Pick of the Month, December 2011


The Promise of an Angel (A Heaven on Earth Novel) by Ruth Reid, Thomas Nelson, $15.99

Contemporary Amish romance novels, aka Bonnet novels, enjoy a surprising surge in sales and have emerged as a subgenre. They generally are written by non-Amish women for non-Amish women. Reaction by the Amish has been mixed.

Of the three Amish romance novels that we reviewed, The Promise of an Angel had the most interesting plot. Judith Fischer, a 19-year-old Old Order Amish girl, has a crush on Levi Plank. He, however, prefers her nasty younger sister Martha, and Judith fears she will never get married and raise a family. When her brother Samuel is seriously injured in an accident, she blames herself and suffers deep remorse. Then she encounters a man she believes to be an angel. He gives her hope. But it also leads to serious conflicts with her community.

This easy to read debut novel, suitable also for YA lists, blends Amish romance with angel tales. The success of the subgenre shows that book publishing can be profitable if readers’ interests are taken into account.


Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour by Marti Rulli with Dennis Davern, Medallion Publishing, Inc., $24.95

Actress Natalie Wood, born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko in 1938 in San Francisco to Russian immigrant parents, became famous through her role in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street and went on to win three Oscar nominations. On the night of November 29, 1981, she fell or was pushed from her yacht. In the morning, her body was found floating dressed only in a nightgown, woolen socks, and a down jacket. The tragedy made her fears appear prophetic. After her co-stars in Rebel Without Cause died prematurely - James Dean in a car accident, Sal Mineo was murdered, and Nick Adams overdosed on pills - she feared the cast was cursed. Also, she had a lifelong phobia of deep, dark water.

The only other people on the yacht were her husband, actor Robert “R.J.” Wagner, who was excessively jealous; Oscar winning actor Christopher Walken, who was suspected of having an affair with her; and boat captain Dennis Davern. The drowning was quickly ruled an accident. Fans and family, however, remained dissatisfied, and rumors continue to circle of a cover-up.

Just prior to the 30th anniversary of Natalie’s death, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department announced it has reopened the case due to new information. The key source was Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour, published in 2009, which provides Capt. Davern’s account of that weekend. He admits the three of them lied to the investigators to protect R.J.

“R.J. was with her when she went into water,” Davern is quoted. His observations point to R.J.’s culpability. Most troubling are R.J.’s deliberate delays in notifying rescuers who could have saved her and the inconsistencies in his story.

Substantial parts of this book are Davern’s memoirs. Rulli tells of her involvement with the captain; the many phone calls from him that inspired the book; his relationship with Natalie and R.J.; his mental anguish after the death; and their run-ins with the media as they try to tell their story. Rulli, who spent some 25 years working on the book, interviewed the lead detective Duane Rasure; Natalie’s younger sister Lana Wood, whom R.J. for unknown reasons has kept from contact with her nieces; and a witness, Marilyn Wayne who heard a woman scream for help. She arranged for Davern to take a polygraph test (which he passed), experimented with similar woolen socks and down jacket that Natalie wore, and took part in Dr. Lyndon Taylor’s drift tests, something the authorities should have conducted.

Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour has become embroiled in controversy. Rasure, now retired, and others continue to stand by the accident theory. Critics accuse Davern of lacking credibility. Sheriff Lee Bocca’s assigning two homicide detectives to the case likewise has drawn controversy. Lawyer Robin Sax, for example, implied it was merely a PR move, driven by sweeps week. Others applaud Rulli for revealing flaws in the original investigation and praise the Sheriff for taking a fresh look.

“I want the truth,” said Lana Wood, who believes in Davern’s account and supports the Sheriff’s actions.


Best Busy Year Ever by Richard Scarry, Sterling (reprint edition), $12.95, ages 4 and up

Best Busy Year Ever is one of the many delightful picture books that are bound to inspire youngsters to read. In Busytown, many events take place throughout the four seasons such as the Pig family holding a picnic, the circus arriving in town, and the Cat family visiting relatives for Christmas. It provides a fun way for children to expand their vocabulary. Highly recommended.

Scholarly/Small Press

University of Georgia Press, launched in 1938, publishes 75-80 titles annually.

It focuses on scholarly and literary works, regional books, and digital projects. Recent titles are Winter Sky: New and Selected Poems, 1968-2008 by Coleman Barks and Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NUI School Shooter by David Vann who draws similarities and differences between his own life and that of Steve Kazmierczak, infamous for killing 5 and wounding 18 at Northern Illinois University in 2008. A forthcoming book in 2012 is Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina by Kathryn Newfont.

Author submissions: UGA Press accepts proposals for fiction and nonfiction. A few of its many topics of interest are: American literature, environmental history, food studies, international relations, and Southern studies.


During the past few weeks, several biographies of authors have received critical praise:

  1. Agatha Christie: An Autobiography (Harper/Collins) is back in print in a new edition along with a CD featuring the popular mystery writer whose novels have sold over 4 billion copies. Christie is outsold only by the Bible and William Shakespeare. No new insights are provided regarding the mystery surrounding the 11 days she went missing, claiming amnesia.

  2. Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin (Penguin Press) is a welcome addition to the long list of Dickens biographies. Tomalin has also written bios of Jane Austen; Thomas Hardy; and Dickens’s mistress, actress Nelly Ternan.

  3. Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett (Houghton Mifflin) humanizes this literary genius and incorporates materials released after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

  4. And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles Shields (Henry Holt & Co.) includes the influence of his military service and his dysfunctional marriage to Jill Krementz.


An integral part of Christmas celebrations is dazzling music in a variety of genres from “Ave Maria” to “Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer.” This year, Justin Bieber’s album Under the Mistletoe debuted at No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart, and Michael Bublė’s Christmas climbed to the top spot at end of November. The numerous albums on the market reveal a wide diversity of artists and styles: Susan Boyle’s The Gift (which debuted last year at the No. 1 spot); Kristin Chenoweth’s A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas; Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s The Ghosts of Christmas Eve; The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Glad Christmas Tidings; Lumier String Quartet’s Classical Christmas; Christmas Memories from Elvis and Alabama; and WOW Gospel Christmas (various artists).

Christmas music’s repertoire keeps expanding and appeals also to non-Christians. The Jewish contribution is noteworthy, including beloved songs such as “White Christmas” and “Carol of the Bells.” Several popular Jewish artists have recorded Christmas albums, among them Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart.

12 Best Christmas Songs

It was difficult to limit the list to just 12. They are in alphabetic order:

“Adeste Fideles”   .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  “Joy to the World”

“Angels We Have Heard On High”  .  .  .  .  “Little Drummer Boy”

“Come On, Ring Those Bells”   .  .  .  .  .  .  “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”               

“Deck the Halls”   .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  “O Holy Night

“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”   .  .  .  .  .   “Silent Night”

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas”   .  .  .  .  .  .   “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”

Winners and Losers


  1. Author Martha Grimes, 81, Washington, D.C. & Santa Fee, New Mexico. Mystery Writers of America (MWA) chose her for this year’s Grand Master award, which recognizes important contributions to the mystery genre and the winner’s consistently high quality of work.

  2. Singer/songwriter Taylor Swift, 21 (will turn 22 on December 13), Nashville, Tennessee. November was a great month for this superstar who during the past five years has sold more albums than any other artist. She won her second “Entertainer of the Year” trophy at the 2011 Country Music Awards and then her second “Artist of the Year” at the American Music Awards.

  3. Person of Interest, episode “Witness” on CBS, November 3, 2011 (S01, E07) with Jim Caviezel. An exciting show with a twist ending that at the least should make finalist in the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) Edgar awards for “Best TV Episode.”

  4. Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Justin Brooks Verlander, 28. He added the AL Cy Young Award (unanimous choice) and AL MVP to his many awards.

  5. Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins, 23. As time ran out, he completed a 44-yard Hail Mary pass in a 37-31 win over Wisconsin, making the game a classic.


  1. Former football coach Joe Paterno, former president Graham Spanier, and others at Penn State who allegedly covered up for accused pedophile Larry Sandusky, founder of The Second Mile charity for at-risk children. They lost their jobs and reputations. The scandal has hurt the university and its football program and will likely cause potential contributors to hesitate about supporting charities.

  2. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. They received $169 million in bailouts, approved by Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) and yet paid $12.79 million bonuses to ten executives who had failed in their jobs. Demands for a federal investigation are growing. (source: The Washington Times, November 2, 2011)

  3. District Judge Leslie Dutchcot. She granted Larry Sandusky unsecured bail (he had to put down no money) and ruled against the DA’s request for an ankle monitor, thus releasing with no supervision a potentially dangerous man whose windows overlook a children’s playground. Since she failed to disclose that Robert Poole, a top official at The Second Mile, hosted a fundraiser for her campaign and she volunteered at the charity, she was removed from the case.

  4. Meharry Medical College, Tennessee & Loma Linda University Medical Center, California. Dr. Conrad Murray, whose incompetence was documented during his trial in the death of singer Michael Jackson, attended the former and interned at the latter. Not a good endorsement for these two institutions.

  5. Emerson Elementary School, Compton, California. For its Read Across American Day, the school invited a former porn star to read to its 1st and 2nd graders, resulting in ridicule and criticism. Some parents are considering enrolling their children elsewhere.

”Girl With Christmas Ornaments,” oil painting on linen fabric, by Latvian artist Ingmara Zalite, on sale at Michael Arthur Johnson Company. The first recorded decorated Christmas tree dates to 1510 in Riga, Latvia.

Shurik’s granddaughter, at nearly 4 years of age, by her family’s Christmas tree that she helped to decorate, 1980s. © EVS

Baltic Station (Balti Jaam) in Tallinn as it looked when Shurik returned from Siberia. It was designed by architect Otto Rudolf von Knupffer and completed in 1870. In 1941 the Red Army set this unique railroad station on fire. During the Soviet rule, it was demolished and rebuilt in the 1960s. It was redone again in 2005.

Below: Baltic Station today is a bland building (with sign Tallinn). Photo: Sipu36.

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Investigation into actress Natalie Wood’s death continues.