Sapphire Pavilion by David E. Grogan

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David Grogan served on active duty in the post-Vietnam-War United States Navy for more than twenty-six years as a Navy Judge Advocate. He’s now retired, but his experiences in prosecuting and defending court-martial cases around the world inform and enrich his writing of legal thrillers, the first of which was The Siegel Dispositions.

That book introduced Grogan’s main character, ex-JAG Corps officer Steve Stilwell. The Sapphire Pavilion (Camel Press, 280 pp., $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), another mystery thriller, involves Stilwell fighting to get justice for his old buddy, Ric Stokes, who is incarcerated for possessing heroin in Vietnam. Stokes was sharing a hotel room with Ryan Eversall, now dead of an overdose while with a prostitute, herself now among the missing.

Stilwell is convinced this is a frame-up and travels to Saigon to get to the bottom of the affair.  The bad guys who set up his friend immediately go after Stilwell. There’s a file involved in this thriller labelled “The Sapphire Pavilion,” a catchy and convenient title for this book.

The villains underestimate Stilwell, who refuses to roll over and play dead. Helping him fight these forces of evil is a plucky and lovely female former Army pilot, Casey, who has one leg—a beautiful one—due to injury in a helicopter accident.

Stilwell gets through all of this derring-do in one piece, but it seems possible that Casey could lose her other leg. I won’t give that plot point away. It also looks as though our hero, Steve, might lose his wife, who has had it with his globe-trotting and consorting with beautiful female spies.

David Grogan

The case file for Sapphire Pavilion looks as though it will be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s McGuffins, but it works well enough to carry the book’s plot along until the exciting end.

If you enjoyed the previous book in this series, you’ll love this one, too.  Read and enjoy.

The author’s website is davidegrogan.com

—David Willson

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 The Circumstantial Man By Gary Reilly

Running Meter Press was established in 2012 to publish novels left behind by Gary Reilly when he died. During his lifetime Reilly had published only one short story and no novels. The Circumstantial Man (255 pp., paper) marks the twelfth posthumous Gary Reilly novel Running Meter has published in the last six years: a trilogy about his time in the United States Army as a military policeman; the Private Palmer novels: and eight novels about Murph, a Denver taxi cab driver (The Asphalt Warriors series).

The Circumstantial Man is a stand-alone novel about Pete Larkey, a sad sack who is divorced, out of work, and the owner of an automobile that has a dead battery. Pete is so much of a sad sack that he doesn’t think of wiggling battery cables to see if that would enable him to start his car. Throughout this novel—which chronicles the various misadventures that this failure brings down on his benighted head—Pete takes himself to task for not knowing how to do this and for failing to do it.

The publishers of this fine novel call it a suspense thriller, which I think is not really accurate.  This is a novel of the modern human condition. Late in the book, Pete says, “In my experience, things related to hope rarely work out.”  There are many such pronouncements by Pete, and I jotted many of them down.

He sometimes is capable of looking on the bright side, though. For instance, Reilly has him digging at gunpoint what he thinks will be his own grave, and he remarks that at least the soft soil is easy to penetrate with his shovel. We learn a lot about how the world works, at least the world that Pete inhabits, which is a world very similar to my own.

There are many references in this novel to the time that Pete spent in the Army. At one point, he notes that incarceration is similar to service in the military.

He mentions Audie Murphy twice and Grendel and Beowulf once each. He quotes Jack Kerouac as saying that the Army “couldn’t hire shits to push mops, make beds, KP.”  Pete also debates the differences between Skippy peanut butter and Peter Pan. He prefers Skippy. The villain who holds him at gunpoint prefers Peter Pan because, he says, Skippy tastes too much of peanuts.

The publishers tell us that there won’t be another novel featuring Pete Larkey, but there will soon be another novel with Murph the cab driver as the hero.

I can’t wait.

For more info on Reilly and his literary output go to the publisher’s website.

—David Willson

Through My Daughter’s Eyes by Julia Dye

Through My Daughter’s Eyes (Warriors Publishing Group, 190 pp. $14.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is a terrific, fast-moving young adult novel that deals with the impact of war and post-war issues on a military family. It’s set in the present day and told in the first person by a middle school girl named Abbie.

First-time novelist Julia Dye’s father served in World War II, and she writes with authority in the voice of young Abbie as she wrestles with serious growing-up issues—as well as the tribulations all families face before, during, and after a parent is deployed to a war zone.

When things get particularly tough, Abbie has a sit down with her grandfather, a Vietnam War veteran. He tells her of his own difficulties after coming home from the war.

“It was really hard on me,” he says. “I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t understand why I was hated. I lost friends over there, too. Wasn’t easy. I began drinking [and worse]…. It took me a long time to realize what I was doing. If it wasn’t for your grandmother ,I might not have ever gotten better.”

What comes next is believable and poignant—a good capsule description of this entire worthy YA novel.

Dye, the Vice President and CFO of Warriors, Inc., the top Hollywood military advising company, also wrote Backbone: History, Traditions, and Leadership Lessons from Marine Corps NCOs.

—Marc Leepson

 

Syllables of Rain By D. S. Lliteras

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Syllables of Rain (Rainbow Ridge Books, 152 pp., $16.95, paper) is a poetic novel of pure genius by the novelist and poet D.S. Lliteras. A former Navy combat corpsman with the First Recon Marines in the Vietnam War, Lliteras received a Bronze Star for his courage under fire.

This work surpasses his earlier books that dealt with the Vietnam War: 613 West Jefferson, in which a returning Vietnam veteran tries to make sense of the terrible world he has returned to, and Viet Man, which shows what veterans dealt with while serving in Vietnam. Both are master works.  But neither book grapples with the things that Syllables of Rain takes on.

Syllables of Rain should be placed on the book shelf next to Karl Marlantes’ novel Matterhorn as an antidote to giant books that seem to last as long as the war itself did.  Syllables of Rain lets the reader know what happened to Marines after the war, experiences weighed down by great sadness—as Matterhorn is burdened with blood, thunder, and death.

Llewellyn and Cookie, the friends at the heart of Syllables of Rain, are easily imagined in the world of Matterhorn and it is easy to imagine them buoyed up by Jansen, a larger-than-life Zen master who influences the rest of their lives. Llewellyn and Cookie had intersected years before, but their lives were ordained by fate to become intertwined yet again.  They stand, confronting each other on a street in Baltimore, face to face with their mortality and with assessing what their lives have measured up to.

Will they have a future with the women they love? Will they come to terms with their shared past and go on to deal successfully with their war and their emotions? They and we can only hope.  Some of us will even pray that they will. Llewellyn asks the question, “Is it wrong to be lost?”

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D.S. Lliteras

My favorite kind of Vietnam War book is short, poetical, and filled with hard-fought truths.  Every page would be purest poetry, quarried from the marble of experience. This is that book. D. S. Lliteras brings his unique genius to bear on the world of the Vietnam War veteran, sometimes homeless, often heartsick from love lost.

Viet Man is a gritty in-country novel; Syllables of Rain is the poetic novel of a lifetime of coping with war, of struggling “to make peace with Vietnam” with the war that “separated us from everybody else.”

I’d thought that D. S. Lliteras’ previous book, Viet Man, was un-toppable, but I was dead wrong.

—David Willson

Between the Walls of Time by Michael Stafford

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Michael Stafford did a lot of research about war before writing his novel, Between the Walls of Time (Grey Swan Press, 485 pp., $36.95). When his main character Cyrus Kohler thinks about war, he “knew that war damaged souls, left them with unhealed wounds. The pain came unexpectedly, and on many levels, and often brought along its companion, hopelessness.”

This rang true to me. Certainly I experience it that way, thanks to having to deal with multiple myeloma, which is related to my exposure to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.

The first section of this book focuses on the main character’s time in that war.  Lt. Kohler, an Army Ranger, participates in the Americans’ last big land battle of the Vietnam War, the 1970 fight at Firebase Ripcord, serving with the 101st Airborne, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry, the Currahees. In that fight, four battalions of American troops confronted an entire division of North Vietnamese Army troops.

In the novel, due to incompetent leadership, Lt. Kohler and his men are abandoned, but Cyrus survives. In the thirty years after he returns home, Kohler gets his PhD and becomes a university professor, something few returning Vietnam War veterans have done.

We are told that during this thirty years,Cyrus witnessed “the decline of America” and he “is compelled to form a third political party, which he names “the Front.’” That is what the rest of the book is about. Stafford manages to get a reference to Jane Fonda into the narrative, although he devotes far more space to her one-time husband and fellow antiwar activist Tom Hayden.

The prose is sometimes demanding. For example: “The sky grimaced, the palette of its wet, gray, monsoon overwhelmed by so many ascending souls.”

As I read that passage near the book’s beginning, I asked myself, “Can I stand reading almost 450 more pages with sentences like that? It’s going to be a long hard slog for me.”  Thankfully, the book lightened up after that—at least the prose did.

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Michael Stafford

My favorite parts involve the action pieces. There’s a character, a bald eagle named Myoconda, who kills one of the primary bad guys by descending from the sky and dispatching him with his talons and his beak. Good riddance to him.

The bad guy in question had just murdered one of my favorite characters in the book, an ancient Shawnee woman named Tante Colleen, a reputed voodoo sorceress. Her great grandmother had walked The Trail of Tears.

The book was enjoyable and I recommend it to those who like reading about folks who are trying to save America by forming new political parties.

The author’s website is johnmichaelstafford.com

—David Willson

Some Never Forget by R. Cyril West

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Some Never Forget (Molan Labe, 302 pp., $12.95, paper; $.99, Kindle) is the second book in R. Cyril West’s POW/MIA Truth series. His first was The Thin Wall.

Some Never Forget is an intriguing mix of conspiracy theory related to the betrayal of POWs being left behind in Southeast Asia by their government, along with American Indian Tlingit mythology. The latter is an attempt to reap the sort of magic that Tony Hillerman made his own and nobody else has been able to hold a candle to.

West believes there are baskets full of dirty government secrets. It’s hard to argue with that. He begins the story begins in Sitka, Alaska, in 1980, nine years after Walter Greene’s son went missing in the Vietnam War. Greene is tormented about the unknown fate that befell his boy—especially after the Department of Defense suddenly changes his son’s status from MIA to KIA.

Greene sees this clerical change as redolent of meaning. After he gets a warning from a government functionary and weird things start happening on his homestead, Greene is galvanized into action.

He believes it is a lie that all the POWs came home. He wants to get to the bottom of things. We are assured that the end of the novel will make us gasp. It sort of does.

The first page of this paranoia thriller gives us the phrases “Korea Veteran,” “Don’t Tread on Me,” and “Fuck Hanoi Jane.” When I read the third, which is lettered on Greene’s leather jacket, I thought I knew all I needed to know about his mindset. I was pretty much right.

I guess I am in the “anti-American” crowd that Greene wishes to steer clear of.  I hope I am wrong.

The author’s web site is http://www.rcyrilwest.com/some-never-forget

—David Willson

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