Reviews for Songs of Willow Frost


Booklist Reviews 2013 September #2
Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, 2009) tells another dual-thread story in his second novel. William Eng, a 12-year-old resident of the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Depression-era Seattle, has vivid memories of his ah-ma, whom he hasn't seen since he was placed in the sisters' care five years ago. On a rare school trip, William is sure he recognizes his mother in a film advertisement as the ingenue Willow Frost, and he vows to find her to make sense of his abandonment. Willow's backstory then unfolds in dated chapters before William's birth. The newly orphaned, American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants learns quickly that her family's tradition is tragic, both as performers on the stage and as second-class citizens at sea between the culture they've defied by leaving and the one in which they live, rapidly changing yet not fully accepting. As characters, Willow and William are amalgamations who allow for deep discussions of forgotten taboos, and Ford's research, sparing no despairing detail, lends a vivid sense of time and place. Copyright 2013 Booklist Reviews.

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BookPage Reviews 2013 September
A Seattle orphan explores his past

Jamie Ford conducted his interview with BookPage while crouched on the floor of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, seeking good cell reception and a pocket of quiet. While he briefly worried he might look like a homeless person lying on the floor of an international airport, he more or less embraces the whirlwind that comes with life on the bestseller list.

“I’m grateful in all kinds of ways,” Ford says. “I could spend less time in airports and be happy, but it’s a good problem to have.”

The author of 2009’s fantastic debut Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (which has sold more than a million copies) is now beginning the road show to promote his second novel, Songs of Willow Frost, a similarly sadness-tinged story also set in historic Seattle. When we talked, he was on his way to speak at an Asian-Pacific American conference in Washington, D.C., but some of his favorite travels are more off the beaten path. He joined a discussion with a homeless book group in Madison, Wisconsin, and another group at a women’s prison in rural Washington state.

“Readers are readers,” he says, in a casual way that makes him sound less like a successful author and more like someone you’d want to have a beer with.

In the haunting Songs of Willow Frost, Ford tells the story of William Eng, a young Chinese-American orphan in 1930s Seattle, a time that was high on joblessness and low on hope. William lives in an orphanage run by strict nuns (were there any other kind then?) since his sick mother, Liu Song, was taken from their small Chinatown apartment. When the head nun takes a group of boys to see a movie, William is convinced the delicately beautiful actress on the screen is his mother.

“[S]he wasn’t just wearing makeup, she was Chinese like Anna May Wong, the only Oriental star he’d ever seen. Her distinctive looks and honeyed voice drew wolf whistles from the older boys, which drew reprimands from Sister Briganti, who cursed in Latin and Italian. But as William stared at the flickering screen, he was stunned silent, mouth agape, popcorn spilling. The singer was introduced as Willow Frost—a stage name, William almost said out loud, it had to be.”

“I gravitate toward stronger females. I married an alpha female and we’re raising alpha daughters.”

William runs away from the orphanage to find Willow Frost, who is performing in a series of concerts around the Pacific Northwest. When he catches up with her, he finds out the brutal truth about his past and what happened to his mother all those years ago.

Liu Song is a singularly strong character whose story lingers after the book ends. Ford doesn’t know any other kind of woman.

“I gravitate toward stronger females,” he says. “I married an alpha female, and we’re raising alpha daughters. My grandmother on my Caucasian side was a Southern woman who cussed like a sailor and chewed snuff.”

Ford’s father’s family is of Chinese heritage, and his paternal grandmother, Yin Yin, was so strong-willed, he says, that she renamed Ford’s cousin just because she wanted to.

“My cousin Stephanie didn’t know her name was Delores until she was 16 and went to get her driver’s license,” he says. “That was just Yin Yin.”

Ford and his wife have four daughters and two sons between them—“We’re a Brady Bunch family”—three of whom still live at home. He is, admittedly and happily, outnumbered by strong women.

“Once a month I go to the store and buy tampons and Ben & Jerry’s,” he says. “It’s my offering to the gods.”

The backdrop of show business in Songs of Willow Frost also comes from Ford’s own family. His grandfather was a Hollywood bit actor and martial arts instructor.

If William and Liu Song are the novel’s main characters, Seattle plays a close third. Ford paints an amazingly vivid picture of a long-gone place and time, a city that smelled of “seaweed drying on the mudflats of Puget Sound,” inhabited by men standing in line for free soup and bread. It is a lovingly and beautifully rendered portrait of his hometown (Ford lives in Montana now), but he isn’t blind to Seattle’s quirks and pretentions.

“The first things you think about—traffic, Starbucks, Amazon—are things that aren’t always great stuff,” he said. “It’s the land of Whole Foods and utility kilts. I shop at Whole Foods—I bring my own bags. They’re just made out of baby seal skins. I think it’s the most literate place in America, and it’s very polyethnic. But it’s also a city that’s freighted—it’s the passive-aggressive capital of America.”

Having set two novels in Seattle, he may branch out in the future so he doesn’t get pegged as a one-town guy.

“I don’t want to be like Woody Allen—every movie set in New York City,” he says.

In fact, he had another novel already written after Hotel on the Corner, but he ultimately shelved what he called “an angst-filled second novel that I was really second-guessing. It stirred my well of self-doubt.”

He decided it was filled with what he deems “performance writing”—writing for other writers or critics.

“That very inward-looking writing, I blanch when I see it,” he says. “No one needs to read a 14-page sentence. It seems indulgent to me, that black belt-level literary stuff. I just want to disappear into the story. Luckily, there’s room for all appetites.”

Ford is part of a men’s book group. If that sounds daunting for the other members, think again.

“I’m just one of the guys there. It’s better for all concerned,” he says. “Several of the guys are English literature majors and their reading taste is far above mine.”

Ford gathers himself as his flight time nears, cheerfully noting one small perk of spending time on the floor of an airport.

“I think I’ve collected $1.75 in change,” he said. “I’m halfway to a Starbucks.”

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

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Kirkus Reviews 2013 May #1
William awakens to yet another morning of beatings for bed-wetters at the Sacred Heart orphanage. In 1931, lots of children have been orphaned or left with the sisters because their parents could not care for them. William has little hope, but today is his birthday. More precisely, today is every boy's birthday, since the sisters find it more convenient to celebrate them all on September 28, Pope Leo XII's own birthday. As is custom, each boy is given a sort of present, either a letter from home, kept back for this very occasion, or in William's case, more information about his mother. His last memory is of finding her in the bathtub, her fingertips dripping water onto the floor, the bathwater draining away strangely pink. On this, his 12th birthday, Sister Angelini reveals that doctors refused to treat his mother--because she was Chinese and because she had a shady reputation--so she was taken to a sanitarium. William, confused by the news, joins the other boys on a trip to the theater. Just before the movie begins, a beautiful woman appears on screen, crooning in dulcet tones. William is stunned to realize that this Chinese woman looks exactly like his mother. Soon, William and his best friend, Charlotte (who is blind and determined never to return to her father), concoct a plan to escape the orphanage and find the mysterious singer named Willow Frost. Willow has her own sad tale, replete with sexism, abuse and broken promises. Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, 2009) writes of American life in the 1920s and '30s, bustling with go-getters and burdened with trampled masses. Often muted and simplified, his prose underscores the emotional depression of his main characters; yet that same flatness tethers the tale, inhibiting lyricism. A heartbreaking yet subdued story. Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

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Library Journal Reviews 2013 April #2

Readers who pushed sales of Ford's affecting Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet to 1.3 million copies (and counting) will rejoice in this follow-up. On a birthday outing, William Eng, a Chinese American boy living at Seattle's Sacred Heart Orphanage during the Depression, sees actress Willow Frost onscreen and is convinced that she is his mother. With a 12- to 15-city tour.

[Page 54]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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Library Journal Reviews 2013 September #1

In his mega-best-selling debut, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Ford depicted a star-crossed romance during the fateful years of World War II. His new work depicts another star-crossed romance, but the real love here is between mother and son. On a movie outing, William Eng, a Chinese American boy at the repressive Sacred Heart Orphanage in 1930s Seattle, sees the beautiful actress Willow Frost on-screen and is convinced that she is his mother. Later, with close friend Charlotte, he breaks out of the orphanage (in a bookmobile, no less) to hunt for Willow. He finds her quickly (an interesting twist, as one initially expects the novel to focus on William's journey), then hears her plaintive tale of actor parents lost early, an abusive stepfather, and love for a young Chinese man who seems on the verge of rescuing her. Then, as the narrative cuts between William's confused reactions and the remainder of Willow's story, both William and the reader come to realize what Willow has done to protect her son. VERDICT Writing in simple, unaffected language befitting both William and the young Willow, Ford delivers a tale his fans will certainly relish. [See Prepub Alert, 3/18/13.]--Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

[Page 98]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2013 October #2

In his sophomore novel, Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet) relies on one of literature's most familiar scenarios: the young orphan embroiled in tragedy. William Eng has occupied a Catholic orphanage in Depression-era Seattle for five years when, in an outstanding coincidence, he learns of his now-famous mother's upcoming local show, and so begins the painful quest to reconnect with the woman who put him up for adoption. From the wicked stepfather's predilections to William's anguished friend Charlotte, the tragedy in this story is largely predictable. It's hard to get a feel for the character of the mother--Liu Song/Willow Frost; the plot hinges repeatedly on her view that she cannot trust honorable people who care for her with the truth. Other characters sound alike--detached and cleanly contemplative. Straining against the heavy-handed symbolism--the gateway-to-salvation rosary, the blind girl ripping off a teddy bear's eyes--and moments of true sentiment sacrificed to convenient/clever phrasing, there are sections that glow. When the sheet music store where Willow first gained notoriety loses its footing as society embraces radio, the story opens up to more natural turns. On whole, Ford's second literary visit to Seattle's Chinatown, though quick-moving and occasionally warmhearted, is little more than a contrived evocation of the darkest element of fairytales and classics. Agent: Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency. (Sept.)

[Page ]. Copyright 2013 PWxyz LLC

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Publishers Weekly Annex Reviews

In his sophomore novel, Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet) relies on one of literature's most familiar scenarios: the young orphan embroiled in tragedy. William Eng has occupied a Catholic orphanage in Depression-era Seattle for five years when, in an outstanding coincidence, he learns of his now-famous mother's upcoming local show, and so begins the painful quest to reconnect with the woman who put him up for adoption. From the wicked stepfather's predilections to William's anguished friend Charlotte, the tragedy in this story is largely predictable. It's hard to get a feel for the character of the mother--Liu Song/Willow Frost; the plot hinges repeatedly on her view that she cannot trust honorable people who care for her with the truth. Other characters sound alike--detached and cleanly contemplative. Straining against the heavy-handed symbolism--the gateway-to-salvation rosary, the blind girl ripping off a teddy bear's eyes--and moments of true sentiment sacrificed to convenient/clever phrasing, there are sections that glow. When the sheet music store where Willow first gained notoriety loses its footing as society embraces radio, the story opens up to more natural turns. On whole, Ford's second literary visit to Seattle's Chinatown, though quick-moving and occasionally warmhearted, is little more than a contrived evocation of the darkest element of fairytales and classics. Agent: Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency. (Sept.)

[Page ]. Copyright 2013 PWxyz LLC

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