Forgotten by Marc Liebman

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Marc Liebman received his Navy commission in 1968, and became an aviator the following year. He retired as a Captain after serving for twenty-four years in the Navy. His military career took him all over the world, and included service in the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War. During that time he also worked with the armed forces of Australia, Canada, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, and with the British Royal Navy.

His novel, Forgotten (Deeds, 594 pp., $25.57, paper), deals with six men who did not come home when the North Vietnamese returned the American POWs in 1973. The men had never been reported as POWs, but were listed as missing in action. The Vietnamese, in the person of NVA Lt. Col. Pham, use the Americans as laborers in a heroin factory. The colonel’s goal is to keep the men alive and ransom them for millions.

Back in the U.S., Janet, the wife of one of the POWs, is an strident antiwar activist. She fills her waiting time and sexual needs by becoming a highly paid assassin, taking on high-value targets around the world.

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Marc Liebman

Often this book read like a pop culture inventory. Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Sam Peckinpah, The Bridge over the River Kwai, Almond Joy, SDS, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Rolex, Carlos Hathcock (the famed Vietnam War sniper) get more than a mention.

This is a giant whopper of a sex thriller with violence and bloodshed on most pages, along with that nymphomanical ex-antiwar activist turned assassin. If you love books like this, it’s the one is for you. It is predictable, however, as I was not surprised when Janet, the hit woman, was contracted to kill her own husband.

Forgotten is well written and held this reader’s attention throughout.

—David Willson

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

111111111111111111111111111“The detective Harry Bosch helps a small police department track a serial rapist, while as a P.I. he aids a billionaire in search of a possible heir.”

That’s how The New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list describes the book that sits at number nine this week: Michael Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Little, Brown, 394 pp., $29). That high-concept sentence is accurate, but doesn’t even begin to approach the detective-genre artistry Connelly once again exhibits in his nineteenth Harry Bosch cop procedural featuring the eponymous, not-quite-retired LAPD detective who served as a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War.

As he has in all the Bosch books-–beginning with The Black Echo in 1992—Connelly spins out a page-turner with vivid characters, a twisting plot, and evocative depictions of Harry’s home turf: the greater Los Angeles area. This book also has a significant Vietnam War theme in that the search for the billionaire’s “possible heir” leads Harry to a young Navy corpsman who died in a helicopter crash in 1970 in Vietnam. Harry’s service in the war comes up in the course of his investigation and he has a flashback or two to his two memorable tours of duty.

The book, in fact, opens with a flashback of sorts, to a very convincing evocation of an extraction of a group of Marines from a hot LZ. It doesn’t end well. Connelly then moves right into his two-pronged story in which Harry, who is working a volunteer investigator job for the little City of San Fernando, also takes on a free-lance assignment directly from an ailing, aging billionaire.

Both stories take unexpected twists. Harry runs into situations and roadblocks that he seems to face in every book. He has to deal with a cranky police supervisor who is out to get him. He tends to bend the rules to get what he needs to bring a bad person to justice. He uses his brain power and decades of experience to figure out the identity of an arch-evil bad guy (the serial rapist). He displays physical courage. He suffers emotionally when good cops (and civilians) are harmed. And he won’t rest until he brings the culprits to justice.

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Michael Connelly

It all adds up to a greatly entertaining read that stands with the best of the Bosch’s—and the best Bosch’s are terrific books.

There are two minor missteps relating to the Vietnam War that I will mention only because they will not ring true to Marines or to any Vietnam War veteran who took an R&R. Connelly more than once refers to Marines as “soldiers,” and calls R&R “leave.”

Here’s hoping the publisher fixes those little errors for future printings. If that happens, this will be a perfect Harry Bosch.

—Marc Leepson

The Gun Room by Georgina Harding

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The British author Georgina Harding has published three acclaimed novels—The Solitude of Thomas Cave, The Spy Game, and Painter of Silence. Her latest, The Gun Room (Bloomsbury, 224 pp., $26), takes a proud place with the previous books. I find no evidence that Harding has any military background, but there is a lot of the Vietnam War in this novel, and no noticeable clunkers.

The main character is Jonathan, a young British photographer with a farming background who hitches a ride out to the war on a helicopter and blunders onto a My Lai-type massacre in a village. He takes a photograph of an American soldier sitting staring into space. This photo ends up on magazine covers as an iconic image of the Vietnam War.

The war follows Jonathan around for the rest of the story, even to Japan, where he goes to take more pictures and where he falls in love with a Japanese girl named Kimiko. She helps him come to terms with the war, but he then connects with the soldier he’d photographed in Vietnam.

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Georgina Harding

Jonathan flees back to the farm in England, and tries to put the war behind him. But the reader senses that he will always be scarred by his brief time in the Vietnam War—and by his choice to take the photographs he took.

No novel I have read better describes how powerful the memory of war can become entrenched in the mind of a young man. I loved the book and how free of the usual clichés it was. John Wayne’s name, for one thing, is never mentioned.

This is a fresh imagining of the American war in Vietnam, and it is much needed.

Thank you, Georgina Harding, for this fine book. Buy it and read it.

—David Willson

Shock Peace by CieCie Tuyet Nguyen

Ciecie Tuyet Nguyen was thirteen years old when she witnessed the events she bases her novel, Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom (Tate, 444 pp., $39.99, hardcover; $30.99, paper; $14.99, Kindle), on. Through the character of Trinh, she relives her memories of communist takeover of Saigon in 1975.

Why the author chose the title she did is a mystery to me. Reading the title, I figured that the novel would not be written in good English because the title makes little sense. But I was wrong; the novel is quite well written. There is the occasional jarring phrase such as “fresh as a cucumber” rather rather than “cool as a cucumber.”

A much better title would have been The Fall of Saigon through the Eyes of a Survivor.

Ciecie Nguyen continued to live in Saigon after April 1975 until her escape by boat to Australia with her family. Her mother arranged the escape and was the source of the family’s great strength through the horrors of the three years it took to get together the money and supplies necessary to leave Vietnam.

I’ve read many books about the so-called boat people and their brave attempts to get out of communist Vietnam, but none tells the story better than this novel. Nguyen reveals the barbarism of the North Vietnamese toward the South Vietnamese with an immediacy that hit home in a way that it never did before to me.

We get to know all the people involved in the escape, and we care about them and want them to get away from the horrors that have been brought down on them. They do make it and we learn about their lives after their escape.

Ciecie Tuyet Nguyen

Learning English is the biggest challenge for the Vietnamese once they learn the social customs of Australia. There is a funny section in which the refuges struggle to figure out why the Australians who live above them are so angry at them when they cook their dinner.

For some reason, the Australians hate the smell of the fish sauce and the garlic. They terrorize the Vietnamese by screaming at them and pounding on their door when they cook. Of course, the refugees have no idea what they are doing wrong. And there is nobody to tell them.

The author graduated from pharmacy school and now owns her own pharmacy in the western suburbs of Sydney. My respect for the authors’ academic and career successes is huge.

—David Willson

The Nix by Nathan Hill

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The first thing that came to mind as I pondered my reading experience with Nathan Hill’s The Nix (Knopf, 625 pp., $27.95), is the oft-used (but still prescient) line that Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina: “All families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This very long book is, at heart, a meditation on one very unhappy fictional family. To wit, a baby boom generation mother who has made a giant, stinking mess of her entire life and her adult son who is about to follow in her footsteps. Said messes include terribly unhappy childhoods, messy adolescences, and emotionally distressing adulthoods.

The mother in question, Faye Andresen, is brought up in a stifling Iowa town in the fifties and sixties and has a catastrophic, aborted college experience in Chicago in 1967 and 1968. Her son, Samuel Andresen-Anderson experiences a tortuous childhood, especially after his mother walks out on his family with no warning and for no apparent reason.

Samuel somehow survives his childhood and adolescent traumas, and becomes a college professor. The work is singularly uninspiring and Samuel descends into depressing—and countless hours playing some adolescent on-line game.

Then things go from worse to worse after Faye sort-of attacks a demagogic politician and Samuel has his entire world fall apart after an self-deceiving, selfish student falsely accuses him of mistreating her.

Hill spins out this yarn flashing back and forth in time, including a long section near the end in which Faye is caught up in the mayhem of the police riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago–which is where the Vietnam War comes in. That and a small part earlier in the book where Faye’s boyfriend back home wrestles with the biggest question that every male of that generation faced: what to do about the Vietnam War draft.

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Hill is a more-than-capable storyteller and novelist. He brings his mostly over-the-top characters alive and created dizzying, almost-believable plots and subplots, often with ironic humor–and frequently with painful emotional and physical consequences for his characters.

His (almost literally) blow-by-blow rendition of the mayhem that occurred in the streets of downtown during the Democratic National Convention is intense–and probably (like the rest of the book) about twice as long as it should be.

That long set piece also is the vehicle Hill uses to let the reader know several secrets and to bring resolution of sorts to the careening lives of Faye and Samuel.

—Marc Leepson

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

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Jacqueline Woodson, who was born in 1963, is a prolific, award-winning author who specializes in books for children and young adults. Brown Girl Dreaming, her 2014 best-selling memoir, won a National Book Award. Woodson’s latest book, Another Brooklyn (Amistad, 192 pp., $22.99), is an adult novel with a strong sexual focus.

Much of it deals with what eight-year old August views of her neighborhood while caring for her little brother in Brooklyn in the 1970s. The scene from her third floor window often reminded me of the Hitchcock movie, Rear Window, both in tone and content.

August is befriended by three other neighborhood girls—Sylvia, Angela and Gigi—and the sexual tone intensifies. The main thrust of their conversations and concerns is the peril they are in due to their developing bodies and the unrest this causes in the men of all ages they who surround them.

The Vietnam War is often mentioned in this slender, dream-like book, and never in a positive way. One of Woodson’s most graphic images is of a returned veteran who is armless but who has taught himself how to shoot dope using his teeth.

“A man who used to be a boy on our block walked the streets in his Army uniform, armless,” August says. “My brother and I watched him from our window, watched his head dipping down like a bird tucking itself beneath its own wing.”

Wartime Vietnam is where the men who took advantage of the young girls went to die. The girls went south with their pregnancies, not to return. No mention of birth control is ever made in this book.

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Jacqueline Woodson

I could give many more examples of how the Vietnam War makes an appearance in this small book, but the one I described hits so hard, I will only offer only one other. “As the damage of the war staggered, strung-out and bleary eyed along our block, Miss Dora greeted every ex-soldier who passed,” Woodson writes. “Glad y’all made it home, she said. We’ll see my boy in the by and by.”

As a blurb on the back of the book by Ann Patchett puts it, this is a fever dream of a book. It’s probably not aimed at my demographic, but I couldn’t put it down.

Every page reeks with danger, and I found myself glad that I spent the early seventies in a very different place. Seattle had its problems, but African-American girls there were aware of birth control. I was a welfare caseworker then, so I know of what I speak.

—David Willson

There’s a Man with a Gun Over There by R.M. Ryan

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R. M. Ryan served in the U. S. Army from 1969-72. In his autobiographical novel There’s a Man with a Gun Over There (Permanent Press, 272 pp., $29, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) Sgt. Richard Ryan receives an Army Commendation Medal from the 42nd MP Group (Customs) for his work as a translator and black-market investigator in Germany in the early 1970s.

R.M. Ryan is the author of another novel, The Golden Rules, and two books of poetry. He dedicates this novel to Steven Unger, who died in November 2011, a “late casualty of the war in Vietnam.” No further explanation is given. I assume the reasons include PTSD or Agent Orange.

Richard Ryan, the novel’s protagonist, is an antiwar activist who receives his draft notice after the 1968 Tet Offensive. After deciding not to flee to Canada, he finds an Army recruiter who promises that he’ll get to learn German at the Defense Language School in Monterey, California. Ryan gets language school, but after he finishes he is sent to Military Police school.

He ends up working with former Nazis in Germany, arresting soldiers for black market activity, and avoiding the service in Vietnam that he wished to avoid. The old cliché “Be careful what you wish for” is in full play in this novel.

Even though Ryan never makes it to Vietnam, the novel is mostly about the Vietnam War. He dreams of Johnson Administration war hawk Walt Rostow, and discusses the importance of stopping the commies—containment, he calls it.

R.M. Ryan has produced a witty literary novel that held my attention throughout. I highly recommend it to readers seeking a serious novel about the Vietnam War. The way the book is organized seemed confusing at first, but it didn’t work out that way. The short, well-written scenes move right along.

RyannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnThe Army trains people to kill, and this novel does not mince words about that. The American military is dangerous. Country Joe and the Fish wrote a song about that, which is included in this book to great effect, along with much other American pop culture references.

Buy this book and give it to any high school student you know considering the military as a career option. At the very least he or she just may rethink that decision.

—David Willson