It's winter 2010. The weather's cold, the money's too tight for a long getaway, what to do? When in doubt, start reading. If you're looking out your window at bare trees and frozen ground and want to be somewhere warm instead, but don't want to spring for a trip to Miami, pick up one of the following books and bask in the heat. Novels that take place in enticingly described hot places are a surefire remedy for cold hands and cabin fever, so curl up with these literary picks, and feel the warmth. Of course, it helps if you turn up the heat a little, too.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (Norton, 288 pages, $13.95).
The first book in Highsmith's Ripley series, The Talented Mr. Ripley is perfect for taking your mind off the cold weather. It's set in the sunny climes of southern Italy and Cannes in southern France, where the characters spend their time boating, swimming, sweltering and riding around on those noisy motor scooters Europeans love so much. Oh, and killing people. And pretending to be someone else. Tom Ripley, a young American, is picked by a super-rich businessman to bring his (the rich guy's) son back from Europe, where the young man's been lollygagging with his beautiful girlfriend. Once Tom gets to the Mediterranean coast, however, he finds the life, climate and people he encounters captivating. So he decides to become one of the people he's living with. Murder and multilayered deception ensues. This is a gripping read that doesn't let up, and Tom's ability to throw aside morality, along with his slippery, dangerous slide toward being a sociopath, has riveted readers ever since the book's initial release in 1955. The 1999 movie of the novel, starring all kinds of beautiful people like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon, is also very good, with sunlit scenes that will make you forget the winter weather outside.
The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux (Mariner, 384 pages, $14.95).
An American visionary, or at least that's how he sees himself, leaves the U.S. and takes his family to live a more "authentic" life in the jungles of South America. The main character hates modern life and all its trappings, but his own overconfidence about handling his new environment and his disregard of his family's needs turn a would-be hero into a doomed fool. Granted, this isn't the happiest book you'll ever read. But it's very well-written and the physical surroundings are hot -- as in tropics-in-the-summer hot -- so the sweatin' comes easy.
The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt (Interlink, 208 pages, $12.95).
Eberhardt (1877-1904) was an unusual woman who led an unusual life. Lucky for heat-seekers, she's mostly known for the time she spent in ... ready for serious heat? ... the Sahara Desert. The daughter of a Russian anarchist who dressed her as a man and worked her nearly to death, Eberhardt ran away to North Africa at age 20, and became a Sufi mystic, opium smoker, journalist, and chronicler of life in that region. Posing as a man, she inhabited and absorbed the culture of North Africa, specifically Algeria, while traveling alone, searching for relief from melancholy and her own complex psyche. She died at age 27 in the Sahara under mysterious circumstances. These diaries are a good start for anyone wanting to know about Eberhardt, although her more literary writings, particularly a collection titled Oblivion Seekers, are more compelling.
Hell by Robert Olen Butler (Grove, 240 pages, $24).
If none of the above warm you up, jump into this book, which we included in our best of 2009 list. It takes place in Hell and is an absurdist satire that feels like fireworks going off in your brain. Protagonist Hatcher McCord, the anchorman of Evening News From Hell, dates Anne Boleyn and tries to find out why he's in the lair of Satan (who wears Armani and can only be contacted by voice mail). Hitler is executed over and over; Dubya spends eternity looking for his Wings Made Divine (WMD); Shakespeare's computer keeps crashing and losing his work; while TV commercials are personalized and neverending. A little gimmicky at times, but in a 100-mph novel, you hardly notice. Plus, it's in Hell, for crying out loud. How much hotter do you want to be?