A reader of this column sent me an e-memo the other day, noting that I hadn’t written about books for a while. He found this a bit strange, since writing novels happens to be my day job. The truth is I haven’t read as many books as usual, because I’m editing next year’s Best American Short Stories. Still, I’ve managed to sneak a couple of dozen — the way I used to sneak cigarettes out behind Uncle Oren’s barn — and now have enough backlog to confidently launch the First Annual Stephen King Summer Book Awards. So relax while I simplify that sometimes stressful pre-beach trip to the bookstore. All you have to do now is remember the sunscreen.
Best Movie Tie-In: All the King’s Men. The film, starring Sean Penn, won’t be out until September, but the novel — arguably one of the 10 best in America during the 20th century — has been around since 1946. Read it to see if Penn can capture even half of Robert Penn Warren’s divinely charismatic, satanically magnetic Willie Stark. And to compare how director Steve Zaillian handles the female characters, for few important American novels express such unconscious, unremitting hatred of women. Oh, and read it because this is great writing. The movie may be good, but unless it’s Kane, it will never touch this.
Best Historical Novelist: I say Wilbur Smith, with his swashbuckling novels of Africa. The bodices rip and the blood flows. You can get lost in Wilbur Smith and misplace all of August.
Best Left-Coast Private Eye: Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. Start with A Is for Alibi and go on from there. The sneakiest (some would say guiltiest) pleasure here is that the Millhone alphabeticals as a whole comprise an underground tour of the 1980s. Can you say ”parachute pants”?
Best Right-Coast Private Eye: It’s still Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. Owwww, Boston, you’re my home.
Best All-Around Hard-Boiled Detective: Harry Bosch, who deals with murderers and corrupt LAPD brass in nearly a dozen superb mysteries by Michael Connelly. I ordinarily care little for police procedurals, but these are way beyond that; think Nathanael West crossed with Raymond Chandler.
Best Suspense Novelist (With Undercurrents of Horror): Ruth Rendell, who sometimes writes as Barbara Vine. The Chief Inspector Wexford novels are comfort food that doesn’t insult one’s intelligence (or upset the stomach); the stand-alones are often quiet masterpieces of terror guaranteed to leave the reader in a cold sweat at 2 a.m. The best example of recent vintage is probably A Sight for Sore Eyes (1999). But The Minotaur, penned under the Barbara Vine name, is also good, and au currant, as they say.
Best Outright Horror Novelist: Bentley Little, in a walk. Don’t know Bentley Little? You’re not alone. He’s probably the genre’s best-kept secret, but at least 10 of his novels are available in paperback; you can pick up three for the price of that flashy new hardcover you’ve got your eye on. The best thing about Little is that he can go from zero to surreal in 6.0 seconds. My favorites are The Store (think Wal-Mart run by SAYYY-tan) and Dispatch, in which a young fellow discovers that his letters to the editor actually get things done. Bad things.
Best Science-Fiction Writer: Robert Charles Wilson. I’m not a big science-fiction fan, but I’ll read anything with a story and a low geek factor. Wilson is a hell of a storyteller, and the geek factor in his books is zero. Like Battlestar Galactica on TV, this is SF that doesn’t know it’s SF. His current novel, Spin, is good. Two earlier books, Darwinia and Blind Lake, are even better. There’s plenty of imagination here, as well as character and heart.
Best Western Writer: Oh, man, you know it’s Larry McMurtry. The Lonesome Dove books are good, but if you haven’t read the Berrybender Narratives, save July. The four volumes (all out in paperback) are full of blood, thunder, lunatics, hot-air balloons, and humor. Here’s how the West got existential.
Best Memoirist: You’ve tried the rest, now try the best — The Liars’ Club and Cherry, by Mary Karr. This is the real deal: funny, painful, and hotter than Texas in September. This is what memoir is supposed to be, I think.
Best Romance Novelist: Nora Roberts. This woman amazes me. She has written over seven hundred books. Maybe five or six hundred of them are crap, but the ones I’ve read are pretty good. Ms. Roberts will never shut down Billy Faulkner, but she writes a sturdy prose line and has a sense of humor. In Carnal Innocence she writes of Tucker Longstreet, ”He was easygoing and well-liked by most.” You could say the same for Nora Roberts.
The Book of the Summer: That would be The Ruins, by Scott Smith, last heard from in 1993 (A Simple Plan, later filmed by Sam Raimi from Smith’s script). No quietly building, Ruth Rendell-style suspense here; Smith intends to scare the bejabbers out of you, and succeeds. There are no chapters and no cutaways — The Ruins is your basic long scream of horror. It does for Mexican vacations what Jaws did for New England beaches in 1975. It doesn’t succeed completely — it felt 30 pages too long — but it works well enough, I think, to be the book most people will be talking about this summer.
Enjoy the beach…enjoy the books…and watch out for those Mexican ruins.