Too Darn Hot! Books for beach and garden by Jessica Norrie
Calculating this post would be published on Bastille Day, I was going to celebrate French classics. But it would have meant rereading wonderful but worthy reads more suited to winter evenings. In the current UK heatwave, in the words of a favorite song, it’s too darn hot. So I looked through my shelves for easy reads, some recent, some less so, but all with great hooks, plucky plots and clear characters who don’t mind being dropped half open from a sleepy hand when the need to siesta overcomes you.
Eligible (2016) by Curtis Sittenfeld is mid market chicklit, a fun take on Pride and Prejudice, updated to contemporary Cincinnati. Darcy is a brain surgeon, Liz an unreliable feminist magazine writer, Bingley a reality TV star and Jane a yoga instructor. It romps along tying everyone in knots of modern etiquette, but the premise (five unmarried daughters) remains recognisably Austen, as do all the characters except Liz whom I found hard to like. It’s funny, perceptive, and true, with the updated Mr and Mrs Bennet a tour de force.
The same author published the more serious but equally readable American Wife, possibly based on Laura Bush, in 2008.
Psychological thrillers are supposed to be a contemporary genre, but Patricia Highsmith set the page turning standard fifty years ago. Will you sympathise with Tom Ripley or not, as The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) cons his way into life with gilded American youths on a trip to Europe? It’s also an excellent film.
Consider too The Cry of the Owl (1962) in which Highsmith keeps you guessing until the final line.
If you’ve read every crime novel published since Highsmith’s time and can recite the formulae in your sleep, join Anthony Horowitz. In The Word is Murder (2018), Horowitz plays with the genre: he himself is the hero, a world weary but successful writer who’s approached by a disgraced detective to create a bestseller by writing up his next case in spectacular fashion, with the aim of sharing royalties. It goes against every scrap of better judgement Horowitz has. He doesn’t like the detective’s company or approve of his methods. But somehow he’s trapped into it, and off they go together nosing round crime scenes trying to make sense of events ahead of the Met.
There are cameo roles for real literary agents and film moguls, insight into writing for TV, for children and into updating James Bond (all on the real Horowitz CV) as well as chases, corpses and forensics yielding clues to misread while making pithy Chandleresque wisecracks. Anything that kept me entertained in the departure lounge waiting for a delayed flight and then in the cabin as the bloody plane still didn’t take off, has got to be worth a look. It’s so clever, I still don’t know which parts really happened and which are fiction.
Margaret Atwood’s 1996 historically set, classic novel is Alias Grace. But is it as straightforward as it seems? It’s elegantly written, and Grace is a complex, attractive, multi dimensional character, who did or didn’t commit another crime to keep you guessing. Beautifully dramatized recently on Netflix, for me this is more approachable than the more celebrated Handmaid’s Tale.
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (2007) took me to another world – in which the narrator is being taken to mine. She’s a 1990s schoolgirl on the tropical island of Bougainville, lush with exotic plants and undergoing the daily terror of civil war (real events, barely reported in the UK). Her school has only one book, Great Expectations, and what the pupils – who have never seen a frosty morning or met a white man other than their teacher – make of it is not what we might expect. Looking through Mister Pip for this post has reminded me what a tragic, funny, moving pleasure it was to read and it’s gone straight back to the bedside table for a reread.
The best comparison I can make is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, also set on a tropical island of rotting vegetation and over heated personalities and referencing a British classic, which, perhaps because it’s not contemporary, seems to arouse less controversy.
You may think life is more delicate on the French Riviera or the Tuscan countryside, in the worlds of Scott Fitzgerald and Somerset Maugham. But as the characters drain their nightly cocktails the conflicts and complexes fester, and their gilded lives on beaches and balconies have the same vulnerability as Tom Ripley’s victims. Money, or the appearance of money, can’t buy happiness, but the glitterati of Maugham’s Up at the Villa and Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night present brave, increasingly desperate faces for as long as they can. Fitzgerald was a screenwriter and his prose from 1934 zips along; Maugham, in 1941, is more long winded but such a consummate storyteller that I gobbled up the pages.
Characters who are feeling even hotter than you are the English Edwardians of L P Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go Between (also a cult 1971 film with Julie Christie and Alan Bates). At least innocent young Leo gets to exchange his tweed Norfolk suit for a cooler linen one, given to him by a parasol twirling young woman in high necked white muslin. But why is she so generous, also presenting him with a brand new bicycle? Is the brusque, handsome farmer neighbour a friend or not, and why is Leo still troubled by the events of that summer forty years on? Leo also has one of the best opening lines in literature.
Finally, if you prefer to read of the past in racy modern prose that leaps straight off the page, anything by Sarah Waters is unputdownable.
I hope these ideas will see you through the summer. Sally and I are busy ladies so we’ve agreed I’ll return in October. Meanwhile may the sun shine on your reading and as ever, do add your own recommendations.
©Jessica Norrie 2018
About Jessica Norrie
Jessica Norrie studied French literature at Sussex University, and trained as a teacher at Sheffield. Then she wandered into parenthood, told her now grown up children stories, and heard theirs. A qualified translator, she worked on an eclectic mix of material, from health reports on racehorses to harrowing refugee tales. She taught, full time, part time, adults, children, co-authored a text book and ran teacher training. In 2008 she was inspired with the idea for “The Infinity Pool” and it appeared as a fully fledged novel in 2015. Meanwhile she sings soprano and plays the piano, walks in the forest and enjoys living in and using London. She looks forward to writing more in the future.
About the Book.
In this thoughtful novel set on a sun-baked island, Adrian Hartman, the charismatic director of the Serendipity holiday community, is responsible for ensuring the perfect mindful break, with personal growth and inner peace guaranteed. People return year after year to bare their souls. For some, Adrian IS Serendipity. But Adrian disappears, and with him goes the serenity of his staff and guests, who are bewildered without their leader. The hostility of the local villagers is beginning to boil over. Is their anger justified or are the visitors, each in a different way, just paranoid?
As romance turns sour and conflict threatens the stability of both communities, everyone has to find their own way to survive. This evocative story explores the decisions of adults who still need to come of age, the effect of well-intentioned tourism on a traditional community, and the real meaning of getting away from it all.
One of the reviews for the book
Well-written and acutely observed on 14 December 2017
Jessica Norrie’s novel, set on a sun-drenched island somewhere in the Mediterranean, examines the personalities and pitfalls encountered on the sort of package holiday that offers holistic life-skills and self-improvement courses. While practising yoga and suchlike activities, guests at the Serendipity resort, together with staff and, from time to time, local villagers, confront social, personal and philosophical challenges.Norrie has a confident narrative voice and a shrewd and sympathetic view of human nature, which makes her account of the goings-on at Serendipity entertaining as well as thought-provoking.
The central character is absent for much of the book: this means that the reader builds up a picture of him through the thoughts and observations of other characters, like a photographic negative – he is defined by his impact on others. When he re-emerges in his own right, his condition is so altered that we learn about other people from their decidedly contrasting (and sometimes unattractive) reactions.
The prose is occasionally lyrical – as a swimmer emerges from a pool, “The water softly shifted to a forgiving stillness” – and consistently accessible. The author is very good on the strains inherent in a globalized culture. The gulf between Serendipity’s staff and guests on the one hand and the local community on the other sours into violence, which may not be entirely surprising since, as one of the resort’s denizens observes, “Our food and our water supply are better than theirs, so we don’t eat in their restaurants or buy their fruit, except in town where it’s so touristy; most of us don’t even try to speak their language; we don’t talk to them when they come to our bar; we expect them to put up with us sunbathing naked on the beach in front of their grandmothers – and then we go on about how beautiful the country is and how fascinating the local traditions are.”
The author also has a clear-eyed view of the reality beneath picturesque Mediterranean society. A young woman considers “meeting and marrying some local man and giving birth within the time honoured local conventions, kicking just a little against restrictions on her sex because that was what each new generation did, then in turn chivvying her own daughters and unconditionally adoring her sons.”
The Infinity Pool is a well-written and acutely observed examination of diverse lives.
Read some of the many excellent reviews and buy the book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jessica-Norrie/e/B01CEUZF26
and on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Infinity-Pool-Jessica-Norrie-ebook/dp/B011RA8QZW
Find more reviews on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3270629.Jessica_Norrie
Connect to Jessica
My thanks again to Jessica Norrie for giving us something some wonderful books to carry us through the summer months.. and look forward to welcoming her back in October.