Pick of the Month, February 2012


V Is For Vengeance by Sue Grafton, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27.95

Set in California in 1988, P.I. Kinsey Millhone catches Audrey Vance shoplifting. Audrey is part of a shoplifting gang led by mobster Dante and after her arrest ends up in the river, her death disguised as a suicide. Refusing to believe the charges against the victim, her bereft boyfriend Marvin Striker hires Millhone in hopes of clearing her name. Millhone’s investigation uncovers the gang’s operation, its crews loosely connected to prevent exposure and to protect the top person, and consequently finds herself in danger. Intertwined with this plot is the story of Nora Vogelsang, the wife of a prominent Hollywood lawyer, who discovers her husband has a mistress. As her marriage unravels, she becomes involved with Dante.

Grafton makes a strong case for arresting and prosecuting shoplifters. Most shoplifters are pros connected to the Mob, their crimes costly to consumers. The worst gangs in this country originate in South America and are ready to use violence.

V Is for Vengeance is #22 in the Kinsey Millhone series,  and the P.I. remains her feisty self:  “. . . there are people who believe you should forgive and forget. For the record . . . I’m a big fan of forgiveness as long as I’m given the opportunity to get even first.” Some mystery fans might object to Dante’s fate, and Millhone’s take on the mobster is out of character. Of course, in real life most of us have acted out of character. An interesting mystery novel that appeared on various bestseller lists since November.


Man Overboard: Inside the Honeymoon Cruise Murder by Joan Lownds, Lyons Press, $14.95

George Allen Smith IV, 26, was murdered on July 5, 2005 while he and his wife Jennifer Hagel were on their honeymoon on the Royal Caribbean’s ocean liner Brilliance of the Sea. Soon the investigation stalled.

This homicide provides the backdrop for Man Overboard, which follows the valiant efforts by George’s sister Bree and his parents George III and Maureen Smith to obtain answers about his death and to crusade for ship safety reforms. They found an ally in their Congressman Chris Shays (R. Conn.) who agrees to hold hearings. The hearings put the Smiths in contact with other victims and place a spotlight on the powerful lobby of the cruise ship industry. Shays lost the election in 2008, though the role of the lobby, if any, has not been established. Bree Smith became the cofounder (along with Son Michael Pham, Ken Carver, and Jean Scavone) of International Cruise Victims (ICV), an advocacy organization to lobby for protection for passengers from crime and to assist the victims and their families.

Joan Lownds castigates the cruise ship industry, notably the Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruises, both having a record of environmental violations such as discharges of oil, garbage, and hazardous wastes into U.S. waters. She found a lack of regulation of the industry, with many Americans sailing under “flags of convenience” without the protection of U.S. laws. Although shipboard crimes were increasing, they often were neither investigated nor reported. A cavalier treatment of sexual assault victims prevailed, and many of the perpetrators were crew members who came from cultures that degrade women.

The calls for reform paid off. In 2010, President Obama signed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act. The bill requires reporting of crimes; structural changes such as peepholes in cabin doors and 42 inch guardrails; log books on missing persons, deaths, and crimes; and training on handling crime.

The FBI continues to investigate George’s murder. Lownds includes brief references to the four persons of interest: Josh Askin, who has made odd statements, and three Russians residing in this country - Rostislav Kofman, Zach Rozenberg, and Gregory Rozenberg, the latter arrested for heroin trafficking in 2009 in Florida. Lownds presents an unflattering portrait of Jennifer Hagel, who is not a suspect but some of her behavior is inconsistent with the stereotype of a grieving widow (e.g. her odd rift with George’s parents and her secret meetings with Royal Caribbean). She has since remarried.

Man Overboard covers a timely topic. On January 18, Carnival Cruise’s luxury ocean liner Costa Concordia capsized when it hit rocks, and the final death toll might pass 30 (presently 17 dead, 15 missing). The disaster underlines the safety concerned expressed by Lownds. The crew were not properly vetted or trained, one passenger stating that he feared he’d be killed by the crew. No  emergency drill was held. After the accident, the passengers were left to fend to themselves. The captain abandoned ship and now faces criminal charges (see Winners and Losers).


Extraordinary Endangered Animals by Sandrine Silhol and Gaëlle Guérive, illustrated by Marie Doucedame, Abrams Books For Young Readers, $24.95, YA

This book features 35 of the around 43,000 species of animals that face possible extinction: the red panda - voted the “cutest animal in the world” by visitors to the Houston Zoo; the takin - the unusual color of its coat possibly inspired the legend of the Golden Fleece; the sawfish - a fish with a saw instead of a nose; coral - the only living animal visible from space; the golden lion tamarin; each one a fascinating animal.

The authors conclude with five brief suggestions on how we can help endangered animals, such as recycling and reuse, something everyone should be promoting. This book will instill appreciation of and concern for these animals who lack the voice to defend themselves.

Specialty/Small Press

Chronicle Books, launched in 1968, publishes adult and children’s books on a variety of topics. A recent release is Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack Jr., illustrated by Randy DeBurke, a graphic novel based on the life of the best known African-American cowboy, an expert roper and driver aka ‘Deadwood Dick.” Chronicle Books promotes green practices and supports numerous nonprofit organizations with 501?(3) status: the San Francisco Symphony, American Library Association (ALA), Bay Area Discovery Museum, and others.

Author submissions: Chronicle Books is no longer interested in adult fiction. It will consider submissions for adult non-fiction and for YA and children’s fiction and nonfiction. For submission guidelines, see www.chroniclebooks.com/submissions


International commemorative events are planned for the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, the author of 15 major novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and nonfiction. According to Bob Minzesheimer (“A Dickens of a 200th birthday,” USA Today, January 31, 2012), his novels have inspired over 320 films, more than the works of any other author. And more films are forthcoming. On February 26, PBS’ Masterpiece Classic will air a new production of The Old Curiosity Shop. In England, Dickens was one of the most popular writers of his time, and his book tours in the U.S. drew enormous crowds, leading Minzesheimer to view him as “the first modern celebrity.”


Kathleen Edward, 9, died on January 11, 2012, of Huntington’s disease, which years earlier had claimed her mother’s life. She made national news when a neighbor Jennifer Petkov brutally taunted her on Facebook.


Tony Blankley, 63, columnist, regular on the McLaughlin Group, and political commentator for CNN, NPR and NBC, died from stomach cancer on January 7, 2012. He was a former child actor, appearing in Lassie and Make Room for Daddy and held various political jobs, including press secretary in the 1990s for then House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He is the author of The West’s Last Chance with Mark Warner and American Grit.


Ruth Stone, 95, teacher and author of 13 books of poetry, died on November 19, 2011. Her husband, Professor Walter Stone, committed suicide in 1959 that left her to raise three daughters alone and inspired some of her most harrowing poems. Her numerous literary awards and honors include the National Book Award in 2002. The book When Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press) was a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Winners and Losers


  1. Coast Guard Captain Gregorio De Falco, 48, Italy. He oversaw the evacuation from the Costa Concordia and ordered Captain Schettino at least ten times to go back to the ship. He became an admired figure in Italy but insists he is no hero and merely did his duty.

  2. Motivational speaker Jessica Cox, 28, Arizona. Although born without arms, she uses her feet the way we use our hands and her many accomplishments include becoming a certified SCUBA diver and the first armless licensed pilot. She believes that the way we think has a greater impact on our lives than our physical limitations. She told Dr. Drew: “. . . if we look at what we have and we’re appreciative of it, it’s a lot easier to move forward and work with what we have and overcome whatever challenges we’re confronted with.” (January 24, 2012)

  3. Dorothea Taylor, 85, Alaska. When her husband of 40 years, George Murphy, 82, was attacked by a moose, the 97 lb. retired teacher grabbed a shovel and kept swinging at the moose until it retreated, saving his life. He is recuperating from a head wound and possible broken ribs.

  4. Olivia Rusk, 14, Indiana. She is one of about 2% of people who suffer from alopecia areata (a disorder in which ones body attacks its own hair follicles). Instead of holding her back, she found this condition provides her with opportunities. She gives motivational speeches, performs as radio talk host, and models. Unlike many other kids with alopecia, she has not been bullied and often speaks out against bullying. She self-published the book Just Your Average Teenager Who Happens to Be Bald. Her message is: “It’s okay to be different.”

  5. Top three artists who in 2011 sold the most albums (in millions): Adele, 6.75; Justin Bieber, 3.39; Michael Bublé, 2.99.


  1. Captain Francesco Schettino, 52, Italy. His poor judgement caused the luxury cruise liner Costa Concordia to capsize a mere 3.5 hours after departure from the port in Civitavecchia, Italy. He left the ship ahead of passengers, claiming he fell into the lifeboat, earning him the nickname “Chicken of the Sea.” He replaced ousted Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as the most hated man in Italy. Facing numerous criminal charges, he remains under house arrest.

  2. Student Aisha Khan, 19, Kansas. She staged her own kidnapping but was unable to outwit the police. Although her stunt cost the taxpayers a hefty sum, along with time and money wasted by hundreds of concerned volunteers who searched for her, the police said no charges will be filed. Her actions will cause cynicism and impact negatively on real victims. At the least, she should provide an explanation. Incidentally, she recently married a man from Pakistan who had been in this country only a few months. Another “runaway bride”?

  3. Governor Haley Barbour, 64, R. Mississippi. He pardoned violent convicts, drawing nationwide outrage. The court has issued an injunction in attempt to block some of the pardons.

  4. Jesus Jose Pena, 64, San Antonio, Texas. Police impounded 52 birds in a probe of cockfighting and found many of the roosters had their spurs sawed off and their combs and wattles surgically removed. When Pena went to claim the birds, the police arrested him on the charge of cockfighting.

  5. FedEx and the delivery man who hurled a monitor over the fence, breaking it. Company spokesperson Shea Leordeau refused to identify him but said he will be disciplined. As long as this delivery man remains with the company, people have reason to worry about using FedEx.

Kuninga Tänav (King Street), built in the 17th century, Pärnu. Photographer: brilanto

Estonian folk costumes differ by geographical areas. This postage stamp depicts those in Türi.

Fabergé cuckoo clock egg, a present to Tsarina Alexandra from Tsar Nikolai II, 1900. The 50 eggs made for Tsars Alexander III and Nikolai II are referred to as the “Imperial Fabergé Eggs.”

George Smith IV & Jennifer Hagel at their wedding reception on June 25, 2005. George’s murder spurred reforms in the cruise industry. Jennifer married financial analyst Jeff Agne and works at the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

Photo: Man Overboard: Inside the Honeymoon Cruise Murder by award-winning reporter Joan Lownds, Lyon Press, 2012

The endangered golden lion tamarin, aka golden marmoset, a ferocious little monkey native to the Atlantic Forest in Brazil.

Photographer: Marcel Burkhard, user Celeb4; Wikipedia

Portrait of Charles John Huffam Dickens (Feb. 7, 1812-June 9, 1870) by Daniel Maclise, 1839.  Dickens survived an impoverished childhood and married Catherine Thomson Hogarth, daughter of a music critic, with whom he had ten children.

At the Golden Globes, January 15, 2012: Academy Award-winning actor William Hurt (nominated for Best Actor in a Television Miniseries or Movie for his brilliant performance as Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in Too Big to Fail) and his date, art historian and expert on Indian art Catherine Karnitis.

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Shurik’s teenage granddaughter, Pärnu Beach, 1990s