Stephen King on his picks for the best books of 2005
A friend of mine sold her first novel this fall. She said the good part was finally being allowed into the playground where the big kids play. The bad part, she said, was that her book was tentatively scheduled for publication in 2007. She asked me if I thought people would even be reading novels in 2007, with so many other entertainment options available. I had to laugh, because novels are still the best entertainment option. Even a hardcover is cheaper than two tickets to the local multiplex, especially once you throw in gas, parking, and babysitting. Also, a book lasts longer and there are no ads. Need more? No tiresome ratings system to keep you out if you’re under 17, the special effects are always primo (because you make ’em up yourself), and although I read nearly 80 books this year, I never ran across the Olsen twins a single time.
Here are the best ones I read in 2005, and while not all were published in 2005, all but one are available now, in hardcover or paperback. (More about that one later.)
10. THE GODFATHER RETURNS, Mark Winegardner Reviews in the mainstream press were mixed, but I believe the late Mario Puzo would have loved this full-blooded continuation of the Corleone saga…if only for the spectacular death of Pete Clemenza. I mean, holy hot stove, Batman.
9. THE MAD COOK OF PYMATUNING, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt Warm ’50s nostalgia gives way to cold chills in this tale of a summer camp gone bad. Very bad. Think Lake Lord-of-the-Flies.
8. DRAMA CITY, George Pelecanos Former drug dealer tries to go straight as an animal-control officer in Washington, D.C. Every gritty detail rings true. It should — Pelecanos also co-writes HBO’s The Wire. As one of his petty street dealers might say, ”This s — – is tight, yo.”
7. THE LINCOLN LAWYER, Michael Connelly The Lincoln in question is one of a fleet in which Mickey Haller rides while doing business on the sleazier side of L.A. law. What’s amazing about Michael Connelly is how much he continues to learn about the art of narrative from book to book. Each one is better than the last. And this one is — pardon me — a real Cadillac.
6. THE HOT KID, Elmore Leonard Leonard began his career (back when I was in diapers) writing Westerns. He finally achieved success in the ’80s with urban shoot-’em-ups. In The Hot Kid he has combined both genres, producing a randy Bonnie-and-Clyde-era thrill ride featuring a U.S. marshal, a bank-robbing maniac who once tried to drown his sister in a pool, and a good-hearted woman with a shady past. It’s Leonard’s best novel since Get Shorty, maybe his best ever.
5. HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, J.K. Rowling The miracle of the Harry Potter series is that it keeps getting better. The genius of Ms. Rowling was her decision (probably never even seriously considered at the time) to follow Harry through his schooling. As a result, Harry’s fans have never left him behind. The question is whether Ms. Rowling will be bound to him for life, as Arthur Conan Doyle was bound to Sherlock Holmes.
4. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, Cormac McCarthy In the most accessible book he’s ever written, McCarthy serves up the year’s most memorable villain, Anton Chigurh, who dispatches his victims with a slaughterhouse cattle gun, and his most memorable hero, a slow-moving, decent sheriff very much in the John Ford mode. Like the desert landscape in which most of the story takes place, McCarthy’s writing is spare, dry, often frightening, and ultimately gorgeous.
3. SATURDAY, Ian McEwan This novel spans one day in the life of London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, beginning with a plane on fire and ending with a terrifying dinner party at which he and his family are held hostage by home invaders. What Saturday makes us feel is all the jitter-jive paranoia of our post-9/11 world. And yet, McEwan suggests, it is not a world without hope.
2. THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE, A.M. Homes I told you one book on my list wasn’t available yet; this is it. I get tons of soon-to-be-published novels, and happened to pick this one up because of the unusual title. And couldn’t put it down again. I think this brave story of a lost man’s reconnection with the world could become a generational touchstone, like Catch-22, The Monkey Wrench Gang, or The Catcher in the Rye. There’s a lot of uplift here, but Homes’ deadpan delivery keeps it from feeling greeting-card phony. So does the novel’s ambience, which is 21st-century L.A. Weird. This Book Will Save Your Life won’t be published until April, but I read it in October, so it belongs on this list. And hey, maybe it will save somebody’s life.
1. CASE HISTORIES, Kate Atkinson Not just the best novel I read this year (it actually made EW’s ”official” top 10 fiction list in 2004), but the best mystery of the decade. There are actually four mysteries, nesting like Russian dolls, and when they begin to fit together, I defy any reader not to feel a combination of delight and amazement. Case Histories is the literary equivalent of a triple axel. I read it once for pleasure and then again just to see how it was done. This is the kind of book you shove in people’s faces, saying ”You gotta read this!”
As long as there are books like that around, people will still be reading in 2007. Because that s— is tight, yo.