People always ask me what good books I’ve read lately, since my work as a book critic lands a lot of titles on my desk. Each month in my new Honolulu Star-Advertiser column, I’ll share local or locally-of-interest titles that got my attention and made it to my shelves—and might make it to yours. 
Here’s the first round.

CORAL ROAD POEMS. Garrett Hongo. Knopf. 102 pages. $26

This is the third poetry collection by Volcano-born Hongo, author of the memoir Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai‘i. These finely wrought narrative poems, arranged in five parts with one rendered in pidgin, pursue fragile yet potent threads of Hongo’s grandparents’ stories about plantation life on O‘ahu. Through verse, he inhabits both ancestral and literary heroes, particularly in a series of epistles, “The Wartime Letters of Hideo Kuboto,” that links Hongo’s poetic family with his grandfather’s experience in a World War II Arizona detention camp. Lingering in every word is Hongo’s profound connection to and palpable homesickness for his family roots and childhood in Hawai‘i (he now lives in Oregon)—a “past that was, to me, / The real world and its genuine glory—not the strained exile I suffered.”

THE BOY WHO DEFIED HIS KARMA. Michael S. Koyama. Mutual Publishing. 461 pages. $14.95
This expansive novel is based on the true-life story of Michael Koyama, pseudonym of a U.S. economist and author of The Kyoto List. More engaging than memoir, the story begins in Bangkok and Japan in 1943 with an atmospheric and immediately captivating description of the central character Bunji’s life in a Japanese orphanage after his father’s execution. Organized chronologically and by location, the novel proceeds nimbly through accounts of his journey into adulthood including college at U.C. Berkeley, work in U.S. Army Intelligence on the mainland and in Europe, a visit to Hawai‘i in the late ‘80s, and back to his beginnings in Japan. Equal parts triumph-over-adversity and political intrigue, the novel is a memorable and endearing recollection of an adventurous and incredible life.

Murder Leaves Its Mark. Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl. University of Hawai‘i Press. 301 pages. $16.99 

The imaginative lead characters from Kneubuhl’s 2008 debut mystery Murder Casts A Shadow return in this engrossing follow-up, where clever journalist Mina Beckwith and British playwright Ned Manusia suss out a murder at the old Haleiwa Hotel. It’s almost a guilty pleasure to be transported once again back to 1930s Hawai‘i, as sugar barons throw swanky parties and the smoking tension between workers and the elite is smartly resurrected. From the first pages, Kneubuhl’s graceful and meticulous prose immerses readers in a time when O‘ahu’s Sierra Drive was bordered by farmed carnations, large lots still existed near Waikiki, and people traveled to and from the islands by boat—and that’s just entrancing window-dressing on a thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining story.