Saturday, May 26, 2012

Memorial Day, 2012

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"


Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Books

In my last post, I promised to review Tess Gerritsen's latest book, THE SILENT GIRL, this week. Don't worry, I'll keep my promise here, but I'd also like to comment on a couple of other books I've read lately, books that didn't grab me the way Gerritsen's did. I'm wondering, is it just me, or are other mystery readers getting as bored as I am with some of the books being pushed as "bestsellers" or reviewed as four-to-five star wonders?

Maybe I'm just getting crabby in my old age. (sigh) But more of that later. Right now, here's my review of THE SILENT GIRL.

Tess Gerritsen
Ballantine, May 26, 2011
318 pages
ISBN 9780345515506

The story opens with a scene that introduces, without naming them, two principal characters in the book. Gerritsen then fast forwards seven years to a Boston courtroom where medical examiner Maura Isles is testifying in the case of a man beaten to death by two policemen while in custody for the murder of a fellow cop. Maura's assertion that the death was a homicide doesn't sit well with members of Boston's finest. Their anger shows in their treatment of Isles when later that night she arrives at the scene of a murder in Boston's Chinatown.

The young man conducting the Chinatown Ghost Tour didn't expect trouble when he led his customers to an abandoned building that nineteen years earlier housed a restaurant where five people died in a violent murder/suicide shooting spree. But trouble is what he gets when an especially bratty boy in the group discovers a severed human hand in the alley alongside the building. By the time Maura appears, Jane Rizzoli has already found the body to which the hand was once connected -- on the roof of the former Red Phoenix Restaurant. And in the victim's pocket, Jane has found a GPS device containing the addresses of retired police detective Louis Ingersoll and martial arts instructor Iris Fang.

Rizzoli enlists the aid of Chinese-American Detective Johnny Tam when it turns out that Iris Fang was married to one of the men killed at the Red Phoenix, while Ingersoll was the investigating officer in the case. Could this present day killing be tied to the long ago deaths at the restaurant?

Gerritsen blends ancient Chinese folk tales with modern day criminal practices in this complex yet highly enjoyable follow-up to ICE COLD. Maura has only a minor role in this case; recovering from her romantic misadventures with Daniel Brody, she spends some quality time with the young man who saved her life in the previous Rizzoli & Isles novel. This is mostly Jane's story, but in several chapters the reader is also treated to a view of the earlier crime from Iris Fang's vantage point. The Chinatown setting with its emphasis on cultural traditions lends a rich yet almost spooky atmosphere to the story.

I give this novel four stars. It's a satisfying addition to a well-crafted series.

I can't say the same for Lisa Jackson's SHIVER. This 495-page romantic suspense novel may have been a 2006 bestseller, but I found it predictable in both plot and characterization. So there's a serial killer on the loose in New Orleans. Yeah, (yawn) so what's new and exciting about that? Well, he kills victims in pairs and stages their bodies to look like murder/suicide scenes. Again, (yawn) been there, done that. So one cop is a slob with a dirty-old-man mentality (seen this one before, haven't you?), and the other cop is a leather jacket/blue jean clad stud. (What else did you expect?) The stud falls for the damsel-in-distress suspect, and she falls equally hard for him. Eventually they both fall into bed and we have our one explicit sex scene. After that, it's all "Should I have done that? Am I falling in love/lust with him/her?" It all gets rather dull after a while. But they say that sex sells -- and obviously it sells well for Jackson -- so who am I to criticize, right?

And then there's the amateur sleuth novel I read, the first in a series that's getting high praise in the review columns. What didn't I like about it, you ask. Well, first of all, there's the obligatory highly intelligent pet who goes everywhere with the protagonist -- in this case, even to memorial services. I gotta tell you, folks, in Chicago the only animals attending memorial services with their owners are seeing-eye dogs. Cats, parrots, pet monkeys? No way, nada, never gonna work.

Secondly, there's the supposedly intelligent amateur sleuth (who of course has an interesting job that allows him/her lots and lots of free time to snoop around in murder cases) who inevitably holds back some extremely pertinent information from the police because (A) it probably has no bearing on the case; (B) the cop didn't ask for the info so the amateur sleuth feels no obligation to reveal it; or (C) in the amateur sleuth's opinion, the info points to the wrong person. Yep, there's one of those amateur sleuths in this book.

What I really disliked about the novel was its lack of suspense. At no time did I absolutely have to turn the page because I was so caught up in the story that I just had to know what happened next. I got bored with all the filler material. You know what I mean by "filler": the protagonist has nothing to do because the plot isn't strong enough, so the writer has him cook dinner, or take a shower, or brush his teeth, or do something equally mundane that has nothing at all to do with advancing the story or making the protagonist a more believable character. This absolutely drives me crazy (especially the teeth brushing ploy) to the point where I want to throw the book at the wall.

I love a well-written, well-plotted mystery, be it amateur sleuth, police procedural, P.I., romantic suspense, thriller, or any other type of mystery novel. But I'm tired of the publisher-inspired "craft cozies" where every main character is either a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker -- or the equivalent thereof.

What about you? What bugs you in a book? Share your comments here, or talk to me on Facebook. I'm not a FB junkie, but I do check in every day. :)


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tuesday Book Reviews

I have three new reviews for you today, one written by Carl Brookins and two others by me. Normally Carl would claim top billing when it comes to reviews on Cicero's Children, but I so enjoyed Destiny Kills, a new title by South Carolina mystery/paranormal author S.D. Tooley, that I'm starting off with a review of that book by yours truly. Hope you enjoy reading about these new and not-so-new books.

Destiny Kills (A Sam Casey Mystery)
S.D. Tooley
Full Moon Publishing, April, 2012
275 pages
ISBN 9780984635757

A shocking scene opens this latest entry in Tooley’s highly acclaimed Sam Casey series as a happily married mother suddenly walks out of her home, leaving her infant daughter behind, and jumps off a highway overpass into the path of a speeding semi. Marti Johnson’s death makes no sense, but neither does that of Carly Farnswood, a young woman who walks into Lake Michigan one week before her planned wedding and voluntarily drowns.

Serving as a consultant for the Chasen Heights P.D., Sam becomes involved with both deaths when she meets Marti’s husband Forrest and Carly’s twin sister Carrie. Forrest and Carrie are convinced their loved ones would never willingly commit suicide. Sam’s initial skepticism fades after she learns that both women received four second, untraceable phone calls only minutes before their deaths. Did the same person call both women? Did the caller, by word or action, cause them to take their own lives?

Sam digs into both cases while also coping with problems of her own. Not only has a recurrent nightmare forced her to seek the help of a psychiatrist, but she’s also facing a possible second pregnancy at a time when her son Dillon is still in his infancy. While her policeman husband Jake is busy investigating a murder, Sam gets emotional support from her good friend Jackie.

Then Sam touches a purse belonging to Jake’s murder victim, and a whispered word floats through her consciousness, a word she’s already heard in connection with the two suicides. While her psychic abilities prove helpful to Jake, they put Sam in harm’s way as her husband’s case begins to overlap her own. Can Sam help the police trap a fiendish killer before he strikes again, or will she unwittingly become the next in a long line of helpless victims?

S.D. Tooley is known for careful research when it comes to unusual ways of committing crimes. This time around she presents us with a psychological thriller based on a complex but scientifically believable plot enhanced by a strong female protagonist and just the right amount of Native American mysticism. While the various good guy/bad guy characters will draw you in to this story, the cold-blooded ruthlessness of the killer is sure to send chills down your back. Another winner in a long line of great Sam Casey mysteries.


Ice Cold
Tess Gerritsen
Ballantine Books, June 29, 2010
322 pages
ISBN 9780345515483

Pathologist Maura Isles’s personal problems follow her to Wyoming when she flies there to attend an early winter medical convention. Depressed by the uncertainty of her relationship with Daniel Brophy and needing to reassert her independence, Maura readily agrees when a former colleague invites her to join him in a ski adventure following the convention. Despite warnings of a major snowstorm in the area, Maura throws caution to the wind and accompanies Doug Comley, his teenage daughter Grace, and Doug’s friends Arlo and Elaine in a journey through the Wyoming wilderness.

Bad weather soon overtakes the travelers, and Doug’s foolishness results in an accident. Stranded high in the mountains where cell phones are useless, Maura and the others follow a little used road and stumble upon the remote village of Kingdom Come. The town is totally deserted, and it appears the villagers left en masse and in a hurry: dinners are found still sitting on tables in abandoned homes; pets are discovered dead in tidy front rooms and snow-covered backyards. What could have caused the people to flee so hastily?

Maura pushes that question to the back of her mind when Doug discovers a possible way back to safety. At first all looks good for the five travelers. Then a second accident occurs. Its tragic consequences reach all the way back to Boston and deeply affect Detective Jane Rizzoli.

As a huge fan of the TV show “Rizzoli and Isles”, I can’t help but compare Gerritsen’s rendering of her characters to the TV versions played by Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander.  There are more differences than similarities between the two, and I confess to liking the TV characters just a little bit better. But Gerritsen’s writing is crisp and concise, her plots rollercoaster wild, and her stories overall are spellbinding. She’s also extremely familiar with both medical and police procedures; while her vivid descriptions of autopsies may disturb the squeamish, I find them fascinating due to my own background in the ER. I found this book to be highly enjoyable and immediately went looking for the next in the series. I’ll be reviewing that one—The Silent Girl—next week.


Darker Than Any Shadow     
By Tina Whittle
ISBN: 9781590585467
2011 release from Poisoned
Pen Press. HC, 291 pages

The second entry in the author’s intriguing series featuring a gun shop owner and a corporate security officer is a winner. Heavily populated with interesting characters, the turbulent love affair between the protagonist informs and leavens what could otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill mystery. Indeed, the identity of the killer, while important to the story, was, to this reader, not as compelling as the characters, and the milieu. 

The setting is Atlanta, Georgia, during the run-up to a major poetry slam competition. Some of the characters have known each other from childhood and others seem to have uncertain, even mysteriousbackgrounds. It’s hot in Atlanta, and gun shop owner Tai Randolph is mentoring her long-time friend, rising poet, Rico. There are teams of competing poets as well as individual efforts and a surplus of egos swirling around as participants prepare.  Then murder intrudes. 

The relationship developing between our principal “investigator,” amateur tho she is, Tai Randolph and her lover, Trey Seaver, is much more than casually interesting to observe. Seaver is a former cop with a high level of crisis and SWAT training, excellent skills and more than a little rigidity as regards the rules of life and the law. The almost constant battles between the lovers as they try to accommodate each other is a fascinating piece of this very entertaining novel. I recommend it strongly.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins

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


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Dark Shadows -- A Review

I have been waiting and waiting and waiting for this movie to be released, and this weekend it was! So, guess where I was today. Yes, off to see one of my favorite actors in the remake of one of my favorite 70's shows -- Dark Shadows. And it was well-worth the trip. Depp was superb in the role of unwilling vampire Barnabas Collins, new resurrected after 200 years locked away underground in a steel casket. As vampires are wont to do, Barnabas engages in a good deal of blood-letting without appearing at all apologetic about it. At the same time, though, he mourns his loss of humanity and attempts to ends the curse that turned him into a vampire. Depp is great at expressing puzzlement over the modern era in which he now finds himself, and while the humor is generally low-key, it worked for me. I found him less adept at expressing his feelings towards Angelique, the witchy-woman who originally cast the vampire spell on him. His sometimes-voiced anger failed to impress either Angelique or me as being real enough or strong enough.

Michelle Pfeiffer played her role well as Barnabas' cousin Elizabeth, but then Pfeiffer hardly ever makes a wrong move as an actress. Eva Green was devilishly good in the role of Angelique, mincing no words with Barnabas and coming off effectively as the bad girl in the plot. I also enjoyed watching Jackie Earle Haley play Willie, a handyman-turned-servant to Barnabas. Haley was one of my favorite actors on Human Target, an action/drama TV series stupidly axed by Fox in 2011 after two years of Emmy-nominated episodes. (It's all about numbers, folks, and even 6+ million viewers a week wasn't good enough for money-hungry Fox.)

I won't go deeply into the plot of Dark Shadows here. Suffice it to say Barnabas comes home to Collinsport, Maine to revive the family fortune wickedly stolen away by his nemesis Angelique. The movie shares much with the original TV series, including characters and plot points. What it doesn't share are some of the actors and actresses who helped make Dark Shadow the first and only paranormal soap opera on TV. One of those actresses was a high school classmate of mine named Donna Wandrey. It was obvious to all of us that Donna was destined for the stage. She loved the theater, loved to perform in school plays and talent shows, and she was genuinely funny in a comic sort of way. She also seemed quite sure of herself and of her ability to succeed at anything she put her mind to. It didn't surprise me when I learned she'd won the part of Roxanne Drew on Dark Shadows. She later played parts on The Edge of Night, Ryan's Hope, and Another World, plus she's acted in numerous live theater plays.

I haven't seen Donna since our graduation day many, many years ago. But it's nice to know she lived her dream and earned the success for which she worked so hard. I'm betting she went to see Dark Shadows this weekend too (unless she was one of the lucky ones to see a preview), and I'll bet it brought back a lot of memories for her. The '70's were a weird and wild time. It seems appropriate that Dark Shadows has become almost a symbol of the experimentation that marked our culture from the mid '60's through much of the '70's. If you remember the Dark Shadows of that bygone era, you'll enjoy seeing this latest adaptation with -- in my opinion -- a much superior version of Barnabas Collins.


Friday, May 4, 2012

Amy Alessio: Mixing Food and Mystery

Today I welcome my good friend Amy Alessio to Cicero's Children. Amy is a teen librarian, author, and presenter of fabulous programs on vintage recipes, cookbooks, and crafts. She's written several short stories featuring antique mall bookkeeper Alana O'Neill, all of which are available on Amazon.

Alana also appears in Amy's novella Blast from the Past, part of a three-novella romantic suspense book named Hearts and Daggers. (Kindle users can find Hearts and Daggers free on Amazon from May 4th through May 6th at  )

Amy's first young adult mystery will be published in 2013.You can learn more about Amy and her stories at Vintage Cookbooks & Crafts at

Kolacky Traditions: Amy Alessio’s Family Recipes
This is a photo of my Grandma Curtin. She came from Ireland and married my Irish Grandfather, Michael, in the 1920’s and settled on Chicago’s West side. She worked at the Brach’s factory. She loved to bake, cook, sew and crochet, yet left only a handful of recipes. Her fruitcake was famous, and inspired me to write the short story Felled by Fruitcake in my Alana O’Neill series.

But Grandma wrote none of her most famous recipes down. I have mysterious fudge instructions, some clippings, and two versions of kolackys. She had her priorities right. When I talk about her and kolackys at my vintage cookbook shows, someone in the audience always has what they feel is the “best” version.  These include ones made with thumbprints in mini muffin pans, folded ones, ones with melted ice cream, or cream cheese or different fillings.

One of Grandma’s clippings was from the Solo filling can. On the Solo site now, there are several types of kolackys. I believe the cream cheese one is most like the label she saved.

My mother likes apricot filling best, but I run into staunch lovers of prune, raspberry, poppy seed, almond, or cheese fillings.

Here’s another of Grandma’s handwritten recipes. I thought the whiskey was an interesting touch:

1 lb. pound margarine or butter
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 egg yolks
5 cups flour
1 shot of whiskey
4 tablespoons of sour cream
Filling (likely she meant Solo filling)
Cream butter, sugar and baking soda.  Add flour & egg yolks.  Let stand in frig for a couple of hours.  Then roll out and put filling in center.  Bake 350 degrees for 25 minutes.

How Cooking Ties In with Amy's Writing
My character, Alana O’Neill, is a bookkeeper at an antiques mall where sometimes she parts with her huge cookbook collection and sells them. She also solves mysteries. All Alana stories contain recipes, though she (much like her author) makes lots of mistakes in the kitchen.

Mary Welk, Margot Justes ( and I put together our first collection of novellas for Valentine’s Day. Hearts and Daggers can be found free from May 4th through May 6th at
In my story, Alana helps run a festival at the mall while trying to make fancy chocolates and solve a murder. She also connects with Mary’s and Margot’s fun characters.

Our next novella collaboration will be Haunted Hearts, a Halloween collection. Members of a famous ghost hunting team will be visiting the antiques mall and will find more than they bargained for in my novella.

Thanks to Mary for letting me put up a guest post on a blog I enjoy reading so much. 

What’s your favorite Kolacky version?