The First Stone by Lynn Underwood

The First Stone (High Tide Publications, 293 pp. $12.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a debut novel by Vietnam War veteran Lynn Underwood, who served with the 1st Marine Division as a radio operator and forward observer. The book’s main theme is the meaning of the word “family” in all of its configurations and ramifications. It’s a story in which a tragic secret carried home from the war in Vietnam may not even be a family’s biggest one.

This is a multi-generational story of several families spreading their influence throughout New Mexico from the 1940s through the 1970s, although the story moves into Mexico, Greece, Vietnam, and Southern California, and ends in 2004.

It begins in the mid-1930s when a teenage Mexican girl, Conchita, crosses the border from Juarez with her young child hoping for a better life. Going to work cleaning people’s homes, she gets into a secret relationship with Simon Kouris, who is making a name for himself in the construction business. Her second son, Ray, Jr., is told he will receive a family inheritance if he completes a hitch with the Marine Corps and receives an honorable discharge.

Bartolome Valles is a serious competitor of Kouris’s company. Their rivalry leads to a night of violence. Out of that night comes three deaths and a dark secret.

Zachary Martin grows up working on a farm. In 1969, he’s a Marine corporal in Vietnam. He frequently takes part in search and destroy missions, and after the death of a buddy, receives a Bronze Star for valor. But along with that medal comes a secret he carries that haunts him. Ray Kouris witnesses much of it the incident. In 1973 Martin marries Jordon Valles, a college student and the daughter of Bartolome Valles. This threatens to expose secrets that have been held for years. Redemption and forgiveness play major parts in this story and are embodied in the character of Padre Juan.

This is a novel that Underwood tells by narrowing the story until the midway point, then widening it out after that. It requires the reader to pay attention to keep up with the plot lines, but that’s not a bad thing.

The author’s website is lynnunderwoodauthor.com

–Bill McCloud

If You Walk Long Enough by Nancy Hartney

Nancy Hartney’s new novel, If You Walk Long Enough (Wild Rose Press, 282 pp. $16.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), centers on returning war veterans and the loved ones they are returning to.

Main character Reid Holcombe is on his way home to Beaufort, South Carolina, after a couple of tours in the Vietnam War and the completion of his military service. He takes his time getting home. He winds up hanging out in airports because he’s in no hurry to return to his estranged wife and the family tobacco farm that his sister runs. Mainly, he’s just not sure what he wants to do.

When Reid finally calls his wife, she says, “Come home. I need to make sure you’re not a ghost.” She also says she’s concerned because she can no longer picture him or “smell his essence.”

But instead of returning to the house he shares with his wife, Reid decides to move into a nearby family farm and go to work helping his sister get the tobacco in. Still, he’s not happy about getting back to the fields; he’d joined the Army because he saw it as his ticket off the farm. His sister tells him she knows he didn’t write home because of all the stuff he was dealing with, but then tells him: “Hard stuff happened here, too.”

Hartney writes that even though Reid was far away from the war, he “ate fast, gobbling before the next mortar round hit.” He learns that Big Tobacco companies are trying to squeeze out small farms. At the same time, his neighbors—a Black family whose son also served during the war—are facing increasingly serious racial harassment. Reid begins thinking of South Carolina and Vietnam as “two places, different and the same.”

He continues to stay away from his wife, considering himself to be divorced in all but the strictly legal sense. For her part, Hartney writes, his wife sometimes “wished him dead in Vietnam—only to wither from guilt at the thought.” She also flirted with having a relationship while he was gone, while he has his own wartime secret.

Nancy Hartney

Feeling a sense of crushing guilt from what he did in Vietnam and the secret he still carries from it—while at the same time wrestling with new relationships with family and neighbors—Reid finds himself fighting Big Tobacco and the sickening racism he had not faced before going to Vietnam.

The book is divided into 62 short chapters with most of the story taking place in 1970. Hartney’s novel expresses beautifully the reality of veterans returning home from Vietnam to a world that had not stood still while they were gone. 

(Full disclosure: I am thanked on the Acknowledgments section of this book based on a few conversations I had with the author and my early reading of the manuscript.)

Hartney’s website is https://nancyhartney.com/

–Bill McCloud

Bloodline by Jess Lourey

Jess Lourey’s Bloodline (Thomas & Mercer, 347 pp. $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a mystery/thriller set in the small town of Lilydale, Minnesota, in the peak Vietnam War years of 1968 and 1969.

If you are looking for a good mystery, Bloodline may not be for you, as it’s a thriller than a mystery, with nearly all of the elements of a Gothic horror story. The only thing missing is a spooky castle. The suspense is there, though, along with aspects of a well-crafted psychological thriller.

Joan Harken, the protagonist of Bloodline, is a journalist in Minneapolis where she lives with her boyfriend, Deck Schmidt. After she is mugged on her way home, Joan (who is pregnant) agrees to move with Deck to his hometown of Lilydale. If Joan thought that only big cities like Minneapolis were dangerous, she is in for some big surprises in little Lilydale.

Right from the start, we know that something isn’t quite right with the town and a group of its most influential citizens. Lourey—a prolific author of mysteries, short stories, and nonfiction books—pays homage to both The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby as Joan is expected to comport herself like the loving and automaton wives in her new social circle. She soon begins to suffer PTSD symptoms as a result of the attack in Minneapolis.

Desperate to regain a modicum of independence, Joan gets a job with the local newspaper and decides to investigate the unexplained disappearance of young Paulie Aandeg, who went missing in Lilydale in 1944. This part of Lourey’s story is based on actual events that took place in Paynesville, Minnesota. 

Jess Lourey

As Joan tracks down leads, she becomes more and more paranoid about her husband, his family, and their friends keeping tabs on her. As the story unfolds, Joan believes she is about to discover something of importance, but is then derailed. Multiple times.

Lourey brings up the Vietnam War several times in the book. Early on, she mentions that one reason Deck wanted to take Joan back to Lilydale was because “his dad was head of the county draft board and had the power to save Deck from Vietnam.” Later, Joan reflects on her life in peaceful Lilydale while American troops are dying in Vietnam, thinking “how ashamed she is to tune out their pain, halfway across the world.”

I enjoyed Bloodline. I am a night owl and love immersing myself in a story that will keep me up and make me jump when I hear things late at night. The parts of the book I did not like are not worth mentioning, except to say that it appeared to me that Lourey overused her Thesaurus—a noble effort to keep the reader engaged in the story, but one that was not needed. 

For those who enjoy thrillers, Jess Lourey has crafted a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat and guessing until the last page. And God help you if a stray pecan falls on your roof late at night while you are buried in the depths of this book.

The author’s website is jessicalourey.com

— Charles L. Templeton

The reviewer is the author of Boot: A Sorta Novel of Vietnam

Arlen’s Gun by Edgar Doleman

Prepare to lose some sleep over Edgar Doleman’s Arlen’s Gun: A Novel of Men at War (Authorhouse, 338 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $20.99, paper; $5.99). Of the many books written about the Vietnam War, few have been as entertaining and informative as Arlen’s Gun, the story of an AC-47 Spooky gunship crew. The majority of the novel takes place after the aircraft is forced down and the crew, with one of its miniguns in tow, finds its way to friendly forces. Along the way, they experience the Vietnam War novelty of fighting the enemy face-to-face, as opposed to looking down on them from the sky.

Doleman served two Vietnam War tours during his 20-year Army career as an infantry officer. As you start to read his book, you will experience a growing dislike for his antihero, Arlen, whose intent to steal a minigun and mount it in a limousine back in the States is not only fanciful, but indicative of an extremely sick mind. It isn’t until he experiences sorrow over the death of his companion that you begin to think there might be something worthwhile about this guy.

The most admirable of the book’s characters are the NCOs who manage to keep level heads amid the chaos around them and provide stability and much-needed advice to the young officers in their units. The novel does them justice.

I’ve done a lot of reading, but have seldom finished a novel of this length in three days. When you can hold the interest of an old geezer like me and get him wrapped up in a story that is fact-based and exciting, you have really accomplished something.

 –William J. Wright

Vietnam War AC-47 Spooky gunship, aka “Puff the Magic Dragon”

gt

Floater by Martin Robert Grossman

Floater (Koehler Books, 246 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is former Green Beret Martin Robert Grossman’s third action-thriller featuring Jerry Andrews, a retired police detective who was a Special Forces sergeant in Vietnam during the war.

The idea driving this novel is conveyed in the dedication, which is to the men and women of our armed forces who fight and sometimes die to protect our freedom, “even in the face of protest.” The dedication goes on to say that antiwar demonstrations by hippies and other war protesters “crushed the morale of the American soldier!” And that “the idle rich and famous played the most demoralizing role.” So, in this story, which takes place 20 years after the communist takeover of South Vietnam, justice against what Grossman calls “turncoats and traitors” is “dispensed by those betrayed–REAL JUSTICE!”

Several characters feel they were betrayed while at war and again after returning home to an ungrateful nation, and they have not been able to terms with that. They “quickly found that civilian life for a Vietnam vet was a nightmare,” Grossman writes. The men—Claymore, Meat Cleaver, Short Arm, Super Mex, Terminator, and others—are drawn into a plan to take out a “who’s who of war protestors.”

One of their main targets is the movie star Brandy Forester. She began as a child of privilege and wealth, becoming an acclaimed actress who always seemed to be in the shadow of her more famous father. She then began protesting the war and, in 1972 traveled to North Vietnam where she “sat for photographs with the enemy.” She’s described as having a “small chest,” in contrast to Army nurses with their “big racks.” The men don’t want to just kill her; they aim to send her straight to hell.

A rival group may be going after the same targets, including Sen. John Kershaw, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and served in Vietnam on a brown-water Navy patrol boat. Grossman writes that after intentionally wounding himself in order to get a Purple Heart, Kershaw then denigrated American troops when he testified before a congressional committee. Grossman says “he became hated by all soldiers” who were fighting for their country and their lives.

The leader of the group of enraged vets lives on a large ranch in Arizona and feels increasingly isolated from a world he thinks has rejected him. His goal is to put together a new A-Team, drawing men from VA clinics. He thinks of them as his “band of merry men.” Meanwhile, former detective Jerry Andrews volunteers to help law-enforcement with the cases.

I suggest reading this novel about murdering prominent people who protested the war as a fantasy. If that sounds like your thing, the story is well written and moves fast.

–Bill McCloud 

The Ballad of the Three Dollar Lover by Jack Tucker

Jack Tucker says his novel, The Ballad of the Three Dollar Lover (220 pp. $24.95, paper), which is set in California, Thailand, and Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is based on people he knew, things he did, and stories he heard. It’s a wild story centered on film editing and the sexual adventures of a young man turned loose on the world.

Tucker himself is an accomplished Hollywood film editor  who joined the U.S. Air Force at 19 and served in the Vietnam War at Korat Royal Thai AFB and Tan Son Nhut Air Base analyzing bombing and gun camera footage taken by cameras on U.S. aircraft. In his spare time, Tucker and another airman made a short film called The Hunter.

Here’s a summary of the plot of The Ballad of the Three Dollar Lover: Frank Jones serves four years as a film editor in the Air Force (as his creator did), including months at bases in Thailand and South Vietnam. After coming home, he goes to work in southern California making porn movies. While he’s at it, he has sex—lots of sex. We get many descriptions of the physical attributes of the women he has sex with, as well as descriptions of many sex acts.

While in the Air Force he learns filmmaking, focusing on editing. He’s taught that “every cut should show something new,” and “you’re telling a story with pictures.” He volunteers to serve in the Vietnam War to get off of Vandenberg Air Force Base. When he meets a young woman who tells him she is in the Peace Corps, he replies: “Really? I’m with the War Corps.”

He describes Bangkok as a city constantly emitting a “sickening smell of rotten garbage,” he’s quickly taken by Thai women, deciding he will “try them all.” He becomes aware of a popular saying, “You know anyone can be a great lover here for three dollars,” which inspired the book’s title. He is not ashamed to drive the price below that on occasion.

Once at his duty station at Tan Son Nhut he starts each day with a shot of Jim Beam in his coffee. His job is to review, and occasionally make prints of, film footage from bombing runs and other flights. The book includes details about film editing.

Jack Tucker

As for Jones’ thoughts about the Vietnam War, Tucker writes: “I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t hate this place, but I hated our being here. History and politics had conspired to place us at the wrong place, at the wrong time and on the wrong side.”

Jones’ adventures are told in a crude manner, as if Tucker were sharing them with his buddies at a bar after a few beers. I imagine this was intentional.

The book does include insights into what it was like to serve in a support unit during the Vietnam War. It has value as presenting one slice of the U.S. Air Force’s role in the Vietnam War.

–Bill McCloud

Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt

Gary D. Schmidt has written more than twenty books for young people and has won many awards, including a Newberry Honor Awards. His latest book, Just Like That (Clarion Books, 400 pp. $16.99, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle), will join his pantheon of noteworthy books written for young people, aged ten and up. The story will grab any middle school student’s attention (and any adult’s, for that matter) from the first paragraph.

I say this as a former middle school teacher and coach and a former Marine CH-46D helicopter crew chief. The story begins in the summer of 1968 with one of the protagonists watching an evening news report from Vietnam and witnessing the crash of a Ch-46A helicopter full of Marines. What a great way to start a conversation about the war in Vietnam and its effects on young people back home. Schmidt uses this literary device to introduce us to Meryl Lee Kowalski and the intense emotions she faces after the death of her best friend, Hodding Hoodhood (Schmidt’s protagonist in his book, The Wednesday Wars), in a bizarre car accident.

Loss and how we deal with it are woven masterfully into this story. Meryl Lee, like any adolescent, cannot seem to wrap her head around this senseless loss as she grieves. The loss leaves an emptiness inside her, an emptiness she refers to as her blank—always close by and always ready to consume her.

Meryl Lee’s parents decide that she needs a change of scenery and enroll her in a boarding school in Maine. If you Google “how stress affects adolescents,” you will find that the top three factors are losing a loved one, going through your parents’ divorce, and moving to a different school.

We are soon introduced to a second protagonist, Matt Coffin, a streetwise boy of middle school age who lives on his own in an old fishing shack on the Maine coast . As I read Just Like That, I kept seeing the young people I taught and coached in mddle school a hundred years ago. They somehow morphed into the young men I served with and flew with over the unfriendly skies of South Vietnam. Reading Schmidt’s novel brought a smile to my lips and the occasional tear to my eye.

The dexterous manner in which Schmidt draws all of his characters and the intense situations he creates for the main ones are part of his superlative ability to tell a story and draw the reader into it. He creates well-developed characters and that will always keep you reading.

This is a story that understands the human nature in all of us. It’s the intrinsic trust in the goodness of humanity that Schmidt exudes that makes you turn page after page in awesome wonder. Just Like That is an engaging story that will encourage students to turn to more classical literature such as The Grapes of Wrath and want to learn about important figures in history like Mary Queen of Scots and Spiro Agnew, known to the girls at St Elene’s as “Zipper” Agnew.

One warning: Just Like That is not a good book to pick up at bedtime because it will keep you reading all night long.

–Charles Templeton

The reviewer is the author of Boot: A Sorta Novel of Vietnam. His website is https://www.charlestempleton.com

A Bend in the River by Libby Fischer Hellmann

A Bend in the River (The Red Herrings Press, 406 pp. $17.99, paper; $6.99, e book) is a meaty, satisfying historical novel set during the Vietnam War by crime fiction writer Libby Fischer Hellmann.

The plot hinges on the aftermath of an incident in Vietnam in the spring of 1968. Two teenaged Vietnamese sisters helplessly see their family killed by American troops who then massacre the rest of the people in the village. The girls flee to Saigon, joining streams of refugees following the Tet Offensive heading to South Vietnam’s capital.

While living in a refugee camp they find jobs at a restaurant. The younger sister, Mai, finds work as a hostess in a Saigon lounge that caters to Americans. Tam goes off to join the female fighting forces of the Viet Cong known as the Long Hairs. Mai, fourteen, wears makeup to appear to be seventeen, having been told that is the “perfect” age for the business. She works at the Stardust Lounge, named after the Las Vegas hotel. It’s one of the few air-conditioned bars in the city.

Tam goes through a two-week training camp, then is encouraged to use her sister to collect information from loose-lipped Americans. But she refuses to involve the younger girl in that dangerous activity. After Tam kills a man in battle, she realizes she “could no longer accept that she was more principled than the enemy.”

We learn through Mai that many Vietnamese people in Saigon fearfully followed the first manned landing on the Moon, concerned that the gods were being tempted and might decide to punish people on Earth. Her VC sister, virtually unaware of such things, is busy recovering unexploded bombs, driving a supply truck, and exploring the tunnels of Cu Chi.

Whenever Tam is asked what village she’s from, she refuses to name it, simply saying it’s “not there anymore. The Americans destroyed it.”

As the war begins winding down the sisters are affected in serious but different ways. Though they are estranged we feel as though destiny may bring them back together. The story goes back and forth, a few chapters at a time, telling each girl’s story. It’s an efficient way of keeping the reader’s interest.

Libby Fischer Hellmann

Hellmann says she was driven to write this book because “Americans still see the war through a strictly American lens.” In an effort to learn more about the Vietnamese during the war, she read novels such as Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s The Mountains Sing, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

The results of that research are obvious in the book, but this story, and the telling of it, are strictly Hellmann’s own. Part popular fiction and part literary fiction, this deftly written book is well worth reading.

The author’s website is libbyhellmann.com

–Bill McCloud

Tour of Duty 1967: The Paymaster by Fred Herrin

Former U.S. Navy Seabee Fred Herrin’s Tour of Duty 1967: The Paymaster (332 pp. $14.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle), is a highly entertaining, fast-paced novel about the American war in Vietnam in 1967.

As a Marine, when I looked at the title, I thought, “Yikes! Someone has written a war story about how rough Navy disbursement clerks had it in Vietnam.” That made it difficult for me to open the book. But when I did, I found Tour of Duty 1967 to be a well-written and thoroughly engaging war story. I must admit, this old Marine (when I say “old,” I mean my seven-eighty- deuce gear was a short sword and a shield) was totally engaged in the intricate tale that Fred Herrin has written.

When I read the book’s description, I thought Herrrin used the same blurb writer that half the people writing books about the Vietnam War seem to have used. After reading Tour of Duty twice, though, I saw that the blurb was accurate—and an insightful survey of the novel: “This fast-paced story will take you to the jungles of ‘Nam whether you’ve been there or not. You will reel with the realization of what our young men endured. The daily shelling, the constant threat of attack, the fear and shock and noise, making even the silence deadly.”

Tour of Duty is a brilliantly written, almost lyrical, tale of fiction. Herrin has crafted a story of intrigue and espionage involving Russians, the CIA, the Vietnamese, and a payroll clerk. It is a fantastic story written with a sense of humor that involves a wit so dry it makes the Sahara Desert look like Central Park.

Fred Herrin in country in 1967

In one scene, for example, the CIA is trying to find an excuse to remove the protagonist, Brad Scott, from his duties for a few weeks and go on some undercover operations. The CIA agent (disguised as an ensign) tells Scott’s LT that he has been sent to the hospital ship Repose to recover from an accidental gunshot wound. When the lieutenant asks what happened, the CIA agent says, “Left testicle, it’s gone, sir.”

The lieutenant responds, “Not self-inflicted then?”

The witty dialogue hides the fact that you are often being led into a complex mental ambush.

Tour of Duty is a rollicking adventure told by someone who was there, and is a book that is pretty much impossible to stop reading. Fred Herrin writes prose of clarity and wit.

If you are looking for an entertaining read, look no further.

–Charles L. Templeton

Kurt Langer: Nemesis of Terror by Geoff Widders

Geoff Widders’ Kurt Langer: Nemesis of Terror (313 pp. $11.91, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction that tells the amazing story of Kurt Langer through the eyes of the main character, Jimmy Greer. Like old pulp novels, this book it tells a tale of a larger-than-life hero in an exaggerated manner.

As a reminder, Geoff Widders is the author, Kurt Langer the hero, and Jimmy Greer tells the story.

In 1968, Langer is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. For two years, he tries to stay sane by singing a Creedence Clearwater Revival song to himself that he remembers from basic training. A tiny bit of research reveals that that’s not possible, though, because that song was released in late 1970.

Langer frequently fantasizes about escaping. But each morning, Widders writes, he wakes up “from the world of nightmare into a nightmarish world.”

Finally, his chance to escape comes when a female VC falls for him. She realizes that something sets Langer apart from the other men. In a way, it was as if he is “other-worldly.” We learn that Langer becomes “a legend” the night he and the woman escape, then later directs an assault on the POW camp resulting in the release of all of his fellow captives.

We now move to 1976 and learn a little of narrator Jimmy Greer’s background, including how he wound up in Turkey where he met a beautiful older woman who reminds him of a Rider Haggard action-adventure-novel heroine. They hook up and then he is forced to go on the run with a different woman. That’s when he runs into the legendary Langer. After learning only that Langer had served in the Vietnam War, Greer thinks: “This guy may have killed tens or even hundreds of the enemy.”

Greer goes on to describe Langer as a man with “a classic thousand-yard stare,” the kind of guy who was “able to parachute, alone, into enemy territory” and “had seen events and had experiences that we should not see or feel.” Widders adds that Langer’s experiences in the war sent him “loop-de-loop.” On the other hand, he portrays Langer as the kind of guy who makes people braver just by being around him.

Geoff Widders

Moving again into the future we learn that Langer gets involved in a criminal act and is incarcerated for decades. Once he’s released, it’s just in time for him for the 74-year-old Vietnam vet to shut down a gigantic planned Islamic attack on San Francisco.

Once that was resolved, Widders writes, “The whole world came to know the name Kurt Langer.”

This is a pulp adventure with a larger-than-life hero and lots of exaggeration. When writing about a murder, for example, Widders mentions that there are “tens of thousands of homicides each year in California,” when, in fact, there’s only been one year that reached 4,000.

So, perhaps it’s best while reading this book to think of it as a story set in an alternate place and time. That way it works pretty well.

–Bill McCloud