Tuesday, January 26, 2010

'Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet' (review and giveaway)

by Jamie Ford
Fiction, 2009
Ballantine Books, trade pb, 293 p.
From the back cover:
In 1986, Henry Lee joins a crowd outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has discovered the belongings of Japanese families who were sent to internment camps during World War II. As the owner displays and unfurls a Japanese parasol, Henry, a Chinese American, remembers a young Japanese American girl from his childhood in the 1940s – Keiko Okabe, with whom he forged a bond of friendship and innocent love that transcended the prejudices of their Old World ancestors. After Keiko and her family were evacuated to the internment camps, she and Henry could only hope that their promise to each other would be kept. Now, forty years later, Henry explores the hotel’s basement for the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot even begin to measure. His search will take him on a journey to revisit the sacrifices he has made for family, for love, for country.
Growing up I’d never really heard about the internment of Japanese during World War II, although since my mother was Ukrainian Canadian I had heard about the internment of Ukrainians in Canada during World War I. Sadly, the internment of Japanese was simply history repeating itself! I still haven’t read a whole lot about the Japanese internment but I have read a small handful of titles: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, and Obasan and Itsuka by Joy Kogawa, about the Japanese internment in Canada. However, each of these books, whether fiction or memoir, were written from the persepective of Japanese first or second-generation citizens. In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet we see the internment instead through the eyes of a young Chinese American boy. I thought Jamie Ford did a wonderful job presenting the various prejudices and discriminations of the time, towards not only the Japanese, but also the other Asians in America, and the blacks, and amongst themselves, yet all without laying blame. It was a nice portrait of what life was like then.

The book is so much more than this particular moment in history though. The real story at the heart of the book is one of love. The innocence of young love. The conflicted relationship between fathers and sons. Family loyalty. It’s also about loss, and identity, and acceptance. Vividly told, all of the characters came beautifully to life. I especially became quite fond of some of the minor characters, like Sheldon the jazz musician, and Mrs. Beatty, the lunch lady. I did have some trouble accepting the depth of the relationship between the two main characters though, the young Henry and Keiko. I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “they’re only 12 years old!” But despite that reservation, I came to care about them and by the end of the book I truly believed in their story. One thing I wondered about is whether Henry ever figured out that お会いできて嬉しいです (oai deki te ureshii desu) simply means “It’s an honor to meet you”, rather than the ‘How are you today, beautiful” that Sheldon told him it meant.

I’d wanted to read this ever since I first heard about it, and I’m so glad to finally have had a chance to do so. Best of all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read that lived up to my expectations.  A little bit sweet, and a little bitter, just the way a love story should be. Sure it was fairly predictable, and I’ve sometimes quite disliked a similar type of love story, but in my opinion Ford never crossed the line to saccharine. Jamie’s next book apparently also has a Japanese story line and I’m already looking forward to it.
Henry squinted, allowing his senses to adjust to the daylight and the cold, gray Seattle sky that filled the paned windows of the Panama Hotel lobby. Everything, it seemed – the city, the sky – was brighter and more vivid than before. So modern, compared with the time capsule downstairs. 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. (p. 76-77)
Read an excerpt from the book.
For more information visit Jamie Ford's website, or follow @JamieFord on Twitter.

This review is part of the TLC Book Tour.
Thank you to Lisa and Random House for the opportunity to read this book.

For other stops on the tour visit the Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Blog Tour page.

My Rating:  4/5
(#3 for 2010)

Buy Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet at: Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk | BookDepository.co.uk | BookDepository.com

Interviews with the author by:
Word Lily
Diary of an Eccentric

Also reviewed by:
Diary of an Eccentric
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Trish's Reading Nook
You've GOTTA Read This!
Educating Petunia
The Book Lady’s Blog
Lesley’s Book Nook
Hey Lady! Whatcha readin'?
The Bluestocking Society
In the Shadow of Mt. TBR
Medieval Bookworm
Melody’s Reading Corner
Stephanie’s Written Word
If I've missed your review let me know and I'll link to it here.


Your reward for reading this far?  Random House has also kindly agreed to send a copy of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet to one of my readers.   To enter, simply leave a comment on this post stating that you'd like to be entered, although a relevant comment about the book (or the review) would be appreciated.  The giveaway will end next Wednesday, February 3rd, when the winner will be selected randomly.  Unfortunately, as the book will be coming directly from the publisher, the giveaway is only open to the US and Canada.  My apologies, I know how frustrating it is for international bloggers.  But I will be having a giveaway to celebrate my blogiversary soon so you'll get a chance to win a book then. 

This giveaway is now closed and the winner has been notified.
Congratulations Kailana!

The small print:  This book was received free of charge from the publisher for review purposes.  Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.


  1. I've read a tiny bit about Japanese internment from one of Gail Tsukiyama books, but have not read a full blown one. I'm waiting for the right book. This sounds like it could be it!

  2. Please enter me into the Random House giveaway of this book. Thanks! As a side note, and as you may remember me telling you, I loved "Farewell to Manzanar" as a young girl, reading it several times, as a matter of fact.

  3. I would love a copy of this book. I keep meaning to read it to learn more about the history of the city where I live. Being a transplant to Seattle, I know very little of its past.

  4. I just found your site today, I love the Japanese culture. It is so beautiful and fascinating. Please add my name to your drawing.

  5. Oh! I so loved this book. It was beautifully written, very touching and, like you said, written from a unique perspective. I, too, found the prejudices fascinating.

    I'm glad you liked it, and Jamie is a really cool guy, too :-D

  6. This book sounds wonderful. Please include me in your draw.

    dlodden at frontiernet dot net

  7. Obasan! The minute I saw your review I thought of asking you if you had read Joy Kogawa's book -- but, you have ;) I read it in 2008 and was quite shocked by the facts...

    At about the same time I saw The Cats of Mirikatani, a documentary about a homeless Japanese-American. I highly recommend watching it if you get the chance!

    Eeks, 2 urls -- I'll probably be spammed ;)

    Of course now I'm interested in this book as well... Please enter my name in the giveaway?

  8. Great review! I'm so glad you enjoyed the book.

    I recently read another book about the Japanese internment that you might enjoy called When The Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka. It came out in 2002. I reviewed it last month:

    Anyway, I'm so glad the book found it's way to you, all the way on the other side of the world! Thank you so much for all the time spent reading and reviewing Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. It is very much appreciated!

  9. Excellent review! And your blog is lovely. :)

    No need to enter me in the giveaway--I have the book and am part of the tour. Please stay tuned for my review, followed by an interview with the author.

  10. This subject seems to be one of those holes in my history knowledge. I know *some*, but not nearly enough. I also read Snow Falling on Cedars, and that was my first introduction to this particular historical moment in fiction. I'd love to give this one a try, too, since I've seen so many positive reviews.

    Would love to enter the contest!

    Thanks for hosting the tour stop and the giveaway.

  11. I confess, I dismissed this novel as too mainstream for my tastes initially. I've read many great reviews by bloggers (including you, obviously), and I've changed my mind. I'd love to win a copy!

  12. I'm sometimes kinda ashamed by Canada's actions. But this book sounds like an interesting way to learn more, as well as learning from our mistakes in the past. I'd love to win a copy!

  13. I recently read another book that talked about the Japanese internment during WWII. . .by Gail Tsukiyama, I think. I totally loved it, and before that, I didn't know much about it either. It sparked my interest, though, and since then I've been really wanting to read this.
    After this beautiful review, now I want to read it even more!
    I would love to be entered in the giveaway, though I guess I'd have to get it shipped to my mom.


  14. This sounds good, please enter me.
    theroundfile at live dot com

  15. I didn't know much about Japanese internment before I moved to California, but I've learned a bit more since. Its just awful to think that we did that to American citizens. And would we do the same today? I fear yes, based on how most brown skinned people were (are) treated in the wake of 9/11.

    Please enter me in your contest. Thank you!

  16. I'm so happy to hear that this wasn't a disappointment for you! While it didn't make my Top Ten for 2009, it is one of the Honorable Mentions. I, too, loved the characters of Sheldon and Mrs. Beatty.

    The Language of Threads by Gail Tsukiyama is another good novel that deals with the issue of internment camps. In this case, though, it's the British and Canadian civilians who are interned when the Japanese occupy Hong Kong. I love this book!

  17. It was such an engaging story wasn't it? No need to enter me in the giveaway but just wanted to drop in and say hi :)

  18. I've been dying to read this, but the hold list at my library is, like, a million people long.

  19. I see from your review that the book has to do wit the Japanese American internment during the war. I've written a couple of article and interviewed an internee about his experiences, and I'd love to read this book as well.

    harvee44 at yahoo.com

  20. Your post makes me want to pick this up and give it a try again :-)

  21. Thanks everyone who entered the giveaway. It has now closed and the winner has been notified.

    mee - I really enjoyed reading about the internment from a different perspective this time. I hope you enjoy the book if/when you get a chance to read it.

    Teresa - Yes I do remember you mentioning 'Farewell to Manzanar'. That's partly why I finally got around to reading it, last year was it?

    Kristen M. - Oh, you'd definitely enjoy reading about the Seattle of the time. You'll have to read it and then go visit the Panama Hotel and report back. :)

    Lady_Graeye - Welcome! I'm glad you found your way here. :)

    thekoolaidmom - Such a worthwhile read. Some scenes from the book are still floating around in my head.

    DarcyO - It was a great book, I hope you get a chance to read it yourself.

    gnoegnoe - I never heard about this part of our history when growing up but I'm so glad I read Obasan, and agree with you that every Canadian should read it!
    The Cats of Mirikatani sounds really interesting. I'm going to have to try to watch it sometime. Thanks for mentioning it.

    LisaMM - Thank you again for including me in the tour!
    I've had a copy of The Emperor was Divine on my shelves for AGES. I really should finally read it one of these days.

    Suko - Well, thank you! :)

    Esme - Thank you so much for the award!

    Andi - I think Snow Falling on Cedars was my introduction to this moment in history too. If you liked Snow Falling.. I think you'll like Hotel.

  22. nomadreader - I'm glad you've changed your mind! :)

    monnibo - I know! Now we think of Canada as being a pretty accepting, multi-cultural country. It's so sad that there was such racism in the past. This book is based on the actions of the US but was still very interesting. However if you want to read about the situation in Canada, and haven't read it yet, I would definitely recommend Obasan by Joy Kogawa.

    brizmus - It's definitely an episode in history that often gets overlooked. I'm going to have to look for that book by Gail Tsukiyama.

    Just Mom - It was a very good read.

    Lorin - Yes, sadly I think we haven't entirely learned from our past. I hope we don't repeat ourselves but I feel only time will tell.

    Les - I've never read anything from the other side, about Canadians being interned by the Japanese. That sounds like it would be fascinating to read and compare. Thanks for mentioning it.

    Iliana - It really was! Thanks for stopping by to say hi. Sorry I haven't been by your blog lately. I miss reading everyone's blogs but I swear one of these days I'll catch up.

    Kelly - Well, luck was on your side... :)

    raych - I'd been wanting to read it ever since it came out so was very happy to finally have a chance to do so. I hope you manage to get your hands on a copy soon.

    Book Dilettante - How interesting that you interviewed an internee about their experiences. Are the articles or interview on your blog?

    Janet - Try again? Well, maybe the second time will be the charm. :)


Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I love hearing from you and I read every single one!

P.S. In an effort to eliminate spam, I moderate all comments, so there will most likely be a delay between when you submit the comment and when it appears on the post. Please let me know if you have any trouble leaving comments here, and you can also chat with me on Twitter, if you prefer. Happy Reading!