In the Year of the Rabbit by Terence A. Harkin

Terrence A. Harkin’s new novel, In the Year of the Rabbit (Silkworm Books, 316 pp., paper ), is the sequel to his critically acclaimed The Big Buddha Bicycle Race, but Rabbit is a profound and compelling novel in its own right.

The story opens with Harkin’s Brendan Leary, an American cameraman and self-proclaimed pacifist, entering a hospital following the crash of his helicopter gunship in the jungles of Thailand at the height of the Vietnam War. Though Leary is in dire need of rest, Harkin—a member of Vietnam Veterans of America who served in a USAF photo unit at Ubon RTAB during the Vietnam War—pushes him straight into action in the form of an epic journey through Thailand and Laos alongside wise-cracking door gunner Harley Baker.

Together, Leary and Baker encounter college rock bands, North Vietnamese armed vehicles, and Buddhist monasteries. Though he tries to put the past behind him, Leary is haunted by the memory of his former girlfriend Tukada and the violence he has inflicted in the war. Ultimately, Leary chooses to remain in Asia and become a Buddhist monk.

Much of the novel’s interest comes from the unique relationship between Baker and Leary, which is at once loving and tense. The men view the world in ways that are fundamentally incompatible: Baker is, in his own words, “a gunner and a bomb leader” who likes combat and “that nasty feeling—those butterflies in my belly.” Leary is an introspective pacifist. Yet the men bond through their shared experiences in the war.

At times, both characters verge on clichéd embodiments of their philosophies. But their differences still made this reader ponder the nature of violence and nationalism. Also on the plus side, the book contains many moments of humor and lightness. Baker’s droll callousness is reminiscent of characters in the movie and TV series M.A.S.H. Not coincidentally, Harkin was a cameraman for that famed TV show, among many others.

At its heart, In the Year of the Rabbit is the story of a man’s journey to find peace in a chaotic and violent world. The thoughtfulness and careful prose of In the Year of the Rabbit make Terry Harkin’s second novel a thoroughly worthwhile read.

The author’s website is taharkin.net

–Meg Bywater

Warriors and Friends by Jim Hasse

Jim Hasse’s Warriors and Friends: Through the Eyes of His Alter-Ego, a Green Beret Unlocks Forbidden Memories of Vietnam on His Path to Healing (296 pp. $11.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is billed as a collection of 38 short stories. For the most part, though, it reads like a novel divided into 38 chapters. Hasse describes his book as a memoir written in the form of “creative non-fiction” because it’s a fictional retelling of events that really happened. Warriors and Friends is a really fine book, though, whether it’s a creative nonfiction, a novel or a group of short stories.

Hasse spent two years on the ground in Vietnam as a Green Beret sergeant. He later made a career in law enforcement. In the book Hasse’s alter ego is Jay Boone Hanson. In 1965 Hanson is in college listening to a stern professor challenging the males in class to consider what they’re going to do with their lives. What Hanson does is drop out of school and join the Army. The professor is the only person in the book to come across as a caricature. He is reminiscent of the schoolmaster, Kantorek, in All Quiet on the Western Front, who encourages his young students to join the German army.

I bonded early on with Hanson when he went through three months of training at Fort Gordon to become a Communication Center Specialist. I had that same training and, also like me, he would not work very long in that MOS. He makes an unsuccessful stab at Officer Candidate School and then goes through Special Forces training at Fort Bragg before arriving in Vietnam in January 1967.

“I believe I have always had the warrior spirit,” Hanson says, and he sees plenty of action in Vietnam in firefights, ambushes, and raucous nights back at the club. He’s issued large amounts of amphetamines to help him stay awake in the field and serves with a Sergeant First Class who, when in the rear, begins some of his mornings with two double Scotches mixed with buttermilk.

Hanson encounters a Vietnamese orphanage, Montagnard tribesmen, and an atrocity is committed by an American. Many people we read about in the book end up being killed. “The constant presence of death,” Hanson says, “stunned me into appreciating life.”

Once he’s home in Illinois out of the Army and dealing with ex-wives and PTSD, Hanson takes comfort in a companion dog while taking part in therapy groups for war veterans and finding a creative outlet in a veteran writers group.

Hanson says he was “devastated” when he “had to leave combat, Vietnam, and the military.” Later he recalls: “In the past fifty-two years I have thought of Vietnam every day, many times a day, and I am back there again on nights too numerous to count.”

Jim Hasse does a great job telling this story in a way that keeps the reader engaged. Now that I think about it, the idea of making the book’s chapters into short stories works.

–Bill McCloud

Another Kind of Eden by James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke, the creator of my favorite fictional Nam vet lawman, Dave Robicheaux, is one of the best yarn spinners around. And one of the most prolific.

Starting with 1987’s Neon Rain, he’s churned out 23 top-notch Robicheaux detective/thrillers starring the morally upright but troubled Cajun sheriff’s deputy—along with two short story collections and 16 other novels, including nine in the Holland Family series.

Burke’s just-published Another Kind of Eden (Simon & Schuster, 245 pp., $27), is the ninth Holland family saga. This one centers on Aaron Holland Broussard, (semi spoiler alert) a veteran of the Korean War who—like Dave Robicheaux—is a good man plagued by mental demons sparked by what he experienced in a vicious shooting war.

Aaron, an aspiring novelist, is not a lawman, though. He’s is a drifter with secrets, a well-educated aspiring writer battling post-traumatic stress disorder. Although he doesn’t carry a badge, Aaron has a Robicheaux-like soft spot for life’s disadvantaged people, especially those who’ve been victimized by powerful evil doers. He also emulates Dave (and his partner in fighting crime and in committing misdemeanors) former Vietnam War Marine Clete Purcell, in that he has been known to get physically tough with life’s dirtbags.

Another Kind of Eden is set in rural Colorado in the early 1960s. It begins when Aaron hops off a boxcar and finds a job on a big family farm. He soon runs into a gaggle of strange, evil characters and a troubled young woman with whom he gets romantically involved. As is the case with more than a few Burke novels, this one also contains a mystical element, and much violent mayhem.

As always, James Lee Burke brings to life both physical landscapes and the inner workings of his characters’ minds. He also keeps you glued to the pages with a fast-reading, plot-twisting thriller. Next up—I hope—is the 24th Dave Robicheaux.

–Marc Leepson

Truth Is in the House by Michael J. Coffino

Michael Coffino’s new book, Truth Is in the House: A Novel Inspired by Actual Events (Koehler Books, 364 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $7.49, Kindle), considers the important effects that geography and environment have on the development of an individual’s personality. In this case, he focuses on the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City in the 1960s and the jungles of Vietnam during the war. Coffino grew up in the Bronx, and served in the U.S. Army in 1968-70.

The two main characters are Jimmy O’Farrell and Jaylen Jackson. O’Farrell is an only child. His  parents emigrated to the U.S. in 1957 from Ireland and they live in New York City. Jackson is an African American living with his brother and parents in segregated Dublin, Mississippi, where his family, Coffino writes, has to “navigate the mine-laden fields of Jim Crow terrain.”

In separate violent physical incidents O’Farrell is the victim of a gang-related attack and Jackson’s brother suffers an injury in a racially motivated assault. After a few other racial incidents, Jackson’s father goes missing and his mother takes her two sons out of the South and into New York City.

By 1965, as the Vietnam War escalates, Jimmy and Jaylen are finding success playing basketball at separate schools. The two meet on a playground basketball court, but then go their separate ways.

O’Farrell drops out of college and is quickly drafted. When he reports for induction, he ends up being inducted as a draftee into the Marine Corps. At about that same time Jackson enlists in the Marine, and their time at Parris Island overlaps. They both end up in South Vietnam in the fall of 1967.

Michael Coffino

At first, it was jarring to read about Jimmy and Jalen being in high school, then on almost the next page, in basic training, and then fighting in Vietnam. But, I really liked about how Coffino handled those transitions, as that’s pretty much how fast things seemed to move at the time.

Another thing I really liked was how Coffino made the military experiences of the two young men only about ten percent of the book. The rest sketches their lives before the war and the afterward.

What they experienced and learned in the military and in the Vietnam War stays with Jimmy and Jalen the rest of their lives, and giving plenty of space to their post-war lives works well in the depiction of the over-all lives of these men.

One of the book’s themes is learning to develop a strong moral code. As a result we see characters in Vietnam reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.

Truth Is in the House is a great look at two young men growing into, and then out of, their military experiences and at the effects they have on their neighborhoods—and their neighborhoods continue to have on them.

The author’s website is https://michaelcoffino.com

—Bill McCloud

Shadows of Saigon by Mark R. Anderson

Mark R. Anderson’s Shadows of Saigon (Old Stone Press, 285 pp. $16.95, paper; $7.99, e book), tells a story that more and more of us can relate to. It deals with an aging Vietnam War veteran looking back on his life and realizing the significance that his war experiences continued to play long after the fighting ended. Anderson served in the U.S. Navy Reserves and wrote this book to honor his father and uncle who both served in the war.

Grady Cordeaux, 68, is a Louisiana farmer who lives alone and has no family. R.C. Carter, 72, is his neighbor and also is a Vietnam veteran. Unlike Grady, R.C. is happily married and has been for several decades. R.C. says the two of them went to war as young men but were old when they came home. “Their rural farm upbringing shaped Grady and R.C. into the men they became,” Anderson writes, “but while they were still teenagers, they also experienced the trauma of war, which changed them forever.”

With no warning, Grady suffers an apparently severe heart attack. His first thought is about who will take care of his dog. He arrives at a hospital and the testing and treatments begin with R.C. frequently at his bedside. As he lies in bed with a newfound sense of mortality, Grady begins to think back on his life.

His memories from high school days include being a hero on the football field, falling in love, and having just enough run-ins with the law to be given a choice by a judge between jail and military service. June 1970 when he arrived at Fort Bragg in North Carolina for basic training was his first time outside Louisiana. Anderson portrays Grady’s time in basic more like something you’d see in a movie about Marine Corps boot camp rather than what it was like on an Army training base in 1970. It’s unlikely Army D.I.s would have yelled in the faces of trainees on the first day, calling them “sorry scrotum sack of pus monkeys” and “worse than dick cheese.”

Within days of arriving in the Mekong Delta Grady was moving through swamps and rice paddies and survived his first firefight. Grady planned to stay faithful to his girlfriend, even though he met a beautiful Vietnamese woman in Saigon (see the book’s cover). We read several letters he received from home. Over time those letters began telling the story of a nation turning more and more against the war.

.Anderson does a good job weaving Grady’s story through the times he’s fading in and out of consciousness in the hospital bed. When you intentionally bring back memories of the past, you often encounter issues that have yet to be resolved. For Grady—and for many of the rest of us—the time for dealing with those issues is beginning to run out.

–Bill McCloud

Come Now the Angels by Susan Kummernes

Come Now the Angels: Five Marines in Vietnam: A Woman’s Story of Love, Death, War, & Hope (A Seat at the Table Publishing, 353 pp. $14.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle) the debut novel of Florida author Susan Kummernes, centers on a U.S. Marine Corps gun team stationed in Con Thien near the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam in 1967.

Their charismatic gunner, Jesse McGowan, an all-American boy from Maryland, is based on the author’s own first love, who was killed in Vietnam. Fighting alongside him are Mike Redd, an African American from Georgia; Chingas Ramirez, a Mexican American from New York City; Angel Santiago, a Cuban immigrant who settled in Chicago; and John Beau Parker from Florida. Though from diverse backgrounds, the men are forever bonded by their shared experiences in the war.

In between the chapters about the Marines are those detailing the memories of Annie Miller, Jesse’s childhood sweetheart-turned-Washington Post reporter—and a fictional stand-in for Kummernes herself. While on a trip to New Orleans in 2006, Annie encounters a group of Vietnamese Americans protesting the city’s decision to dump the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina in their neighborhood. She meets Lucky Dai, whom she learns is the daughter of Mike Redd and his wife, a Vietnamese nurse named nicknamed Tweet.

Susan Kummernes wrote and researched Come Now the Angels for twelve years, a dedication that shows in the accuracy of the battle scenes and the impressive detail of the 1960s settings. That Kummernes drew from her own experience as well as from outside sources is evident in the level of personal care she shows for her characters and their stories.

The novel’s strengths are somewhat overshadowed by bits of contrived dialogue and Kummernes’ tendency to over explain the social and political context of the story (at one point, Jesse talks so pedantically about the Domino Theory that even the other characters get annoyed). That said, Come Now the Angels is a poignant and compelling novel and would be an excellent choice for anyone interested in the social and emotional effects of the Vietnam War on generations of Americans.

This may be Kummernes last novel. When asked recently by the book and author website Pretty-Hot.com what was next for her, she responded, “As a writer? Nothing.”

Kummernes is donating all proceeds from book sales to Vietnam Veterans of America. Her website is susankummernes.com

–Meg Bywater

Chariots in the Sky by Larry A. Freeland

Larry Freeland’s Chariots in the Sky: A Story About U.S. Assault Helicopter Pilots at War in Vietnam (Publish Authority, 342 pp. $16.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a riveting novel of air combat action during Lam Son 719, one of the last big American combat operations of the Vietnam War, which took place in February and March 1971. Freeland served a tour during the war with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division as an infantry officer and CH-47 helicopter pilot.

The story begins with a bang as Capt. Taylor St. James is piloting a Huey helicopter inserting ARVN troops into a new base camp just across the border in Laos. They soon run into enemy fire from the ground. Someone later remarks, “You have to have balls of steel to do that kind of flying.”

The purpose of Lam Son 719 was to stop the flow of NVA troops and supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam, through Laos, and into South Vietnam. The job of the U.S. military was to provide air support for the ARVN forces. It would be the first real test of the President Nixon’s Vietnamization program.

St. James has left behind his wife, Sandy, a high school teacher whose first husband was killed in the war. They exchange letters in the form of recorded tapes. He sugar coats his, but makes daily entries in a journal that detail what’s really going on.

Aside from enemy attacks, we learn that the main categories of helicopter mishaps are bad weather, mechanical trouble, and human error. The story contains examples of at least three of these.

St. James’ company is located at Phu Bai and he’s frequently given the task of breaking in new pilots. As the missions begin going deeper into Laos, the losses of men and aircraft increase. The story also mentions Operation Ranch Hand, the use of the highly toxic Agent Orange defoliant. St. James also witnesses a few Arc Light missions involving concentrated bombing.

Helicopters are constantly being hit by ground fire and men inside wounded or killed. Bullets rip through his helicopter so often that St. James say it’s a “familiar sound.” Helicopters also keep crashing and making crash landings. He calls struggling with the controls to keep from losing his ship “like riding a mechanical bull at a Texas Roadhouse.”

On the ground there are dangers from rocket attacks, a typhoon, enemy sappers breaking through the wire, and the NVA moving south of the DMZ.

St. James writes to his wife, “You fight everything. The heat. The humidity. The bugs. The filth. The boredom. And the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Hell, some of us even fight each other. And for what? Why? I can’t figure it out. I may never understand it.”

In Chariots in the Sky Larry Freeland has written a great book about men who control their fears and fly into action knowing they need to be prepared to handle whatever happens.

Freeland’s website is larryfreeland.com

–Bill McCloud

Inhuman by Eric Leland

Inhuman (RTNY Publishing, 571 pp. $13.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) by Eric Leland, is a military action/adventure and a horror novel. It should find fans in both genres. During his time in the Army after the Vietnam War Leland saw duty as an MP before becoming a Special Agent with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division.

His book starts with a very exciting Prologue, and then we meet a young Vietnamese girl and her grandmother who live in the northern part of the country close to China. We quickly learn that the people in their village have been guarding an evil secret for hundreds of years and it appears that the two women have special powers, including the ability to craft dreams in other people. The girl, Jara, also can apparently understand other people’s memories and dreams.

It’s 1969 and a CIA program assigns inexperienced captains to Special Forces units to keep the enlisted men honest and to make sure they undertake their missions using CIA-approved methods. The program is not received very well by senior NCOs, and the Americans frequently butt heads with each other while fighting North Vietnamese troops—and supernatural evil forces. When the men go into the field they wear unmarked uniforms, carry suicide pills, and do not have to follow any rules of engagement. One soldier says he’s excited about the concept of being able to “break things and hurt people.”

Recon Team Florida has gone missing and Recon Team New York is sent to find them. They encounter a village where more than a dozen Vietnamese civilians were killed while apparently trying to escape from something that had terrified them. They find claw marks indicating that some of the dead had tried to climb trees. There’s also a rope bridge, a hand-dug cave, and a deep pit.

On what the author describes as a “piss-colored morning,” the unit encounters Jara, who is wearing a mysterious vial around her neck and wielding a large sword. Then comes a storm of helicopter crashes, friendly fire, and a man who “mouse-trap snapped.” Afterward, one of the men, when asked if he is okay, replies, “I’ll be fine. I just need to forget everything that happened in the last five minutes.”

Before long, the members of recon Team New York are running for their lives. Extraction by air seems impossible, and they can’t safely cross the border into China. So they decide to fight their way out.

Eric Leland

The book is filled with evocative writing such as : “Dark clouds reached up over the mountains and strangled out the fading light”; “The jungle greedily absorbed the morning coolness;” and the men enjoying the “blue quiet” until “the light came screaming into the valley.”

Despite a couple of places where the writing seemed unintentionally humorous, I came away from reading Inhuman with the idea that there may have been many people who lost their souls while serving in Vietnam during the war.

This is a great work of military action combined with horror; Leland seems to be well-versed in writing about both.

–Bill McCloud

Never Forget by Andy Adkins

Never Forget: A Veteran’s Journey for Redemption & Forgiveness (282 pp. $9.95, paper; $1.99, Kindle) is a novel about how discussions about a war that led to dividing a family may later be the very thing that brings them back together. The author, Andy Adkins, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served in the U.S. Navy from 1973-77.

The book opens in 2001 and we find Tom Reilly, a single dad, in a troubled relationship with his son. Worse, he’s also estranged from his father; they have not spoken in decades. Then Riley gets a phone call from a retirement community, saying they need to speak to him about his father’s care now that he’s been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s. The two had had a big falling out over the war in Vietnam.

Tom often chain-smokes and sometimes smokes in public places even though he knows he shouldn’t. He drives a ’67 GTO and his favorite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival, although he has to listen to them on an Oldies radio station. He’s not a reader and doesn’t know anything about computers or the Internet—and is not bothered by any of that.

He’s not sure if he even wants to reconnect with his father, but he drives to the facility. To his surprise, the two seem to hit it off pretty well and he decides to begin making regular visits. Father and son start communicating again, but avoid talking about their fallout.

Reilly begins taking his son, encouraging him to meet the grandfather he has never known. A man who has never spoken about his World War II infantry experiences. Not coincidently, Tom Reilly has never talked to his son about his infantry experiences in Vietnam. But the fact that both men served in a war seems to have a positive effect on the old man’s memory.

He says: “I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I can tell you what I ate on Christmas Day, 1944.”

Andy Adkins

The grandson decides to do school projects based on interviewing the two older men. Over time, Tom Reilly finds himself being drawn closer to both his father and his son. While the two men visit the boy learns about how different their personal wartime experiences were—and the many ways the two wars were different from each other.

Andy Adkins has created a “small world” novel in which Tom Reilly encounters several Vietnam War veterans, including a man who is a part-time preacher and a healthcare worker, as well as the son of one of his father’s friends, and the former husband of another healthcare professional.

In addition, the boy’s history teacher is a Vietnam vet, and a prominent attorney in the story lost his son in the war. At the very least, these different voices provide more perspectives on the war.  

Adkins pulls these parts together in a manner that is ultimately satisfying. This book should be shared by members of different generations who have an interest in learning about the Vietnam War and its continuing effects on those who were involved.

–Bill McCloud

Andy Adkins is offering his book free of charge to all veterans and their families via a downloadable PDF or an eBook on his website, https://www.azadkinsiii.com/book_never.html

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