Book Reviews: Where the Rock Splits the Sky by Philip Webb and The Man Who Was Poe by Avi @chickenhsebooks @avi3writer @avonbooks

Where the Rock Splits the Sky
Philip Webb
Chicken House, March 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-55701-6

Mr. Webb’s Where the Rock Splits the Sky is a stellar sci-fi, dystopian story beyond my wildest imagination. Perhaps because I could not fathom a unique paranormal situation which essentially creates chasms, both metaphorical and literal, all over the continental United States. Rather than banding together, people pretend to be in some sort of survival mode. In reality, society splintered and regressed to the ways of the “wild, wild west.”

Everyone can see that an invasion is underway, but only a select few know why. The Navaho people had prayed to the White Shell Woman believing her to be a goddess; Wife of the Moon, Mother of the Navajo people. They are honest and trusting people but the she is an unabashed liar, master manipulator and nothing resembling a goddess.

In the chaos, Megan’s father is missing. She knows, with an inexplicable certainty, that he is trapped in The Zone. She has yet to learn that she is the only person on the planet capable of freeing him and Megan may never be ready to understand why. Shoving doubt aside, she saddles her horse to head into The Zone.

In a rush, but feeling she owes her best bud an explanation, she makes a quick stop. Since Luis is easily as stubborn as she is, Megan isn’t really surprised when he insists on accompanying her. She’s just not sure how she feels about it. Their old, but seemingly uncertain, friendship may not be destined to survive the journey, even if they do find Megan’s father and miraculously make it out alive.

Once inside The Zone, they encounter Kelly. Determinedly cheerful, Kelly announces her intent to join the duo on their quest. Not a problem for Luis, he always believes there’s room for one more. Megan is not so quick to accept a new acquaintance.

Kelly is a large presence with plenty to say and not too much time for politeness. Her overwhelming attitude has Megan and Luis independently soul-searching and even reevaluating their relationship. The dynamic among the three solidified this sweetly-strange little story. I admit, I did not fully understand exactly what was happening or where the story was heading, but I was absolutely invested enough to be shocked, then tickled by a sneaky twist.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2019.


The Man Who Was Poe
Avon, July 1997
ISBN 978-0-380-73022-3
Trade Paperback

I have just “discovered” the author, Avi. Meaning, of course, that one of “my” students brought him to my attention. I had asked the students to fill in a wish-list of books to be added to their classroom library and someone requested a book by Avi. The name stuck with me, and wouldn’t you know, after digging through my stacks o’ books, I actually had something from this very author!

Not just any book, either. This casts Edgar Allan Poe as a supporting character. Famous in his own rights, Mr. Poe is almost legendary here in Richmond, VA, where he occupies a predominant place in history. Clearly, I had to read The Man Who Was Poe right then. Fortunately, this Juvenile Historical Fiction was a fast read.

There’s something completely quirky about enjoying the interactions between two totally different types of people, neither of which I would expect to covet as a companion in real-life. In Avi’s world, however, it is the perfect plot presentation. This mystery moves quickly, even with the hair-pin twists and turns. I wanted to sympathize with young Edmund, or at least his pathetic predicament; but, he’s simply too tenacious and tough to pity. After all, this kid continues to go toe-to-toe with Edgar Allan Poe.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2019.

Book Reviews: Scared to Death by Wendy Corsi Staub, The Nomination by William G. Tapply and Agent X by Noah Boyd

Scared to Death
Wendy Corsi Staub
Avon, January 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-18950-7-4
Mass Market Paperback

The first murder in Wendy Corsi Staub’s newest thriller occurs on page 7, and the suspense hardly lets up from that point on.

Marin Quinn gave up her newborn son at the insistence of her husband, Garvey Quinn.  Elsa Cavalon adopted that same child, and is now on the brink of finalizing the adoption of a seven-year-old girl, Renny.  The horror that binds these two women is that Jeremy, the biological son of one and adoptive son of the other, was kidnapped while playing outside of his home fifteen years earlier; less than a year ago, Mike Fantoni, the detective the Cavalons hired after Jeremy was first kidnapped and who vowed not to rest until the boy had been found, tells them that Jeremy had been taken overseas to Mumbai, India, and murdered shortly afterwards.  Garvey Quinn, a man who had hoped to become the Governor of the State of New York, is now serving a prison term for having engineered that crime [among others].

But the nightmare of that loss seems to be repeating itself, as the new family of each of these women is threatened, and no part of their present lives seems to be outside the reach of a determined and very deranged mind.

The book alternates p.o.v. between the two women at its heart [as well as that of the killer, from time to time], as they variously run to the suburbs of Boston and an Upper West Side aerie in Manhattan.  But try as they might, they each find that there seems to be no safe haven.

A tale of vengeance with a stunning twist as the conclusion nears, Scared to Death is great escapist fare, one you’ll want to read with all the lights on.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2011.


The Nomination
William G. Tapply
Skyhorse Publishing, February 2011
ISBN: 978-1-60239-990-7

The Nomination is a posthumously released novel by William Tapply, and a terrific one it is.

Thomas Larrigan is about to be nominated by the American President to fill the seat on the U. S. Supreme Court of an associate justice on the verge of retirement.  He, of course, needs to be vetted before the inevitable Senate confirmation hearings, and even before his nomination is publicly announced.  At first blush his bona fides appear to be impeccable:  A youthful-looking 59 years old, handsome despite his black eye patch, he was a Marine lieutenant, decorated Vietman vet, who had been awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart; he has a reputation as an “intrepid prosecutor, tough on criminals, elected twice as crime-busting District Attorney, once as state Attorney General, self-respected Federal District Court judge, loving family man.”  [It doesn’t hurt that he occasionally plays golf with the President.]

As the president is told, “Larrigan’s perfect.  Almost too good to be true.”  Of course, as the author points out, “if you looked close enough, you’d find a skeleton in every closet in America.  If you looked close enough, you wouldn’t find anybody who’d qualify for the Supreme Court.  Old dusty skeletons, long dead.  Skeletons can’t tell stories.”  Some of those skeletons are not quite dead, it soon appears.  In the process, several lives are linked in disparate ways, some characters confronting their past, others running from theirs, including events from the Vietnam era that had/have life-changing effects.  The author skillfully weaves these threads together, and when this reader thought she knew what was coming, unexpected plot developments proved me wrong.

Others caught in the web of the vetting process include Jessie Church, who had worked for 18 months as an undercover cop in Baltimore, now working as a private investigator; Simone Bonet, cult film goddess who has dropped out of sight; Mac Cassidy, celebrity ghostwriter recovering from the death a year earlier of his wife and now trying to raise their teenage daughter by himself; among others.  Each of these is a fully fleshed-out character brought to wonderful life in the hands of Mr. Tapply.  This is a beautifully written tale of love and loss, full of suspense but still managing to tug at the heart. Nearing the end of the book, I did something I had never done before: I had gripped the bottom corner of the page so tightly in my fingers that a small piece was ripped out.

I felt it might be appropriate to include here the following, contained in an epilogue to this novel, in part wrapping up the tale and spoken by Mac Cassidy, but which I suspect were also Mr. Tapply’s thoughts about his own writing process:  “Eight hundred words a day, through sleet and snow and flu-like symptoms.  That’s how books got written.  Not in great bursts of inspiration.  You wrote a book one painful sentence at a time.  Eight hundred words a day, which was a lot of sentences, whether it took an hour or ten hours.”  It is our loss that this is the last book from this author we will have the pleasure of reading.  It is, obviously, highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2011.


Agent X
Noah Boyd
William Morrow, February 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-182698-6

Kate Bannon, the Assistant Director of the FBI who readers, and ex-FBI Agent Steve Vail first met in this author’s The Bricklayer, returns, in fact, in the first sentence on the first page of this, the second in the series.  And a most welcome return it is, of those protags and the series itself.  I am delighted to report that all the taut writing, suspense and wonderful characters of the initial book in the series are abundantly present in Agent X as well.

Vail, a maverick who can’t/won’t confirm to rules, was fired by the FBI five years previously.  He has since then been working at least nominally as a bricklayer [thus the title of the first book] and had met Kate in LA when they worked together on a case which had a successful conclusion, mostly due to his efforts.  [He was an ‘independent contractor’ of sorts in that instance for the FBI.]  They had dated for a while, until Kate broke it off.  Beyond the delightful banter, the two make for a terrific team as the FBI persuades Vail to head up their investigation into finding a number of agents to whom vital US secrets are just a commodity to be bartered.  As if that weren’t enough, Steve is asked by an agent who had been Vail’s partner several years back to assist with a case involving the disappearance of a female intelligence analyst.  As the tale unfolds, one thing becomes clear:  Very little is as it seems.

The Vail/Bannon relationship is an ambivalent one.  As is the Vail/FBI deal.  Bannon tells Vail:  “You have advanced degrees.  The director has offered you complete autonomy if you’ll come back to the Bureau, but instead you choose physical labor just so you won’t have to take orders. . . Not everyone who takes orders for a living is a mortal enemy of Steven Vail.”  The cleverly constructed sleuthing [which was a challenge at times for this reader, I must admit], and the occasional philosophical ruminations, make for a fascinating read.


Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2011.

Book Reviews: Death Echo by Elizabeth Lowell and Money to Burn by James Grippando

Death Echo
Elizabeth Lowell
Avon, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-16442-7
Mass Market Paperback

International intrigue is at the heart of the plot which joins Emma Cross, former CIA operative and now with St. Kilda’s Consulting, and Mackenzie Durand, former Special Ops leader, the only survivor of his team in its last mission.  Now a transit captain, he picks up a brand new yacht, the Blackbird, offloaded from a container ship to bring to a small port where it is to be fitted out.  Meanwhile, Emma has been looking for the yacht’s twin, the Black Swan, for an insurance company since its disappearance.

The two are thrown together when all the intelligence agencies pick up vibes of an impending terrorist act against a major U.S. urban center. It is not known whether the threat is biological, chemical or nuclear.  So Mackenzie becomes the captain of the Blackbird, with Emma as “first mate,” on a voyage through the inland passageway on the West Coast of Canada, ostensibly to bring the ship to its new owner.  It is quite a trip.

The descriptions of the passageway, the tides, weather and difficulties of steering a ship under various conditions are graphic and exciting.  And despite all the dangers from the sea and adversaries, love finds a way.


[It should perhaps be noted that the pb edition has also been issued in a larger trim size, ISBN 978-006204484-6.]

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.


Money to Burn
James Grippando
ISBN: 978-0-06-155631-9
Mass Market Paperback

By combining the issues of market manipulation and identity theft, James Grippando has raised some interesting questions in this somewhat flawed but timely novel.  This reviewer’s reservations, which admittedly are probably in the minority, apply to whether or not the premise that a single hedge fund could actually bring down a thinly disguised Goldman Sachs without steps being taken by the New York Stock Exchange or the Securities and Exchange Commission stepping in to stop naked selling of the brokerage’s stock is valid.

Nevertheless, legal issues aside, it makes for a provocative tale, especially in view of recent events in the financial world. Essentially the plot involves a 35-year-old star of the venerable Wall Street firm Saxton Silvers, Mike Cantella, who discovers on the night of his birthday that all his accounts have been transferred to an offshore bank and he is left without a penny.  At the same time, these funds are used to short the firm’s stock, driving its price down, and continued pressure pushes the firm into bankruptcy.  Further, other events point to his involvement in the demise, as well as in subsequent murders.

The story is over-plotted, with all kinds of devices including spyware on cell phones and computers, enigmatic e-mails from unidentified sources, FBI probes, corporate espionage, and a wife of four hours who disappears and is presumed dead, eaten by a shark, not to mention a second wife who complicates Mike’s life while he is fighting to clear his name.  And to wrap up, introduction of the Madoff Ponzi scheme seems a bit gratuitous. Nevertheless, the novel is an entertaining read, and does have some useful insights into today’s financial picture.


Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.

Book Review: Scared to Death by Wendy Corsi Staub

Scared To Death
Wendy Corsi Staub
Avon, 2011
ISBN No. 978-0061895074
Mass Market Paperback

When Elsa Cavalon is awakened from a sound sleep by someone calling “Mommy” she immediately thinks of Jeremy but Elsa and Brett Cavalon lost Jeremy, their adopted son.  Jeremy was taken from the Cavalon’s and recently they were told that Jeremy had been murdered.  Now they have a new daughter and hope to adopt Renny soon.  It is Renny crying out to her mother and Elsa finds a window open in Renny’s room, a window that Elsa knows she locked before going to bed. Not only is the window open but so is the screen.  So begins Elsa’s new nightmare.

Jeremy wasn’t a perfect child but he was loved and when he disappeared Elsa almost lost her mind.  Brett and Elsa hired a private detective, Mike Fantoni, to search for Jeremy when the authorities had given up.  Now Elsa and Brett turn to Mike to help solve the new threat that has come into their lives.

Meanwhile Jeremy’s birth mother is living her own nightmare.  Marin Hartwell Quinn is starting over since Garvey Quinn, her politician husband, was arrested.  The Quinn’s have two daughters, Caroline and Annie.  Although Garvey Quinn was arrested for another crime, Marin knows that Garvey was responsible for the kidnapping of Jeremy.

Now someone is watching both families.  Could Mike Fantoni have made a mistake and Jeremy is really alive?  Or has someone else decided to bring even more tragedy to the two families who have already lived through enough.

Lauren Walsh and her three children are the third family discussed in this novel.  Evidently Lauren’s husband Nick lost his life after becoming entangled in the Garvey Quinn web but exactly how was never made clear to this reader.  Lauren and Marin have become friends since the tragedy in both their lives.

Scared to Death is full of suspense and keeps the reader guessing.  Wendy Corsi Staub’s previous novel Live To Tell is another book that keeps the reader guessing.  Both books take a little while for the reader to get adjusted to Staub’s style of writing but both are exciting books.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, January 2011.

Book Review: Next Time You See Me by Katia Lief

Next Time You See Me
Katia Lief
Avon, November 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-18090-4-0
Mass Market Paperback

Katia Lief’s first book, the thrilling You Are Next, was published by Avon in October of 2010.; this novel, a sequel, one short month later.  Inasmuch as it picks up four years after the end of the first book, everything to follow must be considered a potential spoiler, hence:


Karin Schaeffer is still living in Brooklyn, New York, but now she is about to celebrate her second wedding anniversary. Five months pregnant, she had married Mac, after the latter quit the Maplewood, New Jersey police force [as had Karin herself a few years back], moved to Brooklyn where he married Karin and they both started a new life after [barely] surviving the events described in the first book.

Karin had been a soldier, a cop and a detective; now a mother and currently taking courses in forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Mac [nee Seamus MacLeary], a former cop for more than twenty years, has just been promoted to senior vice-president of Forensic Security at the exclusive firm of Quest Security after a scandal involving allegedly altered forensic testimony in a high-profile legal case had resulted in his predecessor in the job being summarily fired.  Also present is Billy Staples, the cop who worked with them on the earlier case, now Mac’s best friend and still working in Brooklyn’s 84th Precinct.

As the tale opens, Mac’s parents have been found dead in their home, apparently the victims of a botched home invasion.  But a few days later, shortly after the funeral, the police suspect Mac’s brother, Danny, who has a history of alcoholism and rootlessness, frequently changing jobs and girlfriends, based on DNA evidence found in the house.  In a state of exhaustion, when Mac insists on going to work but trying to exude enthusiasm on the morning of their anniversary celebration dinner, he promises Karin, with a kiss and a smile, “next time you see me, I’ll be . . . “ when she cuts off his apology with another kiss.  Then he disappears.

Two weeks later, with no word from Mac, they are notified that the car that he had apparently rented has been found in Long Island Sound, with no trace of a body.  Months go by, with no word from or trace of Mac.  Karin is convinced that his disappearance has something to do with his new job, rather than his parents’ murder and Danny’s possible involvement.  She is convinced that Mac is still alive, focusing on the fact that no body has been found.  She hires a private detective, and discovers things about Mac’s past she never knew of or suspected. As her mother tells her, “we may think we know someone, but there are always surprises,” and as Karin herself thinks, “ if you think life is going to turn out the way you plan it, you’re a fool.”

The book is as suspenseful and surprising as was the earlier book, and it too is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2010.

Book Review: Death Message by Mark Billingham

Death Message
Mark Billingham
Avon, October 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-143277-4
Mass Market Paperback

It’s not often that a homicide detective receives a picture of a victim prior to the murder, but that’s exactly what happens to TomThorne in this latest volume in the series, when his cell phone rings
and he opens it to see a photo.  And it happens more than once.  A connection occurs after the second victim is identified and Thorne discovers that the murderer is a recently released man named Marcus
Brooks, who had learned that his girlfriend and his son were killed deliberately in a hit-and-run accident two weeks before he was to be released from prison after serving seven years for the killing of a bike gang leader.

Thorne has to balance the capture of Brooks with several other pressures, including his relationship with his own girlfriend, the death of his father, possible connections between bike gangs and the Turkish mafia, drug and other illicit activities, and an investigation by Internal Affairs.

It is a long story, but an absorbing one, with the plot(s) moving forward at a steady pace.  Thorne is depicted on a basic human level, with all the doubts and wonders inherent in a person.  As police procedurals go, Death Message is not so much a step-by-step investigation as it is an insight into the detective’s mind and ability to weigh alternatives, especially in his own ethos and life.


Reviewed by Theodore Feit, September 2010.