I've never fully understood the concept of "summer reading"—the idea that people who read good, thoughtful books nine months out of the year would gladly trade in their Alice Munros and J.M. Coetzees for "juicy" novels about shopaholics. Just because it's summer? It's the correlation between heat and vapidity that I don't understand.

Nonetheless, I decided to give the old thinker a rest this week: Scott Smith's The Ruins was up for review. It had been ages since I turned myself over to a plot-driven page-turner; at the time, it seemed like a nice, easy mental vacation. If only I had known how bad it could get.

This, incidentally, is the plot of The Ruins. Four American college kids vacation in Cancun and make new friends: A German tourist and a trio of Greeks. The German's brother has gone missing deep in the Mexican jungle, so the merry band of friends do what any group of idiotic protagonists in a cheesy novel would do: spring-break manhunt! When they wander onto a remote hill covered in a flowering vine, an entire tribe of Mayans circles the knoll with quivers drawn and keeps them hostage for the remainder of the novel. Oh, and that vine that covers the hill? It's eeeeeeeeeevil.

So yes, The Ruins is about a group of numbnuts stuck on a hill that's covered by an evil vine that wants to kill them and eat them and fuck with their heads. Maybe if Smith had spent 10 minutes telling us about the lives, fears, secrets, or motivations of these characters, we'd care if a vine could really outsmart them (it can), but since he doesn't, we don't. Amy, Eric, Jeff, and Stacy are as original and fleshed-out as their bland, white-bread names imply, and the Mayans at the base of the hill have as much depth as African tribesmen in the old Tarzan movies. Typical dialogue goes like this: "You know this vine wants us dead, don't you?" The overall effect was that I just wished the stupid vine would eat the Americans already.

Thank god Labor Day's come and gone. Now we can get back to reading good books already.