“Life is easy and hard, beautiful and ugly.”
Synopsis from Goodreads: A California girl born and raised, Mai can’t wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, though, she has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is going back to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam War. Mai’s parents think this trip will be a great opportunity for their out-of-touch daughter to learn more about her culture. But to Mai, those are their roots, not her own. Vietnam is hot, smelly, and the last place she wants to be. Besides barely speaking the language, she doesn’t know the geography, the local customs, or even her distant relatives. To survive her trip, Mai must find a balance between her two completely different worlds.
Feelings: This was one of the books for my school’s book club, which is focusing on other cultures and view points. I really appreciated this pick; there were so many things I didn’t know or hadn’t realized about Vietnamese culture.
There’s a lot that this book does well: great messages on friendship, identity and what defines us, as well as strength and what it looks like. There are also undercurrents of family, the power of our choices, and patience. I think the author does a great job of weaving all of these elements together, while also crafting an engaging and fun storyline. There are some surface-level conflicts, sure, because it’s about a 12-year-old girl. But there’s also a pool of depth when it comes to culture and history.
Issues: I don’t know that I had any specific issues. For me, it just felt like the story was unfinished. While the main conflict was certainly resolved in the end, there was a lot left hanging. I’m not sure if this story lends itself to a sequel, but maybe a companion novel. But for now, it just left me feeling like…soooooo what about all this other stuff?
Characters: For some (especially adult) readers, I can see how Mai would be an annoying narrator. I mean…she’s definitely annoying. But you also have to keep in mind that she’s a child and this book is targeted to middle grade readers, mostly ages 8-12. I think for that age group, there are a lot of kids that could totally relate to Mai’s struggles. As an adult, there was a hint of nostalgia there, remembering what it was like to think everyone was conspiring against me, rooting for my complete discomfort. She almost lost me in the beginning, but I stayed with her and she grew on me.
Her grandmother made me miss mine so much. That quiet strength and the way Mai really SAW her at the end…got me right in the feels. I don’t know what I was expecting from the main conflict, centered around grandma and her long lost husband, but I felt content with its resolution.
The Vietnamese boy who goes to school in Houston, Texas was so great. (I don’t remember his name or know how to spell it, since I listened to the audiobook. That’s so terrible, I know!) The southern gentleman’s accent the narrator gave him was great. It gave him a sophisticated air about him that shook up the dialogue from time to time. And the girl who cut off her hair and wants to be a scientist…she was brilliant. (Again, sorry about the lack of character name.) She added that taste of rebellion that the perfect community needed, wanting to get her hands dirty and go outside of what was expected.
Narrator: I don’t think I would have cared much for this book in the very beginning if it hadn’t been for the narration by Lulu Lam. The first chapter is SO whiny valley girl middle schooler and I almost couldn’t hang. But she was so engaging that I wanted to keep listening. As the story went on, I could hear the character growing and changing in Lam’s voice, which I think takes great skill. Also, her pronunciations saved me. I really enjoyed her accents and different voices that she used for the varying generations and backgrounds of characters. Simply looking at the narrator, without any influence from my view of the storyline, I’d give Lulu Lam 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Final thoughts: I liked this book! I thought it was different from anything else I’d read and I really appreciated how the author gave us a history lesson without an information dump. Facts were delicately weaved in with the storyline and it just seemed natural. If you’re looking for a good realistic fiction middle grade read, I’d recommend this one, especially if you have kids. This would be a good one to preview for them or just put straight into their hands.
Pick this up if you liked: (These are all novels in verse…there’s no particular reason why that happened…they’re just the first ones I thought of!)
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg (another perspective from a child on the Vietnam War)
Goodreads rating: 3.89/5
Amazon.com rating: 4.4/5
My rating: 4/5
Happy reading! – Caitlyn