliance on numerous cultural clichs make for a disappointing read. (Feb.)

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School Library Journal Reviews 2009 May

Adutl/High School--Henry Lee is a 12-year-old Chinese boy who falls in love with Keiko Okabe, a 12-year-old Japanese girl, while they are scholarship students at a prestigious private school in World War II Seattle. Henry hides the relationship from his parents, who would disown him if they knew he had a Japanese friend. His father insists that Henry wear an "I am Chinese" button everywhere he goes because Japanese residents of Seattle have begun to be shipped off by the thousands to relocation centers. This is an old-fashioned historical novel that alternates between the early 1940s and 1984, after Henry's wife Ethel has died of cancer. A particularly appealing aspect of the story is young Henry's fascination with jazz and his friendship with Sheldon, an older black saxophonist just making a name for himself in the many jazz venues near Henry's home. Other aspects of the story are more typical of the genre: the bullies that plague Henry, his lack of connection with his father, and later with his own son. Readers will care about Henry as he is forced to make decisions and accept circumstances that separate him from both his family and the love of his life. While the novel is less perfect as literature than John Hamamura's Color of the Sea (Thomas Dunne, 2006), the setting and quietly moving, romantic story are commendable.--Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

[Page 140]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.