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Honolulu by Alan Brennert

Honolulu book cover “In Korea in those days, newborn girls were not deemed important enough to be graced with formal names, but were instead given nicknames, which often reflected the parents’ feelings on the birth of a daughter: I knew a girl named Anger, and another called Pity. As for me, my parents named me Regret.”

Honolulu is the rich, unforgettable story of a young “picture bride” who journeys to Hawai’i in 1914 in search of a better life.

Instead of the affluent young husband and chance at an education that she has been promised, she is quickly married off to a poor, embittered laborer who takes his frustrations out on his new wife. Renaming herself Jin, she makes her own way in this strange land, finding both opportunity and prejudice.

Read more . . .

With the help of three of her fellow picture brides, Jin prospers along with her adopted city, now growing from a small territorial capital into the great multicultural city it is today. But paradise has its dark side, whether it’s the daily struggle for survival in Honolulu’s tenements, or a crime that will become the most infamous in the islands’ history…With its passionate knowledge of people and places in Hawai’i far off the tourist track, Honolulu is most of all the spellbinding tale of four women in a new world, united by dreams, disappointment, sacrifices, and friendship.
St. Martin’s Griffin; 1 Reprint edition (February 2, 2010)

Book Club Party Ideas for Honolulu


Decorating for a book club party for Honolulu is so fun because there are so many Hawaiian and luau party decorations out there. For the table setting use a straw beach mat as the table covering and line the table with a grass table skirt.  Be sure to have plenty of leis on hand to pass out to guests as they arrive.

I topped my straw mat table covering with silk-like Hibiscus flowers.

Leis, flower combs, palm tree lollipops


Hawaiian music is a must for your book club party for Honolulu.  Two of the songs mentioned in the book (and available for download from Amazon) are On the Beach at Waikiki and Hawaii Pono’i.

“Facing Future” by Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole remains one of the top selling Hawaiian albums in the world.

Book Club Menu for Honolulu

“Hawai’i has often been called a melting pot, but I think of it more as a ‘mixed plate’ — a scoop of rice with gravy, a scoop of macaroni salad, a piece of mahi-mahi, and a side of kimchi. Many different tastes share the plate, but none of them loses its individual flavor, and together they make up a uniquely ‘local’ cuisine. This is also, I believe, what America is at its best — a whole greater than the sum of its parts.” (page 430).

I tried my hand at making Kimchi, a side dish made with cabbage that is usually served at every Korean meal. This is a very, very, very fragrant dish…the smell would blast anyone who opened the refrigerator. It you are not a fan of spicy food you might want to cut back on the red pepper. I also made Mandu Dumplings, which was served at the cafe Jin started.

For cocktails, I recommend the Chi Chi, which is similar to a pina colada, but made with vodka instead of rum.

mandu, chi chi, kimchi, leis

There were many delicious desserts mentioned in Honolulu such as coconut cakes, mochi, korean pastries, chestnut cinnamon candies, and kulolo pudding but I could not resist making the Pineapple Cream Pie which was served at Jin’s wedding.

pineapples, coconut, recipes

Here are some other menu ideas from Honolulu:

  • Rice wine
  • Guava punch
  • Ginseng tea- ” to quiet one’s spirit, drive out fears and act as a general tonic for the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys”
  • Bulgogi or “fire beef” (she made it with pork for Mr. Noh). Cut the meat into thin slices, steep in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, chili pepper and red pepper paste. Marinate then grill.
  • When Jin was invited to dinner at the house of her new Hawaiin friend, Ester, Aku (white fish) marinated in ginger, onion, soy sauce and chili peppers with cooked sweet potatoes and freshly baked pineapple pie was served.
  • On Jin’s first date with Jae-sun he made spicy-hot eggplant kimchi, sesame balls filled with sweet red bean paste and raisins and naengmyeon, cold noodles with vegetables.
  • Minnows grilled in miso sauce

Book Club Resources

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads: 4.0 stars (15,625 ratings)
Amazon: 4.5 stars (641 ratings)
My Rating: 5 stars. I loved experiencing the history of Hawaii through the eyes of resourceful Jin. If there was such an award, I would nominate it for the best last sentence (don’t read it before you read the book…it will diminish the impact!)

Discussion Questions

Spoiler Alert: Discussion guide may contain spoilers to the book.

1. How do you feel about Jin’s decision to leave Korea? What do you think that you might have done in her place? How do you regard the various decisions she made after learning the truth about her fiancé in Hawai’i
2. How would you interpret the poem by Hwang Chini on page 26 within the context of the story?
3. Korea and Hawai’i were both small countries, in strategic locations, that came to be dominated by more powerful nations. In what other ways were the Korean and Hawaiian societies of the time both similar and different?
4. Compare and contrast the lives of a Korean kisaeng and an Iwilei prostitute.
5. How does the author weave real people and events into the lives of his fictional characters, and how do they contribute to your understanding of Jin’s circumstances? If you were already familiar with any of the historical figures, how do you view them after reading the novel? For example, the author is uncertain of May Thompson’s fate in real life—what do you think she might have done after leaving Honolulu? What do you think about the Governor’s decision to commute the sentences of Lt. Massie and the others convicted in Joe Kahahawai’s death? Read more . . .

6. How have Americans’ attitudes toward immigrants changed—or not changed—since the 1900s?
7. The biography Passage of a Picture Bride describes its real-life subject as having a “positive outlook and broad-mindedness, unusual traits among Korean women” of that time. How does this statement apply to Jin and her fellow picture brides?
8. What binds Jin and her “Sisters of Ky?ngsang” together, other than the kye? What purpose do they serve in each other’s lives?
9. What is the significance of the patchwork quilts not just to Jin’s life, but to the life of Hawai’i itself?
10. At the end of the novel, Jin says “Hawai’i has often been called a melting pot, but I think of it more as a ‘mixed plate’—a scoop of rice with gravy, a scoop of macaroni salad, a piece of mahi-mahi, and a side of kimchi. Many different tastes share the plate, but none of them loses its individual flavor, and together they make up a uniquely ‘local’ cuisine. This is also, I believe, what America is at its best—a whole great than the sum of its parts.”
11. What do you think of her statement? What is gained and what is lost—both in Hawai’i and in the U.S. as a whole—in becoming a multicultural society? How might this be particularly relevant to Native Hawaiians?
(Discussion Questions from St. Martin’s Griffin)

Purchase Honolulu at your favorite bookseller

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The Author

Alan Brennert is the author of the best-selling historical novels Moloka’i and Honolulu, as well as the contemporary novels Time and Chance and Kindred Spirits. He has also written short stories, teleplays, screenplays, and the libretto of a stage musical, Weird Romance. His work on the television series L.A. LAW earned him an Emmy Award in 1991, and his short story “Ma Qui” was honored with a Nebula Award in 1992. Born in Englewood, New Jersey, he has lived since 1973 in Southern California. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from California State University at Long Beach, and also did graduate work in screenwriting at UCLA.


Named one of The Washington Post’s Best Books of 2009

Personal Insights, Favorite Quotes, etc…

My favorite quote is made in reference to the chogak po, or patchwork cloths. When Jin asked her mother why she made these patchworks, she replied “When we are young, we think life will be like a su po: one fabric, one weave, one grand design. But in truth, life turns out to be more like patchwork cloths – bits and pieces, odd and ends – people, places, things we never expected, never wanted, perhaps. There is harmony in this, too, and beauty.”

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