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Mike's Picks
(Fight Need-a-Book Phobia)

by Mike Irwin, co-manager of Powell's at PDX

Fear of flying may be lessening, but fear of flying without a book seems to have reached near epidemic proportions.

We see it everyday at Powell's Books at Portland International Airport. Darting eyes, dry mouth, and sweaty palms are all symptoms of the phobic traveler searching, yearning for comfort in a trashy paperback novel. We sympathize with these afflicted flyers. We understand their chronic need to escape the numbing madness of modern air travel. And, like devoted booksellers everywhere, we want to help.

Treatment begins at Powell's airport store with the Best Jet Bets, a condensed section of sure-fire picks for the plane. Each of the section's 10 titles has undergone rigorous testing to ensure total escapism from airplanes' back-wrenching seats, gut-wrenching food and mind-wrenching seatmates. And each title promises to transport the reader beyond, say, Newark International, to imaginary worlds of intrigue, romance, and derring-do.

Our Best Jet Bets provide some of the finest escapist reading currently available. Admittedly, many of the titles feature graphic violence, titillating sex, and creepy psychological twists that may not readily mesh with Powell's usual high-brow recommendations. But we offer no apologies. Our customers – the ones fearful of flying bookless – have come to depend on us to supplement Sense and Sensibility and Foucault's Pendulum with proven, fast-paced page-turners.


Current Best Jet Bets

Along Came a Spider Along Came A Spider by James Patterson
The author kicked off his Alex Cross series with one of the best psycho-killer thrillers ever written. Back and forth, we bounce from our detective's somewhat quiet life (kids and grandma) to our killer's twisted crimes (kids buried alive). It's not so much a who-dunnit, but a how-catch 'em. How can Cross foil a killer bent on committing the century's most heinous act? Incredibly, there's even a Lindbergh baby tie-in. This is the mystery title that frequent flyers recommend most often to fellow passengers, a book that'll keep you awake on the next red-eye, and maybe a few nights more.

Kiss the Girls by James Patterson
Patterson didn't write all our Best Jet Bets, but no thriller list from the nineties would be complete without this slickly written punch to the gut. Detective Alex Cross returns to spar with a self-styled Casanova, a co-ed killer who sometimes stalks victims from inside the walls of their homes. (Don't you ever hear those late-night noises?) Furiously paced in short cliff-hanger chapters, this book is nearly un-put-downable, and perfect for plane rides long and short.

Blue Justice by Jeannine Kadow
Good girl cop goes bad...really bad. Sexy Maria Alvarez works her police beat with the best of NYPD's officers. She's sassy, tough, and dedicated to righting nasty wrongs even if she has to step outside the law. But evidence in a string of cop suicides indicates that the victims knew – intimately – a mysterious visitor. Just at the edge of kinky, this powerful suspense novel forces readers to question whom they trust, whom they desire, and who might do them harm. Excellent.

Numbered Account by Christopher Reich
Forget sex; nothing titillates like money. And this slam-bam-gimme-the-cash-ma'am roller-coaster ride through international banking delivers on every dollar. Our smart and handsome hero, Nick Neumann, churns the fast-track at stodgy United Swiss Bank. He's quick to solve thorny problems and quick to garner deadly jealousies. We cheer him on, but soon come to realize his intentions, ever darker, move far beyond the handling of a few mutual funds. He didn't learn mayhem, manipulation, and murder at Harvard. A rich and rewarding read. Bet your next billion on this one.

The Genesis Code by John Case
In a tiny Italian town, in a tiny Italian confessional, an aging scientist reveals the sin of all sins. Then the babies begin to die. Then Vatican officials begin to quake. This rapid-fire biotech thriller, our top paperback mystery of 1998, links the latest in modern genetics to the oldest tenets of the Catholic Church. But investigator Joe Lassiter is dragged to hell and back to make sense of the case's many little pieces (DNA) and many lofty philosophical questions (is God merciful?). No doubt, this tale will scare the pants off the Pope.

Eleven Days by Donald Harstad
Explicit descriptions of horrendous murders may not be your cup of goo. But if you can wade through the grisly-but-gripping early chapters in this incredible debut thriller, then you're in for some top-flight suspense. The book's smalltown setting (rural Iowa) and everyday characters (sheriff, waitress, mechanic) add an almost surreal quality to what appears to be an unsolvable whodunnit. Written by a former deputy sheriff and based on an actual case, this is one plane read that'll make you glad you're safely up there and not down here.

The Dance Hall of the Dead Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman
The oldest title (1973) on our current Best Jet Bet list is, we believe, one of the best introductions to this veteran author's mystery magic. In fact, all of Hillerman's classic storytelling elements – ancient mysticism, modern archeology, befuddled romance, and Navajo reservation life – combine expertly in this fascinating tale of Zuni spirits, death rituals, and angry fire gods. Tribal policeman Joe Leaphorn tracks the culprits and the kachinas across the stark Southwestern landscape. Terrific.

Blood Work by Michael Connelly
Many mystery lovers will argue that Connelly's best writing is found outside of his well-known, long-running Harry Bosch series. And this non-Bosch title would prove their point. Picture this: An ex-FBI agent recovering from a heart transplant is convinced to investigate the murder of the person whose heart beats in his own chest. An oddball premise, yes, but it's a compelling hook that'll set your own heart pounding. Plus, the sexual sparks between our hero and a reluctant, but beautiful, sidekick provide one of the more realistic love stories in a recent thriller.

The Charm School by Nelson Demille
Our pick as one of the best spy novels of the last 20 years, this thriller thrusts us back to the dark days of the Communist empire. The Berlin Wall still stands. The KGB still lurks. And a too-real Cold War triggers all sorts of paranoia. Traveling across the USSR, our tourist good-guy stumbles across a terrifying Kremlin secret – cagey Russians are trained to be fool-proof Americans, right down to their love of McDonald's hamburgers. This action-oriented adventure packs real techno-punch (surveillance! espionage!) and may be Demille's best book.

The Partner The Partner by John Grisham
An airplane book list without a Grisham? No way. We consider this to be the Blockbuster Man's best-plotted book since The Firm, but with writing light-years ahead of any earlier work. In fact, Grisham probably hasn't ever produced a more cohesive mystery with such realistic, sympathetic characters. And the ending? It packs a mind-reeling wallop. We still hear travelers debating what they'd do in similar circumstances, with those bad people, with that much money. If you're going to read a Grisham, this is the one for the plane.


Top Five Best Jet Bets of the 20th Century
(The books that have whisked us away and made us forget the bad seats, bad food and bad service.)

The Silence of the Lambs Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
No thriller so far has so expertly transported us to the creepy, flesh-crawling world of the insane serial killer. It's the book all subsequent thrillers try to be.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo
This is where many of us got our first exposure to Mob dynamics: sausage-making, sex standing up, crooked cops, beheaded horses, spousal abuse, family loyalty. Thugs all, but you gotta love 'em.

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
Long before the movie grossed-out America, readers had found in this classic the more subtle, soul-wrenching horrors of demonic possession. Cursing and vomiting supply pyrotechnics, but this book reaches deep inside to make our psyches tingle.

Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin
What pregnant Mom didn't feel a few sharp pains upon learning the truth of Rosemary's little bundle of Hell? For that matter, what men didn't also feel a twitch or two? A book that strikes at our origins – the womb – and convinces us no place is safe.

Lonesome Dove Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Plod through the opening pig-eats-snake scene (the book's only miscalculation), and you're then off on one of literature's grand adventures. Few troupes of characters have mattered so much, taken us so far, and shown us so pleasurably how to really live.




The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Carrie by Stephen King
The Firm by John Grisham

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