Last week, I listed the best among the books I reviewed for the Tampa Bay Times in 2023.
But I read a lot more books — I average about three per week — that I didn’t end up writing about. So, this week, here are a few memorable reads from that group.
Best book that’s on everybody’s best books list and deserves to be
“The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” by James McBride continues this author’s streak of clear-eyed and compassionate — and gorgeously written — fiction about race in America. The novel is set in the 1930s in Chicken Hill, a neighborhood in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, crowded with Jewish immigrants and Black people, since it’s the only part of town those groups are allowed to live in. McBride creates unforgettable characters and an elegant plot, telling the story of how communities form as the residents of Chicken Hill come together to protect a deaf Black child.
It’s not really, but it kind of is. British author Mick Herron’s “The Secret Hours” is a standalone spy thriller, rich with his usual wry wit, plot twists and irresistible characters. But for the legions of fans of his Slough House books (now also a terrific streaming series, “Slow Horses”), this book, much of it set in Berlin in the 1990s, pops with Easter eggs about how the Slow Horses came to be.
Best Florida flashback for Beatles fans
Orlando journalist Bob Kealing adds another to his shelf of nonfiction about music in Florida, following his excellent books about Gram Parsons and Elvis. “Good Day Sunshine State: How the Beatles Rocked Florida” is an entertaining, deeply researched look at the Fab Four’s adventures in Florida in 1964, smack in the middle of the era in which they basically changed the world. Kealing doesn’t just dish the gossip (although there’s plenty), he places all of the fun in fascinating historical context.
Best sobering nonfiction
To write “The Undertow: Scenes From a Slow Civil War,” journalist and author Jeff Sharlet sought to understand our nation’s current divided state by attending two Trump rallies and journeying to a megachurch in Miami, a men’s rights conference in Michigan, an open-carry restaurant in Colorado and a rally in California in support of Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot to death as she broke into the House chamber during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Sharlet immerses himself, and the reader, in these experiences, and it’s eye-opening.
Best Hollywood noir
Jordan Harper’s breathtaking “Everybody Knows” brings new urgency to the homeland of hardboiled mysteries. Its protagonist, Mae Pruett, is a black-bag publicist at a crisis PR firm, which means she makes her living by making sure the most depraved secrets of the stars stay secret — until her boss is murdered and she’s left out in the cold. She thinks she knows the worst Hollywood can do, but boy, is she wrong.
Best handy way to share great columns
If, like me, you find yourself frequently passing along my friend and colleague Stephanie Hayes’ wonderful columns to your smart friends, or reading passages from them aloud to people you live with, “Be Serious” is for you. This collection of her columns ranges from the challenges of launching a humor column in March 2020 to the surrealistic landscape of book banning in Florida. She is always funny and, when she wants to be, wise.
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But enough about books
And here’s a bonus: the best streaming TV series I didn’t review. The ones I did review are the two stellar series from the Michael Connelly universe: “Bosch: Legacy” (Amazon/Freevee) and “The Lincoln Lawyer” (Netflix). Both have third seasons coming in 2024.
But here are three others I want to highlight because they use novelistic techniques so well.
These shows might not seem to have much in common. “The Bear” (Hulu, two seasons streaming) is an intense dramedy about a crew of restaurant employees who go through hell and redemption along with the restaurant itself. “Reservation Dogs” (three seasons, Hulu) is a big-hearted, hilarious, poignant coming-of-age story about four Indigenous teenagers on a reservation in Oklahoma. And “Our Flag Means Death” (two seasons, Max) is simply the best (loosely) historical workplace rom-com about queer pirates EVER.
What they share, though, in addition to wonderful casts, are qualities found in the best fiction. Episode to episode, each boasts outstanding writing, but they are also beautifully structured across the arcs of each season and, in the case of “Reservation Dogs” (now completed), across the whole series.
In each series, characters gain depth and complexity over time, as they do in great novels. They surprise us, but in believable ways. Plot lines and rhythms stretch beyond single episodes; emotional tone has subtle variations rather than one note.
Like a great book, they draw us into the lives they depict and reveal something deeper about them. When rage-driven Cousin Richie levels up to his better self in the “Forks” episode of “The Bear,” when an otherworldly entity tells her story to restless teenager Bear in the “Deer Lady” episode of “Reservation Dogs,” when grizzled pirate Izzy Hands dons makeup and sings “La Vie en Rose” in “Calypso’s Birthday” on “Our Flag Means Death” — so much, across an entire series, has gone into creating those moments that they deliver the same kind of transcendence the best novels do.