Vulture recently published an article ranking all of Stephen King’s books, and while I may have a quibble or two on the ranking of some of the books, I think it’s a good list, with my top 10 more or less jibing with the site’s top 10. So anyway, after that article came out a friend asked me to write about my top King books. While I am not going to do anything as ambitious as ranking my faves, here’s a sort-of list on those books that have struck me over the years. And sometimes, more than the language and the plot, that’s what good fiction is all about — when the story, or the emotions the story evoked, stays with you long after you forget the plot highlights.

Let’s start at the beginning, with Cujo: This was memorable because it was the first King book I ever read, in freshman college. I know, I know. For rabid fans of King, I am a late bloomer. What can I say, even though my friends would call me a fangirl, it would be more accurate to call me fangirl-ish or fangirl adjacent. I’ve read most of the books, true — in the Vulture list, I’ve read 55 of his 62 books — but I can’t for instance, say in which King books Sheriff George Bannerman, sheriff at the time Cujo terrorised Donna Trenton and her four-year old son Tad in that unfortunate summer afternoon, appeared (I think the sheriff was also a character in The Dead Zone and a few others).

(This was the good sheriff’s curtain call, by the way. Cujo killed him in the Cambers’ yard. SPOILER!)

It was while reading this that I got hooked on King. The guy knows how to make you turn a page and this one was a doozy. Who after all doesn’t relate to a story about a beloved pet — in this case, a big lug of a Saint Bernard? And Cujo was really such a sweetheart of a dog. He was a “gooddawg” as a friend would say it. He tried to be anyway, but as often happens in King’s universe, sometimes or even oftentimes, bad things happen to good people, or good dogs. Cujo got bitten by a bat and got infected by rabies. It’s King’s genius that he was able to evoke dread and pity in the reader as he shifts  POVs from the various characters in the story, including Cujo’s. I remember just hanging to every word and cursing each character, particularly the Camber family (Cujo’s humans) to just please notice that something is not right with the damn dog! And of course, they never did. Human failing, people. That’s really the grease that keeps the great wheel of fiction turning. And there were human failings galore in this book. What was tragic and true about Cujo was how the characters were so wrapped up in their lives (as are we all) that they failed to recognize the danger in their midst. This was also one of the first books I’ve read wherein the author kills off the kid. There’s an unwritten “rule” in fiction that when animals and pets get killed off by the author, it’s because they act as a sort of stand-in for a child character. Well, King wasn’t afraid to go there: He killed both the pet and the child. It’s a heartbreaking book, really. I hate it when the kids die — especially ones who didn’t do anything wrong in the story and just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But as King always says, bad things happen to good people and to quote from Cujo: “Free will was not a factor.”

Incidentally, for people who dismiss King as a hack horror writer, this is one of his many works where he doesn’t delve into the supernatural or uncanny — at least, there aren’t any actual vampires or ghouls or things that go bump in the night. But then again, in the King canon, there is always some sort of monster, supernatural or not. As he says in Cujo: “Except the monster never dies. Werewolf, vampire, ghoul, unnamable creature from the wastes. The monster never dies.”

[First of a long series]

My summer reading list

My most potent memories of summers when I was a kid were long sleepy afternoons when everything was quiet and my dad would be reading his latest thriller, either lying down in the master’s bedroom or in the sofa at the sala. At a nearby table would be a big mug of black coffee and an ashtray with a cigarette smoldering away. In another part of the house, my mom would be equally engrossed in her book—hers would be a bestseller (“easy reading” in her words)—also with a mug of coffee beside her. At this time of the day, everyone and everything was quiet. No one was allowed to watch TV (there wasn’t anything good to watch, anyway) or be noisy.

We kids learned not to disturb our parents during this time, mostly because we ended up pulling out my dad’s white hairs while he was reading or being sent to sleep by mom—which we all didn’t want to do. Safer to be in our bedrooms, doing our own thing. Then again, we almost always ended up having siesta, anyway, because there just wasn’t anything to do!

My parents never imposed reading on us. I guess it just came natural that we’d all end up readers by their example. I picked up the habit earlier than my brothers, mainly because I was the only girl and thus tended to be left out of neighborhood games. My brothers all got into reading either in college or after.

But I guess our tastes were formed during those long summer afternoons from absorbing what my parents were reading. My brothers and I still love reading mysteries, thrillers, and anything involving police or detectives. Anything with a good story and plot, we liked. None of us liked the long narratives where all the action takes place in the protagonist’s head. Bo-riing!

Maybe because of those summers, I almost always think of reading lists at this time of the year.To be sure, I buy—and read—a lot of books in a year, but I only ever think of compiling a list every summer. Maybe it’s an attempt to recapture those long summer days when my most immediate, sometimes only, concern is choosing which book to start first.

For Summer 2008, here’s my reading list, in no particular order, with a short synopsis of what each novel is about:

Free Food For Millionaires (Min Jin Lee) tells the story of Casey, a first generation Korean-American raised by status-conscious immigrant parents, who becomes estranged from them after she graduates from Princeton. Casey’s familial, romantic, and professional struggles take place in New York circa 1990s. Started skimming this weeks ago just to get a feel for the prose, and before I knew it, I was 30 pages into the book! I had to stop because I was then reading four books at the same time!

The Naming of the Dead (Ian Rankin) One of Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels. I just picked it up from a Powerbooks sale bin because it was cheap. But I’ve always been curious about the Rebus novels so I figure this is a good place to start. Set in Scotland during the 2005 G8 meeting, this contemporary thriller has a healthy dose of action, politics, murder, and a serial killer on the loose. This is the first time I’ll be reading a Rankin novel so will report back as soon as I’ve finished this.

World War Z (MaxBrooks) I first heard about this from Lex, then I forgot about it until I saw a trade paperback in either Powerbooks or Fully Booked (couldn’t remember which). I couldn’t buy it at that time because I didn’t have any money. And then Mabes raved about it, so I figured, what the hell, I really have to get a copy—I’ll figure out how to eat later. Looked for it at the bookstores and couldn’t find it. I finally lucked out on a copy a week ago so even though it was out of the budget, I bought it. What is it about? It starts our with a pretty hokey premise: The world gets overrun by zombies 20 years ago. This book is a collection of narrative accounts from survivors of the “plague.” From the premise, one would think that this is a lightweight book. It’s not—it’s compelling reading as it delves into geopolitics, history, and how humans cope in a crisis. And pretty frightening too, considering that there are viruses and bacteria out there that the human race has no defense against. What if one of the viruses mutated and started animating the dead? Rumors have it that Leo di Caprio’s Appian Way and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Productions conducted their own bidding war for the film rights and Plan B won the bid. It’s supposed to be in pre-production by now.

The Wars of the Roses (Alison Weir) This is a reread. I picked it up from a sale bin. What is it about? The conflict of the houses of Lancaster and York during the Middle Ages. It’s a nonfic historical account but Alison Weir is a good writer with agood voice for narrative so it’s not boring.

Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) Again, a reread. I picked this up from a Booksale, mainly because of its faux leather cover and unusual size (slightly narrower and shorter than a paperback).

The Harlequin (Laurell K. Hamilton) The continuing saga of Anita Blake, vampire hunter. Sometimes the prose of this series can be clunky and it doesn’t pretend to be high-brow, but I like this because of the universe that Hamilton created. For instance, vampires are very old-fashioned and their protocol can rival any ofthe great courts of Europe during the Middle Ages and the Rennaissance—maybe because these vampires lived through those times. We also get to see how the hierarchies of the different weres—the wolves, hyenas, lions, leopards,etc—work, as well as how humans cope in a world where the things that bump in the night have moved in next door.

Darker Jewels (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro) A novel of the 4,000-year old vampire Comte Sant-Germain, this time set in the court of Ivan the Terrible in Russia. Yarbro’s Sant-Germain novels are not so much horror novels as historical fiction disguised as vampire novels. I first discovered this series from the book Come Twilight, which I bought at a Booksale. I’ve been on the look out for them ever since. The only drawback is that this series spans history from ancient Egypt to 1930s America. That’s a lot of books!

God’s Spy (Juan Gomez Jurado) On the eve of the declaration of the new pope, a serial killer is loose in the Vatican. This was a cold contact. I normally don’t buy new books by unknown authors, but I made an exception of this one because of the premise. I’m glad I did.

The Burning Road (Ann Benson) This is a novel with two narratives—one set during the Middle Ages when the Bubonic Plague decimated Europe and the other narrative thread set in the near-future with a plague that’s related to the Black Death spreading throughout the world. This is a sort of companion piece to her earlier novel, The Plague Years.

Thunderstruck (Erik Larson) A true account of the lives and times of the murderer Hawley Crippen and the scientist Guglielmo Marconi set in Edwardian England by the author of the superb The Devil in the White City.