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The Summer Book Awards

The Pop of King give us his choices for this year's best beach reading

Stephen King hands out his first annual Summer Book Awards

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.

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