The Rains on Tan Son Nhat by Christopher McCain-Nguyen

Christopher McCain-Nguyen was born in Vietnam and came to America as a student in 1966. He settled in the U.S. where he became a successful businessman. His debut novel, The Rains on Tan Son Nhat (469 pp., $16.99, paper; $2.40, Kindle), gestated for 25 years before it was published in 2021. He partially dedicates the book to “all the fighting men of the Republic of South Vietnam” and “members of the U.S. Armed Forces who sacrificed so much in the Vietnam War.”

Main character James Saito lives on a California farm with his wife and daughter from his first wife, Mai, who was left behind in the turmoil of the American evacuation from South Vietnam in 1975. The story flashes back to when Maj. Saito, an intelligence officer, arrives in Saigon in 1966. He meets the beautiful Mai the first day and falls head over heels for her. 

Mai was adopted by a doctor who supported the Thieu government. He was not exactly thrilled when an American asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage, especially since Mai had been betrothed to Chung, a future doctor. Chung soon leaves to join the National Liberation Front as a doctor. The lives of these three people will be affected by the events in the war from 1967-75—and beyond.

This novel is not based on a true story, although McCain-Nguyen weaves facts (and opinions) about the war into the narrative. It’s a romance novel, but one that also has strong descriptions of the events that led to the fall of South Vietnam.

There are stretches of the book during which the main characters disappear and the book becomes basically a tutorial on the war. There is a good section on the Tet Offensive and a vivid description of the collapse in 1975. The story includes a rare glimpse of VC fighters living in the jungle.

Americans tend to stop reading about the war when it gets to 1973 and the withdrawal of the last U.S. combat troops, but the war buffets Mai and her friends and family after that. McCain-Nguyen forcefully condemns the U.S. for abandoning South Vietnam and has Chung muse about fighting for the wrong side.

He also explores the role of destiny in life. Mai stays in Saigon because it is her destiny, an Asian concept that puzzles James. Before the flashback kicks in, we learn that James is returning to Vietnam to see Mai before she dies of cancer. 

That was the biggest problem I had with the book. I appreciate an author wanting to be creative, but giving away the ending before the love story kicks in was a poor decision. It reduced the suspense. Also, the love triangle provides little tension because Chung is out of the competition early.

Although McCain-Nguyen put his heart and soul into the book and meant for it to enlighten as well as entertain, it is poorly edited and contains spelling and grammar problems. Reading it can be a bit distracting. 

If romance novels are not your cup of tea, you might enjoy this book because of its heavy dose of Vietnam War history. Perhaps too much, though, as the novel is long and the characters sometimes get overlooked in the long timeframe.

–Kevin Hardy

High Rise by Lynn Underwood

High Rise (High Tide Publications, 133 pp. $13.99, paper) is a short novel dealing with a mysterious death at a construction site and the investigations that follows. Interestingly, we read on the first page that there is foul play and we also know who is responsible for it. So Lynn Underwood centers his tory on attempts to bring the perpetrator to justice.

Underwood is a Vietnam War veteran who served with the First Marine Division as a radio operator and forward observer. High Rise is his second novel, following The First Stone, and it comes out of decades of experience Underwood has as a building inspector.

The story begins with a building inspector falling to his death from a scaffold on the 23rd floor of a proposed 38-story high-rise project in Norfolk, Virginia. We know from the back cover that he was pushed by the building engineer, Lawrence Newton. The inspector had been accepting bribes from Newton for signing-off on questionable cost-cutting measures during construction. The builders are hoping to shave $10 million off the cost. Apparently, the dead man asked for money once too often.

The construction company had never had an on-site fatality in its forty-year history. Officials want to clear the company’s name while the city mounts an investigation.

We end up dealing with a “shadow government,” secret relationships, leaks to a newspaper, racial tensions, hired killers, silent partners, clandestine meetings, assassination attempts, and more. That’s quite a bit for 133 pages.

One of the characters had been unable to watch the first manned moon landing in 1969 because he was serving in the Vietnam War. The war gets another mention in the book when Underwood observes:  “History records that the modern-day SWAT Teams based their entry tactics on the Marine Corps house-to-house fighting at Hue City in 1968.”

You might want to wear a hard hat while reading this one, just for safety purposes.

The author’s website is lynnunderwoodauthor.com

–Bill McCloud

What a Trip by Susen Edwards

What a Trip (She Writes Press, 424 pp. $17.95, paper; $9.49, Kindle) by Susen Edwards is a coming-of-age novel set during the Vietnam War. Edwards is the author of a young adult novel; this is her first fictional offering for older adults.  

The story is set in the late 1960s and centers on red-haired Fiona, who is just one year out of high school. She and her best friend Melissa are “smitten with Janis Joplin,” drink Southern Comfort, and smoke cigarettes and pot.

Melissa believes in black magic and thinks her pregnancy was caused by a spell a girl put on her so her boyfriend would break up with her. Meanwhile, Fiona breaks up with her boyfriend and wishes she had “a writer boyfriend who adored her.”

Fiona lives on the East Coast and is in her first year of college. She’s concerned that her new boyfriend Jack might bea more pro-military than she is. On the other hand, she says that he’s “great in the sack.” Then she meets Mike, who tells Fiona: “You’re one far-out chick,” and brings her antiwar thinking into sharper focus.

The two girls get Tarot readings, leading them to buy their own decks and start giving readings. At a party Fiona meets a guy just back from Vietnam. She and Jack break up and she hooks up with Reuben, who wants to be a writer. In typical sixties drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll fashion, it doesn’t take long for these young women to move from one man to another.

Reuben opposes the war in Vietnam and he and Fiona take part in big antiwar demonstrations. Reuben becomes more and more certain that when the time comes he will slip into Canada instead of reporting for military service. He expects Fiona to go with him.

The novel takes place during a time when popular music played an especially important part in the lives of young people. At the back of the book Edwards includes a playlist of songs she mentions in the story—tunes by Joan Baez, Country Joe and the Fish, the Rolling Stones, and others.

What a Trip seems to be aimed at a female readership. It’s deserving of an audience of people who want to know more about what it was like to come of age in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, AKA “The Sixties.”  

–Bill McCloud

Back in the Day by Steve Heuton

Back in the Day (Dorrance Publishing, 220 pp. $18, paper) is a coming-of-age novel set during the Vietnam War. It covers high school, the draft, the war, bar fights, and run-ins with the law. Heuton served in Vietnam in 1970 with the U.S. Army.  

It’s the late 1960s and Jimmy Reno is a high school student. The story begins a tad uncomfortably as Jimmy notices his younger sister’s “butt wiggle” as she runs, grins, and observers, “Little sister was growing up.” Before long Jimmy and his pal Stan go out looking for girls who “put out.” Jimmy is 17 and occasionally gets grounded. He has typical girlfriend problems.

Jimmy also is the center for the football team. One of the stars is John Milner, which I remembered is the name of the cool, car-racing fifties guy in American Graffiti. After they graduate from high school, Stan joins the Marines and Jimmy winds up in the Amy. His girlfriend Angie goes off to college.

Jimmy reports to Fort Lewis for eight weeks of Basic Training at the book’s half-way point. Then we follow him through eight more weeks of Advanced Individual Training. Next stop: Vietnam.

“It was hot, humid and it stank,” he says upon arriving in-country. “I could hardly breathe the first couple of days. What a shit hole!”

Arriving at his assigned unit, Jimmy learns that he is the new weapons man. His main job is to repair broken weapons. After seeing some early action, he thinks he’ll never see his girlfriend again.

Heuton is a fine writer and his story goes racing along. In the end, though, it winds up being nothing more than light entertainment. No harm, no foul.

–Bill McCloud

Girl from the Racetrack by Robert Brundrett

Robert Brundrett enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1969. He was sent to South Vietnam, where he served as an adviser to the South Vietnamese Navy. He spent time at river and coastal-support bases and worked for the Navy Construction Bureau in Saigon.

Those experiences inspired his novel, Girl from the Racetrack (Orange Frazier Press, 254 pp. $22.95, paper).Joe Savage, who roomed with main character Charlie Strickland in college, tells the story of his buddy’s romance with a South Vietnamese woman after the men are reunited in South Vietnam in 1972.

Charlie, whose job is working with the South Vietnamese Navy on a design for a swift river craft, grew up with a love for horses, especially race horses. In Saigon, he goes to Phu Tho Race Track to take in the action. That’s where he meets a jockey named Kim and her trainer and father, Binh.

Charlie is invited to visit the family on their horse farm. Romance is in the air immediately, but first the bond must winds up being forged in adversity as Charlie and Kim get a friend out of jail and barely survive a mortar attack. Later, they hide in a barn during the NVA’s Easter Offensive. Their escape involves horses, naturally. The romance proceeds fairly smoothly, but there are snags below the calm surface. After all, this is a fictional romance.

Part of the intrigue is Kim’s brother Bao, who may be a Viet Cong operative, and Charlie may be spying on him. There’s also Charlie questioning what we are doing in Vietnam and wondering if South Vietnam wouldn’t be better off reunited. Although he doesn’t let his misgivings affect his relations with Kim’s family, an Ugly American character—Charlies’ racist superior—believes that the Vietnamese people are inferior and not worth the effort.

I assume this story of Charlie and Kim was either inspired by a romance that the author was involved in or that he knew the couple. Building on that, this is a rare time when I would have wished for a true story to be more enhanced for entertainment purposes.

I review a lot of war movies, some based on true stories. Usually, those movies are not good history lessons because they stray too far from their source material. In this case, I wish Brundrett had jazzed the story up a bit. The plot teases some espionage, but doesn’t deliver.

Aside from a couple of danger-filled moments, Charlie and Kim’s romance goes pretty smoothly. The greatest hurdle the couple have is navigating the red tape necessary to get Kim to America.

The war is on the periphery in this book; it seldom takes center stage. Charlie’s job is far from the jungle. Which makes Girl from the Racetrack an unchallenging story set in a war. But Brundrett is a competent writer, and if you are a romantic and don’t want death to seep into your novel reading, you might like this book.

–Kevin Hardy

Last Summer Boys by Bill Rivers

Last Summer Boys (Lake Union Publishing, 285 pp. $14.95, paper; $1.99, Kindle) is a novel by Bill Rivers. An outstanding student, Rivers went into public service after college. He worked in the Senate and then was a speechwriter for former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. A prized memento from his childhood, a part from a crashed jet he found, is the genesis for this book about four boys in the summer of 1968.

The story takes place in rural Pennsylvania. The Eliot family lives in a two-hundred-year-old house. Pete is the oldest of three boys. Will is the middle child, and the youngest is Jack, the who is focus of the story, as we see that fateful summer through his eyes. 

The brothers are joined by their bright cousin Frankie because the big city he lives in is being roiled by the aftermath of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Part of the novel involves introducing the city boy to life in the country. Frankie is game and bonds especially with Jack. 

In 1968 Jack knows from watching the nightly news that South Vietnam has become a dangerous place. Pete is going to turn 18 on the 4th of July and Jack has nightmares about his brother being in the “murderous jungles.” He gets it in his head that if his brother becomes famous, he can’t be drafted. So Jack decides that Pete should find the wreck of a jet fighter that went down in the area.

All the boys go on the quest. Besides this adventure, the book describes other incidents in a summer to remember. They tangle with a motorcycle gang. They go to a drive-in movie where Will impresses the local beauty. A camping trip becomes perilous. They go to a cemetery one spooky night.

The book contains a lot of nostalgia for Baby Boomers. Hell, the boys even catch fireflies. A fire that threatens their home. It’s not the only example of the role Mother Nature plays in the story.

Bill Rivers

I use the word “nostalgia” because it best describes the book, not just because the boys have adventures that many will be able to relate to. If you grew up in the suburbs or the country in the 1950 and 60s, chances are you will be able to relate to at least one of the incidents. If you are a Boomer or older, you will smile at all the things the boys do that the later generations’ parents would have heart attacks over. 

Nostalgia also covers some of the characters as Rivers includes stereotypes like a greedy land developer, a motorcycle gang leader, and a creepy boy who likes to start fires. All the characters are so well-drawn, though, that you won’t cringe over any of them. The adventures are also familiar, but the results are often unpredictable.

Rivers is a polished writer. He had me from page one when he described a man’s temper as “like coals glowing in the hearth late at night.” The book is full of such deft analogies. The exposition connecting the adventures fleshes out the characters and keeps the book flowing at a brisk pace. 

The boys manage to cram in a lot in one summer. The book reads like a series of short stories, all of which are interesting.  

The book’s website is lastsummerboys.com

–Kevin Hardy

Chinatown by Thuận

Chinatown (New Directions, 184 pp. $16.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by the acclaimed Vietnamese novelist Thuận (translated by Nguyen An Ly) is a compact story that encompasses worlds of time. This post-post-modern story is written in one continuous paragraph with no breaks of any kind, emphasizing that it’s a collection of words packed between two covers.

Chinatown is a breathless stream-of-consciousness story that speeds along although the narrator remains sitting in one place as we become aware of her thoughts. Thuận (Đoàn Ánh Thuận) was born in Hanoi in 1967 during the height of the American war, and lives in Paris. This is her twelfth novel and the first to be translated into English. She is a recipient of the Writers’ Union Prize, the highest award in Vietnamese literature.

The story begins with a Paris Metro train stopped at a small station sometime in the early 2000s. An abandoned duffel bag is found that could be a bomb and has brought all movement to a halt.

A middle-aged Vietnamese woman on the train begins to think back on her life. She recalls a past love, Thuy, who remains a constant memory. He was her friend during their early school years. Born in Vietnam, his “slanted eyes” and Chinese ethnicity made him an outcast in school and the village.

Although the two became close, her parents never mentioned his name during her three years of high school and five years at university in Russia. They were married for a short time and had a son. They’ve been apart for twelve years. He works as an architect in the Cholon section of Saigon, known as Chinatown.

Thuận

As her thoughts bounce around, the narrator realizes how stressful her life has become in France. She teaches at a secondary school in a Paris suburb and speaks French with a jumbled accent. Aside from memories of her past love, she ponders a son and a male friend she refers to as “the guy.” But Thuy is always on her mind. While her greatest fear is that she will never see him again, she also thinks she “can’t imagine” meeting him again.

Her thoughts stray to her hairdresser and how to cook a snake. She also inserts short sections of what may become a chapter in a novel she’s writing. She occasionally recalls memories of a dreamed-of future.

There are frequent repetitions of a single thought, both within a page and from one page to another. My first look at this book, with its unbroken pages of text, led me to fear it might be difficult to read. It turns out I shouldn’t have been concerned because the lack of chapters and other page breaks led naturally to a nonstop reading experience, and the book flows as the story unfolds.

Chinatown is an interesting story told in a most interesting way.

–Bill McCloud

Her Father’s Land by Jeff Kelly

Jeff Kelly served a tour of duty in the Vietnam War in 1968 with the U.S. Marine Corps and wrote about it a 2001 memoir, DMZ Diary. Kelly has now produced a novel, Her Father’s Land (Booklocker.com, 418 pp., $22.02, paper; $2.99,Kindle), which is inspired by his experiences in Vietnam.

He served at a fire base built on the site of a razed hamlet. The gravestones caused him to wonder what it must have been like for the villagers to abandon their homes there, along with the graves of their ancestors. So Kelly has set Her Father’s Land at Fire Base Alpha-3, the closest American base to the DMZ, and interweaves the stories of U.S. Marine, North Vietnamese Army, and Viet Cong characters into the novel.

With Alpha-3 within range of North Vietnamese artillery, the new battalion commander, Col. Favors, is not thrilled about being a sitting target. He feels Marines are best used in an aggressive manner. One of his best men is Lance Cpl. Tim “Monk” Montgomery.

An NVA officer named Huang Van Nhu is in charge of operations against Alpha-3. He and the main character, a female Viet Cong cadre named Tran Xuan Ha, are a couple. Ha goes undercover to get information from an incompetent, cowardly Marine lieutenant named Jones who uses connections (his uncle, a U.S. Senator) to transfer to USAID. 

Getting himself out of Alpha-3 gives Jones chance to go after the beautiful Ha and—like most lotharios—he thinks she really digs him. To get her in bed, he’s soon blabbing secrets that get Marines killed.

The love triangle of Nhu, Ha, and Jones is the core relationship in the book. The second half follows the trio as Ha and Nhu attempt to get the kidnapped Jones to the North so he can be used as a political pawn. Meanwhile, battles rage around Alpha-3.

Kelly tries to avoid the flag waving in many Vietnam War novels and movies by being evenhanded. Since he limits himself to a few main characters, he is able to develop them well. Jones comes off as a stereotypical ugly American, but the others are all good examples of combatants sincere in their dedication to their side. Favors and Nhu are worthy adversaries and anyone would want Monk or Ha in their squad. 

Jeff Kelly

Kelly writes well with few flourishes. This is not a romance novel. He walked the walk so he is able to get into the heads of his Marine characters. Monk, for example, processes a buddy’s death in less than a minute. He goes from shock to acceptance, eliminating the denial and grief phases, “a skill they all mastered well,” as Kelly puts it.

He goes on to describe combat and weapons like someone who has seen the elephant. The noise from an AC-47 Spooky, Kelly writes, is like “a wail of banshees, a choir of tortured souls, a technological song of megadeath.” On the other hand, Kelly’s choice of not dumbing things down might cause not well-versed in Vietnam War military lingo to have Google handy.

Jeff Kelly has seemingly read Vietnamese memoirs because Nhu and Ha are not stick figures. You won’t root against them. I hope.

The main theme of the novel is that the war was a conflict of American technology and firepower versus the enemy’s zeal—an elephant trying to kill a mouse with a sledgehammer.    

–Kevin Hardy

Heart Shots by Bob Lantrip

Heart Shots: A Vietnam War Veteran’s Troubled Heart (Friesen Press, 156 pp. $27.22, hardcover; $15.49, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Bob Lantrip is a short novel about a young Marine’s experiences in Vietnam and how he deals with the effects of PTSD after coming home from the war. Lantrip, who holds a retired Chiropractor, served as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War.

In the novel, main character Damon Lee Lane joins the Marine Corps because he likes the uniform. Graduating from his training in San Diego he knows he is joining “a brotherhood that would last a lifetime.” After Boot Camp at Camp Pendleton he finds himself thinking that “the most fun part of preparing for war was that the Marines were taught how to blow up stuff.”

His thinking sobers up as he finds himself developing “the mindset of surviving Vietnam.” Pondering the question of how one really prepares for war, he decides that “perhaps the best way to survive a war was to have a reason to.”  With that in mind, Damon gets married a few weeks before he leaves for Vietnam.

He arrives in Da Nang at the end of 1969 and is sent to Chu Lai. He engages in a great deal of combat action during his first few days with men wounded and killed all around him.

We read of air strikes being carried out by “angels from heaven.” There are times when orders are given to burn all the structures in Vietnamese villages. There are poisonous centipedes and attacks by the near-mythical rock apes who throw huge rocks at the Marines from the jungle trees before swinging away to safety.

One of the book’s heroic characters, squad leader Wild Wit, serves two tours in heavy combat, then returns home, as many others did, with “No Purple Heart, no Medal of Honor—just the pride within that he had done his job. One day he was there, then gone the next.” Damon returns only to spend the rest of his life dealing with PTSD and survivor’s guilt.

Along with an interesting story, Heart Shots includes information aimed at helping those who still carry emotional scars from the war. Heart Shots is a useful PTSD handbook with a religious emphasis.

–Bill McCloud

The Immaculate Inception by Mike Sutton

The Immaculate Infection (War Zone Press, 354 pp. $53.95, hardcover; $25.99, paper; $10.99, Kindle) is VVA member Mike Sutton’s fourth novel. At age 18, Sutton was given the choice by a judge of prison or the Army. He chose the Army and served three tours in Vietnam between 1964 and 1970. 

After his discharge, Sutton graduated from college and went to work for IBM. He was a success, but was miserable. His life changed when he made contact with a Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center where he was encouraged to write. His first novel, No Survivors, based on his war experiences, featured a Vietnam veteran named Hunter Morgan. 

The Immaculate Infection was inspired by three cold cases in New York called the Alphabet Murders to which Sutton adds a terrorism plot. The novel weaves several plot threads and many characters.

Now retired from the Baltimore PD, Hunter Morgan co-owns Last Resort Investigations, which specializes in cold cases. One involves a girl killed more than thirty years earlier. It turns out there are similar unsolved cases.

Meanwhile, Iran is chafing over economic sanctions, and the son of the Iranian leader hatches an intricate plot to bring pain to America. It starts with sky divers flying into taxiing airliners. Hundreds are killed. LRI is brought in to find proof that Iran is behind the terrorist acts. 

The next stage involves drones. Then sabotage by terrorist squads. The last stage will make use of jet packs for kamikaze-like attacks. These and other elements sound like science fiction, but they are either here now or will in the near future. The Swedish jet-pack inventor is kidnapped and forced to build them in Iran. This escalates into a rescue and retaliation that is the book’s big payoff.

Sutton did a lot of research for his novel. There is an excellent description of Air Force 1, for example, focusing on its defenses against attack. This comes up because the President is a major character in the book. We go inside the White House during a crisis. With lots of agencies and weapons, get ready for a lot of alphabet government names and acronyms. Sutton helps out with a glossary of 140 abbreviations.

Mike Sutton

The novel jumps around between locales and characters. The different threads are divided up within the chapters so you know the novel has jumped. Sometimes a thread is just given a paragraph to move it along. This gives the novel a fast pace. It reads like the screenplay for an action movie and is often edge-of-your-seat. The story will leave you concerned about whether these kinds of attacks could actually happen.

Sutton writes in a terse style appropriate for a thriller. A multitasker, for example, is “wearing more hats than Dr. Seuss’ Bartholomew Cubbins.”  One character stands out “like a hobo at a royal wedding.”

The Immaculate Infection hooked me from the beginning and held my attention throughout. The multiple threads are juggled efficiently. If you wonder what the next wave of terrorism might be like and how America might respond, this book is an eye-opener.

Sutton’s website is mksutton.com

–Kevin Hardy