The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille

Nelson DeMille is a veteran of the Vietnam War, having served as an Army infantry platoon leader with 1st Cavalry Division. He also is the author of twenty novels, most of which are action thrillers, and most of which have been big bestsellers.  He was named 2015 ThrillerMaster of the Year by the International Thriller Writers organization.

DeMille’s latest, The Cuban Affair (Simon & Schuster, 464 pp., $28.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), more than lives up to those that preceded it. DeMille’s new hero is Daniel “Mac” MacCormick, a U. S. Army veteran who is using his hard-won military skills to run a fishing boat out of Key West. Mac spent five years as an Army infantry officer. He fought in Afghanistan, and was awarded a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. That service also came with a variety of eye-catching scars, and it left him with a weakness for adventure.

A beautiful young Cuban-American woman offers Mac a deal in which he can help her retrieve $60 million in cash and gold left behind in Castro’s Cuba for a small cut. This isn’t the first novel of this sort I’ve read, so I suspected that things might go wrong. How could it not when the co-conspirators have a map showing where the gold is hidden?

Spoiler alert: Things do go a bit wrong. And even though a jaundiced Vietnam War veteran is part of Mac’s team, some unanticipated bad things happen. John Wayne gets a mention—not in a good way—and well-worn expressions from the Vietnam War such as “Di Di Mau” pop up.

Nelson DeMille

The murder of seventeen American Vietnam War POWs who had been held captive in the Hanoi Hilton also figures in the plot. They ended up in Cuba only to be tortured and shot by the Castro regime in those bad old days. Their skulls were kept in a trunk, which Mac is responsible for returning to America.

I recommend this novel to all those who have been fans of DeMille’s thrillers for as many years as I have. Also to those who have somehow not intersected with this master thriller writer.

You have hours of purely pleasurable reading ahead of you.

—David Willson

 

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Ali’s Bees By Bruce Olav Solheim

Bruce Solheim is a distinguished professor of history at Citrus College in Glendora, California.  He served six years in the U.S. Army as a jail guard and as a helicopter pilot. He founded the Veterans Program at Citrus College, and teaches Vietnam War-related history classes.

The three kids in Solheim’s children’s book, Ali’s Bees (CreateSpace, 142 pp., $9.89, paper; $2.99, Kindle)—Ali, Lupe and Jenks— learn how to cooperate on a science project. Ali wishes he could feel at home in Los Angeles with his beekeeper grandfather with whom he went to live after his parents were killed in a terrorist attack in Iraq.

Ali has PTSD related to that terrorist attack he survived, but his family did not, except for his grandfather. His grandfather has Ali work with bees as therapy for his PTSD. Ali works with Lupe, a classroom friend, and with Jenks, a bully. Jenks has problems of his own as his father is confined to a wheelchair because of wartime injuries. The horrors of war live on every page of this book.

Some of the five illustrations by Gabby Untermayerova of Jenks’ father in his wheelchair brought tears to my eyes. Full disclosure: Often these days I am in a wheelchair, too.

This book can entertain and benefit all ages of readers. It can also teach how to try to overcome the ill-effects of war, effects that are with us always and everywhere.

The book is positive and healing, but it is also realistic. It never becomes maudlin or descends into didacticism. It is beautifully written and on some pages borders on poetry.

Bruce Solheim

I loved the book and would use it in class if I were still teaching about the horrors of war.

Thanks to Bruce Solheim and Gabby Untermayerova for conspiring to produce this fine book dealing with the impact of war on the human heart.

—David Willson

 

A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe was born in 1984 in Rockhampton, Australia, and lives in Tasmania. I wouldn’t be surprised if her father served during the Vietnam War. Certainly the way she characterizes the people in her novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult, 176 pp., $16.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), indicates she knows about Vietnam War veterans. Or she is a damned good researcher. Either way, her characters ring true.

I was relieved to read that the characters in the book are fictitious as I would hate to blunder into any of them in real life. Or in my dreams, for that matter.  Especially Uncle Les “who seems to move through their lives like a ghost, earning trust and suspicion.”

The backbone of A Loving, Faithful Animal (the only book I’ve read that presents the Australian ruins of the Vietnam War) is the fact that Ru’s father, an Australian conscript during the Vietnam War, has turned up missing, this time with an air of finality. This makes Ru think “he’s gone for good.” Or for evil.

One blurb writer says the book’s “astonishing poetic prose left me aching and inspired.”  I got half of that—unfortunately, the aching part.

I don’t know if the greeting, “Have a few bottles of Tiger Piss and get defoliated,” was invented for this book, or if it is a common one in Australia’s legacy of their involvement in the Vietnam War. I hope it is just particular to this novel.

A character cuts off both trigger fingers to avoid being drafted. That seems extreme to me. But the book reminds me that a prevalent attitude during the war was that if you were drafted you would be sent to Vietnam and if you were sent there, you would die there. I never understood that, but I did encounter it.

John Wayne does get a mention, so do Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, LBJ, and Ho Chi Minh. One of the comments a character makes about being the offspring of a Vietnam veteran is that she’s spent her life “trying to lead [her] father out of the jungle.”

The question gets asked, “Why are we in Vietnam?”  The answer is that Ho Chi Minh kicked over LBJ’s trike. I’d say that’s as good a reason as any.

Josephine Rowe

Early in the novel we are told that all chemical agents used in Vietnam “have been fully exonerated from causing veterans’ subsequent ill health, with the partial exception of the antimalarial drug Dapsone, whose status has not been resolved.”

That makes me feel better about the Multiple Myeloma that is killing me by degrees. The question about how many Vietnam vets it takes to screw in a light bulb gets asked. No answer is given.

If you feel the need to read a book about the impact of the Vietnam War on the people of Australia, start with this one.

You could do worse. I did.

—David Willson

High Hand by Curtis J. James

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Curtis J. James is the pseudonym for three accomplished Washington, D.C.-area writers:  Curtis Harris, a cancer scientist; James Rosen, a political journalist; and James Ellenberger, a former AFL-CIO official. I’ve heard of two people writing a book, but three seems like maybe one too many.  I’d love to know how they coordinated their duties.

Ellenberger, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served in Vietnam in 1968-69 with the 29th Civil Affairs Company in Da Nang, and has visited Vietnam three times since the war. His service in the war is enough to keep the committee that wrote the book honest, I’m sure.

High Hand (Copper Peak Press, $13.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is a political thriller with one of those fast-paced plots that can make your head dizzy if you are not careful. It’s a spy novel that the publisher compares to the work of Ian Fleming and John le Carre, both of whom I love, but neither is much like the other. Another blurb writer digs up Ken Follett and Tom Clancy as authors to compare to.

The plot centers around Frank Adams, who must figure out why his old poker buddies are being targeted for assassination. He’s so desperate for a solution to the puzzle that he enlists his ex-wife, Lisa Hawkes, for help.

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The authors

She is “a brilliant Russian linguist and a CIA covert agent.” Isn’t every ex-wife like that? I have got an ex-wife who was a children’s librarian.  That’s a very different skill set. Or maybe not.

I enjoyed this book, and it really is fast-paced, but not too fast paced. I didn’t fall asleep while reading it, but I did sleep well when I turned in. That’s a good thing.

Buy it and read it if you want to find out why the poker buddies are being killed. And if you wish to discover if three guys can sit down and write a book together that is worth reading.

My opinion: It’s worth your money.

The authors’ website is www.curtisjjames.com

—David Willson

A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington

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Laura Harrington has written dozens of plays, musicals, and operas, as well as Alice Bliss, a novel that deals with the Iraq War. Her new book, A Catalog of Birds (Europa Editions, 224 pp. $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is set in 1970 when Billy Flynn returns home from his tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a helicopter pilot who had been shot down and very badly burned.

The only survivor of that helicopter crash, Billy returns to his family in upstate New York where his adoring kid sister tries valiantly to help him regain the use of his right hand and arm. Billy had been a brilliant artist, drawing birds with a pencil he can’t even hold with his crippled right hand.

This is one of those tragedy-of-war books that has tears on every page and no easy answers or miracles for Billy Flynn or his sister. There is also a mystery: Billy’s pre-war girlfriend disappears and is never heard from again.

The VA hospital where Billy receives inadequate care is rat-infested and his care givers are skeptical that anything serious is wrong with him. They all but accuse him of faking his injury. Plus, the VA only pays for half of Billy’s rehab; his parents go bankrupt trying to pay for the other half.

What’s more, Billy and his best friend Harlow are treated by people outside the VA as though they are baby killers and monsters. They spend a lot of time drinking away their time and pain.

There is a big discussion about chemicals that the Army used in Vietnam. “There are plenty of vets who can’t smell or taste.” Billy says to his father. “Most everybody has hearing loss. More and more cancers are showing up. The VA says they are slacking off, looking to stay on the dole. Twelve million tons of Agent Orange, Dad. As if the Geneva Convention against chemical warfare did not exist. Think of what we have done, what we are leaving behind.”

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Laura Harrington

This is as bleak a novel about the Vietnam War as I’ve read. Nothing turns out well for anyone. No good comes out of the war either. Harrington—who teaches play writing at MIT—and I see eye to eye about that.

Those who see the war as having done a lot of good should go elsewhere for their reading.

The author’s website is lauraharringtonbooks.com

—David Willson

Before We Sleep By Jeffrey Lent

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Jeffrey Lent has written a lot of serious literary novels, including In the Fall (2000) and A Slant of Light (2015), both of which deal with war and relationships. That’s also true with his new novel, Before We Sleep (Bloomsbury, 385 pp., $28).

In it, seventeen-year-old Katey Snow leaves her parents’ home in Vermont in the dead of night, carrying a packet of letters from an old World War II Army buddy of her fathers, which she hopes will provide information about who she is and where she came from. She’s recently been told that Oliver Snow, whom she has thought was her father, is not her biological parent, and she’s now driven to find answers.

This large novel deals mostly with the Greatest Generation as the 60s brings the trauma of a new war down upon them. The novel is heavy going. I found the prose excessively poetical and sluggish—and not just because of Lent’s lack of finesse with commas. I grant that other readers might well bask in his prose ponds, which seemed to me to be a Saragossa Sea of verbiage.

When Katey leaves, sneaking off without any formal farewell, I thought it likely that terrible things would happen to a girl who had never been away from home. I was not wrong. Terrible things do happen, but Katey bounces back from them much faster than I thought was likely or possible, given what Lent lets us know about her character.

The novel goes back and forth between Katey’s adventures on the road and her mother Ruth’s point of view and memories. We learn a lot about Oliver and Ruth, and about their marriage at the beginning of  World War II. Lent expends much prose (and energy) giving the reader a picture of Vermont, and showing us how the state changes through the seasons and through the years.

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Jeffrey Lent

This novel is more about mothers and daughters than it is about men and war. But there is enough to justify calling it a Vietnam War novel—in the larger sense. There’s even a rant about what napalm will be used for after the war “once this shit runs out of steam.”

Will the sender of the letters Katey is seeking answers from have the answers Katey needs or wants?  That is the central mystery of this novel, and I won’t answer it here. Read the book and discover for yourself.

You’ll either love this weighty novel and its special poetical language, or you will not. Good luck with it.

—David Willson

The Militarized Zone: What Did You Do in the Army, Grandpa? by Wayne E. Johnson

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Wayne E. Johnson was drafted in 1969 and spent two years serving in the U.S. Army. He is currently working on a prequel to his novel The Militarized Zone; What Did You Do in the Army, Grandpa? (Tradewinds, 302 pp. $14.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), which was published in November of 2016.

Will Jensen is the protagonist of this heavily biographical novel, which takes place mostly in Korea. Will is drafted and sent to serve his Army time in Seoul with 8th Army Headquarters in the MOS 71 H-30, personnel management specialist.  It took the author over forty years to figure out how to make a book out of notes he took during his Army service.

Johnson tells us that this is a work of fiction and that the characters are composites of real people he served with. He sprinkles some Korean words and phrases into the narrative, but explains most of them; others are easy to figure out.

Johnson tells us to look at the book “as you would M*A*S*H* and Good Morning, Vietnam.” All three, he says, “are based on real events, real people, somewhat embellished for entertainment value and continuity.”

I enjoyed The Militarized Zone and learned that serving in Korea during the Vietnam War was amazingly similar to serving in Vietnam at that same time. It was safer in Korea than in Vietnam, though. Bob Hope and Racquel Welch entertained the troops there, just as they did in Vietnam, so a Korean tour of duty had that going for it, too.

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Wayne E. Johnson

Johnson has written an honest and entertaining book about a subject that has not drawn a lot of attention: What were we up to in Korea during the Vietnam War? This interesting book answers that question and does so with humor and clarity. Jane Fonda gets a mention early on, but Bob Hope and Racquel Welch help balance that out.

—David Willson