Favorite local author James D. Houston pens another engrossing novel
When James D. Houston walks into your office and kindly asks if you might be willing to review his latest book, the answer, of course, is yes. Houston, a long-time local scribe who has achieved national acclaim for his writings, is a master of the written word. His books, including the recent release, “Bird of Another Heaven,” are gems. In addition, the fact that Houston is a down-to-earth gentleman puts yet another gold star in his grade book.
On this particular day, Houston places a galley copy of “Bird” into my hands. (The publisher, Knopf, hasn’t sent the hard copy to me yet. It will come soon.) The cover hints of a land and time far away—Hawaii, during the reign of its last king. The image urges the reader to open a page and dance into this world of Hawaiian culture, love, romance and family secrets.
In “Bird,” Houston tells the riveting fictional story about the last king, David Kalakaua. This historical novel is based on true stories surrounding the king’s death and the woman who was with him in his dying days. The tale flip flops between contemporary times when a man named Sheridan Brody is burning up the air waves with his popular radio show, “Sit Still and Listen,” and the late 1800s when Kalakaua was in discussions with the United States about the future of Hawaii. The link between these two worlds? A woman named Rosa who one day calls up Brody at his radio station.
In her elderly voice, Rosa asks about Brody’s identity. She’s only known one other man with that same first name—her son. This comes on the heels of us learning that Brody never knew his real father, a man whose first name was Sheridan. In a quest for answers about his father, Brody seeks out the sturdy but aging Rosa and finds her in a trailer, ready for him. It’s there, and in a humble diner, that Rosa reveals, piece by piece, Brody’s jigsaw puzzle life and ancestry. A tomb full of historical secrets is opened to Brody, and it all begins with his great-grandmother, Nani Keala, a half-Indian, half-Hawaiian woman who documented decades of her life in journals, which Rosa hands over to Brody. From there, he traces her delicate footsteps from her childhood and being orphaned as a young girl, to living with her aunt and attending a missionary school, to the day that she meets Kalakaua and is whisked away to a new life in Hawaii.
From there, controversy sets in as Nani is a marked woman. She is revered above the king’s other mistresses, and is targeted by a white man with a grudge against her father.
To reveal too much more of this story would be irresponsible. Here is a book that’s layered with intricacies and zig-zagging stories, turning up secret after secret. The most important secret, of course, is what happened in those final moments when the king died in San Francisco. How did he die? Natural causes … or not? And how does an audio recording serve as the crux from which this story is built? These are answers that can’t be shared here. Read the book. It’s more than worth it.
Houston has crafted together an exquisite tale that is beautifully written. This is his eighth novel, and like the rest will no doubt get favorable reviews. Houston has the fine touch of a writer who’s so skilled at his trade that he whisks you into a far away world, as if you’re entering a fairy tale, and takes you on an adventure that you’re sorry to see end. Such is the skill of a long-time expert scribe.
Behind-the-scenes, Houston has his own original way of penning his winning books. At the very top of the warm and inviting home that he shares on the Eastside of Santa Cruz with his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (also a highly noteworthy writer), is his office. It’s an enviable space for any writer, very loft-like, very creative. In this space, Houston pens all of his books—standing up, at the typewriter. While that may sound peculiar at first, it’s anything but for the novelist. He’s long been writing in this position after a bout with lower back pains, which he no longer has to deal with, thanks to the standing up and writing routine. As for still working on a typewriter, well, “I’ve been doing it for so long, for me it’s part of the creative process,” says Houston. He does, however, have someone put the manuscripts onto a computer.
But not all of this historical novel was imagined in that room. Much of it came from the land from which the story evolved: Hawaii. The mesmerizing tropical islands have been a favorite for the Houston couple for about 50 years. They were even married there. The couple is mutually intrigued by the Hawaiian culture, and for Jim, this foray into the ways of the Hawaiians dates back to his own father. “He was stationed at Pearl Harbor in the early 1920s and was there for three years, fell in love with Hawaiian music and something happened to him there,” Houston says.
The parallels are fascinating: As something positive happened to Houston’s father in Hawaii, something negative happened to the main character (Brody’s great-grandfather) in Hawaii. And likewise, the lure of Hawaii was passed down through both the novelist and his characters.
As for the title, “Bird of Another Heaven,” it comes up a few times, most importantly as how the king sees Nani, as a “rare and singular bird,” writes Houston in the novel. Likewise, this “Bird” is also a rare and singular book.
James D. Houston will do a reading and signing at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 29 at the Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. For more information, call 462-4415. Likewise, he’ll be speaking at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 8 at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. For more information, call 423-0900.
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