Cover Image: The Mountains Sing

The Mountains Sing

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Member Reviews

A very moving family saga that explores Vietnam and it's many tragedies. Through the eyes of the Tran family, the reader experiences WWII, the great famine of Vietnam, the Korean War, and the Vietnamese War. I learned a lot about Vietnamese history that I didn't previously know, and was engrossed in this family's story.
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Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s debut English-language novel The Mountains Sing is strikingly beautiful. The prose is lyrical while also accessible, weaving stories told by a grandmother and granddaughter into a narrative that is heartbreaking and then reaffirming a hundred times over. This book is a challenging read and may be triggering to some (war, death, abandonment). For readers who are interested in learning more about Vietnam and its history, this is an accessible historical fiction told by an author who grew up in Vietnam. 

The Mountains Sing takes place over the past century in Vietnam, taking the reader through important points in the country's history. The Great Hunger, Land Revolution, the Vietnam War are the big stories in which the smaller stories of everyday life weave through.  We visit the cities of Hanoi, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), and Nam Định and see a family’s fortune change in two short generations. We experience family gains and losses, abandonments, and profound tragedies. I enjoyed the conversational narrative, which brought much-needed levity during heavy subjects (like when grandma Diệu Lan shows granddaughter Hương how to Kick-Poke-Chop to protect herself). 

Hương theorizes about life at the end of the book, which summarizes the themes of The Mountains Sing well: “Human lives were short and fragile. Time and illnesses consumed us, like flames burning away these pieces of wood. But it didn’t matter how long or short we lived. It mattered how much light we were able to shed on those we loved and how many people we touched with our compassion.” 

The Mountains Sing is an all-the-stars, best-book-I-expect-to-read-this-year kind of book. I hope you pick it up and read it too.  It will be published on March 17, 2020. 

Thank you to @netgalley and @algonquinbooks for a chance to read this complimentary advanced readers copy of this book. Opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.

I have posted also this review to my website, Goodreads, Instagram, Facebook and Amazon accounts. Thank you!
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A silent masterpiece! Powerfully told through the voices of a grandmother and her granddaughter this novel propels the reader into the heart of the Vietnamese people’s struggle to survive during their country’s turbulent political past. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s writing is raw, unadorned and ‘rough around the edges’ which lends perfectly to this story’s brutal authenticity and power. My heart is literally still aching...
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This is a beautifully written, moving novel about the Vietnam War era told from the perspective of a young Vietnamese woman and her beloved grandmother.  As Americans, we don't hear this part of the story.  The situations in the novel are often violent and brutal.  The story  is heart wrenching, but the hope and persistence of the characters is amazing.  It's the authors first novel written in English and it's amazing that English is not the author's first language.
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I'm such a sucker for a multigenerational family saga and this book did not disappoint. I found The Mountains Sing so refreshing for its depiction of war that doesn't center the United States. We don't hear a lot about the brutality of the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese from Vietnamese voices. I knew very little about the history of Vietnam and learned so much through this book. The inclusion of Vietnamese language is really refreshing and depth to the narrative. A beautiful and important read.
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A family saga spanning the WWII through after the victory of the North Vietnamese over the south. At times a heart-wrenching story with many engaging characters. The family's story involves many of the tragedies that the Vietnamese people suffered through over the course of invasions and wrenching political changes. So many books about Vietnam have a western-centric perspective and focus on western characters. This book focuses almost exclusively on Vietnamese characters. One of the best books I have read so far this year.
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My heart was seeded on the first page—just like the planting of a tree, overtime my heart grew to be tall, with aged affection and deep roots of love for the family of this story—their loyalty to each other through the tearing apart of war and a country vanquished in hatred left me emotionally undone. The opportunity to fall vastly in love with not just one, but an entire family of characters is why I enjoy multi-generational stories so well. As the reader, you have the opportunity to become a part of the family’s heritage and both the joys and hardships within their line of ancestry.

❝That night and for the next many nights, to dry my tears, Grandma opened the door to her childhood to me. Her stories scooped me up and delivered me to the  hilltop Nghe An where I could fill my lungs with the fragrance of rice fields, sink my eyes in the Lam River, and become a green dot on the Truong Son Mountain range. In her stories, I tasted the sweetness of sim berries on my tongue, felt grasshoppers kicking in my hands, and slept in a hammock under a sky woven by shimmering stars.❞

Historical novels that portray a time of war, always leave me speechless and days spent evaluating my heart and the way I treat others. This book gave me eyes to see a part of history I wasn’t very familiar with beforehand. I’ve said this before, but I truly feel a sense of change after reading stories like this. Stories like this are important, they help reshape and soften the heart. 

❝Only through love can we drive away the darkness of evil from this earth.❞

I profusely recommend this story. The writing is eloquent and captures emotion and family so vividly. I will revisit this story again and again within the years to come. 

❝I’d rather die than live the life of the unwanted.❞
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“Grandma once told me that the challenges faced by the Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountain. I have stood far enough away to see the mountaintop, yet close enough to witness how Grandma became the tallest mountain herself: always there, always strong, always protecting us”. 

This book is a lyrical journey into two lifetimes of women in the same family, enduring incredibly painful stuff. Each chapter layers on a level of heaviness that I didn’t think was possible and had me constantly googling to learn more about the history about Vietnam from the 1940’s to the late 1970’s. 

Tran Dieu Lan is the incredibly fierce and strong matriarch of a family with six kids. Her journey is as painful as it is epic. Her presence throughout the story makes the reader root for her desperately as she approaches all of the obstacles in her life. 

Huong is Tran Dieu Lan’s granddaughter, and the narrator of the other half of the book. As she discovers her grandmother, her extended family, and herself during wartime, we get a different perspective on the Vietnam war and how it not only effected those on the other side, but children specifically. 

This book was absolutely fantastic. Pick it up for the beautifully written words, stay for the story.
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“Human lives were short and fragile. Time and illnesses consumed us, like flames burning away these pieces of wood. But it didn’t matter how long or how short we lived. It mattered more how much light we were able to shed on those we loved and how many people we touched with out compassion.”

The Mountains Sing is one book I will forever be grateful for. It brought me to tears severally and I know it would stay with me for a long time.

Written in the point of views of a Grand-mother and her grand-daughter, I was taken through the years of pain, anguish, devastation, hunger, suffering and even love. Their story is gracefully told. The Mountains Sing is deep, engrossing and captivating. War is one thing that will always and forever displace families and cause deep sadness and pain. I could not help but shed tears as I read through this multi-generational story of Diên Lan and her grand-daughter, Hú’óng.

“Oh Guava, I used to think that we were the ones in charge of our destinies, but I learned then that, in time of war, normal citizens were nothing but leaves that would fall in thousands or millions in the surge of a single storm.”

The story showed me the devastation of war and the illnesses it brings with it in form of hatred, grief, blaming self and many more. It showed me  the uncertainty of life, the loss of loved ones and even oneself. “If I had a wish, I would want nothing fancy, just a normal day when all of us could be together as a family; a day when we could just cook, eat, talk and laugh. I wonder how many people around the world were having such a normal day and didn’t know how special and sacred it was.” 

This book also taught me the importance of family, sacrifice and intimacy and also telling them and showing them how much we love them and care for them. This is very important and makes me understand that the only certain thing about life is death. “I know now that true love is rare and once we find our true love, we must hold on to it. I just wished that when Hùng was alive, I’d told him more often how much I loved him.”

“Looking at my children, the desire not just to live, but to thrive, surged into my heart. If those evil people wanted me to surrender, they couldn’t be more wrobg. As long as I was a mother, I would never, ever, give up.”

This book is gold. It also emphasized the beauty, pain and sacrifice that motherhood entails. Diêu Lan is the perfect example of the kind of mother who will do anything to save her children. She is very fierce, strong and amazing all-round.  Diêu Lan showed me that mother’s love is the strongest there is. “Being a mother is not easy though, it is about falling, learning, and then falling again.”

“If our stories survive, we will not die, even when our bodies are no longer here on this earth.” The book teaches hope, healing despite the violence and also that not all humans are unkind. I was particularly grateful for people the amazing people Diêu Lan met in her journey of fleeing the land where her head was desperately wanted. Mentioned more than once in this book was this quote: “As long as I have my voice, I am still alive.” This would stay with me a long time.

There were many other quotes as well as meaning of their local names that I highlighted in the course of my reading of this book and here is a few I’m sharing.

Gieo gió gãt bão — He would sows the wind will reap the storm.

Tú — refined beauty

Hú’óng — fragrance

And also where the book got its name: So’n ca which means The Mountains Sing. It is a name of a bird that sings beautifully.

“Words are like water: once they have escaped one’s mouth, they’ re onto the floor. Words are like knives, leaving invisible wounds that continue to bleed.” Lastly, I learned that we should be careful of words we speak while in pain or on grief. While we are in grief, we must be careful not to also hurt people around us who love us as they are already hurting because of us.

This book will stay with me a long,  long time. Five shiny stars!
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I am a sucker for historical fictions and family sagas, so The Mountains Sing by Que Mai Phan Nguyen was right up my alley. Beautiful writing and vivid description I'm telling you, it's a must read. thank you, Algonquin Books for this gifted copy.
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The Mountains Sing is about the trials and tribulations of just one Vietnamese family among countless, which gives us one of the best ways to experience the horrors of war—the totality of war—through storytelling. William Faulkner explored the loss suffered by the American South through a microcosm of humanity on a patch of communal ground he called Yoknapatawpha County and, within that, specific families over generations like the Compsons. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’ also explores the torment and anguish of a nation, not through the state but through the Trần family that must be made to endure, to be fractured, to be put to the test to see whether or not they are worthy of honor and dignity. Through gorgeous prose and masterful storytelling, The Mountains Sing adds its much-needed voice to our understanding of Việt Nam and its complex, alluring history and people. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Read my full review here: https://thechrisgonzalez.com/the-mountains-sing-by-nguyen-phan-que-mai-book-review/
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This book was incredible. Devastating, but beautiful. I read it in only one day (while I was maybe supposed to be working from home, shhhhh) because I simply couldn't put it down.

Nguyễn’s prose is simple but wonderfully descriptive, and she deftly balances the relentless devastation of war alongside beautiful moments of kindness and humanity.
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Historical fictions have recently become one of my favorite genre s to read. I absolutely loved this book. A story beautiful story of a Vietnamese family that suffers hardships, war and perseveres. I enjoyed learning about the Vietnamese history and also about the culture. The book has a split time line which tells of two different generations. At times I got a little confused with this, but overall I really enjoyed this book. I look forward to read more by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. I received an ARC from Net Galley in exchange for my honest review. I also received a finished copy in a giveway…the cover is beautiful!
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I think anyone who loved Pachinko will love this book. A wonderful multi-generational family saga that takes place in Vietnam throughout the 1900s. I learned so much as I read, but I was also captured by the simple and beautiful writing style. Highly recommend.
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For decades, the full extent of the disastrous Vietnam War’s toll on Vietnamese civilians has been obscured (or would that be repressed?) by its combatants. American textbooks — and even Ken Burns not-so comprehensive docuseries — pay scant attention to the terror of Vietnamese families huddling in homemade bunkers during U.S. bombing raids. Vietnam’s Communist government does no better, asserting claims of victory while turning a blind eye to the horrific aftermath of the Land Reform campaign of the 1950s, which left many former landowners homeless and starving during the War.

Fortunately, out of the fog of war comes The Mountains Sing, a fictional course-corrective in the form of an involving multi-generational saga that chronicles a North Vietnamese family’s path through suffering to redemption through the country’ arduous 20th century. This harrowing and unflinching tale — the product of interviews with hundreds  —  is the English-language fiction debut of Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, who was born during the Vietnam War. Before this book she has authored multiple works in Vietnamese, including nonfiction and poetry.

Mai’s knowledge of Vietnamese society and history gives her novel a rich texture. The narrative is steeped in her homeland’s language and culture, which will be unfamiliar to many Western readers, such as the proverbs frequently doled out by Trấn Diệu Lan, the unwavering family matriarch at the heart of the story. Diệu Lan and her tenacious granddaughter, a budding writer nicknamed Guava, are the protagonists of two overlapping timelines that Mai skillfully shifts between, each illuminating the other. In one, Diệu Lan recounts in evocative flashbacks her coming of age in the 1920s after her wealthy family is shattered by the invasion of Japanese soldiers and the merciless “Wicked Ghost,” who leaves Diệu Lan scarred. Diệu Lan escapes with her five children to navigate a highway hellscape where, through a series of riveting set-pieces, hunger overwhelms and people are left behind.

How the Lan family members find their way back to each other, physically and emotionally, propels Guava’s narrative of living with Diệu Lan in ’70s Hà Nội. The horrors that ripped apart the family are still vivid. Guava’s mother returns from the war traumatized, blaming Diệu Lan for abandoning her children. A newly-minted Party official uncle balks at Diệu Lan’s job trading black market goods. The need for forgiveness and reconciliation weigh heavily on the family. The Mountains Sing continually wrestles with how the Vietnamese people, torn apart by infighting, can bridge debilitating divides.

Ultimately, the story is more stirring than despairing. Diệu Lan isn’t defined by her tragic past, but the way in which she perseveres to live a vibrant life. Also, Mai’s lyrical prose finds haunting beauty in ramshackle villages and fractured landscapes. Young rice plants “roll out in green carpets.” Returning to her ancestral home, Diệu Lan finds their treasured bang tree broken with roots protruding “into the air like raised, burned hands.” Though epic in scope (even at just 326 pages), the narrative is built out of spare sentences that resonate with the poeticism promised by the book’s title.

At a pivotal moment in the story, Diệu Lan tells Guava about the murder of her husband and brother, a moment lost in history to all but her. She urges Guava to remember that those in power may rewrite history, but the truth lives on in the memories of those who were there. The Mountains Sing proves her point about the power of witnessing, It is a love letter, told honestly and poignantly, to the Vietnamese people, an homage to their dedication to remembrance,  during and after a painful time. As Diệu Lan reminds Guava in one of her parables, “While there’s still water, we will scoop.”

Only in the final act does the narrative’s propulsive pace lose a little steam. A romantic subplot seems shoehorned in for Guava, along with a shocking reveal that is resolved too fast to resonate very deeply. That said, The Mountains Sing offers a gripping, and necessary, lesson in a world that’s as divided as ever, despite the glib assurances of globalization. Family bonds can survive horrendous strife: as long as memory nurtures the possibility of love.
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This is a beautifully written story, but not an one easy to read. It’s a brutal portrayal of hardship, hunger, death, a history of the people of Vietnam spanning decades. But in spite of the fact that this is a history filled with the anguish of war, of hunger, of a changing society, it is filled with hope and love and pride of a people, in the beauty of their land as well as their customs and beliefs. The Vietnam War, remembered by many of us of a certain age with the focus on the loss of American soldiers, on those held as POW’s. I don’t remember a big focus on the people of Vietnam who suffered the ravages of war, loss of home and family or their history before all of that . This novel is about some of those people, their story seen through the eyes of a young girl and her grandmother spanning from 1920 - 1970’s, of this family, spanning the generations with the commonality of the depth of love that begs protecting those they loved at all cost. It is through the intimate story in this novel, of this family that this history is depicted bringing to life not just the facts or the events such as the the Great Hunger, Land Reform, and the War, but, the impact on the people. It’s a dual narrative with with young Guava and her grandmother Tran Dieu Lan, reflecting the power of stories, experience and family connections to the past.

“As the war continued, it was Grandma’s stories that kept me going and my hopes alive.” 

“Do you understand why I’ve decided to tell you about our family? If our stories survive, we will not die, even when our bodies are no longer here on earth.”


I received a copy of this book from Algonquin Books through NetGalley and a  many thanks to Nguyen Pham Que Mai for the paper copy sent from Algonquin.
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I haven’t read many books set in Vietnam, but almost all the ones I have read are about the Vietnam War, so it was nice to read a book that also covered a longer history of Vietnam. (The war was also included.) I learned a good deal of history from this book.
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I'm a little ambivalent about my review for this one. On the plus side I got to see Vietnam through the eyes of its inhabitants, following a family saga through generations and how much they've had to go through, how the country hasn't been able to recover from so many tragedies that have befallen them from colonizing countries like France, Japan and the United States. On the other I struggled a lot with the writing. The writing seemed choppy and it didn't flow well. I wanted to love it much more than I did because the story itself was brilliant but its just that the writing just wasn't inviting to more of what was to come. It created a dissonance that found me reluctant to open the book again. This was more of a its not you, its me situation.
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This one is hard for me to rate. It was marketed as a book similar to Pachinko (Min Jin Lee) and Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi). I've never read Homegoing but I HAVE read Pachinko and I absolutely loved it. I picked it up by chance from a free library and consumed it quickly so I jumped at the chance to read another "multigenerational epic." However, I don't think comparing The Mountains Sing to Pachinko is fair. They deal with similar themes (war, relocation, imperialism/colonialism,  family, politics), but these are two very, very different books. Because this is a review and not a book report, I won't go into too much detail about that, I just wanted to point it out. 

As its own entity, The Mountains Sing was an "enjoyable" read. I put the enjoyable in quotation marks because obviously, reading about war and all its evils is never easy. I did, however, appreciate the way the author made it clear how the Vietnam War (or the Second Indochina War, or the Resistance War Against America, or the American War -- depends on who you ask) affected their lives without making it the only thing the book was about. The Mountains Sing isn't a war story, it's a family story that happens to take place during and after a war. 

As far as writing style, it didn't quite suit me but it wasn't bad either. It served its purpose. I also like the way the author included Buddhist phrases and greetings in Vietnamese. They were the cadences of the main characters' lives. One thing I wasn't expecting was the shift between past and present.  Huong ("Guava") tells half the story in the present. Her narration begins near the end of the war. Dieu Lan (Huong's grandmother) tells the other half of the story beginning in the past, beginning before the war, during the times of foreign occupation. Both women use present tense and if you're not paying close attention to time an place and can get a little easy to get lost, but the time and narration jumps are not random. Dieu Lan's story gives context to Guava's story, and also serves the purpose of making sure their family history lives on. 

So while I wouldn't say I was enraptured by The Mountains Sing, I certainly recommend it, if only because it's a much-needed perspective.
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4.5

I read Pachinko last year, and after seeing this book compared to it I knew immediately I wanted to read it, but was hesitant because I was worried it wouldn't hold up to my expectations. Luckily, I was wrong, I enjoyed this gripping story for its multigenerational storytelling and point of view. I have read and watched documentaries on the Vietnam war, but it was all from the point of view of Americans, this story gave me a new perspective and shed light onto the suffering of the people on both sides of the war. I have had the privilege of visiting Vietnam and the author's description of the country immediately took me back to my visit. 
Thank you NetGalley for an advanced copy.
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