I rarely - if ever - email authors. Today, I emailed Thanha Lai with a suggestion for a spin-off from her book Listen, Slowly. Before we go any further, I must apologize for not using diacritical marks in this review. Diacritical marks are VERY important in Viet Namese, as Lai's book shows.
First, the review. All the reviews tell you that 12-year-old Mai is a California girl through and through. When she is chosen to go with her grandmother, or Ba (there should be an accent on that "a", slanting down from left to right, I think.) to Viet Nam to learn what happened to Mai's grandfather in THE WAR, Mai is furious. She has a life, right there in Laguna, with a BFF and possible boyfriend. Middle school rants ensue.
But Ba, quiet, peaceful, fragile Ba, how can Mai say no to Ba? She can't. The two of them travel to the village where Ong and Ba grew up; where Ong and Ba were betrothed, he only 7, she just 5; where they married and started a family; where Mai finds strangers who think of her as family. It is all so odd.
The description of village life in North Viet Nam is delightfully confusing, full of details of what people eat, how they socialize, their dress, their formal and consistent good manners, even their fulsome speech. The village seems to operate with one mind. Everyone is very careful of each other and of the things they use. And they are curious about the larger world and about strangers and customs.
This description led to my suggestion. Lai describes a facial treatment that one of the Aunts forces Mai through and how it restores Mai's skin to beauty. Then there is the lice treatment; and a potion to thwart intestinal microbes that Mai accidentally swallows. Although Lai describes what Mai sees as these concoctions are made, wouldn't it be awesome if there was a book about these remedies? I'd buy it.
Back to the book. Ba's search takes so much longer than Mai hoped. Her infrequent forays on the Internet make Mai more homesick than ever. (Is BFF Montana really making a move on the boy that Mai likes????) One of Mai's big lessons is to learn not to worry about things she can't change.
I want to tell someone the whole plot - the trip to Ha Noi, with her new friend, Ut.; the HUGE frog that Ut totes with her; Anh Minh, the serious, hard-working, teen translator - and the two girls who compete for Anh Minh's attention. The wordy detective, the reluctant guard, and Ba, strong Ba, who can not be at peace until she knows. And then... and then...the ending, heart-breaking, calming and true.
Yep. This book goes on my Best of the Best list for 2015. Cheers for Mai, who grows so much in this book. Cheers for Ba, who never wavers in her search for acceptance. Cheers for the guard and the detective, who did their very best. Cheers for Mom and Dad. Cheers for Anh Minh and Ut and the whole village. And cheers for Thanha Lai for such a wonderful book.