Cover Image: The Mountains Sing

The Mountains Sing

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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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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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During some of the most tragic events in 20th century Vietnamese history—the Great Famine of 1943-45, the Land Reform in 1950, the Vietnam War, and the divisive postwar years—, the matriarch of the Tran family, Dieu Lan, witnesses how outside forces shape her country and her people, even her family, for good or bad, but...can forgiveness lead to reconciliation in a country torn by war and politics?

At times vivid—especially during the passages depicting the fighting during the Vietnam War—, and at other times plodding, but always lyrical and enlightening, The Mountains Sing is a novel that should be read by every American, for it sheds light into 20th century Vietnamese history, underscoring the war conflict that immersed both sides of the Cold War. With empathy and hard-earned wisdom, the Tran family deals with the coming of age of the younger generation, political strife, and forgiveness among the siblings and towards those who did them wrong at any point in the history of their ravaged country.

Disclaimer: I received from the publisher a free e-book via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.
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This novel provides a geographical and historical tour of Việt Nam that spans almost the entire 20th century, which is both effectively encompassed and carried out by the way Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai chose to write the book: through multiple generations of the Trần family. Its epic qualities and comfortable pacing are quite complementary; the complexities, simple truths, and consequences of war, sacrifice, everyday life, and nostalgia are presented on the pages in a way that allows the story to move along, while the weight and importance of each scene, conversation, and character interaction are maintained.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai wastes no time in placing her reader alongside the two main characters, Trần Diệu Lan and Hương, as they try to find shelter after hearing sirens alerting citizens of incoming bombs. We are immediately swept into their story of survival and what led to the way things are; the people in this novel do not rise above the supporting details, they are strengthened by the history and geography  Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai made a point to include. Every so often a sentence or paragraph would slightly lose the narrative flow and have a slight textbook tone, but these slight variances were not common and thus did not significantly distract from the story.

The Mountains Sing is, like most beautifully done multi-generational, historically based fiction, more than just a timeline of events and a dive into a family tree. It makes history feel more accessible, and provides another look into what it means to be human. There is a lot of room to reflect on the fictional characters’ choices and paths of life, while also facing the realities Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai included and alluded to – making this a work of fiction that cannot be missed.
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I’ve been to Vietnam. I’ve read a lot about Vietnam, and yet I learned so much about what the Vietnamese people have been through in reading this fictional account told through the eyes of a young girl and her grandmother. The story moves between periods of tie. Readers are introduced to the duo in Hanoi, during the “American War”. It moves back in time through the grandmother’s stories to life before WWII, the Japanese invasion, and ends up in the 1980’s when the grandmother is finally reunited with her children. This is a gut-wrenching story of how tough the Vietnamese had to be in order to survive. When I visited Vietnam in 2016, I was amazed at how the Buddhist concept of compassion has helped the country heal. This book shows this over and over. For me, an American, whose classmates were going off to fight in Vietnam, I had no idea, that there was a Vietnam that was there before the war. I know there are still nine months in 2020, but I am sure this will be one of the best books I read all year long.
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The Mountains Sing is a sweeping tale of life in Vietnam narrated by a grandmother and her granddaughter. Hoang narrates life in the 1970s during the tail-end of the Vietnam War, while alternating chapters follow her Grandmother Dat Lieu in the 1940s where the story focuses on the family's struggle for stability and peace during, and after, the Land Reform.

Nguyen's writing reminds me of Lisa See in that it is very family-focused, and the story follows generations of one family through some sort of political or cultural upheaval. Fans of historical fiction will most likely enjoy Nguyen's writing, however I found historical details less prominent than other novels. That being said, readers who don't usually enjoy historical fiction may enjoy The Mountains Sing for this reason. 

My one small critique is that bad things happen to the family so often in this novel it feels a little gimmicky after a while. I would have enjoyed more character-development that wasn't shaped by tragedy and trauma. More historical context, as well, may helped the family's tragedies feel more realistic and profound. By the end of the novel it felt like the story was just moved along by a series of unfortunate events. For this reason, I felt like the novel lacked the depth it needed to be memorable. Character-development and historical context in between each tragedy would have slowed the pace, and allowed readers to immerse themselves in the storyline and setting. 

Overall, I enjoyed reading this novel and I look forward to Nguyen's next work.
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Tiny, beautiful Viet Nam.  A country seemingly forever at war, and a watershed moment in the course of our own history.  In Vietnamese mountains and jungles, so many fought and died.  We asked why, did not buy the answers, and we changed.  In a worldwide dispersal, countless Vietnamese refugees left their country for ours and others, and we changed.  Never the same, but, you see, we didn’t know Viet Nam then, and we don’t know it now.  Many of us don't, anyway.  Most of us, perhaps.  For anyone who remembers our involvement in Viet Nam, anyone who wants to more fully understand that dark, unsettling time, The Mountains Sing is a must.  For everyone who simply wants to read an extraordinary book, what can I say except “this one”.  Here it is.

Vietnamese native Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai's novel reverses our perspective as we view her struggling country through Vietnamese eyes, those of the Tran family and, in particular, the family matriarch Dieu Lan and her granddaughter, twelve-year-old Huong.  Huong’s father is away at war and no one knows if he is alive or dead.  When her mother, a doctor, goes south to find him, she leaves Huong with her grandmother, a strong, strong woman who is a teacher and, in her youth, a beauty, a “jade leaf on a branch of gold”.  According to Vietnamese tradition, she calls Huong by a nickname, Guava, to guard her from evil spirits.  They lose their home to American bombs, depend on the kindness of their countrymen and experience their cruelty as well.  Run, hide, take shelter, survive.  Through it all, Dieu Lan steadies and supports Huong with stories of her own life, their family and their homeland, its history and its people, and it is in this way that we, as readers, experience life through four generations in this war-torn country.  Beauty and brutality.  Guilt and innocence.  Pain and hope.  Huong finds comfort and strength in her grandmother’s stories and Vietnamese proverbs, as do we.  “Intact leaves safeguard ripped leaves.”  “One bite when starving equals one bundle when full.”  We lose ourselves in Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai's lyrical prose, and we learn.

Reading such a book as this reminds me that perhaps American readers are not as cognizant of international authors as we could be, of the value and insight they bring to our world view.  Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is also an award-winning poet, and it shows in her amazing book, so Asian in character yet so wondrously written in English by this non-native speaker.  Lovely.  And we learn.  We learn and re-learn what we already knew, what we instinctively know – surely we do.  That war is hell for both “sides”, that family is strength and love, that people are only people after all.  Let The Mountains Sing remind you just how good a book can be and why we love them so.  Explore international authors beginning here.  Read this one.

Thanks so much to Kelly Doyle at Algonquin Books for inviting me to participate in the blog tour for The Mountains Sing.  And even bigger thanks to Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai for creating this masterpiece for us all to savor and enjoy.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.
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Amazing. In the author’s first work of fiction in English, readers are given a 20th century history and perspective of Vietnam that is not often seen in the West. There is not a refugee voice here and no one thanking the Americans for rescuing them. It is more about the utter destruction and suffering that was inflicted on the civilians by the repeated foreign interests and invasions (France, Japan, the US). A family torn apart is universal, and the poet’s voice is perfect for conveying its truths. Destined to find a  prominent place in the canon of World Literature, The Mountains Sing is a masterful work.
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I really like this book. It moved me. I recommend it. It’s a deeply historic novel and about family bonds.
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The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

4 stars

“We didn’t perish that day, in November 1972. After the sirens had signaled that it was safe, Grandma and I emerged, shivering thin leaves. We staggered out to the street. Several buildings had collapsed, their rubble spilling onto our path.”

Hương lives in the midst of the Vietnam War. Her family has all gone to serve in the war except for her grandmother, Tran Dieu Lan, who takes care of her and protects her. Hương’s grandmother will do everything to keep her granddaughter alive. The Mountain Sings follow the story of a family and the pain that they have faced through the turmoil of Vietnam breaking apart. This is an intense and harrowing novel that leaves the horrifying decay of war on the reader’s palate. This novel’s song cry is that war is evil. It rips families and people apart. It turns people into monsters. This is a great historical exploration of the Vietnamese people and the wars, oppression, and Communism that they have faced by exploring three generations of a family. This is a beautiful novel steeped in emotional turmoil and the riches of storytelling. The grandmother’s story of being cursed to lose all her wealth and wander into a new city faraway is a beautiful way to bridge the gap between the generations. The writing leaves a phenomenal emotional punch and it is hands down what makes this novel so great. The writing is patient, but also brutally honest in portraying that war decimates people and families. There is something to enjoy in every chapter as well as be horrified by. This is a novel that will stick with the reader.

Whimsical Writing Scale: 4.5

The main female characters are Hương and Tran Dieu Lan. Even though the novel does not specifically follow Dieu Lan’s point of view, her storytelling immerses the reader into understanding the horrors of the Communist Party and the Land Reform Movement. The Land Reform Movement is a harrowing moment in Vietnam history where the party went into villages with quotas to kill people who owned land. Dieu Lan happens to be a land owner with six children. She embarks on a harsh and rough journey to save her children and make it to the city of Hà Noi. In contrast, we follow Hương as she has to grow up in the turmoil of the Vietnam War and the sorrow of waiting for her parents and uncles to come back from the war. Both narratives have impactful and sorrowful stories bridged with hope and longing. However, the weakest aspect of this novel is Hương’s characterization. She doesn't feel fully fleshed out. She is steeped in immaturity for most of the novel (which is fine because she’s a child), but for a long time it does not seem like she is going to change or grow. She does change, but it doesn’t feel like her growth is fully realized and by the end of the novel I was left wanting more. The characterization in this novel overall leaves much to be desired.

Kick-Butt Heroine Scale: 3.5

The characters throughout are given storylines that expand through the novel, but are hindered by not being given enough pieces in the story to be fully fleshed out. I enjoyed following the different characters. My particular favorites were Uncle Dat, Hương’s mother, and Tam (Hương’s love interest in her teenage years). There were a lot of different facets to the story because of how many characters we follow.

Character Scale: 4

The Mountains Sing exudes a wide range of storytelling and uncovers the heart of Vietnam’s history. It is a beautiful novel written with a lot of heart. Overall, this is a promising novel in the historical fiction genre that you won’t want to miss. If it wasn’t on your radar before, it should be! I would recommend this to readers interested in reading about the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese people and readers who love generational stories and storytelling.

Plotastic Scale: 4.25

Cover Thoughts: This cover is one of my favorites. It is absolutely stunning and in person, it's beautiful!

Thank you, Algonquin Books for providing me with a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review and being a part of the blog tour.
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The writing of The Mountains Sing was very lyrical and beautiful. This book covers difficult themes of life in a war torn country and a country struggling among much conflict. But often those themes were not difficult to read about and I think it was because the writing was so lyrical. It was like the writing didn’t fit the subject. I don’t think that made me dislike the book but did make it hard for me to feel connected to the characters. I wanted to feel the anguish they must have felt but I didn’t really. 

I really enjoyed learning about Vietnam. This book takes place in Vietnam and is about the people of Vietnam. Their history, their culture, their traditions. I really enjoyed learning about Vietnam and the struggles that country has faced. I also enjoyed learning about the Vietnam War through the perspective of the Vietnamese people. 

Though I didn’t feel connected to the characters and wanted to feel more emotion to the events that were happening, and wanted to be shown things instead of told, I enjoyed my experience reading The Mountains Sing. The writing and the history I learned made up for the things I didn’t feel.
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The Mountains Sing is a beautiful historical family saga set in North Vietnam told from the perspective of Huong, who comes of age during what we Americans think of as the Vietnam War, and her Grandmother Dieu Lan, the family matriarch who experiences firsthand the political changes in Vietnam that are born out of French Imperialism.

I learned so much about Vietnam politics and culture reading The Mountains Sing. As an American,  Vietnam has become symbolic of the atrocities of an unjust war and the aftershocks when "our boys" come home. In this story, Que Mai artfully shifts our American perspective, reminding us that those atrocities happened in the land of the Vietnamese, that everything American troops suffered during that conflict was at even more expense to innocent Vietnamese lives.

Further, the novel has a very defined sense of place; I felt like I could fully imagine all of the places Que Mai took me throughout the novel, from rugged mountain caves to the city streets of Ha Noi. Combine all of this with beautiful writing, a fully developed plot, and the theme of strong family bonds, this novel was an excellent read for me.
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Tragic, courageous, beautiful and hopeful. These are the circumstances described in the multigenerational saga. Set against the background of the Vietnam War, this is the story of the Tran family. Raised as a child of a well off farmer, Tran Dish Lan, a mother with six children is unprepared for the brutality of the Land reform, as the Communist government rose to power in North Vietnam. Forced to flee, she struggles to keep her family together.

Years later we once again find this formidable woman, now doing everything she can to keep her granddaughter safe, while waiting for her son's who had gone off to fight. The traditions and language, their struggles, hopes and fears of these people who are confronted with a war fought on their doorstep are poignantly displayed. There are many who are cruel, but little kindnesses are vital to those just trying to survive. War and other tragic circumstances bring out the worst but also the best in people. 

The writing is both poignant and beautiful. This is a beautiful country being torn apart by war. Exemplifying the human cost of ordinary people dealing with a war, not of their making.
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I did not know anything about Vietnamese history before I got an ARC copy of this novel from the publisher. 

The characters and everything about this novel had me completely absorbed. 

The Mountains Sing is a journey of tradition, of discovery of personal fights for every single character in a fascinating but war-torn country.

Asian culture, and any culture, is interesting to me. The visuals and description are excellent. The Mountains Sing is an exceptional novel and an outstanding debut. 

Just as enthralling as Memoirs of a Geisha, or Yaa Gyashi's Homegoing, both of which I enjoyed very much. 

Thanks to Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai and Algonquin Books for my ARC in exchange for an honest and voluntary review. 

5 sparkling stars although it deserves a lot more. Loved it. (less)
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The Mountains Sing book review -
Another 5 star book for me. I feel like I'm on a roll. Thank you for the advanced reading copy in exchange for an honest review algonquinbooks and nguyenphanquemai_ .
Today is my stop for the Instagram Book Tour and I am so excited to chat with you all about this fantastic novel.
Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres and this novel did not disappoint. I found myself instantly drawn into the story. Theres a bit of time hopping and what I love about it is that you get a well-rounded view of the family being written about. What happened in their past certainly shaped who they were in the future. You can't help but feel for each of them.
I'd recommend this to fans of Pachinko, Molokai, Homegoing and The Hundred Secret Senses.
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Gorgeous and miracle a poignant tale of resilience and heart. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai's lush and vivid storytelling transported me to Vietnam. The story spans most of 20th century Vietnam told from alternating perspectives in dual timelines from grandmother and granddaughter. 1950s Trần Diệu Lan is Born the daughter of a wealthy farmer. As a young girl she was told by a palm reader that she would live a hard life and indeed she did. From the death of her father to the great hunger to the land reform, to the Vietnam war she stood strong and fought hard for her life and the lives of her loved ones. 1970s Hương is living with her grandmother while her parents are off at war fighting against South Vietnam  and the Americans. A young girl growing up in the shadows of war, tradition, and change. Both these storylines were equally riveting, heartwrenching, compelling, and beautiful.

    As an American I have always thought of the Vietnam war as an American tragedy, where the average age of the combat soldier was 19. This book was very eye-opening and really made me realize that the people of Vietnam suffered even more then I could ever imagine. The French, the Japanese, and then the Americans all invading, forcing their own ideologies on the people of Vietnam for decades. I cannot adequately express how remarkable this book was and I encourage everyone to pick it up.

   Quyen Ngo narrates this audio book bringing the perfect tone to this story’s beautiful pros. There are Vietnamese sayings told in Vietnamese sprinkled throughout this book and it was lovely to hear them read to me in Vietnamese. I really love learning so much about the Vietnamese culture and people in this book. I love when a book gives us a glimpse into different cultures and traditions. This is the first book in English from Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai and I am definitely hoping it is not her last. Simply stunning!

This book in emojis  🇻🇳 👩‍👧 🍵 📚 👩🏻‍⚕️ 

*** Big thank you to Algonquin Books for my gifted copy of this book. All opinions are my own. ***
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Thank you so much to Algonquin for a free copy of this book to review. 

This book was so heartbreakingly beautiful. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, this book sweeps across multiple generations of the Tran family. It flips back and forth between Huong, a teenager waiting for her parents and uncles to come home from war, hiding in bomb shelters with her grandmother. Then back in time to share the horrors that her grandmother went through. A young woman in her 20s wit six children, forced to flee from her family farm and somehow survive on her own. 

This book is heavy, not going to lie. This fictional family has been through so many things it’s hard to believe that they could still have any hope. But they do. Throughout everything, they never lose hope that they will see each other again and be together as a family. 

This family might be fictional, but the horrors they went through are not. The author drew from her own families experiences and the experiences of others she researched and it shows. It’s hard to imagine these things happening but they did and we need to learn about them to stop them from happening again. 

Overall, I’d recommend this book if you love historical fiction and sweeping family tales. But just make sure to be in the right head space for it. 

TW: war, murder, rape, abortion, stillbirth, violence.
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Thank you again to Algonquin Books and Netgalley for allowing me to participate in the blog tour for this incredible book. The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is a family saga told from the perspective of a grandmother and a granddaughter across different time periods. By doing this, the reader learns of the different events that have shaped Vietnam’s political and cultural identity.

After reading this book, I was not surprised to realize I’ve never read anything like it. When we learn about Vietnam or the Vietnam war, it is often through a Westernized lens. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s lyrical writing really puts the family at the heart of this story, as well as the civilians who were the real victims of war and colonialism. It reminds us that there was a life before the Vietnam War, and there will continue to be one after.

I admit, it was overwhelming at times to read this book, as I read this book right before the shelter-in-place order in the Bay Area. But despite the images of war, tragedy, and uncertainty, forgiveness and human kindness continued to persist, and it made me hopeful. I loved reading about the Tran family, and particularly of the perseverance of the female characters. 

I hope you all check this book out. It’s out now, and I highly recommend grabbing a copy because the cover is stunning in person!
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The Mountains Sing was such a heartfelt, sometimes very heartbreaking story. The beginning is quite explosive, it grips you and holds you throughout the book. Following this family throughout their life journey was an intense yet intimate reading experience. The grandmother and granddaughter endured such devastation you wonder if and how they will ever make it through. The way the author handled the deep yearning the granddaughter had for the return of her mother and father, men and women coming home from war and rape were all handled with such care, such love. I felt the greatest connection to the grandmother. I was blown away by her strength, constant love, ambition, how she handled her own pain, her love of family and community; she was an incredible character. The Mountains Sing was a beautifully written story. I highly recommend you read this book.
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