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June Book Club Choice

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Cover of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

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This wonderful novel has reached the heights of success (over a year and a half on the New York Times bestsellers list) through word-of-mouth recommendation and has become a book club favourite in America. Now you too can enjoy this moving  novel about the friendship between a Chinese boy and Japanese girl, set in Seattle during the Second World War, when Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps. It is a story about 'fitting in', about friendship, love and commitment, about the relationships between father and sons, about enduring hope, and about one of the less-talked about events in world war history.

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Author Q&A

Q. In what way did you draw on inspiration from your own personal background for the novel? Are any of the events based on your own family history?
James Logan, London

A. While the book is not autobiographical, it is vested with a lot of real emotional angst — from my father’s childhood and mine as well. For instance, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, my father, who was Chinese, was given an “I Am Chinese” button to wear to school. He talked about kids mistaking him for Japanese — throwing rocks at him, getting in fights, that kind of thing.

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Q. The paralleling of Henry and his father’s relationship with Henry and his son’s relationship was very interesting. Do you have a son? And/or was they any reflection on your own relationship with your father?
B. W., Middlesex

A. I do have a son (two in fact). There’s definitely that point as a parent where you realize, often with much horror, that you are just like your father or mother –– more than just inheriting an overbite or a receding hairline (thanks Dad), you inherit a personality with all its foibles. Fortunately there are also satisfying moments when you realize how different and unique you are.

Q. When I studied WW2 in school, I was only taught about Britain’s involvement and politics during the war, so, I knew little about the prejudice facing Chinese and Japanese citizens in America at this time. In America, is this a much talked-about/studied aspect of history? Was it easy to research? And how did you go about researching specifically 1940s Seattle?
Jane Simmons, Wolsingham

A. When it comes to history, I love turning over stones and looking at the squishy things underneath — the bits of history that are often so profound, yet overlooked. The Japanese Internment falls into that category. There was definitely a reticence to teach it in history books, but there was also often a wall of silence from many Japanese American communities. The term gaman­ comes to mind, which means to bear the unbearable with dignity. Many Japanese Americans just said, “Gaman,” and moved forward with their lives despite terrible personal tolls and the loss of home and hearth. It wasn’t until the 80s when formal apologies were made by the US government that people began to revisit those times in earnest — especially the sansei, the 3rd generation. As far as research, I grew up in the Seattle area so it’s a neighborhood that’s near and dear to my heart. But I also did the normal things—bought maps from the 40s, searched the archives at the Wing Luke Museum, met with a historian from the University of Washington. Research is almost archeological — you sift the sand for a while and every now and then you find a bone.

Q. Jazz plays a prominent role in the novel. Why was this important to you? Do you enjoy listening to jazz?
A. Barrow, Brighton

A. I grew up going with my grandfather to these funky old restaurants in Chinatown and he would always say, “Cab Calloway used to play here,” of “Ella Fitzgerald used to play there.” To which I would promptly roll my eyes (because grandparents tend to exaggerate a bit, as they are entitled to do). It wasn’t until I was doing my research that I realized he was right! At one point there were 38 jazz clubs on South Jackson alone. Before Vegas, if you wanted booze, jazz, gambling and other kinds of salacious fun, you went to Chinatown. As far as jazz personally, I enjoy it, but I’m much more of a blues guy.

Q. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel; I found it a lovely and heart-warming story. You have enjoyed major success in America – has your life changed remarkably as an author with this success?
C. Vernon, London

A. Aside from the Lear Jet, the stretch Escalade, and all the bodyguards, very little has changed. Now if you’ll excuse me I have to take a call, Paris Hilton somehow found my private cell number, again. (Paris, is you’re reading this, I’m just not that into you!) Actually my expectations were fairly low so everything has been far beyond anything I imagined. I’m constantly reminding myself to stop…look around…and enjoy each moment. But the one part that is a surprise is all the travel. I spent 100 nights on the road last year. I never envisioned that. Plus I signed with a speakers bureau, so I’m doing community reads events, college lectures, weddings, bar mitzvahs…

Q. What kind of genres and which authors do you enjoy reading? What are you currently reading?
Claire Riddot, Kent

A. People often ask if I grew up reading Raymond Carver, since I lean toward minimalism in my writing, and my answer is always, “No, I read that other great minimalist, Isaac Asimov.” I read tons of Science Fiction as a kid, and comics too—so Stan Lee was my hero. But I’m also a theater geek, so I grew up on Shakespeare. (Instead of a wedding reception we took 70 people to A Midsummer Night’s Dream). These days my favorite author is probably Sheman Alexie, though the one author that has haunted my imagination from adolescence to adulthood is Harlan Ellison.


Book Club Reviews

This star review was by Maddy Broome, Bishop Auckland (Newbooks Magazine reader).

I really enjoyed this book and I've already told all my friends to read it. Apparently it has sold over a million copies in the US and is 'a word-of-mouth sensation'. I saw it for sale in Waterstones at the weekend, so I hope it is going to sell well here too. Go out and buy a copy. Inspired by a real event and based on the internment of Japanese families in the US during the Second World War, it is a bittersweet story of the friendship between a Chinese boy, Henry Lee and a Japanese girl, Keiko Okabe. Henry is a really lovable character, who tries his best to maintain his friendship despite his father's deep displeasure and the separation caused by the internment. The real event is the discovery in the Panama Hotel of the belongings of some of the Japanese families living in Seattle, who were sent to the camps. In the novel, an older Henry thinks he recognises Keiko's parasol. This makes him recall his friendship and also engenders a desire to know what happened to his first love, Keiko. This is a well written novel, full of memorable characters such as the black sax player, Sheldon and the school lunch supervisor, Mrs Beatty. Reading groups will find plenty to discuss in this book, but if you want something more, you could also read Jane Smiley's recent book Private Life which also deals with the internment of Japanese families in the US.Maddy Broome, Bishop Auckland (Newbooks Magazine reader)

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'This is a moving, heart-rending story; to steal from the book’s title, bittersweet really does describe this tale. I loved Henry and Keiko, and also Sheldon, great characters who I really grew to care about as I read on...It’s a special book, filled with struggles, separation and sadness, but equally with friendship, love and hope. I knew nothing about the events in these communities; I found it fascinating and feel this novel really highlights this through its story.'Lindsay Healy, Cambridgeshire (Newbook Magazine reader)

A thoroughly enjoyable read about a not very well known area of American life during the Second World War – that of the internment of Japanese and Japanese American citizens... I kept turning the pages because I wanted to find out what happened next, and found it both a very moving and absorbing read. I thought Henry was far too sophisticated in his thinking for a 12 year old boy but this was the only quibble I had with the whole book.Veronica Cooke, Bedford (Newbooks Magazine reader), Bedford

Although this probably would not have been a book I would have chosen to read ordinarily, I found it drawing me into the story of Henry and Keiko. Neither America at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbour nor Jazz music are topics I would have chosen to read about. However I thoroughly enjoyed the book and it is one of few modern novels that I would read again. It was also refreshing to read a novel without any bad language.Judith Siviter, Oldbury (Newbooks Magazine reader), Oldbury

When I won a copy of this book and read some of the comments in the cover such as "genuinely heartfelt", "gripping, poignant" and "a beautiful and tender masterpiece" I thought it sounded too good to be true. However this book turned out to be a real delight, and with its message of enduring hope it brought a tear to my eye on a couple of occasions. This is a split time narrative that moves between Seattle in 1942 and 1986 and follow the story of Henry Lee a Chinese American, as he struggles to find his place in war time America where every Asian person is assumed to be Japanese. The book also follows the injustices of Japanese Americans who were interned in camps after Pearl Harbour, something I knew nothing about! The chapters are short and the book has a lovely flower illustration at the start of each chapter, all of which helped me romp through the book in a couple of days. I can fully understand why this book has been a prize winner in America and I have recommended it to members of my book group as an informative story with well-drawn characters.Carolyn Fraser, Ipswich, Ipswich

This is a story which having read it feels so fragile a tale to tell. It is a book for all those who love novels based in or about the Second World War. What made this different for me was the fact, it is based in Seattle, America and this is about the Chinese and Japanese citizens there and how the war affected them personally.
Imagine being born in a country and to all intents and purposes being an American Citizen but having Chinese descendants makes you different. Henry a twelve year old boy is this and not only do his parents want him to be American and to go to the well known Caucasian school, they want him to only speak English and not Cantonese. Very difficult when his parents speak little English, a fact that alienates him from his parents. He is to be Chinese in America but an American faithful to China, a country he has never visited. Despite this ‘Americanising’ Henry also has to wear a badge to say he his Chinese. Why? Because of the Japanese. Because of Pearl Harbour. Because of War.
Keiko is Japanese and she is also twelve. She was born in America and to all intents and purposes an American Citizen. Her parents treat her differently, she cannot even speak Japanese but she is not made to choose between being Japanese or American. She is American. Keiko does not wear a badge, because since the bombing of Pearl Harbour, all Japanese especially those who live by the coast are suspected of being spies and therefore need to be interned into camps.
A friendship strikes up between these two what others see as outcasts. They are treated in school as such, and have to do all the menial tasks such as helping with the school lunches, cleaning, emptying bins - that is their role in school. They put up with the bullying and when their friendship becomes stronger, Henry has to put up with being accused of fraternising with the enemy. An enemy who has never even set foot in Japan.
Move forward to the 1980s and Henry is now older and recently widowed. Out walking one day he sees a familiar landmark of his childhood, The Panama Hotel being brought back to life, and from the basement come a number of items from years previous. Japanese items which were hidden by the residents before they were taken to the internment camps. Can Henry find his past amongst these items?
The book moves backwards and forwards between these two time periods as we see the story develop and come to its conclusion. What this book does is show a piece of social history that I knew nothing about, and I am ashamed to say that. I had no idea that such things had gone on. This book also has a place in showing race and prejudice. Where just by your birth you are automatically guilty of whatever crime someone wants to accuse you of. No matter what. All the supporting characters are relevant and bring strength to the overall story and what is happening to the main characters.
The title is somewhat appropriate. The “bitter” is the treatment of people because of their background, their skin colour. The bitter aftertaste of how you watch and can do nothing as whole communities are moved and destroyed. It is this that for me gives the book a certain frailty. The “sweet” is the innocence of love, so fragile, of waiting for that one person and never forgetting about them. Frailty is there in Henry and Keiko’s love, so delicate it could be broken at any point. The love of parents and their offspring, the love of music and being free.
An excellent book, and if you want to perhaps venture away from novels set in England during the Second World War period, then start with this book you will not be disappointed.Joanne, Hampshire

A beautifully written book, with warm, likeable characters who you felt at home with. Henry Lee was portrayed as such a lovely man and it was his character which made the book so endearing. A story of lost love, childhood, prejudice and war, but also of endurance and acceptance and resignation that life doesn't always turn out the way you would want it to. I loved this book and read it in two sittings. I look forward to reading more books from this author.Gill Gray, Stourbridge (Lye Down with a Good Book Reading Group), Stourbridge. Lye down with a good book reading group

What a great book. I was totally hooked right from the beginning. I needed to know what happened to the characters and really engaged with them. There was enough detail and desciption but not too much that I became bored. I also learnt things about different cultures and countries. All in all a wonderful book that I think everyone should read.Sara Nixon (Lye Down With a Good Book Reading Group), Lye , West Midlands

Jamie Ford's 'Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet' has already been a world-wide sensation since it was originally published in 2009. It was re-released by Allison and Busby for the UK in April 2011 and I send a huge thank you to Lesley from A&B who knows my taste so very well and sent me this copy for review.
It's at times like this that I wish I were a writer and not just a reader as there is no way my words can ever do this beautiful novel the justice that it deserves. I would go as far as using the word 'masterpiece' to describe it and I feel a little bereft at the thought that I no longer have the wonderful world of Henry Lee to escape to having finished the book.
A dual time narrative, set in 1942 and 1986 - in Seattle, USA, with Henry Lee as the main character. In 1942, Henry is 13 years old and attending a Caucasian school in the city. Henry doesn't really know just who he is. At home he is forbidden to speak Cantonese as his parents want him to be 'American', yet neither his Father or his Mother speak English well enough to hold a conversation. At school, he is bullied and picked on by the white American pupils and called a 'white devil' by the Chinese kids in the area who attend the Chinese school. And then there is the badge that his Father insists that he wear on his jacket - the one that reads 'I Am Chinese'. Henry's father is terrified that someone will mistake him for a a Japanese boy - America is at war and the Japanese are the enemy, even those that were born in America.
At school, Henry helps out in the school canteen and it is when American-born of Japanese parents, Keiko begins to work there too that he realises just how different he is to his father. To him Keiko is his special friend, she's American, her parents are professional people, she doesn't even speak Japanese. Henry and Keiko become allies - discovering Jazz music and spending hours together.
And then, the USA Government decide to 'evacuate' everyone of Japanese origin. Keiko and her family are sent to ready-made internment camps where they will stay for the next three years or so. In the rush to leave, some of the Japanese families ask their friends to look after some of their possessions - others are stored in the basement of the Panama Hotel. It is when Henry's father finds Keiko's possessions in his room that he finally stops speaking to him altogether.
The 1980s section of the story opens with the discovery of the possessions that have been stored in the basement for over 40 years - as Henry passes by, all his memories of his friendship with Keiko rush back to him - memories both bitter and sweet.
To say anymore about the story would give it all away - and I don't want to do that. I do want to urge everyone to pick up this wonderfully written, beautifully evocative story and read it. It's in no way soppy or sentimental, yet it is a true love story, but also a story that will haunt the reader. The treatment of the Japanese people, the internment camps and the subsequent loss of identity is a terrible thing, yet the stoicism and acceptance of the people shines through in this story - the whole book captures the resilience of humans. The characters are expertly drawn, with Henry and his jazz-playing friend Sheldon being my favourites.
A fantastic debut, very well researched, tenderly written - a hugely satisfying read.Anne Cater, United Kingdom

What an amazing book, it centres around two main characters - Henry a 2nd generation Chinese boy and Keiko also a 2nd generation Japanese girl, who both have traditional family backgrounds (Henry's family insists that he speak English, although they speak only Cantonese, his father is an elder in the local community association, and his mother stays at home. In Keiko's family her whole family speaks English, and she does not know any Japanese as her family considers themselves to be Americain and therefore act accordingly) . At the beginning of the book it opens with Henry having lost his wife Ethel to cancer, it has only been six months and he still misses her, he happens to walk past the Panama Hotel and notices that objects are being taken out of the basement, one of which is an umbrella with koi fish painted on it, this brings back memories... I do not want to give any more of the plot away. The characters are skilfully drawn and the way the book is set out in its chapters, flitting from present time to time in the past when Henry and Keiko first meet when they are at school, both having been sent to a prestigious private school, but they are the only Chinese and Japanese pupils within. There are also other characters - his son Marty, who is graduating from university and his new girlfriend Samantha, who is not Chinese. I loved every single page of this book, could not wait to find out what happens, and to see if the dream comes true? The setting for the book is historical in the fact that the Japanese internment did happen in America and this is adequately described and portrayed, the writing is such that you can see the vivid imagery that is evoked. The quote from the book: 'You just gave me hope Henry. And sometimes hope s enough to get you through anything' is very apt and appropriate for the main theme of the book is about love and how it can transcend over a number of years, no matter what is happening in the people's lives. It made me linger on the final pages as I did not want to finish the book and it is one that will stay with me, I look forward to more books by this brilliant author!Ruth Clements, Stornoway, Stornoway, Western Isles

This was a wonderful book which opened my eyes to an area of history I knew nothing about. It was a sit up all night and keep turning pages kind of book which ended in a very satisfactory manner. Peopled with wonderful characters, with a story that reaches to the very bottom of your heart, this is a novel not to miss. Wonderful!Penny Bullock, Lancaster, Lancaster


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