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review 2018-08-10 19:48
A blend of psychological (noir) thriller with domestic drama, with a conflicted
Saigon Dark - Elka Ray

Thanks to the publishers, Crime Wave, for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This novel is a thriller that takes place within the domestic sphere and one of its unique features is that it is set (mostly) in Vietnam. The main character is a paediatric surgeon, Lily, whose family escaped to the United States when she was a child, and after studying Medicine decided to go back and work there. Although she is a successful professional, her personal life is not a happy one. Her husband, another doctor from a similar background to hers, has left her, and her youngest child, a little girl, suffers from a rare genetic condition, and she does not know how well she will develop. Tragedy strikes; the character seems unable to react rationally due to the pain and makes one disastrous decision after another. We all know that secrets have a way of coming back and biting us, and although Lily is quite lucky, not even she can escape the consequences of her actions, or can she? (I am trying not to reveal any spoilers).

The novel is told, in the first-person, from the point of view of Lily, and as was the case with a recent novel in the same/similar genre I read and reviewed, that might be a problem for some of the readers. It is impossible not to empathise with Lily, and although some of her reactions are bizarre, the author is very good at getting us inside her head and making us understand her disturbed mental state. Perhaps we think we would never do something like that, but we can understand why she does. Personally, I did not sympathise with her (or even like her very much) and at times felt very frustrated with her. I had to agree when one of the other characters told her that she was selfish, blind to other’s needs, and she never thought of anybody else. This is all the more evident considering her privileged existence in contrast to that of the general population, and how much of what happens is a direct result of her actions and her decisions, whilst others are victims of the circumstances with no options to escape. She seems to realise this towards the end, when even her son is more together than her, but all that notwithstanding, the action of the novel is gripping, and it is impossible not to feel curious about what will happen next and wonder if fate and karma will finally catch up with her.

The novel moves at a reasonable pace, at times we seems to be reading a standard domestic drama (about child-rearing and the relationship with her new husband), whilst at others it is an almost pure thriller, and we have blackmailers, red herrings, betrayals, and plenty of suspects. I think those two elements are well-combined and are likely to appeal to fans of both genres, although those who love hard thrillers might take issue with the amount of suspension of disbelief required to accept some of the events in the novel.

The ending is fairly open. Some questions (perhaps the main one) are resolved, but some others are not, and this might be frustrating for readers who prefer everything to be tied up in the end. There is a hint of some insight and growth in the character, but perhaps not enough considering the hard lessons she’s gone through.

There is some violence (although not extreme), serious issues are hinted at (domestic violence, poverty, bullying), and I particularly liked the realistic setting, and the way it depicts Vietnam, Hanoi and Saigon, the big social differences, and the expat scene.

In sum, a blend of psychological (noir) thriller with domestic drama, intriguing and heart-breaking at times, which takes place in an unusual and fascinating setting, recommended to those who don’t mind first-person narration and slightly open endings and who prefer their thrillers with more drama and less emphasis on procedural accuracy.

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text 2018-08-01 01:41
The Inspiration, Sorrow, and Triumph of the Vietnam Veteran

I met Steve Schaefer in the early years of this decade because of our shared association with Pillars of Honor, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to giving a day of honor to World War II veterans too weak to take their Honor Flight.  After my husband and I opened each program with World War II songs, Steve, the Pillars of Honor president, would give a few remarks, always introducing himself as a Vietnam veteran, the son of a World War II veteran.

 

It didn’t take long to connect the dots: Steve’s service had been inspired by his dad’s. And the younger Schaefer was every inch the elder had been, serving three tours in Vietnam and earning four Purple Hearts.

 

 

War has always produced heroes, a fact understood by young men of all time. Jurate Kazickas, a combat reporter who witnessed young Americans come under fire in Vietnam, wrote: “War, for all its brutality and horror, nevertheless offered men an opportunity like no other to be fearless and brave, to be selfless, to be a hero.” (1) Like Steve, many of the young men Kazickas met had been inspired by the heroism of the previous generation.

 

Those fighting on the other side were infused with their own historical perspective. When the Viet Minh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, they were hailed as national heroes. So it was hardly surprising that the Viet Minh remaining in the south after the civil war began were quickly given a new name by their enemies: Viet Cong, short for Viet Nam Cong San, the Vietnamese Communists. Vietnamese soldiers working for the southern government would be hard pressed to fight with any enthusiasm against the Viet Minh, their own Greatest Generation.

 

But if war provides an opportunity for heroism, it also, of necessity inflicts wounds. Viet Cong fighters and soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army were patched up by Communist medics in the south who were constantly on the run, changing locations almost as often as they changed bandages. One of these, surgeon Dang Thuy Tram, was moved to give her fallen patients poetic tribute in her diary: “Oh, Bon, your blood has crimsoned our native land. . . . Your heart has stopped so that the heart of the nation can beat forever.” (2)

 

Thuy and the American nurses featured in my book, Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, couldn’t help becoming emotionally attached to their patients, who, even if they had joined up to become heroes, were reduced to mere boys when wounded. Years after his hospitalization in Vietnam, Air Cavalry Sergeant Robert McCance wrote a note of thanks to his nurse, Anne Koch, acknowledging that he had then “really needed the touch of a mother’s hand.” (3)

 

Female medics on both sides of the conflict gave that motherly touch. But as Lynda van Devanter, US Army nurse in Vietnam wrote later, “Holding the hand of one dying boy could age a person ten years. Holding dozens of hands could thrust a person past senility in a matter of weeks.” (4)

 

Anne Koch. 

 

The war wounded these healers. Thuy was killed before it ended. Most of the American nurses survived but suffered decades of inner pain, which matched, or perhaps in some cases outstripped, the outward suffering of their broken, bleeding, dying patients, images that were often etched permanently in the nurses’ minds.

 

After the war, the eerie silence between the two enemies once locked in mortal combat represented oceans of hurt; all attempts to move past the war seemed hollow when veterans on both sides were suffering. The southern Vietnamese soldiers were given absolutely nothing except, in many instances, a one-way ticket to a cruel reeducation camp. If they were fortunate enough to emerge alive, mere shadows of their former selves, they saw that the new government had obliterated all memorials to their dead comrades.

 

Post-war life was also bitter for the victors. The rumored riches in the south had been exaggerated and the new country’s economy disastrously unable to provide for its people, much less its fighters. Many female veterans hoped that victory would bring an opportunity to raise a family in peace. But the long, grueling years of war left too many unable to bear children even if they could find someone amid the surviving males to marry them.

 

Most American female veterans went on to live outwardly normal lives but they, like their male counterparts, received no recognition for many years. This was, perhaps Steve Schaefer’s biggest wound and one that should have earned him—and all the other vets—an additional Purple heart. The inability of family and friends to comprehend what they had experienced, on the one hand, and the lack of respect from strangers on the other, exacerbated the inner pain overwhelming these veterans.

 

But perhaps the most inspiring stories of the Vietnam War occurred at this point. While post-traumatic stress is as old as combat, the suffering of Vietnam veterans gave it a name. A brotherhood of the war-wounded was formed and, as my book illustrates, a sisterhood as well. Lynda van Devanter founded the Women’s Project at the Vietnam Veteran’s of America. Kay Bauer, a US Navy nurse who was targeted by domestic terrorists after the war, created a PTSD program for female Vietnam veterans in Minneapolis, her hometown. And Diane Carlson Evans, who wrote my book’s forward, spearheaded the difficult ten-year project to honor all the women veterans of the war with their own memorial in Washington, D.C. The unveiling of that memorial on November 11, 1993, was a time of honor, personal healing, and numerous reunions between female medics and their patients.

 

 

Many Vietnam veterans, male and female, would eventually succumb to the effects of Agent Orange. Steve Schaefer was one of these. But like so many veterans of that war, Steve had found a way to move forward in his life long before it ended. He led local veteran’s associations and helped the homeless for decades, and in his final years worked tirelessly to give tribute to the generation that had inspired him.

 

  1. Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, 89.
  2. Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, 129.
  3. Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, 119.
  4. Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, 145.

 

 

Top photo: Jurate Kazickas. 

Bottom photos, left to right: Dang Thuy Tram, Bobbi Hovis, Lynda van Devanter, Kay Bauer. 

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text 2018-06-30 02:54
A diary, a memoir, and a war.

Dang Thuy Tram is pictured on the far left, Lynda Van Devanter second from right. 

 

Because one of my goals in writing Courageous Women of the Vietnam War was to understand the conflict from multiple perspectives, I tried to feature women from different sides within each chronological segment. In the section labeled "Richard Nixon's 'Peace'", I included the story of Communist surgeon, Dang Thuy Tram, and American nurse, Lynda Van Devanter and found them to be movingly similar.

 

In 1969 Dang Thuy Tram was a three-year graduate from medical school and Lynda van Devanter a newly trained nurse. These young women could have put their skills to use in relative safety but chose instead to serve their countries -- North Vietnam and the United States, respectively--by going into a war zone: South Vietnam. 

 

The United States had just sworn in a new president whose campaign promise had been “an honorable end” to the Vietnam War. Precisely what Richard Nixon meant by those words would not become clear till much later, but nothing he said before his inauguration or anything he did afterwards could shake the resolve of the leader in North Vietnam who remained determined to see Vietnam united. In the same month Nixon began his presidency, Thuy, already working with the VC in the south and longing to be accepted into the Communist party,  copied a speech from Ho Chi Minh in her diary:

 

…This year greater victories are assured at the battlefront. For independence—for freedom. Fight until the Americans leave, fight until the puppets fall. Advance soldiers, compatriots. North and South reunified, no other spring more joyous. (1)

 

Ideology also spurred Lynda into the war. On night, during her last year of nursing school, she made up her mind to join the army and go to Vietnam, believing that the US was “pursuing a course that President Kennedy had talked about in his inaugural address: we were saving a country from Communism.” (2)

 

There were brave boys fighting and dying for democracy…And if our boys were being blown apart, then somebody better be over there putting them back together again. I started to think that maybe that somebody should be me. (3)

 

Thuy traveled down the dangerous Ho Chi Minh trail and landed in the Quang Ngai Province, an area with a history of intense resistance to foreigners. On June 9, 1969, just six months after Thuy recorded Ho’s speech in her diary, Lynda became one of those foreigners, working 244 miles away at the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleikuk.

 

Both Thuy and Linda were involved in life-saving surgeries and both found triage emotionally difficult. Lynda stated it bluntly: “Essentially we were deciding who would live and who would die.” (4) She later described her first experience of a “mal-cal”—a mass casualty situation:

 

The moans and screams of so many wounded were mixed up with the shouted orders of doctors and nurses. One soldier vomited on my fatigues while I was inserting an IV needle into his arm. Another grabbed my hand and refused to let go. A blond infantry lieutenant begged me to give him enough morphine to kill him so he wouldn’t feel any more pain. A black sergeant went into a seizure and died while Carl and I were examining his small frag wound. (5) 

 

When Thuy’s team decided to not operate on a dying patient, she “conformed to the majority’s opinion” but poured regret into her diary:

 

He died with a small notebook in his breast pocket. It held many pictures of a girl with a lovely smile and a letter assuring him of her steely resolution to wait for his return. On his chest, there was a little handkerchief with the embroidered words Waiting for you. Oh, that girl waiting for him! Your lover will never come back; the mourning veil on your young head will be heavy with pain. It will mark the crimes committed by the imperialist killers and my regret, the regret of a physician who could not save him when there was a chance. (6) 

 

Thuy never wavered in support of her government’s war aims. While the war was absolute hell for most Vietnamese people, it wasn't hard for Ho Chi Minh's followers to keep their motivations stoked. The US, in their minds, was simply following China and France as the most recent colonizer and the southerners, they thought, were wealthy traitors. Each new Viet Cong or NVA death increased Thuy's hatred for the enemy and her desire for victory.

 

Every American death had the opposite effect on people like Lynda; it was difficult for the average American serving in Vietnam to maintain their ideological reasons for supporting the war. How was their presence promoting democracy, exactly? Increasingly haunted by the deaths of far too many young Americans under her care, Lynda wrote home, “We should either pull out of Vietnam or hit the hell out of the NVA. This business of pussyfooting around is doing nothing but harm. It’s hurting our GIs, the people back home, and our image abroad.” 

 

The war had a devastating effect on the lives of both women. It ended Thuy’s--she was shot by an American bullet sometime in June, 1970. Lynda boarded her “freedom flight” that same month but returned home to face the hostility of strangers, the misunderstanding and indifference of friends and family, and years of untreated PTSD. 

 

But their stories were destined to have major post-war impact. When Lynda wrote her moving war memoir, Home Before Morning, in 1983, it became a bestseller, inspired the award-winning China Beach series, and illuminated the unique plight of American Vietnam War nurses.

 

Thuy’s diary was found by an American military intelligence officer who took it home but brought it back to Vietnam in 2005 where it was published that year. There were plenty of war memoirs and biographies in Vietnam by this time, but Thuy’s diary revealed the voice of a flesh and blood human being who questioned her own motives, grieved for the lost, and hoped for an end to the war; she was not a hero carved in marble spouting all the correct sentiments. Last Night I Dreamed of Peace became a bestseller and was translated into English in 2007.

 

War inflicts wounds not only on those who fight in them but on those who dedicate themselves to heal wounded warriors. Thuy and Lynda paid dearly for choosing the role of healers but they became the voices of their generations, and in speaking from their frame of reference, helped countless readers understand the war from the other side.

 

1. Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, 125. 

2. Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam by Lynda van Devanter, 49. 

3. Courageous Women, 137.  

4. Courageous Women, 138. 

5. Courageous Women, 142. 

6. Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram99-100.

7. Courageous Women, 145. 

 

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text 2018-05-17 16:14
Amazing!!!
Courageous Women of the Vietnam War: Medics, Journalists, Survivors, and More (Women of Action) - Kathryn J. Atwood,Diane Carlson Evans

Okay, first of all, let me say that before this book I knew next to nothing about the Vietnam War. For the past three years, Kathryn J. Atwood has sent me each of her books to review. So, after I received this book in the mail, I dove right in, eager to fill in the gaps.

Reading “Courageous Women of the Vietnam War” has been quite an education for me. Not only did it recount how America was drawn in and why, it went all the way back to the roots of war. Reading the stories of the Vietnamese girls and women, who yearned for nothing more than to be free, touched my heart. They simply wanted to live in a world untouched by war. Then learning how many American women voluntarily went over as nurses and even journalists, was extraordinary. Not only did they set foot in an uncharted territory, they did it knowing that some back home did not support them or their sacrifices. But it was the story of Phan Thi Kim Phuc and her journey to freedom that has stayed with me, and inspired me to do further research. I really highly recommend all of Kathryn’s books, but especially this one, because the Vietnam War is an important part of history and it should never be forgotten. 

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review 2018-05-07 16:11
Forgiveness In The First Degree (True Crime Account) by Rondol Hammer & Phillip Robinson, with Margot Starbuck
Forgiveness In The First Degree - Rondol Hammer,Phillip Robinson,Margot Starbuck

The gun was never supposed to go off. When a drug dealer assured twenty-nine-year-old Ron Hammer and his brother-in-law that they could make some quick easy money, they were intrigued. He promised them that when a local grocer delivered a bag of money to his store to cash Friday paychecks, they only needed to show him a gun and he d hand over the bag. But high on meth and dulled by liquor, they ended up in a scuffle with their target, and the gun accidentally fired. And when Phillip Robinson rushed from the shelves he d been stocking to investigate the commotion at the front of the store, he saw his father lying on the sidewalk, dying. The lives of Ron Hammer and Phillip Robinson, whose paths should only have ever crossed at the grocery checkout line, became inextricably linked by one foolish decision that would shatter a web of lives. Over three decades the two men came to discover not only that they both needed to be set free, but that in God s unlikely economy of redemption their liberation was bound up with one another. Like the famous prodigal son and his dutiful older brother, the moving story of Phillip Robinson and Rondol Hammer reveals how two men wrestling with law and grace discover unlikely redemption. 

~from back cover

 

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This book discusses the topics of attempted suicide, murder and otherwise extreme violence (mainly in the form of prison stories that describe scenes of eyes being gouged out and ears bitten off)

 

In 1986, twenty-seven year old auto mechanic & Vietnam veteran Ron Hammer, high on meth, carries out armed robbery at a local grocery store. In the process, Ron unintentionally kills the father of the store's assistant manager, Phillip Robinson. Hammer, along with his brother-in-law / robbery accomplice / fellow meth addict, flees the scene with the money. Though he evades escape for a time, Ron is eventually caught and sent to prison. The prison sentence forces him to quit meth cold turkey. It is also there in prison that he finds religion, leading him to the decision to approach the Robinson family with his honest apology for his irreversible actions. 

 

Though at the time of Ron's initial attempt at apology Phillip is a practicing Christian and aspiring pastor, the road to forgiving Ron proves to be a decades long journey. It is not until 1994 that Phillip finds himself ready to honestly hear Ron out on the topic of forgiveness. Once at that place, though, Phillip discovers the blessing that comes in the form of an emotional weight lifted he didn't even entirely realize he was carrying!

 

The format of this book alternates between Ron's point of view of the events, and then Phillip's. As far as the flow of the writing itself, I found Ron's portions of the story more compelling. When it came to Phillip's portions... him losing his father in such a violent way is undeniably tragic, but from a sheer matter of reading enjoyment, something about Phillip's portions came off as more boring and preachy. Not surprising, I suppose, as Phillip IS a preacher, but I'm just sharing the truth of my reading experience. 

 

Still, this story is an important one to be shared because look at the message it presents: a man finds it in his heart to bestow honest forgiveness on the man who murdered his father. If a person can do that, it makes any other seemingly "unforgiveable" dealbreaker-type situation easily traversable, doesn't it? There are also takeaways from the perspective of Ron: one can come back from a life thrown into a tailspin via drug addiction and go on to have a powerful testimony of a life bound to help others out of their emotional mires. The book definitely gives you material to think on. 

 

NOTE: This book does give spoilers for the film The Outlaw Josie Wales and Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables

 

FTC Disclaimer:  Blue Ridge CWC and FaithHappenings Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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