Monday, November 23, 2015

Drawing From Memory by Allen Say

Drawing From Memory is the story of Allen Say's rise to become a renowned artist.

Allen Say was born in Yokohama, Japan in 1937. According to Say, his mother did not like him playing near the ocean, so she taught him to read. This kept him at home where he spent time reading comic books to his friends. But it also peaked Say's interest in the illustrations and he decided to become an artist when he grew up. When his parents discovered Say's fascination with drawing they were not pleased because being an artist was not considered a respectable profession in Japan.

War began in 1941, resulting in Allen's family moving to the village of Tabuse near Hiroshima while his father worked in Tokyo. After the war, the family reunited in Kyushu. Allen's first grade teacher was impressed with his artistic abilities and so encouraged him. Sadly, Allen Say's parents did not stay together after the war. His father left his mother, taking Allen and his younger sister Sanae and remarried while his mother returned to Yokohama to work and live. Eventually Sanae went to live with their mother, while Allen was sent onto Tokyo to live with his grandmother and to attend school. As his parents were, Allen's grandmother also did not approve of his drawing.

In an attempt to stop him from drawing his grandmother told Allen that they would pay for his own apartment if he studied hard and gained entrance to the prestigious Aoyama Middle School. When he succeeded, Allen found himself, at thirteen living in a small apartment. However, Allen had no intention of studying - the apartment was to be his art studio. He soon discovered another person who was like him - someone who wanted to be an artist but whose parents did not approve. This person was supported by Noro Shinpei, a famous cartoonist in Japan. Shinpei was Allen's idol. And he wondered would Shinpei consider taking on yet another student? Allen Say had the two weeks before his school started to find Shinpei and ask him to take him on. Would Shinpei accept him and what would his parents say?


Say's story is one of courage and determination. Intent on achieving his dream of becoming an artist, Say was willing to sacrifice everything to achieve what he wanted for his life. He could not see himself as anything but an artist. To that end, he took matters into his own hands and was able to direct his path in life to achieve his dream of creating art.

His story is beautifully enhanced with his appealing black ink drawings and realistic watercolour illustrations. The second part to Say's story has now been published in a picture book titled The Inker's Shadow.

Book Details:

Drawing From Memory by Allen Say
New York: Scholastic Press      2011
63 pp.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs

Library of Souls begins where the previous novel, Hollow City left off,  with Jacob Portman, Emma Bloom and the talking dog (yes that's right!) Addison MacHenry trapped by a hollowgast. However, Jacob has been able to neutralize the hollowgast with his newly discovered ability to control and speak to hollowgasts. He, Emma and Addison are able to escape out of the tunnel and into the subway station, hoping to track their fellow peculiars who have been captured by the wights. They decide to leave the station but discover a severely injured man in the train tunnel. That man is Sergei who tells Jacob he has the gift of speaking in the monster's tongue. Their plan to leave the station is thwarted by the appearance of two wights dressed as ambulance drivers. Attacked by the wights and the hollowgast, once again Jacob is able to control the hollowgast and make it kill one of the wights.

Escaping on a train, the three peculiars are followed by the hollowgast who latches onto the train. When they pull into the next station, Addison warns them that there are wights waiting for them. One of the wights boards the car behind the peculiars and he soon discovers them. Off the train, they are pursued by the wight and the hollowgast, through a crowd attending a ComicCon. Addison is certain the peculiars have passed this way. The wight is called off and Jacob, Emma and Addison work to find loop entrance. They discover that they are back in present day London. Addison, following the peculiars trail, leads them to a rotting, rat-infested jetty and indicates that they must take a boat to follow the scent. At the jetty they meet a creepy man named Sharon. They decide that it is likely their friends and the ymbrynes have been taken to the loop called Devil's Acre, a lawless slum. They negotiate passage to Devil's Acre with Sharon. They enter the loop and encounter a place resembling hell. "The foundations of every house were decomposing into mush. Crazy wooden footbridges, some no wider than a board, crisscrossed the canal like a cat's cradle, and its stinking banks were heaped with trash and crawling with spectral forms at work sifting through it. The only colors were shades of black, yellow, and green, the flag of filth and decay, but black most of all. Black stained every surface, smeared every face, and striped the air in columns that rose from chimneys all around us..."

Sharon guides his boat along the river called Fever Ditch and begins to look for a place to land. However, before he can accomplish this, they encounter ditch pirates who are curious about Sharon's now hidden cargo of the peculiars. Things get further complicated with the arrival of the hollowgast, which latches onto the bottom of Sharon's boat. In the struggle with the pirates, Jacob manages to order the hollowgast to sink the pirates boat. However, unable to get the hollowgast to release their boat, Jacob has Emma burn one of the tongues, causing the hollowgast to crash into a bridge.

Sharon lands the peculiars in Devil's Acre but discovers his boat is badly damaged. While he goes in search of someone to repair it, the peculiars are invited by a woman named Lorraine to visit her house of curiosities. Jacob, Emma and Addison discover that she has hundreds of peculiars imprisoned and drugged in the house. Determined to set them free, Emma confronts Lorraine who tells her that the wights often come and take her peculiars and return them damaged. She tells Emma that the wights bring in trucks of peculiars and that one just recently came through. Believing this to be their friends, Emma learns that the trucks go over a bridge at the end of Smoking Street.

Jacob, Emma and Addison decide to travel to Smoking Street and the wight's bridge. Smoke Street turns out to be a desolate area of Devil's Acre. The land is charred black and "Sulfurous smoke rose from deep cracks that fissured the pavement. Fire-stripped trees loomed like scarecrows over the ruins." The wight's bridge leads to their fortress, a high white tower. Crossing the bridge proves to be not only dangerous but deadly as Jacob, Emma and Addison are attacked by a hollowgast hidden in the bridge. This leads to a deadly fight in which all are injured but saved by Jacob's ability to control the hollowgast.

After their fight with the hollowgast, Emma and Jacob are attacked by the crazed people of Devil's Acre and just barely rescued by Sharon. Addison manages to cross the bridge hidden beneath a wights truck. They are taken to the house of Myron Bentham where they are healed by Mother Dust. Myron reveals that he knew Jacob's grandfather and that the Siberia Room they discovered in the house is a time-loop to Siberia. He also tells them that the house is a peculiarium where he collects and preserves peculiar artifacts. The house itself is a machine which he calls the Panloopticon which he created.

Bentham tells Jacob and Emma that his house is a collection of entrances to loops leading to areas where peculiars live. Bentham and his brother, Caul/Jack collected and created them with the intent to link all the peculiars together so as to organize them.

Legend states that when peculiars died they went to a special loop called Abaton that led to a repository holding their souls - a library of souls. The souls could be borrowed but when a peculiar died the soul had to be returned. Someone began breaking into the library and stealing the most powerful souls to use for evil purposes. The library guardians killed this person and recovered the stolen souls. This led to battles for control of Abaton and library of souls. The King of Abaton was killed during the war, ending the fighting, but the loop to the library had vanished. This led Perplexus Anomalous to hunt for the loop, creating many detailed maps as he did so. Bentham's brother soon forgot their goal of mapping became obsessed with discovering the lost loop to the library of souls. Bentham reveals is sister is Alma Peregrine. This revelation shocks Jacob and Emma who were told by Miss Peregrine that her brothers had become hollowgasts and then wights. In order to stop Caul from trying to gain control of the Panloopticon and to stop him from destroying the ymbrynes, Bentham made the hollowgasts, Bentham turned Caul into a hollowgast. He tricked Caul and his supporters into entering a loop that could be collapsed and closed. However, the hollowgasts escaped the collapsed loop to feed on peculiars, normals and animals. The peculiars stayed in their loops for safety. Eventually Caul returned to Bentham's house. "He'd consumed enough peculiars to fill his hollow soul and turn himself into something that resembled my brother...A wight is to the peculiar he once was as a thing copied many times is to its original. Detail is lost, and color..."

Jack continued to be obsessed about locating Abaton. He needed Bentham's machine and he also needed to capture all the ymbrynes because they were the ones who locked the loop before it was lost. Jack has spent years tracking and capturing all the ymbrynes, including Miss Peregrine. Bentham tells Jacob and Emma that Jack does not know that even if he finds Abaton and the Library of Souls he will not be able to simply see and touch the jars containing the souls. Bentham tells them "We share a common goal...To destroy my brother and his kind, and to save my sister and hers." Can Bentham, Jacob and Emma stop Jack from finding Abalon and the Library of Souls and save their fellow peculiars?


Library of Souls is the satisfying finale to the Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series, tying up all the loose ends. While the entire series is fascinating and very original, the final novel was at times, tedious and drawn out partly because of the excessive details and descriptions throughout the story. This slowed down the middle of the novel, as Riggs sets up the grand finale - Jacob and Emma must save the thousands of peculiars who have been enslaved, protect the Library of Souls and destroy the evil wights bent on stealing the powers of those peculiars stored in the library.

Although Riggs used photographs throughout this series to enhance his story, their inclusion was probably least effective in this novel - although still intriguing. The basic storyline is fleshed out with detailed descriptions of settings and characters. These descriptions are particularly well written, giving the reader a strong sense of the Victorian-era slum that Devil's Acre is, and the hollowed sacredness of the Library of Souls.

The strength of this novel is its unusual characters and their strange abilities and Riggs portrayal of Jacob Portman's transformation into a heroic character.

Although the conclusion to Library of Souls was exciting, it seemed at times as though it was written with a screen adaptation in mind. Riggs ties up all the loose ends and realistically has Jacob's parents believing their son is mentally ill. The resolution to this problem and to Jacob and Emma's dilemma feels somewhat contrived, but in a world of unbelievable characters and situations, seems quite reasonable.

The first novel, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will be brought to the big screen in late 2016. I can think of no better director than Tim Burton to do this. Jacob and Emma will be portrayed by Asa Butterfield and Ella Purnell.

Book Details:

Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs
Philadelphia: Quirk Books          2015
458 pp.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, Deborah Biancotti

Westerfeld's ability to craft unique stories is showcased in his newest series, Zeroes, about a group of teens with strange superpowers.

Five teens with strange superpowers narrator this story. Ethan Cooper is Scam. His superpower is "the voice" which seems to know details about other people. Ethan has no idea how this knowledge comes to him, but somehow he knows just what to say. The voice gets Scam anything he wants. His narrative opens the novel because what happens to him sets the stage for the story.

Ethan began the night before on a date with a gorgeous woman. After leaving his date on the street, Ethan decided to try and hitch a ride home from people leaving the nightclubs in Cambria. However things go awry when "the voice" intervenes and Ethan finds himself in the company of a scary man called Craig who drives to a remote house outside of town. Terrified, Ethan steals Craig's car after the voice lures Craig out of it, and heads back to Cambria. There he waits at the Moonstruck Diner for the Cambria Central Bank to open. It turns out Craig's duffel bag, which was left in the back seat of the car, is filled with rolls of money.

Ethan enters the bank to deposit the money he's stolen from Craig only to be caught up in a bank robbery. With the vault locked, the robbers begin taking customer's wallets and jewelry. When one of the robbers becomes interested in Ethan's duffel bag, the voice speaks up wreaking havoc by convincing the robber, Jerry, that his partners are not loyal. This leads to a shootout and one of the robbers is killed.

Meanwhile after a night of clubbing, a young woman, Kelsie Laszlo, gathers a group of friends around her to go for breakfast at the Moonstruck Diner.  Kelsie (Mob) has the innate ability to draw people together and to control the emotions of that crowd. Kelsie notices Ethan in the diner, but she doesn't know who he is. She also notices a black car driving past the diner several times. When the car returns once more Kelsie is horrified to see her father in the back of the car. Kelsie understands what is happening in the bank and using her usual abilities, attempts to keep all those inside, calm. This succeeds until the shootout. She is relieved to see that her father has survived but also notes that the boy from the diner is escorted out by police and taken for questioning.

For Ethan, his troubles are only beginning. He is taken to the Central Cambria Police Department and is questioned by Detective Fuentes and King who suspect Ethan may have been part of the robbery. King asks Ethan if he has ever met Jerry Laszlo. When Ethan denies knowing Laszlo, they tell him that the girl next to him in the bank, Sonia Stoller told them that he talked to the Laszlo. She also shot a video of the robbery in progress. The video clearly shows Ethan talking to Jerry like he knows him and mentioning a girl named Kelsie. When they ask what is in the duffel bag, Ethan decides it's time to give them the number of his "lawyer". That lawyer happens to be Nataniel Saldana (Nate), also a person with an unusual ability -  to focus the energy of a group onto a single goal. Nate who goes by the pseudonym of Bellwether,  is the unofficial head of the Zeroes and is often referred to by the other Zeroes as "Glorious Leader". Unlike the other Zeroes Nate is no longer Ethan's friend because of what the "voice" spewed out during a meeting over a year ago.

At this point the narrative moves to Flicker whose real name is Riley. Flicker is blind but can see by entering the vision of the people around her. This gives her a unique perspective on what's happening around her. Her twin sister, Lily, often reads to Flicker or tells her stories which help Flicker understand life. Flicker is in therapy because her extremely well educated parents are struggling to discover why she stopped reading braille and is basically illiterate. They don't know that she can see through other people's eyes. After her session, Flicker gets a message from Nate who tells her that Scam has contacted him asking for help and the he will contact the others.

A fourth Zero, Chizara known as Crash,  is working at Bob's fix-it shop. Crash has the ability to bring down electrical systems. Technology with its microchips and electronic signals cause her intense pain. When Crash gets Nate's message about helping Scam she feels conflicted - she's at work but she'd love to go to the police station and have the opportunity "to check out some serious tech up close, and maybe bring some of it down -- to do exactly what she spent her whole life holding back from." On the other hand,  Scam is not someone she really wants to help. Chizara remembers how Scam told her "You're a demon. You're a walking massacre waiting to happen!"

Flicker, Crash, and a fifth Zero, Anon whose real name is Thibault and whose super power is that no one ever remembers him, meet outside the Central Cambria Police Department. Nate directs the operation telling Crash that Flicker will help her get inside by directing her where to go (as she can see through the different people in the building where Ethan is and the layout of the building). Once inside, Crash is to bring down various electrical systems allowing Crash and Scam/Ethan to simply walk out. However, once inside, the complex electrical systems make it difficult for Crash to act subtly and safely. As she begins bringing down systems, Crash begins to lose control, crashing all the systems in the building. In the ensuing panic Scam and Crash manage to leave the CCPD building.

The four Zeroes meet at Nate/Bellwether's home. A year earlier Nate had brought the five Zeroes together to help them train and develop their unusual powers. However the group splintered after Ethan's "voice" antagonized each of them, causing tension and division. Nate wants to learn how Ethan/Scam got himself into trouble. At first Ethan isn't honest with the group but eventually does tell them how he found the money and came to be in the bank when it was robbed. When Tibault/Anonymous shows up he tells the group that the money is the least of their problems. Chizara's crash of the police station resulted in a mass escape of prisoners from the basement cells including Jerry Laszlo, the man involved in the bank robbery.  The group decides that Anon will hide Ethan until they can determine how to fix things. Flicker will hold on to the money until it's needed.

Anon takes Ethan to his "home" which is located in the penthouse of the Hotel Magnifique, a luxury hotel in Cambria. He's able to live there unknown to the staff because of his ability to be forgotten. However when Ethan leaves the hotel to try to contact his mom, he is quickly recognized as the guy in the video Sonia posted of the robbery. Meanwhile Kelsie meets her father and learns that he is in deep trouble. His accomplice in the robbery was related to a Russian mobster, Alexei Bagrov. Kelsie's father owes Bagrov a great deal of money and he asks her to get money owed to him from a friend. Kelsie goes to see her father's friend, Fig who gives her the money. Fig tells her he can't understand how the guy in the bank knew about the robbery. As she's leaving, Kelsie notices that Craig and a group of guys are headed out to try to find the boy in the bank video. He's been sighted at the Hotel Magnifique. Determined to get to him before Craig does, Kelsie runs to the hotel and manages to get to the penthouse apartment. Ethan's voice tells Kelsie he can help her father with the Bagrovs and Kelsie warns both Ethan and Thibault that Craig will be at the penthouse within minutes. Very quickly it becomes apparent Ethan, Kelsie and Thibault are going to need the combined powers of all the Zeroes if they are to stay ahead of Craig, the Bagrovs and the police. Will this new mission finally bring them closer together or tear them apart?


Zeroes is a collaborative effort by three authors and is the first in a planned trilogy. It is about a group of Millennials who share the same birth date in the year 2000 and are gifted with special powers that are in the words of Westerfeld, "crowd-based".

The story involves five teens who are social misfits because of their very unusual abilities. These abilities bring with them moral implications and create intense conflict for some of the Zeroes. This is most evident in Crash whose ability to take down electrical systems can cause great havoc and even result in the death of others. When Crash enters the CCPD to spring Scam she has no intention of hurting anyone. But as she begins to knock out various systems she is unable to control her craving for more, leading her to crash the entire building. This results in a police officer being seriously wounded by escaping prisoners. When questioned by her mother about what happened at the station, Chizara remembers her mother's beliefs about her special powers. "You've got to be responsible about what's inside you. If you hurt anyone -- whether you mean to or not, Chizara -- you've got to find some way to make it right. Settle with your conscience...Square things with the people whose stuff you break. Every time, girl, do you hear me?"  Reflecting on these words of wisdom by her mother make her feel intensely guilty.

When Chizara learns of policeman, Reggie Bright, being seriously injured in the breakout, she is devastated.  She remembers what her mother told her: "Any kind of gift, you can use it wisely or stupidly. Whether it's strength or a good brain, every time you use it: Is this going to hurt anyone? Is this going to do any harm?" Her deep conflict leads Chizara to leave the Zeroes and to question what it is they are trying to accomplish.

Nate's attempts to reconcile with Crash, telling her "we all need each other" leads Chizara to tell him they need to stop "playing with these powers." But Nate insists by using them, they are learning how they work and that she needs to learn how control her powers. Chizara tells Nate that in taking out the police station she has discovered her powers have changed and that she can now "uncrash things". This is new and appears to support his idea that they need to practice in order to understand the limits of their abilities.

When a new Zero, Kelsie - named Mob, is brought into the group, Nate is excited because this now gives him six Zeroes - which will bring what he calls, "the Curve" into play - the point where his (and the other Zeroes) power is most effective. However, Chizara refuses to be a part of the Zeroes. She believes that she can work on her own to control her abilities but more importantly Chizara recognizes that having a group of six will allow Nate's power to affect them all; it will give him too much control over the Zeroes, leaving no one to resist him.

In contrast to Chizara are Nate and Ethan. Nate is the consummate leader who has an "Ultimate Goal". Because of his ability to focus the energy of a group on one goal, Nate tends to focus on the goal without considering the consequences of the means used. In his mind he tries to downplay Chizara's concerns, telling himself, "So what if she'd slipped a little?" Instead, he blames the prisoners for escaping and hurting the police officer and not the fact that Chizara lack of control crashed a system designed to protect the policeman. Despite this Nate remains determined to understand and develop the Zeroes powers.

Ethan seems to be the one with the least control over his strange ability. The voice is always trying to get what Ethan subconsciously wants. This makes Ethan the least liked in the group and fuels his hurt. When he meets Kelsie, Ethan gradually begins to change. He likes Kelsie and uses the voice to try to help her save her father. But even when that doesn't go right, Kelsie tells him that the other Zeroes have hope for him. This leads Ethan to use the voice to help Jerry, who is trapped with them and dying to find some peace with what has happened in Kelsie's family.

Thibault/Anonymous's power which is his ability to be forgotten is perhaps the most poignant. One on one, people remember Thibault. But once he's in a crowd, or out of sight, he's quickly forgotten. He can't turn his power off, but he can snip the connection between himself and individuals if need be. He tells Ethan how he came to be living alone and his story is tragic. Seriously ill when he was thirteen, Thibault was taken to hospital by his mother. When his mother decides to leave to tend to his brothers, he begs her not to go, telling her she will forget him. Which is exactly what happens. When he returns home, he discovers his bedroom has been given to his grandmother - his family has forgotten him. He decides he will never have a connection to anyone. However, Westerfeld et al. give Thibault some hope - each of the Zeroes works hard to maintain a connection to him and remember him.

The authors manage to incorporate a bit of romance into the story with Tibault/Anon and Flicker developing a blossoming affection for each other, while Ethan/Scam and Kelsie/Mob see the beginnings of a friendship. The relationships between all members of the Zeroes is complex and interesting and is part of the most engaging aspect of this novel. It will be interesting to see where this trio of authors takes the Zeroes in their second novel. Overall the multiple narratives work well, but the novel is a lengthy book to wade through. 

Book Details:

Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti
Toronto: Simon Pulse     2015
546 pp.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Listen, Slowly is another story of Vietnam, following on the success of author,  Thanhha Lai's debut, Inside Out and Back Again.

The first day of summer vacation, twelve year old Mai Le finds herself on a plane to her family's home country of Vietnam and she's not happy about it. Plans to spend her days at Anita beach with her best friend Montana and possibly with the boy she's crushing on, have all collapsed. Mai, her father and her grandmother, Ba, are returning to Vietnam together for six weeks this summer. Her father, a doctor will be spending his time setting up surgical clinic to fix cleft palates and treat acute burns. But the main purpose of the visit to Vietnam because Ba has always had questions about whether her husband, Ong Ba, could still be alive. During the Vietnam War, Ong went missing in action, leaving Ba to raise their seven children by herself. Mai's father was only two years old when his father disappeared. They left Vietnam and came to American where the family thrived; "one doctor, four engineers, a professor and an accountant."

All this leaves Mai disoriented and unhappy. "What's so important? All her children and grandchildren are in California. Her life is there. My life is there."  But Mai's father points out, "Ba has had questions for decades. Be with her as she finally accepts...I thought she already did, but that quack calling himself a detective wrote her. I seriously doubt it's possible but..."  Although Mai's father hopes this trip will provide closure for Ba, he is concerned because "Ba thinks Ong might be alive..." because of the information she received from a detective in Vietnam.

When they arrive in Vietnam, Mai notices that every person has yellow skin and looks like her. The airport is clean and orderly, not at all like Mai thought it would be. But Vietnam is hot and sticky, and the city is crowded. "Tall buildings, jumbled electrical lines, tons of mopeds weaving between cars and buses. Every single driver is beeping." They arrive in Ha Noi,where the plan is to meet the detective and then travel to Ba's village. Her father warns her not to mention politics as this is not something talked about in Vietnamese society. The detective tells Mai's father and grandmother that he has spoken with a guard who was with Ong Ba but he will not travel to talk to Ba. After the meeting, Mai's father heads out to the mountains, while she and Ba travel to Ba's village. When Mai complains about not going home, her father tells her, "Listen, Ba has sacrificed everything for us. We've raised you to be considerate, so act like it. Be good, listen to Ba. The detective has to find the guard and that might take two weeks. I should be back before then."

Mai is further upset by the fact that she will have to stay for at least two more weeks while they wait for the detective to locate the guard,  but her mother, via cellphone, encourages Mai to do this for Ba. They travel to Ba's village, eighty kilometers from Hanoi, set in a land of rice paddies and water buffalo. At the village Mai and Ba are welcomed by many relatives who are especially fascinated with Mai's braces, her height and her henna-highlighted hair. During a huge meal, Mai meets Ut, whose real name is Muong and who carries around a gigantic frog. Unfortunately, they do not get off to a good start, when Mai causes Ut's frog to ingest a stone while it is eating flies.

Mai's first days in Vietnam consist of coping with the large voracious mosquitoes and getting use to having a nap in the afternoon because of the excessive heat, They walk to Ong's ancestral home, where his younger brother now resides. Ba and Mai share a bedroom that was once tiled with blue tiles of a goddess. Ba tells Mai that they were betrothed when Ong was seven and she was five, but due to the war they were married earlier than planned at eighteen and sixteen respectively. The room with the faded blue tiles was their bridal chamber. Ba at first refused to let Ong in but eventually relented. Now, after years without her beloved husband, Ba thinks the time lost and tells Mai that against reason she continues to hope he is still alive.

Mai also meets an older boy, Minh, who has a crush on Ut's older sister Lan, and who will be acting as a translator and guide. Minh who is a junior at a boarding high school in Houston, explains village life to Mai, how the boys and men work at a shrimp hatching facility the village purchased.

Mai's manages to access her facebook account and also speaks with her mother for the first time since arriving. She desperately want to return home but her mother tells her that being away will test her friendship with Montana and asks her to be open about what will happen during her visit in Vietnam.

On his second visit the detective tells Ba that he has located her husband's guard in Hanoi but the guard refuses to travel to Hanoi. Ba tells him the guard "...held my husband captive; he must come to me to release his past." Later on Mai again complains about going home, this time to her grandmother. Ba asks her for more time, that her presence brings her joy, but she does give Mai the option of contacting her father and arranging for her to travel back to America. However, Mai tells her grandmother "Khong sao." No worries.
"I chant "khong sao" to myself over and over. Perhaps after a while, I will wholeheartedly believe it'll be all right to wait. What can I do but wait? Things will happen in Laguna whether I stress or not."

Ba tells Mai about the day she learned that Ong Ba was missing in action and how she carried this date with her to America, about the last day she saw Ong before he left on a mission. She also reveals that he closed each letter to her with Mong Nho Em Dem Tung Hat Mua - which means Longing Missing You Counting Each Drop of Rain. These words are also the names of their seven children.

Mai's settles into life in a small village in North  Vietnam. Gradually her decision to stay with Ba on her journey to learn about what happened to her husband and Mai's paternal grandfather bring about a change in perspective and a deeper understanding and appreciation of her Vietnamese roots. It is a journey that will provide some closure for Ba, and many changes for Mai.


Author Thanhha Li proves once again that the best novels are those written about what we hold dearest to the heart. Listen, Slowly is really two stories, one which focuses on the tragedy of a couple torn apart because of war and a second which deals with  a young girl's journey toward embracing her culture and her family's past.

At the beginning of the novel, we learn that the primary reason for the family's trip to Vietnam is to bring closure for Mai's elderly grandmother who seems unable to accept that her husband is dead. New revelations from Vietnam appear to indicate that there is a possibility he might still be alive. However, once in Vietnam, Ba tells her granddaughter, Mai, that she although she is hopeful she is also realistic. It is her recounting of her marriage to Ong, that the depth of their personal tragedy becomes apparent.
"I do not live on butterfly wings, my child. His chances of remaining among us rank as likely as finding an ebony orchid. Yet I hold onto hope because I have been unable to imagine his ending."
Ba and Ong promised that if they ever became separated, they would meet again under the blue goddess. Mai asks herself, "How do you know someone almost since birth, then one day you know absolutely nothing more about him at all?"

Despite knowing all this, Mai is not really sympathetic to Ba's quest. She knows, as do her father and mother, that Ong is dead. However, gradually Ba's knowing becomes important to Mai. She and Ut trick Ut's mother into sending them to Saigon. With the detective's notebook and the help of two guides, Mai and Ut find the guard's home and Mai begs him to help her. "Then I start crying...It's so embarrassing, but the possibility of Ba not knowing any more about Ong rips a hole in my gut. Right now, I want Ba to get her wish even more than I want to go home...That's just how I feel."  This along with help from the detective lead to Ba traveling south to see the message Ong wrote her in the tunnel he was forced to dig so many years ago. That message is the same one he closed every letter to Ba with and it confirms to Ba that he is indeed gone. It is his final signing off.

Mai feels very different from the spoiled, self-centered girl who first came to Vietnam weeks ago, as she looks at the "alphabet letters scraped into the dirt by a shaky hand." She recognizes the "familiar line Ong had written in every letter home, the line that came alive each time he called their children's names, that line that ached with longing for his wife as he counted his last years, months, weeks, and days."   "While I stand there, nothing else matters, not the heat, the air, or the stench rising above a floral spray. Nothing matters as long as I can hear Ba's breathing elongate into full, satisfied breaths." For Mai, nothing matters except that her beloved Ba has closure.

In the end, Mai decides to stay on for another twelve days, for Ba and even for Ut, to help her learn the scientific names of the frogs for her examination. "Maybe I can stay and maybe I would enjoy it. What's in Laguna that's so urgent? Mom is exhausted with her trial and I will see Kevin when I see him. As for Montana, I can wait." No longer consumed about whether or not Montana is with Kevin, or what is happening in Laguna, Mai has put her life into perspective. What matters is the time in Vietnam.

The title, Listen, Slowly is a reference to the dominant theme as young Mai struggles to adjust to Vietnamese culture and to understand her grandmother's desire to uncover what happened so long ago. The theme of listening is woven into every aspect of Lai's novel. When Mai arrives in Vietnam she is examined closely by her relatives, one of whom asks her if she is obedient. Mai acknowledges that he is really asking if she listens to her parents and like most young people she's not about to admit "I just pretend to listen."  By her own admission, Mai used to "listen" to Ba, "Twice a day I used to hear long stories, one at nap time and one before bed. Then I went to kindergarten and stopped listening."

When Mai's mother calls, Mai complains that she wants to return home but her mother urges her to stick it out for her grandmother. At her grandmother's meeting with the detective, Mai finds that if she listens, she can understand. But often she finds herself not listening, especially at the beginning when she is so focused on herself and on returning home. She asks Anh Minh why, if everyone agrees the Ong is not alive, they are staying in Vietnam. Ahn Minh tells her what her father and even Ba have told her, that acceptance is difficult leading Mai to realize that in her desire to go home,  she has "missed listening."

Mai becomes ill after inadvertently drinking pond water and is given a local remedy and required to rest her stomach by not eating. When she does resume eating again, the pho stand owner tells her "Eat just noodles and broth, all right? Let's listen to what your stomach does with that." By listening Mai will know whether she can begin to eat food again. 

Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Returned Sword)
The guard who comes to speak with Ba about the last time he saw her husband reveals that Ong wrote her a message. Ba believes the message to be a letter but when she asks for it, the guard refuses telling her she must go to the south for the message. In a reversal, when Mai remembers all the times she would listen to Ba at night "whisper all kinds of maybes to herself...maybe Ong escaped, maybe Ong lost his memory but was healthy and happy..." she suggests to her grandmother that maybe the message is not a letter. "But Ba isn't listening."

In Saigon, when Ba and Mai attempt to cross a street to get Banh canh, they find it impossible because of the numerous mopeds zigzagging past. They are helped the the hotel clerk who tells them "The trick calls for not looking at any driver but listening to the engines...".

Finally,  Ba, after having seen the message Ong left for her so many years ago in the tunnel,  tells Mai that the hurts and joys of life become a part of us, that they are important. "I tell you of loss, my child, so you will listen, slowly, and know that in life every emotion is fated to rear itself withing your being. Don't judge it proper or ugly. It's simply there and yours. When you should happen to cry, then cry, knowing that just as easily you will laugh again and cry again. Your feelings will enter the currents of your core and there they shall remain."

Listen, Slowly is a poignant story about a terrible war that tore apart a nation and affected its people deeply. The themes of reconciliation and forgiveness (Ba forgives the guard after seeing the tunnel) and of the importance of family predominate as well.  Beautifully crafted, capturing the atmosphere and culture of Vietnam for those of us who will likely never visit the country, Listen, Slowly is highly recommended for ages 8 to 12.

I hope Thanh ha Lai will write more stories set in Vietnam, perhaps continuing the saga of Mai Le.

On her website Thanhha Li reveals that her first name means gentle (Thanh) river (ha).

The map included at the front is very helpful in orienting readers who are certainly not familiar with the locations in Vietnam. This map also contains minor spoilers.

Book Details:

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai
New York: HarperCollins Childrens Books     2015
260 pp.