BLOG TOUR – The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

The Mountains Sing

Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing.  I have to admit my stop was actually scheduled for Tuesday, March 17, but the world has a way of taking over sometimes.  Tuesday was the first day that our entire office began working from home due to that nasty ol’ COVID-19, and things were a little chaotic.  I just flat forgot about the blog tour until today, but this is a fine book that deserves many kudos, so better late than never I say!  Kick back and let me bend your ear about this one.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

If It’s Halloween It Must Be . . . Ghost Virus by Graham Masterton!

I’d never heard of Graham Masterton, but he looks so avuncular.  After reading the book, I took another look.  No, it’s in the eyebrows, I’m sure, those dark, heavy, menacing eyebrows.

This book was published a couple of years ago, so I don’t know if it’s still available, but it popped up rather mysteriously on my e-reader, and so what’s a reader to do.  I began to read.  A young Pakistani girl is summoning up the courage to ”burn off her face” with sulfuric acid.  Oh, my stars and garters, she does.  Goriest thing I’ve ever read.  Enough to make a toad go pale and hop off seeking the comfort of religion, alcohol or drugs.  Folks, it is bad and gets worse.

The police, DC Jerry Pardoe and DS Jamila Patel, begin investigating this as a possible crime of honor, a so-called honor killing for bringing shame on the family.  Now that sounded really interesting so I read on.  Turns out it’s not honor at all.  It’s coats……..and jackets and sweaters.  Promise.  Coats and jackets and sweaters.  Eventually dresses join the fray.  Hats and shoes, you’ll be relieved to know, do not, but I’m not sure about underwear.

Yes, my fellow readers, it starts with second-hand clothing and soon spreads to the suburban closets of Tooting, a district of London.  Garments are possessed and seeking bodies.  Bands of hooded overcoats roam the streets attacking innocent passers-by, ripping off heads and limbs, strewing guts, organs and spinal columns willy-nilly.  Watch your step on those slippery sidewalks.

Surely there’s an award for the goriest book with the silliest concept.  The highly coveted Bucket of Blood?  Who wants a Hugo when you can have the Flay, Splay and Spray?  Well, here’s your hands-down winner.  I mean, this book drips.  And it’s coats, clothing!  What next?  Cannabilism?  Hmm, maybe.  Wouldn’t want to leave that out.

The Tooting police have no clue how to handle this, but, eventually, they arrive at a weapon, and it’s inspired.  I won’t say what it is, but it has a motor, and you may have one in your garage to cut up fallen trees and take down limbs.  It’s very noisy, too.  So an entire hard-faced squadron marches forth carrying these……noisy things.  And then there’s Tooting.  Now I don’t know how this is pronounced in the UK, but, here, in print, it reads as, well . . . Tooting.  And adolescent humor abounds, though, perhaps, unintentionally.  Officers going after the coats are told to make this the “Tooting Chainsaw Massacre”.  (Oops, there you go, spoiler alert.)  And there’s this suggested headline:  TOOTING POLICE LOSE THEIR MARBLES.  I tell you what.  Some of us never grow up, and I shamelessly admit I was hoping for something like “Tooting PD, ma’am, here about that smell you reported.”  Sadly, that was a missed opportunity.

Now Mr. Masterton is a prolific author of horror and crime novels (excessively prolific), and, really, even here, he tells his story pretty well, but this is whacked.  The man dreamed up killer coats and sweaters smearing intestines, kidneys, lungs and uteruses (uteri?) up walls and across streets.  Then there’s Tooting.  Seriously?  It’s a technicolor extravaganza going for broke.  Man, what a magnificent set of cojones he must have, and, unlike the characters in his book, he gets to keep them.  Here’s to ya, Mr. Masterton.

If this is your thing (and really, why shouldn’t it be?), you can scare up a copy at your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Head of Zeus via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Wholly Unraveled: A Memoir

How does a child make any sense of a life that can go from the light of day to the dark of night in a heartbeat?  From smooth waters to dangerous rapids that you never see coming?  Each step could be the one that takes you from a safe place into terror and pain.  Keele Burgin’s young life was one of  glaring contrasts and terrifying uncertainties.  Life on high alert.  Wealth and luxury (a lavishly restored Victorian home on the ocean, horses, station wagons and Cadillacs), a severely abusive, all powerful father, a vacant, submissive mother, a stultifying, fundamentalist version of Catholicism.  (Amazed me.  Didn’t know that existed.)

It was rough – far more than most could imagine or endure.  But if it was rough, she was tough.  Their housekeeper Shirley called her Little Ox.  She develops a hard shell and becomes a headstrong, hard-eyed child and teen-ager, not particularly likeable, to tell the truth.  She couldn’t let herself hate her parents, so she hated herself and became an even harder, self-damaging adult, unable to maintain a giving relationship.

To be honest, at one point, I gave serious thought to bailing out of this read.  Portions are somewhat erratically written, and there is an inconsistency of voice that bothered me from time to time, but I suspect it was either purposeful – a reflection of her erratic young life and inability to find any voice at all of her own –  or just hard as hell to write.  Or both.  Too ugly, too scary – not anywhere I thought I wanted to be.  (Sometimes I get a little down, you know.)  Stuck it out, though, just a little longer, and was rewarded with a redemptive ending that is filled with hope.  This book?  Tough, but worth it.

Currently available from your local indie bookstore here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little A via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds

HAPPY PUB DAY to Caroline Van Hemert’s The Sun Is a Compass!!

a day in the (reading) life

Caroline Van Hemert, a biologist, and her husband Pat Farrell (artist, outdoorsman, builder) dream a simple dream, yet one so daunting in scope that few could dream it – a trek of 4,000 miles from Bellingham, Washington to a far, far speck in the Alaskan Arctic, Kotsube.  Ever been there?  Me, either.  Without snowmobiles, ATVs, sponsors.  No planes, no trains, no hitched rides.  After four months intense planning, they leave Bellingham in two rowboats built by Pat, traveling up the Inside Passage then across mountains, glaciers, rivers, delta, and tundra on foot, on skis, by canoes and pack rafts.

This challenge was undertaken, I felt, in the spirit of a quest, though perhaps not consciously so; and it is recounted here in all its harshness, dreamy beauty and overriding love of the wilderness.  In a stunning episode, we’re practically part of a migrating caribou herd, and the astounding migratory flights…

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It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines – March 14, 2019

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“The nickname of the train was the Yellow Dog.” 

Eudora Welty, Delta Wedding.

A train going…..somewhere.  A puffing steam engine, maybe.  Sounds like it, doesn’t it?  Yeah, I think so.  A sleek diesel couldn’t be the Yellow Dog.  Is it really yellow?  Well, it makes me happy to see it that way.  Why are we interested in this train?  Who’s on it?  So we read a few more words…..nine year old Laura McRaven traveling alone.  Alone?  Where’s she going?  And we read a little bit more.  To visit her mother’s people at Shellmound.  Hmmm.  And when she gets there?  “Poor Laura little motherless girl…”  You see that Yellow Dog chugging way across the delta there?  That train, the Yellow Dog, in that tiny vignette of an opening line will chug you right into this beautiful book.  An opening line that knows its job.

And why wouldn’t it?  Miss Eudora walked on water.  If you don’t know her brilliant, deceptively simple work, there’s genius out there waiting for you.  Best book on becoming a writer?  One Writer’s Beginnings.  Eudora Welty.  Short stories?  Oh my goodness, lose yourself.  As for me, Delta Wedding is one of the very few books I’ve read more than once and will read again….because of the train nicknamed the Yellow Dog.

T. Marie Vandelly’s Theme Music

A first novel, a good one, and the title gives nothing away.  I like that.  It’s not a shivery, goose-bumpy title at all, is it, but this is one spectacularly shivery thriller.  Now, you know, I’ve read my share of mysteries and thrillers, and let me tell you that you won’t find fictional murders more horrifying than these.  Not extravagant, opulent murders a la The Da Vinci Code, but murders in a perfectly ordinary kitchen – at breakfast.  One survivor, and this is her story to tell, a story so clever, original and complicated, it’ll have you jumping to conclusions and haring off in all directions.  If puzzling over the evil that men can do appeals, give this one a try.  Thanks, Ms. Vandelly.

Definitely worth pre-ordering wherever you buy books online, as this one doesn’t come out until July 23. A link to Amazon.com is available here: Theme Music: A Novel

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by PENGUIN GROUP Dutton / Dutton via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Katarina Bivald’s The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, and a Book Giveaway!

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A book about reading . . . a book about a reading obsession . . . a book about a woman who would rather read than do just about anything else, who almost requires books just to survive?  Sounds like my kind of book.  In fact, it almost sounds like it might be about me (although my horses, my dogs, music and hiking give the books a run for their money on most days too).

Swedish author Katarina Bivald brings us The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, her first novel to be published in the United States, and it starts with promise.  Sara, a mousy former bookstore employee from Sweden, arrives in the tiny, hard-luck town of Broken Wheel, Iowa to meet and visit with her pen pal, Amy, an elderly resident of this little burg. Amy and Sara have bonded over books during their two-year correspondence, but Sara hits town only to learn that Amy’s funeral has just ended.   She wonders if she should just return home, having unknowingly walked into a disaster after all, but the occupants of Broken Wheel convince her to stay for a bit.  As Sara herself thinks, “As long as she had books and money, nothing could be a catastrophe.”  I agree with this philosophy wholeheartedly, if I do say so myself.

In an effort to ingratiate herself with the townspeople and to get these folks to read (it seems that none of them do), she decides to open a bookshop with Amy’s books as inventory.  Slowly, Sara develops friendships with several of Broken Wheel’s oddball citizens:  George, the reticent but well-meaning alcoholic; Jen, a busybody housewife and determined matchmaker; Grace, the opinionated proprietor of the local greasy spoon; Caroline, a younger, steelier version of the Church Lady; and Tom, the strong, silent-type subject of Jen’s matchmaking attempts.

We learn about the town and its denizens through Sara’s direct relationships with them, and through Amy’s letters to Sara, which function as flashbacks of a sort.  It’s in these letters that the book came alive for me, and I looked forward to the appearance of each one for Amy’s books recommendations.  Sara also pushes her favorites:  “She had sold countless copies of Terry Pratchett’s books before, only a few years ago, she had given in and read one of them, making the acquaintance of one of the most fantastic, and definitely most reliable, authors you could ever hope to find.”  She had me at Terry Pratchett.

And she continued to have me through the first two-thirds of the book or so.  But as more and more time passed in Broken Wheel, and as the situation in which Sara finds herself became a little less plausible, the hold the book had on me began to slip.  The literary references dwindled and the focus became the wacky marriage plot cooked up by Sara’s newfound friends so that she can outstay her tourist visa.  The subsequent, over-the-top events seemed a bit of a contrivance to me, although I suppose something similar could conceivably take place in small-town America.  At this point, I felt like the novel somewhat lost its way and couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be book lit, chick-lit, contemporary women’s lit, some kind of cozy, or a straight-up romance (and we all know I don’t do romance).

If you’re a fan of any of the aforementioned genres, then don’t let my disappointment with the latter part of the book keep you from checking it out.  It’s a light-hearted, whimsical read that I’m sure will appeal greatly to women of all stripes and book clubs across the country.  I enjoyed it enough to give it three stars on the Goodreads scale (3.5 on my own personal scale), meaning I liked it just fine but I didn’t absolutely love it.

If you would like a chance win a copy of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend from the publisher, check out this link to their giveaway:

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Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by SOURCEBOOKS Landmark via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.