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At least 2020 was a great year for books

Readers wanted more, and authors and publishers delivered. Here are some of our book reviewer’s favorites.
Hamnet cover
Hamnet cover [ Penguin Random House ]
Published Dec. 24, 2020

Americans are united on one thing: 2020 has been a terrible year.

But there were some spots of sunshine in the past 12 dreary months, and one of them was this: It was a pretty terrific year for books.

Despite huge disruptions in the publishing industry that ranged from supply chain gridlock to the abrupt cancellation of thousands of author book tours, many wonderful new books were published and millions of readers welcomed them.

Spending more time at home meant that many of us had more time to read, and we took advantage of it. Book sales have risen all year; final figures aren’t available, but Publishers Weekly reports that print sales during the first week of December were 16.9 percent above the same week in 2019.

YA and children’s books have seen especially strong increases in 2020, but almost all categories and formats showed gains.

Another positive development came in response to the pandemic’s impact on author book tours and book festivals. Many authors, bookstores and book fair organizers turned to virtual events, whether it was single-author book talks sponsored by bookstores or massive multi-author extravaganzas like the Miami Book Fair and the National Book Festival.

Fans could watch authors on Zoom, Facebook Live and other platforms, either as the event happened or, in many cases, afterward. The Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading became a virtual event, and we presented more than 40 authors in Zoom interviews and panels, some live, some recorded.

Most of our festival fans responded positively. And the virtual festival had a silver lining: We were able to present authors we had long hoped to host (John Grisham, Barbara Kingsolver, Walter Mosley and Colson Whitehead, just to name a few) because scheduling them for a recorded interview was easier than arranging to get them to St. Petersburg in person.

As a book reviewer, I saw no falling off in either the number or the quality of the books that came my way in 2020. As always, there were far more than I could possibly read.

So here is a list of not the best books of 2020, but the best that were covered on this page, most of them reviewed by me. They’re organized into eccentric categories, and I’m starting with a two-category winner (three if you count that it also has my favorite book cover of 2020), Maggie O’Farrell’s magnificent novel Hamnet.

I hope this list might remind you of a book or two you meant to read. And here’s to a better 2021, in every way!

Best novel

Best novel set during a plague

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Best memoir

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Best book about a president who is not Barack Obama

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen

[ Riverhead Books ]

Best comic novel

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Best pub crawl novel

Love by Roddy Doyle

Best novel about millennials in love in the gig economy

True Love by Sarah Gerard

Best historical novels

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

The Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel

The Committee by Sterling Watson

Best memoirs-in-essays by former journalists

My Life as a Villainess by Laura Lippman

Where I Come From by Rick Bragg

Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker by Katherine Snow Smith

Best book about family dysfunction, nonfiction division

Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

Best books about family dysfunction, fiction division

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Memorial by Bryan Washington

Best book by the 2020 winner of the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award (tie)

Trouble Is What I Do by Walter Mosley

The Awkward Black Man by Walter Mosley

Best 40th novel by a national treasure

A Private Cathedral by James Lee Burke

Best 2020 book by Michael Connelly (tie)

Fair Warning

The Law of Innocence

[ HarperCollins ]

Best crime fiction by writers with Tampa Bay area ties

(Why, yes, I do read a lot of crime fiction.)

Hello, Summer by Mary Kay Andrews

The Revelators by Ace Atkins

Naked Came the Florida Man by Tim Dorsey

Grounds for Murder by Tamara Lush

Holding Smoke by Steph Post

Bad News Travels by James Swain

Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger

Best crime fiction by a writer with a Tampa Bay area restaurant

Salt River by Randy Wayne White

Best Florida nonfiction

Cat Tale by Craig Pittman

Runners-up:

In the Land of Good Living by Kent Russell

Veritas by Ariel Sabar

Best poetry collection by a bestselling novelist

How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons) by Barbara Kingsolver

Best book edited by me

Tampa Bay Noir