6 Great Books Set in Hawaii That We Love

6 Great Books Set in Hawaii That We Love

Thursday, 4 August, 2022

There’s a lot to love about the 50th state. You can start with palm trees galore, soft sand beaches (more than 100!), lush hiking trails, and volcanoes you can climb. Plus, dreamy island music and luau-worthy cuisine.

But it’s not always blissful in paradise, at least in stories. There’s some dark history, modern strife, and creatures — both animal and human — that pose various levels of danger.

Don’t worry — there’s lots of euphoria-inducing scenery and relationships, too!

Here are six books set in Hawaii that took us there on the page: a snarky exploration of Hawaiian history, a stunning short story collection, a family saga tinged with magical realism, a white-knuckle report on the hunt for giant waves, and two techno-thrillers that make the most of Hawaii’s flora and fauna.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Hawaii: Bring a Bottle of Gin for Pele.


This is Paradise - Kristiana Kahakauwila

This Is Paradise
> Kristiana Kahakauwila

This remarkable story collection will transport you to Maui, Oahu, Kaua’i, and the Big Island. Sure, the islands can be a vacation paradise, but for the people who live there year-round, it’s simply home — the place they work, love, struggle, survive, and triumph.

Author Kristiana Kahakauwila is a hapa writer of native Hawaiian, German, and Norwegian descent. She brings a seriousness of purpose and undeniable warmth to her stories. She also possesses a magical gift for describing the version of Hawaii that natives experience in their everyday lives without losing the wonder of the place. It’s a neat trick to make something seem familiar and extraordinary at the same time.

The story ‘Thirty Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral Into a Drinking Game’ is a standout; it’s worth the book’s purchase price for this story alone. Told in the form of a bleakly funny, gut-wrenching list, it’s a portrait of Hawaiian family and tradition set at a grandmother’s funeral.

The story begins with a simple, incisive, dark-as-pitch rule:

1. Take a drink each time the haole pastor says hell.

2. Take a drink each time he asks if anybody in the room wants to go there.

3. Take a drink each time he looks at one of your uncles when he says this.

As the story unfolds, the items on the list grow longer and more involved, increasingly more poignant, weaving in family history and food and the awkward, nothing-to-do-but-laugh truths that come up at a funeral.

We won’t spoil the ending, but number 39 is well worth the trip. This is a beautiful story, very well told.

All of the stories address universal themes, but they arise out of things that are specifically Hawaiian. Kahakauwila is a compassionate tour guide as she explores the beauty and heartache underneath the allure of paradise. {more}

We pause outside the Banyan Hotel, the warm light from the lobby casting our shadows across the water’s edge. The tide sucks at the sand beneath our toes like a vacuum. We look into the hotel, and we can almost understand why here, in Waikīkī, the world appears perfect. The hotel lobbies are brimming with flower arrangements and sticky with the scent of ginger. The island air is warm and heavy as a blanket. And the people are beautiful. Tan and healthy, with muscles carved from koa wood and cheeks the color of strawberry guava. These people — our people — look fresh as cut fruit, ready to be caressed, to be admired. These are people to be trusted. This is not New York or Los Angeles. No, Hawaiʻi is heaven. A dream. — Kristiana Kahakauwila


Unfamiliar Fishes - Sarah Vowell

Unfamiliar Fishes
> Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the person you wish had been sitting with you in the back of history class. She’d entertain you with a stream of commentary, but she’d also be taking notes because she’s a smart-aleck who pays attention. This is her history of Hawaii delivered with snark and insight.

Specifically, Vowell takes on the emotionally challenging topic of US colonization of Hawaii and, along the way, weaves in the way Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam were also snared in the annexation net.

Her story begins when Hawaii was ruled by the Polynesian natives descended from the original settlers. It ends when they ceded their independence to the US because of Christianity, capitalism, and the American military.

Vowell has done her homework. She shares stories unearthed in her readings of the diaries and speeches of the original missionaries and their wives. These historical records are supported with modern interviews. Reading it is like having a friend who spent nine months immersing herself in Hawaii’s beginnings, then came to your place for dinner — a bottle of wine in hand — to tell you all about it. {more}

I suppose the double-sided way I see the history of Hawaii — as a painful tale of native loss combined with an idealistic multiethnic saga symbolized by mixed plates in which soy sauce and mayonnaise peacefully coexist and congeal — tracks with how I see the history of the United States in general. — Sarah Vowell


Invasive - Chuck Wendig

> Chuck Wendig

Ignore the deadly ant swarm for a moment, and focus on the awesome things in this book.

First, it’s populated with three-dimensional, strong female characters. Like Hannah, an FBI consultant who investigates cases that involve futuristic technology and is an appealing combination of grit and fear. And Dr. Ez Choi, a thoroughly badass entomologist at the University of Arizona who buys unusual creepy-crawlers out of the back of a van.

Second, it’s set on a tropical Hawaiian island paradise that might just be the equivalent of a Bond villain’s lair.

And third, it’s packed with action, cool science, biting banter, and an ending that lands with a very satisfying bang.

The drama kicks off when Hannah gets a call from her FBI handler: ‘I’ve got a cabin full of over a thousand dead bodies.’ The ensuing investigation leads Hannah to Arizona and the Hawaiian lair of an Elon Musk-ish billionaire. Has his ambition outstripped his good judgment? {more}

‘Paradise is precarious. Just one little thing…’ He mimes a little shove. ‘Can push it into imbalance. It didn’t take much to screw up the Garden of Eden.’ — Chuck Wendig


The Wave - Susan Casey

The Wave
> Susan Casey

Waves gently lapping a beach. Surfers riding swells in tropical climes. Sweethearts watching a sunset at sea. This remarkable book will change everything you think you know about the waves on the ocean.

This is the story of rogue waves that suddenly appear — walls of water 100 feet (30m) high or taller, pushing 100 tons of force per square meter. They can rip a ship in half.

For centuries, scientists dismissed the idea of giant waves, assuming the conditions that would produce a wave like that were so rare as to be inconsequential. Then in 1995, on New Year’s Day, proof dramatically surfaced. An oil rig in the North Sea was battered by an 85-foot wave. Seven stories of water hit the rig at 45 miles per hour. Scientific proof that rogue waves exist and probably always have, it’s just that those unlucky enough to see them had not survived.

Author Susan Casey interviewed various people interested in these giant waves: scientists, mariners, surfers, and insurance people. She talked to the scientists at the Tenth International Workshop on Wave Hindcasting and Forecasting and Coastal Hazard Symposium and visited the offices of Lloyd’s of London to talk about shipwrecks and unexpected dangers.

This is a solid adventure book that both demystifies and mythologizes the daunting power of ocean waves. {more}

The Munchen’s disappearance points to the main problem with proving the existence of a giant wave: if you run into that kind of nightmare, it’s likely to be the last one you’ll have. The force of waves is hard to overstate. An eighteen-inch wave can topple a wall built to withstand 125-mile-per-hour winds, for instance, and coastal advisories are issued for even five-foot-tall surf, which regularly kills people caught in the wrong places. The number of people who have witnessed a hundred-foot-wave at close range and made it back home to describe the experience is a very small one. — Susan Casey


Shark Dialogues - Kiana Davenport

Shark Dialogues
> Kiana Davenport

This is a sweeping family saga that begins with a love affair between a rebellious Tahitian princess and a New England boy with a lust for adventure. It ends in modern Hawaii. In between, it explores Hawaii’s real historic events through the experiences of one family.

Specifically, five women: a grandmother named Pono and her mercurial granddaughters.

For better and for worse, the formidable Pono is the beating heart of this story. She’s 84 years old, Hawaiian, and stands 6 feet tall. Her long, thick gray hair swirls around her like a shawl, and she carries a walking cane made from a human spine — the rumor is that it’s from a lover who betrayed her. She’s a seer (kahuna in Hawaiian) and can turn herself into a shark.

As the story moves around in time, we meet three generations of women in this remarkable family, starting with that runaway Tahitian princess in 1834. They experience every milestone of 19th- and 20th-century Hawaii: colonialism and annexation, smallpox and measles and leprosy, and the rise of the plantations. There’s a tsunami and an earthquake and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They go to a volcano eruption with a bottle of gin. One of the girls marries a yakuza gangster (‘a walking tattoo’). Another fights for Hawaiian native rights.

As you’d expect with a family saga, the themes of love and loyalty are threaded throughout the story; it also explores racism from the inside as the women wrestle with questions of identity and dependency. {more}

Some nights without warning, Pono would shake them, wake them before dawn, drive to a secret beach where they scoured the shore with Coleman lanterns, looking for treasures washed in from the Orient. Blue glass fishing floats from Japanese fleets working tuna longlines in the Bering Sea, ivory mah-jongg tiles, gold jewelry, rare colored bottles, ceramic jugs with Cyrillic lettering. By midmorning, exhausted, the girls would drowse along the beach, until Pono piled them into the Jeep. Headed for home she would ‘talk story,’ telling how they were descended from the daughter of a great Tahitian chief, a fearless swimmer and Eater of Stones, a woman who fought for Queen Lili’uokalani, last monarch of Hawai’i. — Kiana Davenport


Micro - Michael Crichton

> Michael Crichton, Richard Preston

Welcome to Nanigen MicroTechnologies, a mysterious biotech company on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. At the helm is a billionaire named Vin Drake. He possesses the dual gifts of charm and dubious ethics — and he uses both to lure a group of talented graduate students to the island with the promise of lucrative jobs. But on their visit to corporate headquarters, they see and hear things they shouldn’t. Before you can say, honey, I shrunk the kids, the students have fallen victim to Drake’s powerful shrinking technology. A mere half-inch tall, they’re dumped into the rain forest by the evil overlord, their deaths all but a certainty.

Except these pesky kids keep finding ways to survive.

Because our heroes are minuscule, ordinary things are imbued with super-sized danger. They run afoul of angry ants, sticky spider webs, a marching centipede, and a hungry, hungry grub. As the entomologist points out, insects are armored. They have built-in chemical weapons, and their jaws are designed specifically for biting and cutting. And the botanist reminds us that plants, literally rooted in place, have developed defense mechanisms to protect themselves. All of which makes for death-defying action scenes that showcase the majesty and menace of flora and fauna of any size.

When Michael Crichton died in 2008, he’d written about one-third of Micro. It was finished by Richard Preston, a science writer for The New Yorker and author of several well-received nonfiction books about infectious disease and bioterrorism. So while this plot might seem over-the-top, the science and technology are grounded in some sense of reality.

This story is preposterous, and if you give yourself over to it, you’ll love every minute. {more}

Something drifted past Jen’s eyes, falling downward through the thick air. It was a small nugget the size of a peppercorn, studded with knobs. ‘What on earth is that?’ she said, stopping in her tracks to watch it. The nugget landed at her feet. Another fell slowly past. She put out her hand and caught it in her palm, then rolled it between thumb and forefinger. It was tough and hard, like a small nut. ‘It’s pollen,’ she said with wonder. She looked up. There was a hibiscus tree overhead, bursting into a profusion of white flowers, like a cloud. For some reason she could not explain, her heart leaped at the sight of it. For a few moments, Jenny Linn felt glad to be very small. — Michael Crichton

Top image courtesy of Oscar Sweep/Shutterstock.

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There's a lot to love about the 50th state. You can start with palm trees galore, soft sand beaches (more than 100!), lush hiking trails, and volcanoes you can climb. Plus dreamy island music and luau-worthy cuisine.
This weekend, we recommend a getaway to tropical Hawaii... to a billionaire's private island with pristine beaches, crystal blue water, and oops! genetically modified, weaponized ants. Don't forget your sunscreen!
The star of a Hawaiian luau is kalua pork, and that is 100% justified. But when you're heading to the beach or feeling peckish, you need Spam musubi, a portable snack that's salty-sweet-crispy-chewy and irresistible.

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