Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Audiobook Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Publisher: Random House Audio
Release Date: January 27th, 2009
Length: 10 hours/51 minutes


In the opening pages of Jamie Ford's stunning debut, 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.

What Did I Think About the Story?

Being the huge fan of historical fiction that I am, I am always happily surprised when I can come across a time or place or situation from history that I've never read about before. Maybe strangely enough, before reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet I had never read a novel that dealt with Japanese internment camps in America during WWII or the rampant racism and discrimination against the Japanese - as well as against the Chinese and between the Chinese and Japanese - during this time.  This is such an important and horrific time in our history that I am now shocked that more stories aren't written about this. Regardless, the fact that author James Ford presented this situation as the backdrop for a coming-of-age story about young love and the sometimes difficult relationships between fathers and sons was brilliant.

The story is told through the eyes of Henry, a Chinese American man, both when he's growing up in Seattle and going to a mostly white school and when he's a middle-aged newly widowed man. Henry is a remarkable character, always finding the humor and positivity in what most would consider some pretty unmanageable situations. His parents (especially his dad) are firmly rooted in the old Chinese ways of their ancestors and do not speak English even as they refuse to let Henry speak anything else within their home. Outside his home he faces bullies and discrimination everywhere he goes, but also finds kindness and acceptance from unexpected places and from others who have experienced discrimination themselves, especially an aging African American Jazz musician. And then there's the sweet and sad budding romance between Henry and his Japanese friend, Keiko.

Keiko, like Henry, is such a unique character that somehow finds the positive in a life that would break so many people much weaker then them. On top of that, she does much to expand Henry's understanding of the world at large as well as much closer to home and gives him the confidence to challenge the life his family has raised him to pursue. It's through Keiko that the reader gets a glimpse at the Japanese internment camps in America and the conditions placed upon these people that have done nothing more than be born a certain race. I found these portions as well as the rampant racism hard to understand and stomach, and found the characters that much more admirable due to their grace and kindness in the face of it. It's amazing to me!

The narrator, Feodor Chin, did an exceptional job of distinguishing the voices of the various characters, especially the men, as well as expressing the emotion and tenderness that each of these characters experience. Given the subject matters, there's anger and happiness and sadness and more all rolling around together to create complex and multi-faceted characters, and the narrator did an excellent job of bringing all of that to life for the listener.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet has so much going on within it's pages that it's hard to pinpoint what aspects I appreciated the most.  It takes a close look at some very unpleasant aspects of life in America (racism among and against various races, difficult relationships between fathers and sons, the loss of love before its time) as well as some tender and sweet aspects that balance the bitter (sweet, shy first love, art and music and their importance in the lives of those living in suppression) and I think there is much that readers will be able to relate to today. The title is perfect given the story it represents, and by the last page I was left with an appreciation of what so many went through during WWII - not just those actually fighting the war - as well as a balmy satisfaction that, even given the horrible situations these characters experienced, things felt satisfactorily wrapped up by the end. This is an emotional look at a time and place in history not often discussed, and I now feel all the better for reading and learning about it.

What Did I Think About the Cover?

I think it's quite pretty. Given the wide range of topics it could have included any number of other aspects, however given the quest for Henry to discover where Keiko ended up, I think the woman with the Japanese parasol and the man behind is quite fitting.

My Rating: 4.5/5.0

I borrowed this audiobook from my library's Overdrive account. All opinions are my own. You can find more reviews and links to where you can purchase a copy of your own on Goodreads HERE.


  1. I read this, too, although it was a hardcover book. I wasn't quite as impressed as you were.

    The book does tell a touching story, yes. We discover Henry’s and Keiko’s love that never ends or is forgotten in spite of bigotry, ages-old traditions, lies, and years of separation caused first by internment, then also by deception.

    This book is praised by many. It was because of all the rave reviews that I read the book. But, while I don’t consider it a waste of my time, I have to admit that I was bored by the many flashbacks to 1942 with Henry’s bigoted father and nasty classmates at his “all-white” school where he went “scholarshiping” at his father’s insistence. I also found the flashbacks to be too slow and predictable.

    Even so, that’s me. Other readers may find satisfying what I thought was predictable. The book is well written and full of accurate historical details. And, although I was not surprised at the ending, I think I would have been unhappy if it had been any other way.

  2. LOL I am a cover slut too. I realized lately that I am drawn to covers that have oranges, reds and yellows in them! I also check out the stories that have those covers. Lately, I have been reading a slew of great books with mostly black on the covers. But great inside.

    1. LOL! It's nice that I'm not alone, Carol :)! My favorite colors on covers are pinks, reds, blues, and greens...especially if they stand out by being complimentary or brighter colors that draw my eyes.