I don't know what the weather will be like when this story is published, but as I'm writing this, it's teeth-chattering cold, the coldest December in years. Leaving the house is like walking out into a refrigerator, and money's too tight for a long getaway, so 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 the Bahamas, pick up one of the following books and bask in the heat. Novels that take place in enticingly described hot locales are a surefire remedy for cold hands and cabin fever, so curl up with these literary picks, and feel the warmth. Of course, it's still a good idea to turn up the heat a little, too.
• The Year of Living Dangerously by Christopher Koch. This book was made into a fine movie with pre-drunk Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, but the book is even better. Talk about steamy: it's summer 1965 in Jakarta, Indonesia. The politics are red-hot, the army is poised to rebel against the government, and foreign journalists and diplomats struggle with uncertainty, each other, and, most of all, the heat. Sweat practically drips off the pages, as the steaminess of the equator and the slow, languid pace of life are described and evoked repeatedly, and beautifully, by Koch, a terrific Australian novelist who has never received his due in the U.S.
• The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. This first book in Highsmith's Ripley series is perfect for shaking the cold weather blues. 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 has been lollygagging expensively 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 Missing by Tim Gautreaux. If you'd like to keep your warming-up reading within the U.S., you won't get any hotter than the Louisiana bayou. You can check out any of James Lee Burke's fine mystery series starring lawman Dave Robicheaux – Burke is a master of nature and weather description – and get a dose of literary Tabasco sauce. Or you can introduce yourself to Tim Gautreaux, a southern writer whose latest, The Missing, takes place in post-World War I Lou'zana. Sam Simoneaux, a war vet who loses his two-year-old son to fever, goes looking for a missing girl. The resultant picture of the bayou country, snaking with backwoods families, criminals on the lam, and, of course, gators, is, in terms of heat, the equivalent of wearing two sweaters over a flannel shirt. Besides, Gautreaux is a splendidly lyrical writer, whose honesty, vision and intensity create atmosphere galore while driving a fascinating story.
• The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux. An American visionary — 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. If nothing else, check out the film, with Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren.
• Hell by Robert Olen Butler. Butler's latest, included in our Best of 2009 list, takes place in Hell, as you may have gathered from the title. It's a priceless, hilarious, and over-the-top absurd 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). Meanwhile, 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. How much hotter do you want to be?