The Mountains Sing [Book Review]

July 10, 2020

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Genre/Categories: Historical Fiction, Family Life, Vietnamese

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The Mountains Sing is a multi-generational story of the Tran family told in dual timelines and points of view. We learn about the 20th Century history of Viet Nam as events are integrated into the personal family story. Present-day events are told by the granddaughter and the family’s backstory is told by the grandmother. The story is filled with rich historical details, vivid descriptions, and lyrical writing. We experience the history of Viet Nam from the viewpoint of the Vietnamese people and specifically from the viewpoint of the Tran family. A compelling story of ordinary, beautiful people and a country torn apart by war.

My Thoughts:

The granddaughter learned about Americans by reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Writing: Even though the history in The Mountains Sing is complex and painful, the storytelling is vivid, poignant, and personal. Despite the historical fiction genre label, it reads like a memoir. The author’s love for the country and people shine through. #ownvoices

Characters: It might be important to mention that at the beginning of The Mountains Sing, there are several characters to remember and track! As the story progressed and I became more familiar with the names, the reading became easier. My favorite character is the grandmother. Her sacrifices, leadership, craftiness, vision, fighting spirit, perseverance, determination, courage, and love are memorable and inspiring. She faced endless difficulties and harrowing experiences but never lost her determination to survive or to keep her family together. (I often thought “Wearing a mask is all that is being asked of us!”).

Themes: Thoughtful themes involve survival, commitment to family, community, small kindnesses, the tragedy of war, the power of books, storytelling, sacrifice, and loyalty.

Recommended: I wholeheartedly recommend The Mountains Sing for fans of historical fiction; for those particularly interested in Vietnamese history, culture, and traditions; for readers who appreciate multi-generational and multilayered family stories; and for readers who love stories of strong, independent, and inspiring women. Great selection for book clubs who are looking for ambitious historical fiction. The story was both beautiful and devastating.

Content Considerations: hunger and begging for food, dire circumstances, mention of a rape scene, mention of war atrocities such as hanging and beheading, PTSD, depression

Related: Inside Out and Back Again (2nd review in the post, Middle-Grade lit)

My Rating: 4.5  Stars

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The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai (cover) Image: white text over a mountaineous background

The Mountains Sing Information

Meet the Author, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Author Mguyen Phan Que Mai Page

Born into the Viet Nam War in 1973, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai grew up witnessing the war’s devastation and its aftermath. She worked as a street vendor and rice farmer before winning a scholarship to attend university in Australia. She is the author of eight books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction published in Vietnamese, and her writing has been translated and published in more than 10 countries, most recently in Norton’s Inheriting the War anthology. She has been honored with many awards, including the Poetry of the Year 2010 Award from the Hà Nội Writers Association, as well as international grants and fellowships. Currently based in Indonesia, Quế Mai’s journalism regularly appears in major Vietnamese newspapers. For more information, visit


Is The Mountains Sing on your TBR or have you read it?


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  1. Introduction of too many characters in the beginning can be a bit frustrating for the reader, I agree! But it’s hopeful to know that it gets easier later on. Because with some books, it doesn’t and it only adds to the disappointment! 🤷🏻‍♀️

    But this one really does sound like a great read, Carol! Loved the review! ❤️🦋

  2. Thanks for this review, Carol. I’d vaguely heard of this one, but didn’t really know what it was about. Now I’m very much looking forward to reading it. All I really know about Vietnam during this time is what I heard from returning Vets during the war as I was the age when so many young men were going.

    • Yes…many of my friends were drafted and I spent the first few years of marriage fearing my hubs would be drafted. He kept taking seminary classes because that was about the only deferment….then when it didn’t seem likely he could avoid the draft much longer, he seriously thought he should enlist so that he would have some more choices in how he would serve …but the week he was going to enlist, the lottery system was established and his birthday gave him a very very high number so that practically everyone would have to be drafted before him. We relaxed a bit then and had a baby and that gave him even more of an advantage. It was all so stressful for a few years!!! When I read this, it makes our concerns seem trivial compared to what the Vietnamese people were going through. It’s a good read but difficult content in places….so well researched and written!

  3. I’ve loved some of Lisa See’s books– so this sounds intriguing! On my library list! (so happy OC libraries are open for requests and curbside pick up again!).

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