Friday, January 1, 2021

Year-End Best Book Lists

     Last year one of my resolutions was to read 71 books. When I made that resolution I had no idea that I would be locked down for most the year with more time to read than ever before. At the beginning of this pandemic, however, I found it hard to read. I couldn't concentrate, couldn't focus on the written word. Instead I watched plays and movies. 

     Gradually, however, I got back to reading and when I did, I began reading with a vengeance. Often I would have two, even three books going at once. One set up in the bathroom (something with short chapters), another on my nightstand (to read before I went to sleep) and a third on my Kindle (which I could read anywhere). I joined two book clubs (online, of course), both of which I've found thoroughly enjoyable. I hope both continue even when this quarantine time is lifted. I trekked often to the library (at first, picking up books outside the Main Library and then gradually returning to the library nearer to my house, even walking the 1.3 miles there to combine the sedentary nature of reading with some exercise.

    The illustration at right from the Florida Association for Media in Education site says it all: Books turned out to be a the greatest comfort to me in 2020.

    I made it to 70 books read, one short of my goal. For 2021 I've set the number at 72 (based, as it was last year, on the age I will be turning in the new year). 

    Below is a version of the story I did for Arts Coast Journal -- the last of the year -- on end of the year best books lists. It's chock-a-block with ideas for good reading in the coming twelve months and I've
already put many of the titles on my reading list.

    I've also lined up three books to read for the new year:

          1. Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning by Tom Vanderbilt

          2. Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding by Daniel E. Lieberman

          3 Beethoven Variations by Ruth Padel

     Hope this gives you some ideas as well. Happy reading!


    By Margo Hammond

     Every year a staggering number of bloggers, newspapers, authors, magazines, celebrities and book sites offer up Best Books of the year lists. What books are readers in my area -- Tampa Bay -- putting on their 2020 lists?

     In search of an answer, I consulted  this master list on a blog called Largehearted Boy where for the past 13 years David Gutowski has been aggregating year-end best book lists.  As of mid-December he had catalogued nearly 1,000 sites, from the best dog books of 2020 (The Dogington Post) to the best boating books of the year (Yachting Monthly).

       I found, however, only two Florida-based lists on Gutowski’s site. Well, three. But none of them, alas, came from Tampa Bay: Sarasota Books where the staff of Bookstore 1 in Sarasota offers its picks) and South Florida Sun-Sentinel (where the state’s veteran mystery critic Oline H. Cogdill offers up her favorites) and a list by Stephen King (who lives part-time in Casey Key).  

       So I decided to create my own Tampa Bay Bibliophiles list of Best Books of 2020. First, I discovered a list online curated by Cultured Books, a local pop-up children’s bookstore which operates along The Deuces in South St. Petersburg (see a sample of that list below). Then I solicited titles from local book lovers. I asked everyone willing to participate to supply five titles that got them through this annus horribilis.

       I got generous responses — from a bookstore, a journalist who writes books about Florida, a literary writer; a mystery writer and magician; a deputy mayor; a museum docent; a New York Times bestselling author; a USFSP professor; a poet laureate; a champion of black women authors; a champion of readers, writers and lovers of words; a director and actor and an Eckerd professor.

      “Narrowing my list down to just five books was TOUGH,”  admitted author Craig Pittman. Some added a few more. Author Lisa Unger said that she hates doing "best of" lists. “I fear leaving out one of my friends, or worthy books -- because I read so many!”  she wrote. 

      Some couldn’t resist adding a few more than five and not all of the titles chosen by the participants came out in 2020 (many of us reached back and found older books that called out to us). Unger included titles from 2021 that she read (she said she’s lucky to receive advanced copies of books). All of us confessed these books gave us comfort somehow in this extraordinary year.

      Book editor Colette Bancroft included her favorites of  2020 list on the book pages of  the Tampa Bay Times, including Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Best Novel and Best Novel set during a plague) and Cat Tale by Craig Pittman. Many of the titles she reviewed (and picked as her favorites) were by authors whom she interviewed for the all-virtual Festival of Reading this year. The interviews are archived at

    Several titles cropped up on more than one list, including Octavia Butler’s 1993 science fiction classic Parable of the Sower about a zealot who is elected to “make America great again” and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s 2018 My Sister, the Serial Killer longlisted for the Booker Prize as well as several 2020 titles whose authors have Florida connections: Shoreless a book of poetry by Enid Shomer, Squeeze Me a satirical novel by Carl Hiaasen, Summer of the Cicadas a novel by Chelsea Catherine, Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day short stories by JD Scott’s, Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther non-fiction by Craig Pittman and Fair Warning a thriller by Michael Connelly. 

      The choices were a mixture of fiction (both mainstream and experimental) and non-fiction, old and new. They all, however, were books that gave us comfort in this extraordinary year.

   And my own list ? Here are the titles from 2020 that I highly recommend:

1. Weather by Jenny Orfill  

2. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell 

3. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell 

4. Jack by Marilynne Robinson 

5. Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

      Craig Pittman is right. It WAS tough to keep that list to just five. If only I could add five more…they would be… 

6. Cat Tale by Craig Pittman

7. Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen

and three earlier works

8. Overstory by Richard Powers

9. Upstream: Essays by Mary Oliver 

10. Miss Iceland by Audur Ava Olafsdottir

     The lists sent to me have given me a lot more books to put on my 2021 TO READ list. I hope they inspire you, too.


A pop-up children's bookstore headquartered at The Well at 833 22nd St. S, Cultured Books promotes books that foster love of self by showing positive images and sharing great stories about people of color. Here’s a sample from Cultured Books Best Books of 2020

        1.   Red Shoes by Karen English, illustrated by Ebony Glenn

        2.   Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Laura Freeman

        3.   The ABCs of Black History by Rio Cortez, illustrated by Lauren Summer


        4.   Boys Dance! (American Ballet Theatre) by John Robert Allman, illustrated by Luciano Lozano


     Tombolo at 2153 1st Ave S in Saint Petersburg this month celebrated its first year as a brick-and-mortar bookstore, an impressive accomplishment in a pandemic. The 2020 recommendations sent on by the Tombolo team were all about Florida authors and Florida books:

  1. Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly
  1. Grounds for Murder, a new murder mystery novel by Tamara Lush, the Florida correspondent for the Associated Press
  1. The Committee by Sterling Watson, a work of historical fiction by the co-founder of Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise Program which came out at the end of 
  1. Three books by Jeff VanderMeer:  A Peculiar Peril, a YA novel; Fantasy Anthology, which he edited with his wife Anne, and  Ambergris, a reissue in a one-volume hardcover of his classic sci fi trilogy
  1. Summer of the Cicadas by Chelsea Catherine 
  1. Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day by JD Scott
  1. Cat Tale by Craig Pittman
  1. Holding Smoke by Step Post, which came out in February
  1. Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger

      10.  True Love by Sarah Gerard

      11.   Cigar City: Tales from a 1980s Creative Ghetto by Paul Wilborn, which came out in 2019 but won The Florida Book Award in 2020

     12.   Mail Duck by Erica Sirotich, children’s book

     13.  Mayor Pete: The Story of Pete Buttigieg by Rob Sanders


Craig Pittman, the author of Oh Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country,  published Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther on the eve of the pandemic: January 21, 2020. Asked for own list of best books of 2020, he offered three titles published this year (Numbers 1, 2 and 5) and two earlier books that he just got around to reading this year (Numbers 3 and 4):

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen: “Hiaasen’s funniest book in years, driven by his withering fury about the direction the country has taken in the past four years.”

2. The Year of Dangerous Days: Riots, Refugees and Cocaine in Miami 1980 by Nicholas Griffin: “A deeply researched, eye-opening look back at a turning-point year for South Florida.”

3. The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet by  Lyn Millner: “An astonishing book with one of the best openings you'll ever see in a book, and a bizarre anecdote on nearly every page.”

4. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler: “I don't read a lot of science fiction, but this dystopian novel grabbed me from the first page and wouldn't let go.”

5. The Revelators by Ace Atkins: “A tour de force. This 10th novel in Atkins' series about a former Army Ranger who's become the sheriff of his Mississippi hometown is the one that winds up all of the ongoing storylines of the previous nine, as well as commenting on such current issues as immigration and corporate exploitation of the poor.”


Since Sarah Gerard’s True Love came out in July, the novel has landed on an impressive number of 2020 lists, including Most Anticipated Book of the Year by both LitHub and The Millions, Entertainment Weekly 30 Hottest Book of the Summer, Refinery29 34 Books Youll Want To Read This Summer, Shondaland's 15 Hot Books for Summer, Chicago Review of Books' 10 Must-Read Books of July and Glamour’s The Best Books of 2020. For her own favorites, she chose a coming of age novel by a queer girl in a right wing community of Michigan, a memoir of growing up in Oklahoma, a novel in translation by a Japanese author living in Germany and two classics: a 1993 science fiction novel by a black American and a meditation originally published in 1919 from a poet who is an icon for LGBT rights and feminism. 

1. The Reconception of Marie by Teresa Carmody, published in November 2020 by Spuyten    Duyvil

2. Rerun Era by Joanna Howard, published in October 2019 by McSweeney’s

3. Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated in 2011 by Susan Bernofsky

4. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

                                                                           5. Notes on Thought and Vision by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) 


Jim Swain, who lives in Odessa, is a mystery writer and a magician (before the pandemic he was performing magic tricks weekly at the Hollander). In 2020 he published his 22nd book, No Good Deed, the third in his Florida-based series starring ex-Navy SEAL Jon Lancaster and FBI Agent Beth Daniels. (The 2nd in that series, No Good Deed, was set entirely around Tampa Bay.) Sending on his favorite books of the year, he wrote: “Its an eclectic list (fiction, non, biography, philosophy) but thats how I tend to read. There are a couple of titles which werent published this year, but provided great relief to me during these troubled times, especially Jordan Petersons book which I recommend to all my friends. Here’s to a better new year.”

1. Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

2. Fair Warning by Michael Connelly

3. The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova

4. 12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson

5. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

6. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

7. Last Words by George Carlin, Tony Hendra

8. The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova


Kanika Tomalin, the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, is a 2020 author herself. Her St. Pete Eats: A Cookbook, includes recipes sourced from restaurants around St. Petersburg with a healthy twist. The cookbook is part of her ongoing initiative Healthy St. Pete, which focuses on creating access to healthy food options, implementing free fitness zones in city parks and adding resources for individuals and families to make healthy living easier. Her non-fiction picks tackle racism, health issues, philosophy and comparative mythology. Numbers 2 and 4 came out this year. 

1. Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

2. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

3. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder

4. Tyranny of Merit: Whats Become of the Common Good? by Michael Sandel

5. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell: “a reread that was as awesome the third time.”


     Helen Huntley, a docent at the James Museum, leads the museum’s book club. All five books on her list — four novels and a work of non-fiction — were published in 2020. The last two — a debut novel set at at the end of the American gold rush and a debut thriller set on a Native American reservation in South Dakota — are James Museum Book Club picks for 2021.

1. The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

2. Fair Warning by Michael Connelly

3. The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz 

 by Erik Larson

4. How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang

5. Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden 


Lisa Unger, a New York Times bestselling author, is no stranger to “Best” lists. This year her psychological thriller, Confessions on the 7:45, graced the Best Book and/or Bestseller lists of the L.A. Times, Sun Sentinel, USA Today, Toronto Star, Amazon, Apple Books, Indie Next, Barnes & Noble, KOBO, Library Reads,, SIBA, Audio File, Loan Stars, Costco Canada and GlamourUK. “Here are a few books that really transported me this year,” she says, “two published in 2019, and the rest coming up next year. Not precisely a "best of" but definitely a couple of my favorite pandemic reads.”

  1. 1. My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2019): What would you do if your sister -- the pretty one, the favorite -- couldn't seem to stop killing her boyfriends and asking you to clean up the mess? Asked and answered in this thrilling, layered read.

2. Never Far Away by Michael Koryta (February 2021): Could you leave your family behind to save them? And what would happen if you had to go back for them and risk all your lives? Koryta will keep you breathless as he spins another rocket-paced, beautifully written mystery set in Maine.

3. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (2019): A wealthy family, a young nanny struggling to find herself, and an ugly late night encounter at grocery store. Reid digs deep into her layered characters to take on racism, privilege, friendship, and love.

4. The Stranger Behind You by Carol Goodman (July 2021): A young reporter takes down a wealthy and powerful sexual predator, only to find that she has put her own life at risk. Even the high security building she's moved into at the tip of Manhattan can't keep her safe. This thriller is smart, ripped from the headlines, and deep.

5. Her Dark Lies by J.T. Ellison (March 2021): A stunning, isolated island off the coast of Italy, the wedding of the year, a bride and groom, each with terrible dark secrets, and a looming storm -- what could possibly go wrong? Ellison is a master at ratcheting up the delicious suspense page by gripping page.


Helen Pruitt Wallace is the Poet Laureate of St. Petersburg. For her Best Books list, she explains, “I’ve kept my list to poetry and memoir and left off many new favorites by poets I've hosted this year in the Dali Poetry Series. Too hard to choose among them!”  Her choices include a memoir by a former U.S. poet laureate, an illustrated collection of essays by a poet about the natural world and three books of new poetry, including one by another former poet laureate of the United States. “Several of these,” she says, I'm still savoring, but I guess that's what we do with books we love!”

1. Memory Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

2. World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

 by Aimee Nezhukumatathill: “newly out!”

3. Shoreless by Enid Shomer

4. Ledger by Jane Hirshfield

5. Summer Snow by Robert Hass


Janet K. Keeler teaches in the Journalism and Digital Communications Department at USFSP where she launched the Food Writing and Photography Program, which offers a graduate certificate. Keeler also spearheaded the universitys Food and Travel Writing study-abroad program. Her top reads in 2020? “A mix of fiction and non-fiction entertained and enlightened me in 2020,” she says. Here is her list:

1. Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: “Wilson’s inventive story had me stopping several times and asking, ‘how'd he think of that?’ In a year of dumpster fires, the flames of this book were a delicious diversion.”

2. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: “This diabolical tale of complicated sisterly love and obsession took me somewhere I didn't know I needed to go. Who knew murder could be so fun?” 

3. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng “Fire, literal and figurative, appeared to be a theme on my reading list. Ng creates memorable characters with flaws that stuck with me long after I finished the book.”

4. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: “Thoughtful and personal, Coates shares his insights about race in America in a series of essays to his son. Though published in 2015, the book resonated in a summer of racial unrest and reckoning.”

5. We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time by Jose Andres: “I read this along with my fall Food Writing students at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Through this book, chef and restaurateur Andres, also the driving force behind World Central Kitchen that feeds victims of disasters around the world, illustrates the place that food has in social movements. A quick read with important significance.”


The executive director of Kitchen Table Arts Center, which aims to build awareness, appreciation, and support for women of color and black women writers, poets, and their work, Sheree L. Greer sends emails with a quote by poet Lucille Clifton that seems particular apt during this pandemic: “May the tide that is entering even now…carry you out beyond the face of fear.” Her five favorite books of 2020 are equally inspiring: an urban fantasy novel, two short story collections, a psychological thriller, and a book of poems, all by Black women and all published in 2020.

1. The City We Became: A Novel by N.K. Jemisin

2. Nine Bar Blues by Sheree Renee Thomas

3. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

4. When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

5. Negotiations by Destiny O. Birdsong


Maureen McDole is a poet and founder and executive director of Keep St. Pete Lit, a community of “readers, writers and lovers of words.” For her five favorites of 2020, she went with “mostly local writers.”  Two books of poetry, a dystopian science fiction book, a debut short story collection and a novel. All were published in 2020, except Number 1, a book of poems by Orlando’s poet laureate, which came out in 2019. 

1. Venus in Retrograde: Poems by Susan Lilley 

2. Shoreless by Enid Shomer

3. Blueprints for Better Worlds by Tenea D. Johnson 

4. Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day: Stories by JD Scott 

5. Summer of the Cicadas by Chelsea Catherine 


Bob Devin Jones, a playwright, makes a living acting, directing and supervising thestudio@620 (which he co-founded) as its artistic director. His favorite titles of the year is loaded with titles by writers with ties to Florida: Ray Arsenault, Gilbert King, Roy Peter Clark, Denise Lehane, William F. Felice, Peter Golenbock (with Richard Painter) and “no less” Jack Kerouac. Here, as he puts it, is his “unexpurgated” book list:

1. Arthur Ashe: A Life by Ray Arsenault

2. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King

3. Satori in Paris & Pic by Jack Kerouac (“written in St. Petersburg, FL no less”)

4. Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark

5. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston 

6.  The Given Day: A Novel by Dennis Lehane: “one of my favorite books of all recorded time”

7.  Tourist Season by Enid Shomer

8. How to Save My Honor: War, Moral Integrity, and Principled Resignation by Bill Felice

9. American Nero: The History of the Destruction of the Rule of Law, and Why Trump Is the Worst Offender by Richard Painter and Peter Golenbock


A Colombian-American writer and translator and Eckerd College professor, Gloria Muñoz picked books by authors with roots in Argentina, Nigeria, Korea, the United States and Peru. Four novels and a memoir.

1. Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell

2. The Death of Vivek Oji Akwaeke Emezi

3. The Magical Language of Others by E. J. Koh

4. Memorial by Bryan Washington 

5. The Affairs of the Falcóns by Melissa Rivero

Wednesday, December 23, 2020


 "It's the night before Christmas eve.

   This is the first line in an essay entitled Christmas Presents in Karl Ove Knausgaard's book called Winter, a compilation of the Norwegian writer's reflections on everything from Owls to Q-tips, a follow up to his book Autumn. 

    It also happens to be the night before Christmas eve as I write this post. 

    Winter and Autumn are the first two books in a quartet named for the seasons that Knausgaard wrote to introduce his yet-unborn child to the world she was about to experience. Autumn covers September, October and November. Each month begins  with a Letter to an Unborn Daughter, followed by 20 essays. 

     Winter covers December, January and February. As in Autumn, the first two months in Winter begin with essays entitled Letters to an Unborn Daughter, but, according to the book's table of contents, February's essay is headed Letter to a Newborn Daughter. 

     I peaked ahead and saw that Knausgaard's daughter was born on January 28. 

     But for me, still reading the December essays, that blessed event is yet to come. Books are like that. They allow you to inhabit worlds out of time sequence, to imagine yourself in the future or in the past, to experience the pains and joys of others and learn from those experiences even though they are not happening to you. Books are lessons in humility. In order to enjoy a book, you have to be willing to be an onlooker into the life of perfect strangers -- often not even people who actually exist -- to inhabit their worlds and their minds for a while, to feel what they feel and empathize.

      I began reading Autumn on the very day Knausgaard began that book -- August 28. I started reading Winter in December and tonight came upon the essay that marks today's very time frame: the night before the night before Christmas.

     I'm wondering what other coincidences await me as I read through Knausgaard's entire quartet!

     Earlier this month, Sheila Cowley, my editor at Arts Coast Journal, an online journal where I write a monthly column on the literary arts, asked me to contribute to a feature called Art That Makes You Feel Like Celebrating. I chose to write about Autumn, the first book of Knausgaard's quartet. Below is my reflection on that book.

      Merry Night Before Christmas Eve!

    In his book Autumn Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard offers up 60 essays on everyday objects and states of mind that we encounter every day – apples, wasps, plastic bags, the Sun, teeth, porpoises, frogs, piss (who knew piss could be so interesting?), blood, lightning, rubber boots, jellyfish, fingers, loneliness, oil tankers, tin cans, pain, telephones, vomit, flies, forgiveness, buttons, toilet bowls, silence… well, you get the idea. He wrote the essays for his unborn daughter, to introduce her to the world she was about to enter.

Autumn begins with Knausgaard’s letter to that daughter in utero. It is dated August 28. Amazingly, that was the very date I began to read the book. August 28 also is the birthdate of a childhood friend of mine who died on Earth Day five years ago. Like Knausgaard, he was Norwegian (on his mother’s side) and had been a writer of meticulous detail.

Mere coincidences? Or was the universe trying to tell me something? Whichever, Autumn captivated me. I found myself paying closer attention to everything in my own surroundings. What was I missing? The resolve of a white tern dive bombing into the Bay for his supper. The ebullience of my sisters’ laughter via Zoom. The flakiness of my morning croissant. I suddenly didn’t want to take anything for granted.

Knausgaard first gained international fame and notoriety with a massive work called My Struggle. A fictionalized autobiography which ran over 3,500 pages and was published in six volumes, the books created an uproar, not only because the Norwegian title, Min Kamp, echoes Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but because Knausgaard’s frank tell-all caused 14 members of his family to denounce him in an Olso newspaper.

Autumn is a smaller book, both in pages (240) and in intent. It is, however, linked to three other books called WinterSpring and Summer.

This fall Autumn gave me reason to celebrate my restricted surroundings. The perfect pandemic read. Now I’m looking forward to reading the whole Quartet of Seasons, each in their corresponding times. Maybe once I get through Winter, Spring and Summer, the pandemic will be behind us.

One can only hope.