Red Clay Ashes by Julie Tulba

Red Clay Ashes (343 pp. $16.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a novel set in the Vietnam War. Author Julie Tulba was inspired to write it after a trip to Vietnam. The plot focuses on the role of female Vietnam War correspondents. The main character is based on Anne Morrissey Merrick, who married a male journalist and raised a child in Saigon until America withdrew its combat troops in 1973.

The book opens in Saigon in 1975. As the communist forces close in, Hazel Baxter is evacuated, but not with her husband. The novel then jumps to 2005. Hazel’s daughter Bee is dealing with the death of her mother, whom she knows little about. She makes a trip to visit a friend of her mother, Suzanne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She shocks Bee with the story of her mother when she was a freelancer in Vietnam starting in 1967. 

The novel has two tracks—Hazel’s and Bee’s. Hazel’s story makes up about eighty percent of the book. This gives Tulba the opportunity to highlight female journalists and to hit some interesting topics.

Hazel uses her press credentials to go on a patrol, visit a military hospital, participate in a psyop mission, ride in a tank to rescue a family, explore a VC tunnel, and expose the mistreatment of prisoners in South Vietnam’s Con Son prison. Meanwhile, she has a relationship with a veteran male journalist. All of this is news to Bee.

Tulba did her homework. She includes a bibliography, which is unusual for a novel. She is interested in shining a light on a war she feels is ignored in American History classes. And in highlighting female war correspondents.

Hazel and Suzanne risk their lives breaking a glass ceiling. Vietnam was the first American war in which journalists could go anywhere and watch anything. Tulba having Hazel take advantage of that allows her to give readers a taste of the seamier side of the war. That includes plunking Hazel in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive where she is wounded and sees death and destruction up close.

Hazel does it partly for the adrenalin rush. She also puts her job ahead of her family.  However, Tulba avoids the stereotype of war correspondents being hard partiers. Instead, Tulba trods a less-traveled path by implying that journalists can have PTSD. This explains Hazel’s poor parenting.

Julie Tulba

There is a definite feminist vibe. The novel is antiwar, but it is not overdone. The book has no significant Vietnamese characters, so we do not get much on the effects of the war on civilians. 

Instead, we get a reporter’s view, which includes the lying and exaggerating at the “5 O’Clock Follies” official military press briefings. Hazel sees and writes about the failure of the Americans winning the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese people and about the devastation cause by spraying Agent Orange.

I enjoyed Red Clay Ashes. It is part romance, part mystery, and part history. While the romance is straight out of a rom-com without the com, overall the novel is well-written and Tulba’s attention to history is commendable.

Just don’t read it as a parenting guide.   

Julie Tulba’s website is julietulba.com

–Kevin Hardy

Life Dust by Pam Webber

Life Dust (She Writes Press, 312 pp. $17.95, paper; $9.49, Kindle) is a novel telling the story of a young couple separated for a year due to the war in Vietnam. Author Pam Webber is a nurse practitioner who is married to a Vietnam War veteran. This is her third novel.

It’s the spring of 1971 and the book’s protagonist, Nettie, a nursing intern, unfortunately stumbles across two high-level hospital employees engaged in sex. Though she stays silent about it, they decide to make her life hell.

Nettie is engaged to Andy, a freshly minted U.S. Army lieutenant on his way to Vietnam. Andy hopes he is prepared “to lead men I’ve never met, in a country I’ve never seen, in a war no one seems sure about.” He carries a small New Testament with Nettie’s picture tucked inside.  

Andy begins to build a good reputation during his first days in-country when he’s told, “You notice a lot for a new lieutenant. You have good instincts.” Some of the guys he serves with have names like Doc and The Philosopher, and I’m not sure why the character whose real name is John Wayne would even need a nickname, but at least it’s Cowboy.

The book’s title derives from a reference to the unit’s translator, a French/Vietnamese man who Vietnamese people refer to as “life dust,” signifying someone left behind and frequently abandoned.

Back home Nettie worries about Andy. As an intern, she is a part-time student and part-time hospital employee. She bonds with a patient, an older man dealing with congestive heart failure. She also begins doing volunteer work for an organization working to bring attention to the plight of Vietnam War MIAs and POWs.

Andy’s men spend long stretches in the bush. Once after returning to their base after months deep in the jungle they are berated by an officer for their “filthy” appearance. Meanwhile Nettie is at home fighting false charges brought against her as she tries to keep her job at the hospital.

Toward the end of the story Webber unfortunately includes a passage that enforces the myth of returning troops being spat at by demonstrators—and on the East Coast at that.

Overall, though, Webber’s novel is a good one. She has a very smooth writing style and has put in a significant amount of Vietnam War research. Her knowledge of military equipment and information is truly impressive.

Though the story doesn’t break any new ground, many readers will find it to be a captivating one.   

Pam Webber’s website is pamwebber.com/books/life-dust

–Bill McCloud

Daughters of the New Year by E.M. Tran

Daughters of the New Year (Hanover Square Press, 314 pp. $27.99) is a beautifully written work of literary fiction by E.M. Tran. A Vietnamese American writer from New Orleans, Tran holds an MFA from the University of Mississippi and a PhD in Creative Writing from Ohio University. This novel, her first, centers on five generations of Vietnamese mothers and daughters and how their readings of the zodiac guide their lives.

It’s 2016 in New Orleans. Xuan Trung is obsessed with divining her daughters’ fates through their Vietnamese zodiac signs. Every Lunar New Year she gives her daughters horoscopes she has prepared from a book. She draws charts on old paper, writing them in an almost secret language. She wears multiple “jangling jade bangles” on her wrists to ward off evil. “Twice she abstained from wearing white for the entire year because it was unlucky for her sign.”

Xuan has been in the United States since 1975, yet she wears her American citizenship “with discomfort, like a pair of shoes half a size too small.” She sometimes wonders what happened to old friends in the former South Vietnam, but doesn’t really want to know. She is divorced from her husband, but still helps him run a local Vietnamese newspaper.

She recalls how happy she was when they had bought a new house in New Orleans. “In Vietnam, if you had something new, it meant you were rich. If you had something old, it meant you were poor. If you had nothing at all, it meant you were nothing. Simple as that.”

We read about the dragon dance and Vietnamese American funerals. We read about how the houses in South Vietnam had seemed to mourn the losses of their families who fled during the tumultuous events of 1975. We learn of someone claiming to be the last man to leave Vietnam, only to discover, according to Xuan, that “every man had been the last man to leave Vietnam – God forbid a man just admit he had been one of many to leave, driven out like common cattle.”

This story moves backward in time, all the way to ancient Vietnamese legends. At that point, we realize that time might not be moving at all, but is standing still.

When you finish this book, you may discover you’re reading a more serious story than you expected. Then again, maybe this is a book you were destined to read—as written in the stars.

–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

Desert Star by Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly has hit yet another literary home run with Desert Star (Little Brown, 400 pp. $29), the prolific, bestselling novelist’s just-released detective procedural/thriller.

This is Connelly’s fourth novel co-starring Harry Bosch, who served as a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War and recently retired as an L.A. Police Department homicide detective, and current LAPD robbery/homicide detective Renee Ballard.

Last year’s Bosch-Ballard, The Dark Hours, was Ballard-centric; in Desert Star Connelly makes Harry the star — which is great news for those of us who have read and relished the seventeen Harry Bosch detectives Connelly has produced since the brilliant, Vietnam War-flashback-heavy The Black Echo came out in 1992.

Desert Star, like all the other Connelly novels, is a taut, plot-twisting, page turner set mostly in Los Angeles. This time Bosch volunteers (at Ballard’s invitation) to work for free with her cold case team on two heinous murder cases. One of them—the murder of a family of four, including two young children—has festered in Bosch’s psyche for years. The other is forced upon Ballard’s department for internal LAPD reasons, mainly because it involves the murder of the daughter of an influential city councilman.

Michael Connelly

Connelly shows off his best writing chops in this dialogue-heavy, fast-moving tale filled with inside baseball policing details he gleaned during his years as a crime reporter for The Los Angeles Times. Plus, Desert Star—the title refers to a type of flowering plant that blooms in the desert—has more references to Harry’s Vietnam War experiences than any of the recent Bosch books.

The war comes up several times in conversations with Ballard, and when Harry interacts with a Nam vet bartender. The barkeep turns out to have served with the 1st Battalion/Ninth Marines, AKA “The Walking Dead.” Bosch tells the Marine that he served in the Army, in the 1st Infantry Division, and the barkeep deduces Harry was a tunnel rat. ‘

“Those tunnels, man,” he says, “what a fucked up place.”

It’s not giving anything away to say that both cases get solved, and Harry has the leading role in both, using his brains, experience, and an obsessively risky MO to track down the family killer.

If you love a great detective yarn with flawed but morally upright and tenacious good guys (and gals) and evil bad guys who eventually get their due, you won’t be let down by Michael Connelly’s Desert Star.

The official Michael Connelly website is michaelconnelly.com

–Marc Leepson

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

El Pistolero by Marvin Wolf

El Pistolero: A Chelmin and Spaulding CID Mystery (249 pp. $13.95, paper; $4.259, Kindle), by Marvin J. Wolf is an action-filled mystery thriller. Wolf is a Vietnam War veteran, having served many years in the Army. He is the author of more than twenty books, including ones he co-wrote with famed Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway and former South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky.

In the book, Army Criminal Investigation Division agents, Rudy Chelmin and Will Spaulding, get involved in a desertion case that goes back to the Vietnam War in 1971 and may also include murder. The men worked a few special cases together, but it’s been awhile. Spaulding went on to become a helicopter pilot but was temporarily grounded because of a health issue, which led to the two men renewing their partnership.

When asked by a civilian what CID means, Spaulding quips, “Like the Navy’s NCIS, except we’re Army. And we don’t have a TV series.”

During this detective procedural the two men find themselves working, usually on a friendly basis, with local police departments as well as the LAPD, FBI, and the DEA. The FBI believes the deserter may have become a hired killer who is a master of disguises and is likely responsible for murdering dozens of people. Most of the victims had ties to organized crime.

Spaulding is a millionaire as a result of a big lawsuit settlement. That plays sort of a wish-fulfillment role because the two men frequently eat lavish meals and Spaulding can pay cash for a new car whenever he wants one and write a large check to help the family of a law officer killed in the line of duty. Spaulding continues to fly for the Army because he loves it.

As the story rolls along, we encounter fake cops, the Mexican Mafia, burner phones, street gangs, cops in the pocket of the gangs, thugs with shotguns, prison gangs, bomb squads, heroin smuggling, gunfights, and international intrigue.

Through it all these two guys are constantly in motion, which propels the story along at a rapid rate with lots of running, flying, and driving fast down highways.

If you like a lot of exciting, fast-moving action, this is the book for you.

Marvin Wolf’s website is marvinjwolf.com

–Bill McCloud

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

Dinosaur on an Island by Walter McAuliffe

Dinosaur on an Island (BookBaby, 238 pp., paperback) is a novel by Vietnam War veteran Walter McAuliffe. The title refers to a person who is orphaned, has to survive on his own, and is not at home in this technological world.

McAuliffe, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, opens with a warning that the book may be funny, scary, and aggravating. The first chapter revolves around a social worker helping a veteran named Greg, who is disabled and has PTSD. 

What follows are Greg’s stories. They have the common theme of “brutal reality,” including a list of the “Brutal Reality Rules of Life.” One is, “Don’t put a loaf in the oven, unless you own the bakery.” The rest are equally meme-worthy.

The first half of the novel tells Greg’s story. Being from a fractured family, Greg becomes a member of several of his friends’ families. The core group has adventures that are sometimes fueled by alcohol and fall in the category of juvenile delinquency. 

The second half of the book starts with Greg getting drafted and arriving in Vietnam. Then, suddenly, McAuliffe switches to commenting on what he sees as America’s social and political ills. McAuliffe is particularly incensed about “unauthorized military actions,” wars such as the one in Vietnam that were not approved by Congress. He’s also unhappy about government bailouts.

This unusual novel reads like a long civics lesson from an old man sitting on his porch. The first half contains fairly interesting vignettes about teenagers doing naughty things. The second, though, half took me by surprise. I was expecting to read about Greg’s tour of duty. But we mainly get McAuliffe’s thoughts and opinions about political issues.

He’s not clearly a conservative or a liberal, and seems to understand the issues well. But most of his solutions, even if sensible, are not doable. And his opinions will turn off a large segment of the population. Others might be turned off by his breaking the fourth wall to address teenagers.

Despite the book’s obvious passion, some of it is diluted misspellings and grammatical errors. McAuliffe, for examples, misspells “cavalry” and “lightning.” He capitalizes “war” and doesn’t capitalize “White House.”  He uses “misconstrued” when he means “confused.”   

He also is hazy on history. He writes that George H.W. Bush said, “Watch my lips.” He says that America invaded Korea at the beginning of that war. He overuses slang terms like “pant load,” “dirt nap,” and “bed bug.” The funniest and most-informative part of the book is the glossary of his slang.

The first half of Dinosaur on an Island is imaginative, but what you’ll think about the second half depends on whether you believe America has the problems that McAuliffe writes about. Readers will find some red meat here, but might also do some head-scratching.

–Kevin Hardy

Escape Route by Elan Barnehama

Elan Barnehama’s second novel, Escape Route (Running Wild Press, 242 pp., $19.99, paper; $9.49, Kindle), is an entertaining, fast-moving, well-written story about a small group of precocious teenagers in New York City in the late 1960s. The chapter-like story breaks have rock music titles such as “All Along the Watchtower,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “Summer in the City.”

The action swirls around Zach, who plays right field on his high school’s baseball team because that’s “where they played you if you couldn’t play.” His sister Ali is a student at Columbia University. Zach’s family is Jewish and his parents are Holocaust survivors. He accepts the traditions of Judaism, but questions a God who allowed the Holocaust to take place and his father to get polio. Zach believes that Jewish history is like “a series of apocalyptic novels that never seems to end.”

Zach is also concerned about the increasing violence reported in Vietnam and decides to use a notebook to begin recording the daily American casualty reports gleaned from the newspapers. He’s also aware that he doesn’t know anyone who served in the war.

Then he attends a party and hears a Marine tell a story that’s also related in Nicholas Proffit’s classic Vietnam War-heavy novel, Gardens of Stone. In it, someone jokes about the Viet Cong shooting arrows at American helicopters and someone else explains the difficulty of defeating an enemy willing to use arrows against helicopters.

It’s a time when the U.S. is experiencing political assassinations and increasing antiwar demonstrations. Zach begins engaging in philosophical conversations about the war and the Holocaust. He continues tracking war casualties, though his parents hope he’ll grow out of it.

A homeless Korean War veteran comes into Zach’s life, as well as a girl whose brother is a Vietnam War veteran. The nation learns of the My Lai massacre, Zach becomes infatuated with Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, and he gets excited about an upcoming Jimi Hendrix concert.

Zach then starts to believe that the government may very well start rounding up Jews. He joins AAA to have access to road maps, and sets out little-traveled routes into Canada with the idea that his family could escape north of the border and would be allowed in since the Canadians readily accepted American draft evaders.

While the book’s ending seemed to be abrupt, I’ll attribute that mainly that fact that I was not ready for this story to end.

Always leave your audience wanting more. That’s what Barnehama has done with this enjoyable, relatively short novel.

The author’s website is elanbarnehama.com

–Bill McCloud