09 June 2011

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

Title: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Author: Jamie Ford
Publisher: Allison & Busby
ISBN: 978-0-7490-0919-9
Format: Hardcover
391 pages
Genre: Fiction
Review copy provided by the publisher

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an enchanting story about loyalty, friendship and first love. It's also a thought-provoking story about a time when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps by the US government.

Set in Seattle, the story opens in 1986. Henry Lee is fifty-six and a recent widower. His wife, Ethel, who Henry was devoted to, died six months ago.

When Henry hears about a commotion over at the Panama Hotel, the gateway between Seattle's Chinatown and Japantown, he walks over to see as the new owner reveals an amazing discovery - the belongings of Japanese families that were left there for safekeeping when they were sent away to internment camps during World War II.

As Henry watches a Japanese parasol being opened, he is swept away by memories to the time back in 1942 when he was twelve years old.

Henry's Chinese parents were proud when he was accepted at the all-white elementary school but they don't know that Henry is constantly bullied. Henry was born in Seattle but his classmates taunt him and call him a 'Jap' because they think Chinese and Japanese look the same and they are treated with the same disdain.

When Keiko, a second generation Japanese, is sent to the same school, she and Henry become best friends. Henry quickly becomes infatuated with Keiko but events occur that lead to heartbreaking consequences for both of them.

In the background is the growing distrust of everyone who looks Japanese.

'There's even a curfew now.'
Keiko nodded slowly, contemplating its effects as she looked around the barren streets. 'No Japanese are allowed outside of our neighborhoods from eight o'clock at night to six in the morning. We're prisoners at night.'

All the characters and their relationships are vividly portrayed as are the details about life in the USA during the 1940s, particularly the shameful way that all Japanese Americans were treated. Eventually, all persons of Japanese ancestry were forced to evacuate and sent to internment camps.

An interesting point is also made in the story about how it seemed to be just Japanese Americans who were rounded up and sent away to internment camps but not other nationalities who were also considered the enemy.

They pass some order saying they can round up all the Japanese, Germans, and Italians - but do you see any Germans in that crowd? You see them rounding up Joe DiMaggio?'

The issues of racism, paranoia, bullying, friendship, loyalty, father and son relationships, a search for identity and belonging, patriotism, and the sweet innocence of first love, are all woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story, as are fascinating details about Chinese and Japanese traditions and customs.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a mesmerising love story with unforgettable characters. It's also an important reminder about a time when thousands of Japanese American citizens were treated so disgracefully by their fellow Americans. Bitter and Sweet indeed.
There's some interesting information in the Author's Note at the end of the book too. 
The subtitle on the cover of the book states: THE BOOK A MILLION PEOPLE HAVE FALLEN IN LOVE WITH and I must add my name to that long list.
This is Jamie Ford's debut novel and I look forward to his next book. He is a sensational writer. I am very grateful to the publisher, Allison & Busby, for sending me a copy. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a book that I will certainly be recommending to everyone.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a must-read. Dazzling and wonderfully satisfying.


  1. A good review of what looks to be an interesting book. It's not what I would normally read but may well do so! Flighty xx

  2. Thank you Flighty! I'm glad you liked my review, and that I may have persuaded you to read the book. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a wonderful story and I'm sure you will enjoy it as much as I did.

  3. Hi!
    I really enjoyed that book. Are you on good reads? Found you on twitter through Deborah Previte.

    Have a great reading day!

  4. Hi Tanya, it's a fantastic book, isn't it? I loved it.

    No, I'm not on good reads. I'm pleased you found me through twitter, and that you stopped by to leave a comment. Thanks!

  5. I've met Jamie, been to one of his talks and book signings, and I'll boost this book until the day I die. There are a lot of folks doing what you're doing - recommending it to friends and acquaintances. It's the kind of book that doesn't need a lot of hype, especially if you're a sucker for young and innocent love.

    Which isn't why I read it. I am a history buff and artist, and when I heard about the book from a relative and found out there really was a Panama Hotel that I could walk into, I had to read it.

  6. How cool that you got to meet Jamie!

    I love this book and as you say, it doesn't need a lot of hype. The story is wonderful so it's easy to see how word-of-mouth has made it a hit.

    And it's easy to see how the story would appeal to you if you're a history buff.

  7. I finished this book last month and absolutely love every bit of the story. I was hooked from the begining right to the end.

  8. Hi Cathy. Same here. The book hooked me from the beginning as well.