Phil’s Picks

Book and Movie Reviews

Dear Fans: I am addicted to books. I started reading several each week when I was in elementary school and I never stopped. I also like movies. Whenever I read a book or see a movie that I really like I’ll share my find with you. Let me know if you agree or disagree.

– Phil

Book Reviews

The Coroner’s Lunch – Colin Cotterill (Soho Press, 2015)

I am 76 years old and I’ve been reading several mysteries a week since I was in elementary school. After so many decades, it is refreshing and exciting to find a mystery series that is not like anything I’ve read before. That’s why I am so excited about Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries that are set in the 1970s in Communist Laos. I discovered the series on vacation last year, right before the virus struck, when I read “The Coroner’s Lunch,” the first book in the series. The main character is in his seventies and has been forced by the communist regime to be the national coroner of Laos. Siri is a doctor but he knows absolutely nothing about how to conduct an autopsy and there are no books to help and no one to talk to since the communists forced the French to leave. Siri is surrounded by a brilliant, continuing cast of characters, the books are very funny, but can turn serious. Most important for mystery lovers, the mysteries are clever. I’ve read four books in the series and I own four more. I think there are fifteen so far and everyone I have read is delightful.

I am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes (Pocket Books, 2015)

I’ve read two exceptional thrillers recently: “I am Pilgrim,” by Terry Hayes and “Angel Killer,” by Andrew Mayne. The first book is the best spy thriller I’ve read in ages and the second is an innovative twist on the serial killer genre with a murderer who kills people in fantastic magic illusions. The heroine in the latter book is a woman FBI agent who was a world famous magician before joining the Bureau and author works with famous magicians and helps them create their illusions.

Angel Killer – Andrew Mayne (Bourbon Street Books, 2014)

I’ve read two exceptional thrillers recently: “I am Pilgrim,” by Terry Hayes and “Angel Killer,” by Andrew Mayne. The first book is the best spy thriller I’ve read in ages and the second is an innovative twist on the serial killer genre with a murderer who kills people in fantastic magic illusions. The heroine in the latter book is a woman FBI agent who was a world famous magician before joining the Bureau and author works with famous magicians and helps them create their illusions.

All four volumes for Robert Caro’s Biography of Lyndon Johnson:

  • The Path to Power (Random House, 1982)
  • Means of Ascent (Random House, 1990)
  • Master of the Senate (Random House, 2002)
  • The Passage of Power (Random House, 2013)

I know it sounds crazy, but I roared through the 3000 page opus at warp speed. LBJ is a character of Shakespearean proportions and the details of Texas politics make Putin’s Russia sound like Disneyland.

Beautiful Ruins (HarperCollins, 2012)

Simply wonderful.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (Random House, 2012)

The Orphan Master’s Son is brilliant and completely worthy of The Pulitzer Prize it won in 2013. A book with comedy, suspense, action and great writing set in North Korea with Kim Jong II as a main character.

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt & Co., 2009) (04/22/2010)

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is the winner of the Booker Prize, the United Kingdom’s equivalent of the Pulitzer, as well as several other literary awards. I don’t know much English history so I found the story of King Henry’s attempt to divorce his Queen, Katherine, so he could marry Ann Boleyn fascinating. Mantel’s style is challenging but I loved the way she wrote the book and found it woirth the struggle. Although this is a literary novel, it moves like a thriller.

Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts (10/15/2008)

SHANTARAM  is a gem. Don’t let the length (933 pages) put you off this epic thriller about a heroin addicted, armed robber who escapes from a maximum security prison in Australia and hides out in Bombay, India. Almost every page is fascinating. Our hero spends time in Bombay’s worst slum, joins the Bombay Mafia, serves time in a horrible Indian jail, fights with the Mujahadeen against the Russians in Afghanistan and learns about Bollywood, the Indian film industry among other things. I was sorry when SHANTARAM ended and was glad it was so long because I had more time with it.

Richistan – Robert Frank (02/19/2008)

This non-fiction look at the super rich is a fantastic read. If you’re not super rich it will make your jaw drop or have you howling with laughter. If you are super rich you probably won’t get it.

The Know-it-All – A. J. Jacobs (11/14/2006)

“The Know-it-All” is one of the funniest and most interesting books I’ve ever read.  In this non-fiction work, the author decides to become the smartest man in the world by reading the Encyclopedia Britanica from cover to cover.

How I Paid for College, a novel of sex, theft, friendship and musical theater – Marc Acito (12/07/2005)

“How I Paid for College, a novel of sex, theft, friendship and musical theater” by Marc Acito. My novel “Lost Lake” was recently a finalist for an Oregon Book Award but I knew I had no chance to win as soon as I saw that Marc Acito was one of the other finalists. I read “How I Paid for College” this summer and had been raving about it ever since. It is the hilarious story of Edward Zanni, a gay high school junior whose only wish in life is to go to Julliard so he can be an actor. Unfortunately, his father is only willing to pay for college if Edward goes to business school. Edward enlists his high school friends to help him and the book details their hysterically funny schemes to get Edward his tuition.

Q & A – Vikas Swarup (12/07/2005)

“Q & A” by Vikas Swarup is one of the most original books I’ve read in ages. An Indian waiter with no formal education is arrested after winning the top prize on the quiz show, “Who Wants to be a Billionaire” because the owners of the show are sure he cheated. In each chapter, the waiter tells his lawyer how an incident in his life helped him know the answer to the question. The stories are good to terrific and there are several twists and a surprise ending (or two).

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini (06/19/2005)

“The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini is a work of literature that is very moving and exceedingly well-written. It’s been a big best seller for reasons that will become obvious as soon as you start reading.

The Company – Robert Littell (06/19/2005)

“The Company” by Robert Littell may be the best spy novel I’ve ever read. It’s huge -894 pages – but there is so much action, the writing is so good and the characters are so interesting that I zipped through it. Harvey Torriti (the Sorcerer) is one of my all-time fictional creations.

A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer: The Life of William Dampier – Diana and Michael Preston (02/13/2005)

I had never heard of William Dampier until I read this biography. This brilliant self-taught naturalist circumnavigated the globe in the 1600s several times, was the first Englishman to describe Australia and the effects of marijuana and was one of the first people to understand how the ocean current work, among other amazing accomplishments. And he did this while serving aboard pirate ships as a buccaneer. This is a book about a truly amazing man who lead a truly amazing life.

Line of Vision – David Ellis (02/13/2005)

The first novel won the Edgar and rightly so. It is a novel legal thriller with surprises galore.

Bangkok 8 – John Burdett (10/18/2004)

It is tempting to classify this book as a police procedural, but I think it is an excellent literary novel that just happens to involve an investigation of one of the most bizarre and ingenious murders I’ve ever seen in fiction. Narrated by a Thai policeman who is the only honest cop in Bangkok, Thailand, this book is funny, entertaining, serious and exciting.

The Dante Club – Matthew Pearl (07/19/2004)

“The Dante Club” by Matthew Pearl has a terrific premise. Shortly after the Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Americas most popular poet, is making the first American translation of Dante’s Inferno with the help of such luminaries as Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a popular writer, professor at Harvard Medical School and father of the Supreme Court Justice, when a murderer starts killing people in the same manner that Dante’s sinners are punished in his famous poem. This is much more than a mystery. It is also a wonderful picture of nineteenth century Boston and the controversy surrounding Longfellow’s translation. The mystery and action are fun and the history is intriguing. Matthew Pearl is also an excellent writer.

The Last Detective – Robert Crais (07/19/2004)

I’m a fan of Robert Crais and “The Last Detective” is one of his best. I didn’t have a stopwatch but I know I read it as quickly as almost any other book I’ve ever read. Talk about breakneck pacing.

Heart Seizure – Bill Fitzhugh (05/11/2004)

I really like Fitzhugh’s funny thrillers. “Pest Control,” the tale of a pest control man who is mistaken for a hit man, is my favorite but “Heart Seizure” had me doubled over laughing from start to finish. If you like action and wacky humor, this is a must.

The Known World – Edward P. Jones (03/06/2004)

I didn’t know that there were freed slaves who owned slaves in the South before the Civil War until I read reviews of “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones. The reviews raved about this first novel by an author who had already made a name for himself as a writer of short stories. The book lives up to the raves. It is powerful, disturbing and beautifully written novel – The best I’ve read so far this year.

This Boy’s Life – Tobias Wolff (02/12/2004)

Portland has a terrific arts and lecture series that invites great authors from around the world. This year, Tobias Wolff was one of the speakers. I had heard about him but never read any of his books. The day after his highly entertaining talk I bought his most famous work – his memoir, “This Boy’s Life.”  The book covers the teenaged Wolff’s coming of age as he moves around the country with his divorced mother. It is beautifully written and very moving.

The Richard Sharpe Series – Bernard Cornwell (02/12/2004)

A few years ago, I was in Chicago for the BEA convention and I had drinks with my editor, Dan Conaway, and another of his writers, Bernard Cornwell. I had heard Bernard’s name but had never read any of his books, so Dan sent me on of the Richard Sharpe series. I was hooked. I promptly went out and bought every book in the Sharpe series, and I was glad I did. The books are set during the Napoleonic Wars. Sharpe is the bastard son of a London whore who was raised in a workhouse and escaped to the Army. He is highly intelligent, but uneducated, and the one thing he excels at is killing. The series starts in India and traces Sharpe as he rises through the ranks after saving the life of the Duke of Wellington. There are two stories in each book. First, the books are set around real battles and there is an historical note at the end of each book that tells you what incidents and characters are true and what Cornwell made up. Frequently, the most amazing things really happened. Second, there is Sharpe’s personal mission, which is an edge of the seat action tale. The villains are evil, the women are beautiful and interesting and the action is incredible. Some of the books in the series are better than others, but the ones I liked the least were still good reads. One suggestion: read them in order because Sharpe’s personal life is intriguing and there are a number of continuing characters.

Stone City – Mitchell Smith (01/29/2004)

I am asked frequently about my favorite books. “Stone City” is the best thriller I have ever read. Have you ever wondered how you would handle prison? “Stone City” answers that question in the context of a brilliant novel. The main character is a college professor who is convicted of a crime and sent to the worst prison in the state, where a serial killer is murdering the most evil prisoners. For various reasons, the professor is given the task of discovering the killer’s identity. “Stone City” has several incredible scenes that are worth the price of the book and a large number of fabulously drawn characters. The book is huge but I couldn’t stop reading it. It also has several flaws, including an ending that I really didn’t like. But, with all the flaws, it is still better than any other thriller I’ve ever read. One problem – the book may be out of print. If so, get it out of the library or find it in a used bookstore. You’ll be glad you made the effort.

A King’s Ransom – James Grippando (12/30/2003)

I had heard of Jim, but had never read him, when HarperCollins asked me to introduce him at a Portland bookstore when he was on tour for Last to Die. I didn’t want to introduce Jim if I didn’t like his books so I read a few. This guy is good. After his appearance, I asked Jim what book of his I should read next. He told me that A King’s Ransom was his favorite. It proved to be an excellent recommendation.

Our hero, Nick Rey, is a Miami attorney whose father is kidnapped and held for ransom by Colombian revolutionaries. The book jumps back and forth between his father’s ordeal and Nick’s efforts to save him. The plot – especially the legal maneuvering – is unusual and there are plenty of surprises. I liked this book because the plot is original and I don’t want to give away any more of it. Enjoy.

Movie Reviews

500 Days of Summer (08/27/2009)

“500 Days of Summer” is a wonderful movie that explores “true love.” Tom is obsessed with Summer, a self-absorbed woman with issues, who he thinks is “The One.” The film jumps back and forth in time as it recounts the 500 days of Tom and Summer’s affair. The writing is terrific as is the acting. It’s funny and profound and a good time will be had by all.

The Lives of Others (06/11/2007)

The Lives of Others,” which won the Oscar for best foriegn film, is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Set in East Berlin before the fall of the Wall, it focuses on a lonely, rigid secret policeman who is assigned to listen to the bugs that have been planted in the home of a playwrite and his lover and the impact on his life of learning what a real human relationship can be like.

11:14 (06/15/2006)

11:14 has an ensemble cast including Hilary Swank, Patrick Swayze and Barbara Hershey. I had never heard of it and I stumbled across it while channel flipping. It is about several incidents that occur at 11:14 in the evening to several inhabitants of a small town. Nothing makes sense at first, but the stories interweave and everything is clear by the end. It’s a little gory with plenty of thrills and just brilliant. If you loved “Pulp Fiction” this is for you.

The Story of the Weeping Camel (12/07/2005)

For something very different and thoroughly enjoyable, I recommend the documentary “The Story of the Weeping Camel.” It’s the story of a family of Gobi Desert farmers to find a way to get one of their camels to nurse its new colt.

Capote (12/07/2005)

“Capote” is my pick for movie of the year. The script is brilliant as is Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Truman Capote.

Old Boy (06/19/2005)

“Old Boy,” a Korean thriller, may not be for everyone, but it is definitely original. This bizarre story actually makes sense at the end. It had some grizzly moments and some silly fight scenes, but the acting is terrific and the story is thoroughly engrossing. I’ve heard that there is going to be a Hollywood version. Ouch. See the original before the studios ruin it.

Collateral (10/18/2004)

I went to this movie expecting an action flick, and I wasn’t disappointed. There is enough action and suspense for anyone. But a very strong script, terrific and direction and strong performances make this something more than a standard action movie. I felt like I was sitting through a well-written novel.

Spartan (05/11/2004)

I don’t get to many chances to see a movie while I’m on tour, but I had a free evening in San Diego and was lucky enough to catch David Mamet’s new thriller, “Spartan.” It is an edge of the seat thriller and Mamet’s clipped dialogue works perfectly. There is non-stop tension and Val Kilmer is perfect in the title role. He plays a professional soldier – the man who trains the Delta Force and Green Berets – who is sent on a dangerous mission. I won’t tell any more of the complex plot, except to say that there are a lot of twists and surprises.

Bad Santa (01/26/2004)

Bad Santa, is not for everyone, but I have a sick sense of humor and I loved it. Billy Bob Thornton plays a profane, criminal and degenerate department store Santa. The movie is as anti-Disney as you can get. But it is a great Christmas story, which is most amazing because the director never takes a step backward. Billy Bob is always an awful person, but the story manages to make you feel good at the end.

Lost in Translation (01/26/2004)

Lost in Translation is getting a lot of award attention and it deserves it. Sofia Coppola’s direction is brilliant. The movie might not have been this good with someone else at the helm. Coppola gets two things just right:

(1) the feeling of disorientation when you are jetlagged and in a strange place where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language.

(2) The feeling of mystical and magical love that happens when two people meet in a strange place: you are away from home for the first time and meet a boy/girl from another part of the country at college orientation, while backpacking in Europe, etc.