Review by Colette Bancroft
Times Book Editor
How about some fresh local fiction?
In the Tampa Bay area, you don't have to look far to find an author. From first-timers starting out to bestselling writers whose books are sold around the globe, hundreds, maybe thousands, of fiction writers make their homes here.
As the Times’ book editor, I know that well. Each week, I receive about 200 books in the mail from publishers, and on average about 10 percent of them are by local authors. Do the math and you'll see that's at least 1,000 new books (fiction and nonfiction) by Tampa Bay area writers per year.
Both the subject matter and the quality of those books vary widely, but there's no doubt we're a literary community. It's impossible to mention all of them, but here are a few Tampa Bay area novelists and short story writers worth your attention. And a great way to find them, and more, is to patronize your local independent bookstore.
The best-known author to make his home in the bay area is Michael Connelly. His internationally bestselling novels, including the interlocking series about Harry Bosch (basis of the Amazon TV series Bosch) and Mickey Haller, are set in Los Angeles, but Connelly, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale and graduated from the University of Florida, lives in Tampa. (Look for his new Bosch book, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, in November.)
Tampa Bay is pretty well surrounded by crime fiction writers, in fact. There's Tim Dorsey in Tampa, whose wacky novels about Floridaphile and serial killer Serge Storms (Coconut Cowboy is No. 18) mine the state's weirdness to hilarious effect. Up in Odessa, James Swain has written several crime series; his latest novel, Bad Action, focuses on a crew of Las Vegas con artists.
On the Pinellas side of the bay, there's Lisa Unger in Clearwater, whose Ink and Bone is just her latest bestselling dark psychological thriller. And Lori Roy, a two-time Edgar Award winner whose most recent book is Let Me Die in His Footsteps, lives in Tierra Verde.
In St. Petersburg, Eckerd College professor emeritus Sterling Watson's latest, Suitcase City, is a noir novel set in Tampa. And Eckerd history professor Lee Irby, who published several historical mysteries a few years back (look for 7,000 Clams), has a new book coming in 2017. James Sheehan writes legal mysteries like The Alligator Man. And former St. Pete resident Michael Koryta, whose upcoming Rise the Dark is set partly in the area, plans to move back soon. (We used to be able to claim crime fiction master Dennis Lehane as a resident, but he has moved to California.)
Mysteries aren't the only genre being written around the bay. Bestselling thriller writer Chris Kuzneski, whose book The Hunters will be made into a film this fall, lives in Tampa. His latest, The Prisoner's Gold, just won an International Thriller Writers award for best e-book. We can boast prize-winning YA and children's authors like Greg Neri (Tru & Nelle) in Tampa and Augusta Scattergood (The Way to Stay in Destiny) in St. Petersburg. Science fiction ace Rick Wilber (Alien Morning) lives in Tampa, as does genre-crossing horror-comedy-YA writer Jeff Strand (A Bad Day for Voodoo).
Several journalists-turned-authors make their homes in the bay area, including novelist Kris Radish (The Year of Necessary Lies) and romance writers Tamara Lush (Hot Shade) and Linda Bond (Cuba Undercover).
As for literary fiction, Enid Shomer (The Twelve Rooms of the Nile) is the recipient of the Florida Humanities Council's lifetime achievement award for writing. And, of course, the bay area's university writing programs boast a number of fiction writers among their faculty. The University of South Florida's creative writing department includes Karen Brown (The Longings of Wayward Girls), Rita Ciresi (Bring Back My Body to Me) and John Henry Fleming (Songs for the Deaf).
USF's Ira Sukrungruang has a recent collection of short stories, and the University of Tampa's Lisa Birnbaum has published her first novel. For reviews, see below.
Worthy by Lisa Birnbaum
Dzanc Books, 256 pages, $15.95
In a way, Lisa Birnbaum's novel Worthy fits into one of the hottest genres of the moment: the crime novel with a wildly unreliable female narrator, a la Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and all those other shifty young ladies.
But in Worthy, the mystery is less a matter of crime than of identity. Its title is one of the names of its narrator, although only one. She's also known as Ludmila, and Katrina, and who knows what other monikers. "I shouldn't be trusted," she says, "which I have told you as I beg you to believe me."
This is the first novel by Birnbaum, a University of Tampa professor who is also a nonfiction and short story writer, poet and spoken word performer.
The reader listens in as Worthy tells her looping, elliptical story to an unnamed acquaintance in the quieter hours at the Tampa strip club where she works. A beauty but middle-aged (and a sharp observer of what that means), Worthy is occasionally a stripper but mostly a den mother and manager, and the lover of the club's owner.
Pieced together from nonlinear fragments, Worthy's life story begins somewhere in Eastern Europe (where, or what her last name is, she doesn't say) but really starts when in her youth she hooks up with an American professor of English twice her age named Theodore.
Their charmed life in New York City only gets better after a bizarre kerfuffle in an academic meeting sends him off on sabbatical. The pair turn into unlikely con artists, traveling around Mexico, Europe and more, making up new identities and scamming all sorts of people. Their life of crime has a literary basis in Theodore's admiration of what he calls the Four Books: Thomas Mann's Confessions of Felix Krull, Melville's The Confidence Man, Nabokov's Despair and Camus' The Fall, a syllabus that provides perhaps the most erudite excuse ever for ripping off rich people.
Enfolded in those adventures as well as Worthy's tales of another marriage and an abandoned child is the mystery of what happened to Theodore and how that led Worthy to Tampa.
Birnbaum painstakingly re-creates Worthy's limited English skills on the page. Sometimes her scrambled syntax adds impact: "And if we have cry over a lover, missing or losing him, between the eyes will show in those crinkles that never let go the darkness. If we get a Botox, the history of hardest sex and best love will be lost." At other times, though, especially given that it's maintained for the entire novel, it's simply laborious to decipher; narrative written in dialect or accented English tends to work best when its touch is light rather than demanding.
The Melting Season by Ira Sukrungruang
Burlesque Press, 252 pages, $16.99
University of South Florida creative writing professor Ira Sukrungruang has published several collections of essays and poetry and a charming memoir, Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy.
The Melting Season is his first collection of short stories, and it reflects some of the themes that have run through his other writing: family relationships, the immigrant experience, the nature of manhood, the cultural and personal significance of cooking and eating. (The stories are grouped into five sections, each with an epigram from Julia Child.)
A few expand on the forms of children's stories. A Family: A Fairy Tale is a fanciful but insightful story about a family unit composed of an invisible father, a son whose adolescence is marked by a vine sprouting from his belly button, a young daughter much inconvenienced by a pair of big white wings and a mother who has "nothing special about her":
"Once upon a time, she had a name.
"Once upon a time, she was young.
"Once upon a time, she was not Mother."
Pick a Path Adventures borrows the popular kids' book format to tell the story of a schoolyard confrontation between a "scrawny, skeletal kid" named Louis Wangchakorn and a young giant called Big Dennis, which leads to options like "PAP Choice #25: Not a problem or run like hell, Louis."
Most, though, are realistic stories that focus on young protagonists. In Ordinary World, a high school student grapples with his father's disappearance, his mother's deep depression and his first mad crush, on "April Sherwood. She looks like a maiden in a far-off world where there would be an actual Sherwood Forest." Although his English teacher urges him to develop his writing skills, when it counts most they betray him.
The title story, The Melting Season, begins with a brusque description of the disappearance of a 15-year-old boy. The beloved, bright son of an American doctor and a Thai caterer with a mysterious past, David vanishes during a blizzard in a small upstate New York town. The story not only masterfully unfolds the boy's life and fate, but expands into his parents' marriage and the life of the town around them to create a poignant portrait of love found and lost.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.