This coming-of-age story (288 pages) was published in February of 2015 by Harper Collins. The book takes you to modern Vietnam. Melissa read Listen, Slowly and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.
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Our heroine Mai — a 12-year-old, no-lip gloss, no-short shorts, 4.0 GPA California girl — was supposed to have the best summer of her life. At the beach. With her BFF Montana. Instead, she’s flying to Vietnam with her grandmother on a lost-cause mission.
Mai adores Bà, her grandmother, but that doesn’t mean she wants to spend the next however-many days (weeks? months?) in Vietnam. That’s her family’s heritage, not hers. She barely speaks the language, and she has zero context or connection to the bustling cities and colorful villages that are supposed to feel like her long-lost home. And there are so many strangers who all seem to have a tenuous familial connection to her and Bà.
But as her grandmother digs deeper into the mystery surrounding her husband’s disappearance during the war, Mai’s resistance to her new-found family begins to dissolve. The knots tying her to California loosen enough to give her room to grow, and she’s forced to question her definitions of home, family, and herself.
Mai is a wide-eyed, enthusiastic observer, so this coming-of-age novel is also a wildly engaging travelogue. She transports us directly into the hustle of Hanoi’s streets: ‘The smells are in your face too: fishy, flowery, lemony, meaty, grilled corn, fried dough, ripe fruit. Each smell has fists and is smacking each other for more space inside my nostrils.’ And conveys the soothing peace of a pagoda: [There’s a] faint scent of jasmine incense. It’s as quiet here as the streets are noisy. Somehow, they both equal my Vietnam.’
Mai and her grandmother are the heart of this story, but the entire supporting cast is vividly rendered, including Mai’s new friends, a persnickety private detective, and Vietnam itself. This story is a grand adventure with moments of authentic joy, laugh-out-loud humor, gentle grace, and tearful poignancy.
Thanhha Lai — author of the National Book Award and Newbery Honor-winning novel Inside Out & Back Again — was born in Vietnam but fled to Alabama with her family at the end of the war. Her stories deftly mine her own experiences, reaching back to the tumultuous days of conflict to show us how decades-old bruises, mostly healed, can still be a bit tender to the touch — and still have much to teach us.
You’d think a little village in North Vietnam couldn’t help but be tranquil and quiet, full of banana groves and bamboo forests, but everything here has a big mouth. Dogs fighting, crickets blasting, frogs screaming, chickens clucking, birds screeching, mice scurrying… all this before the humans, the many many humans, add to the cacophony. — Thanhha Lai
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