I just finished Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. I received this as an ARC from Random House/Ballantine Books. It won't be released until January 27, 2009. BUT, if you can get your hands on a copy now, do it! I rarely give five stars to a book. I save that rating for books that really amaze me or have some quality that make it an instant favorite of mine. This is THE best fiction book I have read in 2008. AND this is a DEBUT novel by Jamie Ford. Really, I'm just wowed.
For some reason, WWII books are finding their way to me lately, first The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, now this book, and I just received Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay in the mail. Okay, so now that I've built Ford's book up so much, I hope you aren't disappointed when you do read it. But I don't know how you could be.
Now on to Hotel on the Corner. The story flip-flops between Henry Lee age 12 in 1942 and Henry Lee age 56 in 1986. The young Henry is struggling to fit in as a Chinese American in Seattle going to an all-white prep school. His parents are extremely traditional (they do not even speak English) and he has a hard time relating to his father. Henry is on scholarship at the school and helps out in the kitchen and after school. He is caught between not fitting in at his school and not fitting in with his community because he does not go to the Chinese school. One day, a Japanese girl named Keiko joins him in the school kitchen and the two start a wonderful friendship. Henry's parents do not understand or approve of him befriending a Japanese girl on the eve of the rise of Japanese internment camps. As she is sent away, he tries his hardest to save her and not lose her, the first girl he has ever loved.
The Henry of 1986 is mourning the death of his wife after spending seven years caring for her while she suffered through cancer. He finds history repeating itself slightly with regard to his relationship with his son. They are not very close and in fact do not see eye to eye on many thing. A relationship of misunderstanding. However, as Henry starts to get on with his life after his wife's death, he finds himself thinking of Keiko and what happened to her. Surprising to Henry, his son helps him work through his feelings.
There is a cast of colorful characters throughout the book in both time periods. A few follow throughout the time line. Ford crafted a wonderful and realistic story of a tumultuous time in history. He's created a social history of Seattle during the war. A story of race, culture, family, friendship, love and hope. I was hooked from the beginning and whipped through the pages to find out if Henry and Keiko ever found each other again. You must read the book to find out! ;-) No spoilers here. Ford also brings in a bit of the jazz scene of Seattle in the '40's. I think the flow of this book is really good, even going in and out of the different time periods. I just love all the relationships portrayed and the history is interesting and there without being too distracting. The people in the book are at the forefront not the events.
Now, go find your "to be read" list and mark this book down as the first TBR of 2009!