Why Heatwaves and Novels Go Together

You don’t need to read the Lancet to know that heatwaves aren’t great for health. Even without the terror of fires, excess heat is linked with deaths, especially in the elderly.

On the bright side, however, when the thermometer soars and it’s too hot to move, few things are more delicious than settling in a shady spot to get lost in a book. Yes, I have heard of ice cream, but a novel occupies the mind for longer than a raspberry ripple, and that’s got to be a bonus in the current mess the world is in.

Writers are doubly blessed in a heatwave. For a start, they may be able to work at home with next to nothing on, which is so far removed from struggling on the Tube wearing office attire that it’s almost like not working.

As a plus, there are often cool places to sit with pencil or laptop.

I’m assuming that the nice cool place isn’t in full view of the neighbours. Then again, think of all the publicity, as a fellow writer reminds me.

Best of all, though, scorching weather presents excellent material for fiction.  Author Helena Halme mentions just this in her recent blog post Five Books for a Heatwave.

I’d like to unpick this a little more.

Summertime is in itself magical, with ice lollies, flip-flops, sandcastles, and grandparents moaning about the lack of rain. In school holidays gone by, every summer was long and hot, at least in the memory. With normal life suspended, there’s an illusion of freedom, Swallows and Amazons style.

The heat does things to people’s pheromones. Well, I’m assuming it does, though the only paper I’ve seen is based on research on insects. At any rate, the brain seems to fry at high temperatures.  Even the most impassive person can become, well, hot-headed and behave erratically, which is all good news for novelists.

The human mind isn’t the only thing to abandon normal function in a heatwave. By now, most people in the UK are familiar with buckled rails and cancelled trains. In the northeast last month, a man became trapped when tarmac melted and his leg literally sank into the road surface. This happened in Heaton (no, I’m not kidding) and firefighters were called to free him. 

But these phenomena are as nothing compared to the image of Jesus appearing on a ceramic drainpipe in Joanna Cannon’s debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. This unusual manifestation of Christ brings out the neighbours and their deck chairs, and becomes a turning point in the story.

Every heatwave seems to leave its own particular memories. The legendary summer of 1976 featured beaches covered in ladybirds, exhortations to share a bath with a friend, and other references that can date-stamp a novel, as both Joanna Cannon and Maggie O’Farrell demonstrate.

While there’s no exact definition of a heatwave, meteorologists often consider it to be an increase of 5⁰C above the average maximum temperature for five days or more – with the average maximum temperature being between 1961 and 1990.

The great heatwave years of the UK include 1911, 1955, 1976, and 1983. Speaking for myself, I have a soft spot for 2013 which broke few records but did produce the hottest July for many years. This is the year in which I set my novel Hampstead Fever, and it also happens to be when I got married.

wedding

Whether you’re reading or writing, I hope you enjoy the rest of this scorching season. How will you most remember the heatwave of 2018 when it gives way to wind and rain?

***

PS You can find Hampstead Fever in all the usual places.

http://mybook.to/HF

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The Worst Books of All Time

It’s the time of year when many bloggers list their favourite books of the past 12 months. On the other hand, some of them name the titles they liked least. Here I must follow suit because, when I look back at my shelves, some books stand out as the very worst of any year. So, in the spirit of utter meanness, I offer you this diverse list of five awful reads. One or two are classics, or may be your favourites, for which I can only apologize. Horses for courses, and all that.

Lecture Notes on Pathology by AD Thomson and RE Cotton

What they say: Of value to undergraduate medical students studying for their final examination and to postgraduate students preparing for higher qualifications.

What I say: The print is tiny, there is no plot whatsoever, and the book reads like a telephone directory. Having committed almost all of the 1,100 pages to memory (I didn’t bother with the index), I can still recite chunks of it by heart decades later, although nobody wants to hear them. But I suppose I shouldn’t bear a grudge, especially as the cover survived many late-night revision sessions, along with the inevitable spilt coffee.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon 

What they say: Quirky novel set in the East Midlands during the heatwave of 1976. Ten-year olds Grace and Tilly set out to find out what happened to their neighbour Mrs Creasy, who has disappeared. ‘An utter delight, etc.’

What I say: An utter delight, etc – if you’re a reader, that is. Terrible book if you are an author. Every paragraph is a reminder that you can’t actually write novels for toffee, or at least nothing like as well as the peerless Joanna Cannon. This book commits the crime of being too damn good.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron  

What they say: Banished to Slough House from the ranks of achievers at Regent’s Park for various crimes of drugs and drunkenness, lechery and failure, politics and betrayal, this misfit crew of highly trained joes don’t run ops any more; they push paper.

But not one of them joined the Intelligence Service to be a ‘slow horse’.

A boy is kidnapped and held hostage. His beheading is scheduled for live broadcast on the net.

And whatever the instructions of the Service, the slow horses aren’t going to just sit quiet and watch …

‘Funny, stylish, satirical, gripping, etc’

What I say: Decapitations apart, this tale is not suitable for bedtime reading. It has more pace than a Merseyside Derby, and just as many characters. OK, so it’s set in London and has nothing to do with football (apart from that disembodied head), but a moment’s inattention and you’ve missed some vital action.  Full attention is needed to fully savour this unusual spy novel. 

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr

What they say: Now out of print, this is a witty collection of pieces by US playwright Jean Kerr about work and family life, as she tries to write at home while praying that her four irrepressible sons will behave for once.

What I say: I thoroughly enjoyed this book while growing up, and read it several times. However, I made the error of dipping into it again after recent gall bladder surgery. It is the worst book anyone could choose after an abdominal operation. If you don’t bust your stitches, you’ll feel as if you have.

Dictionnaire Larousse

What they say: 60,000 mots, définitions et exemples. Très utile.

What I say: I haven’t brought myself to use this dictionary again since the day one of my classmates, also aged 11, borrowed it then returned it to me after adding, in Magic Marker, no less, some choice four-letter words that the publishers of le Larousse had not thought to include in a children’s dictionary.  And he didn’t even put them into the correct places in the alphabet (I checked). I eventually bought a new copy, as you can see.

So, who’s in your bad books?

Whether you agree with my choices or not, happy reading in 2018. With over 130 million books in print and a slew of new titles on the way, there’s something to suit everyone. Except maybe POTUS.