FICTION

Listen Slowly

272p. HarperCollins/Harper. Feb. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062229182.
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RedReviewStarGr 5–8—The summer before she turns 13, Mai is planning to spend her time going to the beach and finally talking to her secret crush. She's less than thrilled when her parents make her escort her grandmother to Vietnam instead. New information may have surfaced about her long lost grandfather, who disappeared over 40 years ago in "THE WAR." Mai doesn't know the culture or speak the language, and everything she knows about Vietnam is from a PBS documentary on the Fall of Saigon. While her parents are excited for her to learn more about her roots, the teen doesn't even know the details of her own parents' escape because "random roots are encouraged, but specific roots are off-limits." Stuck in a village with limited internet access, a sulky Mai slowly makes friends due to lack of better things to do and bonds with her grandmother, with whom she was very close as a small child. Mai's character growth is slow and believable, coming in small increments and occasionally backsliding. The sights, smells, and tastes of Vietnam's cities and villages come alive on the page, without overwhelming a story filled with a summers-worth of touching and hilarious moments, grand adventure, and lazy afternoons. With a contemporary time setting, this compelling novel shows the lingering effects of war through generations and how the secrets our parents keep can shape us.—Jennifer Rothschild, Arlington CountyPublic Libraries, VA
Mai, who planned to spend her summer flirting with her crush, unwillingly accompanies Ba, her grandmother, to Vietnam. A detective claims he has news about Ba's husband, who went missing during the Vietnam War. Mai's slow transformation from spoiled, self-absorbed tween to someone who can look beyond herself is convincing. Detailed descriptions of Mai's culture shock, then acclimation, bring the Vietnamese setting to life.
This second novel from National Book Award winner La.i (Inside Out and Back Again, rev. 3/11) grabs readers from the start. California girl Mai is on a plane, accompanying Ba, her grandmother, on a trip to Vietnam. Mai, who planned to spend her summer at the beach flirting with "HIM," the boy she has a crush on, is furious. Her dad says Ba needs her support -- a detective has claimed he has news about Ong, Ba's husband, who went missing during the Vietnam War -- but the self-absorbed tween is still outraged. La.i convincingly shows Mai's slow transformation from spoiled child to someone who can look beyond herself with compassion. Mai's change of heart is believable, moving in fits and starts and taking its own sweet time; she retains her sarcastic sense of humor, but her snark gradually loses its bite, and she begins laughing at herself more than others. The heartbreaking sorrow of Ba's, and Vietnam's, past is eased some by the novel's comical elements (a Vietnamese teen who learned English in the U.S. -- and drawls like a Texan; a cousin who carries her enormous pet bullfrog with her everywhere). The detailed descriptions of Mai's culture shock and acclimation bring the hot and humid Vietnamese setting, rural and urban, to life. Her strong-willed personality makes her an entertaining narrator; readers will happily travel anywhere with Mai. jennifer m. brabander

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