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

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

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by André Lewis Carter

In Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (336 pp. Kaylie Jones Books/Akashic, $42.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), U.S. Navy veteran André Lewis Carter takes a fictional look at the early 1970s, a time of heightened racial tension in the Navy. This excellent first novel, while chronicling the racism faced by main character Cesar Alvarez, in the end is love letter to the U.S. Navy.

Alvarez, a teenaged, street tough of Afro-Cuban descent, enlists in the Navy to run away from his past, including a murderous gangster who is hot on his heels. As he goes through the recruiting process Cesar’s not sure what he thinks of his recruiter in “full Cracker Jack uniform,” who reminds him of an ice cream salesman.

Cesar is sent to the Great Lakes boot camp where manners “were an early casualty as the men drew closer. It was kind of like being in grade school.” He finds himself attending classes “where attentive students dodged the textbooks” thrown at nodding-off recruits. There is also the usual verbal abuse and multiple workouts “akin to personal assault.” Some recruits drop out because of injuries, while some just seem to disappear.  

Meanwhile, the gangster, Mr. Mike, also joins the Navy to avoid serious legal issues, a seemingly ominous event.

After boot camp, Cesar is assigned to Signalman School in San Diego. One of the first things he’s told, from a Black seaman, is: “It’s just so sad to see another brother walk into this shit. Ain’t nothin’ good gon’ come from you putting on that uniform. I’m telling you, man, you can’t be Black and Navy too.”

In Signalman School the trainees are told that their future captains “would make decisions based on information passed from their signalmen, so it better be right the first time.” On base he learns of a “white boy club,” and notes how racial bias “seemed blatant.” He’s soon facing overt racism during a time when the Navy was “cracking down on drug use, across the board.”

André Carter

Cesar learns he’s going to be assigned to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, supporting U.S. troops in Vietnam. It’s sometimes known as the “Shitty Kitty” because the ship is always “having some kind of malfunction.” What Cesar doesn’t know is that he’s heading straight into an encounter with Mr. Mike, which will unfold during the worst shipboard racial riot in U.S. naval history.

The dialogue in this first novel is so natural that it speeds the story along. The main character, not a sympathetic one at first, grows on the reader. And we get a quite satisfying ending.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is not a war story; it’s a war-time story. And a great one.

Carter’s website is andrelewiscarter.com

–Bill McCloud

em by Kim Thuy

Kim Thuy’s em (Seven Stories Press, 160 pp. $21.95) is a poetically written short novel focusing on the heart of the Vietnamese people. The one-word title refers, Kim Thuy says, “to the little brother or little sister in a [Vietnamese] family; or the younger of two friends; or the woman in a couple. I like to think that the word em is the homonym of the verb aimer, ‘to love,’ in French.” The novel is translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.

Kim Thuy and I arrived in South Vietnam in the same year. Her mother gave birth to her in Saigon in 1968. At just about the same time I landed at nearby Binh Hoa to start my tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Thuy left Vietnam with her family following the communist takeover and now lives in Quebec in Canada.

She says that she writes true stories “incompletely told,” in which “truth is fragmented,” and that our hearts may shudder while reading them. Her new book’s first sentence is, “War, again.” As you read on, you can’t help but mourn for the children of Vietnam: those who were orphaned, those who never knew their American fathers, and all of those who suffered as a result of the war.

We read how French rubber tree plantation managers were forced to negotiate with Americans about the number of trees to cut down to clear the way for vehicles to pass through. In exchange, they were promised protection against U.S. bombs and defoliants.

Thuy writes that combat zones “were likely the only places where human beings became equal to each other through their mutual annihilation.” We read of a young girl carried away from violence and danger by her nanny yet, “Like a cut flower, her childhood faded before it had bloomed.”

We witness the horror of the My Lai massacre. “No one suspected that they were going to set fire to the huts while shooting their weapons with the same eagerness at chickens and humans.” For some involved, “Time would recede, become virgin again, and would begin anew at the origin of the world.” A survivor is unable to remember faces because, “maybe war machines don’t have a human face.”

There is a brief love affair, but even love is orphaned following an accidental death. There are orphans who become prostitutes out of necessity. A young boy with an American father is as completely orphaned as a child can be since he doesn’t even have a name. There are “child-adults.” There are orphans who find other abandoned orphans and bond with them.

We witness the immolation of monks. We watch as Operation Babylift takes thousands of orphans away from the war-torn country. But even there we witness tragedy as the first plane explodes in the air. We watch as the city of Saigon falls to the communists in 1975. And then when it looks like everything has ended, the long-term effects of Agent Orange remain. Always—and still—there is Agent Orange.

In the chapter titled “Points of View,” Thuy writes: “The Americans speak of the ‘Vietnam War,’ the Vietnamese of the ‘American War.’ The distinction is perhaps what explains the cause of that war.”

Kim Thuy ends her unforgettable, softly told story with a reminder that all Vietnamese people, “no matter where they live, descend from a love story between a woman of the immortal race of faeries and a man of the blood of dragons.”  

–Bill McCloud

The Asian Queen by Fred Yager

Fred Yager’s, The Asian Queen (Hannacroix Creek Books, 195 pp. $16.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), is a delightful homage to the book and classic Humphrey Bogart/Katherine Hepburn film, The African Queen. Yager, a poet and novelist, served in the U.S. Navy, including an eighteen-month tour of duty as an embedded journalist and designated war correspondent in the Vietnam War.

The novel is set in 1977 with Monty Tipton living aboard his 32-foot refurbished Navy PBR while he motors up and down the rivers of Vietnam and its neighboring countries. Tipton’s a veteran of the Vietnam War who has decided to stay in Southeast Asia. His boat has been his home for the last eight of his 32 years. He has a reputation for being a loner with a weakness for booze and young Thai girls.

Tipton has been making his living—enough to keep him in fuel and cans of Foster’s beer—by smuggling Cambodians out of the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge at a hundred bucks a head. It’s becoming increasingly dangerous, though, and Tipton tells himself that he might just make one last trip into Cambodia.

He typically takes his human cargo to a refugee camp in Thailand. A young woman, Esther Brafford, has recently begun working at the camp, which is sponsored by the U.N. Refugee Commission. She would like to go into Cambodia and treat people. She’s also heard of atrocities on a mass scale being carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Since the U.N. and the U.S. government seem to be ignoring the atrocities, she wants to bring back photographic evidence that would push the Western world to step in.  

Fred Yager

Esther recruits our reluctant, antihero to take her into Cambodia by telling him she knows the location of some buried treasure. After a couple of days on their way to a country that Tipton says “smells like death,” Esther learns that the boat’s engine is on its last legs and her companion typically drinks ten beers a day, then has to drink Jack Daniels at night to stave off nightmares of the war.

They dodge mines, fend off frightening water rats, and evade gunboat blockades. The two are constantly bickering. She calls him a “disgusting degenerate alcoholic.” He counters with: “Of all the boats in the Delta, why’d she have to come aboard mine?”

Writing an homage to a classic work is not as easy as you might think. You don’t just copy the work; you tell a similar, recognizable tale while maintaining the spirit of the original one. Fred Yeager has done that—and more—and in the process has created a love letter to the original film.

–Bill McCloud

If You Walk Long Enough by Nancy Hartney

Nancy Hartney’s new novel, If You Walk Long Enough (Wild Rose Press, 282 pp. $16.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), centers on returning war veterans and the loved ones they are returning to.

Main character Reid Holcombe is on his way home to Beaufort, South Carolina, after a couple of tours in the Vietnam War and the completion of his military service. He takes his time getting home. He winds up hanging out in airports because he’s in no hurry to return to his estranged wife and the family tobacco farm that his sister runs. Mainly, he’s just not sure what he wants to do.

When Reid finally calls his wife, she says, “Come home. I need to make sure you’re not a ghost.” She also says she’s concerned because she can no longer picture him or “smell his essence.”

But instead of returning to the house he shares with his wife, Reid decides to move into a nearby family farm and go to work helping his sister get the tobacco in. Still, he’s not happy about getting back to the fields; he’d joined the Army because he saw it as his ticket off the farm. His sister tells him she knows he didn’t write home because of all the stuff he was dealing with, but then tells him: “Hard stuff happened here, too.”

Hartney writes that even though Reid was far away from the war, he “ate fast, gobbling before the next mortar round hit.” He learns that Big Tobacco companies are trying to squeeze out small farms. At the same time, his neighbors—a Black family whose son also served during the war—are facing increasingly serious racial harassment. Reid begins thinking of South Carolina and Vietnam as “two places, different and the same.”

He continues to stay away from his wife, considering himself to be divorced in all but the strictly legal sense. For her part, Hartney writes, his wife sometimes “wished him dead in Vietnam—only to wither from guilt at the thought.” She also flirted with having a relationship while he was gone, while he has his own wartime secret.

Nancy Hartney

Feeling a sense of crushing guilt from what he did in Vietnam and the secret he still carries from it—while at the same time wrestling with new relationships with family and neighbors—Reid finds himself fighting Big Tobacco and the sickening racism he had not faced before going to Vietnam.

The book is divided into 62 short chapters with most of the story taking place in 1970. Hartney’s novel expresses beautifully the reality of veterans returning home from Vietnam to a world that had not stood still while they were gone. 

(Full disclosure: I am thanked on the Acknowledgments section of this book based on a few conversations I had with the author and my early reading of the manuscript.)

Hartney’s website is https://nancyhartney.com/

–Bill McCloud

Kurt Langer: Nemesis of Terror by Geoff Widders

Geoff Widders’ Kurt Langer: Nemesis of Terror (313 pp. $11.91, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction that tells the amazing story of Kurt Langer through the eyes of the main character, Jimmy Greer. Like old pulp novels, this book it tells a tale of a larger-than-life hero in an exaggerated manner.

As a reminder, Geoff Widders is the author, Kurt Langer the hero, and Jimmy Greer tells the story.

In 1968, Langer is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. For two years, he tries to stay sane by singing a Creedence Clearwater Revival song to himself that he remembers from basic training. A tiny bit of research reveals that that’s not possible, though, because that song was released in late 1970.

Langer frequently fantasizes about escaping. But each morning, Widders writes, he wakes up “from the world of nightmare into a nightmarish world.”

Finally, his chance to escape comes when a female VC falls for him. She realizes that something sets Langer apart from the other men. In a way, it was as if he is “other-worldly.” We learn that Langer becomes “a legend” the night he and the woman escape, then later directs an assault on the POW camp resulting in the release of all of his fellow captives.

We now move to 1976 and learn a little of narrator Jimmy Greer’s background, including how he wound up in Turkey where he met a beautiful older woman who reminds him of a Rider Haggard action-adventure-novel heroine. They hook up and then he is forced to go on the run with a different woman. That’s when he runs into the legendary Langer. After learning only that Langer had served in the Vietnam War, Greer thinks: “This guy may have killed tens or even hundreds of the enemy.”

Greer goes on to describe Langer as a man with “a classic thousand-yard stare,” the kind of guy who was “able to parachute, alone, into enemy territory” and “had seen events and had experiences that we should not see or feel.” Widders adds that Langer’s experiences in the war sent him “loop-de-loop.” On the other hand, he portrays Langer as the kind of guy who makes people braver just by being around him.

Geoff Widders

Moving again into the future we learn that Langer gets involved in a criminal act and is incarcerated for decades. Once he’s released, it’s just in time for him for the 74-year-old Vietnam vet to shut down a gigantic planned Islamic attack on San Francisco.

Once that was resolved, Widders writes, “The whole world came to know the name Kurt Langer.”

This is a pulp adventure with a larger-than-life hero and lots of exaggeration. When writing about a murder, for example, Widders mentions that there are “tens of thousands of homicides each year in California,” when, in fact, there’s only been one year that reached 4,000.

So, perhaps it’s best while reading this book to think of it as a story set in an alternate place and time. That way it works pretty well.

–Bill McCloud

Elsewhere Than Vietnam by David Schwartz

Elsewhere Than Vietnam: A Story of the Sixties (261 pp. Sticky Earth, $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a quite enjoyable novel. The author, David Schwartz, served as a U.S. Army Czech language intelligence interrogator in Germany from 1969-72. The title comes from a 1971 Armed Forces Journal article by Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr. in which he wrote that the morale of U.S. troops in Vietnam was lower “than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.” The colonel then added: “Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious.”

It’s the “elsewhere” that this story is concerned with, mainly antiwar protests on college campuses and underground resistance in the active-duty military, both in the U.S. and on bases abroad.

Schwartz’s main character Steven Miller is a student at Yale University in 1968 and, along with all the other young men on campus and around the nation, he finds that he is constantly thinking about the military draft.

“We knew the war was wrong,” we learn from Miller, “and we didn’t want to be involved in it.” Before long, though, he loses his student deferment and receives a draft classification of I-A, fit for service. “Fit to shoot people,” Miller thinks, “and fit to be shot at in return, simply because their ideas were not our ideas.” He begins attending meetings on resisting the draft. And then he gets a letter to report for induction.

Miller realizes he’s not brave enough to flee to Canada and wonders if his new girlfriend will wait for him for a couple of years. At Fort Dix he passes the stockade and hears another GI say, “The Army had to invent something worse than Vietnam to get people to go there.”

He begins “learning how to soldier. The soldier was the opposite of the student. The student should engage in critical thinking; the soldier should not question what he is told.” Miller’s goal is to avoid being sent to Vietnam. So he agrees to extend his service time a year in exchange for being sent to the Army’s Czech language school. Whenever possible, he goes off base to a local coffeehouse, the headquarters of a local radical newspaper and the scene of frequent antiwar discussions.

Miller graduates from language school and is sent to Fort Holabird in Baltimore for interrogation training. Here he learns that “it is a misconception that you need a cruel streak to excel as an interrogator. You just need to be a good actor.” Nothing is said about physical torture.

Miller’s then shipped to Germany where he works on developing intelligence reports. A German girl tells him that Americans are always immediately recognizable because they “all walk around loose and relaxed, like cowboys.” He continues to lead a double life: being a good soldier on-base while getting involved in resistance activities outside the gates.

The subtitle, A Story of the Sixties, is certainly accurate and everything in this novel rings true. This is a book about an honorable, conflicted man who gives his body and mind to the military, but not his heart and soul. It is a good story about a good man.

–Bill McCloud

Snow in Seattle by Amy M. Le

snowinseattle

Amy M. Le’s Snow in Seattle (Quill Hawk Publishing, 262 pp. $16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), hardcover; ) is a work of fiction based on a true story that continues the tale she began in her very enjoyable debut novel, Snow in Vietnam. The adventures of members of her family serve as the basis for both novels.

Snow is the name of the main character. Along with her young daughter and teenage nephew, she fled Vietnam a few years after the takeover of the south by communist forces. Snow in Seattle begins about six months after the end of the previous book.

Snow relocates to Seattle after being sponsored by Skyler Herrington and hosted by the First Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Herrington was the best friend of Cpl. Sam Hammond, the American soldier Snow loved in Vietnam. Hammond was killed in action in 1972.  Herrington and Snow are both dealing with PTSD as a result of their experiences in Vietnam. Different ghosts haunt them. As Snow puts it: “I am tired of living within my memories.”

It’s early 1980 and people are still talking about the recent eruption of Mt. Saint Helens. Snow has lots of adjustments to make. There are cold mornings, and for a while she notices she is continuing to eat the plentiful food at the family’s table even after she is full. She eventually needs to get a job and learn to drive so she can get the independence she longs for.

Raising her young daughter and teenage nephew in the U.S., sending them to local schools and watching them play with neighborhood kids, she’s determined to try to instill Vietnamese values, beliefs, and identity into them. “We may be living among the Westerners,” Snow says, “but we must never give up our roots.”

While reading Snow’s story of learning to make a new home in America we have a chance to see the many things that we take for granted. It’s especially notable as the family experiences new foods, American holidays, and sayings that are commonplace but require a serious familiarity with the language to understand. After a year, the family is speaking two languages at home while constantly keeping the television on to continue to learn English.

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Amy Le

What I especially enjoyed about Le’s two novels is her literary mastery of real life. As you read the book’s dialogue it’s as if you’re actually hearing the words with your ears instead of reading them with your eyes. That is a true gift.

Too often, even today, when people say the word  “Vietnam,” they are referring to the Vietnam War. Le’s novels, based on her family’s true story, help American readers see that Vietnam is a country, not a war–and one that many of its people felt forced to flee. It’s the amazing strength of those people that Le illustrates so well in these novels.

The author’s website is amy-m-le.com

–Bill McCloud