Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

The first couple of times I picked up Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet in a bookstore, I put it back down. Something about the story synopsis made me feel like I wouldn't be able to relate to the lead character, an old Chinese man in Seattle. Finally one day I wondered into the bookstore and I bought it - it had stuck with me and what did I have to lose? I'm so glad I did.

The story begins when Henry, the lead character discovers that The Panama Hotel, which has been abandoned for years has finally been sold and some old belongings have been recovered from the hotel's basement. Henry is an older man now with a grown son whose wife has recently passed away. As things are discovered in the hotel, there are discoveries about Henry's past, primarily his childhood in the Chinese part of the international district of Seattle during WWII. The hotel is a major character in the book - what it represents now, what it represented then and how it's importance to Henry  as he grew into a young man lead to resolving issues of his past as an old man. 

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet delves into a less than sparkling part of American history, a time when thousands of Japanese-American families were forced out of their homes and held as prisoners in internment camps as they were feared to be potential spies for the Japanese armed forces during WWII. These families lost everything when they left their homes and upon their release years later, many of them had nothing to go home to. 

Henry, the lead character in the book is Chinese-American and not allowed to fraternise with Japanese-Americans even though Nihonmachi, or Japantown is only a few blocks from his home. He is encouraged to speak English at all times even though his parents only speak Chinese and he is enrolled as a scholarship student in an all-white American school. It's in school where he Keiko who happens to be Japanese and she becomes his best friend as they bond over their hardships as the only ethnic students in the school.

In a series of well-placed chapters, some taking place in 1986 and others taking place in the 1940's, there are flashbacks that expose what happened that made Henry the way he is.

In addition to the hotel, another major character in the book is the music, primarily jazz as well as Oscar Holden, the real life father of the Seattle jazz scene and the elusive recording that supposedly exists, but has never been found to this day, both in real life and in the book. 

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is the most hopeful book I have ever read. Too many times I've heard people say "I'm too old for that now" or "I wish I'd changed careers when I was younger, but now I'm too far along" and it's really a shame. This beautiful and breathtaking story illustrates that sad things happen and often, the things that make us happy are taken away, but it's never too late to make a change or find something that you lost. I finished reading this book in tears, both happy and sad ones. Jamie Ford's writing is fantastic in a way that the story runs away with you before you even know what's happened and the characters are so properly illustrated that you almost feel like you know them. It's a must-read, especially for anyone who enjoys a bit of history, romance and a feel-good story.

If you find yourself in the Seattle area, the Panama Hotel actually exists and personal effects of 37 Japanese families are kept there where they were found. Many of the belongings are displayed in the tea room which is open to the public. Another location mentioned several times in the book, Bud's Jazz Records is also a real place in Seattle's Pioneer Square.

Have you read any good books lately? I'm always looking for recommendations!



  1. I am adding this to my next amazon order.Have you read 'A Fine Balance' by Rohinton Mistry, comes highly recommended, going to start it tonight. SX

    1. No, I've not read it yet, but I've been hearing great things about it! I have a stack 10 feet high of books to read, but I"ll add it to the list! xo

  2. Thanks again Ashley!

    Another book I loved recently was Goodby For Now by Laurie Frankel.



    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Jamie! I've added it to my Goodreads queue - so nice of you to stop by!

      Ashley x


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