Transportive armchair travel if you’re willing to follow along just for the sights.


A young Vietnamese native returns to her motherland looking for answers only to find that the past does not yield its secrets easily.

In the early 1990s, Maia Trieu, a 23-year-old Vietnamese expat, is on a mission to her native country, seemingly charged by the collective diaspora to do one thing: help the Independent Vietnam Coalition contact her great aunt. The expats believe that Maia’s relative, a former military commander, is capable of instigating insurgency in the Central Highlands. While that might be Maia’s primary agenda, one she has even received a grant for, she is also in Vietnam to seek answers: What prompted her mother to stay behind in Vietnam while Maia escaped along with her dad? Who is left of her family who might have the answers and the closure she craves? In this haunting if meandering debut, Maia travels the countryside following the trail of breadcrumbs on the way to her mission: “ ‘Whatever you do,’ the Coalition instructed, ‘be at the foot of the Vong Phu Mountain on the first night of the full moon.’ ” Along the way, Maia attracts a ragtag group of fellow travelers, including an American journalist whose brother served in Vietnam. Lam blends the past with the present, fluidly teasing out strands of narrative, but at times the plot is as hazy as the smoky, incense-filled air in the temples that Maia visits. The meditative novel functions best as travelogue and food diary: “The smell of deep-fried shrimp and mung bean patties from a bánh cuốn stall filled the air. The vendor in a lilac đồ bộ waved customers to her footstools and knee-high tables as she served plates of steamed rice rolls filled with pork mince and wood ear mushrooms, garnished with blanched bean sprouts, fresh mint leaves, and chili fish sauce.” Generous doses of folklore—the tale of Hòn Vộng Phu, a wife who turns into stone waiting for her husband’s return, is a recurring theme here—and poetry add ballast to an otherwise cloudy narrative.

Transportive armchair travel if you’re willing to follow along just for the sights.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-59709-464-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Red Hen Press

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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