What to Read during a Heat Wave

The short answer is whatever you want. A longer answer: you could get stuck into heat-themed and summer-set books; escape by reading about a holiday destination, whether you can get there or not; will yourself cool by reading about icy places; and/or sink into a stack of lighter reading material.

I’ll be employing some or all of these strategies as the mercury climbs. I keep thinking I’ll just give up on work one of these days – my new study has a big window that traps the midday sun, but it remains bearable as long as I use blackout curtains and a desk fan – and read on a couch all afternoon. That hasn’t happened yet, but on Tuesday peak temperatures (of 36 °C) are expected here in the UK, so I may well carry out my threat.

Here’s what I’m reading now in each of those categories, along with some earlier reads I can recommend (with excerpts from my reviews and a link to the full text):

 

Embrace the Heat

My current reads:

 Contemporary

Golden Boys by Phil Stamper: Four gay high school students in small-town Ohio look forward to a summer of separate travels for jobs and internships and hope their friendships will stay the course. With alternating first-person passages and conversation threads, this YA novel is proving to be a sweet, fun page turner and the perfect follow-up to the Heartstopper series (my summer crush from last year).


Classic

Summer by Edith Wharton: An adopted young woman (and half-hearted librarian) named Charity Royall gets a shot at romance when a stranger arrives in her New England town. I’m only 30 pages in so far, but this promises to be a great read – but please not as tragic as Ethan Frome? (Apparently, Wharton called it a favourite among her works, and referred to it as “the Hot Ethan,” which I’m going to guess she meant thermally.)

 

My top recommendations:

Contemporary

Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth: From the first word (“Languid”) on, this drips with hot summer atmosphere, with connotations of discomfort and sweaty sexuality. Rachel is a teacher of adolescents as well as the mother of a 15-year-old, Mia. When Lily, a pupil who also happens to be one of Mia’s best friends, goes missing, Rachel is put in a tough spot…

A Crime in the Neighbourhood by Suzanne Berne: Marsha remembers the summer of 1972, when her father left her mother for Aunt Ada and news came of a young boy’s sexual assault and murder in the woods behind a mall. “If you hadn’t known what had happened in our neighborhood, the street would have looked like any other suburban street in America.”

Heat by Bill Buford: You know what they say: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen (eat some cold salads instead!). Buford traces TV chef Mario Batali’s culinary pedigree through Italy and London, and later spends stretches of several months in Italy as an apprentice to a pasta-maker and a Tuscan butcher. Exactly what I want from food writing.

Heat Wave by Penelope Lively: Pauline, a freelance copyeditor in her fifties, has escaped from London to spend a hot summer at World’s End, the Midlands holiday cottage complex she shares with her daughter and her family. The increasing atmospheric threats (drought or storms; combine harvesters coming ever nearer) match the tensions in the household.

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell: Another spot-on tale of family and romantic relationships. The language is unfailingly elegant. It opens with the heat as the most notable character: “It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs.”

  • This is set during the UK heatwave of 1976, which lives on in collective memory and legend in this country even though its temperature record has been topped (but not the length of the streak). I’ve since tried two other novels set during the summer of ’76 but neither took (maybe you’ll get on better with them?): Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy and In the Place of Fallen Leaves by Tim Pears.
  • Or try the American summer of 1975 instead, with Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau, a juicy coming-of-age novel set in Baltimore.
Classic

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr: Tom Birkin, a First World War veteran whose wife has left him, arrives in Oxgodby to uncover the local church’s wall painting of the Judgment Day. “There was so much time that marvelous summer.” There is something achingly gorgeous about this Hardyesque tragicomic romance, as evanescent as ideal summer days.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley: Twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited to spend the several July weeks leading up to his birthday at his school friend Marcus Maudsley’s home, Brandham Hall. The heat becomes a character in its own right, gloweringly presiding over the emotional tension caused by secrets, spells and betrayals.

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor: The title is not only literal, when much of the action takes place, but a metaphor for the fleeting nature of happiness (as well as life itself). Kate remembers pleasant days spent with her best friend and their young children: “It was a long summer’s afternoon and it stood for all the others now. … Their friendship was as light and warming as the summer’s air.”

 

Escape on Holiday

I try to read on location whenever possible, but if it’s a staycation for you this year, you can still transport yourself somewhere exciting or tropical through fiction.

My current read:

Mustique Island by Sarah McCoy: “A sun-splashed romp with a rich divorcée and her two wayward daughters in 1970s Mustique, the world’s most exclusive private island [in the Caribbean], where Princess Margaret and Mick Jagger were regulars and scandals stayed hidden from the press.”

 

My top recommendations:

Siracusa by Delia Ephron: A snappy literary thriller about two American couples who holiday together on the Sicilian island of Siracusa. Shifting between the perspectives of the four main characters, it looks back to ask what went disastrously wrong on that trip. A delicious story ripe for a cinematic adaptation.

Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon: Set in Aiguaclara, a hidden gem on Spain’s Costa Brava where David and Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. Most of the book remembers their life together and their previous vacations here. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated.

A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson: Set on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, this zeroes in on several authors, including a young poet from Canada named Leonard Cohen. We see all of the real-life characters from the perspective of a starry-eyed 17-year-old narrator. You can feel the Mediterranean heat soaking up through your sandals.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub: Perfect summer reading; perfect vacation reading. Straub writes great dysfunctional family novels featuring characters so flawed and real you can’t help but love and laugh at them. Here, Franny and Jim Post borrow a friend’s home in Mallorca for two weeks, hoping sun and relaxation will temper the memory of Jim’s affair.

 

Read Yourself Cool

Will reading about snow and ice actually make you feel any cooler? It can’t hurt.

My current reads:

I had a vague Antarctica reading theme going for a while, but have yet to get back into two set-aside reads, Empire Antarctica by Gavin Francis and Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor (or pick up Snow Widows by Katherine MacInnes and South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby). Maybe next week!

 

My top recommendations:

Among the Summer Snows by Christopher Nicholson: After the death from cancer of his wife Kitty, a botanical illustrator, Nicholson set off for Scotland’s Cairngorms and Ben Nevis in search of patches of snow that persist into summer. “Summer snow is a miracle, a piece of out-of-season magic: to see it is one thing, to make physical contact with it is another.”

The Still Point by Amy Sackville: A sweltering summer versus an encasing of ice; an ordinary day versus decades of futile waiting. Sackville explores these contradictions only to deflate them, collapsing time such that a polar explorer’s wife and her great-great-niece can inhabit the same literal and emotional space despite being separated by more than a century.

 

Keep it Light

I’m more likely to read genre fiction (crime, especially) during the summer, it seems. I recently read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey for book club, for instance – but it was so permeated in Plantagenet history that it wasn’t your standard detective drama at all.

I also like to pick up lighter reads that edge towards women’s fiction. I’ve been starting my days with passages from these two, though it might make more sense to read them later in the day as a reward for getting through parts of weightier books.

My current reads:

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding: I’d never read this second sequel from 2013, so we’re doing it for our August book club – after some darker reads, people requested something light! Bridget is now a single mother in her early 50s, but some things never change, like constant yo-yo dieting and obsessive chronicling of the stats of her life.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus: This year’s It book. I’m nearly halfway through and enjoying it, if not as rapturously as so many. Katherine Heiny meets John Irving is the vibe I’m getting. Elizabeth Zott is a scientist through and through, applying a chemist’s mindset to her every venture, including cooking, rowing and single motherhood in the 1950s.

 

My top recommendations:

Sunburn by Laura Lippman: While on a beach vacation in 1995, a woman walks away from her husband and daughter and into a new life as an unattached waitress. I liked that I recognized many Maryland/Delaware settings. Quick and enjoyable. (I’ve never been hotter than during the July week we spent in Milan in 2019. This is one of the books I read on that trip.)

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub: Short chapters flip between all the major characters’ perspectives, showing that she completely gets each one of them. The novel is about reassessing as one approaches adulthood or midlife, about reviving old dreams and shoring up flagging relationships. Nippy and funny and smart and sexy. So many lines ring true. (Yes, a second entry from Straub: she writes such accessible and addictive literary fiction.)

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: The four dysfunctional Plumb siblings must readjust their expectations when the truth comes out. This also affects their trust fund, “the nest.” A nest is, of course, also a home, so for as much as this seems to be about money, it is really more about family and how we reclaim our notion of home after a major upheaval.

 


This article on the Penguin website has a few more ideas, including To Kill a Mockingbird (you think we’ve got it bad? Try a summer in the American South!), Atonement, and poetry. I took up one of Alice Vincent’s recommendations right away: since I’m reading My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland, it made sense to get a copy of McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding out from the public library. Already on the first page you’re steeped in a sweltering Georgia summer (like McCullers, my dad is from Columbus):

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. … The sidewalks of the town were grey in the early morning and at night, but the noon sun put a glaze on them, so that the cement burned and glittered like glass. The sidewalks finally became too hot for Frankie’s feet. … The world seemed to die each afternoon and nothing moved any longer. At last the summer was like a green sick dream, or like a silent crazy jungle under glass.

What are your current reading strategies?
Have you ever spent all day reading, just because you could?

30 responses

  1. As ever, I have no strategy. I follow up interesting reviews from people like you, and let serendipity take its course when I’m doing a library shift. I staggered home with 8 yesterday. When will I get the time for all those, considering I have a tottering pile waiting for attention already?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s always good to have plenty on the stack to choose from — you’re sure to have something that suits your mood!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am hiding away indoors. Today I should be going to the Globe Theatre in London for a matinee – bad planning that! I’m giving it a miss.
    Super recommendations. I’ve read three of your picks, Taylor, Sackville and Garmus (loved all of them). I’m getting stuck into some French and Spanish novels at the moment for reading weeks, but just finished Under the Blue which I adored and it certainly embraces the heat (in a different way). Must read more Emma Straub – I enjoyed her debut, but haven’t made time to read more by her yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such a shame you’ll miss your King Lear performance, but I wouldn’t fancy the trip into London either. We don’t plan to leave the house on Monday, though I will go out for my library volunteering on Tuesday morning, and we’ll be using all the tricks in the book for keeping the house and ourselves as cool as possible.

      Under the Blue is fab, isn’t it?! I wish it had gotten more attention. I was pleased that it made the McKitterick Prize shortlist anyway.

      Straub’s books are so readable. I’m in the library queue for her new one, which has a gentle time travel theme.

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      1. Covid is also rife in the capital, so I’m quite sanguine about missing it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s not a strategy since I seem unable to stick to any reading plan, but I’ve been reading books set in even hotter climes this week – Nigeria and Uganda.
    A whole day just reading? The only times I’ve ever done that have been on holiday or if I’ve been ill. On stressful days at work I used to dream about retirement when I could just lounge around reading – it’s never happened.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m certainly grateful not to be any closer to the equator!

      Even when I think I might read all day, other little tasks always creep in. I find that long travel days, like our series of trains up to Inverness, lend themselves best to concentrated reading.

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      1. I’m going to be on a train in August – my first for about three years. Looking forward to some dedicated reading time. Just hope I don’t have noisy kids or people on their mobiles next to me

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  4. Years ago we had our basement converted to an office. It’s provided a useful refuge from our south facing, open plan ground floor where there’s nowhere to hide. Great reading suggestions! I’d probably plump for the chillier option, Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal for instance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh for a basement! I’ve rarely heard of houses having them over here. When I was in high school I had the whole basement as my domain and it was a great cave with a daybed for reading.

      Perhaps on Monday I’ll feel the urge to voyage to Antarctica (through books).

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      1. Given the mess I’ve made of commenting, I think I should pop down there now. Keep cool!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Summer and reading and childhood are so inextricable for me—the memory of swampy, burning Virginia heat tempered by cold lemonade and a porch fan and a long series of addictive books about princesses or magic will never leave me! I’m working through my African Summer reading challenge, which I’m enjoying immensely, but for Crete (we’re leaving tomorrow) I’ve packed a bunch of fun stuff: Cibola Burn by James SA Corey (space opera), Girl A by Abigail Dean (thriller, a genre I rarely read but love to sample on hols), The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart (classic romantic suspense and on-location reading!), Salka Valka by Halldor Laxness (a birthday present from my uncle, an Icelandic classic about an unusual woman), and Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham (also an early birthday present, from my boyfriend, a memoir about nature and autism by the Springwatch presenter). Then I panicked and downloaded a bunch of light stuff through my library’s ebook app: some Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael mysteries, SS-GB by Len Deighton, a couple of Georgette Heyers and a Courtney Milan romance. We’ll see how much I get through…!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have that same nostalgia for American summer reading. It saddens me to see the prep for library summer reading programmes over here and think of it being the only time of year when children and adults are expected to read for fun!

      Have a wonderful time in Crete. You’ve packed a fantastic selection! My husband read the Packham but I wasn’t sure if I needed to know/like him as a personality to enjoy his memoir, though I do a lot of reading about autism in general.

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      1. I know 😦 And when you’re an adult you don’t have the unbroken days in the same way as children do. Or at least it’s a lot harder.

        Very pleased with holiday reading selections, if I do say so myself! I do know and like Packham from his broadcasting work, but I think you can probably read it without that background. Apparently it’s the nation’s favourite nature book!

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      2. I still remember getting stamps when I checked books out from the library as part of their summer reading challenge when I was growing up in the States!! Won a free Magic School Bus book for completing the challenge.

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      3. The Magic School Bus series absolutely slapped! Wonder if they’re still in print…

        Liked by 1 person

      4. That’s so cute! I have a strong sensory memory of walking in from the parking lot to the basement of the Silver Spring, MD library on scorching summer days and drinking from the water fountain while letting my eyes adjust before going up to choose books.

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  6. My strategies: 1. Struggle on with my listed 10 Reads of Summer (currently I’m jumping between A Little Princess and Gormenghast, but I shall as usual be throwing in the odd light read – because I can.

    I really enjoyed the O’Farrell debut, the first of hers I’d read, so I was pleased to see it not only was listed but also alluded to in your title. As a contrast (and bringing in some much-needed coolth) I would recommend Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica which, doubtless, you will have read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Two more different classics you’d be hard pressed to find!

      Yes, I loved Skating to Antarctica and Stranger on a Train — she was an excellent travel writer and I need to find more of her work.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great recommendations! Heatwave and The Still Point are perfect for this weather. I didn’t pick up Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer to reread on purpose, but it also worked very well for the hot weather (though thank goodness I don’t live down south. I don’t do heat at all. Our highs of 24/25C are quite bad enough!). Next up I’m rereading Ozeki’s All Over Creation. I hope it will have some thematic resonance with the Kingsolver.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I would be happy for the summers to never get hotter than 23. Although I grew up with 30-40 and high humidity in the DC area, the lifestyle over there, for better or worse, allows you to dart from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned building — it’s the only way some parts of the USA (which should really just be swamp and desert) are livable at all! We’ve been comparing with the forecast for the Outer Hebrides and wishing we were back there; we would gladly put up with rain and wind to have it be 15.

      I saw Prodigal Summer on the shelf at the library the other day and was tempted, but I think it’s too long and involved for me just now. I’ll wait for her new book this autumn and then reread some of her earlier novels.

      All Over Creation is my last unread book by Ozeki. I guess I’m saving it for the proverbial rainy day.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 22/23 would be good for me too! We used to spend our summers in England when we lived in DC, so escaped the worst of it.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Some great recommendations here! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you found some ideas 🙂

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  9. Love seeing the shout outs for Straub. I just finished her This Time Tomorrow and it was just stellar. So sorry for the heat wave! As you said, at least here in America most places are air conditioned. I’ve been eating a lot of popsicles and fudge pops this summer – that’s my heat wave strategy, ha ha.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hooray, so looking forward to the new Straub. We definitely need more ice cream in our lives this summer!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. As the heat rises I keep thinking of The Go-Between! And yes, it’s funny about 76, isn’t it? I guess I was 4 then so other 50yo and ups will remember it very vividly, too, so it’s a Thing (I remember some v hot days in the early 2000s when we still lived in London and had to keep escaping to the seaside, not so easy to do now!). Golden Boys does look good and will go on my wishlist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 2003 is the heatwave my husband remembers most keenly. Not looking forward to that sort of weather becoming more common 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  11. […] for their settings or titles. A few of these I’ve already mentioned briefly, as part of my heat wave reading suggestions. Much as I love autumn, the end of summer tends to coincide with gloomy musings for me. However, […]

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