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 set during a plague
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
Best book about a president who is not Barack Obama
Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen
Best comic novel
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
Best pub crawl novel
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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)
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
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