Monday, October 24, 2011

Books, Books, Books!

I have two new book reviews for you today, the first one written by yours truly and the second one written by Carl Brookins. Before I get to them, though, I have some good news to share. DARK THINGS II: CAT CRIMES will be released later this year in time for holiday gift giving. Published in both print and eBook format, this anthology features short stories in which cats play a major role in some pretty unusual crimes. I'm thrilled to report that my short story, "Diamonds Aren't Forever", will be included in the anthology. I don't want to give away the plot of my story yet, but stayed tuned because I'll be putting more information about the book and the charity it will benefit in my November blogs.

And now...on to the reviews!

Dear Priscilla
Mark Schweizer
Faintinggoat Press, 2011
ISBN 9780984484614
316 pages, $23.95

Mark Schweizer is best known for his nine Liturgical Mysteries, humorous tales of murder and mayhem set in the fictional town of St. Germaine, North Carolina (The Tenor Wore Tapshoes, The Alto Wore Tweed, etc.). With Dear Priscilla, Mr. Schweizer begins a new series set in 1943 Chicago that features Detective Merl Cahill, former Chicago Bears lineman turned policeman, and his bookie cop partner, Fish Biederman.

As the book's jacket so succinctly puts it, "Chicago in 1943 is a very lucrative place to be" if you're a cop. Crooks like Larry the Dip visit Cahill's Maxwell Street police station every Monday to deposit the squad's share of their weekly take. Guys like the Nowak brothers are just as helpful. Little Eddie is Fish's muscle man, brilliant at convincing people to pay up when they've lost a bet. Big Eddie is...well, 'really big!' says it all. And Just Plain Eddie, while neither big nor little, is the meanest of the three brothers. Just Plain Eddie is the man to go to when a cop needs a drop gun that can never be traced back to him. Last but not least, there are the merchants of Maxwell Street, a mile-long outdoor market where anything can be bought or sold. They're happy to service the police with everything from cut-rate overcoats to whispered-in-the-ear information.

All these sources come in handy when Merl and Fish investigate the murder of a young woman found beheaded in an Army duffle bag behind a Maxwell Street grocery store. Lacking the modern conveniences of today's police force, the two must trust their brains to decipher the few clues left at the scene of the crime. Their big break comes when The Chicago Times receives a letter from the killer addressed to "Dear Priscilla", the newspaper's lonely hearts columnist. When the woman who writes as Priscilla quits because she thinks the killer is targeting her, Merl is persuaded to take on the column as a side job. His rationale is simple: not only does The Times pay him more than the police department, but the job also allows him to keep in touch with the killer. This latter fact becomes even more important when the man strikes again.

Schweizer has a sure-fire winner in Dear Priscilla. Not only is the plot strong, but the characters are also some of the most entertaining to come along recently. Merl is more or less an easy going sort of guy, an ex-football player who left the game due to an injury and is now living on a limited income. He believes he might be engaged to a young woman he only sees on occasion (he didn't really propose, but he thinks she thinks they're engaged), but he's attracted to the first female cop ever promoted to the detective division. Merl is definitely not up to speed in the romance department, but it's fun watching the fireworks fly between him and the lady cop.

And then there's Fish, a complicated character if you ever met one. Addicted to yellow silk jackets, Fish sings tenor on Fridays at his synagogue and Danny Boy on other days at police funerals. His voice is outstanding, but his knowledge of the street and how to profit from it surpasses even his singing. He'll take a bet from anyone on anything; he pays off gracefully when he loses (which isn't often), and collects ruthlessly when he wins. Fish never falls for a hard luck story, but he's generous with his friends, especially Merl.

The other characters in this mystery are equally well drawn, and the dialogue fits both them and the era in which the story takes place. You don't have to be a Chicagoan to enjoy Schweizer's knowledge of the city and it's past. Schweizer describes places in Chicago with such accuracy that readers will almost smell the hogs in the Union Stockyard and taste the hotdogs once sold from carts at the now gone Maxwell Street market.

I've appreciated Schweizer's abilities as a writer ever since being introduced to his clever Liturgical Mysteries. His move to historical mysteries surprised me, but not as much as the ending of this book did. A bit of a shocker, it left me eagerly looking forward to the next offering in the Merl and Fish series.

by John Desjarlais
2011 trade paper release
from Sophia Institute Press
238 pages.

Set in rural Illinois, the novel follows disgraced DEA agent Selena De La Cruz as she tries to re-order her life into some semblance of normality after a drug raid gone bad results in a tragic aftermath. Leaving that life turns out to be more than just difficult. It is impossible. And so Selena leaves her insurance company and re-enters the dangerous world of undercover drug enforcement among a Latino population that is turbulent, ever-changing, and marked with friends who become enemies and family members short on understanding.

The author cleverly establishes Selena as an independent, capable woman beset on all sides by the chauvinism of her bosses and the cultural disapproval of her family. Good Latina women do not carry guns and arrest drug dealers. There is an invasive Latin Catholic presence throughout the book. The basic theme of the story is a list of names entered into a church’s Book of the Dead, requesting prayers for their souls. The problem is that the people represented are still alive as the book opens. But one by one they are murdered. Since Selena’s name is last on the list, she has more than usual reason to be concerned. Her interaction with law enforcement and Church officials becomes more and more intense as the list is shortened, one by one.

The novel is smoothly written, logical and mostly gripping. There are several sections of Aztec and other religious history and legends used by the author to explain some of the ritual Selena encounters which, while interesting in themselves, have a tendency to slow the narrative. Nevertheless, Viper is a worthwhile read, blending religious mystery with brutal modern crime.

Carl Brookins
Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Computer Frustration: How Not to Have a Good Day

Have you ever been so frustrated with your computer that you wanted to drop kick it right out the window? Happened to me last week, and this with a new, up-to-date, can-do-anything computer recently bought to replace my four-year-old dying one. this new one has Windows 7, so of course I have to relearn practically everything I thought I knew how to do. Grrr! But okay, I accept the fact that computer gurus love to 'simplify' things by making them more complicated. That's just a fact of life. Still, I didn't expect those complications would affect my ability to use the Internet.

Silly me.

Two weeks after installing the new computer, I began to have trouble connecting to the Internet. Didn't matter if it was morning, noon, or night, sometimes I connected immediately and sometimes I got that "Access Denied" message. Then I noticed that the green light on the modem wasn't lighting up, nor was the little world doodad on my router blinking as it did in the past. 'Ah ha!' I thought. Obviously something was wrong with my hook-up to AT&T.

After checking all my line connections and finding everything in order, I called AT&T for help. Of course, the first thing I got was an automated voice that informed me it would perform some tests on my line. After a minute or so of beep-beep-beep-beep, the voice informed me that everything was fine with my line and I should hang up and check my home connections, then turn off the computer, reboot it, and call back within 24 hours if that didn't solve the problem.

That's like a doctor saying, "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning." But I did as I was told, and guess what? Still no connection to the Internet. Rather than wait 24 hours, I called back immediately. Another pleasant but automated voice told me it would perform more testing. Again I was subjected to a series of beeps before the voice returned to inform me that I was being connected to a AT&T technician who would help solve my problem.

And yeah, you guessed right, I was connected to a gentleman in India who advised me to pull up Internet Explorer and put some numbers in the URL bar. I told him I couldn't get IE because I couldn't connect to the Internet. He said, "Try anyway." So I did, and I got an IE page saying "Access Denied" because I wasn't connected to the Internet. The technician dismissed this bit of news and insisted I enter the series of numbers he'd given me. Due to a slight language barrier problem, I had to ask him three times to repeat the numbers. When I finally had them straight, I hit the "Enter" button as requested, and of course got nothing since I WASN'T CONNECTED TO THE INTERNET.

At this point the technician made a fatal mistake.

He asked if he could speak with my husband.

I won't bother repeating my reply here since you've probably already guessed what I said to the man. Suffice it to say, he backed off pretty quickly. He then asked if I had a router, and when I said yes and gave him the router info -- name, serial number, etc -- he seemed very pleased. He told me he could solve my problem. I would just have to disconnect the router and he would hook me up to AT&T via my main computer. I would, of course, have to leave the router disconnected, meaning I'd have no Internet access on my laptop. Nor would my daughter have access on her laptop, the computer she uses for her college masters degree program.

Of course that was unacceptable, which I told the technician. Couldn't he hook me up to AT&T and then get it to work through the router, I asked? No, he said. He was sorry, but he hadn't been trained to do that.

At this point I exploded. Surprisingly, I didn't swear, but I did tell the man exactly what I thought of AT&T and their service technicians. I then hung up. I waited one day, then called AT&T again and got another automated voice. Once again we went through the beep-beep-beep of testing, then the voice kindly told me I had a connectivity problem. After banging my head on the wall a few times, I hung up and waited for my daughter to get home from school (she's a teacher) so she could call her boyfriend, a young man possessed of considerable computer savvy. He had originally installed the router, so I figured he'd know what to do.

And he did. It took him less than 5 minutes to find the problem: when we installed the new computer, we failed to link the Internet connection to the hard drive through the computer's program listing, so it had been giving us Internet access through wi-fi instead of through the phone line. Sometimes we got wi-fi, sometimes we didn't. (At least, that's what I think he said. His explanation was way over my head.)

Anyway, we are all now online all the time and happy to be so. As for AT&T, maybe they'd like to hire people who know what they're doing.

How about you? Happy with your service provider, or frustrated like I was?


Friday, September 30, 2011

Review of REUNION by Carl Brookins

by Carl Brookins
Trade paperback, 8/31/11
Echelon Press, 268 pages
ISBN 9781590806685

Jack Marston's past includes a stint in the Navy as a NCIS investigator. Now living a more sedate life as the director of student services at City College in Minneapolis, Jack has no idea his former occupation will prove useful when he accompanies the woman he loves to her twentieth-year high school reunion in the Minnesota farming community of Riverview. But he soon learns that psychologist Lori Jacobs' hometown in no way resembles the idyllic rural locale he imagined. Deeply held secrets dominate life in this pastoral setting of white-painted farmhouses and lush fields of wheat. Backbiting gossip, sly innuendo, and downright hostility mark the opening festivities of the class of '89's reunion. Unsettling as they may be for Jack, these activities pale in comparison to the gruesome murder of one of Lori's classmates outside Georgiana's 40-Mile Club.

Elroy Guteman's death puts a damper on, but doesn't stop, the weekend celebration. While Sheriff Arnason investigates the crime, the remaining members of Lori's class continue their scheduled activities in and around town. Then another former graduate winds up dead, and Arnason enlists Jack as a second pair of eyes and ears within the reunion group. What Jack observes is often confusing to him, but having grown up in Riverview, Lori is able to supply answers for most of his questions. Some of those answers exact a toll on Lori; resurrecting old memories requires her to face long denied demons from her early life.

Working as a team, the pair gradually pieces together a stunning puzzle that links underhanded deals and long forgotten deaths not only with people from Lori's past, but also with present residents of Riverview. But obtaining final justice isn't easy for Jack and Lori. Death and danger dog their every footstep as they pursue truth in a town dedicated to preserving easy lies.

Carl Brookins presents readers with a complicated but logically constructed story in REUNION. Jack and Lori are fabulous characters with strong personalities that mesh nicely even under stress. Other characters are equally believable and well described, as is the rural setting of Riverview. The author displays a keen awareness of life in small communities, where relationships between neighbors are generally close, and gossip and secrecy often distort the truth of a situation. This awareness is complimented by Brookins' understanding of rural economic conditions where farmers are held hostage to both the weather and the whims of the futures market. By introducing a third complication into this mix -- namely the mortgage-and-loan business -- Brookins successfully engages readers in not one, but two distinct mysteries within a single story. The plot moves along at a nice pace and is complimented by dialogue that is natural and flows smoothly. I greatly enjoyed this book. My only criticism of it concerns the number of characters with similar sounding names. With a cast as large as the one in REUNION, it was easy at times to confuse one minor character with another when their names sounded so alike.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Reviews by Carl Brookins

What would Monday be without some great book reviews by Carl Brookins? Without further ado...

Where Danger Hides
By Terry Odell
ISBN 978-1-43282-512-6
Five Star Mystery from Gale
May, 2011

The novel is a suspenseful thriller with a healthy dose of romance. Or maybe it’s a romantic thriller with a good deal of suspense that keeps this moving at a sometimes alarming pace. “Where Danger Hides” is both, and it’s also a fantasy in particular in the way and the speed with which the two principal characters are drawn together.

Miri Chambers is the caretaker and overseerer of a San Francisco shelter primarily for abused women. Galoway House also manages to shelter and care for a number of children and men, as well. There’s a lot more to Miri Chambers. She is adept at disguise, light-fingered, and as prickly as one can get. Two wrong words and she is liable to go off like a rocket. That propensity for shoot-from-the-hip judgments and attitude may also be the reason for her nearly unbelieveable hormonal response to the hunk she meets on a clandestine foray into the home office of a wealthy art patron.

Her reaction to “just” Dalton isn’t much different from his. He works for a private security firm that has a large well-funded and mostly covert group of operatives working well outside the usual legal limits. Dalton, one of Blackthorn’s elite black ops operatives, has an appreciated eye for female anatomy wherever he finds it, including hiding under the desk of the aforementioned wealthy San Francisco Art patron.

Dalton and Miri Chambers are all fire and sparks and hot sex throughout this rollicking novel. The author has created a pair of characters who could each carry the novel solo, but when you pair them, look out.

The action carries Dalton and Chambers from posh and elegant settings to gritty exceedingly dangerous operations. Readers are not likely to predict each succeeding move. One is required to suspend disbelief and recognize from the outset that explicit play, both sexual and with firearms, is integral to the story. Nevertheless, the plot is carefully and fully laid out, the dialogue is mostly logical, and the tension carries well through the entire book. Gritty, tender, frustrating by turns, I did feel that there were times when both characters exhibited too obtuse attitudes and were slower on the uptake than they should have been, given their life experiences.

Nevertheless, this is a fun read that makes several important points along the way.

Danger In Deer Ridge
by Terry Odell
e-book available at all the usual retailers.
released in 2011

All right, so there’s a big fat coincidence at the beginning of the novel. These things happen in real life so why not in crime fiction? The coincidence does not, however, make things easier at the beginning for Elizabeth Parker. Even late into the novel the woman has understandable trust issues. Paranoia is always nearby.

Elizabeth is running from an abusive marriage and has taken her son deep underground. The problem is, that isn’t all she took with her when she disappeared from the relationship and from her home city.

The characters in the novel are well-written and develop in reasonable and meaningful ways within the fabric of the story, and that includes most of the relatively minor ones. The setting, rural mountainous Colorado, is both beautiful and menacing at times. Two major threads, often in conflict, wind through the novel. In order to remain free and see her son develop a normal life, Elizabeth must try to set aside all-encompassing suspicion and mistrust. Beyond that, she has to develop some real relationships. No one can live in society without relating to others, even if it’s just arms-length situations. For Elizabeth, a healthy woman with normal drives, that is difficult. To return to anything approaching a normal life, she also needs to resolve the dangers still associated with her former husband.

Odell has a good handle on Parker character and the themes of the novel. I look for more worthwhile reading from her.

The Rock Hole
by Reavis Z. Wortham
ISBN: 978-1-59058-884-0
2011 release from Poisoned Pen Press. HC, 284 pages

A sensitive, suspenseful debut crime novel. Full of twists, wry and earthy humor, it epitomizes the grit, the patience and the perseverance, of middle America. Folks who grew up in Texas, where the novel is set, or anywhere in the belt that runs from the northwest angle of Minnesota to the Padre Islands and from the middle of Pennsylvania
to Cody, Wyoming, will recognize themselves in this novel. Their humor, their practicality, their keen natural observations, are all here to savor.

Welcome to 1964. In Center Springs, Texas, farmer and part-time constable Ned Parker is faced with a puzzling series of animal deaths. That they are brutal, atrocious, unnecessary killings only adds to the tension and suspense. Across the river, the black deputy, John Washington, is trying to find reasons for the same killings, while also dealing with the added difficulties of racism in the county. All these factors entwine to create a real and growing calamity for the small communities in the county surrounding Center Springs. As the killings continue, strange footprints are found near bedroom windows and citizens begin to carry weapons and look suspiciously at their neighbors.

Laced with forthright humor, the novel proceeds at a racing pace through event after event as suspicion grows and plot twist after twist keeps readers off-balance until the stunning climax is reached. Ned Parker is a real character who carries the story in an authentic and realistic manner.

The novel is not without its problems. Abrupt and annoying changes of points of view are occasionally confusing, but the writing, like the stories within the narrative, is solid. This is an eminently satisfying novel. I look forward to the next.

Carl Brookins
Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky

Carl's latest book is REUNION, a Jack Marston mystery, that I'll be reviewing here shortly. Jack works with adult students at City College while his lover, Lori Jacobs, is a psychologist and part-time employee of the same institution of higher learning. Returning to Riverview, Minnesota, for Lori's 20th year high school reunion gives Jack an opportunity to learn more about Lori and her life before they met. Unfortunately, it also puts him smack dab in the middle of a gruesome murder case involving one of Lori's former classmates. Stay tuned for the full review of this puzzling new mystery by accomplished writer Carl Brookins.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Responding to False Email Stories

Several days ago, a friend sent me this photo and the others shown here in an email. The text accompanying them read: "Wow! Your tax dollars at work! Can you guess what this is?? It is the new Cook County Correctional Center in Chicago, Illinois. This is where the Administration plans on putting the terrorists from Gitmo, and we have Americans living in cardboard boxes on the streets that have never killed anyone. Nothing makes sense anymore. How's that compare with "Sheriff Joe's" prison in Arizona???? PLEASE PASS THIS ON! MOST PEOPLE DO NOT KNOW THIS!!"

Well, there's a reason most people don't know this, and that's because it's not true. Oh, sure. If you live in Chicago, you'd recognize the pictures as false. For one thing, like a lot of states, Illinois is broke. It has no money to pay for new correction centers, nor does Cook County, the county in which Chicago lies, have any money. I know, because the Cook County Board is always pushing for new taxes to support itself.

To the right is a picture of a cell in the supposed "new" Cook County Correctional Center. To the left is a picture of a cell in the REAL Cook County Department of Corrections facility at 2700 South California in Chicago. Built in 1929 during the administration of Mayor Anton Cermak, the facility covers 96 acres, over eight city blocks, and looks its age.

Another picture of a REAL cell at the jail. Not quite as comfy looking as the one above, is it. And compare the below picture of the REAL cell catwalk in the jail with the second picture above, the supposed "new" cell catwalk. Again, no bright airy look to the scene as in the false pictures, just a no-nonsense walkway that restricts crowding by prisoners.

This is a view from the supposed "new" jail showing an inmate sitting on a porch looking out at the beautiful countryside. In reality, all prisoners can see from their windows in the REAL Cook County jail is blocks of old factories, railroad tracks, and parking lots. This next picture is what Cook County inmates see from the 'recreational' area of the facility -- no basketball courts or fancy running tracks as shown in the false pictures, most of which I've chosen not to include here.

The truth is, all those "false" pictures were of the Justice and Detention Center in Leoben, Austria. Designed by architect Josef Hohenstinn, the facility houses both court rooms and a penitentiary. More information on the center can be found at, the website that exposes urban legends and downright lies that float through space via the Internet.

The person who first put that email together obviously knew he was perpetuating a falsehood. But he was willing to lie because he had an anti-Administration agenda, and lies always help when you can't depend on the truth. Now, I don't agree with everything President Obama says or does. I didn't vote for him in the primary election because I believed Senator Clinton was more qualified than he. But I voted for him in the general election because I couldn't vote for a John McCain who, given the chance to select an intelligent, experienced, and truly capable woman as his running mate, chose instead to team up with a clearly inexperienced and unqualified Sarah Palin.

I'll be the first one to call out the President on a policy I believe isn't working. I have no problem with anyone else doing that too, as long as it's done in a civilized manner. Object if you will, but refrain from resorting to lies, crudeness, and bigotry to make your point. And the author of this particular email sought only to inflame passions against the Administration; i.e., President Obama.

I wrote back to my friend after receiving this email and told her to check I do that with any emails I receive that falsely portray other people or their actions. Sure, I could simply delete them and forget about it, but isn't that avoiding responsibility? If we truly want to live in a country where we can discourse on politics and agree to disagree in a civilized manner, we all have to respond to unwarranted lies circulated by unprincipled people.

Falsehoods don't make you a patriot. They only make you a liar.


Friday, September 9, 2011

September 11, 2001: My Story

Sunday will be the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy in New York. We'll all be remembering where we were and what we did that day, and we'll all be hoping it never happens again. Below is my story of that day. I wrote it that evening, trying in my own way to kill the demons in my head by putting my thoughts down on paper. It was later published in Futures Magazine.

September 11, 2001: My Story

6:30 am: My granddaughter wakes me with her crying. She is three months old, wet and hungry. I change and feed her, still in my nightshirt, aware that her parents are even now on their way to O'Hare Airport. A three-day vacation in Vegas, time alone for the two of them, time for me to cuddle this latest little member of the family.

8:00 am: I'm bathing Cinnamon Rose, the radio tuned to my favorite station. Sarah and Tim should be on the plane, waiting to taxi down the runway. A break in the talk on the radio -- a plane has hit the World Trade Center in New York. How sad, I think. A plane taking off from Kennedy, a tragedy of some kind. Then word that a second plane has hit the building. I gather Cinnamon in my arms and rush to the TV. No accident, I think. This is more. This is a terrorist attack. I call my husband at work at the SSA building downtown. How many thousands there? Too many, too many floors. Have to rush, says Fred. Security problems. Fred is a Facilities Inspector, works with the contractors, 'Don't cheat the government! Do it right!' and 'Damn those idiots in Baltimore! They want to build a plaza outside the front entrance. Perfect for car bombers.' I visualize a plane hitting the building. No, don't think that way. Not in Chicago. Not today.

8:30 am: My daughter Jenni calls. She works for United Airlines. Have you seen what's happening, she asks. Terrorists hijacked those planes. No one knows how many more. The west coast next? My thoughts turn to O'Hare. A huge airport, an international hub. No God, please. Not Sarah and Tim's plane. I rush to call America West Airlines. Our system is down, they say. Call back later for news. No God, no. Not their plane, too. I hug Cinnamon and call Jenni. Find out what's happening, I demand. I call my husband again. No answer. Too busy locking down.

8:45 am: Jenni calls back. Sarah and Tim are safe. Their plane was stopped on the runway and turned back. I cry in relief, and hug little Cinnamon. Your mom and dad are safe. What about Fred? Damn these terrorists! Do they care if we hurt?

9:00 am: I call my sister, back from the grave after a January MI and cardiac arrest. She shouldn't be alone with this stuff on TV. She gets too upset. I'll come by you, she says. Carrie will drive me. Fred's sister Fran calls. 'Is Fred OK? Terrorists!' I know, I say. He can't come home. They're locking down. I carry Cinnamon outside and put the flag in the standard by the front door. It hangs limply, then catches in the breeze and unfurls. I watch it pivot in the wind, my private act of defiance. I am an American. I am an American! I shout it in my head. You cannot hurt me! You cannot stop me! I am an American!

10 am: The Pentagon hit. My God! My cousin Dan works there! His wife works there! Call Kathy, Dan's sister. No news. Call my brother in California. Chuck's son lives in New York, ten blocks from the Trade Center. No word from Jeff. Will call when he hears. My daughter-in-law calls. Have you seen the TV? Are Sarah and Tim safe? They're at O'Hare, somewhere, I say. I haven't heard from them. My sister arrives. Be careful, Virginia! No! She falls on the stairs, rolls to the cement driveway. I'm OK, she says as I lift her to her feet. But her wrist is painful, beginning to swell. We ice it. She refuses to go to the hospital. I watch her carefully. She's on Coumadin, a blood thinner. She's hit her head.

11am: Sarah and Tim arrive. They hug their baby, then join Virginia and I in front of the TV. My son John calls from work. His cell phone dies before I can tell him Sarah and Tim are safe.

11:30 am: My son Matt arrives. Golfing with friends when he heard the news. Ex-Army man, Kuwait. He's glued to the TV. Bomb the bastards, he growls. Turn the desert to dust. He remembers the heat, the hatred, the fear. He remembers being young...before he learned to use a gun. My sister squirms, uncomfortable with such talk, uncomfortable with the ice on her wrist.

12 noon: Fred arrives. I hug him. He's safe. They've closed the building. 45 minutes in line to get on a train. 500 people at the station. One man goes down. A heart attack. Paramedics arrive. The train leaves.

1:00 pm: Kathy calls. Dan is OK. He couldn't find his wife, then learned she'd been sent to Crystal City for a meeting. Her office is in the wing that was hit. She's safe. Jenni calls. She's assigned to call the families of the plane that crashed outside of Pittsburgh. I hate this duty, she murmurs. Someone has to do it. My heart goes out to her. No news from California.

1:30 pm: My sister Martha calls, on break from her duties as an 8th grade teacher. What do I tell the children? she asks. They want to know why people hate us so. I have no answers, at least not for thirteen-year-olds. My daughter Mary Caroline calls. She's crying. She and her dorm friends are gathered in the university's Great Room in front of the TV. She's on a cell phone. The college lines are all tied up. Are Sarah and Tim OK? Yes, I tell her. They're safe. Her first real disaster, a bitter taste of war at the tender age of nineteen. She'll grow up quickly now. Nowhere is there safety. I love you, she says. Big words from a cool teenager suddenly a little kid again. I love you too, I say. I love you very much. Reassurance. We both need it.

1:45 pm: Fran calls. Her husband is home with a wild story. Jet fighters forced a helicopter down in the parking lot of Home Depot. "Get out of the skies!" they scream as they circle the mall. "Get out of the skies now!" We are safe. No in-the-sky minicam to witness an emptying city.

2:00 pm: Virginia agrees to go to the hospital. We talk in the car -- just a little, each with our own thoughts. I think of the medical personnel, the nightmares they'll have when this is done. The firemen. The policemen. The ER nurses -- my own people, my comrades in medicine -- I know what they feel. Adrenalin rush, then overwhelming fatigue. I pity them, then thank God I'm not in New York. My own ER is safe in a Chicago suburb. No skyscrapers for us.

3:30 pm: Virginia has a broken wrist. No bleed in the brain -- CT is clean. A half cast on the arm, a splint on her sprained ankle, home to her own place with pain killers for company. I start the long drive home.

5:00 pm: What are these fools doing driving into a mall? Why aren't they home in front of their TVs instead of shopping? Why are you cutting the grass? It's a day to mourn, not tend a lawn. Kids playing football. Go inside, dammit! I drive home angry, sad, scared. Thank God for a red light. I can wipe away my tears.

6:00 pm: Jenni is home. She lives next door, married the young man next door, moved into his home, her home now, the two of them building a future in a squared-off Georgian. We hug. I cry as she tells me of the phone calls she made. This is Jennifer J. of United Airlines. I regret to inform you.... A mother -- oh no, don't tell me it was her plane! Yes, say Jenni. A 9-year-old, off to see grandma, an only child. The mother screams. One of the big bosses walks into the office, walks over to a nearby desk. Jenni's co-worker looks up. Your daughter....a flight attendant...the woman lowers her head and weeps. Jenni's eyes are red, but she doesn't cry. It's all part of the job.

7:30 pm: Sarah and Tim gather up a sleeping Cinnamon. They pack their car with all the toys, the bottles and clothes, the diapers, the playpen. So much for three days with Grandma. We hug. I love you, I say. Thank God you're safe. Sarah smiles. She's used to an emotional mom.

8:30 pm. Fred can't stand the TV pictures any longer. He wanders outside, strokes the cat, checks the garden, takes out the garbage. Ordinary things. Safe things. Life in the neighborhood. A Chevy truck roars down the street. A a rock. Two American flags float in the breeze, high on standards attached to the truck's bed. I give the boys the thumbs-up sign and they wave back. Somebody feels like I do. It comforts me.

11:50 pm: The TV is off. Fred is asleep, the cat curled up in his armpit. I sit here pecking away at the keyboard, keeping the day alive, too pent up to sleep. Tomorrow I'll read the papers, listen to the pundits expound on what we should have done to prevent this attack. The skies are silent. No planes heading into O'Hare, no planes all day, none until later tomorrow, if then. The telephone rings. My brother in California. Jeff's safe. He's okay. He was down in the streets, helping the wounded. I hang up on Chuck, relieved, exhausted.

The last lost sheep is home.

Now I can go to sleep.


Friday, August 26, 2011

Book Reviews by Carl Brookins

Today I'm happy to present three book reviews by Carl Brookins, a noted author and reviewer. Enjoy!

Invisible Path
By Marilyn Meredith
ISBN: 978-1-60659-239-7
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-60659-238-0
2010 Release from
Mundania Press. 224 pages

This charming story from a veteran author is the ninth in her series of Tempe Crabtree crime novels. Tempe is a deputy sheriff in the small town of Bear Creek near an Indian reservation in the mountains of central California.

A young man named Daniel Tofoya is sadly murdered and it develops that while he was a talented and often charming athlete, he could be a nasty bully if the mood took him. There are several possible perpetrators, but as often happens, most attention focuses on a stranger who has come to live on the reservation. The story is complicated by the appearance in town of a small separatist movement, stockpiling supplies in anticipation of a coming explosion of what could be racial and class warfare.

All of this gets sorted out by the patient and wise Deputy Crabtree. With help from her long-suffering pastor husband and exuberant son, Tempe is able to avert several disasters and calm some difficult situations.

The novel is in the classic traditional mystery mode with a lot of emphasis on character development and setting. Relations between members of different races and religious beliefs are very well handled with insight and care. This is another enjoyable and satisfying adventure with Deputy Tempe Crabtree.

The Innocent Woman
By Parnell Hall

A Steve Winslow zinger.
Here's an author who can write! He has enough novels out you'd expect that, right? This was my first Steve Winslow mystery. It won't be my last. Fine, distinct interesting characters. Limited cast. A creative defense attorney hard at work for a surprisingly uncooperative client. First she's fired after accusations of theft from her employer, then one of the owners of the firm is shot to death and Winslow's client is arrested. Watching this lawyer both in and out of court is a real treat. The dialog crackles, the pace is next to pell mell and the explanations are precise. There is a good deal of detail, especially at the end. I would have preferred a more succinct closing to the novel with less sniping between attorneys, but it was a small price to pay for a fast, well done story.

Devil’s Plaything
By Matt Richtel
ISBN: 978-1-59058-887-1
Released, 2011, 324 pgs,
Hard Cover.

This is a novel born of the twenty-first century. It is technology-rich, abrupt, punchy, and filled with first-person pithy observations. It has a modern complicated plot and some dark conspiracies worthy of flat-worlders and those who still appear to believe the landings on the moon were merely another government scam.

Blogger Nat Idle is drifting through life as a medical reporter and occasionally paying attention to his rapidly aging grandmother, the only member of his family in close proximity. When he and Grandma Lane are on a casual outing in a San Francisco park, a mysterious stranger, apparently driving a Prius, shoots at him, or her, or them. How could this gentle, rapidly aging woman, with no apparent enemies attract an assassin? Not possible so it must be Nat who was the target. After all, he was engaged in a controversy with some San Francisco cops about Porta Potty corruption.

The novel uses a criminal conspiracy of immense possibilities and proportions to raise questions about the rising dependence on technology to replace our individual memories, and to sermonize about American society’s eagerness to shuttle its older generations into places where they can die out of sight and mostly out of mind. Those shortcomings aside, the novel develops and carries along an inventive idea that is highly fraught with tension and believability.

Carl Brookins Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky

Friday, August 5, 2011

Improving Your Story with Self-Editing

I recently completed some revisions on two short stories I'll be placing on Amazon soon. THE CASEBOOK OF CAROLINE RHODES will feature the main character in my "Rhodes To Murder" series, first in The Case of the Fugitive Farmer, a cold case concerning a farmer/soldier who went missing during World War I, and then in The Case of the Extra Ingredient, a present day puzzle in which Caroline witnesses a man die unexpectedly while on a whale-watching tour in Maine.

I was pleased with the stories when I first finished them. Then, while cleaning out some files, I came across a hand-out authored by Kathleen Nance, a piece on self-editing she'd written and distributed at a mystery conference. After reading the 8-page article, I decided to re-read my stories to see if I couldn't make them even better using Kathleen's advice.

Well, I could. And I did. Now all I have to do is format them for Kindle and they'll be up at Amazon in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I thought that other writers might want to take advantage of Kathleen's advice. Yes, you've probably heard all this before from writing instructors, or at conferences featuring speeches by best-selling authors. But I think most of us can benefit from hearing it again; definitely one of the biggest reasons manuscripts are turned down by agents or publishers is because they're poorly edited.

So what does Kathleen say about improving your work? She advises writers to make their stories more concise, more accurate, more precise, more logical, more dramatic, more memorable, more vivid, and more harmonious. Does the plot make sense with a logical flow of events and clear causes and effects? Do things happen because a plot needs it, not because it's a natural outcome?

Speaking to that point, I recently read a story where a man set out one afternoon to find a certain house in a village. Darkness fell while he was walking and he switched on his flashlight. The author hadn't mentioned the man having a flashlight previous to this, so to explain its presence, she wrote -- and I won't quote her exactly -- ("He'd stopped at a store and bought one before setting out for the house."). And yes, the author did put the sentence in parentheses. This is clearly a sign of a writer making something happen because the plot needed it rather than it being a natural thing for the character to do.

Continuing with plot, Kathleen asks if the writer has avoided coincidences, contrivances, conveniences. With characters, do they over-react or under-react to situations? Do they grow or change? Does each scene have a purpose? Does the scene advance the internal or external tension of the plot? Does the writer establish sufficient motivation for the characters' actions? Is there too much or too little backstory, and should it be broken up or trimmed? Has the writer planted information that will become important to the reader later on? Does the writer show, not tell when it comes to establishing a character's personality, physical description, motivation, goals? Does the dialogue sound natural when read aloud?

And of course, has the writer obeyed the basic rules of grammar and punctuation? Used adverbs and adjectives sparingly and precisely? Resisted overuse of words, passive construction, cliches, negative phrasing, and redundancies?

As Kathleen admits, it may take several read throughs to catch all the little problems in a manuscript. But self-editing and revising gets easier with time and will undoubtedly improve your story.

I know it improved mine. :)


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Summertime Book Reviews

So I've been reading a variety of books this summer, some old, some new, most very good. My sister loaned me a copy of THE HELP, and if you haven't read it yet, do so before August 15th when the movie version is released. (Ten bucks says they'll massacre the book, but you never know; sometimes Hollywood gets it right.) Kathryn Stockett's tale of life in the 1960's in Jackson, Mississippi may or may not be semi-autobiographical, but that really doesn't matter. What does matter is, she's written a compelling novel about a young white woman whose clandestine recordings of meetings with local black maids becomes a bestselling book that starts tongues wagging in Jackson. Skeeter Phelan is only looking to attract the attention of a New York editor when she convinces cautiously wise Aibileen and sassy-as-hell Minny to share their accounts of working for the town's white elite. But the task takes on a life of its own when Skeeter's best friend Milly proposes a local ordinance that will greatly affect the maids. Written in 2009 and set during the civil rights struggles of the '60's, this is both a coming-of-age and a coming-to-freedom story for black and white women alike.

Lee Driver's just released FATAL STORM is the fifth book in her mystery/paranormal series featuring sexy mystery man and P.I. Chase Dagger and his Native American shape-shifting companion Sara Morningsky. The pair investigate when newspaperwoman Sheila Monroe, Chase's old girlfriend, goes missing while spending a stormy night in the abandoned Sebold mansion with three members of a group called the Indiana Paranormal Investigators. Cedar Point's finest are stumped by the disappearance, but welcome Chase's help when they find a corpse with Sheila's scarf wrapped tightly around his neck. Is Sheila a murderer, or is she the kidnap victim of a murderer?Chase and Sara must delve into another long forgotten disappearance to solve this puzzling case. This is another fun read in the ever-evolving Chase Dagger series.

As a fan of military thrillers, I looked forward to reading Patrick Robinson's NIMITZ CLASS, a book written in 1997 but set in 2002 that I found at the library. Unfortunately, this novel didn't match the brilliance of Tom Clancy's early work, relying more on flag-waving jingoism and stereotypical characters than crisp writing and original thinking. While the plot had merit, the action was so slow as to be boring. The biggest mistake made by the author was setting the story so far in the future; what might have seemed reasonable in '97 was no longer believable in 2002, much less today. Along with NIMITZ CLASS, I borrowed a second Robinson book from the library, but I'll be returning that one unread.

If you enjoy historical novels enriched by reliable details and stunning characters, you'll love Edward Rutherfurd's NEW YORK. This is the saga of the van Dyck/Masters family, starting in 1664 Old New York, also called New Amsterdam, and leading up to several years post-9/11. The book is 800+ pages long, and I hardily recommend you chose the 2010 trade paperback edition over the hard cover if, like me, you read in bed. But don't let the length of the book dismay you. This is a real page-turner that will keep you reading long after the twilight hour. From fur traders to bankers to artists, from Dutch to English to Irish and Italian, from wealthy to poor, free men to slaves, this book tells the story of those who struggled to create a great city out of an Indian fishing village on the American coastline. This well written novel will leave you wanting to read more by talented author Rutherfurd.

Sometimes it's fun to re-read books by favorite authors. I did just that this summer, once again enjoying NATURE GIRL and SICK PUPPY by Carl Hiaasen. SICK PUPPY features Twilly Spree, an independently wealthy young man with an anger management problem who loathes human despoilers of the Florida wilderness. Determined to teach litterbug Palmer Stoat a lesson in eco-friendly living, Twilly engineers a series of mishaps to Stoat's property that, unfortunately, leaves the man befuddled but unrepentant. It's not until Twilly kidnaps Stoat's Labrador retriever that Florida's most powerful political lobbyist takes action. What happens next is ribald entertainment at its best.

In NATURE GIRL, single mom Honey Santana takes revenge on Boyd Shreave, a telemarketer who makes the fatal mistake of interrupting her cherished dinner hour with her son Fry. Having thrown away the psych pills her latest doctor prescribed, Honey's in a mood to do her worst to the foul-talking Shreave. And she does just that after luring Boyd and his reluctant mistress Eugenie into the wilds of Florida's Ten Thousand Islands. Unbeknownst to Honey, she's being followed into the wilderness by her former employer Louis Piejack, a man obsessed with ridding himself of his wife and installing Honey in her place. And unbeknownst to Piejack, he's being followed by Honey's ex-husband Perry and her son Fry. Unbeknownst to all of them, they're being followed by a P.I. named Dealey who's been hired to take pictures of Boyd and Eugenie's illicit lovemaking activities by Boyd's divorce-seeking wife Lily. Adding to the mayhem, the island to which Honey leads them is already inhabited by Sammy Tigertail, a half Seminole and half white young man who is hiding from the law after the unfortunate death of a tourist on his swamp boat. The resulting confusion makes for great satire.

That's my book list for June and July. Hope you enjoyed the reviews. Next week I'll be featuring more book reviews, but these will be by my good friend Carl Brookins. Hope you can stop by then.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

In Flanders Fields
by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) Canadian Army

Written during the World War I battle in the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


Who's Son Is This?

Who's son is this?
Your boy or mine?
The fruit of love
plucked from the vine.

He's all our sons.

Who's son is this?
Your boy or mine?
From child to man in
too short a time.

He's all our sons.

Who's son is this?
You boy or mine
who rests in peace
for all of time.

He's all our sons.

"Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God"


Monday, April 11, 2011

Honesty: Who Can You Trust Today?

Last week I came across an interesting tidbit of information in the March copy of the magazine Nursing2011. According to the brief article, nurses once again outranked other professionals in Gallup's annual Honesty and Ethics survey. The survey, conducted in Nov. 2010, measured respondents' satisfaction on a "Very high/High" to "Average" to "Very low/Low" scale. Nurses ranked first, with 81% of respondents rating them "Very high/High".

Ranked next highest in 2010 were military officers at 73%, pharmacists at 71%, grade school teachers at 67%, and medical doctors at 66%. Lobbyists and car salespeople sat at the bottom of the barrel, sharing a 7% "Very high/High" rating. The third lowest rating was reserved for members of Congress at 9%, two points lower than advertising practitioners at 11%, three points lower than state officeholders at 12%, and six points lower than business executives at 15%.

The ethical standards of police, lawyers, and judges were called into question by a good many of the respondents. Police only scored a 57% rating for "Very high/High", while judges tied with day care providers at 47%. Lawyers fared much worse at 17% in that category.

The first Gallup Honesty and Ethics Poll was conducted in 1976. Medical doctors took top honors that year with a 56% "Very high/High" rating. After that, clergy and pharmacists led the list until 1999 when nurses were first added to the poll. Nurses have topped the rankings every year since, consistently surpassing medical doctors by as much as twenty points, except for 2001 when -- after 9/11 -- firefighters were added on a one-time basis and scored 90% to finish first.

Three things came to mind when I read the results of the 2010 survey. First of all, why do nurses consistently rank higher than doctors in honesty and ethical standards? As a nurse myself, I believe it's because good nurses see their role as advocates for the patient, and therefore are more open and honest in speaking to people about their medical conditions. Hospital nurses spend more time with patients than doctors do, are more accessible than doctors when patients and families have questions, and as home health care employees, they do more hands-on follow-up care when patients go home after hospitalizations. Nurses have nothing to lose by telling patients the truth; doctors are more prone to hedge their bets on the success of certain treatments because their reputations as "good" doctors are at stake. Added to this is the fact that the American Medical Association is extremely reluctant to police its members, often protecting poorly qualified doctors even when verifiable complaints are lodged against them. This "old boys' club" mentality does neither the AMA nor the public any good, but it will continue to exist as long as doctors refuse to testify against each other in hospital disciplinary meetings or in court.

It seems no one likes to read long blogs, so I'll hold my thoughts on justice professionals and members of Congress for another day. Let me assure you, I have plenty of thoughts on both! :) Meanwhile, I'd be interested in knowing who you feel you can trust today. Doctors? Nurses? Lawyers? Police? Your elected officials? All comments welcome!


Friday, February 18, 2011

Love Is Murder and Book Reviews

January flew by as I, along with the other Board members, prepared for the Love Is Murder conference Feb. 4-6, 2011. The blizzard that hit Chicago and other parts of the Midwest on Tuesday, February 1st, didn't help; along with my husband and daughter, I spent most of Wednesday digging out the driveway and sidewalks before our neighbor's son arrived in the evening to plow out our street. Thanks goodness for Ibrio; he did a marvelous job that allowed me to escape our block on Thursday morning and head for the Intercontinental Chicago O'Hare hotel.

If you've ever been involved in the planning of a conference/convention, you'll understand why blogging is the last thing you think of in the weeks just before the con. Seems like there are so many last minute decisions to make and jobs to do in order to put on a really good con. And I think we did put on a good con. At least, that's what everyone who attended has been telling us.

But getting back to the subject of Cicero's Children, I'm still a bit behind on everything, including this blog. I know, though, that every mystery fan appreciates learning about new books, and therefore I'm dedicating this blog to two book reviews by Carl Brookins. I hope you enjoy both the reviews and the books.


Death Pans Out
by Ashna Graves
Hardcover, 288 pages,
from Poisoned Pen Press

Reporter Jeneva Leopold, faced with a life-altering decision, takes a leave of absence from her job to recover from surgery. Breast cancer has claimed part of her body and she wants time to recover in relative peace. Not just from the debilitating effects of the surgery itself, but she wants to be in a place where she can think about her life and her existence. This is a novel about an unusual woman with an unusual plan to rehabilitate herself.

There are great stories surrounding the searches for precious metals from California, South America and the Yukon, as well as the production of gold from less well-known regions, and this one takes its cue from those stories. Fact or fiction, we are never quite sure, but here is a story which may well become a part of that so interesting body of literature.

Jeneva’s family has long owned an idle gold mine in the mountains of Southern Oregon, a harsh, vastly rural region of high deserts, mountains, isolated communities, wild animals and, legends. One legend surrounds the mysterious disappearance of Jeneva’s uncle, Mathew. Mathew disappeared one night from the cabin at the mine almost twenty years before the story opens, and his mining partner has retreated into a silent years from which he may never emerge.

Jeneva takes a long leave of absence and moved to the cabin at the mine where she intends to spend several months of the summer physically and mentally recovering from her trauma. Almost immediately, a parade of compelling characters begins to invade her peaceful existence, from a weird self-styled “artifact hunter,” who insists that he always camps on Bureau of Forestry land and visits the area regularly, to a hearty sheriff who seems at times too good to be true, to a taciturn former model and beauty queen turned rancher, to assorted miners, a tall funeral director and other assorted characters. They all make for some fascinating scenes and while the action is never of a high order, the rising tension and sense of danger to Jeneva and her friends, is well-handled.

I enjoyed the story, learned some things about governmental land management and local attitudes toward government, and found the ending quite a surprise. If there are small problems with this debut novel, they stem from an experienced reporter acting entirely too trusting and naive to serve the story, and a couple of the rants are a little too long. That said, I look forward to another adventure with Jeneva Leopold.

Carl Brookins,
Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,
Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!


Kind of Blue
by Miles Corwin
ISBN: 978-1-60809-007-5
from Oceanview Publishing
323 pages, November, 2010

A few years ago, this author wrote a couple of serious non-fiction books about the Los Angeles Police Department. He spent a lot of time with cops in that city and wrote books that became best-sellers, “The Killing Season” and “And Still We Rise.”

Now he’s back with a powerful persistent novel that draws from the same source material. “Kind of Blue,” is not your ordinary police procedural. It constantly reminds readers that the cops involved are no super beings, rising above the worst humanity can offer to save their city; nor are they all thugs, wife beaters and abusers. They are ordinary citizens, sometimes corrupt, sometimes honorable and brilliant, often prejudiced, but too often willing to make the supreme sacrifice for the citizens they serve. And, occasionally they violate the rights of criminals.

Author Corwin bends a keen and discerning eye on this stew of varying humanity to fashion a fascinating novel of human relations. Asher Levine, a dedicated, mostly honest cop, is one of LA’s best homicide detectives. But as the book opens, Levine is a former cop, having abruptly resigned after he was unable to protect a vital witness from being murdered. The death of Latisha Patton, never solved, devastates the detective and causes him to question his abilities, even though it is clear that apart from his dedication, he is a brilliant detective. So he resigns.

A year passes and a decorated officer has died, murdered in his home and the special homicide squad needs Levine’s help solving the case. More to the point, certain key executives in the LAPD hierarchy need the case solved or at least put to rest. Levine has had that year to discover his resignation hurts him more than it does the LAPD. With clearance from the top cops, Levine is fast tracked back to the force and handed the case.

The problem, of course, is that Levine won’t just concentrate on the current case and thus all sorts of actions that need to be buried along with the ghost of Latisha Patton. Traces of other earlier activity begin to resurface as Ash Levine winds his way through labyrinthine police and social structures of the street until he comes to the shocking final solution.

The title is apt, a riff on a 50 year old Miles Davis studio piece, the cover fits the mood and the attitude of the novel. All the elements fit nicely and it was a pleasure to read this excellent book.

Carl Brookins,
Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,
Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!