Cover Image: The Mountains Sing

The Mountains Sing

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Read if you: Want a sublime, heartbreaking, and moving historical fiction novel set during a period of great upheaval in Vietnam (1950s-late 70s).

This book is special. It's gorgeously written, devastating at times (but ends on a hopeful note), and eye-opening. The unfathomable upheaval and disturbance caused in Vietnamese society due to the Vietnam War--pitting neighbors and family members against each other--is masterfully conveyed. However--there is also enormous strength, love, and rebuilding after the war. It's also an #OwnVoices story about the war, which is definitely a needed perspective.

Librarians and booksellers: Buy this to give your historical fiction fans (and coming-of-age story fans) a story with characters that they will long remember after they finish the book.

Many thanks to Algonquin Books and NetGalley for a digital review copy in exchange for an honest review.

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This is a compelling book about Vietnam and the Vietnam War from the perspective of the people who experienced the many waves of invaders from the French on. The protagonist and main characters are women who are left to find ways to survive. Highly recommended.

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A deeply moving story that spans the better part of a century, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai displays a side of Việt Nam and the Vietnamese people that western audiences haven’t had much exposure to. We’re introduced to the Trần family through hardship and triumph alike, led by their unwavering matriarch Trần Diệu Lan. From French and Japanese occupation to both domestic and international conflict, this family is tested in ways that most of us can hardly begin to imagine.

Although quite beautiful, The Mountains Sing does not shy away from the harsh realities of war. We fall witness to famine, torture, sexual violence, all kinds of brutality and death. From Diệu Lan‘s childhood in the 1920s all the way to her granddaughter’s, Hương, in the 1970s, there’s little that its citizens can do when a nation decides to turn on itself. Your neighbor’s resentment can turn to cruelty, anger into callousness. As easy as it would be to claim an ideology is the sole cause of any given conflict, it’s not that simple. It doesn’t matter if you’re killed by invading capitalist Americans or murdered by your own maniacal communist countrymen, dead is still dead.

And it doesn’t start and end with a single tragedy. Explored is the rippling generational devastation that constant waring leaves in its wake. But even in such a stark and punishing reality, there’s an uplifting amount of tenderness exhibited in the Trần family. Their love is incessant and gets them through any tribulation that comes their way. And when it may not be enough, their fellow man steps in to help them along. Strangers, who are referred to with the same titles given to family members, Sister/Brother/etc., have an enormous capacity for compassion, just as much as their counterparts do for cruelty. War brings out both the highest and lowest parts of humanity, and Quế Mai traverses it all.

I was very impressed by this author’s writing, especially considering English isn’t her first language. Though she’s an accomplished Vietnamese writer, it’s even more difficult to author something originally in a foreign language, as opposed to having your mother tongue translated, so I have that much more respect for her work. I also enjoyed the proverbs scattered throughout the text; they were charming and enlightening. The Việt Nam described in The Mountains Sing is scenic and breathtaking, and I feel privileged having gotten to see it through Diệu Lan and Hương’s eyes.

Though this is a book that takes place in the throes of war, I wouldn’t consider it a war book. It’s a novel about family, about relentless perseverance in service of those you love. There’s parts that are grim, yes, but the heart of the story lies in the way the characters take care of one another, their diligent devotion. With familial love, there’s always someone to come home to.

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A poetic heart-song of a novel that excavates painful history and creates possibilities for peace living within each of us. Opens up the silences surrounding Vietnamese history and conflict. The author's dedication reveals brilliant roots of this tender novel. "For my grandmother, who perished in the Great Hunger; for my grandfather, who died because of the Land Reform; and for my uncle, whose youth the Vietnam War consumed. For the millions of people, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese, who lost their lives in the war. May our planet never see another armed conflict."

Top recommendation. Destined to become a classic in the field of Vietnam War literature and global coming-of-age stories.

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This is historical fiction, the story narrated by a Vietnamese grandmother and her granddaughter. The historical and cultural references are very interesting. The hard times and indignities suffered by the grandmother and her family are heartbreaking. The writing is very beautiful. So why couldn't I finish it? I reached the halfway point of the book and just couldn't go on. I regretfully lost interest. I'm picky about the historical fiction that I read. I often feel that the dialogue seems unbelievable, pretentious or too simple. It doesn't feel real. And that is why I couldn't go on with this book. The dialogue, besides being too much in my opinion, didn't feel authentic. I'm giving the book three stars anyway because of the excellent writing and detail.

I am grateful to Netgalley for the opportunity to read and review this novel.

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The Mountains Sing is a powerful exploration of Vietnamese history the spans the twentieth century. The Tran family experiences the constant conflict of invasion and persecution as foreign influences and civil war interfere in the familial culture of love and kindness that is their norm. The teachings of her grandmother, Dieu Lan, sustain the author through the reversals she faces and advise her that these challenges are like the tallest mountains, best and most clearly observed from the perspective of distance. The beauty of this narrative is the author’s dynamic presentation of the raw emotionality of her characters, and her skill in helping the reader live through the events in hopeful survival mode.

My visit to Vietnam in the first decade of this century left me shocked, dissociated from American political manipulations and in awe of the people who emerged from a century of great upheaval, exhibiting daily heroism, holding life-affirming values and reaching out to the world for inclusion in the future of man. The pages of this novel afforded me the connections to the Vietnamese state of mind and brought closure to my own personal splintering.

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I wasn't sure at the beginning if I would continue reading it. However, as I got into the rhythm of the time changes and pictured the people written about it became a very poignant and moving story. Not sure how many of the events are actual occurrences, but they seem , for the most part, as realistically possible. As the book moved forward I became more engrossed in the problems and solutions this family dealt with. I found it eye-opening to read about the effects of our participation in that war.

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An emotionally challenging read that is beautifully written. Nguyen describes a Vietnam that so few people know or learned about in your typical history class. She paints the horror of war and the strength of family.

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The Mountains Sing is a beautiful, heartbreaking novel of family, forgiveness, and perseverance by Vietnamese author Nguyen Phan Que Mai. It features a split timeline, which I usually avoid in historical fiction because so often one timeline is much better than the other(s). In this case, however, I enjoyed it. The two main timelines wove together to paint a picture of Vietnam’s rich culture and its more recent history.

The first timeline takes place during the Vietnam War and follows teenage Huong living with her grandmother. The second takes place during the French and Japanese occupations of Vietnam and follows Huong’s grandmother, Tran Dieu Lan, as a young woman. There are also a prologue and epilogue taking place in modern Vietnam and following an adult Huong as she remembers her grandmother.

I was hopeful that I would enjoy reading this book because it features several elements that I love to see. First, it has a female-centric narrative. Second, it presents a civilian perspective of war. Third, it’s a family saga, one of my favorite subgenres. My instincts were correct; this was an eye-opening and incredibly valuable read, not to mention well-written. Nguyen’s use of imagery was immersive, painting a vivid picture of the country of Vietnam and the lives of her protagonists. Her writing style is lyrical; I wasn’t surprised to learn she’s also a poet. I loved the way she wove Vietnamese proverbs into the dialogue.

If I had one complaint, it would be that it was very obvious to me that this book was written with modern sensibilities and the benefit of hindsight. Characters espoused opinions that seemed like they were the author’s opinions, not their own. This occasionally took me out of the narrative and damaged the story’s realism.

Although this book covered heavy subject matter, I found it easier to read than many books that cover similar topics. It didn’t dwell on graphic details and included plenty of scenes of happiness to balance out the sadness. I would recommend The Mountains Sing to fans of Pachinko or When Heaven and Earth Changed Places.

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Growing up in the 1960-1970s I wanted to learn more about Vietnam, so was looking forward to this book. The story follows Huong, her grandmother, and various family members back and forth through the 1940-1970s. Many tragic events in a war torn country. I found it hard to follow, as the story went back and forth between characters and time periods, thus the 3 stars.

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This is a tough book for me to rate and review, as I had a very love hate relationship with it. The writing itself was fantastic; it was vivid and lush and painted the environment so well. I honestly don’t know if I can recommend it to anyone for any purpose however, because every second of the book just felt like torture porn. Everything that happened was miserable, everyone was miserable, every story was horrific. I understand that part of the novels aim was to shed light on the horror of the Vietnam war from the Vietnamese perspective, but there was zero compelling story arc, nor really ANY plot aside from rape, torture, destruction, death, etc. The narrators love of reading was the only thing in the book that didn’t involve things that make you sick to your stomach. I wish there had been something, ANYTHING to root for or care about aside from praying that one single family member would come home alive.

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Wow, just wow. I was absolutely gutted by this family epic. The tragedies and hardships of 20th-century history play out in very personal ways for the generations of the Trần family. The novel is not chronological but told in layers of recollections and stories, and each character has a distinctive voice. There are also cultural and historical explanations woven in so that the reader unfamiliar with Vietnam won't feel too lost. I won't soon forget this book, and I look forward to reading more from Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a digital ARC.

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This panoramic sweep of recent Viet Nam history highlights the struggles of a family to stay united during war. The story alternates between two viewpoints and two timelines. The main narrator, Huong, looks back on her life in Ha Noi, living with her grandmother while both of her parents fight in the conflict. Huong intersperses her narrative with her grandmother's stories, who was a landowner prior to the communist takeover. These stories of a matriarch trying to help her family survive provide context for Huong's narrative about the chaos of the later years of the Viet Nam War. Although the dialogue is occasionally stilted, Nguyen's depiction of the struggles of ordinary people trying to overcome the chaos and violence of war will captivate readers. Give to fans of epic historical fiction and family narratives.

*Thanks to Net Galley for a digital ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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How much privation and loss and violence can one small nation endure? If you were to study the history of Vietnam in the 20th century, it would almost seem as if the fates had set out to determine the answer to that question. Most of us are familiar with the Vietnam War from the American perspective, but the Vietnamese people had already suffered through numerous indignities and atrocities long before the Americans interfered.

In this novel we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of one extended family and see the inter-generational effects of repeated trauma and displacement. The author uses a simple, conversational narrative style in the alternating voices of an adolescent girl and her grandmother.

The grandmother, Lieu Dan, tells her granddaughter, Huong, about the horrors she experienced from the 1930s through the 1950s, including the Japanese invasion, the Great Hunger, and the Land Reform.

The granddaughter, Huong, begins her story in 1972, when she is twelve years old. She tells of life with her grandmother during the Vietnam War. Their two voices together create a sweeping family saga of suffering and fear, but also great love and determination to survive.

The author is a native of Vietnam, and she gives the novel a cultural authenticity that can't be faked. There's a naturalness in her inclusion of the food, clothing, social customs, devotion to family, and numerous proverbs that are unique to Vietnamese life.

By the time I finished the novel I had forgotten what was said in the dedication at the beginning. When I went back and re-read that dedication, it brought me to tears, as I realized that the seed of this story came from her own family's lived experience. She states clearly that the characters are wholly fictional, but their struggles mirror real lives.

Here is part of that dedication:

"For my grandmother, who perished in the Great Hunger; for my grandfather, who died because of the Land Reform; and for my uncle, whose youth the Vietnam War consumed."

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This book was fascinating and such a different perspective that we in the US get about the Vietnam war. I couldn't put it down. It had everything in it: war, famine, love, struggles, family. The grandmother's story was such a great backdrop for the granddaughter's story. Really put the history into how it all came to be. Loved this book!

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This was one of my favorite book to read. Learning what it was like to be Vietnamese and enduring war and it's aftermath. It is well written and the characters well rounded.

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What an epic story! This book taught me a lot about what hardships that the Vietnamese people went through. during the Japanese and French occupations. Such hardships described in such beautiful writing.

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Ha Noi live with her grandmother, Tran Dieu Lan, while her parents are off to war. When bombing destroys their home, Tran Dieu Lan begins trading at the local market, a practice looked upon with derision by her communist neighbors. Alternating with Ha Noi's story, Tran Dieu Lan tells her granddaughter about her life, when she was forced to flee with her children during the Land Reform.

This was a well written, interesting and engaging story. The alternating story lines worked very well together. The story flowed very smoothly and was well paced. I found it fascinating to read a story about Vietnam told over multli generations, and from the point of view of Vietnamese. Overall, highly recommended.

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A bit of a hard read for me personally but one I really ended up enjoying. It’s not easy for sure but it’s more than worth it and you gain a lot out of it but by bit generation through generation.
I’m happy that I requested this title.
Thank you very much to Netgalley and the publisher for this copy of my ARC.

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Thank you NetGalley for the free ARC.

"Politics is as dirty as sewage."

Truer words have not been spoken. This is the best book I have read about Vietnam written from the Vietnamese point of view. The history lesson includes the French and Japanese occupations, the Viet Minh war (Indochina War), the great hunger and the land reform after the Geneva Accords until the eventual reunification. All of it is told from the viewpoint of several generations of the Tran family that suffered and survived the many atrocities. A must read!

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